I was struck by Jim Garrison and Banafsheh Sayyad’s article last year for the Huffington Post: “Muhammad was a Feminist”. It touched on some interesting viewpoints and received a lot of positive and negative responses. And while the article didn’t go into much detail, it stayed with me and left me with another interesting thought: while you can argue endlessly about whether Muhammad was or wasn’t a feminist (and get further lost in debates about which definition of Feminism you are using), one thing is clear – Muhammad loved and surrounded himself with strong women.
Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, was widowed twice before marrying Muhammad, already a mother of three, and a successful merchant. With more caravans than all the other Quraysh traders put together, she led a wealthy, independent lifestyle, refusing many offers of marriage from wealthy men, and chose the penniless Muhammad for her new husband.
This was remarkable at a time when most women were treated like property and barely had any rights at all until the advent of Islam. The very fact that the Prophet of Islam was chosen by such a unique woman, and felt honoured to take her hand, is of extreme importance – the Quran was given to a man who honoured and respected the feminine more than any other man of his time. How fitting, since the Quran granted women unheard of rights, like the right to divorce and inherit property, and could have set in motion an evolving women’s emancipation if Muslims had been awake to its message. Sadly, in the centuries after Muhammad and Khadijah, the possibility of women’s emancipation was inevitably sidelined by the patriarchal establishment that hijacked Islam. In our time however, we can reconnect with this great heroine and appreciate her and the feminine strength she manifested in the way that she and Muhammad would have wished.
Khadijah and Muhammad were blessed with four daughters who all played important roles in Muhammad’s life and prophetic mission. The spiritually luminous Fatimah was with her father the most, sitting by his side as he steered his community through their trials, and supporting him after her mother’s death.
Muhammad’s nine wives after Khadijah also played significant roles in Islamic history. Aishah’s story is well known but she wasn’t the only strong character. Hafsa, daughter of Umar, the second caliph of Islam, inherited her father’s fiery temperament. Some sources say that Muhammad married Hafsa to placate Umar’s wounded pride after other companions refused her hand. Hafsa was one of the most respected memorisers of the Quran, and it was her written copy that was used by the second caliph, Uthman, to create a standardised version for the growing Muslim empire.
Umm Salamah, while perhaps being less outwardly volatile than her co-wives, was nonetheless a formidable woman. According to Fatima Mernissi in The Veil and the Male Elite, it was Umm Salamah who questioned Muhammad as to why only men were referred to in the Quran. This led to the unveiling of the verse where God reveals that both women and men are equal believers and members of a community (Quran 33:35). Umm Salamah also acted as a Muhammad’s advisor, helping negotiate peace treaties, in particular the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah.
As I reflected on the importance of women in prophethood I realised that Muhammad is not unique in his respect for women. Jesus also had important women in his life, most especially the much revered Mother Mary. Dedicated from birth to God and raised in a temple, Mary’s strength of devotion led to her receiving the spirit of God in the form of her son, Jesus. She bore the malicious gossip around her immaculate conception, raised her son in the service of God and helped in his ministry. Catholicism’s veneration of Mary is perhaps one of its most attractive aspects, and many Muslims acknowledge Mary as a prophet in her own right.
And then there is Mary Magdalene, one of the most controversial Biblical figures. According to the canonical Gospels, she was a figure of little authority among the followers of Jesus, a penitent woman of ill repute, but the first to see Jesus after his resurrection. By contrast, the apochryphal Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, suppressed by the church for centuries, offer evidence that she may have been Jesus’ chief disciple. Some researchers even speculate that they were in a sexual relationship, and such a view cannot easily be dismissed as being a Dan Brown fantasy. This is certainly supported by the research of contemporary Christian mystic, Cynthia Bourgeault, who writes about Mary Magdalene being a combination of ‘beloved, teacher, spiritual master, in her own right’. Another contemporary mystic, Elizabeth Hin, presents Mary Magdalene as a much more flawed character but nevertheless an extremely powerful woman: ‘formidable in courage, intelligence and manner’.
Moving further back, Moses is surrounded by women without whom he would not have become the prophet who would free the Israelites. Put into a reed bed as an infant to save his life from Pharoah’s soldiers, what strength of faith his mother must have had to surrender him to the river, trusting that he would survive. And that faith was rewarded when Pharoah’s wife, Asiya, hired her to be wet-nurse to Moses, reuniting her with her son such a short time later.
And it was Miriam, Moses’ own sister, who watched over him as he floated down the river and was found by Asiya. It was her suggestion that led to their mother becoming Moses’ wet-nurse. In the Talmud, Miriam is named as one of the female prophets of Israel. She is recognised as a prophetess at a young age, foreseeing that her mother would give birth to a son who would save Israel. She herself is seen as a key part of the emancipation of the Israelites and stands side-by-side with Moses and their brother, Aaron, in the struggle against Pharoah’s armies.
Then there is Pharoah’s wife, Asiya, who found and raised Moses as her own son with love and honour. Asiya came to accept Moses’ faith in monotheism over Pharoah’s beliefs, and revealed herself to her husband after seeing him torture a believing woman. The relentless Pharoah then tortured and killed her. Asiya is named as an example to all mankind in the Quran, and in a Hadith, is said to be one of the first to enter paradise.
And finally, there is our grandfather, Abraham, and the women in his life, our grandmothers, Sarah, Hagar and Keturah. Little known but an intriguing figure, Keturah is referred to in Genesis as being Abraham’s wife after the death of Sarah, and bearing him six sons. Richard Elliott Friedman, in his Commentary on the Torah, says that Keturah is “the most ignored significant person in the Torah.” Some speculate that religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism stem from her ancestry.
The story of Sarah and Hagar is more well-known. Elizabeth Hin suggests that the role of humanity today is to mend the rift that occurred between these two women. I wonder how our religious landscape would look if Sarah and Hagar had lived together, with Ishmael and Isaac raised as brothers. As it is, Sarah banished Hagar, and one of the core pillars of the Islamic faith is built around the trials of Hagar in the desert. Now, millions of people circumambulate Hagar’s grave at the foot of the Kabah every year in Mecca, and follow in her footsteps as she struggled to find water for her infant son. Her faith that God was watching over her allowed her to accept hardships that seemed impossible. And now this courageous woman lives on at the very heart of our faith today.
When I reflect on how the prophets lived their lives, I am overwhelmed by the love and support of the women without whom we would not have any message to follow. Whether you call yourself a feminist or not, surely the future requires a rebalancing of the feminine and masculine, within ourselves, and in our world stories.
All images are from The 99 Names of God, illustrated by Daniel Thomas Dyer.