Dawn, The Review, July 24-30, 1997
The female characters mentioned in the Quran are often looked upon as narrative tools in stories essentially centered around men. They are seldom listed and studied for their own sake: to check what kind of female images God has chosen to present before us.
Such a study, if carried out, should not cover the ‘good’ characters only, but the negative examples (such as the wives of Noah, Loot and Abu Lahab) should also be placed in the gallery. The following is a brief inventory of the women of Quran. It is by no means comprehensive or definitive, but we have attempted to include at least all the ‘great ones.’ It will be noted that the Quran almost always mentions the female characters by their family references instead of their first names (an Arab social connection of the times). The only exception is that of Bibi Marium, who is plainly mentioned by her own name, signifying thus the unique status of the Holy Virgin.
Another important feature of the Quran is that on several occasions it tells us about angles who came to women and spoke to them. (For example see the entries on Sarah, and Marium in this article). There have been notable Muslim mufassireen (commentators of the Quran) who have arguable claimed that such women were prophets. Among those who advocate this point of view are Abul Hasan Ashari (the great theologian who also coined the wording of Iman-i-Mujammil), Muhammad bin Ishaq, Qurtabi and Ibn-i-Hazm. (For a detailed account of their thesis, see Qasas-ul-Quran. Vol IV, by Hifzur Rehman Sewharvi). Irrespective of the position one may choose to take in such debates, it is interesting to look at the patterns of human life and lifestyles that emerge from a study of the women in Quran.
The First Woman (Havva)
Havva probably means ‘living’ but this name does not appear in the Quran, where the first woman is simply mentioned as ‘the spouse of Adam’. She was created by Allah and told to enjoy life in paradise. Together with her husband she made the mistake of approaching the forbidden tree because Satan had told them that this might make them like angles, or give them immortality. Later, both of them repented and asked forgiveness together in words that have been recorded in the Quran: “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If Thou forgive us not and have not mercy on us, surely we are of the lost!” (7 Al-A’raf; Verse 23).
The Quran makes no mention of the ‘rib story’ nor does it present the woman as the temptress. Some thinkers, such as Iqbal, have argued that we need not believe in the rib story and the original sin at all, since they are contradictory to the ethos of the Quran.
The Wife of Nooh
We don’t know the first name of this woman, who is described as one of the non-believers. She was mother to at least one son, who also refused to believe in the prophethood of his father. She was drowned in the great flood.
Some interpreters of the Quran maintain that she was a prophet. She migrated first to Palestine and then to Egypt, along with her husband Ibrahim (Abraham). Towards old age, long after her fruitful years were over, she was approached by angles with the prophecy that she would give birth to a son, Ishaq (Isaac) (11 Hud: Verses 71-73 and 51 Adh-Dhariyat Verses: 29-30). Thus history has her at the top of the Jewish race, and a long pedigree of prophets.
Literally meaning ‘lonely’, this was perhaps a title. Judaic tradition sometimes introduces her as a princess from the outskirts of Egypt but the Quran is silent as to her origin. She is described as the younger wife of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), and mother to Ismail (AS). Allah ordered Ibrahim to leave her along with her son, alone in the desert valley of Makkah. Pressed for water to save the life of her infant, she ran across the passage between the mountains of Safa and Marwah, an action which Allah later made an obligation for every pilgrim. The water was miraculously provided to the lonely pair of mother and son in the form of zamzam. Those mufassireen who believe that some women have been prophets maintain that Hagirah was also one of them.
The Wife of Loot
Not much is known about this woman except that she was a non-believer, married to the prophet Loot (Ibrahim’s nephew) and living in the unholy city of Sodom. When God chose the people of Sodom to be wiped out because of their sins (especially homosexuality) she was also marked out for the same fate.
The name does not appear in the Quran where she is mentioned as the wife of an Egyptian dignitary. Frustrated with the failure of her repeated attempts to seduce Yousuf (Joseph), who had been brought as a young slave to her palace, she caused him to be thrown into prison. Some time later when the case of Yousuf was finally tried before the grand Pharaoh, she came forward at the point when Yousuf was already on the verge of being acquitted and confessed her own mischief. This is sometimes seen in the popular Muslim tradition as a classic good example of transformation of the soul from worldly love to the true love (or love of God).
This is the name ascribed in some traditions to the mother of Musa (Moses). Having given birth to a boy in dangerous times (c.1520 BC) she hid him from the murderous soldiers of the Pharoah Rameses until Allah Himself addressed her, saying. “Suckle him and, when thou fearest for him, then cast him into the river and fear not nor grieve. Lo! We shall bring him back unto thee and shall make him (one) of our messengers.” (28 Al-Qasas: 7) She is also one of the women who are considered by some interpreters to have been a prophet.
