Staff Note: There were edits made to avoid any possible interpretation of an affront against Abu Sufyan, Hind, and Mu`awiyah (ra) as this was not the author’s intent; nor is this an accepted opinion by the scholars of this site.
By Parisa S. Popalzai, PhD
One day I was speaking with a mother of five children about her life and aspirations. After giving her a brief summary of my education and work experience, she slightly sighed when she said that she had to stop pursuing her college education to raise her children. She described her role as just a plain housewife and mother as if it was something ordinary and unexciting. Knowing how well-behaved and sweet all her children were, I was surprised that she was so quick to dismiss her great contributions to society. Sadly I have met many mothers who have expressed such tones about their role as mothers and wives, wishing they had done something more interesting with their lives. Moreover I have met other mothers who decided to put their careers on hold to raise their children and as a result felt a little disappointed that they were not able to pursue the career they spent years studying for. In each case, the mothers felt that while motherhood was an important role, they could be contributing much more to society if they were not hemmed in by the responsibilities of changing diapers, washing bottles and chauffeuring children from one activity to another. However, most mothers underestimate the actual impact they have to social change and that what they do today with their children will affect the course of the future.
Unfortunately with our communities giving mixed messages to women about their role in society, it is not surprising to see such attitudes coming from the new generation of mothers. Western societies tell us that freedom and honor for women are attained when she becomes an independent career woman, not shackled by the responsibilities of motherhood or even a stable marriage. On the other extreme, our eastern cultures tell us that a woman’s honor and value are derived the more subservient and quite she is, accepting her role as the servant of the home—cooking, cleaning and ensuring the home and family are well taken care of above her own needs, education, and development. And yet some societies go to the extreme to call women a temptation and shame that need to be hidden in the dark corners of the home in order to prevent the spread of evil in society. In between these two extreme philosophical view points, the Muslim woman knows that Islam elevates and values her unique role and contributions while respecting and safeguarding her specific needs and nature. In all spiritual aspects, she is seen as equal in the sight of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (exalted is He) as indicated in the following verses:
“For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (Qur’an 33:35)
Yet regrettably in many societies including our own Muslim countries, women are still fighting for their human rights. This mixed attitude regarding women has existed since the creation of the first woman. In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) has shown us that societies’ views about women are often wrong and contradictory. Speaking in regards to the Arab’s contradictory views on women—making her a Goddess on one hand and a source of shame and disgrace on the other—Allah revealed the following verses:
“So have you considered al-Lat and al-`Uzza? And Manat, the third—the other one? Is the male for you and for Him the female? That, then, is an unjust division. They are not but [mere] names you have named them—you and your forefathers—for which Allah has sent down no authority. They follow not except assumption and what [their] souls desire and there has already come to them from their Lord guidance.” (Qur’an 53:19-23)
Allah clarifies that what cultures attribute to women are usually man-made and incorrect. Women are neither angels nor devils, but a creation of Allah (swt) from the same nature and source as man, with every ability for good and evil as he has. Yet being the only one of the two who is able to conceive and give birth, the woman has a unique role and contribution to society that cannot be fulfilled by any man.
When Allah (swt) created Hawa (Eve, the first woman), He told Adam `alayhi salatu wassalam (may Allah send his peace and blessings on him) that Allah created his wife (zawja which literally means his pair or other half) with whom he was to live in peace and tranquility. Thus she is referred to as a source of peace and tranquility for the family and it was only after her creation that the first family could be started. As such, her name rightfully alludes to her role as a “container of life”, for mankind could not reproduce without her. Allah (swt) created the relationship of husband and wife to be interdependent and complimentary, with each partner being a garment for the other. Unfortunately with the passage of time, falsehood and injustice prevailed in the world. Alas women’s gifts to society were slowly disregarded and ignored and she was not valued for what she brought to the world.
It was only after Islam that the tides turned and women were again becoming valued and respected. In Islam, she was not only put on equal footing with men, but her exclusive role was also highlighted. The Qur’an often mentions the pains of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing that woman endure to bring life to the world. Therefore, Allah (swt) put the command to respect one’s parents right after the command to worship Him, and made a special mention of the mother’s sacrifices as described in Surah Luqman, Ayah 14:
“And We have enjoined upon man [care] for his parents. His mother carried him, [increasing her] in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years. Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the [final] destination.”
