Embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.

Embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.

Allah Has Heard the Arguing Woman

“My Companions are like the stars; follow whichever you like and you will be rightly guided.”
–the Prophet Muhammad

Wherever there is a discrepancy in power, there exists the possibility of abuse. As Muslims, we believe this is true of every relationship between willful beings, except the relationship between God and His creation. He is Just, at the level of the absolute, and His Justice will absolutely be realized, if not on this worldly plane, then on that of the Next.

It is due to the truth of His Absolute Justice that man must be careful in his relationships. Yes, power discrepancies lend themselves to abuse, but they also allow for the actualization of the highest of human potential. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says in the chapter on Women (al-Nisa’):

إِنَّ اللّهَ يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَن تُؤدُّواْ الأَمَانَاتِ إِلَى أَهْلِهَا وَإِذَا حَكَمْتُم بَيْنَ النَّاسِ أَن تَحْكُمُواْ بِالْعَدْلِ إِنَّ اللّهَ نِعِمَّا يَعِظُكُم بِهِ إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ سَمِيعًا بَصِيرًا

BEHOLD, God bids you to deliver all that you have been entrusted with unto those who are entitled thereto, and whenever you judge between people, to judge with justice. Verily, most excellent is what God exhorts you to do: verily, God is all-hearing, all-seeing! – 4:58

In every relationship a human being has–whether with his parents, spouse, children, neighbors, teachers, even (and especially) with God Himself–there are “entrustments” (amanat), rights or duties, he must fulfill in order to do justice. Allah ta‘ala assures us that to act justly is a “most excellent” thing to do. But He also warns us with a subtlety that is not lost on the conscious heart: if you choose not to act with justice, and you instead violate the rights you owe others, then know that God sees and hears, and His perfect justice will eventually bring you to task.

In our current age, there is a particular emphasis placed on rights violations that occur between men and women, specifically the rights of women that men violate. It is a great and highly commendable act to help rectify these abuses, but this must be done while keeping in mind the big picture of human relationships and human existence. We are not disparate individuals, making random connections with each other as we float through life. Instead, we are connected to each other laterally through broad networks of family and social relationships, and God commands us to honor our place within these networks by fulfilling the amanat to those to whom they are due. If we decide to shirk our responsibilities, and oppress those who have a right over us, it is to Allah Himself that we must answer.

Unfortunately, this latter and most vital connection, between men, women and God, is the one most ignored in present-day discussions on the rights human beings owe to each other. We must not forget that it is our connection to Allah, and our submission to Him, that helps us most wholesomely realize our highest potential, within all of our various relationships. It is this connection, or sila, that we at the Sila Initiative hope to emphasize over and above all else in our research and educational efforts.

The following account1 provides a compelling model for how to place Allah Most High at the center of our attempts to find answers to the most difficult questions, and to find relief in the most challenging of situations. It is based on the tafsir (exegetical) literature surrounding the first four verses of Surah al-Mujadilah (“the Arguing Woman”2).  

Khawlah bint Tha‘labah was an Ansari woman, from the Medinan tribe of Khazraj. She was married to Aws b. Samit, the brother of the famous Companion ‘Ubadah. Unfortunately, Aws was known for having an ill nature, especially as he had gotten older. He was a poor man, weak-sighted, and quick-tempered, some say even slightly mad3.

One day, Khawlah was engaged in prayer. As she bent down to make prostration, her husband noticed her shapely figure. As soon as she ended her prayer with the salam, he asked her to be intimate with him. She refused, and he went into a rage, instantly pronouncing on her words of zihar: “You are to me like the back of my mother!”

Zihar was a form of divorce used in pre-Islamic Arabia. Men could use certain verbal expressions in which they compared their wives to their mothers, as a way to say, you are now unlawful for me (sexually) just as my mother is. This would result in immediate divorce, and that too of a particularly harsh kind, since the woman would remain stuck in marital limbo. She would not be able to stay married to the husband who pronounced zihar, nor could she marry anyone else.

