The Prophet’s daughter Zaynab had been married to Abu Al-`Aas, who had not accepted Islam. She had initially stayed with him in Makkah, until the Prophet asked her to join him in Medinah with her small daughter Umamah. Zaynab deeply loved her husband, but their different life choices had eventually caused them to part. However, neither of them had remarried.
A few months after the Battle of the Trench, the Prophet sent an expedition to stop a rich Quraysh caravan coming from the north. Zayd, who commanded the Muslim horsemen, seized the caravan’s goods and captured most of the men, while others managed to get away. Among the latter was Abu Al-`Aas, who decided on his journey back to Makkah to stop at Madinah and pay a secret visit to his wife and daughter.
This in itself was madness, but his desire to see his wife and child was stronger than his awareness of the risks incurred. He knocked on his wife’s door in the dead of night, and Zaynab let him in. He stayed with her, and when dawn drew near, she went to the mosque for prayer as she usually did. She entered the mosque and stood in the first line of women, just behind the men. Then the Prophet said the formula announcing the beginning of prayer, she took advantage of the short pause to exclaim in a very loud voice: “0 you people! I grant my protection to Abu Al-`Aas, son of Rabi`!”
Gentleness & Respect
When prayer was over, the Prophet, who had had no prior knowledge of what had happened between his daughter and her husband, had the audience confirm that they had heard the proclamation as well. He insisted that the protection granted- whether by his daughter or by any other ordinary Muslim- must be respected.
He then went to his daughter, who told him about the situation facing Abu Al-`Aas, whose goods had all been taken during the recent expedition in the north and who was therefore in debt, for the said goods had been entrusted to him by people in Makkah.
Prophet Muhammad suggested that the people who had those goads in their possession might give them back to Abu Al-`Aas if they wished to, and all of them complied. Some Companions advised Abu Al-`Aas to convert to Islam and keep those belongings for himself. He refused, saying that becoming a Muslim and beginning by betraying people’s trust would not have been suitable. He took all the goods, went back to Makkah, and gave each owner his due. He then came back to Madinah, converted to Islam, and was reunited with Zaynab and their daughter Umamah.
Status of Women
Thus, the first Muslims’ generosity and open-handedness were plain for all to see. like the Prophet, they had required nothing of Abu Al-`Aas: he was not a Muslim, he belonged to an enemy clan, and he refused to convert, but they let him go anyway, allowing him the freedom to choose and the time needed for his spiritual development- he even received at a critical time in inter-clan relations- the Muslim community‘s protection and it was a woman who spoke out publicly and forcefully on his behalf.
Zaynah often went to the mosque, which was a space open to both men and women, and nobody objected to her making a statement there, among men; in fact, it was not at all uncommon for Muslim women to speak up publicly in such a manner.
Later, in one such instance that is particularly famous in Muslim history, a woman would address `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, who had become the Muslims’ caliph, and point out an error of judgment that he immediately acknowledged.
Inside the mosque, the women would line up behind the men’s ranks, as the postures of prayer, in its various stages, require an arrangement that preserves modesty, decency, and respect. Women prayed, studied, and expressed themselves in that space. Moreover, they found in the Prophet’s attitude the epitome of courtesy and regard: he demanded that men remain seated in order to let women leave first and without inconvenience.
There was always gentleness and dignity in his behavior toward women, whom he listened to, and whose right to express themselves and set forth their opinions and arguments he acknowledged, protected, and promoted.
The article is an excerpt from Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s book “In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press (2007).