Friday, April 29, 2016


My mother, yanking us out of bed and laying out our best clothing - my brother's thawbs, my own jalabiyyas brought back from Hajj, and my favourite abaya stitched with little sparkling jet-black beads.
My father at the dining room table listening to his Arabic cassettes, a book or two from his massive collection laid out in front of him, notecards haphazardly scattered around him while he mumbled to himself in Arabic and scribbled out his khutbah.
My mother, asking us what we wanted to eat for Jumu'ah lunch, preparing biryani or daal and rice or ruz bukhaari or butter chicken - our favourites, reserved for only this one day of the week.
My father, wandering around the house with his mus'haf reciting Suratul Kahf, his beard still damp from wudhu, while my brothers and I tried to get out of doing the few chores we were expected to finish before going for salah.
My mother, opening the windows to let out the cooking smells, straightening the cushions on the sofa, lighting the bukhoor to waft around the house and playing Suratul Kahf in the background as she worked.
My father, lining up my brothers in their matching white thawbs, carefully choosing an 'itr from his collection, showing them how to rub the oil between their wrists and then wiping it over their hair and clothing, combing it into his beard.
Us children, piling into the car, dutifully reciting salawaat upon RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), then loudly practising our own khutbah-giving skills, proclaiming with great emphasis, "Wa kulla bid'atin dalalah, wa kulla dalaalatin fin naar!"
Scattering to our places, sitting down to listen to our father's khutbah, trying not to nod off as he went on and on and on... jumping up to pray Salatul Jumu'ah, shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot with our elders; excitedly saying salaam to the masjid uncles and aunties afterwards, patiently putting up with pinched cheeks in exchange for little treats, happily throwing our arms around our favourite people, waiting impatiently while our father finished talking to what seemed like every person in attendance, and then scampering off back to the car where we would chatter about who we saw and how many people were there and what so and so said to us.
Coming home to find the dining table set with our favourite meal, catching a glimpse of dessert in the fridge, my mother dressed up in her own Jumu'ah finest, my brothers and I nudging each other happily that she was wearing the jewelry we'd bought her last 'Eid.
Going to the Islamic center for Arabic classes in the evening, wandering in and out of the men and women's musallas, fetching things and passing messages between husbands and wives, gleefully getting our hands sticky with treats from our "almost-grandmother" Umm Hussam, talking too much and getting too excited until quelled by a warning look from either of our parents - but only until the next aunty or uncle stopped to laugh with us.
Dozing off in the car on the way home, grumbling a little about how long our father took, but sleepy and satisfied and wrapped in the security of knowing that next Friday would be just like this night, and the Friday after that, and the Friday after that.
{“This is a day of ‘Eid that Allah has ordained for the Muslims, so whoever comes to Jumu‘ah, let him do ghusl, and if he has any perfume let him put some on, and you should use the miswaak.” Narrated by Ibn Maajah, 1098; classed as hasan by al-Albaani in Saheeh Ibn Maajah.}

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Jannah lies under her feet..."

The reason that Jannah lies under the feet of mothers isn't because it's easy or because our 'feminine natures' simply incline towards it.
The reason Jannah lies under the feet of mothers is because it is one of the most painful and unpleasant jobs in the world.
From pregnancy and its assorted conditions - everything from morning sickness to gestational diabetes to depression so severe that it leads to suicidal thoughts or impulses - to the first few months of sleep deprivation, the agonies of breastfeeding, post partum depression; from the toddler years of having a child drain you of your bodily fluids, waking you up every night and at monstrous hours of the early morning clawing at your face or screaming for inexplicable reasons (and no, children don't only cry because they're hungry, sick, or need a diaper change; very often they cry because they want nothing but your undivided attention for absolutely no reason other than to sadistically test your sanity); to the years when you must spend each day grimly trying to educate them and raise them as well-mannered and respectful human beings despite their insistence on acting like ungrateful brats...
THAT is mothering. That is the daily reality - and it is not to be glossed over or shrugged off or required for us to hastily add, "But of course I love my kids and it's very rewarding."
For some people, sure, motherhood is fabulous and all they've dreamed of from life. And that's great... for them.
For so many others, especially Muslim women who have had it drilled into them that motherhood is their ultimate spiritual accomplishment, it is absolutely not fun. You don't get a daily spiritual rush or spiritual growth on a regular basis simply by keeping your spawn alive. You just don't.
So please, for the love of God, can we stop romanticizing motherhood?
It has become so painfully cliche in talks and lectures and workshops to celebrate motherhood, to revere it, to speak about every woman's maternal instinct as a gift and blessing from God and that being a loving mother is how we shall earn His Pleasure... to the point that when Muslim mothers do finally break down and confess that there are days, weeks, even months that they hate it with a passion - they are vilified for being unnatural or damaged or corrupted, they are told that they are less than good Muslim women, that they are severely lacking in faith and fitrah.
