We live in a society that unfortunately paints Muslim women as being oppressed. Although Islam introduced women to rights they never previously held, the religion is defamed as misogynistic. In reality, Islam began in a society that greatly devalued women. They were not allowed to inherit, had virtually no rights within marriage, and many female infants were buried alive. Islam brought with it rights for women with regards to inheritance, marriage, finances, status, and much more.
A figure who beautifully manifests all these aspects of Islam and more is Khadija, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him). Khadija was a very successful and wealthy businesswoman. She instructed many caravans for trade with foreign lands. It was through this business of hers that she met the future Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him), as he set out on one of her caravans.
After seeing the honest and noble way in which Muhammad (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) dealt with her business, Khadija herself initiated the proposal of marriage to him. She was a forty-year-old widow at the time, and the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) was twenty-five. Regardless of this age difference, the two were married and had six children together.
In the early years of Islam, the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) and the Muslims faced much harassment from those opposed to their new way of life. Throughout the hardships that were physical, societal, and emotional, Khadija remained a strong support. She used her wealth to aid the needy Muslims and purchase the freedom of converted slaves. She holds the rank of becoming the first believer, after the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) experienced a frightening episode that was the first revelation. The angel Gabriel came to him during his moment of seclusion and squeezed him very tightly, commanding him to “Read!” three times, although he did not know how. Scared, the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) rushed home to his wife.
At such a vulnerable moment in the Prophet’s (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) life, Khadija was there to comfort him and reassure him what he experienced was indeed a legitimate occurrence coming from God, and not something of the devil’s work. Thus, she became the first believer in Islam. A’ishah, a later wife of the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) narrated about this same encounter:
“Allah’s Messenger (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) returned with that experience; and the muscles between his neck and shoulders were trembling until he came upon Khadija and said, ‘Cover me!’ They covered him, and when the state of fear was over, he said to Khadija, ‘O Khadija! What is wrong with me? I was afraid that something bad might happen to me.’ Then he told her the story. Khadija said, ‘Nay! But receive the good tidings! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you, for by Allah, you keep good relations with your Kith and kin, speak the truth, help the poor and the destitute, entertain your guests generously and assist those who are stricken with calamities.’”
Unlike the marriages of many in pre-Islamic Arabia, the union between Muhammad (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) and Khadija was one of true love, comfort, respect, and dedication. The Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) called Khadija the best of women, and she received the glad tidings of a palace in Paradise. Even after Khadija’s death, the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) remembered her often, as she was the mother of his children and his rock from the get-go.
In many narrations, the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) emphasizes proper treatment of women, so it is very unfortunate people smear Islam as a religion that mistreats them. He said, “The best of you is the one who is best to his wife” (Sunan ibn Majah). He also said, “The most complete of the believers in faith, is the one with the best character among them. And the best of you are those who are best to your women” (Tirmidhi). This makes clear Islam’s strong emphasis on respecting women. In fact, whoever abuses the rights of women or mistreats them is seriously lacking in their practice of the religion.
Islam brought this mindset about in a time when women were severely abused and essentially nothing but property. It rewired the brains of the people to not only begin considering women as human beings but to treat them in the best way possible. Khadija’s life teaches us that women can be successful in business, they can initiate marriages, they can achieve high spiritual status, and they deserve proper respect in and out of the home. Thus, she serves as role model not only Muslim women can aspire to, but Muslim men as well.