The equality and inherent dignity of all human beings are among the central teachings of Islam. These ideals should effectually result in the liberation of the oppressed. However, empowerment can only be attained through a deep understanding of Islam from its basic sources, the Quran and the confirmed Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This means that every single Muslim has the responsibility to educate him or herself. Indeed, as the Prophet stated: “Seeking knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female.”
Knowledge is essential because “we tend to oppress others and allow oppression against ourselves because we lack proper understanding of the Quran and the life of our beloved Prophet (PBUH)” explains Dr. Kaukab Sidiqque in Liberation of Women Through Islam.
Islam indisputably gives women rights, respect and equality in this world and before God. Many of today’s Muslims, as we are painfully aware, have greatly deviated from these Islamic principles, which were embodied by Prophet Muhammad. This must change and the responsibility for generating change lies with each of us. Women need to use knowledge of their religion, and strength from the Prophet’s life example, to claim their rightful place in the world. We need eloquent female writers, scholars, activists and speakers. It is also essential that, as women, we support, encourage, and strengthen one another; it is crucial that women stand up for each other rather than criticize, shame or put each other down. Through love and sisterhood we gain strength and power.
The Prophet’s attitude towards women is crystal clear: He was surrounded by women throughout his life and greatly respected them and defended their rights. He encouraged the empowerment of women and considered them equal to men. He married a strong and independent businesswoman, Khadija, 15 years his senior and throughout their life together, Muhammad helped her with her businesses, loved her and sought her advice on all matters.
When the Prophet (PBUH) received his first revelation, afraid that he was losing his mind and becoming like the jinn-possessed poets of his time, he went to Khadija, who assured him that his experience was indeed a revelation. She advised him to rejoice and be of good heart. Khadija’s faith and strength gave Muhammad courage as she confidently expressed her hope that he would be the prophet of his people. Khadija and Muhammad had a nurturing and loving monogamous marriage that lasted 25 years, until her death.
The Prophet’s relationships were based on intimacy and affection and serve as the model of the ideal father and husband. The Prophet’s life example, which all Muslims must strive to follow, is quite far from the patriarchal notion of a wife’s duty of unquestioned obedience. Khadija sheltered, advised and comforted her husband. Their relationship was one of mutual support and respect. She believed in the Prophet’s message and effectively became the first Muslim in history.
Other positive examples of women in the Prophet’s personal life abound: Aisha was entrusted with carrying forward the message of Islam and the responsibility of teaching the events of his life to all the future generations of Muslims fell upon her. The Prophet also deeply loved and respected his daughter Fatima and, when Ali asked for her hand in marriage, he asked for her approval before accepting. According to Dr. Safi, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) spent the last moments of his life with his favorite females: his daughter Fatima and his wife Aisha. There are also countless narrations and examples of the Prophet treating women with kindness and compassion, listening to them and helping to uplift them.
A remarkable female companion of the Prophet (PBUH), Nusaybah bint Kaab, was legendary for her bravery and military skills. She participated in several battles and in the battle of Uhud was severely wounded while defending the Prophet. Prophet Muhammad said, “whenever I looked to my right or left I would find Nusaybah fighting defensively” and praised her for her courage.
This astonishing example of female valor was possible because during the Prophet’s time, men and women participated fully in the vibrant Muslim community that he established. Nusaybah, for instance, felt unable to stay home while her husband and son went to battle, so she decided to join. At first, her intention was to tend to the wounded and bring water to the warriors, but later, she proved invaluable in the battlefield and turned out to be highly skilled with the sword.
Much more commonly than taking part in combat though, women attended Islamic lectures and participated freely in them, asking questions and even refuting the sheikhs lecturing. They were also included in all aspects of mosque life, often praying in close proximity to the Prophet.
While it seems we all know the Prophet’s famous saying “Paradise lies at your mother’s feet,” we forget that in all respects, he advocated the equality, empowerment and dignity of women. It is unacceptable to deviate from his teachings and life example and to revert to the very practices that Islam sought to eradicate, such as the oppression of women. In Islam, we are all equal and, in the eyes of God, we each possess enormous value and dignity. We must embody these ideals and leave aside self-serving deviations by striving with all our might, and with God’s help, to emulate our Prophet’s (PBUH) fairness, sense of justice, courage, strength and perseverance.