For her flawless character, Prophet Muhammad considered Khadijah to be a perfect woman, together with their daughter Fatima, the sister of Moses, and the mother of Jesus. But the legacy she left behind will remain just that without our combined efforts to pursue its true meaning. By Raquel Evita Saraswati.
Few women in Islamic history elicit more pride in the hearts and minds of Muslims than Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. As the first wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), she was also the first convert to Islam – earning her the title ‘mother of all the Muslims’.
For Muslim girls everywhere, Khadijah is one of the first female role models introduced by parents and teachers of religion. A self-made businesswoman, Khadijah was many years older than Muhammad when the two met. She proposed marriage to him – and when he received his first revelations, she provided him counsel. Trembling and filled with fear, Muhammad sought comfort in Khadijah’s words: ‘Joyful tidings dost thou bring… Allah will not suffer thee to fall to shame. Hast thou not been loving to thy kinsfolk, kind to thy neighbours, charitable to the poor, hospitable to the stranger, faithful to thy word, and ever a defender of the truth?’
Those who admire Khadijah’s example reside on all points across the ideological spectrum. To conservative and more modern Muslims alike, Khadijah represents the ideal Muslim woman. She was both accomplished and deeply faithful. She had already created her own success, yet was also a devoted wife and mother. In the first years of Islam, it was Khadijah who funded the spread of Muhammad’s message. It was she who remained patient, stoic and devoted as her husband’s message invited the scorn of those who did not believe in the one God.
The justification for denying girls an equal chance at success lies in archaic interpretations of religion
Sadly, not all who invoke Khadijah’s name wish to see young Muslim girls reach their fullest potential. Radicals in Afghanistan have targeted girls’ schools with poison gas, and have maimed female pupils with acid. Across the Muslim world, girls are married off and robbed of the opportunity to gain an education or even achieve basic literacy. In Yemen, Jordan, Sudan and other Muslim-majority nations, it is commonplace for families to send boys, not girls, to school. In some cases, financial hardship is to blame. More often, though, the justification for denying girls an equal chance at success lies in archaic interpretations of religion.
The clerics, fathers and brothers who defend Islam’s position on women to the non-Muslim world by invoking Khadijah’s name are often those most guilty of offenses against women. These are men who, despite their proclaimed love for the Prophet, insult him more severely than any non-Muslim critic ever could. Khadijah’s many achievements, her independence and wisdom did not threaten Muhammad. Rather, they inspired him to remain steadfast despite the treacherous path he faced, and he was conscious of the fact that his work would have been impossible without her faithful partnership. Crimes against girls – violence, denial of equal access to education, prohibition from full participation in society – are an insult to our faith, the Prophet Muhammad and the legacy of Khadijah.
There is nothing contradictory about being a powerful Muslim female
To me, Khadijah’s example is both a promise and a call to action. Her immense faith, resilience, and ambition assure Muslim girls the world over that despite whatever obstacles lie in our path, there is nothing contradictory about being a powerful Muslim female. Khadijah’s example is a call to action because, despite the fact that she faced scrutiny, ostracism and extraordinary challenges, she remained steadfast in her mission, kindness and generosity. The question becomes, then: how do we not just invoke, but also live Khadijah’s legacy?
Many Muslims are making incredible efforts to advance women’s rights – often with the help of compassionate and dedicated non-Muslim allies. They understand that we must not just speak of women’s rightful place in Islam. We must also fight to regain it. Our faith is on our side.
Individual women who honour Khadijah’s legacy by helping women and girls realise their full potential include Deeyah, a Norwegian Muslim singer of South Asian descent who founded the Sisterhood project aimed at providing a platform for young Muslim female musicians to be heard; Nazanin Afshin-Jam, an Iranian activist working to end child executions; and Zainab al-Suwaij, a US-based Iraqi woman who founded the American Islamic Congress in order to provide a forum for truly moderate Islamic thought to thrive. The organisation works to protect dissidents and promote understanding. Women Living Under Muslim Laws is a global organisation addressing many issues of crucial importance to Muslim women, from ‘honour’ violence to political participation.
Men can advance Khadijah’s legacy as well. For example, Abdou Bala Marafa, the Emir of Gobir, is a tribal religious leader in Niger and a champion against child marriage. He has organised the Good Conduct Brigades – a group of men and women who travel on motorbikes to rescue girls from early marriage. His group also conducts community trainings on the dangers of child marriage, and promotes equal education for girls. In Egypt, the Respect Yourself campaign works to end the sexual harassment and sexually-based violence so rampant on the country’s streets. The group targets primarily boys and men aged 14 to 24, but has female members as well. Through educational campaigns, rallies and even on-the-street intervention, the group has brought attention to the hostility many Egyptian women endure every day.
The women featured in every issue of this magazine’s Fabulous Muslimah column also live Khadijah’s legacy. Their work reminds us that we too have a God-given right to pursue the full extent of our potential. They join the many Muslim men and women who work daily to improve the plight of women and girls worldwide. However, until every Muslim girl knows that she can truly live Khadijah’s example herself, our work is far from over.