Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Female Warriors

Muslim women participated fully in war during the early periods of Islam while the Prophet was alive. Some of them healed the wounded, some devised strategies, others were warriors, and others–still–recited war poetry to inspire the troops, (their weapons were words!) and a vast majority attended to all of the above. These stories are hardly unique, but of course, they have been kept hidden from us by jealous men who have lost all sense of their own modesty as they police ours, and as they and steal the rightful power given to us by God.

One such woman was Umm ‘Umara, whom our Prophet observed was a better fighter than any man. Her courage and mastery with weapons easily surpassed that of any of the male warriors. She continued to fight in battles throughout her life and even after the Prophet’s death, until she lost her hand. (Battle of ‘Uqraba) Another was Umm Hakim, who at the Battle of Marj al-Saffar single-handedly dispatched seven Byzantine soldiers. Seven. On her own. As well entire battalions of warriors on the other side.

In praising the brave women who fought beside the Prophet in wars, let us not forget the cunning strategists by whose plans some of these battles were won.

Azdah bint al-Harith bin Kaldah, who saw that they had been left defenseless as the troops awaited the enemy by the river, turned to the women at the base and said, “Our men are busy in combat with the enemy and I do not feel secure that the enemy might not turn back upon us, and we do not have anyone here to prevent them. And I also fear that the enemy may be too many for the Muslims and that they may defeat us.”

So instead of waiting with the possibility of attack and devastation suspended in the air, she devised a scheme. With the headscarves that the women used, together they created a banner, and with Azdah in the lead, the women charged toward the approaching enemy calling out war poetry.

Mistaking the women for reinforcement troops (it is unknown whether these women actually carried weapons) because of the banner over them, the enemy quickly retreated in the middle of the battle, and were promptly pursued. This particular ground was won.

After the Prophet’s death, with the various wars over political power that followed, men returned to their earlier lifestyles of atrocious patriarchal practices, abandoning the respectful ethics that Islam had instilled in them. How is it, that with so many women contributing to society and arguing viciously with leaders and writing law and fighting beside men in wars, that we have now come to this–silence, seclusion, and violations of our rightful freedoms? Once our beloved Prophet passed, men strayed almost immediately from Islamic lifestyles as they consumed themselves in patriarchy, especially with warfare, and opposed ji’had for women despite the precedent set by the Prophet. To discourage women from becoming warriors, men began to expose them in battle, ripping off their clothing and throwing them to the ground before killing them. We see repulsively sinful violations of Islamic war ethics today, even with comparatively smaller factors such as timeliness, as Muslims are not allowed to wage war four months out of twelve in the Islamic calendar with the obvious exception of urgent self-defense. And even before then, long before then, men began to “collect” women and describe them as objects to be “sampled” very shortly after the death of the Prophet.

As easy as it is to become discouraged, we need only to look at our own history for inspiration and assurance (or as much of it as we can find what with men erasing and rewriting it) for our revivalism. Our Prophet was a feminist, as were the women who came before us, and feminism is ji’had–our struggle–against corrupted, sexist men and their patriarchal projections on religious texts supposedly in the name of God. This is our personal struggle, and our struggle as a community, to retrieve with argument and education the egalitarian ways in which we were meant to live and the rights we deserve as Muslim women by the word of the Qur’an. And to ensure that our daughters are given the same freedoms as our sons, and that we can live peacefully both within ourselves and in beautiful coexistence with other faiths, and atheists.

Books! Read books!

42 thoughts on “Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Female Warriors

  1. I love it when you write about these powerful women in history, especially since "traditionalists" claim to cite examples from tradition. It's like saying, "Here is your tradition. What now?"

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  2. I love these stories of badass Muslim women, because it reminds me of when I was little and my dad would prove to me that women could do anything men could do by citing the great female Celtic/Irish warriors like Maeve and Boudicea. Although even Maeve didn't do anything as badass as Azdah (is that the right way to shorten her name?).

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  3. Yeah, we usually just go by first names when referring back to them. This whole concept of last names is rather Western–my own mother's culture doesn't have last names. She had a first name and a "second" name until she came here. And when writing history I've found the books usually drop the last name of both male and female Arab historical figures. When addressing someone you would respectfully use their full names, but by our standards that gets to be really long. xD

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  4. yup, what Nahida said. and if you just used her last name to shorten, it would read like you were talking about her family, not her, given the cultural interpretation of the time. so we have to use first names, even if it seems disrespectful to us =/

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  5. Imagine charging at the enemy with nothing but love and fear! Only a banner, fabric. Not being able to see and not knowing what could happen. What risk and courage! Who would have the guts to DO that?