Enough of it.
Our motherhood should be celebrated not only in terms of the perceived "joys" and "beauties" of having children, but because of the sheer agony of it. Our pain needs to be recognized and acknowledged in terms of more than "your kids can't pay you back for even one contraction from labour." Such phrases lose meaning when in the next breath, mothers are berated for not being absolutely perfect, for not being sacrificing more of themselves (for either their children or their husbands), for wanting *more* from their lives than motherhood.
Jannes lies under the feet of mothers not because motherhood is wonderful, but because most of the time, it's not.
And there is nothing wrong with saying that.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

International Women's Day 2016

On International Women's Day, the first women we should be commemorating are those who were commemorated in the Qur'an: Hawaa', the Queen of Sheba, Hajar, Sarah, Asiyah, the mothers of Musa and Maryam, and Maryam herself.
These women shaped our history; they embodied piety and courage, wisdom and strength; they were made examples for this entire Ummah, men and women alike.
These women were inspired by Allah, spoken to by angels, were guided and comforted by their Lord even as they went through excruciating tests.
Slave woman and queen; known and unnamed; daughters, wives, mothers, but most importantly *individuals* - these ‪#‎ForgottenHeroines‬ tell us how to change the world simply by striving to please Allah.
These women were spoken about by our Creator Himself; their stories etched upon the Preserved Tablet above the 7 heavens, their greatness was praised in the Qur'an and they will be known for as long as the Qur'an is recited with our tongues and is protected within our hearts.
Will we raise our sons and daughters to know these #ForgottenHeroines? Will we raise them to love them and seek to emulate them? Will we teach them that greatness comes not from social status or wealth or even the pursuit of worldly happiness - but from that most rare and precious of blessings: true taqwa, a faith as brilliant and unbreakable as a diamond.
Or will we be of those who simply lets their stories fade away and be forgotten, whose children will never experience the thrill of hearing about the angel whose wing let loose a sacred well for the sake of a woman who never gave up; the queen who raised a Prophet and defied a Pharoah... or about the teenage girl who worshiped her Lord in a blessed temple, whose belly began to swell miraculously, who fled to the desert to give birth to an infant whose tiny rosebud mouth proclaimed Prophethood and honoured his mother just as the angels honoured her.
Today, and every day, honour these women by reciting the Divine Words that speak of them; today, and every day, continue their legacies by living in accordance to the principles and values they lived and died for; today, and every day, make your purpose in life that which was theirs: the love and pleasure of Allah alone.
May we be of those who love our Lord and are beloved to Him, may we be of those who love those whom He loves, may we be of those brought together in this world out of love for Him, may we be of those gathered with His beloveds on the Day of Judgment, and reunited in Jannah, ameen.
اللهم إني أسألك حبك وحب من يحبك وحب كل عمل يقربني إلى حبك

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Queen's Throne and a Prophet's Challenge

A long time ago, in a land far away, a bird called the Hudhud (Hoopoe) flew over the land of Sheba and gazed in shock at the sight he saw. He winged his way back to the kingdom of Prophet Sulaymân (Solomon), and announced:
{I have encompassed [in knowledge] that which you have not encompassed, and I have come to you from Sheba with certain news. Indeed, I found [there] a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne. I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of to Allah, and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [His] way, so they are not guided, [and] so they do not prostrate to Allah, who brings forth what is hidden within the heavens and the earth and knows what you conceal and what you declare. Allah! – there is no deity except Him, Lord of the Great Throne!} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:22-26]
The Hudhud’s words express amazement and dismay alike at this marvel which he witnessed. Then as now, a woman in a position of such ruler-ship was not the norm – and clearly, this woman enjoyed many blessings of Allah in addition to her power. Yet what was most shocking to the Hudhud was that despite the greatness of her throne and of her land, this remarkable queen did not worship Allah, but worshipped the sun instead. Nor was the queen alone in her sun worship. The Hudhud noted that “she and her people” were engaged in this worship together, which illustrates the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Inevitably, wherever one goes in the world, the faith of the ruler(s) will affect the faith of a nation; the beliefs of those in authority will always impact the people they rule over.
The Hudhud was both fascinated and concerned at this state of affairs. How could someone not recognize Allah’s existence and worship Him as He deserves, when they were already showered with His blessings? As a prophet of Allah, Sulaymân knew that he had a duty to engage in da'wah with this fellow leader.
Sulaymân instructed the Hudhud:
{Take this letter of mine and deliver it to them. Then leave them and see what [answer] they will return.} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:28]
Thoughtfully, he wondered what kind of ruler the queen really was, and what response he would receive.