This is the name ascribed through popular tradition to the woman who is described in the Quran as the wife of the Pharoah (Rameses). She adopted Musa (Moses) after he was drawn out of the Nile. She persuaded her blood thirsty husband not only to let him live but also to have him nursed in their own household. She is also considered by some interpreters to have been a prophet.
This is the name of Musa’s (Moses’) wife according to the popular tradition. In the Quranic version of the story she appears as “one of the two somen” whom Musa rescued from uncouth men by helping her draw water from a well. She recommended him to her father as a “strong and honest” person suitable for employment, the marriage followed almost immediately. Sometime later, as they were traveling together with their young son, they strayed into the wilderness of the Mount Sinai. It was here that her husband witnessed the miracle of the burning bush.
Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba
Bilquis is the name given by the Arab Jews to the Queen of Sheba, who appears in the Old Testament as a temptress. The Quran vindicates her by describing her as a powerful, wise and enlightened monarch. Prudent by nature, she refused to get carried away by her advisor’s readiness to test their military power against Sulaiman (AS) (the great King Solomon). Setting out to visit the prophet-king, she was well received and initiated into the monotheistic faith after she was convinced of its truth. (28 An Naml: Verse 20-44) Probably she did not marry Prophet Sulaiman and almost certainly she returned to her homeland to continue her rule with splendour. Her reference in the Quran provides a strong argument to those scholars who maintain that Islam is not opposed to the concept of a woman ruler.
Exalted in the Quran “above the women of all the worlds” (3 Al-e-Imran: Verse 42), she is the only woman who is mentioned in the Quran by her own first name, and has a Surah named after her. Her story, narrated in some details in ‘Al-e-Imran’ and ‘Marium’ (the 19th Surah), provides the strongest arguments to those scholars who want to prove that prophethood was also extended to women. (See Qasas-ul-Quran, vol IV, by Hifz-ur-Rehman Sewharvi, which gives a detailed account of this debate).
As a young girl Marium (AS) was given for upbringing to the prophet Zakriya (Zechariah) AS, who soon discovered her extraordinary spiritual link with God. Having attained adulthood she was approached by an angel who told her that she would be blessed with a child. Amina Wadud-Mohsin, a modern theologian, maintains that in the Quran there is emphasis on Marium’s feminine experience, viz. her embarrassment, the pains of delivery and her agony at finding herself without any obvious proof of her chastity before an angry people.
Christian traditions maintain that she lived at least for some years after the death of her son, Jesus Christ (Issa AS) and it is likely that she was herself one of the sources of the apostles for information about the early days of their prophet. However, the Quran makes no mention of Marium after the initial phase of Issa’s life and the Muslim Sufis have worked out the special role of Marium in the divine expression of wisdom in several manners. (See Frithjof Schuan: Dimensions of Islam).
Sister to Abu Sufiyan, and married to Abdul Uzzah (Abu Lahab), the non-believing uncle of the Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H.), she would cut thorny branches from the nearby woods and lay them in the way of the Prophet, who was also their neighbour. She is described in the Quran as “the wood carrier,” who “will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre.” (111-Al Lahab: 4-5).
Daughter of Abu Bakr (RA) and one of the wives of the Prophet (P.B.U.H.), she is one of the major sources for what we know about the Prophet and his message. She was probably in her teens when she was given in marriage, soon after the Heijra. A reference to her (but a detailed one) appeared in the revelation when, in AH.5, the hypocrites of Madinah tried to involve her in a scandal. The Quran announced her innocence in clear words, and laid down the rule that accusers who fail to substantiate their charge against a woman should receive eighty percent of the punishment of adultery themselves. (24 Light Verse 4 and 10-18). Ayesha (RA) lived for a long time after the Prophet, serving mostly as judicial authority in the matters of fiqah, or religious interpretations.
Zainab (RA), daughter of Jehsh
The Prophet’s cousin, whose keen sense of her own family’s superior status led to the failure of her marriage with Zaid (RA), the Prophet’s (P.B.U.H.) freed slave and adopted son. Allah ordered the Prophet to marry her in turn, shocking many of the Arabs of those times, when the widow or divorcee of an adopted son was still treated like a real daughter-in-law. The revelation made the matter clear, “we have given her into marriage to thee (O Prophet) so that (henceforth) there may be no sin for believers in respect of wives of their adopted sons, when the latter have performed the necessary formality (of release) from them.” (33 Al Ahza; Verse 37)
This articles is part of the series “Women Studies”: Let’s say no to a peurile feminism | Women and cinema in Pakistan | Women as prophets in the Quran | A woman’s Islam? | Gender roles in education | Women’s right to divorce in Islam | Liberty, equality, fraternity | In religion’s wake | ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus … no more’ | ‘History, she wrote’ | ‘Debunking myths‘ | Women in the Quran | Portrayal of women in the stories of Sadat Hasan Manto