However, Aws b. Samit had not really intended to permanently divorce his wife. At this point there are different accounts of what happened next. In one narration, he again tries to be intimate with her, but she pushes him off firmly, exclaiming, “By the One in Whose Hand is the soul of Khuwayla4, I will not come to you after you’ve said what you’ve said until God and His Messenger decide our case!” In another account, Khawlah does not initially comprehend the ramifications of Aws’ statement. It is he who immediately feels regret, saying “I think you are now forbidden to me,” at which point she becomes distraught. In this version, it is Aws who sends her to the Prophet to find out what can be done.

Khawlah went out and asked some of her female neighbors to let her borrow an overgarment to wear in front of the Messenger of Allah5 . She then rushed to the house of ‘Aisha, where she found him. Her level of distress was obvious. “Verily, Aws married me when I was young and he desired me. Now that I have aged, and worn out my body (by bearing children for him), he has made me like his mother!” She begged the Prophet for a solution, hoping he could find a way to have the ruling changed.

But the Prophet could only reply, “I have nothing (with which I can help you) in your matter. He is forbidden to you.” He was cognizant of her pain, but even more conscious of the fact that he, just like she, was a slave of Allah and was required to await His command. Until and unless he was told to do otherwise by divine command, the Prophet generally upheld the custom of the pre-Islamic Arabs. Zihar was one such custom. The zihar of Aws was the first instance to happen among the Muslims, and since the Prophet had received no revelation regarding this practice, he treated it as divorce in the same way that the Arabs had always done.

But Khawlah did not let go of the matter. She presented him with argument after argument, hoping to convince him to find a way out of her predicament. Each time the Prophet answered in the negative, unable to help her, she’d present her case again. “He did not pronounce the word ‘talaq’ (divorce),” she said. “He is the father of my child, and the most beloved person to me.” “He’s made me like his mother, and left me to no one [i.e. with no one to care for me]. Can’t you find a legal permission (rukhsa) by which he and I may be relieved?”

The Prophet continued to repeat, “You are forbidden to him,” and her reasoned arguments increased. “O Messenger of Allah! The customs of the Days of Ignorance have been abrogated [by the coming of Islam], so what about the zihar my husband has given me?” Here the Prophet replied, “I have not been given any revelation regarding this,” to which she said in desperate exasperation, “You are sent revelation on everything, but this matter has been kept hidden from you?” “It is as I’ve stated,” said the Prophet .

She had tried every logical argument she could think of, but nothing had worked. Finally realizing her complete helplessness and lack of resources, she turned to her Lord. Raising her hands toward the sky, Khawlah began6:

“O Allah, it is to You I complain of the severity of my isolation and my grief at this separation!”

“I complain to Allah Most High of my indigence and my terrible state. I have small children. If I give them in custody to him, they’ll be lost, but if I give them in custody to myself, they’ll go hungry!”

“O Allah! I complain to You!”

“O Allah, send down [Your revelation] on the tongue of your Prophet (nabi)!”

Her desperate prayers had scarcely ceased that the revelation came down. ‘Aisha, the wife of the Prophet , recognizing what was happening, instructed Khawlah, “Stand back!” “Stay silent!” as he received the Word of God. After some moments, the Prophet , said, “O Khawlah, rejoice!” She asked in trepidation, “Is it good?” Upon which the Messenger of God began reciting the following verses:

قَدْ سَمِعَ اللَّهُ قَوْلَ الَّتِي تُجَادِلُكَ فِي زَوْجِهَا وَتَشْتَكِي إِلَى اللَّهِ وَاللَّهُ يَسْمَعُ تَحَاوُرَكُمَا إِنَّ اللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ بَصِيرٌ الَّذِينَ يُظَاهِرُونَ مِنكُم مِّن نِّسَائِهِم مَّا هُنَّ أُمَّهَاتِهِمْ إِنْ أُمَّهَاتُهُمْ إِلَّا اللَّائِي وَلَدْنَهُمْ وَإِنَّهُمْ لَيَقُولُونَ مُنكَرًا مِّنَ الْقَوْلِ وَزُورًا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَعَفُوٌّ غَفُورٌ وَالَّذِينَ يُظَاهِرُونَ مِن نِّسَائِهِمْ ثُمَّ يَعُودُونَ لِمَا قَالُوا فَتَحْرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ مِّن قَبْلِ أَن يَتَمَاسَّا ذَلِكُمْ تُوعَظُونَ بِهِ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرٌفَمَن لَّمْ يَجِدْ فَصِيَامُ شَهْرَيْنِ مُتَتَابِعَيْنِ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يَتَمَاسَّا فَمَن لَّمْ يَسْتَطِعْ فَإِطْعَامُ سِتِّينَ مِسْكِينًا ذَلِكَ لِتُؤْمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ وَتِلْكَ حُدُودُ اللَّهِ وَلِلْكَافِرِينَ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

Allah has indeed heard (and accepted) the statement of the woman who argues with thee concerning her husband and carries her complaint (in prayer) to Allah. and Allah (always) hears the arguments between both sides among you: for Allah hears and sees (all things). If any men among you divorce their wives by Zihar (calling them mothers), they cannot be their mothers: None can be their mothers except those who gave them birth. And in fact they use words (both) iniquitous and false: but truly Allah is one that blots out (sins), and forgives (again and again). But those who divorce their wives by Zihar, then wish to go back on the words they uttered,- (It is ordained that such a one) should free a slave before they touch each other: Thus are ye admonished to perform: and Allah is well-acquainted with (all) that ye do. And if any has not (the wherewithal), he should fast for two months consecutively before they touch each other. But if any is unable to do so, he should feed sixty indigent ones, this, that ye may show your faith in Allah and His Messenger. Those are limits (set by) Allah. For those who reject (Him), there is a grievous Penalty. (Surah al-Mujadalah, 58: 1-4)

By the great mercy of Allah, Khawlah’s arguing (mujadalah) became the impetus for the abrogation of an age-old custom. After receiving the revelation, the Prophet
called for Aws, and told him to free a slave, but Aws had no slave to set free. The Prophet said, then fast two months consecutively, to which Aws replied, “If I don’t eat two to three times a day, my weak eyesight turns to blindness.” The Prophet said, then feed sixty poor people, to which Aws replied, “I am unable to do so unless you help me with the task.” So the Prophet and a few other Companions all chipped in until Aws had enough money gathered by which he could feed sixty people, expiate his statement of zihar, and be reunited with his wife Khawlah.

Through the direct confirmation that Allah Most High had sent her, Sayyidah Khawlah came to have unshaken conviction that taqwa, or having “awe and dread for Allah’s might and power, and fear of overstepping His limits,”7 is the key to receiving the mercy of Allah. For this reason, years later, when the Prophet had passed away and Sayyiduna ‘Umar was caliph and leader over large expanses of the known earth, she was able to convey some of this conviction. She stopped Sayyiduna ‘Umar one day in the street and began admonishing him to mind the limits of Allah while ruling over his subjects as caliph:

“’Umar! You used to be called ‘Umayr8, then you were called ‘Umar, then you were called ‘Commander of the Faithful’9. Have taqwa of Allah, O ‘Umar! For verily the one who is most certain of death fears loss, and the one most convinced of the Judgment fears punishment.”

