Asking away the Ignorance: Looking to our History for the Answers

by Amber Khan

Close-up portrait of beautiful young AsianIn the presence of his wife Umm Salamah, Umm Sulaym asked the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him):  “Messenger of Allah, if a woman has a wet dream must she bathe when she wakes up?”

“What shame!” Umm Salamah remarked. “Do you slander women like this in front of Allah’s Messenger?”

Umm Sualym replied: “Allah is not ashamed of the truth. It is better that we ask about what we do not understand than to continue in ignorance about it.”

The Prophet (pbuh) said to Umm Salamah: “Indeed, you should be ashamed. The best of you are those who ask about what concerns them.” He then turned to Umm Sulaym and said: “Yes, Umm Sulaym, you should take a bath if you see a discharge.”

Umm Salamah then asked: “Do women have a sexual discharge as well?”

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Indeed, how else does the child bear a resemblance to the mother? Women are the full sisters of men.” (Reported by Umm Salamah; related by al-Bukhari, Muslim and others.)

In today’s time, to ask such a question to anyone, let alone a knowledgeable figure, would undeniably evoke an immediate discomfort.  Yet despite its sensitivity, Umm Sulaym had pure conviction that the answer to her question was her deserving right.  So she asked with a balance of decency and directness.  And when Umm Salamah expressed the shock we are so familiar with today, Umm Sulaym pointed out that ignorance is worse than embarrassment.

And the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, defended her.  He clearly expressed that the best of people are those who ask.  It is they who will benefit not just for themselves but also for others who fear to ask.  It is they who will achieve knowledge.  Achieve success.

This caused Umm Salamah to immediately change her demeanor.  It led to herself asking a similar question.

Let’s now compare the above with today’s time.  The following anecdotes are based on real women who came directly to HEART Women & Girls to share their stories.

  • A child gets her period.  She has no idea what it is.  She feels scared.  Confused. She doesn’t know who to turn to, not even her own mother out of fear of what she will think.
  • A young girl discovers that her intimate relationship with her uncle is actually a form of sexual abuse.  She feels violated, ashamed, and guilty.  She fears her parents won’t believe her; that the abuse will continue.
  • A newly married woman feels sexually frustrated.  She didn’t expect intimacy to be so hard and in her case, impossible due to an easily treatable condition called vaginismus.  “What is wrong with me?  Why is this so painful?  My husband doesn’t understand.  Will he divorce me?”

All three women above were denied a basic Islamic right – access to sexual health information.  They lacked available resources, a safe space to ask questions, and a supportive network to guide them with comfort and protection.

Sexual health education is a lifelong journey of acquiring information that shapes our beliefs, attitudes, and values on sex.  It encompasses physical development, sexual and reproductive health, relationships, intimacy, body image, gender roles, and signs of abuse. Ideally, it should begin at a young age and be taught by the primary caregivers on an ongoing basis.

However, when someone goes through life without proper sexual health education they are left with a void during their transition from child to adult.  They lack the necessary decision-making skills and critical thinking process needed for all major adult life stages. They grow up feeling confused, naïve and vulnerable.

The women of Madinah were considered quite bold in character; they were not shy to seek advice and inquire about women’s health issues.  Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said: “How good were the women of the Ansar that they did not shy away from learning and understanding religious matters.” (Muslim, Kitab al-Hayd; 168/649).  They recognized that learning about women’s health had a strong influence on their relationship with Allah.

The books of Islamic jurisprudence include several topics promoting sexual awareness such as:

  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy
  • Postpartum health
  • Breastfeeding
  • Intimacy
  • Family planning
  • Ghusl (bath)
  • Nocturnal emissions
  • Body Image
  • Self-Esteem
  • Abuse

These matters are essential to our faith and can be learned in a decent and respectable way whilst also upholding an appropriate element of shyness.  When one suppresses a person’s right to learn these topics, expecting them to rely solely on cultural practices and societal standards, the effects can be spiritually, physically, and psychologically damaging.

Through Umm Sulaym’s inquiry, Umm Salamah learned something that she had assumed was impossible for women.  Despite her apparent uneasiness to the question, it gave her added insight to her body and its relation to the deen.

To the child unaware of menstruation, to the girl who was unaware of her sexual abuse, and to the woman suffering from vaginismus: ask as Umm Sulaym asked. “Allah is not ashamed of the truth. It is better that we ask about what we do not understand than to continue in ignorance about it.”

Amber Khan is a trained physician and Director of Education – US for HEART Women & Girls. She lives with her husband and children in Michigan.

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