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Women of the Prophet's Household: Interpretation

Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

Women of the Prophet's Household: Interpretation

The women of the Prophet's household include women in three “categories” that are discussed below. These women to varying extents played roles in the Prophet's household and contributed to the development of Islamic thought and practice. These women continue to have enduring influence on Muslim women's and men's thoughts, lives, and activism and are described as role models for men and for women.

Prophet's Wives.

The Prophet's wives were Khadīja bint Khuwaylid, Sawdah bint Zamʾa, ʿĀʾishah bint Abu Bakr, Hafsah bint Umar, Zaynab bint Khuzaymah, Umm Salamah (Hind bint Abi Umayya), Zaynab bint Jahsh, Umm Habiba (Ramla bint Abi Sufyan), Juwayriyyah bint al-Harith, Safiyyah bint Huyayy, and Maymunah bint al-Harith. The Prophets wives are respected as Ummahāt al-Muʾminīn, or mothers of the believers, and, according to the Qurʾān, they were not allowed to remarry after the Prophet's death. Within this category, two women—Khadīja and ʿĀʾishah—are perhaps more significant and occupy a more visible place within both Islamic history and Muslim collective memory. Khadīja is recognized as the Prophet's first wife with whom he shared a monogamous relationship for fifteen years. Khadīja was a powerful and rich woman who is recognized as the first benefactor and patron of Islam. According to a ḥadīth narrated by Abdullah ibn Abbas, Khadīja,along with Assiya (the wife of Pharaoh and foster mother of Moses), Mary (the mother of Jesus), and Fāṭimah (the Prophet's daughter), are the best of women or, alternatively, the leaders of women in Paradise. ʿĀʾishah is significant for her scholarship and contributions to the recording and transmission of ḥadīth and Islamic history. ʿĀʾishah is criticized in some Shīʿī sources for her role in the Battle of the Camel (or the Battle of Jamal) in 656 AH during which she led forces against Ali (the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law and the then-reigning Caliph).

Prophet's Daughters.

The Prophet's daughters were Zaynab, Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum and Fāṭimah. Most Sunni sources and many Shīʿī sources agree that Muḥammad had four daughters all borne by his first wife Khadīja. Some Shīʿī dispute this and say that he only had one daughter, Fāṭimah, and that the other three were Khadīja's nieces. Fāṭimah is an extremely important figure both in Sunnī and Shīʿī Islam and is widely recognised as the person who will be holding the reins of Prophet's camel while leading it into Heaven. It is believed that, in practice, she will be the first woman to enter Heaven. As mentioned in the section about Khadīja, Fāṭimah is recognized as among the best of women.

Rayhana and Māriyah.

Rayhana bint Zayd and Māriyah bint Sha’mun also know as al-Qibtiyya, or the Copt, are included in this listing of women in the Prophet's household. The relationship to the Prophet of these two women is debated, with most sources indicating that they were slaves (Rayhana was enslaved after her tribe the Banū Qurayẓah was defeated, and Māriyah was given to Muḥammad by the patriarch of Alexandria). According to some sources, Muḥammad married these two women after they converted to Islam. Both these women were accorded much respect in early Muslim communities and are recognised as Ummahāt ul-Mu’minīn. Māriyah is a particularly important figure as she was the mother of the Prophet's son Ibrahim who died in infancy. Depending on whether or not these two women are included, Prophet Muḥammad is said to have married either 11 or 13 wives altogether, although not simultaneously.

Some Popular Interpretations.

There is a plethora of literature from religious and academic perspectives that investigate the lives of these women. Depending on the standpoint that the author takes, the lives of these women are handled in extremely different ways and the imagery created about them ranges from cutting-edge scholarship to quiet submissiveness. Some literature sources present the reader with commentaries on these women's lives which clarify the emancipatory effect of Islam on the lives of women through history, during the lifetime of the Prophet and beyond. These women often had public roles and were businesswomen, scholars, teachers, and warriors. Mohammad Akram Nadwi's (2007) work about the women scholars of Islam (also Bewley 1999, 2004) provides evidence of the position of public authority that these women, and, particularly Khadīja, ʿĀʾishah, and Fāṭimah, enjoyed in the Islamic societies that they lived in and also in contemporary Islamic society.

