Today when we think of an empowered woman, what’s the image we have in our minds: power suits, breaking the glass ceiling, raising children and building a lucrative career, both with equal finesse?
What are the key qualities that come to mind: knowledgeable and assertive perhaps?
After all, these are common qualities that all women today either possess or strive towards. But is it only women of today?
There is nothing wrong with the above picture. And even if not 100% accurate, it represents what many of us may define as today’s empowered woman.
However, it is only part of the picture.
As hard as it may be to believe, such women are not solely the result of modern society and even existed way back in 14th. century Arabia, in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and in the form of his wives, referred to by Muslims as the Mothers of the Believers.
Sure, in that time, they didn’t come suited and booted ready to take on the world. But they did come fully clad in the attire the Quran instructed for them, and were ready to take on the Arabian Peninsula, in their own subtle but dynamic way.
Such is the story of Lady Safiyah, the ninth wife of Prophet Muhammad and daughter of Huyay ibn Akhtab and Barah bint Shamwal. (Ghadanfar, 115)
A noble woman of Jewish lineage, she became a widow and subsequently, a prisoner of war during the Battle of Khaibar. Upon receiving a proposal of marriage from the Prophet Muhammad himself, she converted to Islam and began a new life with him at the age of seventeen. (Debas 130; Ghadanfar 118)
Lady Safiyah was extremely spiritual and spent most of her time reading the Quran, which Muslims believe to be the exact words of God, and memorizing many chapters of it. (Ghadanfar 120)
Her studies of the Quran were so intense that her eyes would fill with tears and she would weep (Ghadanfar 120). She recommended such an emotional reading of the Quran to all believers. (Webb)
The purity in her faith in God is evident in her own husband’s testimony, in which he was quoted stating in defense of Lady Safiyah:
“She faithfully converted to Islam and became a good Muslim.” (Debas 132)
Role as an Individual
As an individual, Lady Safiyah represented qualities which in today’s times could easily be defined as a fine example for women’s empowerment. Most notable were her level of knowledge, well as her assertiveness, and how she used one to strengthen the other. (Webb)
The fact that Safiyah was especially knowledgeable in the area of Islam is evident from her avid reading of the Quran. However, in her case this is especially commendable because she did not limit herself to ritually reciting the verses of the Quran, but also made practical applications of them.
While she memorized chapters of the Quran and wept at its words and verses, she also used the Almighty’s words as the very foundation for understanding and interpreting religion for practice in her daily life.
Moreover, it was this very sound knowledge base of Islam that gave her the confidence to be assertive in a number of areas in her life, whether it was to demand fair treatment, to defend her practice of Islam, own property, or even later, to participate in war and politics.
Her righteous nature was evident when Umar ibn Al-Khattab assigned twelve thousand dirhams (a currency of the time) to each wife of the Prophet as their share of the spoils received from recent Muslim conquests at the time. Every wife received the same amount, except for Lady Safiyah and Lady Juwayriyah, both of whom were given only six thousand dirhams.
Umar defended his decision, stating that the other wives received this amount because they had emigrated from Makkah to Madinah. However, both Safiyah and Juwayriyah objected to this and even refused to accept the money.
They countered Umar’s argument and stated that the others received the standard amount because they were Prophet Muhammad’s wives. Safiyah and Juwayriyah made it clear that because they shared equal status, they deserved equal treatment. Upon this assertion, Umar reversed his decision and allotted them the rightful amount. (Al-Hindi 5/594)
What’s most impressive about this particular incident is that the Prophet himself was not even there to aid Safiyah in demanding her rights at this time, because this occurred after his death.
However, her knowledge of Islam and her rights within it supported her in being assertive, and ensured that she received fair treatment, whether in the presence or absence of her beloved husband.
Often subjected to the eye of accusation due to her Jewish lineage, Lady Safiyah used her understanding of Islam to not only defend her faith in Allah (Arabic for God) when need be, but also to balance it with the rights of her heritage.
There was an incident when her maid went and told the Caliph Umar that even though Safiyah converted to Islam, she still observed the Saturday Sabbath, and kept good terms with the Jews. As a result, the Caliph questioned Safiyah regarding these accusations. (Ibn Hajar 7/741)
Again, based on her knowledge, she responded that after Allah told the Muslims about the sanctity and blessings of Friday, she stopped giving importance to Saturday.
