Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Umm Salama

Before the spread of Islam, first-born baby girls were buried alive and women were abused and deprived of any deserved rights. When Islam began to spread, and after the Prophet and his followers were pushed from city to city, the men who took up the new religion were enthusiastic of the changes and adaptations made to their public and spiritual lives. They believed, however, that changes should be limited and resisted any progress made in the rights of women. They continued to insist on the private lifestyle that existed in pre-Islamic customs, the values of which the Prophet (P) and his God denounced and rejected. Islam was radical in the changes to these areas–women were allowed to vote, run businesses, teach, divorce their husbands, control their children, and not only keep their own money and property but own their husbands’ (while their husbands did not own their wives’.) Political and economic hierarchies could be overturned, but the men of the Quraysh did not want any changes in private life to reflect the newly reestablished rights of their wives or changes in relations between sexes. Not in their own homes.
‘Umar, future caliph, was one of these men. He became anxious when his own wife “defied” him. “We men of the Quraysh dominate our women,” he said, “When we arrived in Medina we saw that the Ansar let themselves be dominated by theirs. Then our women began to copy their habits!”
One day he and his wife had an argument, and instead of her accepting his screaming with a bowed head as was the pre-Islamic custom for women, she shouted back answers at him in the same severe tone of voice. When he interrogated her on her behavior she replied, “You reproach me for answering you! Well, by God, the wives of the Prophet answer him, and one of them left him until nightfall!”
Alarmed that these new Islamic values of the Ansari women were “ruining” Qurayshi women, and having lost the argument with his wife (if the model man was allowing this wives to stand as his equal, how could he–‘Umar–ask for any more than the Prophet of God?) he hurried to his daughter Hafsa, one of the wives of the Prophet. “Aren’t you afraid that God will be vexed because of the anger of the Messenger of God and strike you down? Don’t make demands of the Prophet. Don’t answer him back.”
He did not only go to his own daughter, but to each of the wives of the Prophet.
One of them was Umm Salama, and she was not having it. ‘Umar offended her in his words and attitude. How dare he come between her and her husband! She was infuriated. “Why are you interfering in the Prophet’s private life?” she snapped, “If he wanted to give us advice, he could do it himself. He is quite capable of doing it. If not the Prophet, then to whom are we supposed to address our requests? Do we meddle in what goes on between you and your wife?”
She said this in front of the rest of the women.
Having failed, ‘Umar finally went to the Prophet (P) himself and expressed his concerns. The women had too much power! They thought themselves as equals! They would not tolerate verbal or physical abuse! This was too much, how will the men handle it? HOW WILL THEY HANDLE FEELING SO INSECURE?
The Prophet only smiled.

8 thoughts on “Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Umm Salama

  1. I just found your blog via Feministe and have lost half the evening already to reading back over your posts. I love this story, as well as this whole series of posts. You're an awesome storyteller, and, well, it's wonderful to hear about so many badass women that, yep, I'd never heard of. Thanks for posting!


  2. Thank you! Lately I've felt as though I've been neglecting this series with everything that's come up to snatch my attention, but I'm so thrilled you enjoy it, and it's made me want to put more time into it. =)


  3. I read about the contributions of 'Umar to the development of sexism in the Islamic tradition for this first time this year. I was shocked because NO ONE EVER TALKS ABOUT THIS. I read about it in Women and Gender in Islam, by Leila Ahmed, which you should check out if you haven't already. Thanks for this series. Could you post your sources? I would love to know where to look to find more of this kind of information.


  4. Yes, I was thinking just today actually, about putting sources. I never bothered before because I started this blog for myself, but since I have readers now it might be useful for them if I start. =) This particular story is from Fatima Mernissi's book Women's Rebellion & Islamic Memory, which unfortunately I think is now out-of-print. I have read Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender–very intriguing. Thank you!


  5. Shugri

    I have always saw Umar as a great man. Never once have i heard any thing negative about him. I am not saying you made up your story but a little prove from primary source will make it little bit more palatable.


Leave a Reply to XeroNrG Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s