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  6. Hey Nahida, Long term lurker, first time poster.First of all: thank you, thank you, thank YOU. I love it when you write about these magnificently amazing and powerful women in Islam. It makes me pretty ashamed that I haven't heard about many of them beforehand. I wish I grow up to be as savvy and as intelligent as you :-D (I'm 27 by the way, lol). Could you recommend any books/ writing on this subject?On another note; although I find these posts so inspiring and uplifting they also make me violently angry that this history; my history is consistently and deliberately hidden or destroyed by men as a way of shaping me into their image. It make me want punch each and every male face who dear tries to comment that I should not be seen; or that I should cover my hair or that women are less intelligent, strong or rational than men. I swear, if they say one more word I will kick them in the gonads with my platform feet… It's just like the destruction of my African history through white imperialism *shakes fist angrily*. Can a Nigerian Muslim chick catch a break???? Okay back from rant, lol.Anyway… Once again, love, love, love your blog and this series. May Allah continue to bless with more knowledge and passion and reward your efforts. Look forwarding to reading more from you.Ramadam Kareem

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    1. Jinia

      These men need to be reminded how they have been ignoring women’s rights in Islam.The men are actually practising discrimination found in Christianity,which is fact renders their women down to a weak dependent wallflower.

      It’s good for men also,to have strong courageous women about,since bith sexes shall benefit and Allah’s Will for humankind shall be implimented and all will benefit.

      The men must learn it benefits them to let women use their full individual potential as it does women.ah! men you have to repeat it so many times to them since they have been brainwashed by years of nonsense.;)

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      1. jehannes

        Well from my point of view (the enemy) our woman have the same rights as our men but.. sometimes the woman don’t want to share the same burdens that the males have :)

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  7. Hi Keji! Grow up to be? I'm 20. =) Thank you for the encouraging words. My sources have lately been long, dry peer-reviewed articles from journals but I do have a few books to recommend and more that I plan to read. I just ordered Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past but it hasn't arrived, so we'll see. Fatima Mernissi has written books on the subject, and I've also found Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate useful. It's helpful to get bits and pieces from various books to reinforce what we learn because this history isn't well-known at all and some of these things seem unbelievable. I always want details that I can never find because of all the deliberate erasure.Thank you so much for commenting! I love meeting people who lurk.Ramadan Kareem to you too, and may God guide you in finding knowledge and passion as well, and reward you accordingly.

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  8. Hi again, Thanks for replying. Will be picking up those texts you recommended from Amazon ASAP.You're just 20??? Okay you have literally made me depressed, lol. You have an absolutely brilliant mind and are wise beyond your years. I DO want to be just like you when I grow up, lol. We need to clone you many times over and then send your clones out to battle every misogynistic, patriarchy upholding Muslim dude who tries to pull the wool over the eyes of our sisters or who tries to hide/ delete our history. You know like in Resident Evil: Afterlife with the Alice clones. But with less violence. Or leather, lol.Failing that I will enthusiastically point them towards your blog :-DUntil your next piece of inspired brilliance. Take care.KejiProud lurker. Even Prouder commentator.

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  9. @Keji I know right??? I'm 26. I would have sworn she was about a decade older than us when I started reading.Why are the Nahida clones the only ones who get to do battle? ._. What armies am I punching?

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  10. Excellent Article and needless to say you make a very valid point.I have read some books on Nizam history in India, where they talk about the queens being important contributors to the strategy of the kings against the British rule. Nizam ruled Hyderabad was the only region in India to have never been under British rule and history credits the novel approach of the women of the period.Thank you for the brilliant post again.

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  11. @ Flint. LOL. Any female who reads this blog; I will gladly clone and send them to do battle :-D. An army of amazing intelligent and passionate women combating the, (as my mum calls it) "light of head" would be awesome!!! Kinda like Azdah bint al-Harith bin Kaldah and her troop of fearless warrior women :-D.

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  12. Zahra

    The Jihad done by the female relatives of Our Beloved Prophet (saw) and that too with just words is most admirable. The ‘khutbas’ given by Lady Zainab in the palace of Yazid after the event of Karbala are absolutely Amazing and Inspirational for the Women of today. One strong woman is able to stand against a whole System!!!

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    1. For this post I primarily used Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam if I remember correctly. But you can find these pretty much anywhere–I know Fatima Mernissi has mentioned some of the stories in her books as well.

