Either you carry Islam, or Islam carries you. Those in the former category are those who uphold the honor of this Ummah and are its strength; those in the latter category are like those who are carried in Ṭawâf – weak and unable to do much for themselves. – Dr. Zaid Al-Dakkan
WHEN PEOPLE SPEAK about the role of women in the Muslim Ummah, quite often the same phrases are repeated, “Women are created to be mothers, to raise the next generation of Muslims!” The only contributions required of Muslim women, it seems, are those of a domestic sort.
However, when we look to the history of Islam from its earliest days, when we turn to the life of The Prophet ﷺ and his Companions, male and female, we see something very different. Certainly, women did have a domestic role to play—but they were not limited to that sphere alone.
In the harsh desert climate of ancient Arabia, women were not weak and timid, but strong enough to withstand the prevalent oppression against them, intelligent enough to recognize the perfection of Islam, and strong enough to fight back against the Jâhiliyya that surrounded them.
Ṣafiyyah bint ʿAbd Al-Muṭṭalib was one of those women—an individual who carried Islam forth from the very beginning, who embodied what it meant to be strong and indomitable. She was the paternal aunt of The Prophet ﷺ and though she was younger than him in age, she was very close to both him and her brother Hamza ibn ʿAbd Al-Muṭṭalib. When The Prophet ascended Mount Ṣafa and gave his historic speech to Quraysh, he addressed her directly, beseeching her to heed his call.
Knowing what it meant to defy all of Qurayshi society, to be in opposition to people like Abû Lahab –her own brother– Ṣafiyyah made the decision to accept her nephew’s message of Islam. It was a choice that required not only spiritual conviction, but an understanding of the brutal reality that she would have to face from then on. Without hesitation, she accepted Islam and all that it meant to be a Muslim in an environment of merciless hostility.
Safiyyah was a woman who came from a family that was not only noble in social standing, but full of individuals who were famed for various reasons. Her brother, Abû Lahab, held immense influence over the chieftains of Quraysh; her other brother, Ḥamza, was renowned as a warrior of unparalleled stature, and was given the unique epithet of Asadullâh—the Lion of Allah. When these were her brothers, and her nephew was the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, it was only natural that she, too, be a person of greatness.
She was much like her brother Hamza in temperament: a woman of strength, ferocity, and even harshness. She raised her son Al-Zubair ibn Al-ʿAwwâm to be fearless and able to withstand the most difficult of treatment and circumstances. Her training methods with him were at times extremely harsh: She would push him to his limits and hold him to very high standards. Once, when he came to her complaining of bullying from his peers, she rebuked him and in fact struck him right there in the street. A relative passing by entreated her to treat the young orphan gently, and she retorted: “How else will he become a man of strength and power?”
Thanks to her, Al-Zubair was one of only two people in all of Makkah who were trained to wield a sword in each hand. She would take great pride in having him challenge others to duels, and then winning them. As a young man, he once got into a fight with an older man who insulted him – and injured him badly. The wounded man was brought to Safiyyah, who told him: “When you fight with Al-Zubair, this is what you deserve!”
When Al-Zubair had a son of his own, ʿAbdullâh, Ṣafiyyah also took part in raising him, utilizing many of the methods she had used with Al-Zubair. She was determined to make her grandson as fearless and unbeatable as his father. One example of how she trained ʿAbdullâh was that she would take him out to the desert at night and leave him there, instructing him to find his own way back home. When others expressed their shock at her unconventional methods, she told them: “This is the only way he will learn what it takes to become amongst the greatest of warriors.” Indeed, ʿAbdullâh ibn Al-Zubair grew up to become renowned for his prowess on the battlefield and his mastery of the arts of war.
Ṣafiyyah regularly accompanied The Prophet to his battles. At the Battle of Uḥud, when the Muslim army began to retreat, she seized a spear and began to strike at enemy soldiers viciously. Alarmed, The Prophet told Al-Zubair to bring her back behind the fighting lest she be harmed; Al-Zubair had to physically seize his mother in order to pull her away!
When she heard that her brother Hamza had been killed, Ṣafiyyah insisted on seeing his body. Worried that she would be devastated and traumatized by the sight, The Prophet told Al-Zubair that it was better for her not to see him. Ṣafiyyah told her son to go back. “Why should I leave when my brother has been mutilated and killed for the sake of Allah?” Ignoring the protests of those around her, she strode forward to stand over her brother’s body. Poised even as she looked down at his mangled corpse, she recited Istighfâr (a short prayer for Allah’s forgiveness) and expressed the formal Islamic expression to be said at times of grief and calamity: “Inna lillâhi wa inna ilayhi râjiʿûn,” (to Allah we belong and to Him we return.) As a poet, she expressed her sorrow in terms of elegance and eloquence, demonstrating once again that she was no wilting wallflower but rather, a woman of refined self-possession and grace.
During the Battle of the Trench, Ṣafiyyah considered herself the guardian over the other women and children. Though Ḥassân ibn Thâbit remained with them due to his illness, he was unable to do much. When an enemy soldier approached, Safiyyah grabbed a pole and impaled him. “Strip his body of the armor,” she told Ḥassân, who reminded her that he was incapable of moving. Shrugging, she rolled up her sleeves and stripped the body herself, beheading the corpse and tossing it over the fortress walls. Taking charge in the harsh manner required in the moment for her party to gain the upper hand, she unflinchingly accepted the role of a militant combatant who must kill or be killed. As the enemy approached, they all caught sight of the disembodied head and pulled back in fear—they were convinced that a great warrior was guarding the place. In truth, it was Ṣafiyyah alone who stood ready to destroy anyone who dared breach the fortress walls.
At the death of The Prophet ﷺ, she did not allow the confusion of others to influence her. She stood tall in front of the masses and composed an impassioned eulogy that remains recorded even today.
Safiyyah lived to see the khilâfa (caliphate) of ʿUmar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb, and during her lifetime, was respected and consulted by many of the Companions.
Ṣafiyyah bint ʿAbd Al-Muṭṭalib’s indomitable strength and her status as a member of The Prophet’s household easily mark her as a woman without parallel—a lioness of Ahl Al-Bayt. In her, we see the example of a woman whose role in the Ummah was neither shallow nor restricted; we see that women played an active part in the Muslim society at the time of The Prophet ﷺ. She demonstrates to us that not every Muslim woman is required to fit a narrow, limited mold of what it means to be a female member of the Ummah.
Ṣafiyyah epitomizes what it means to be a woman of power, a force to be reckoned with, who felt no hesitation in engaging with society whenever she felt that she had a role to play. She never backed down and never allowed others to intimidate her—in fact, she felt no qualms in being the one to intimidate others.
Ṣafiyyah bint ʿAbd Al-Muṭṭalib is a reminder to Muslim men and women alike that one should never underestimate—or under-appreciate—the power of a woman.
This article is the second installment of a series titled “Forgotten Heroines: The Mothers, Daughters, Scholars and Warriors of Islamic History,” which we will publish regularly.
This series aims to highlight female figures of our history who have either been overlooked, forgotten, or spoken about in a merely perfunctory manner. The author’s goal is to emphasize the humanity and relevance of these individuals to Muslim men and women alike, to look at their lives and build a connection with them, understanding how we can emulate them and seek their level of excellence in our own context.