‘Umar stood listening to her, and after she parted ways with him, his companions asked why he had allowed “that old woman” to hold him up in such a manner. He replied, “I swear by Allah, had she held me up from the start of the day till its end, I would not part from her except to do the prescribed prayers. Do you not know who this woman is? She is Khawlah b. Tha‘labah. God heard her speech from beyond the seven heavens. [How could it be] that God listens to her speech, and not ‘Umar?”10

There are myriad lessons that a scholar or a jurist can draw from this account. What we will focus on here however is something relevant to the contemporary Muslim experience: the fact that in this narrative, we see an early example of a Muslim woman asking for legal change in order to preserve her basic rights and needs. She is a woman who argued for change, and Allah Most High listened and granted her what she desired.

Read out of context, one might be urged to say: “Sayyida Khawlah was the first Muslim feminist!” She might have unjustly refused the sexual right of her husband, but the punishment she received certainly did not fit the crime.11 For this reason, she was convinced in her heart that she deserved better from Allah, from  His Messenger , and from the Shari’ah with which he was sent.

But this is not a feminist story. The experience of Sayyida Khawlah is far, far removed from feminism, both in terms of time and in terms of spiritual reality. Feminism originated during a moment of history when the focus of human societies began to turn away from the rights of God toward the rights of the individual.12 The focus of feminism is empowerment, autonomy, freedom, and it calls on women to not only know their rights but to demand them with vehemence out of a sense of sheer entitlement. According to this philosophy, the more the individual is empowered, the better, even if that risks the disruption of critical social institutions such as family, community, religious authority, and social harmony. And in this process, the right of God to decide what is good and true and best for one is slowly, over time, completely sidelined, in favor of what each human individual decides for himself as to what is better.

The story of Sayyida Khawlah is anything but this. It is a story in which every actor demonstrates not their autonomy but their submission: the wife through her seeking a religious solution from those authorized, the Prophet by anxiously awaiting the judgment of Allah in the matter, and the husband by complying with the fact that he must pay expiation to appease God for his actions. The members of the community comply as well: the other Companions of the Prophet acknowledged the weakness of their brother, and helped him make up for his rash action, rather than show him disdain. Even her argumentation is a type of submission, because the scholars of Qur’anic exegesis make clear that mujadala or argumentation can be of two types: that which is on the side of Falsehood, and undertaken only so that one can overcome one’s opponent; or that which is done with the intention of bringing the Truth to light.13 By the submission shown by all involved, one can imagine concentric circles of relationships of family, community, and religious authority, tying one to another to make a wholesome edifice that submits itself as entirely as possible to Allah, even in times of trial.

Instead of empowerment, this incident teaches us humble submission. Instead of an aggressive individualism, it teaches us to seek our rights but to do so by maintaining the connections that are obligatory for us to maintain. Filtered through the lens of seeking empowerment, all we can see in this story is injustice and delayed gratification. But read through the lens of humble submission, we see a surprising amount of mercy: Sayyida Khawlah’s love and commitment to a husband she understands to be at times exasperatingly temperamental; Sayyiduna Aws’ coming forward to make amends before the Prophet and his other companions, despite his manly pride; and the Prophet joyous when the pleas of the desperate woman are heard by Allah Most High.

Imam al-Qushayri, in his Sufi commentary of the Qur’an says about Sayyida Khawlah, the “Arguing Woman”:

لمّا صدقت في شكواها إلى الله، وأيِسَتْ مِن كشف ضُرِّها من غير الله، أنزل الله في شأنها: قد سمع الله…

“The moment her complaint became truly directed to Allah alone, and she despaired of anyone else removing her difficulty save Him, is the moment when Allah sent down [the verses beginning with the words] ‘Allah Has Heard’ to clarify her matter.”14

Sayyida Khawlah teaches us that it is not wrong to “argue.” We learn from her example that there is no shame or irreligiousness in asking questions and seeking justice. But the biggest lesson we learn from her is that when seeking justice or when engaged in any argument, we must always put Allah first. At the very moment when she finally put Him first in her heart did her deliverance from the trial come.  And from then on, having taqwa took on an urgency that she could not bear but to communicate with others, because she understood at a very deep level the following:

وَمَن يَتَّقِ اللَّهَ يَجْعَل لَّهُ مَخْرَجًا وَيَرْزُقْهُ مِنْ حَيْثُ لَا يَحْتَسِبُ وَمَن يَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ فَهُوَ حَسْبُهُ

And for those who fear Allah, He (ever) prepares a way out, And He provides for him from (sources) he never could imagine. And if anyone puts his trust in Allah, sufficient is ((Allah)) for him. (65:2-3)

Her submission before her Lord, and His answering of her pleas, was so powerful that even Sayyiduna ‘Umar, the most prominent political leader of the time, could not turn away from her admonishment and advice. Her consciousness of Allah and His Right had become so strong that she could not resist reminding anyone she saw of the need to submit to Him. And her sincerity and light were so great that one could not easily resist her calls to the Truth.

This, in a nutshell, is the mission of the Sila Initiative. We call on ourselves to make our whole focus not our own rights and needs, but rather the rights and duties that are owed to Allah. We call on ourselves to maintain the silas, or connections, that Allah has commanded us to maintain–the connection to Allah, to His Messenger , and to our families, communities, and societies. Our hope is that by making our aim not empowerment, but submission, that we will be heard, our questions and doubts answered, and our arguments won in a way that favors not just individuals but society as a whole. We have no doubt that by putting Allah first in our quest for justice and religious understanding, we will find that the stress and tension in our hearts, in our homes and in our societies will be replaced by love, light and the remembrance of Allah. Only then will we be able to have true rest and serenity, since Allah ta’ala says:

أَلاَ بِذِكْرِ اللّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ

Verily it is with the remembrance of Allah that hearts find rest. (13:28)

And only then with all our hearts will we be able to say:

رَضيـتُ بِاللهِ رَبَّـاً وَبِمُحَـمَّدٍ صلى الله عليه وسلم نَبِيّـاً وَبِالإسْلامِ ديـناً

I am content with Allah as my Lord, with Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) as my prophet, and with Islam as my religion.