Allah introduces us to the Balqîs, Queen of Sheba (Saba’: Yemen/Ethiopia), in the most beautiful of ways.
{She said, “O eminent ones, indeed, to me has been delivered a noble letter. Indeed, it is from Sulayman, and indeed, it reads: ‘In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. Be not haughty with me but come to me in submission.} ‘[Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:29-31]
Immediately, an image is conjured – a woman of grace and wisdom, a ruler who does not hold herself aloof from her people, but who consults with those around her. Balqîs is a woman whose intellect and poise is clear from her every word.
As she reads the letter out to her cabinet, it is clear that she has already read the letter. She has thought about it, and considered it seriously; she is impressed, not afraid, of what she has read, for she describes it as ‘kitâbun karîm’ – a noble and gracious message.
Sulaymân’s letter begins with the basmala, invoking the Name of Allah, and she recognizes that this is not about himself and how great he is, but about something far more serious. What he says and does is not out of his own sense of superiority, but out of submission to Allah.
Balqîs also recognizes the nuances of his words: when he said “allâ ta'lû ‘alayya,” he was telling her not to be arrogant towards him – but also carried the meaning of warning her not to advance against him militarily. The Hudhud, having noted Sheba’s influence and might, may have implied that the queendom of Sheba was considering expansion of its borders.
Sulaymân had continued, saying, “wa âtûni muslimîn” – “come to me in a state of non-aggression, of submission” to Allah.
{She said, “O eminent ones, advise me in my affair. I would not decide a matter unless you are present.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:32]
The Queen of Sheba’s success as a ruler no doubt had something to do with the fact that she was far from reckless, hasty, or emotional. The word aftûnî “advise me”—related to ‘fatwah’—as used in this verse, carries in its meaning the connotation of empowering someone to make a decision, to provide them with the evidence required to make a correct decision. Balqîs did not simply tell her ministers that she had received a message from Sulaymân, but she made a point of reading out the letter in its entirety; she provided them with the complete information rather than merely her own perception.
{They said, “We are men of strength and of great military might, but the command is yours, so see what you will command.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:33]
Balqîs’ cabinet of ministers were as foresighted as she was: though they were men of influence and authority, who wielded military power, they still acknowledged her power and trusted her to make the right decision.
{She said, “Indeed, kings – when they enter a city – they ruin it and render the honored of its people humbled. And thus do they do. But indeed, I will send to them a gift and see with what [reply] the messengers will return.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:34-35]
The Queen’s comment about the behavior of kings displayed her political astuteness. She knew better than anyone that conquerors engage in media campaigns – that they inflict political oppression and brutally crush any opposition. Her decision was one of sharp insight: she decided to send gifts to Sulaymân to test him, to see if his invitation to Islam was really one of principle, or whether it was just an excuse for exerting political power and asking for bribes.
Qatadah said about her thought process: “May Allah have mercy on her and be pleased with her—how wise she was as a Muslim and (before that) as an idolater! She understood how gift-giving has a good effect on people.” Ibn `Abbas and others said: “She said to her people, if he accepts the gift, he is a king, so fight him; but if he does not accept it, he is a Prophet, so follow him.”[1]
Now comes the response of Prophet Sulaymân, his dignity offended by the very idea of accepting what could be construed as a bribe.
{So when they came to Sulaymân, he said, “Do you provide me with wealth? But what Allah has given me is better than what He has given you. Rather, it is you who rejoice in your gift! Return to them, for we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:36-37]
Sulaymân’s answer first and foremost speaks about Allah, acknowledging that everything is from Him, and that He is the One Who gives. His response is also one of political know-how: he is basically saying that he is insulted at the idea that they think they can buy him off, that they are so confident that he will be easy to manipulate. Though his threat may seem harsh, it is to display his refusal to be seen as weak. The exchange of messages is that of rulers testing each other’s mettle, examining the other’s strength and commitment to honor and principle.
Finally, a meeting is arranged between the two monarchs – but the matching of wits is not yet over.
{He (Sulaymân) said, “O assembly [of jinn], which of you will bring me her throne before they come to me in submission? “A powerful one from among the jinn said, “I will bring it to you before you rise from your place, and indeed, I am for this [task] strong and trustworthy. Said one who had knowledge from Scripture, “I will bring it to you before your glance returns to you.” And when he (Sulaymân) saw it placed before him, he said, “This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful, his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself; and whoever is ungrateful, then indeed, my Lord is Free of Need and Generous.” He said, “Disguise her throne for her; we will see whether she will be guided [to truth] or will be of those who is not guided.” So when she arrived, it was said [to her], “Is your throne like this?” She said, “[It is] as though [this] was it.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:38-42]
Sulaymân had one final test to put before Balqîs, a challenge to her intellect. Mujahid said: “He issued orders that it should be changed, so whatever was red should be made yellow and vice versa, and whatever was green should be made red, so everything was altered.” Ikrimah said, “They added some things and took some things away.” Qatadah said, “It was turned upside down and back to front, and some things were added and some things were taken away.”[2]
Balqîs was a woman of caution and keen acumen, wary of passing judgment swiftly or making quick decisions. She neither affirmed nor denied that the throne before her now was the same throne she presided over in Sheba; instead, calm and unruffled, she merely acknowledged the similarity between what she knew of her own possession, and the throne she looked upon in that moment.
