The Work of Women: Wet Nurses and Early Caretakers of the Prophet |

The Work of Women: Wet Nurses and Early Caretakers of the Prophet

Being entrusted with another woman's baby is a noble station in life. It is a position of trust because children are most impressionable during their first years. During that period, the child’s basic character and self-image are formed. In addition, the environment and the people who nurture the child often leave lasting impressions on them. 

For those reasons, the early Arabs would often hire a wet nurse for their babies, even when the mother of the baby was available. They preferred that their children be raised away from the towns, in the more rustic or primitive areas. They preferred that the wet nurses be Bedouin women so that they could learn the traditional Arab culture, language, and values. This tradition was also a way for the Bedouin women to earn money, so it was a reciprocal relationship.

In Islam, being breastfed is considered a child's basic right. The child has the right to receive a mother's milk, although that milk may not always be from his/her own mother.  If the mother of the baby can’t or won’t breastfeed the baby, the father must then pay for a wet nurse.

In the case of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, he had no father to fulfill that responsibility. By the time of his birth, he only had his mother, Amina bint Wahb, may Allah be pleased with her. Amina was born in Mecca during the year 549 C.E.. When she matured, she married the Prophet’s father, Abdullah ibn Abdul Mutallib. Abdullah was a merchant and had to frequently travel away from home. He died from an illness when Amina was six months pregnant.  

The first woman to actually breastfeed the Prophet was not a wet nurse but his own mother. After she gave birth to him, she kept her baby with her for two or three days, during which time, she suckled him. When the Bedouin mothers came to Mecca to market their wet-nursing services, they would vie to be hired by the richest of the Meccans. Muhammad’s family was not wealthy, and his father was dead. None of the wet nurses wanted to contract to take Muhammad home with them. 

Thuwayba al-Aslamiya 

The first wet nurse to suckle baby Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was Thuwayba al-Aslamiya, may Allah be pleased with her, who nursed him for seven days after his birth. Thuwaybah, whose name means deserving of Allah’s reward, was the freed, formerly enslaved servant of Abu Lahab ibn Abdul Mutallib, the man who is cursed in the chapter of the Quran that bears his name. Reports vary concerning the conditions of her manumission. Some accounts say that Abu Lahab set her free when she informed him about the birth of the Prophet, which had been prophesized. Other reports suggest that Abu Lahab freed her when the Prophet migrated to Madina from Mecca.

When a woman nurses a baby for a specific period, all the babies she has suckled become siblings through fosterage. This special relationship between the babies confers certain rights and responsibilities upon them and their relatives. Thuwaybah had a son, Masrooh, whom she nursed at the same time that she nursed the Prophet. She also nursed the Prophet’s uncle, Hamza, and renowned companion, Umm Salama. They all became the Prophet’s foster brothers through the act of breastfeeding. 

This special relationship between the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and his first wet nurse lasted long after those seven days. Even after the Prophet was an adult, he maintained a relationship of love and respect with Thuwaybah. She was a welcomed guest in the household of the Prophet when he married Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, may Allah be pleased with them. After he migrated to Madina, the Prophet would send her gifts of food and clothes and continued to do so until Thuwaybah died seven years after the Prophet had migrated to Madina. 

Halima bint Dhuayb as-Sadiya 

Since Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, did not have a father who could negotiate the hire of a wet nurse and he was not from a wealthy family, his prospects of finding a long-term wet nurse seemed bleak. Mercifully, Allah decreed that a kind Bedouin woman from the Bani Sa’ad tribe take him to her home. Her name was Halima bint Dhuayb as-Sadiya. She and her husband, Abu Khabsha al-Harith bin Abdul Aziz and their entire household, welcomed the young, fatherless boy. They found that once Muhammad became a member of their household, they saw an increase in their blessings. Later, the household members accepted Islam and were even more blessed because of their profession of belief.

It was during the Prophet’s time with Halima that a miracle occurred. Muhammad would go out with the children of Halima and Abu Khabsha to tend their animals. One day, when Muhammad was three years old, he was out playing with his foster brother when two men wearing white robes approached young Muhammad. The foster brother ran to Halima and exclaimed, “Two men took my Qurayshi brother, lay him down, and cut open his stomach!”

Upon hearing this shocking news, Halima and her husband ran out to look for Muhammad. They located him, finding him pale with shock and fear. They asked him what was the matter. 

He said,  “There were two men wearing white robes. One of them said, ‘Is he the one?’ and then the second one said, ‘Yes he is the one.’ So they took me, lay me down, cut open my tummy, and took something out. I do not know what it was. After that, they went away.’” 

According to the hadith, the two men who had taken him were angels who had come to remove any influence of Shaytan from Muhammad’s heart; they had come to purify him. They took out his heart, washed it with water from the well of Zamzam, and then put his heart back in his chest. Remarkably, the same purification occurred again when Muhammad was forty years old.

Halima understandably became frightened about Prophet Muhammad’s safety, peace and blessings be upon him. She decided to take him back to his mother and relate what had occurred. 

After he returned to his mother, Amina took him to visit his father’s maternal uncles in Madina. On their way back, his mother died in Abwa, between Mecca and Madina. He was six or seven years old when his mother died, and he was now, truly, an orphan. Amina was twenty-seven. She is buried in Abwa, Saudi Arabia. 

