Prominent women in the Qur’an

By Fatima Gailani

In this article I would like to focus on women mentioned in the Qur’an. My intention is not to prove either the superiority or equality of men and women. I will simply try to highlight those women who are included in the Divine verses. The Qur’an is not a history book, rather a book to provide guidance. We can find stories in which women are mentioned either positively or negatively according to the role they played, and above all what is expected from a woman according to the Book.

In the Muslim world millions of newborn girls are named after the noble ladies who are mentioned in the Qur’an. Mothers and wives of the Prophets are the ones who are best known to us. Some of these women are mentioned to illustrate certain qualities. In most cases they are examples of goodness; nevertheless the Prophets’ houses sometimes accommodated such women who were among the first to betray and disobey the Divine Message.

Whenever the Qur’an states these women, it simply narrates the story without mentioning their names. The Book of Allah is not interested in actors, it is the action itself which counts. One could say that Maryam, mother of Jesus, is the only woman who was named in the Qur’an. The names of other women are given to us by commentators of the Qur’an. The stories below are as mentioned in the Qur’an.

SARAH: A Dream Fulfilled
The story of Ibrahim’s wife Sarah occurs several times in the Qur’an although she herself is mentioned only twice in Surah al-Dhariyat (51:24-32) and in Surah Hud (11:69-76).

Angels in human form were going to Lut and his people; on the way they called on Ibrahim and his wife. He took them for human beings and offered them the customary hospitality. He was surprised when the guests did not eat, from which he found out they were Angels. Ibrahim was scared and wondered what was the reason for their visit. Sarah was amused at her husband’s worried face and laughed at him. The Angels turned to her and gave her the good news that she would have a son (Is’haq). She could not believe it and exclaimed: “Oh, woe to me! Shall I bear a child now that I am an old woman and this husband of mine is an old man? Verily that would be a strange thing indeed.” (11:72)

The Angels told her that nothing was impossible for Allah. In the story Sarah is depicted to have the reaction of an ordinary woman who longed for a child. In spite of being the wife of a Prophet she reacted to the good news very naturally without pretence.

MARYAM: The Virgin Mother
Maryam is the only woman who has been mentioned by name in the Qur’an. Her mother’s story before her birth (Surah al-Imran – 3:35-37) and indeed her own story (Surah al-Imran – 3:37-50; Surah Maryam – 19:16-33) are among the most moving ones in the Qur’an. Maryam was very special and chosen child from the very beginning. Her mother was the wife of a person called Imran. She made a vow that her first born child would be devoted to God and His service. When Maryam was born her mother was disappointed and said to Allah:“O my Sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female.” (3:36) Allah said to her:“Allah had been fully aware of what she should give birth to, and that the male is not as the female.” (3:36)

Mother Mary and Jesus

Mother Mary and Jesus

So Maryam was brought up under Allah’s care and protection. She grew up into one of the most important personality devoted to Allah. It was she who was chosen to be the mother of the Spirit from God. When she reached maturity an angel came to her to give her the following news: “I am only your God’s messenger sent to bestow a pure son to you.”

She said:“How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me, nor am I unchaste?” (19:20) He replied:“Thus your Lord has said: It is a simple matter for Me (Allah) to do. We will make him a sign for mankind and a mercy from Us (Allah). It is a matter which has been decreed.” (19:21)

When she gave birth to her son she took him to her people. They rejected her till Jesus talked to them from the cradle:“I am a slave of Allah. He has given me the Book and made me a Prophet.” (19:30)

Maryam is not only the one whose name is mentioned in the Qur’an but also the only woman to whom Allah sent Angels. She was declared as a woman above all the women in the world. She is a symbol of innocence, purity, devotion and total submission.

Five women in Prophet Moses life
In Surah al-Qasas (28:7-13) three women are mentioned in Musa’s story: Musa’s mother, his sister and the wife of Pharaoh, and in Surah Taha (20:38-40) his mother and sister are mentioned. The wife of Pharaoh as an example to believers appears in Surah al-Tahrim (66:11).

For obvious reasons, Musa’s mother was scared for her son’s life; that the Pharaoh who was ruling at that time hated the Israelites and tried to exterminate them. Allah put in her mind to place Musa in a wooden box and let it float on the Nile. It was the will of Allah that the child was rescued by the people of the Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s wife liked the child and asked Pharaoh to spare his life. That is how Musa’s life started as a future Prophet, in the palace of his enemy.

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The Qur’an says: “Musa’s mother felt empty-hearted…” She sent her daughter to ‘keep track of him.’ It was also Allah’s design that Musa should not suckle at any woman’s breast. Miriam, Musa’s sister, who had followed her brother to the palace, came in and suggested: “Shall I lead you to a family who will look after him for you? They will take good care of him.” (28:12). Musa thus was reunited with his mother when others had no knowledge of their relationship.

After growing up Musa does not feel safe in Egypt, so he goes to Midian. He meets two young girls looking after their flock. They were waiting for others to finish giving water to their animals. The girls looked so helpless that Musa offered them assistance and watered their flock. They returned home and after a while one of them came back walking shyly and said to Musa: “My father invites you in order to reward you with some sort of payment since you have done the watering (our flocks) for us.” (28:25).