{She was told, “Enter the palace.” But when she saw it, she thought it was a body of water and uncovered her shins [to wade through]. He said, “Indeed, it is a palace [whose floor is] made smooth with glass.” She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit with Sulaymân to Allah, Lord of the worlds.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:44]
How beautiful is the Queen of Sheba’s conduct! Her intelligence, her dignity, and her grace are all highlighted in just a few words. There is no arrogance whatsoever—no stubbornness or reluctance to admitting previous wrongdoing, just honesty. She had borne witness to amazing things on this day, and she would not allow her ego interfere with her testimony of truth. On this day, she submitted with Sulaymân to Allah – the submission of equals before their Lord. There is a sense of dignity to it all, a powerful aura of respect.
What is truly amazing about how Allah tells the story in the Quran is that it ends with her declaration of faith in Him, with such grace. Many people turn the story of Balqîs into a romantic tale or argue that she gave up her queendom to Sulaymân, but none of that is even hinted at in the âyât that speak about her.
Allah so clearly brings our attention to a woman who had both power and wisdom; who did not allow herself to be swayed by fear, but who was determined to make her decisions based upon actual experience. She demonstrates to us the attitude that we should all have: a willingness to go out there and seek knowledge and experience for ourselves; to be cautious but not stubborn; open-minded but not easily dazzled… and above all, the ability to acknowledge that we have done wrong, and to turn to Allah with a heart full of faith and repentance—with dignity.
The Queen of Sheba is the perfect example of how submitting ourselves to Allah does not bring us down, but simply raises us higher.
The relationship between Sulaymân and Balqîs as hinted at from that final declaration of Balqîs, also encapsulates the ideal relationship between men and women; that they both be seen as individuals capable of authority, and of humility at the same time. Most importantly, that each party respect the other – acknowledging each other’s strengths and seeking only to assist each other in improving as human beings, and above all, to support each other in turning to Allah and worshiping Him alone. The image we are left with in the Quran is that of Sulaymân and Balqîs, king and queen, submitting themselves equally as slaves to Allah alone. How much more beautiful could their relationship be?
From beginning to end, the Queen of Sheba is presented to us as an example of an amazing individual. Though initially she was of those misguided, who wrongfully worshipped other than Allah, her intelligence and her honesty led her to recognize the truth and submit herself to her Creator in the most beautiful of ways. In her personality, we see a true heroine – someone who did not allow her position of power or her possession of great luxury to prevent her from humbling herself spiritually.
Like Balqîs and Sulaymân, men and women are meant to be strive together to realize their full potential, in terms of both worldly accomplishments and spiritual submission. Only when we recognize that our strength lies in supporting each other will we find contentment and success alike. By following the footsteps of a Prophet and a Queen, we will ultimately find ourselves submitting to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Parent's Prayer

One thing I picked up from some really great women I met in Kuwait was how whenever they'd address their kids affectionately, they'd make dua at the same time - for example, "Habibi, Allah yahfadh'ak" or "Galbi, Allah ya3teech al3afiyah."
(Translation: My love, may Allah preserve you; my heart, may Allah give you health/security from illness & grief.)
And when praising them, whether for worldly achievements or otherwise, always following up with du'a - may Allah increase you in good etc.
It's a really great way to remind ourselves as parents that Allah is the One Who can make our kids better; & taking advantage of a parent's accepted du'a as well. It's far better than fawning over our kids with hollow words that may or may not be true.
The same of course applies to when we as parents are frustrated as well - never once did I hear these women, even if they were upset or disappointed by something their children said or did, become angry and start making it all about how their children were failures or doomed or somesuch.
Rather, they would always make du'a for them: "Allah yesleh7aalhum" - may Allah correct their affairs, and even acknowledge that perhaps they were emotionally blind to something which was in fact a source of khayr.
Although those women were not shaykhas or aalimahs, although they did not teach parenting courses or lifecoaching workshops, they taught me in our various interactions what it meant to be a genuinely outstanding parent: understanding that all power is with Allah, and utilizing the gift of du'a in the most effective and consistent manner possible.
Though they obviously experienced many emotions with regards to their children, they had the presence of mind to step away and understand that their view of the matter was not the only one or even the right one; they always turned back to Allah and prayed that whatever their child's Qadr was, it was one of good and guidance.