1. I have constructed this account in consultation with a number of commentaries on the Qur’an, among them: al-Qurtubi’s al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an; al-Alusi’s Ruh al-Ma’ani fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Adhim wa al-Sab’ al-Mathani; ibn ‘Ajiba’s al-Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Majid; ibn Kathir’s Tafsir al-Qur’an al-’Adhim; al-Sabuni’s Rawa’i’ al-Bayan Tafsir Ayat al-Ahkam min al-Qur’an; Shafi’s Ma’ariful Qur’an. Much of the account related is similar in each of the commentaries. Where a unique point is mentioned that is not mentioned elsewhere, I have indicated it in the footnotes by providing a specific citation.
2. The surah is known by both names, “al-Mujadalah” (“The Argument”) and “al-Mujadilah” (“The Arguing Woman”). Of these two names, the most well-known is the latter, according to the exegete al-Alusi in his tafsir Ruh al-Ma’ani. It is also sometimes referred to by the first three words of the surah, Qad Sami’ Allah, i.e. Allah Has Heard.
3.ابن كثير: “وقال ابن لهيعة عن أبي الأسود عن عروة: هو أوس بن الصامت، وكان أوس امرءاً به لمم، فكان إذا أخذه لممه، واشتد به، يظاهر من امرأته، وإذا ذهب، لم يقل شيئاً”
4. Khuwayla is a diminutive form of the name Khawlah.
5. ابن كثير: قالت: ثم خرجت إلى بعض جاراتي، فاستعرت منها ثياباً، ثم خرجت حتى جئت إلى رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم
6.الألوسي: وجادلت رسول الله عليه الصلاة والسلام مراراً ثم قالت: اللهم إني أشكو إليك شدة وحدتي وما يشق علي من فراقه، وفي رواية قالت: أشكو إلى الله تعالى فاقتي وشدة حالي وإن لي صبية صغاراً إن ضممتهم إليه ضاعوا وإن ضممتهم إلي جاعوا، وجعلت ترفع رأسها إلى السماء وتقول: اللهم إني أشكو إليك اللهم فأنزلْ علي لسان نبيك وما برحت حتى نزل القرآن فيها، فقال صلى الله عليه وسلم: يا خولة أبشري قالت: خيراً؟ فقرأ عليه الصلاة والسلام عليها { قَدْ سَمِعَ ٱللَّهُ } الآيات
7. Definition of taqwa as provided in Keller, Sea Without Shore, p. 417.
8. ‘Umayr is a diminutive form of the name ‘Umar.
9. Amir al-mu’minin, his title as caliph.
10. ابن كثير: “يا امير المؤمنين, حبست رجالات قريش على هذه العجوز؟ قال: ويحك! و تدري من هذه؟ قال: لا قال: هذه امرأة سمع الله شكواها من فوق سبع سماوات و هذه خولة بنت ثعلبة وايم الله لو لم تنصرف عني الى الليل ما انصرفت حتى تقضي حاجتها الا ان تحضر صلاة فاصليها ثم ارجعأليها حتى تقضي حاجتها. الألوسي: “فقال رجل: يا أمير المؤمنين ما رأيت كاليوم فقال رضي الله عنه: و ما يمنعني أن استمع إليها و هي التي استمع الله تعالى لها فأنزل فيها ما أنزل “قد سمع الله” الآيات. القرطبي: وقد مرّ بها عمر بن الخطاب رضي الله عنه في خلافته والناس معه على حمار فٱستوقفته طويلاً ووعظته وقالت: يا عمر قد كنت تدعى عُمَيْراً، ثم قيل لك عمر، ثم قيل لك أمير المؤمنين؛ فٱتق الله يا عمر؛ فإنه من أيقن بالموت خاف الفوت، ومن أيقن بالحساب خاف العذاب؛ وهو واقف يسمع كلامها؛ فقيل له: يا أمير المؤمنين أتقف لهذه العجوز هذا الوقوف؟ فقال: والله لو حبستني من أوّل النهار إلى آخره لازلت إلا للصلاة المكتوبة، أتدرون من هذه العجوز؟ هي خَوْلَة بنت ثعلبة سمع الله قولها من فوق سبع سموات، أيسمع ربّ العالمين قولها ولا يسمعه عمر؟
11. There are numerous teachings within the life and statements of the Prophet ﷺ that clarify how a believer should fulfill the sexual rights of his or her spouse. In one hadith, the Prophet ﷺ warns, “A woman who does not go to her husband when he calls for her, the angels shall curse her the entire night.” In another hadith, the Prophet ﷺ admonishes his male Companions, “Do not fall upon your wives as animals do upon their mates,” and continued to explain that affectionate words and kisses should precede intercourse. Many other teachings fill out this picture, encouraging women to be considerate of men’s physical needs, while showing men the important emotional component that women require in a healthy sexual relationship. All of this is most succinctly captured in the words of Allah Most High Himself, when He says: “You are a garment for them, and they are a garment for you” (2:187), indicating that the spouses must fulfill each other’s sexual needs in a most beautiful and complete manner.  
12. See the Sila recording “On Submission” for a more detailed discussion.
13. الصابوني: { تُجَٰدِلُكَ }: أي تراجعك في شأن زوجها، والمجادلة: المناظرة والمخاصمة وفي الحديث: ” ما أوتي قوم الجدل إلاّ ضلّوا ” والمراد بالحديث الجدل على الباطل، وطلب المغالبة به، لا إظهار الحق فإنّ ذلك محمود لقوله تعالى: { وَجَادِلْهُم بِٱلَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ } [النحل: 125] والمراد هنا: المراجعة في الكلام.
14. As quoted in ibn ‘Ajiba, al-Bahr al-Madid, vol. 7, p. 333.

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The Sila Initiative helps you embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.