The terms “social justice” and “activism” are fairly new within public discourse, but their essence and meanings are not new to the Islamic tradition. In many ways, the Messenger of Allah and the Qur’an were sent to implement Divinely-ordained social reform and justice, doing away with the many injustices and oppressive practices that were culturally embedded in times of Jahiliyyah (ignorance). The Companions of the Prophet were, in turn, ambassadors of those values – essentially, activists who fought tirelessly to change their societies to reflect the ideals and ethics of Islam. Women have always been part and parcel of this history, as Muslim women whose personal experiences as women inspired them to seek Islamic knowledge, and then act on that knowledge in pursuit of the Islamic ethics of justice.
Unfortunately, our Muslim communities today do not often support the activism of Muslim women in the same way. Instead, Muslim women find themselves struggling to be heard, whether the issue is about access to the masjid, domestic violence, or cultural oppression of women in the name of Islam. Such women tend to find themselves belittled, dismissed, delegitimized, or even ostracized due to their fight for justice; they are accused of being “feminists” or “liberals,” even when they are simply insisting on their Shar’i God-given rights. Rather than being discouraged, Muslim women activists should remind themselves and their detractors of the incredible example of Khawlah bint Tha’labah : the woman whom Allah responded to directly due to her complaints against injustice, with the first four verses of Surah al-Mujaadilah.
Khawla bint Tha’labah was a Companion of the Prophet , who found herself in a situation where her husband invoked the Jahili oath of dhihaar on her – declaring that she was to him “like his mother’s back” – in essence, prohibiting sexual intimacy between them, yet not divorcing her. When, after some time, he tried to break his own oath by pushing for intimacy, Khawla bodily pushed him away and immediately went to RasulAllah to demand an end to this oppressive practice of their society. Initially, RasulAllah advised her to be patient with her husband, who was an older man. However, Khawla was not satisfied by this, so she continued to call upon Allah until, finally, Divine revelation was sent directly to address her situation: those verses that we now know of as the first four verses of Surah al-Mujaadilah.
Certainly has Allah heard the speech of the one who argues with you, [O Muhammad], concerning her husband, and directs her complaint to Allah . And Allah hears your dialogue; indeed, Allah is Hearing and Seeing! [Qur’an 58:1]
Khawla bint Tha’labah is a woman who recognized when she was being dealt with unjustly, and took it upon herself to challenge it immediately, with the Messenger of Allah himself. Her profound sense of ethics and justice came from her understanding of Islam and the Qur’an; she knew that her Lord was the Most Just, and she sought justice that came from Allah directly, knowing that it was her right as a Muslim woman to demand that justice. When she came to RasulAllah and challenged his advice to be patient, she did so not out of a place of anger or resentment, but from a place of deep love for Allah and His Messenger , and the knowledge that Allah would rectify the injustice that she had experienced. In this moment, Khawlah lived the very meaning of the famous Hadith Qudsi:
“I am as my slave thinks of Me.”
What made Khawla so unique, however, was that she did not just stop at advocating for herself alone. The Divine revelation enjoined expiation for the one who does dhihaar. RasulAllah told Khawlah , “Command him [your husband] to free a slave.” She responded, “O Allah’s Messenger! He does not have any [slaves] to free.” The next option was, “Let him fast for two consecutive months.” Again, Khawla replied, “By Allah! He is an old man and cannot fast.” RasulAllah offered another alternative: “Let him feed sixty poor people a Wasq of dates.” Earnestly, Khawla said, “O Allah’s Messenger! By Allah, he does not have any of that.” Ever generous, RasulAllah said, “We will help him with a basket of dates.” At this, Khawla’s own generosity became clear: “And I, O Allah’s Messenger! I will help him with another.”
This entire incident is a powerful lesson for all believers. What is most relevant here, however, is that Khawla’s sense of spiritual ethics and activism did not stop with advocating for herself. It would have been easy – and even justified – for her to seize upon the justice meted out, and leave her husband to deal with the consequences of his actions on his own. Instead, knowing what her husband’s impoverished situation was, Khawla