As parents, we should consider every moment of pleasure or frustration with our children as moments of du'a for them. Make it a habit to let them hear you make du'a for their good character, their health, their success in this world and the Hereafter. Let them associate you mentioning their names, with calling upon Allah and relying upon Him alone, seeking only goodness for them.
Rabbana hab lana min azwaajinaa wa thurriyyaatinaa qurrata a'yun, waj3alnaa lil muttaqina imaama.
{Our Lord, grant us from among our spouses and offspring comfort to our eyes and make us an example for the righteous.}

A Lesson in Ikhlas & Ihsan from the Outwardly 'Flawed'

While we 'religious' folk like to talk a lot these days about warm fuzzy spiritual stuff, we also tend to have a rather narrow and contrived ideas of how 'spiritual' people should be or look like. We figure that those who perform great acts of 3ebadah (worship) with ikhlaas (sincerity) are most likely to fit a certain mold - those who spend a lot of time studying the Deen, for example, even if they're not shaykhas and aalimahs per se; or those who noticeably recite a great deal of Quran on a regular basis; or those who exhibit an almost otherworldly serenity, a sakeenah, in the face of difficulty. Certainly, those people exist and are undoubtedly of those who are pleasing Allah, but we tend to overlook other types of people who may also be beloved to their Lord.
These are the people who may seem to have obvious flaws or shortcomings - a tendency to use somewhat, ahem, colourful language; or may know that a certain action is haraam but find it difficult to stop; or they may just not be as knowledgeable about Islam as we think we are.
Those from the second group may be struggling hugely: divorcees, single moms, financially insecure, students... or even all of the above. They might be going through numerous tests and challenges in their lives, but they are also sometimes the first people to come to your aid: to show up and help you when you are in dire straits, even if you haven't known them for very long; to babysit your child on short notice; to take you on grocery shopping runs every so often because you have no car; to take you to the hospital to visit ailing family members or help you move to a new apartment. They are always ready to help and show up with a grin and a lending hand, without complaint or expectation of reward or favours returned.
The difference is that when outwardly pious people do acts of good character, we chalk it up to their religiosity (which may be true) - but we rarely to stop to think about, or appreciate, latter category in such terms. So many of us have developed the unhealthy habit of subconsciously judging and chronicling others' mistakes that we don't stop to truly appreciate the depth of their gifts to us.
It is these people, whom we criticize or underestimate, who truly embody the spirit of Ikhlaas (sincerity) and Ihsaan (excellence) - because though they have shortcomings (just as the rest of us do), they are also honest in their sincerity, whereas we lack the same.
It is these people who are amongst the ‪#‎ForgottenHeroines‬ and‪#‎ForgottenHeroes‬ of our Ummah, ignored and underappreciated and even at times belittled. But it is these people who demonstrate what love for the sake of Allah entails, and I pray that for that person in my life - and those undoubtedly in yours - that they be of those beloved to Allah, and shaded on that Day when there will be no shade except for that which He provides.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Lioness of Ahlul Bayt

Either you carry Islam, or Islam carries you. Those in the former category are those who uphold the honor of this Ummah and are its strength; those in the latter category are like those who are carried in Ṭawâf – weak and unable to do much for themselves. – Dr. Zaid Al-Dakkan

WHEN PEOPLE SPEAK about the role of women in the Muslim Ummah, quite often the same phrases are repeated, “Women are created to be mothers, to raise the next generation of Muslims!” The only contributions required of Muslim women, it seems, are those of a domestic sort.
However, when we look to the history of Islam from its earliest days, when we turn to the life of The Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and his Companions, male and female, we see something very different. Certainly, women did have a domestic role to play—but they were not limited to that sphere alone.
In the harsh desert climate of ancient Arabia, women were not weak and timid, but strong enough to withstand the prevalent oppression against them, intelligent enough to recognize the perfection of Islam, and strong enough to fight back against the Jâhiliyya that surrounded them.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib was one of those women—an individual who carried Islam forth from the very beginning, who embodied what it meant to be strong and indomitable. She was the paternal aunt of The Prophet œ and though she was younger than him in age, she was very close to both him and her brother Hamza ibn Abd Al-Muṭṭalib. When The Prophet ascended Mount Ṣafa and gave his historic speech to Quraysh, he addressed her directly, beseeching her to heed his call.
Knowing what it meant to defy all of Qurayshi society, to be in opposition to people like Abû Lahab –her own brother– Ṣafiyyah made the decision to accept her nephew’s message of Islam. It was a choice that required not only spiritual conviction, but an understanding of the brutal reality that she would have to face from then on. Without hesitation, she accepted Islam and all that it meant to be a Muslim in an environment of merciless hostility.