The status of the mother was further elevated by the oft-quoted hadith (narration) of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) which is cited in the Musnad of Ahmad bin Hanbal:
Mu`awiyah bin Jahima al-Sulami in which he came to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah ﷺ (Allah bless him and give him peace) I desire to go on the military expedition and I have come to consult you.’ He (Allah bless him and give him peace) asked, ‘Do you have a mother?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, ‘Stay with her because paradise lies beneath her feet.’
Scholars have shortened the meaning of the full hadith and reworded the last part to the phrase “paradise lies at the feet of the mother”. Through this hadith, it is commonly understood that by behaving kindly and taking care of one’s aging parents, particularly for one’s mother, a person will attain paradise. Like many verses of the Qur’an and hadith, however, there is deeper and additional layer of meaning associated with this hadith. It not only highlights the importance of taking care of one’s mother and meeting her needs, but it is also acknowledges her strong influence on her children as she can be the source to guide them to paradise. Furthermore, when Allah’s Messenger was asked who deserves a person’s greatest respect outside of Allah and His Prophet, the reply was one’s mother three times before one’s father. This great respect for one’s mother is not unwarranted as she spends at least three-fourths more amount of time raising her children than the father and helps her children develop the characteristics to make them successful in life.
Reflecting deeper on the relationship of a mother and child, we know that the first nine months of the child’s life is exclusively spent inside the womb of his/her mother, completely interconnected physically, emotionally, and spiritually. After birth, the child is still usually connected physically to the mother as she nurses her child for up to two years, and her child begins to learn from her speech and mannerisms. Even after becoming self sufficient, the child spends more time with the mother who is usually the one who cares for the education, safety, and nutrition of the child. Of course this is not the case for every family, but in majority cases, even with the advent of the career woman, the burden of the household and children fall 75% on the mother. With such influence on a child’s development, a mother has a heavy responsibility to direct a child to a path that will make him or her successful in this life, but most importantly, in the afterlife.
This emphasis of mothers as leaders of the future Ummah (community) are clearly illustrated in the stories mentioned in the Qur’an and Seerah (biography of the Prophet ﷺ). In the entire Qur’an, one will not find any negative attributes associated to the Prophets’ mothers, while on the contrary, one finds that Prophet Abraham’s own father died a disbeliever. As the Qur’an lacks any information on Prophet Abraham’s mother, we can only assume that she was not like her husband and at least supported Abraham’s inclinations to rebel against polytheism at a young age. We also know that both his wives were righteous women who mothered and raised great Prophets. In the story of Hajar, we see that Ismael (as) replied to Abraham’s request to sacrifice him with “You will find me patient.” These were very similar words of patience that Hajar said to Abraham when he was leaving her and her infant child in the middle of a barren desert. Even as a single mother, Hajar was able to raise a son worthy of being a Prophet and to springhead the family line of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ by ensuring their family rights to the well of zamzam and the Kaaba.
Additionally, the stories of two other great Prophets start with the stories of their mothers. The mother of Musa (as) was a righteous woman and was given inspiration directly from Allah (swt) to put him in the river only to be saved by another righteous woman, ‘Asiya, the Pharoah’s wife. In his life, Musa (as) (Moses) was further supported by his sister as well as his wife. Yet strangely there is no mention of his father. Similarly, the story of Isa (as) (Jesus) starts not only from his mother, but his grandmother. It is her prayers that were accepted by Allah (swt) when she gave birth to the mother of Isa (as).
“[Mention, O Muhammad], when the wife of `Imran said, ‘My Lord, indeed I have pledged to you what is in my womb, consecrated [for Your service], so accept this from me. Indeed, You are the Hearing, the Knowing.’ But when she delivered her, she said, ‘My Lord, I have delivered a female.’ And Allah was most knowing of what she delivered, ‘And the male is not like the female. And I have named her Mary, and I seek refuge for her in You and for her descendants from Satan, the expelled [from the Mercy of Allah].’ ” (3:35-36)
There are several lessons we can learn from the story of Maryam’s mother. First of all, while both Mary’s parents were righteous, Allah (swt) highlights the iman (faith) and righteousness of Mary’s mother as she had a direct role in deciding how she was going to raise her unborn child. At the time of conception, she was planning and praying for her child’s and grandchildren’s education, upbringing and safety, to the level of even choosing an appropriate name for her daughter and naming her Maryam, which means someone who abides to Allah’s will and worships Him constantly. The surah (chapter) named Maryam further shares details about Maryam’s upbringing. She was sent to the temple to receive the highest spiritual knowledge under the care of Zakaria (Zachary). She achieved such a high spiritual status that Allah (swt) praised her as the best of all women (3: 42) and provided her with sustenance straight from the heavens. He then chose her for a special mission, to serve as a miracle and a sign for her society.