Khawla bint al-Munthir bint an-Najjah (Umm Bardah) 

Not much is known about Khawla bint al-Munthir. There is a difference of opinion as to whether she suckled the Prophet or merely took care of him.

Three Unnamed Women from Bani Sulaym 

It is related in the hadith that three women from Bani Sulaym said that they suckled the Prophet, each noting that her breasts that had been dry filled with milk upon feeding the Prophet.

Barakah bint Thalabah (Umm Ayman) 

Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, described Barakah bint Thalabah (Umm Ayman), may Allah be pleased with her, as the “mother after my own mother. She is the rest of my family.”  Although there is no strong evidence that she was an actual wet nurse of the Prophet, she lovingly took care of him when he was a baby. 

Umm Ayman was a black Abyssinian woman who had a very humble start in life. As a child, she was put up for sale in Mecca. In pre-Islamic Arabia, slavery was an openly and widely accepted practice and enslaved people were treated harshly. Allah mercifully decreed that Umm Ayman would be treated with kindness and compassion. She was bought by Abdullah, father of Muhammad and the son of Abdul Muttalib. Umm Ayman took care of Abdullah’s affairs as a servant and after Abdullah married Amina, she also looked after her.

Just a few weeks after Amina and Abdullah were married, Abdullah was sent to Syria for business. It was Umm Ayman who looked after Amina during her pregnancy. Umm Ayman also gave Amina the news of Abdullah’s death in Yathrib, what was later to be known as Madinah. 

Umm Ayman was there during the life of the Prophet as he faced numerous tragedies. Whether it was his father’s death, his mother’s death when he was six or seven, or his grandfather Abdul Muttalib's death when he was eight, Umm Ayman was his support.

Umm Ayman’s dedication to the Prophet and to Islam was unwavering. During a visit from the Prophet, he asked her, “Ya Ummi! Are you well?” She would reply, “I am well, O Messenger of Allah - so long as Islam is well.” She loved the Prophet and Islam, and it was only after Prophet Muhammad married Khadija that she herself took a spouse. Sadly, he died shortly after their marriage. She gave birth to a son by him, thus earning the title Umm Ayman. Previously, she was known as Barakah. She did not marry again until, when she was about 50, the Prophet spoke to his companions and said, “Should one of you desire to marry a woman from the people of Paradise, let him marry Umm Ayman.” Zayd asked to marry her, and they had a son named Usamah who has been described as “the beloved son of the beloved.”

Umm Ayman was among the first to accept Islam. Her brave declaration of faith caused her and other early Muslims to face the cruel punishments of the Quraysh for their belief in Allah and His Prophet. But Umm Ayman’s courage went way beyond her acceptance of Islam. During the Battle of Uhud, she went to the battlefield, gave water to soldiers, and nursed the wounded. 

She emigrated with Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, across the desert on foot from Mecca to Madina. Despite the rough journey, she would not give up. When she arrived in Madina and was told that they had reached their destination, the Prophet exclaimed, “Ya Umm Ayman! Ya Ummi! Indeed, for you is a place in Paradise!” She, therefore, had two confirmations from the Prophet of her status in the next life.

Although she was not the wet nurse, Umm Ayman is reported to have been the first to hold baby Muhammad in her arms when he was born. She was the only person who knew the Prophet from his birth until his death. Her role in the life of the Prophet is unquestioned. It is said that Amina, the mother of Muhammad, asked Umm Ayman to look after her beloved son while she lay, on her death bed instructing her to “be a mother to him and don’t ever leave him.” Umm Ayman fulfilled her responsibility, living in the household of Muhammad’s grandfather Abdul Mutallib and caring for the young child. She stuck by him throughout all of the challenges he faced.

When the Prophet died, Umm Ayman cried profusely. Abu Bakr and ‘Umar visited her and asked her, “Has not our Prophet Muhammad gone to a better place?” She replied, “By Allah, I knew that the Messenger of Allah would die, but I cry now because the revelation from on high has come to an end for us.” 

Umm Ayman died when Uthman, may Allaah be pleased with them both, was the khalifa. 

Lessons from the Lives of the Wet Nurses

From the lives of these noble women, we learn that the traditional roles of Muslim women - motherhood, breastfeeding, and caring for children - all represent stations of honor in Islam. They can add to a woman’s ability to contribute to society and do not detract from her contributions in any way. We also learn that these women were both courageous and selfless, sacrificing their own interests to help establish Islam. And we also know that at least one of them, Umm Ayman, though a caretaker and not an actual wet nurse, was promised Jannah for her loyalty to the Prophet and the cause of Islam. Her life is a beautiful example of dedication and service. 

May all of these women’s lives serve as role models of stellar character for women of today.

Candice “Sister Islaah” Abd’al-Rahim reverted to Islam in 1976 and considers herself a student of knowledge. She has deep education credentials which include a M.A. in Teaching, Certificate of Advanced Studies (Post-Masters) in Administration and Supervision, B.S. in English, and experiences as a principal (in fact the first hijab public school principal in Maryland!), curriculum and staff developer, mentor, and classroom teacher of grades pre-K through 12. She is a former adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate School of Education and is a doctoral candidate in Islamic Sciences at the International Online University. Islaah’s contributions to the field have earned her honors in the Who’s Who of Distinguished JHU Alumni. She is wife, daughter, mother, and grandmother and is an active member of several Muslim communities in the Baltimore area

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