When I started the research for this blog months ago, I thought I would have a hard time finding women from the past whom I could feature. However, what I ended up finding was not hundreds, but thousands of Muslim women throughout history who have had a profound impact on their communities. I found queens, doctors, lawyers, nurses, business women, speakers, philanthropists, artists, poets, the list goes on and on. Some of them I found a lot of information on and some just a little bit. Overall, I was overwhelmed with all of the history that I didn’t even know
So instead of having a hard time finding historic women, I was now having a hard time deciding who I would feature first to jumpstart this project. I finally decided on Zainab bint Jahsh, one of Prophet Mohammed’s ﷺ wives and a woman whose story is not only extraordinary, but it is full of lessons that we can apply today.
Zainab bint Jahsh was born 30 years before Hijra. Her mother was the paternal aunt of the prophet ﷺ, Umaimah bint ‘Abdul Muttalib bin Hashim and her paternal uncles were Hamza bin Abdul Mutalib and Abbas bin Abdul Mutalib . Her brother Abdullah bin Jahsh was a distinguished general and her brother Abu Ahmed bin Jahsh was a well-known religious poet. Her father was one of the most outstanding and affluent men of Mecca. In short, she came from an incredibly aristocratic and wealthy family. Her family was so prominent, they held the keys to the Kabaa and all the kings and tribes in the surrounding Arabian Peninsula knew their name.
Zainab was very beautiful, intelligent and lived in a world of fame because of her noble status. She followed her siblings into the Islamic faith at a time when Islam was new and growing quickly. This growth was much to the contempt of the people of Quraysh who were using all means of torture to deter the people from the new religion. The torture was becoming too much to bear and prophet Mohammed ﷺ ordered his followers to migrate to Abysinnia and then to Al-Madina. Zainab was among the migraters and she travelled with her siblings and nine other women from her family.
This migration was a big turning point in Islam. There are of course many reasons we can discuss as to the importance of this migration, but there is one in particular which pertains to this story. While the Muslims were living in Mecca, the verses of the Quran and Islam itself were a theoretical reality for the Muslims in a city filled with the disbelievers of Quraysh. However in Medinah an Islamic state was established and the concept of true brotherhood and sisterhood, of equality among men and women and poor and rich was applied. This new social system was a huge change for Zainab who was used to her popularity and status and was now equal to everyone else. In Medinah, the prominent and popular were those that were strongest in faith and it was, in fact, an ideal society.
It was in this society, that Prophet Mohammed ﷺ came to Zainab and told her he would like her marry Zaid bin Harithah, his adopted son who was a freed slave and now an intelligent Islamic scholar. Zainab was shocked that he would suggest someone of nobility such as hers to marry a freed slave. She repeated three times “I am better than him in my lineage.” She was outraged and went home to complain to her brother Abdullah, who went to the prophet ﷺ to confirm if that was indeed what he wanted. Zainab eventually did agree, especially when this verse of the Quran was revealed:
“It is not for a believer, man or woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter that they should have any option in their decision. And whoever disbelieves Allah and His Messenger, he has indeed strayed into a plane error.” [Noble Quran 33:36]
Zainab and Zaid got married but although they were both good people, their different backgrounds got in the way of a successful marriage. They eventually divorced a year later. (There are reasons as to why this marriage took place, which I will discuss at the end.)
It was at then that Prophet Mohammed ﷺ was given the revelation that he should marry Zainab. Socially this was difficult for the prophet ﷺ because it was common belief that an adopted son was the same as a biological son and it was of course forbidden to marry the divorcee of a son. However, in Islam, an adopted son is given his own separate rights to protect his lineage and inheritance and is not considered in the same light as a biological son. That was when this verse of the Quran was revealed to ease the prophet’s ﷺ social discomfort.
“And (remember) when you said to him (Zaid bin Harithah) on whom Allah has bestowed grace (by guiding him to Islam) and you have done favour (by manumitting him): “Keep your wife to yourself, and fear Allah.” But you hid in yourself that which Allah will make manifest, you did fear the people (i.e., their saying that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) married the divorced wife of his manumitted slave) whereas Allah had a better right that you should fear Him. So when Zayd had accomplished his desire from her (i.e. divorced her), We gave her to you in marriage, so that there may be no difficulty to the believers in respect of (the marriage of) the wives of their adopted sons when the latter have no desire to keep them. And Allah’s Command must be fulfilled.” [Noble Quran 33:37
This verse is one that gets used a lot from critics of Islam to say that the Prophet ﷺ was hiding feelings of passion for Zainab. In fact, what he was hiding was that he was to marry her, in a society that would not accept that. It was revealed to her by Zaid that she would become the wife of prophet Mohammed ﷺ and she immediately went to pray about it. As soon as she finished praying, Prophet Mohammed ﷺ walked into her house and told her that Allah had performed the nikkah (wedding contract) with the angels as witnesses and they were now married. This news came as a delight to Zainab and was something she used to boast about to the other wives. She had a simple wedding that had no dinner and was attended to by 300 guests. It was during her wedding that the first versus of hijab were revealed due to the behavior of some of the wedding guests who were overstaying their welcome.