She further added that indeed, she still maintained relations with the Jews who were her relatives and by doing so, she was simply following the command of Allah and His Messenger for maintaining good relations with family. (Ibn Hajar 7/741)
These examples highlight how Lady Safiyah made full use of the divine gift of knowledge. Not only did she actively seek knowledge of Islam, but she also applied it widely to all areas of her life.
This knowledge, in turn, served as a fuel igniting her assertiveness. Therefore, whenever she demanded her rights or defended herself, she backed it up with solid evidence straight from the Quran and teachings of the final Messenger.
Role as a Wife
As a wife, she treated her marriage as a partnership, and was not afraid to confide in the Prophet Muhammad or seek his advice when necessary. Safiyah did not view seeking advice from her husband as submissive or a reflection of her weaknesses. Rather, she intelligently made use of the strengths he had, and drew upon them wherever relevant and necessary in her own life.
In fact, it was her ability to confide in him that gave her even more strength in dealing with criticisms of her Jewish lineage assertively. At a point in her life, when Safiyah felt the taunts were unbearable, she actually brought the issue to the Prophet’s attention. (Webb)
Wiping her tears, he advised her:
“Wouldn’t it be better for you to say, ‘How could they be better then I, when my father is Prophet Aaron, my uncle is Prophet Moses, and my husband is Prophet Muhammad’?” (At-Tirmidhi)
His intelligent response gave a tremendous boost to Safiyah’s abilities to handle such challenges boldly.
Despite the taunts or accusations she may have received, her heart was filled with pure undiluted love for the Prophet Muhammad and Allah. Moreover, the Prophet knew this very well and never even requested evidence of loyalty from her.
As a result, Safiyah’s devotion to the Prophet’s well-being continued up to his final moments of life. Seeing him in his deathbed, Safiyah cried out in anguish:
“Oh, Prophet of Allah, I surely wish that what you suffer from might be in me rather than you!”
Even when others remained skeptical of her remark, the Prophet defended her without any hesitation or doubt:
“By Allah, I know that Safiyyah is loyal and truthful and she meant what she just said.” (Ibn Sa’d 8/128; Ibn Hajar 7/741)
The fact that the Prophet was consistently able to testify of Safiyah’s faithfulness, spoke volumes of her credibility as a wife. In today’s times, women often have to convince or even coerce their husbands into taking their sides when it comes to controversial issues with in-laws or other third parties surrounding a marriage.
Yet for Safiyah, her husband continually rose to her defense, even without a request from her part to do so.
Her dignified and upright character was enough testimony that she not only believed in Allah and His Messenger, but personified her faith through her role as a dutiful wife to Prophet Muhammad.
Role in Society
Safiyah was also an active participant in the civil society of her time. An example of this is her participation in the political battles which began in the time of Caliph Uthman ibn Affan (Webb). Such was her involvement that in fact, she tried her best to stop the great sedition. (Debas 135)
A supporter of Uthman, Safiyah’s efforts were not limited to only verbal statements. She was also ready to go out to defend him and prepared her mule for this purpose. Her efforts were unfortunately countered by opponents of Uthman.
Not one to be discouraged, she continued to support Uthman’s besieged family as best she could. To this end, she built a bridge between her house and his, so she could provide his family with food and water while they suffered from the battles. (Ibn Sa’d 8/128)
Safiyah’s role as a philanthropist in her society also branched out to her care for the poor, to whom she donated a house that she herself owned, prior to her death. (Debas 138)
Al-Hindi, Ali-Uddin ibn Husamud-Din Al-Muttaqi. Kanz al-Ummal fi Sunan wal Aqwal wal Afwal.
Debas, Faridah Masood. The Wives of the Prophet Muhammad (Blessings and Peace be upon him). Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House, 2006.
Ghadanfar, Mahmood Ahmad. Great Women of Islam: Who were given the Good News of Paradise. Riyadh: Darussalam, 2000.
Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani. Al-Isaba fi Tamyiz al-Sahabah.
Ibn Sa’d, Muhammad ibn Sa’d ibn Mani’ al-Baghdadi. Kitab At-Tabaqat Al-Kabir.
Webb, Suhaib. The Mothers of the Believers: Hadhrat Safiyah bint Huyy. Awakening Media Productions, 2006. (Audio Lecture Series).
(From Discovering Islam’s archive.)