What comes to your mind when I say, “A beautiful Muslim woman”? Many of us may think of a woman in hijab (headscarf) or modest attire. Hijab is indeed beautiful, but by thinking Islamic beauty is only because of hijab, we are perpetuating the idea that beauty exclusively applies to an image.
While our religion teaches us to take care of our bodies and to maintain a pleasant physical appearance, it also emphasizes the need for every individual to develop an inward beauty: a beauty that comes with knowing Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) and obeying Him, and that transcends the mere image of a person. This inward beauty can actually become so radiant that it manifests in a person’s external appearance. It is for this reason that some of the righteous people of the past would comment on the physical beauty of those who prayed during the night or performed other righteous deeds. Our Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) mentioned again and again the beauty of he or she who embodies good character. He ﷺ also emphasized to those seeking marriage to look for the one who is beautiful as a result of their character and religion. In this way, Islam defines beauty as something more profound than just the physical.
Our history is filled with beautiful women, women who were devout in their service to God and who lived lives of purpose and meaning. Their beauty is so much more than physical appearance; we see in them the beauty of character, morals, deeds, speech and lifestyle.
While there are multitudes of incredible women to select from in our tradition, I have specifically chosen not as well known women who will shatter our narrow perceptions of beauty and break the stereotypes of how a “righteous Muslim woman” should or should not be. Here is a brief glimpse into their lives.
A West African Beauty: Princess Nana Asma’u
We begin with the story of Nana Asma’u, the daughter of Uthman don Fodio, who was not only a renowned scholar of her time, but a poet, a political and social activist, and a creative intellectual. She is considered to be one of the greatest women of 19th century Islamic communities. She was born in 1793 in modern-day Nigeria. A princess with an impressive lineage, she was named after a hero in Islamic heritage—Asma, the daughter of Abu Bakr, who was a strong woman in her support of Islam. She was raised in a supportive Islamic household, having not only memorized the Qur’an, but extensively learned the Islamic sciences and four languages as well.
Asma’u believed in women having a role in society and she led the women of her time by example throughout her life. One of her greatest achievements was compiling the extensive collection of writings of her father after he passed away when she was 27. The degree of respect the scholarly community had for Asma’u is seen here because they chose her to complete such a monumental task. Not only did this job require someone trustworthy, but also someone who was familiar with his writings and was well-versed in the Islamic sciences.
When she was a mother of two and pregnant with her third child, Asma’u completed the translation of the Qur’an in her native tongue and also translated her father’s work into the various dialects of the community. This shows her concern for her community and her desire to bring the knowledge of the Qur’an and Islam to her people.
Asma’u saw a dire need for the teachings of Islam to reach the women in her community and beyond the Sokoto region. She saw that women were absent from the circles of knowledge and stayed in their homes as they tended to their familial duties. Asma’u came up with a brilliant idea to not only teach these women but to teach them in the comfort of their homes. It was then that she gathered knowledgeable women in her community and trained them as teachers. This group, known as jajis, traveled to neighboring communities to bring Islamic knowledge to secluded women. This movement was called the Yan-taru movement, which means “those who congregate together” and “sisterhood”. Asma’u taught the jajis to use lesson plans, poetry, and creative mnemonic devices in their teachings.
Nana Asma’u, by the grace and guidance of Allah (swt), revolutionized the way her community learned Islam. She brought the knowledge of the religion to the people in an easy to remember fashion and wrote in their language. Her legacy is a legacy of scholarship and activism, and her name is still used today in West Africa.
A Beautiful Healer: Al-Shifa bint Abdullah
Al-Shifa was one of the early Muslims at the time of the Prophet ﷺ. Her given name was Layla and she embraced Islam in Makkah. Al-Shifa (which means a healer by God’s permission) was the nickname given to her because of her extensive knowledge of ruqya (the art of reciting supplications to use for healing), which she practiced during her days before accepting Islam. She remained in Makkah until the community of Muslims migrated to Madinah.
Until she gained the permission from the Prophet ﷺ, Al-Shifa did not practice ruqya. The Prophet ﷺ not only gave her permission to do so, but he asked her to teach it to his wife, Hafsa.
Al-Shifa had another valuable skill, which was literacy. Having learned to read and write early on in her life, she used this skill to help the Muslim community. She taught many of the Muslim women to read and write, including some of the wives of the Prophet ﷺ.
