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Women in Islam

Women Converts Then and Now

Islam is growing. Demographics in America and elsewhere in the world prove this fact. More women are embracing Islam from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. We've seen conversion stories that are dramatic, touching, and poignant. Women converting today are just as active, inspiring, and courageous as in the days of old...the days of the first ummah (brotherhood). There is a recurring theme in the stories of the earliest converts, both male and female alike, and the conversions we are seeing in today's life. As far as the question of women is concerned; Islam is very alive and well...and so is the courage to stand as a proud Muslim woman in the face of harsh criticism from loved ones and strangers alike. Women are the signposts of Islam and whether we like it or not, Islam is often judged by the perception people have of how these women are treated and how they behave. Muslim women stand out more than Muslim men by virtue of Islamic dress codes that covers the hair and obscures their bodies - a very strange notion for many non-Muslims to understand.

In spite of often hostile media perceptions, women converts to Islam have been able to separate the negative stereotyping and misunderstandings long enough to investigate the reality of this faith. They have in many cases gone contrary to their background and culture and are often misunderstood by family and friends alike. They are not rejects from their own society or 'brainwashed' by someone they met. Women are adopting and following Islam while their family and friends gasp at the changes they see taking place. Most conversions to Islam occur after one meets a Muslim, male or female, who had a quality that was admirable, which caused further investigation into Islam. Many women are meeting other Muslim sisters and an oft heard expression is, "she had a serenity and glow that I wanted for myself". Or a woman meets and maybe marries a Muslim man and, with or without encouragement, starts to explore this 'strange new religion'. Often, we see the woman bringing the Muslim man back to a stronger practice of Islam. When she starts asking questions, the Muslim man finds he may not know his own religion as well as he thinks.

Seeing Through the Fog

Today's women converts are by no means empty-headed, submissive, rejects of society who will blindly follow without questioning. Isn't Islamic history rife with stories of courageous women standing strong and firm for their beliefs? Is the failure to understand the reasons for many women's acceptance and strict adherence to Islam different from the reactions of the early converts' families and associates? This fear and rejection on the part of loved ones stems from a lack of understanding of the true message of Islam and the motivations of intelligent, thoughtful western women, young and old, for accepting Islam.

The acceptance of Islam by women has little to do with rejection of cultural traditions by disenfranchised malcontents, or family rebellion, or for pleasing a man. It does have to do with a sincere search for the truth motivated by a strong desire to serve God properly. It becomes clear to the thoughtful, truth seeking woman, that society, culture, and interpersonal relations between men and women is not the great deal we were all told it would be during the 'feminist' revolution. Sure, we've been given 'freedom' maintain ourselves financially, to raise our children alone, to invest in plastic surgery from top to bottom so we will be 'marketable', to conform to an impossible ideal of beauty that demands we be thin, fit, and forever young, to offer up our sexuality like a commodity, to live with men in uncommitted relationships, or to be looked at as odd if we refrain from unmarried sex. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa are common. At the same time we are expected to have brilliant careers, bring in a good income, and be good to our husbands, boyfriends, and children. Our 'liberation' has come with a high price tag and little value.

What Islam has to offer women instead is self-respect, dignity, protection, and equal partnership, fairness in financial matters, commitment from men in family matters, spiritual fulfillment and right guidance for living that leads to genuine and lasting happiness and satisfaction - devotion to Allah that guides and strengthens our interpersonal relations in work, home and society. This is not oppression, this is true freedom.

In Islam, women have been given their rights in every aspect of life with clear definitions of their role in society - as have men - with no injustices against either of them.

Islam gives honor and equality between people, not only in gender, but also in terms of race, nationality, class, education, etc. However, the overriding reason so many are attracted to Islam is because it answers the most important question: 'Why am I here on this earth?'

Women Converts in History ... Were They So Different?

Ramlah bint Abi Sufyan was the daughter of the powerful Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, a chieftain of Makkah who was used to being obeyed and followed. Ramlah, also known as Umm Habibah, however dared to challenge his authority when she rejected their gods. She and her husband, Ubaydullah ibn Jahsh, put their faith in Allah and accepted the message of His prophet, Muhammad (pbuh).

Her father tried with all his power and force to bring them back to his religion and the religion of their forefathers. He did not succeed. The faith in the heart of Ramlah was too strong to be denied. What arguments and unhappiness must have occurred within this family.

Her father was deeply worried by his daughter's acceptance of Islam. He did not know how to face the Quraysh after she had gone against his will. He was powerless to prevent her from following Muhammad (pbuh). When the Quraysh realized that Abu Sufyan himself was enraged by Ramlah and her husband, they began to treat them harshly. They persecuted them to such a degree that life in Makkah became unbearable. Slights, acts of meanness, harsh words, physical threats, ostrication, ridicule...all the ways many converts today experience persecution and prejudice.

In the fifth year of his mission, the Prophet (pbuh) gave permission to the Muslims' to migrate to Abyssinia in search of a place to practice Islam. Ramlah, her little daughter Habibah, and her husband left their homes and families for the sake of Allah.

Abu Sufyan and the other Quraysh leaders were beside themselves at the Muslims escape. They sent messengers to the Negus (the Abysinnian leader) to request extradition of the Muslims and have them sent back. But after examining the Muslims beliefs and listening to the Quran being recited, the Negus, being Christian, concluded: "What has been revealed to your Prophet Muhammad and what Jesus the son of Mary preached came from the same source."

WomanThe Negus himself announced his belief in the one true God and the Prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh). He also announced his determination to protect the Muslims in his land.

The long journey on the road of hardship and tribulation had finally led to an oasis of serenity. So Umm Habibah thought. She did not know that her new-found freedom and sense of peace were soon to be shattered. She was to be put through a test of the most severe and harrowing kind.