Safiyyah was a woman who came from a family that was not only noble in social standing, but full of individuals who were famed for various reasons. Her brother, Abû Lahab, held immense influence over the chieftains of Quraysh; her other brother, Ḥamza, was renowned as a warrior of unparalleled stature, and was given the unique epithet of Asadullâhthe Lion of Allah. When these were her brothers, and her nephew was the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), it was only natural that she, too, be a person of greatness.
She was much like her brother Hamza in temperament: a woman of strength, ferocity, and even harshness. She raised her son Al-Zubair ibn Al-Awwâm to be fearless and able to withstand the most difficult of treatment and circumstances. Her training methods with him were at times extremely harsh: She would push him to his limits and hold him to very high standards. Once, when he came to her complaining of bullying from his peers, she rebuked him and in fact struck him right there in the street. A relative passing by entreated her to treat the young orphan gently, and she retorted: “How else will he become a man of strength and power?”
Thanks to her, Al-Zubair was one of only two people in all of Makkah who were trained to wield a sword in each hand. She would take great pride in having him challenge others to duels, and then winning them. As a young man, he once got into a fight with an older man who insulted him – and injured him badly. The wounded man was brought to Safiyyah, who told him: “When you fight with Al-Zubair, this is what you deserve!”
When Al-Zubair had a son of his own, Abdullâh, Ṣafiyyah also took part in raising him, utilizing many of the methods she had used with Al-Zubair. She was determined to make her grandson as fearless and unbeatable as his father. One example of how she trained Abdullâh was that she would take him out to the desert at night and leave him there, instructing him to find his own way back home. When others expressed their shock at her unconventional methods, she told them: “This is the only way he will learn what it takes to become amongst the greatest of warriors.” Indeed, Abdullâh ibn Al-Zubair grew up to become renowned for his prowess on the battlefield and his mastery of the arts of war.
Ṣafiyyah regularly accompanied The Prophet to his battles. At the Battle of Uḥud, when the Muslim army began to retreat, she seized a spear and began to strike at enemy soldiers viciously. Alarmed, The Prophet told Al-Zubair to bring her back behind the fighting lest she be harmed; Al-Zubair had to physically seize his mother in order to pull her away!
When she heard that her brother Hamza had been killed, Ṣafiyyah insisted on seeing his body. Worried that she would be devastated and traumatized by the sight, The Prophet told Al-Zubair that it was better for her not to see him. Ṣafiyyah told her son to go back. “Why should I leave when my brother has been mutilated and killed for the sake of Allah?” Ignoring the protests of those around her, she strode forward to stand over her brother’s body. Poised even as she looked down at his mangled corpse, she recited Istighfâr (a short prayer for Allah’s forgiveness) and expressed the formal Islamic expression to be said at times of grief and calamity: “Inna lillâhi wa inna ilayhi râji'ûn,” (to Allah we belong and to Him we return.) As a poet, she expressed her sorrow in terms of elegance and eloquence, demonstrating once again that she was no wilting wallflower but rather, a woman of refined self-possession and grace.
During the Battle of the Trench, Ṣafiyyah considered herself the guardian over the other women and children. Though Ḥassân ibn Thâbit remained with them due to his illness, he was unable to do much. When an enemy soldier approached, Safiyyah grabbed a pole and impaled him. “Strip his body of the armour,” she told Ḥassân, who reminded her that he was incapable of moving. Shrugging, she rolled up her sleeves and stripped the body herself, beheading the corpse and tossing it over the fortress walls. Taking charge in the harsh manner required in the moment for her party to gain the upper hand, she unflinchingly accepted the role of a militant combatant who must kill or be killed. As the enemy approached, they all caught sight of the disembodied head and pulled back in fear—they were convinced that a great warrior was guarding the place. In truth, it was Ṣafiyyah alone who stood ready to destroy anyone who dared breach the fortress walls.
At the death of The Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), she did not allow the confusion of others to influence her. She stood tall in front of the masses and composed an impassioned eulogy that remains recorded even today.
Safiyyah lived to see the khilâfa (caliphate) of Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb, and during her lifetime, was respected and consulted by many of the Companions.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib’s indomitable strength and her status as a member of the Prophet’s household easily mark her as a woman without parallel—a lioness of Ahl Al-Bayt. In her, we see the example of a woman whose role in the Ummah was neither shallow nor restricted; we see that women played an active part in the Muslim society at the time of the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam). She demonstrates to us that not every Muslim woman is required to fit a narrow, limited mold of what it means to be a female member of the Ummah.
Ṣafiyyah epitomizes what it means to be a woman of power, a force to be reckoned with, who felt no hesitation in engaging with society whenever she felt that she had a role to play. She never backed down and never allowed others to intimidate her—in fact, she felt no qualms in being the one to intimidate others.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib is a reminder to Muslim men and women alike that one should never underestimate—or under-appreciate—the power of a woman.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Passion and Power: The Politics of the Ideal Muslimah

IT IS HUMAN nature to be hyper aware and critical of those in the public eye, and Muslims are no different. Imams, shuyûkh, and other popular figures in the Muslim public sphere are all subject to scrutiny and fascination.
