Shortly after Umm Salamah’s migration to Medinah, her husband’s prayers would soon be realized as he received fatal wounds at the Battle of Uhud. Umm Salamah deeply mourned his death; her pain was exacerbated by the fact that she was a widow with four children and without a means of sustenance. Yet, she refused the first two proposals of marriage from Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. Finally, the Prophet himself proposed to her.
Even in this case, Umm Salamah did not embrace the idea. In her reply to the Prophet, Umm Salamah reasoned that her sense of jealousy would prevent her from being happy as the Prophet’s co-wife, and that she had children whose care was her first responsibility. Umm Salamah was persuaded to join the household of the Prophet when the Prophet said he would pray to God to remove her jealousy and that the care of her children would be the responsibility of God.
Like that of her migration, this story emphasizes the very human elements of her relationships with others in the early Muslim community. That neither she, nor her biographers, hesitated to describe her emotional frailties only makes her account more compelling. When reading her story, in spite of being separated by the chasm of fourteen centuries, we can easily sympathize with her suffering as a widow as well as her natural hesitance about joining the Prophet’s household as a co-wife. Umm Salamah occupied an honored place in Prophet Muhammad’s household. He clearly respected her and trusted her wisdom on various occasions. A telling testimonial to her influence with the Prophet is the story of her advice to him on the occasion of Hudaybiyyah. The Prophet and a group of Muslims had undertaken the ‘umrah in the sixth year after the hijrah. After a prolonged debate with the Quraysh of Makkah who would not allow them to enter the city and perform the pilgrimage, the Prophet contracted the treaty of Hudaybiyyah.
Through this treaty–which the Muslims deemed very unfavorable to them-the Quraysh and the Muslims negotiated terms for a tentative peace between themselves. Among the terms were that the Muslims would not perform their pilgrimage at that time, as they had intended, but could return next year. In honoring this pact, the Prophet ordered his group to sacrifice their animals at the site of Hudaybiyyah and to shave their heads before returning home.
Dejected, the Muslims resisted the Prophet’s commands. Umm Salamah advised Muhammad to proceed with the ritual, thereby showing his own resolve and bolstering that of his companions. The Prophet adopted her wise counsel and indeed, his companions soon followed suit. Even though he and his companions had been prevented from entering Makkah as they had fervently hoped, he persevered in his determination to observe the pact contracted with the Quraysh. Through her calm assessment of the situation, Umm Salamah was able to restore a measure of confidence to the Prophet.
Often, Umm Salamah is depicted in the hadith and historical sources as a woman who was keen to understand the position and role of women in the context of Islam. There are several variants of traditions that show her asking the Prophet about women’s status and the reward that women get for their actions. Perhaps the most famous of these instances is her question to Muhammad about why men are mentioned in the Qur’an, but not women. According to these hadith and some tafsir, this inquiry occasioned the revelation of the following verse regarding the equality of male and female believers before God.
“Lo! Men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who
persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah much and women who remember–Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” (Surah al Ahzab, Ayah 35)
Such accounts of Umm Salamah’s concerns are consistent in their portrayal of her as an assertive woman who was aware of the cultural, anti-woman biases prevailing in early Islamic Arabia. These hadith testify to her attempts to address or correct those tendencies in her society.
Our modern sensibilities–especially with respect to polygamy and monogamy–make it hard for us to imagine what it must have been like for Umm Salamah and other wives of Muhammad to co-exist in the most central of households in the early Muslim community. Needless to say, polygyny was a culturally accepted and widely practiced phenomenon in that time.
Nevertheless, early Muslim history records conflicts of interest and loyalties that arose among the Prophet’s wives. When we consider the collective hadith of the various wives of Muhammad and their biographies, it becomes clear that Umm Salamah was regarded as something of a foil to Aishah bint Abu Bakr, who has historically occupied the position of the favorite wife of the Prophet. Umm Salamah appears to have been the leader of one group of co-wives, and Aishah bint Abu Bakr represented the others.
More on her relationship with Aisha in the concluding Part 3