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  13. Omar

    Is this a joke? Your making the claim that Muslim scholars have hidden these stories from our sisters? ive hear the story of nusabay many times during Jumah and other occasions. Also I have heard about Saffiyah(r) how she cut off the head of a Jew who tried to attack the Muslim women. Just because you have been living in a hole and not practicing ISLAM as a Normal Muslim would doesnt mean you attack scholars and MUSLIMS for trying to cover up what Muslim Women have done. Also dont forget who wrote and transmitted these stories you are writting about….It was MEN

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    1. jehannes

      How do u know they were men ? cause if I think about it maybe they were woman and men but they wouldn’t let a female name be written on scroll’s.

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  14. Pingback: Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Kahula bint Azwar | the fatal feminist

  15. Victory

    Today is the first time I came across your writing and was happy that you have knowledge and zeal to share it but I was very disappointed to see the language you used on July 28th. As a person who knows what Islam is, your language was not befitting. Hope you take my comment in the spirit with which I am writing it…..care and concern for a fellow muslim. Jazak Allah

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  16. love it!!! I have been looking for the names of the women who fought in war! Real inspiration no doubt! Subhan Allah. So many men have lost sight and have transgressed. People sometimes forget what feminism truly means. It is not “I hate men” nor is it “I am like a man” but it is “I am human and i deserve rights and respect too.” Jazak Allah Khair for the post!

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  17. Saba

    I loved your article, it is very inspiring. I had no idea such strong, determined muslim women existed in Islamic history. Thank you for such an inspirational, thought provoking and engrossing read.

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  18. Mozum Khan

    Sister, there is no room for feminism in Islam, as in Islam, men and women are both equal spiritually. Divisions, sexism and other ‘isms’ are human inventions . A man who considers himself to be a true Muslim would never go against the word of the Quran, therefore, anyone who claims a woman as property is in great error and is not practicing Islam. Hence, I would say that your article in a sense insinuates that Islam deteriorated after the death of the beloved prophet. Whereas, in reality, Islam is still perfect and has no faults. And if there are faults, then it is in the human nature, culture or society as is evident all around the globe and not just in the Prophets ummah.

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    1. You had best think twice (or, in your case, a million times over) before you crawl into the space I’ve created and lecture me about whether Islam has room for feminism (i.e. room for ME), “Brother.” No room for feminism in Islam? Because “men and women are both equal spiritually”? And what did you just describe with that definition–feminism, or Islam? You’re lying if you claim you can tell the difference. I suppose you would also say there is no need for the concept of charity in Islam, because poverty is a human invention and Islam is perfect? Or that there is no need for the concept of jihad in Islam, because struggles and oppressions are human inventions and Islam is perfect? Feminism is a means just as justified in the religious practice of Islam as the five pillars. It is a form of jihad. It is a paradigm of the philosophical declaration of Divine Love. It is INEXTRICABLE from Islam.

      Your views are so simplistic to a fault that I don’t even have the time to expend on them. Good day to you.

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  19. “You had best think twice (or, in your case, a million times over) before you crawl into the space I’ve created and lecture me about whether Islam has room for feminism (i.e. room for ME), “Brother.” No room for feminism in Islam? Because “men and women are both equal spiritually”? And what did you just describe with that definition–feminism, or Islam? You’re lying if you claim you can tell the difference. I suppose you would also say there is no need for the concept of charity in Islam, because poverty is a human invention and Islam is perfect? Or that there is no need for the concept of jihad in Islam, because struggles and oppressions are human inventions and Islam is perfect? Feminism is a means just as justified in the religious practice of Islam as the five pillars. It is a form of jihad. It is a paradigm of the philosophical declaration of Divine Love. It is INEXTRICABLE from Islam.

    Your views are so simplistic to a fault that I don’t even have the time to expend on them. Good day to you.”
    ———————————-
    WOw!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Damn!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I love this!

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  20. Pingback: Female Warriors from the Middle East Who Are Challenging Western Stereotypes

  21. Well, there are some scholars who are sexist, and I know many who aren’t. There is no need for feminism, as our rights are already on the Quran and hadiths. If you look at the history, ORIGINALLY women did not had any rights, but they fought for it. However, Islam already gave us rights without us having to fight for it. We just need some stupid men to finally realize that what he’s doing in oppression, not practices of Islam. And as a Muslimah, some of your vocabulary is not befitting. Not all men are the way you described. Some I know are very religious, and know about the importance of women in Islam.

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