There are other literature sources which present more patriarchal renditions of the life stories of these same women. While such narratives have the same starting point, their interpretations of these women's lives portray different images. Their narratives are underpinned by notional suggestions about the sheltered nature of these women's lives. Such literature tends to “focus on the spiritual status of women” rather than their religious, literary, social, and moral achievements (Ansari et al. 2003; Bewley 1999). In such literature, it may be, for example, that the strict veiling practices of the Prophet's wives and daughters are presented as exemplars for Muslim women to emulate rather than Khadīja's business acumen, ʿĀʾishah's scholarly prowess, or Sawdah's expertise in manufacture and trade (she treated, tanned, and sold animal skins and is reputed to have made considerable profits out of these activities).

Feminist Interpretations.

It is such patriarchal stereotypes that Aisha Bewley (1999: 6) alludes to when she says that “it is time to re-examine the sources and re-assess how Muslim women in the past acted so that we can escape the limiting perspectives which have come to be the norm” for Muslim women. From a feminist perspective, an interrogation of patriarchal interpretations of these women's lives can lead to a reclamation of knowledge and scholarship that is by and for Muslim women. Khadīja, the first wife of Prophet Muḥammad (pbuh), is often described as a wife and as a mother, which are important attributes. However, the Muslim feminist's point of dissent with such narratives of Khadīja's life is that very little is mentioned of her independence, her career as a businesswoman, her role as a benefactor for early Muslim communities and also as a counselor to Prophet Muḥammad (pbuh) during the early days of prophethood when he lacked self-confidence and was unsure about himself (Contractor and Scott-Baumann 2011). Feminist scholars assert the importance of such holistic interpretations and their value in motivating young Muslim women.

Some ‘feminist’ interpretations about these women's lives may also be problematic. For example, it is sometimes claimed that because Khadīja achieved her successes (in business) before the advent of Islam in Arabia, she had more independence and autonomy, as compared to ʿĀʾishah who was born in the Islamic era (Ahmed 1992). Such arguments are weakened by their failure to recognize ʿĀʾishah's religious authority in early Islamic history (Bewley 1999, Ansari et al. 2003; Abdul Qadir 2006) as a narrator of ḥadīths and as one of the greatest living scholars of her time who autonomously issued fatwas or religious verdicts (Ansari et al. 2003). By failing to acknowledge ʿĀʾishah's reputation as an Islamic scholar, such views can be disempowering for all Muslim women (Contractor 2012).



  • Abdul Qadir, M. Leading Ladies: Who made a Difference in the Lives of Others. New Delhi: Adam Publishers & Distributors, 2006.
  • Ansari, S., A. Nadvi, and S. Nadvi. Women Companions of the Holy Prophet and Their Sacred Lives. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2003.
  • Bewley, A. Islam: The Empowering of Women. London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1999.
  • Bewley, A. Muslim Women—a Biographical Dictionary. London: Taha, 2004.
  • Contractor, S. Muslim Women in Britain: Demystifying the Muslimah. London: Routledge, 2012.
  • Contractor, S. and A. Scott-Baumann. “Encouraging Muslim women into higher education through partnerships and collaborative pathways.” York, Yorks HEA Islamic Studies Network, 2011. www.islamicstudiesnetwork.ac.uk/assets/documents/islamicstudies/ Final_report_August_2011_ASB_SC.doc.
  • Nadwi, M. Al-Muhaddithat: the Women Scholars in Islam. Oxford: Interface Publications, 2007.
  • Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qurʾān, Traditions and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
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