Furthermore, while the other Prophets’ mothers are not specifically mentioned, we know that Yusuf (as) and Ben Yameen (as) had the same father as their ten other brothers but a different mother. As such, their characteristics were far different than their older siblings. Even our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, was cared for by his mother and two foster mothers (Halima and Barakah) for the first six years of his life. While his own mother died when he was young, Barakah (an Abyssinian slave woman whom the Prophet called Ummi—my mother) stayed and supported the Prophet and his family even beyond her death. He was also cared for by his uncle’s wife and the mother of Ali, Fatima bint Asad, whom the Prophet ﷺ also called mother. As such, we can see that the mothers of Prophets were not ordinary women. They themselves had a high status in their respective societies; they had impeccable character, purity, and honor; they were wise with strong iman (faith) and goodness; they contributed their time, wealth and energy for performing good deeds; and most often, they were highly educated, as was the case of the best woman in the world, Maryam, mother of Isa (as).
On the flip side, the Qur’an speaks of the case when a child disbelieved in his father who was a Prophet of Allah. As Nuh’s (as) wife is described as one of the two worse women who betrayed her husband (Qur’an 66:10), it is not surprising that her son would also follow in his mother’s footsteps in disbelieving in his father’s message.
Through these examples and illustrations, a connection can be drawn between motherhood and prophethood. These are the only two professions that are described in the Qur’an as difficult and requiring an enormous amount of patience, endurance, and unselfish love. While a Prophet has the role to educate and guide the contemporary society to the truth, the mother has the role of ensuring that her own children are rightly guided and educated. Given the heavy responsibility of bringing life to the world and raising her children for the sake of Allah, Allah (swt) did not burden women further with the role of prophethood, military expeditions, or financial responsibility. Yet the Prophet ﷺ indicated that by caring for her husband and their children, the mother is equal to the role and rewards of a ruler guarding the country’s interests or a husband providing and guarding his family’s interests since without the mother’s care, the latter two would probably not have achieved their own positions:
Ibn `Umar (May Allah be pleased with them) reported: The Prophet ﷺ said, “All of you are guardians and are responsible for your subjects. The ruler is a guardian of his subjects, the man is a guardian of his family, the woman is a guardian and is responsible for her husband’s house and his offspring; and so all of you are guardians and are responsible for your subjects.”
[Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
Thus we can surmise that in almost all of the historical accounts of great men and women, there is usually an untold story of a wise, strong, and loving mother. The stories of the Sahaba (Companions of the Prophet ﷺ) also demonstrate this. Sumayya radi Allahu `anha (may Allah be pleased with her) was not only the first martyr of Islam but she was a strong mother who raised her son Ammar to be among one of the first people to accept Islam. While little is written about Hazrat Abu Bakr’s mother, we know she was called Umm Khayr (the mother of goodness) and the Prophet ﷺ made a special prayer for her to become Muslim. Almost nothing is written about Umar Ibn Khattab’s mother, yet we know he had an idolatrous and cruel father. Yet Umar became one of the best Muslims after accepting Islam, unlike his father. And Hazrat Ali’s mother was one of the first to accept the message along with her son, while her husband Abu Talib died without pronouncing Shahada (the declaration of faith). Fatima bint Asad loved and took care of the Prophet ﷺ while he was living with them as a young orphan boy and the Prophet ﷺ called her mother and named one of his own daughters after her. When she died, he placed her in her grave with his own hands and used his shirt for her shroud, showing mercy and love to her as she showed him when he was a child.
Another famous story is that of the grandmother of Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz, who became a wise and righteous Caliph after the four rightly guided Caliphs. His grandmother was a milkmaid’s daughter who refused to adulterate the milk with water in the absence of the Caliph’s presence, saying if the Caliph is absent to witness it, Allah is not. Upon learning of her high moral character and faith, Umar ibn al-Khattab married her to his third son Asim, saying about her “such a girl would become a great mother. Her integrity is not to be weighed with few coins; it is to be measured in the scale of national values. I shall offer her the highest award in my gift, which shall also be in the highest interest of the nation.”
