How the First Lady of Islam Set an Example for the Generations to Come
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 22 Jan 2018
22 Jan 2018 – The public perception of Muslim women is one of stubborn stereotypes: supposedly powerless and oppressed, behind walls and veils, demure, voiceless and silent figures, discriminated and bereft of even basic rights.
Contrary to this general belief, Muslim women have held the flag of enlightenment throughout history. The early Muslim community recognised and honoured a wide spectrum of female roles and responsibilities. A mother was considered the first school for her children. In Islam, a woman is seen as an individual in her own right, an independent entity, and not a shadow or adjunct to her husband or any other man. Islamic history abounds with women, both past and present, who have achieved and contributed significantly to intellectual and cultural life in the Islamic world. Early Muslim feminists are role models that every faith-literate Muslim holds dear. Their lives vouch for women’s freedom of agency and the unique social status they enjoy.
One such iconic and unique female figure was Khadijah bint al-Khuwaylid (565-623), the first wife of Prophet Muhammad, whom she met when she was the widow of a wealthy merchant and was herself a highly successful and respected businesswoman. She is one of the rare female figures canonized in Islamic history.
Khadijah was the daughter of Khuwaylid ibn Asad and Fatimah bint Za’idah, tracing her lineage to the clan of Banu Hashim of the tribe of Banu Asad. Khadjah was orphaned early but she was not the one who would allow circumstances to define her future identity. She inherited her father’s business at a time in history when the social and economic landscape was male-dominated. She decided to pursue her father’s tradition and stepped into his shoes with amazing ease and traded goods through the primary commerce centres at that time, from Mecca to Syria and to Yemen, hiring the most trustworthy men to handle the dangerous trade routes. She further solidified it and it soon straddled markets in several countries which gravitated to her business on account of its high quality. Excellence, for her was an attitude and habit, not an endgame.
Her business was larger than all of the Quraysh trades combined and the most acclaimed with a reputation of fair-dealing and high-quality goods. When all the Quraysh caravans gathered to begin their long journeys to Syria in the winter or Yemen in the summer, the caravan of Khadijah was equal in size to all of the other caravans combined. She had a keen eye and was highly intuitive, earning the monikers Ameerat-Quraysh (“Princess of Quraysh”) and al-Tahira (“The Pure One”). Khadijah knew what she was doing business-wise, never compromising her modesty or integrity to succeed in the male-dominated trades where she had to compete with businessmen of a huge diversity of hues and stripes. She hired only those that could meet these standards. She was passionate about her business and handled her team with unfailing care .her metrics for measuring efficiency of her people were both moral and financial.
Khadijah was basically a simple woman-but it was this simplicity of approach, tempered with a steely directness and disarming empathy and e a clear sense of identity and purpose, ,that enabled her to make a unique mark on the business of her day. It was a perfect marriage of these traits that created a thriving business that reaped rich moral and material dividends.
She was a paragon of compassion and altruism and, in keeping with Islamic tenets, she embodied philanthropy in her business. Being the most successful woman around, rich in worldly attainment as well as character, it seems Khadijah faced a consistent campaign of men seeking her hand in marriage. She was married twice before her wedlock to the Prophet; both of these marriages produced children and both left her widowed. Her keen sense of piety inclined her to prefer graceful widowhood over an emotionally draining wifehood.
Khadijah was undoubtedly a pious woman with a visionary and business acumen. More important, she was endowed with a rich seam of grit and tenacity. She trusted her robust instincts which never let her down.
The absence of primary male support following the death of her husband did not appear to weaken her resolve. Having been deprived of the protective umbrella of parents in her youth, she must have tapped the deeper emotional springs to the last dregs to nourish her soul and spirit. Islam is solidly rooted in traditions of mercantilism and private enterprise. Khadijah made sure that neither femalehood nor widowhood came in the way of her pursuit of an Islamic ideal. She did not sell off her business, nor did she compromise her feminine grace to continue it. She relied on her human relations skills to manage it through her small and diligent team whose members lived up to her trust.In fact knowledge, skills and understanding ripened and blossomed in widowhood a she handled work across genders with great panache. She embraced the vulnerabilities of widowhood as part of a process and managed to prove that it was no barrier to entering business. She combined commerce with compassion and social conscience with financial finesse. In keeping with Islamic Islamic tenets she embodied philanthropy in her business principles. In the process she has shown that a business, apart from being profit-oriented, can also be ethically –driven and socially –focused.
The Prophet’s uncle, under whose guardianship he was cared for after being orphaned, Abu Talib had several mouths to feed. When Abu Talib learned that Khadijah was preparing a business caravan for al-Sham, he recommended Muhammad to her, vouching for his nephew’s honesty. Khadijah recruited Muhammad without a wink .it seems she had an uncanny knack for spotting the right talent.
On his first trip in the employment of Khadijah, Muhammad was accompanied by Maysarah, her slave, who was also recommended to her by his uncle. Muhammad returned with a triumphant business success. It was also a spiritual experience for him as he got to meet several saintly figures. Maysarah recounted Khadijah the success of the business trip and how Muhammad’s’ bright mind and character was responsible for the success of the business trip. Khadijah was highly impressed and she developed a deep emotional bond with him.