One night as Umm Habibah slept, she had a vision in which she saw her husband in the midst of a bottomless ocean covered by wave upon wave of darkness. He was in a most perilous situation. She woke up, frightened. But she did not wish to tell her husband or anyone else what she had seen.

The day after that ominous dream, her husband announced his rejection of Islam and his acceptance of Christianity. What a terrible blow! She did not expect this of her husband. Worse yet, he then gave her an ultimatum of divorce or accepting Christianity. Umm Habibah reviewed the three options before her. She could remain with her husband and become a Christian, she could return to her father's house in Makkah, or she could stay alone in the land of the Negus as a displaced fugitive, without country, family or a supporter. Option #1 was out of the question. She would never renounce her belief even under torture, so strong was her faith. Option #2 would mean being suppressed and subdued back in her fathers' house, and still unable to practice her faith. Option #2 was also not an option. She was not in an enviable situation, but she had courage and faith. She made the choice that she considered the most pleasing to God. She made up her mind to stay in Abyssinia until such time as God granted her relief. She divorced her husband who ended up living only a short while after becoming a Christian. Possibly because he began drinking wine frequently and this undoubtedly helped to destroy him.

Umm Habibah stayed in Abyssinia for almost ten years. How was her life? How much courage did it take for her to remain in a strange land alone? Although there were about eighty other Muslims in exile with her, she still must have at times wondered if she had chosen right. Was God pleased with her suffering and efforts? How strong her faith and devotion must have been to remain steadfast. Towards the end of this vigil, relief and happiness came from an unexpected quarter.

One morning there was a loud knocking on her door. It was Abrahah, the special maid-servant of the Negus. Abrahah was beaming with joy as she greeted Umm Habibah, "The Negus sends his greetings and says to you that Muhammad, the Messenger of God, wants you to marry him and that he has sent a letter in which he has appointed him to contract the marriage between you. If you agree, you are to appoint a wakil to act on your behalf."

Umm Habibah was in the clouds with happiness. She shouted to herself, "God has given you glad tidings. God has given you glad tidings." She surely must have been dancing around the room in her joy! She took off her jewelry, her necklace, bracelets, rings, and gave them to Abrahah. If she had possessed all the treasures of the world, she would have given them to Abrahah at that moment of sheer joy. Finally, she said; "I appoint Khalid ibn Said ibn al-Aas to act on my behalf."

In the palace of the Negus, set in beautiful gardens, the group of Muslim converts living in Abyssinia gathered in one of the lavishly decorated and sumptuously furnished halls. They included Jafar ibn Abi Talib, Khalid ibn Said, Abdullah ibn Hudhafah as-Sahmi and others. They had gathered to witness the marriage contract. When the marriage was finalized, the Negus said; "I praise God, the Holy, and I declare that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His Servant and His Messenger and that He gave the good tidings to Jesus the son of Mary."

"The Messenger of God, peace be on him, has requested me to conclude the marriage contract between him and Umm Habibah, daughter of Abu Sufyan." He handed over the mahr to Khalid ibn Said who said, "I have agreed to do what the Prophet, peace be upon him, has requested and acted on behalf of Umm Habibah. May God bless His Messenger and his wife. Congratulations to Umm Habibah on account of the goodness which God has ordained for her." Khalid took the mahr and handed it to Umm Habibah.

There was great rejoicing as the guests sat down to eat and celebrate the joyous occasion. This must have been a tremendous moment in her life. Umm Habibah could hardly believe her good fortune. Later she said: "When I received the money as mahr, I sent fifty mithqals of gold to Abrahah, 'I gave you my jewelry when you gave me the good news because I did not have any money.' "Shortly afterwards, Abrahah returned the gold and the necklace that Umm Habibah had given to her saying "The King instructed me not to take anything from you and commanded the women in his household to present you with gifts of perfume.'

"On the following day, Abrahah brought ambergris, safron and aloes and said; 'I have a favor to ask. "What is it?" I have accepted Islam," she said, 'and I follow the religion of Muhammad. Convey to him my salutation and let him know that I believe in Allah and His Prophet. Please don't forget." Abrahah then joyfully helped a very happy Umm Habibah prepare for her journey to the Prophet.

"When I met the Prophet (pbuh) I told him all about the arrangements for the marriage and about Abrahah. I told him she had become Muslim and sent her greetings of peace. He was filled with joy and said: 'Wa alayha as-salam wa rahmatullahi was barakatuhu and on her be peace and the mercy and blessings of God.'"

The story of Umm Habibah tells us of courage, difficult choices, alienation from family, loneliness, loss of a husband, solitude, and ten years of patiently waiting for Allah to change her plight. Was it a test of her devotion and tenacity? Are not the trials of many modern day converts similar? Are we not sometimes rejected by our non-Muslim families, friends, co-workers, and even strangers? De we not have to be strong in our tenacity and faith? When we hold our heads high, sisters, and declare our faith by virtue of our Muslim appearance, are we not shouting to the world around us of our belief in Allah and His Messenger, the Prophet Mohammed? Inshallah, with faith, courage, and determination we too will be counted among the rows of the faithful on the final day.


The Islamic Bulletin
P.O. Box 410186, San Francisco, CA 94141-0186

January 1999
Ramadan 1419
Note from the Editor
Letters to the Editor
Islam in China
Ramadan is Here
1178 C.E. - Muslims Explore America?
Women in Islam - Then & Now
Supplications for Muslims
Wisdom of the Prophet
10 Principles of Success
How I Embraced Islam
Qur'an & Science
Stories of the Sahabah
Cook's Corner
Funny, Isn't It?
Dawa with Taste
Silver Linings From
a Muhajjibah
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