“O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s houses, unless permission is given to you for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation. But when you are invited, enter, and when you have taken your meal, disperse without sitting for a talk. Verily, such (behavior) annoys the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and he is shy of (asking) you (to go); but Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. And when you ask (his wives) for anything you want, ask them from behind a screen that is purer for your hearts and for their hearts. And it is not (right) for you that you should annoy Allah’s Messenger, nor that you should ever marry his wives after him (his death). Verily, with Allah that shall be an enormity.” [Noble Quran 33:53}
In her day-to-day life, Zainab had her own business. She was, in our modern terms a fashion designer. She used to take skins of cows and other animals (leather) and tan and dye them to make into clothing and accessories. She sold them in the market and gave all of her profits to the poor. She was the most generous of the Prophet’s ﷺ wives, so much so that when she passed away, the poor cried because they were worried who would take care of them in her absence. It is narrated by Aisha that Prophet Mohammed ﷺ said to his wives, “The first of you to follow me (in death) will be the one with the longest arm.” The wives immediately started to compare arm lengths among each other. However, it was later understood that he meant “long arm” as in the most giving of charity among income generated by one’s hand’s, which of course was Zainab. She used to give away her annual grant to all who needed income and prayed to Allah not to give her large amounts of money because it was a trial.
She was closest to Aishah who used to say of Zainab that she has ever seen any other person who was so eager to get closer to Allah to gain nearness to Him, she was more charitable than most, and her generous behavior with relatives was impeccable. Zainab stood by Aisha during the incidence of slander. When the Prophet ﷺ asked Zainab what she thought of the situation she replied, “she did not wish to be involved, and did not want to defile and taint her ears, her eyes and her tongue with such terrible accusations. Swearing by Allah she said, she found ‘A’ishah to be a truly God-fearing lady of exemplary character. She found in her the most wonderful traits of integrity, sincerity and honesty. She said she had not seen in her anything but goodness and virtue.”
Zainab bint Jahsh passed away at the age of fifty three, 20 years after Hijra. She left a great legacy of generosity and faith. All of the prophet’s ﷺ marriages happened for specific reasons that are lessons for us to learn from. Here are some lessons from this story:
- This was the first time the differentiation between an adopted child and a natural one was established. In Islam, great care is given to the rights of orphans and it is too important of a subject for me to discuss in one paragraph, but this was a turning point in the revelation of these rights.
- Some people might ask why Zainab had to go through the marriage with Zaid and why couldn’t she just have married the prophet ﷺ to start with. This was because the verse was to be revealed about the position of the adopted son and ignorance in society was to be addressed. This was the main lesson but there is another one that I find important. Someone once told me something that I loved. This was that you get married at a time when both you and your spouse are ready for each other. This means that you are both going through life learning and growing from the situations that you encounter. These situations help you to form opinions and become the person you are destined to be. It is when you have both gotten to a point where you are on the same page that your paths will cross. This will happen at a destined time and place, Naseeb, and nothing you can do can make it happen faster, as Allah is the best of planners. Zainab was a very arrogant, proud woman. Her marriage to Zaid and eventual divorce humbled her and her marriage to the prophet ﷺ happened at a destined time, not earlier or later. Her experience with Zaid was just something she had to go through and while there was a reason for the rest of the Muslim’s to learn from, there was also a personal lesson in it for her too.
- Another big lesson was the Zainab did not take advantage of the opportunity to slander Aisha, her competition. She did not involve herself in gossip when everyone in city was doing so and she chose instead to keep a positive image of Aisha as she knew her.
- Even though you have been blessed with money and status, you should always remain humble.
- Zainab was a business woman. She is just one example of how being an independent, successful Muslim woman is not a modern concept.
- Another lesson that I didn’t really emphasize on was the Zainab entered Islam through the influence of her older siblings. This is showing how important it is for older siblings to constantly keep a good influence on their younger siblings. It is their responsibility.
What did you think about Zainab’s story? Do you feel there are certain aspects of her life that you can relate to?
Abd-Allah, Dr. Umar Faruq. “Famous Women in Islam.” Lecture.
Quṭb, Muḥammad ʻAlī. Women around the Messenger. Riyadh: International Islamic House, 2007. Print.
Webb, Suhaib. Mothers of the Believers : Lives of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad (upon Whom Be Peace). : Awakening Media, Audio CD.
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04 Jan 2016
28 Oct 2015