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Customs and Culture >
What kinds of roles did women play in early Islam?

Women played important roles in the early Muslim community and in the life of Muhammad. Historical and other evidence indicates that a woman (Muhammad's wife Khadija) was the first to learn of the Quranic revelation. Moreover, she owned her own business, hired Muhammad, and later proposed to him. This precedent led jurists to recommend that women could propose to men if they so desired. Women fought in battles and nursed the wounded during the time of the Prophet. They were consulted about who should succeed Muhammad after his death. Women also contributed to the collection and compilation of the Quran and played an important role in the transmission of numerous hadith (Prophetic traditions).

The fact that women prayed regularly along with men in the mosque is also evidence of their equality in public life during the early period of Islam. Women in the early Muslim community owned and sold property, engaged in commercial transactions, and were encouraged to seek and provide educational instruction. Many women were instructed in religious matters in Muhammad's own home. Muhammad's daughter Fatima, his only surviving child, played a prominent role in his community. She was the wife of Imam Ali and mother of Imams Hussein and Hassan, immaculate and sinless, the pattern for virtuous women and object of prayer and petition. Like her son Hussein she embodies a life of dedication, suffering, and compassion. Muhammad's wife Aisha also played a unique role in the community, as an acknowledged authority on history, medicine, poetry, and rhetoric, as well as one of the most important transmitters of hadith.

In political affairs, women independently pledged their oath of allegiance (bayah) to Muhammad, often without the knowledge or approval of male family members, and in many cases distinguished women converted to Islam before the men in their family. The second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, appointed women to serve as officials in the marketplace of Medina. The Hanbali school of law (see page 158, “What is Islamic law?”) supports the right of women to serve as judges. The Quran holds up the leadership of Bilqis, the queen of Sheba, as a positive example (27:23–44). Rather than focusing on gender, the Quranic account of this queen describes her ability to fulfill the requirements of her office, her purity of faith, her independent judgment, and her political skills, portraying a woman serving as an effective political leader.

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