Muslim women who are engaged in the public sphere are even more vulnerable to criticism. Every aspect of their lives – whether it’s their marital status, the color of their hijabs and jilbâbs, how many children they have or (God forbid they get a divorce!) why they weren’t good enough wives to begin with (and how their publicity was probably the reason for it) – is up for discussion by the general masses, who are vicious critics with lots of sanctimonious self-righteousness and very little usn al-ann (benefit of the doubt).
No matter how religious or scholarly, Muslim women who find themselves having a public presence are always expected to fit a very specific mould – one of the ‘ideal Muslimah.’
However, this ‘ideal Muslimah’ is fictional: it was not fully embodied even by the best of women, the wives of the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), his female Companions, and the women of the Tâbiîn. We have allowed ourselves to create a false narrative that the women of those times spoke only in a certain way, dressed only in a certain way, and interacted with society at large in a very limited and specific way. We have been led to believe that they were devoid of personality quirks, strong opinions, and personal conflicts with even their husbands; we have been led to believe that they were Madonnas whose piety ensured a lack of normal humanity.
Yet none of this is true. It is true that they were women of taqwa; women of knowledge, wisdom and understanding; women of modesty and chastity; women who were dedicated to the worship of Allah. But they were also women who chose to lead armies into battle; women who not only disagreed with their husbands, but insisted on following their own opinions; women who were passionate and did not allow others to dictate how they would speak or behave.
One such woman was Âishah bint Ṭalḥa ibn Ubaydillâh. Her father was the Sahabi Ṭalḥa ibn Ubaydullâh, her mother was Umm Kulthûm bint Abi Bakr Al-Siddîq, and her aunt was Umm al-Mu’minîn Âishah bint Abi Bakr.
Âishah bint Ṭalḥa was a muadditha (scholar of Hadith), a faqîha (jurist), a muftiyya (one who issues non-binding legal rulings), and an abida (worshiper) who was considered nearly equal to Âishah bint Abi Bakr, the Prophet’s wife, in piety, knowledge, and intellect.
She was also known to be the most beautiful woman of Madinah, a woman who had three husbands, and who was unmatched in the sheer force of her personality.
She also did not cover her face. Though she observed hijab and covered herself with a khimâr and jilbâb, she left her face bare – and as a result, her beauty became famed both within Madinah and outside of it.
It is narrated that once Aishah got into a fight with her husband Abdullâh ibn Abd Al-Raḥmân ibn Abi Bakr Al-Ṣiddîq and left her home in a state of fury. On her way to Al-Masjid Al-Nabawy, where she was going to visit her aunt ¢Âishah, she came across the Sahabi Abu Hurairah. In shock, he stared at her and exclaimed, “SubânAllah! I’ve just seen one of the Hûr Al-În!” (As for the fight with her husband – Âishah stayed with her aunt for four months before she decided to go back home.)
Anas ibn Mâlik once told her directly, “By Allah, I have never seen anyone more beautiful than you other than Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyân when he is sitting on the minbar of RasûlAllâh!” Her response was one of complete self-assurance. “By Allah, I am more beautiful than a powerful flame seen by a man who is freezing on an icy night!”
Imagine how such a woman would be considered today – a woman who has the audacity to reply with such confidence, who not only acknowledges what others say about her, but emphasizes it. (And forget about a woman who leaves her husband’s home in anger and doesn’t go back until she so chooses!)
One point of note is that Âishah demonstrated that it was apparently not considered harâm for her to leave her husband’s home without his permission; after all, she spent the duration of those four months in the home of Umm Al-Mu’minîn Âishah. If she had committed a sin in doing so, wouldn’t her aunt have rebuked her and sent her back to her husband? The situation was a far cry from what we hear from many people today – that for a woman to even step foot outside of her husband’s home without his permission is wrong; that for a woman to leave her husband’s home out of anger is tantamount to minor kufr!
Her second husband, Mus'ab ibn Al-Zubair, was a man who loved her deeply and began to feel jealous over the fact that her beauty was so obvious to all who saw her. One day he told her, “Either stay within your home or cover your face when you go out!”
Her reply?
Allah has given me this distinction of beauty, so I want people to look upon me and know my virtue over them; I will never cover it when it comes from Allah. And by Allah, Allah knows that there is no fault in my character upon which anyone can comment!
The narrator who was relating this story to Imam Al-Ṣafadi commented, “This was true. She was extremely strong in character, and that was what the women of Banu Taym were like.”