While history books unfortunately ignore to mention the day-to-day sacrifices of parents who raised the great men and women of their time, we all know that people do not achieve greatness in a vacuum. They had to learn to walk and talk like each one of us, and those initial early stages of their lives set the stage for their greater achievements and characteristics later.
More contemporary examples of the connection between mother and child include Stalin and Hitler. At an older age when Stalin asked his mother, “Why did you beat me so hard?” Stalin’s mother replied, “That’s why you turned out so well.” While her intentions were to have him become a priest, her own actions as an adulteress and also living in a broken and violent family situation led Stalin to go on a different path. A similar case was with Hitler’s mother and father, which started with adultery and poor parental role modeling. Yet these two infamous men were close to their mothers who were their main caretakers as their fathers passed away or left early from their lives.
Furthermore, in my personal experiences working with parents and children, I see that children’s behavior resembles much more their mother’s behaviors than their father’s. I also personally know of people who had embraced Islam, but later turned away from Islam fearing what their mother would say if she found out. Her influence and the fear of her disappointment were so great that they gave up Islam for her sake.
Thus, we see the strong influence that mothers have in their societies. Recent studies have also shown that there is a direct link between a mother’s well-being and education to a child’s well-being and education. Thus if a mother has a good upbringing and is well-educated, she will raise a child who is also well-mannered and educated. Thus the Prophet ﷺ has said that one who raises their daughters well and educates them will enter Paradise, as she will grow up and become a mother who will continue that barakah (blessing) in the form of raising her own children with the proper education and iman.
Adab, which is the etiquette and manners of goodness, respect, honesty, and integrity, is first and foremost taught by the mother. Consequently, a child who sits at the mother’s feet—as young children often do—will also follow in her footsteps. Thus, she can be a source of guidance or a source of misguidance depending on her own nature. For this reason, the Prophet ﷺ advised that when a Muslim man is seeking a wife, he should marry one who has sound aqeedah (creed) more than fixating on her beauty, status, or wealth as she will be the mother of his children and the future generation of believers. Even with a non-Muslim mother, a Muslim needs to show respect and love since she has taught him something of value that has allowed the person to recognize and embrace the truth of Islam.
Like the archers in the battle of Uhud, mothers have a crucial yet sometimes unexciting job of protecting the Ummah from the stealth enemies. If a mother leaves her station unprotected, chasing after the booty of this life, her children can fall prey to the media propaganda, peer pressure and other worldly distractions. Mothers have always been the backbone of societies and their disintegration means the disintegration of the future Ummah. While the term “mothers of the believers” refers to the Prophet’s wives, in general all women have the potential of fulfilling the role as a mother of a believer. If a Muslim leads even one person to the path of Islam, his/her place is in Jannah (Paradise). Imagine the countless Muslim mothers bearing the good fruits of tomorrow. Thus, it is because of her suffering and sacrifices that she is forgiven every sin when she brings a child into the world, or earns her martyrdom if she were to die in childbirth or nursing.
In conclusion, while men and fathers strive to lead the current generation, mothers serve as leaders of the future generation. Consequently, if we want to foresee what the future ummah will look like, we must observe the state of today’s Muslim mothers. If our ummah is serious about ensuring a better and more hopeful future, we need to first ensure that our current Muslim mothers are receiving proper support, security, education, and respect to do their jobs well. When educated Muslim mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and friends help in raising believing and practicing children, it is then that insha‘Allah (God willing) the next generation will be blessed with leaders and scholars such as Imam Bukhari and Aisha bint Abu Bakr (ra). So when any woman discounts her role as a mother, I would like to reminder her that she is the leader of the future of Islam and that she is responsible for laying the road towards Paradise for the children at her feet.
About the Author
Parisa S. Popalzai is an education consultant and author. She earned her BS in Management Science at UC San Diego with highest honors, her MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and her PhD from the UCLA Center of Near East Studies with a focus on Islamic Studies, public policy and education. She helped with the development of the non-profit organization called Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) and worked on the California statewide initiatives for preschool education. She was a principal of a large Islamic school in Southern California, helped start a university in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and a school for disabled children in Kabul, Afghanistan.