Musa went with the girl to her house and told their father his story. The old man said: “Do not fear, you have escaped from an evil people.” (28:25). One of the girls suggested to their father to hire Musa as he was a hardworking and honest man. Musa was thus hired on condition that he would work for eight years and in return one of the girls would be married to him. After the completion of the agreed period, Musa married Safura. (Safura’s name is not mentioned in the Qur’an. It appears in other sources.) Musa then returns with his wife to Egypt.

This story shows that Safura and her sister were hardworking girls and a great help to their old father. Allah wanted Musa not only to stay with them but also to marry one of these remarkable girls. Musa was attracted by the modesty and good manners of the girls. Musa’s loyalty and dedication complemented the family.

BILQIS: A Wise Queen
Bilqis, the Queen of Sheeba, is portrayed in the Qur’an (Surah al-Naml 27:20-44) as a wise and influential and above all a real leader. She ruled her people in a democratic way. She made every decision after consulting her counsellors.
Prophet Soloman (Sulaiman) was told about her power, kingdom and magnificent throne. Yet she and her people were not believers in God and they worshipped the sun. Soloman sent a message to invite her to his kingdom and to the faith. The message was: “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Mercy-giving! Do not act haughtily towards me and come to me committed to (live in) peace.” (27:30-31).

She called her advisers and officers and told them about the message. The officers suggested a military action and said: “We possess strength and can be extremely violent, while command rests with you; so consider whatever you will command.” (27:33).

 

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Bilqis’s reply was very wise. She said that if Soloman was just a king we would satisfy him with gifts. But if he was a Prophet, as he claims, then we would have to deal with him with great caution. Soloman categorically refused her gifts and Bilqis realised that she had to go to his kingdom.

They met, and she entered the faith. The story of the Qur’an ends here, but the traditions tell us that she married Soloman. The image of the Queen of Sheeba in the Qur’an is one of a woman whose talented personality and diplomacy do not let her underestimate reality, and a leader who is cautious and will not put her people in a helpless situation.

ZULEKHA: Forbidden Love
The story of Yusuf and the wife of the Egyptian noble man is indeed a story of forbidden love. It is about the life of an extraordinarily handsome man who was to become a Prophet. But Allah wanted him to pass the test of temptation. He got through it with such success that it became a lesson to Zulekha and her friends. The story is narrated in Surah Yusuf (12:21-34) in detail.

After Yusuf was dropped in an empty well by his jealous brothers, he was found by some merchants who sold him to a wealthy Egyptian couple. His looks caused the wife, Zulekha, to be attracted to him. She tried to seduce him and he resisted her. He remembered Allah and the kindness of his master. When the noble man entered and saw Yusuf’s tunic torn from his back, he knew whom to blame.

The story shows that the Egyptian society was very permissive, as when women of Zulekha’s society gossiped about the matter she invited them all. She put them into a situation where they themselves were unable to resist temptation.

The story continues with Yusuf in prison for years. At the end Yusuf’s innocence and Zulekha’s love for him reformed her deeply. She confessed her guilt and Yusuf was released.

Traitors in the House
Women who are mentioned in the Qur’an as examples of treachery and evil doings are only three: Nuh’s wife, Lut’s wife and the wife of Abu Lahab.

Their stories are the opposite of the story of Pharaoh’s wife. Esia, Pharaoh’s wife, was a believer under an arrogant and unjust husband. His power did not influence her, nor could his tyranny cut her off from good actions. On the other hand, the wives of Nuh and Lut remained in darkness despite living with Allah’s Prophets. They could not see the light of faith and missed the right path. They betrayed their husbands and they shall be doomed:

“For those who are bent on denying the truth God has propounded a parable in (the stories of) Nuh’s wife and Lut’s wife; they were wedded to two of our righteous servants and each one betrayed her husband, and neither of the two (husbands) will be of any avail to these two women when they are told (on the Day of Judgment): ‘Enter the fire with all those who enter it’.” (66:10)

As far as Abu Lahab’s wife is concerned she would just match her devious husband. We know about her story in much more detail as she lived in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). In the Qur’an she has been described hammalat al-hatab or the carrier of the thorny wood. Whatever her title was she is one of the most troublesome person mentioned in the Qur’an.

Other women of the time of the Prophet are not mentioned directly but they have been referred to in few places. They are: ‘Aisha (Surah al-Nur 24:11-26); Zaynab (Surah al-Ahzab 33:37-39); Hafsa (Surah al-Tahraim 66:1-5) all three wives of the Prophet; and Khawla bint Tha’laba whose prayer was answered by Allah (Surah al-Mujadila 58:1-5).

Detailed stories of these women can be found in books of Hadith and Tafseer. These stories represent certain values and characteristics, which should be emulated and some bad which should be avoided. These characters whether men or women are there as a lesson to be learnt and examples to be followed or avoided.

“And out of all the accounts relating to the apostles We convey unto thee that wherewith We make firm thy heart. For through these accounts comes the truth unto thee as well as admonition and a reminder unto all believers.” (11:120).

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