March is Women’s History Month, and for the whole of the month, there will be a focus on both historic and contemporary “sheroes.” Islamic history has its own amazing female role models – Aisha, Khadija, Maryam, Asiya (may Allah be pleased with all of them). But Muslim women's history does not start and end with these four righteous women. It is filled with women of great courage, skills, and insights who have made positive contributions on a variety of fronts. One great example is Nusaybah bint Ka’ab.
The story of any Muslim woman must begin with a recognition of the incredible changes in women’s status that Islam brought to Arabia. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s early life, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, women were considered inferior to men, female infants were regarded as a great misfortune and shame and were often buried alive, and women had no legal capacity, meaning they could be bought, sold, and inherited.
Islam elevated the status of a woman, treating her on an equal footing with a man. Women had a newfound independent identity, in the physical and spiritual spheres. Female infanticide was prohibited, and female children became valued with attention to their righteous upbringing, even bringing eternal rewards for their parents. Women were afforded access to their own money and inheritance, and received an elevated social status as well. And, like a man, a woman’s ultimate failure or success was based on her own beliefs and conduct.
Nusaybah Bint Ka’ab Al Maziniyyah was one of those who embraced Islam in the early days of revelation. We don’t know much about her life prior to Islam, but there are many details about her life after she embraced it. She lived in Madinah and was a member of the Banu Najjar tribe. By lineage, she was the sister of Abdullah bin Ka’ab and the mother of Abdullah and Habib ibn Zayd al-Ansari.
Nusaybah gained a reputation as the most distinguished woman who took part in the Battle of Uhud. She was one of two women who expressed an interest in swearing their Bayah or allegiance to the Prophet in the second pledge at Aqaba. She believed that a woman had the same duty in defending the new religion as a man.
When the battle started, Nusaybah and many other women brought water to thirsty fighters and tended to the wounded soldiers. During the battle, when the Muslims seemed to be victorious, archers disobeyed the Prophet’s command and left their battle stations. This action eventually led to their defeat.
When it appeared that the Prophet’s life was in danger, Nusaybah sprung into action with her sword and bow in hand. She joined a small group that included her husband Ghazzayah bin ‘Amr and son Abdullah, who acted as a human shield to protect him from the enemy. Umar bin Al-Khattab said that the Prophet once told him that in the Battle of Uhud, wherever he turned, whether to the right or to the left, he saw Umm ‘Umarah (Nusaybah) fighting to defend him.
Another account of her courage is provided by her son ‘Umarah, who was wounded in the battle. It is recorded that after bandaging her son’s wounds, Nusaybah personally took revenge on the enemy who had inflicted the harm. These heroic acts were witnessed and also recounted by the Prophet himself.
Nusaybah received many wounds in the battle herself. The Prophet saw this. He called to her son, "Your mother! Your mother! See to her wounds, may Allah bless you and your household! Your mother has fought better than so-and-so." When Nusaybah heard what the Prophet said, she said, "Pray to Allah that we may accompany you in Paradise." He said, "O Allah, make them my companions in Paradise." She said, "I do not care what befalls me in this world."
Nusaybah’s participation in battles did not end there. She lived through the rule of Abu Bakr Al Siddique, and Umar bin Al-Khattab. She was revered by both who continuously praised her struggle and courage. She was present on a number of occasions, including the Treaty of Aqabah, Hudaybiyah, as well as the battles of Khaybar, and Hunayn. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr, she fought brilliantly at Al-Yamamah, receiving 11 wounds and also losing her hand (at this time she was 60 years old!). Her courage on the battlefield was also matched by her steadfastness in faith. Two of her sons – Abdullah and Habib – were martyred fighting in the cause of Islam.
There is another encounter that is worth noting. Once Nusaybah mentioned to the Prophet that she didn’t understand why the Noble Quran only mentioned men, and that it seemed that women were deprived of any importance. Then this verse of the Quran was revealed:
“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so - for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.” (Surah al-Ahzab 33:35)
Nusaybah died in the 13th Hijri year and was buried in Al Baqi in Makkah. Her legacy is a testament to the strength and courage of Muslim women as Islam spread throughout the region. These stories also serve to dispel the misconception that Islam is either oppressive or disrespectful of women. It is important that we pass them along to Muslim and non-Muslims as well.