In this incident, what stands out is that – lack of niqâb aside – this was a clear case of a man commanding his wife to do something… and the wife choosing to follow her own fiqh opinion in the full confidence that she was not doing something displeasing to Allah.
While one may disagree with her choice not to wear niqâb, it is particularly intriguing that for a woman known to be one of the greatest Tâbi'iyyât of her time. She was described as thiqa (strong and trustworthy in the Science of Hadith) by Yaḥya ibn Ma'în, Al-Dâraquṭni, Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and others; she was also classified as ujja (one whose statements and actions are used as evidence in legal matters), which is a category very few individuals were considered worthy of. Also, she defied what is commonly taught as a primary requirement in the marital relationship: the unwavering obedience of a wife to her husband in absolutely every sphere of life.
Obviously, it is undeniable that Allah gave men the role of qawwâm (guardian – a man responsible towards the women of his family) – but perhaps it is also time for us to acknowledge that over time, Muslims have over-exaggerated what that role entails. The Sahaba and Tâbi'în, it appears, did not have such a stringent concept of wifely submission to a husband’s every whim and desire.
Examples from her life were recorded in the books of fiqhAfter the death of Âishah’s first husband, Mus'ab ibn Al-Zubair proposed marriage to her, but for one reason or another, she refused to accept… and went as far as swearing an oath of dhihâr. “If I marry him, he will be forbidden to me like my father’s back!” she declared. It was an unprecedented moment of Islamic jurisprudence. For one reason or another, she eventually relented, and the scholarly decision was that she needed to pay an expiation for her oath. As kaffâra (expiation), she bought and freed a slave worth 2,000 dinars.
On another occasion, she swore an oath of dhihâr once again – and again, to her husband Mus¢ab. She locked herself in her rooms and refused to allow him anywhere near her, reminding him of her oath, though he begged and pleaded to be able to even speak to her. In the end, he summoned Âmir Al-Sha'bi, the faqîh of Kufa, to discuss the matter with Âishah. Having had a change of heart, she asked Âmir Al-Sha'bi how to resolve the matter. His fatwah was that the oath was invalid, and that she was required to pay the kaffâra. She agreed with his conclusion, and allowed Mus'ab to return to her. In appreciation, she gave Âmir Al-Sha'bi 4,000 dirhams for his efforts in solving the fiqh conundrum.
There are numerous other stories from Âishah bint Ṭalḥa’s life that demonstrates just how different she was from our preconceived notions of what ‘true scholarship’ was like. Today, a woman who conducts herself in such a manner would never be accepted as a person of righteousness and authority. She would be spoken of in harsh terms, accused of being a ‘fitna’(temptation, tough test) to those around her, denied any public position of Islamic education to the masses.
Yet in Â’ishah bint Ṭalḥa’s time, she was considered to be a woman of extreme piety and worship, a woman who taught men of the Tâbi¢în, a woman who was recorded as being amuadditha, a faqîha, and a muftiyya. Despite all these stories that were known about her, no one seem to have found a contradiction in the fact that she spoke and behaved in such a way, and that she was still such a woman of righteousness. There were many Sahabah who lived at her time, yet they apparently accepted her for the way she was.
What we can learn from Â’ishah bint Ṭalḥa’s life is not necessarily to derive fiqh opinions aboutniqâb or dhihâr –or whether wives can walk out on their husbands– but rather to reflect upon how we consider women, their personalities and their conduct, and their presence in the public sphere. Our ideas of what an ‘appropriate Muslim woman’ is meant to be has been so clouded by our own filters – both cultural ones and Islamicly justified ones – that we fail to realize that the greatest generations of Muslims often had very different ideas of what was considered acceptable.
Though we have come to believe that a pious woman is a silent woman, or a woman who restricts any and all aspects of herself to the private setting, or a woman whose public presence is as minimal and stark as possible, it is obvious from the biographies of female scholars of the past that this was not always considered the ideal. A woman’s role was seen as far more flexible as it is today; a woman’s ability to stand her ground and be more than automatically obedient was recognized and not castigated.
The Ṣahâbiyyât and Tâbi'iyyât lived as normal human beings with emotions, temptations, quirks of personality, issues in their relationships, and so on – yet this did not detract from their greatness as believers and scholars whose worth was recognized.
It may just be that we have a great deal of changing to do when it comes to how we perceive and perpetuate ‘the ideal Muslimah’ – whether she is a scholar in the public sphere, an individual in the domestic sphere, or both. For us to be able to raise new generations of heroines of Islam to revitalize the Ummah, it is necessary for us to challenge our own narrow ideas of what type of women those first heroines of Islam were to begin with.
(Author’s Note: The source for the narrations about Âishah bint Ṭalḥa were related by Sh. Muhammad Akram Nadwi, referencing Imam Al-Ṣafadi.)