“I have sought worship in everything. I did not find anything more relieving to me than sitting with scholars and exchanging (knowledge) with them.”
The women of Islamic history have not only played a vital role in shaping the course of Islam, but of Muslim lives even up until today. By creating powerful spaces of women’s involvement in the growth and understanding of the religion, we as a community stand in debt to their inspiring legacy.
Ideals of sacrifice, love, faith, devotion, and intelligence are underlying themes in all of these women’s lives, and in the spirit of remembering those who helped changed the course of history, here are 10 examples of some of the most influential women from Islamic history:
1. Khadija bint al-Khuwaylid
Khadija bint al-Khuwaylid was the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and remains one of the most powerful and inspiring figures in Islamic history. Referred to as the “Mother of Believers”, she is often praised for almost single-handedly funding and support the Prophet and Islam in its early days.
A wealthy woman of her own right, she was a businesswoman and trader who managed her own commercial dealings across the region. Originally hiring the Prophet (before he was revealed the Quran), it was Khadija herself who reportedly proposed the idea of marriage to him. Taken aback by the adoration of such a powerful and inspiring woman, the Prophet accepted the proposal, loving her and never remarrying until after her death.
When she passed away in 620AD, the Prophet is said to have dug her grave himself. Constantly supporting the Prophet through some of the most challenging days of early Islam, Khadija remains one of the most powerful women of history.
2. Fatima bint Muhammad
The daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Khadija, Fatima was said to be of high intelligence and was taught by the Prophet himself on the reality and theology around Islam. Her faith and devotion to God remained remarkably strong – despite being witness to some of the most trying days of early Islam.
The Holy Prophet Muhammad and his daughter Fatima had a loving and close relationship – it was reported that every morning on his way to the mosque he would pass by Fatima’s house and call out “as-Salamu alaykum ya Ahla Bay annubuwwah wa ma din arr-risala (peace be with you, O Household of the Prophet and the Substance of the Message)”.
The Prophet is also reported to have said in regards to his beloved Fatima: “Whoever injures Fatima, he injures me; and whoever injures me injures Allah; and whoever injures Allah practices unbelief. O Fatima! If your wrath is incurred, it incurs the wrath of Allah; and if you are pleased, it makes Allah pleased too”.
Supporting her mother and father, Fatima went on to marry one of the Prophet’s most beloved companions, Ali ibn Abu Talib, and bore five children in total: Hassan and Hussain, Mohsin, Zainab, and Umm Kulthum. Despite living a short life, Fatima’s influence on the Muslim community remains one of the most powerful in the teachings of faith, devotion, modesty, and strength. She reportedly passed away in 632 AD, and as per her will was buried in an unmarked grave by her husband.
3. Zainab bint Ali
Zainab, the daughter of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali ibn Abu Talib, also remains one of the most powerful figures in Islamic history. Living through a period of tumultuous inter-fighting and the horrifying Battle of Karbala, Zainab continues to inspire millions in her courageous devotion to both her family and her faith.
After the death of her mother, Zainab along with her brothers Hassan and Hussain were forced to defend themselves and their family amidst the fighting that broke out after the Prophet’s death over leadership. After the murder of her father, Zainab also witnessed the horrifying battles between her brothers and the Umayyad rulers. During the Battle of Karbala, which saw her brother Hussain along with many other members of her family brutally murdered, Zainab was forced to march to Damascus in Syria under Yazid’s rule.
Giving her famous sermon in the court of Yazid, Zainab stood courageously tall against oppression and injustice, calling upon the tyrannical leader to fear God and await his punishment:
O Yazid! On the day when Allah will be the Judge and Muhammad will be the petitioner, and your limbs will give evidence against you, your father, who made you the ruler of the Muslims, will receive His punishment. On that day you will see that the best provision which your father made for you was that he enabled you to kill the children of the Prophet of Allah. I swear by Allah that I do not fear anyone except Him and do not complain to anyone else. You may employ your deceit and cunning efforts, but I swear by Allah that the shame and disgrace which you have earned by the treatment meted out to us cannot be eradicated.”
Forced into exile after witnessing the death of her beloved family members, Zainab remained steadfast in her religion and continued to help spread the pure faith and devotion that her grandfather, the Prophet Muhammad, taught as well. She continues to inspire millions of Muslims today to stand up against oppression and stand for injustice no matter what the costs may be.
4. Hafsa bint Umar
Hafsa bint Umar was one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, and has been accredited to around 60 hadith, or sayings and doings of the Prophet. Becoming a widow after her first husband Khunais ibn Hubhaifa died, Hafsa was offered in marriage to both Uthman and Abu Bakr, companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Both refused Hafsa’s hand in marriage, however, the Prophet stepped in and married her a little after a year of her becoming a widow.
After marrying the Prophet Muhammad, Hafsa memorized the entire Quran, which was at the time still only an oral text and was not written down. This incredible feat inspired many others, including women, to learn and memorize the Holy Quran as well. After the first written form of the Quran was produced, the text was given to Hafsa for safekeeping until Uthman standardized the copy of the Quran. It is arguably in part thanks to Hafsa that the Quran was so beautifully preserved.
5. Aisha bint Abu Bakr
One of the Prophet’s wives after the death of Khadija, Aisha has been accredited with narrating over 2,000 hadith, or the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims continue to this day to follow many of the hadith that Aisha herself narrated – on both the private life of the Prophet and his sunnah, as well as pertaining to other religious matters such as inheritance, pilgrimage, and more.