There was more to Muhammad than his business acumen. Khadijah was so impressed by his humility, honesty and modesty that her respect for her employee was to turn into love. Despite her forty years of age and the indifference with which she rejected the offers of the noblest of Quraysh to marry her, she overrode convention and her own determination not to remarry a third time by proposing(through a trusted intermediary)to marry the 25 year old.
Reciprocating her magnanimous gesture, Muhammad too bucked social norms and graciously accepted the offer. Although their ages are corroborated by most sources, the fact that she bore him at least six children, may suggest that she was in fact younger. She continued her business dealings after marriage and is considered the archetypal female entrepreneur
When he received the first revelation in a cave, it was Khadijah to whom Muhammad stumbled down the mountain. Physically shaking and unable to comprehend his experience, he turned to Khadijah, who immediately recognised the significance of what had happened and encouraged him to let go of his fears. She was the first to understand the importance of the revelation and was the first to embrace Muhammad’s new faith. She consoled him and allayed his apprehensions Later it was she who sustained, strengthened, and supported him against his own doubt and bewilderment.
Khadijah played a central role in supporting and propagating the new faith and saw Muhammad through the roughest years of his becoming a prophet. She balanced everyday life with divine wonder as part of ordinary reality. She gave up everything in supporting the birth of this new religion. The mission got a powerful impetus due to her quiet but singular focus. Along with her husband, she faced persecution until her death but she demonstrated a steely determination and weathered the storms with dogged persistence and fortitude. She stood by him like a rock and was an emotional astringent during his prophethood, soaking in all his humiliations and frustrations.
It is difficult to speculate what Khadijah’s absence would have meant for the Prophet’s mission. His own acknowledgement gives us a hint. She used her emotional resilience and tenacity to telling effects during her companionship of Muhammad. The Prophet himself confessed: “She believed in me while the people disbelieved in me. And she trusted in me while the people belied me. And she helped and comforted me in person and in wealth when the people would not. Allah provided me with children by her, and He did not with others.”(Musnad Imam Ahmad 6:118)
At another place, the Prophet showers an effusive tribute: “God Almighty never granted me anyone better in this life than her. She accepted me when people rejected me; she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me, and God granted me children only through her.”(Sahih Muslim).
Islamic tradition praises Asiya, Mary, Khadija, and Fatima as the four women who provided monumental examples of excellence in faith. The Prophet said, “The best of the women of Paradise are Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, Fatimah bint Muhammad, Aasiyah bint Mazaahim the wife of Pharaoh, and Maryam bint ‘ Imraan – may Allaah be pleased with them.” (Narrated by Ahmad, 2663. Classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh al-Jami’, 1135)
He reiterated again elsewhere: “Sufficient for you among the women of the world are Maryam the daughter of ‘Imraan. Khadeejah bint Khuwaylid, Faatimah bint Muhammad and Aasiyah the wife of Pharaoh.” (Narrated and classed as saheeh by al-Tirmidhi, 3878)
The Prophet’s undying love for Khadijah, his refusal to marry any other woman until her death despite the conventions of the age, and her pivotal role in the early development of Islam are emblematic markers used by Muslim feminists to argue that Islam is woman-friendly and that, if Muhammad were here today, he would have been the strongest champion of women’s rights, with Khadijah as the most powerful symbol of it.
Women’s emancipation and empowerment has lately acquired a negative connotation conjures up an image of incensed women, enraged to the point of violence at everything male .We have reversed practically many gains that women had made towards being treated equally. In the backlash in conservative societies, many valiant women been consigned to the history books, but an essence of several of them has survived. Women must learn from history that a true feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men. Men must similarly acknowledge that it is a woman that that bears and births them. Moreover, all the scriptures promise the same spiritual rewards to men and women. To remind ourselves of the great Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi’s eloquent words in the Mathnawi, “This woman who is your beloved, is in fact a ray of His light. She is not a mere creature. She is like a creator”.
Khadijah was a trailblazing businesswoman and a philanthropist, whose life in public service was in pursuit of a fair and just world for all. Her most munificent act was in freeing slaves and investing her entire fortune in the mission of Islam. She serves as a shining beacon for modern women have demolished the myth of a dichotomy between Women and worldliness and morality and money. More than 1400 years back she created a new business template that embraced both social and financial bottomlines established the concept of gender equality and diversity in the business domain. She has shown the path to coming generations of how women can balance their spiritual and worldly lives to generate both moral and monetary capital.
She was foremost eradicator of gender stereotypes – indeed, of accepted norms altogether. As the first lady of Islam, she was a pioneer in several respects. Her zeal and unflagging courage propelled her to defy the constraints of patriarchy, gender and widowhood during the various phases of her turbulent life. Through her determination, her wisdom and her unshakable moral compass, she was a force for enormous good whose legacy remains as fresh as ever.
Centuries ago, a king, while travelling through his domain came across people living in dark caves. He was horrified at the gloom and ordered every family to be given lamps and oil to fuel them. Fifty years later, he visited the area again and found the caves in darkness. The lamps had been forgotten or were broken. The oil had run out. The king ordered more oil, new lamps. But when he returned to the area the following year the caves were dark once more. The king summoned his minister, a wise old man, and asked for an explanation. ‘Ah,’ said the minister, ‘You gave the lamps to the men. You should have given them to the women.’
The king followed his minister’s advice and the lamps have kept burning ever since!
Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Jan 2018.
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