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 ḥusn al-ẓann (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 ﷺ, his female Companions, and the women of the Tâbiʿîn. 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.
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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 ʿÂishah bint >alḥa ibn ʿUbaydillâh. Her father was the Sahabi >alḥa ibn ʿUbaydullâh, her mother was Umm Kulthûm bint Abi Bakr Al-Siddîq, and her aunt was Umm al-Mu’minîn ʿÂishah bint Abi Bakr.
ʿÂishah bint >alḥa was a muḥadditha (scholar of Hadith), a faqîha (jurist), a muftiyya (one who issues non-binding legal rulings), and an ʿabida (worshiper) who was considered nearly equal to ʿÂishah 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 ʿAishah got into a fight with her husband ʿAbdullâh ibn ʿAbd 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 ʿÂishah, she came across the Sahabi Abu Hurairah. In shock, he stared at her and exclaimed, “SubḥânAllah! I’ve just seen one of the Hûr Al-ʿÎn!” (As for the fight with her husband – ʿÂishah 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 Muʿawiyah 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 ʿÂishah 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 ʿÂishah. 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, Musʿab 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!”
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 Tâbiʿiyyât of her time. She was described as thiqa (strong and trustworthy in the Science of Hadith) by Yaḥya ibn Maʿîn, Al-Dâraquṭni, Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and others; she was also classified as ḥujja (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 Tâbiʿîn, 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 fiqh. After the death of ʿÂishah’s first husband, Musʿab 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 Musʿab. 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 ʿÂmir Al-Shaʿbi, the faqîh of Kufa, to discuss the matter with ʿÂishah. Having had a change of heart, she asked ʿÂmir Al-Shaʿbi 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 Musʿab to return to her. In appreciation, she gave ʿÂmir Al-Shaʿbi 4,000 dirhams for his efforts in solving the fiqh conundrum.
There are numerous other stories from ʿÂishah bint >alḥa’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 ʿÂ’ishah bint >alḥa’s time, she was considered to be a woman of extreme piety and worship, a woman who taught men of the Tâbiʿîn, a woman who was recorded as being a muḥadditha, 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 ʿÂ’ishah bint >alḥa’s life is not necessarily to derive fiqh opinions about niqâb 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 Tâbiʿyyât 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 ʿÂishah bint >alḥa were related by Sh. Muhammad Akram Nadwi, referencing Imam Al-Ṣafadi.)