Umm Salamah Hind bint Abi Umayyah
A Champion for Women’s Rights in the Early Muslim Community
by Asma Saeed
"Indeed her entire adult life, from her acceptance of Islam until her death, is a compelling example of resistance, strength in the face of personal trials, and devotion to understanding Islam. "
Umm Salamah, fifth wife of the Prophet, peace be on him, was an intriguing woman about whom we know so little. Aishah bint Abu Bakr has largely overshadowed her in historical records, but as evidenced by the following hadith, Umm Salamah was a notable figure and an assertive speaker.
Abd Allah bin Rafi’, said that Umm Salamah, said to him, “I used to hear people making a mention of the cistern, but I did not hear about it from Allah’s Messenger. One day while a servant girl was combing my hair, I heard Allah’s Messenger say, ‘Oh people!’ (Ayyuh an nas) I said to the servant girl, ‘ Move away from me [so that I can listen to what the Prophet is saying.’ The servant girl said, ‘He [the Prophet] has addressed the men only, and he has not invited the attention of the women.’ I said, ‘I too am amongst the people [and am therefore entitled to listen’]” (Sahih Muslim Kitab al Fada’il).
While the main purpose of the hadith itself is to describe the “cistern,” this tradition, and many others like it, clearly conveys one of Umm Salamah’s defining characteristics. Umm Salamah’s eagerness to hear the words of the Prophet tells a story in and of itself. Her dialogue with her servant girl resonates with our modern day concerns of affirming the very humanity of women in the Muslim social context and of asserting the right of women to learn about their religion. In the hadith above, Umm Salamah points out to that she, as a woman, is also to be counted as a person and has a right–even an obligation–to listen to the words of the Prophet. She resists the ignorance and ingrained cultural attitudes of her servant. Indeed her entire adult life, from her acceptance of Islam until her death, is a compelling example of resistance, strength in the face of personal trials, and devotion to understanding Islam. As such, her life story offers a timeless example for Muslim women of all ages. Equally important, learning about the historical context of Umm Salamah’s life and her interactions with the men and women of that period can help us explore gender relations in the life of the early Muslim community.
Umm Salamah, whose proper name was Hind bint Abi Umayyah, belonged to the influential Qurayshi clan of Makhzum. Her first husband was from the same clan as she and named ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Abd al Asad, also known as Abu Salamah. The two embraced Islam together and were among the earliest converts to the new religion. Conversion in Mecca in the pre-hijrah years was hardly easy. Umm Salamah and her husband, like many other Muslims, faced isolation and persecution from family members and others who were fearful of the growing strength of Islam. Yet they both remained steadfast in their faith.
When the Prophet decided that a group of Muslims would undertake migration to Abyssinia, which held the promise of a more hospitable territory for the fledging community, Umm Salamah and her husband joined this group. Thus, she became a female representative for Islam among the Abyssinians. While there, Umm Salamah gave birth to her daughter Zaynab, who would later be recognized as one of the most knowledgeable women of the early Muslim community. She also had three other children from her marriage to Abu Salamah: Salamah, ‘Umar and Durrah.
After some time in Abyssinia, Umm Salamah and her husband returned to Makkah along with some other emigrants with the hope that conditions had improved for Muslims in their home city. However, they were disappointed to find that Muslim persecutions at the hands of pagan Arabs had only increased with the growing numbers of conversions. As a result, Umm Salamah and Abu Salamah decided to undertake an arduous migration to Medinah. Their hopes of finding safe haven were quickly thwarted by family members: those from Umm Salamah’s clan refused to let her husband take her to Medinah, and those from her husband’s clan wrested their son Salamah away from her as they felt that they had proprietary rights over him.
Abu Salamah, separated from his wife and son, was forced to make the journey to Medinah alone. An entire year passed, during which Umm Salamah endured isolation in her clan’s quarters. Eventually, her clan and that of her husband’s were persuaded to allow her to leave. Fearing an unexpected change of heart on their parts, Umm Salamah quickly prepared her camel and began the arduous and dangerous journey to Medinah alone with her young son. A few miles outside of Makkah, Uthman bin Talhah, who was not yet a Muslim, took them under his protection and kindly escorted the pair to their destination.This particular story of Umm Salamah’s is widely cited in her biographies and in early Muslim histories. It reveals the sacrifices she, as well as other Muslims, undertook to preserve their faith and their strength in the face of hardship. Umm Salamah’s account is rendered even more poignant, however, by the deep love and commitment that she and her husband shared for each other. Muslim biographers often include an anecdote that Umm Salamah was so deeply in love with her husband that she swore never to marry after him if he died before her. He forced her to recant this oath however, and prayed that God would grant her a husband better than he. . .