Aisha is also reported to have taught at multiple schools and was known by certain groups to have a wide breadth of knowledge. The daughter of Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s closest companions, Aisha was influenced heavily by her father’s role in the early days of Islam. Her controversial role in the Battle of Jamal, however, which saw her engaged in opposition against Ali ibn Abu Talib, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad and fourth Caliph, has remained a topic of contention on her role within the Muslim ummah. Aisha passed away in 678 AD, in Medina.
6. Sumayyah bint Khayyat
Known as the first martyr of Islam, Sumayyah bint Khayyat was one of the first who openly defied the Quraysh leaders of the time and was killed because of her devotion to God. Born a slave but freed later in life, Sumayyah married Yasir Ibn Amir and was one of the first families to convert to Islam.
Coming from a small family without any ties to powerful elites or tribal connections, Sumayyah and her family were seen as easy targets by the leading Quraysh tribes who were then persecuting the growing Muslim community. After being kidnapped and tortured, Sumayyah was given the chance to renounce her new faith in Islam and reject the Prophet Muhammad. Refusing to do so, Abu Jahal, a Meccan and Quraysh leader, murdered Sumayyah for her belief in Islam.
Sumayyah remains one of the most tragic and yet inspiring examples of the powerful women in Islamic history – despite the threat of torture and death, Sumayyah refused to back down in the face of tyranny and injustice. Although it cost Sumayyah her life, her legacy and devotion continue to touch the hearts and lives of Muslims today.
7. Nafisa Bint Al-Hassan
The great-great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, Nafisa bint Al-Hassan was renowned for her devotion and intelligence – even having a mosque named after her in Cairo. After spending much of her life in Egypt, Nafisa became one of the most sought-after scholars of her time – even teaching two of the most prominent scholars of the time, Abu Abdullah Mohammed Idris Al-Shafi’i and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. Al-Shafi’i and Ibn Hanbal’s teachings, in turn, lead to two of the main Sunni schools of thought – the Shafi’i school of thought and the Hanbali school of thought.
Memorizing the Quran and numerous hadith from an early age, Nafisa remained one of the most inspirational persons of her time in regards to Islamic jurisprudence and theology. She also reportedly fasted during the day and prayed most of the night, while also performing hajj almost 30 times throughout her lifetime.
As one of the most inspiring examples of women in Islamic scholarship, Nafisa is a powerful reminder of the importance and necessity of having women in Islamic education and the fields of jurisprudence.
8. Umm Al-Darda Al-Soghra
One of the most important and influential female scholars in Islamic history, Umm Al-Darda was reportedly a strong figure since her early childhood in the early 7th century. Refusing to conform to cultural gender norms, Umm Al-Darda is remembered for praying in the men’s rows at the mosques, as well as sitting amongst her male peers during Quran studies.
After becoming a jurist, Islamic scholar, and a teacher of hadith, Umm Al-Darda went on to lecture at the Damascus Mosque, teaching both men and women in the same room. One of her most famous students was none other than the Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik Bin Marwan, as well as the famous scholar and judge Hasan Al-Basri.
Umm Al-Darda also reportedly stated:
I have sought worship in everything. I did not find anything more relieving to me than sitting with scholars and exchanging (knowledge) with them.”
Even issuing her own fatwa allowing the practice of men and women praying shoulder to shoulder, Umm Al-Darda continues to be remembered as one of the most ground-breaking and influential female scholars of Islamic history.
9. Shuhdah al-Baghdadiyyah
Lovingly remembered as Fakhr an-Nisa, or “The Pride of Womankind”, as well as “The Writer of Baghdad”, Al-Baghdadiyyah remains one of the most celebrated female lectures as well as calligraphers during her lifetime in the 12th century. Born in Iran, Al-Baghdadiyyah was the daughter of the famous scholar Abu Nasr Al-Dinawari, who helped nurture in her an incredible sense of intelligence and ability to memorize hadith.
Giving lectures in mosques and universities in Baghdad, she is strongly remembered for her transmission and explanation of hadith, and was held in high regard throughout the region as one of the most sought-after scholars. Her incredible skills in calligraphy were also well renowned, with her style of writing taken up and imitated generations after her death.
Al-Baghdadiyyah remains an inspiring example of the power of what one woman can do with simply a pen, as her lectures, writing, and calligraphy continue to empower and touch the hearts of Muslims across the world.
10. Fatima al-Samarqandi
Born in the 12th century in what is now modern-day Uzbekistan, Al-Samarqandi was one of the most respected scholars and jurists of her time, even issuing her own fatwas. Mastering Hanafi jurisprudence as well as the theology and sciences behind hadith, her transmissions of the hadith of the Prophet Mohammed were one of the most trusted and reliable.
Travelling all the way to Syria, she taught both male and female students and even served as the personal counselor for the famous ruler Nur-al-din Zangi. Her lectures, advice, and fatwas remained incredibly influential not only in her own homeland but across the Muslim world as well.
Despite reportedly being pursued by numerous kings and princes for marriage, Al-Samarqandi eventually married one of her father’s students, Alaa Al-Kasani, one of the top Hanafi jurists of their time. According to historians, she played a huge role in Kasani’s work as well, with “his esteem for her so great that he would not sign the legal opinions he issued until Fatima signed them first”.
Al-Samarqandi remains a powerful example of the role of women in Islamic jurisprudence, scholarship, and hadith transmissions, despite the often male-centric view on Islamic scholarship.