We see her name today in the collections such as Bukhari as a narrator in the chain. Her son and some of her grandchildren as well are mentioned in these chains as having narrated from her. Al-Shifa was a special member of the community, having unique skills that made her stand out amongst the early women of Islam.
A Beautiful Worshipper: Mu’adha al-‘Adawiyah
Our next beauty, while known for her scholarly endeavors, is a woman I would like to highlight for her worship and asceticism. Mu’adha, from Basra (Iraq), was from the generation of Muslims who were born during the era of the Companions. She studied with the major companions including A’isha radi Allahu `anha (may God send peace and blessings on her), ibn Abbas (ra), and Ali (ra). This generation, known as Al-Tabi`in (those who followed), was the generation of many luminaries of Islamic history.
Whenever her name is mentioned in classical books of history and hadith (prophetic narrations), two things are always mentioned: her worship and her marriage. Her husband, also a scholar, was Silah ibn Ashim. Whenever he is mentioned, it is noted that he was her wife, and vice-versa when she was mentioned. They were a tag-team of knowledge and their love for each other was visible to those around them. Their relationship was narrated to us through her students who would share how she spoke of him after he died. In one instance she said, “I do not wish to live a longer life in this world for the sake of pleasures or comfort; rather I wish to live longer to come closer to my Lord so that He may unite me with my husband and children in Paradise.”
She was known for her worship, especially the night vigils (qiyam al-layl). She used to stand up during the night, supplicating to Allah (swt) and asking for His salvation. She would discipline and admonish herself by telling herself things like, “I am amazed at how I can sleep now while I know there will be a lengthy rest in darkness of the grave.” She also advised her daughter as she cried, “My dear daughter, be of those who worship Allah with hope and fear. Hope will fill us with serenity on the Day we meet our Lord, and fear will keep us safe on the Day mankind stands before their Lord.”
While on her deathbed, these two qualities of her worship and her marriage were displayed again. When one of her students visited her, she saw her cry and then laugh. Those around her asked, “What made you cry, and what made you laugh?” She said, “The thought of not being able to fast, pray, and remember Allah made me cry. As for my laughing, I saw my husband who died before me wearing two beautiful green garments among a large group of people. By Allah, I have never seen more beautiful people in this world—so I laughed at him.” She died before the next prayer time.
A Modern-Day Beauty: Bint al-Shati’
Our final beauty is from a more recent generation, close to our time. Aisha bint AbdulRahman, known by her pen name Bint al-Shati’, died in 1998 at the age of 85. She was born in Damietta, Egypt, in 1913. She began her studies early, memorizing the Qur’an at age five. It was accepted during that time period for women not to go to school, yet Aisha convinced her family to let her enroll in school and study in a neighboring city. Her father, a scholar at the prestigious Al-Azhar University, opposed this idea at first but embraced it at the urging of Aisha and her grandfather, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar. By 1950, Aisha became a lecturer at various universities and completed up to a doctorate degree. In 1962, she was appointed the president of the Arabic and Islamic Studies Department at Ain Shams University in Cairo.
Aisha recognized the need for positive Muslim women role models during this time in Egypt. Using her knowledge and writing abilities, Aisha began an extensive collection of writings from books, research papers and newspaper articles advocating for women’s rights and bringing Islam to the common folk. She chose the pen name Bint al-Shati’, meaning “daughter of the riverbank” to pay homage to her childhood near the Nile delta. She wrote about issues of social reform such as a woman’s role in advancing her family and raising awareness of the issues surrounding the peasants of the countryside. She wrote about Arabic literature, the Prophetic biography (seerah) and Qur’anic exegesis. One of her most famous works was the detailed biographies of the wives of the Prophet ﷺ, a work which was geared towards the Muslims of her generation.
Aisha’s home life was strong as well. Her husband not only encouraged her as she wrote and taught, but he even supervised her masters. This shows how their relationship was based on mutual support and love for one another. She won many awards during her life, including the prestigious King Faisal’s Award for Literature and Islamic Studies from Saudi Arabia in 1994. Aisha left over 40 books and hundreds of articles when she died in 1998, and her name is still mentioned as a modern woman scholar and social worker.
Now that you have read about these women, do you not think they are beautiful? Do you not think the beauty of a woman goes beyond her physical features? We learned from the creativity and scholarship of Asma’u, the pioneering qualities of Al-Shifa, the spirituality and worship of Mu’adha, and the courage and advocacy of Aisha. These women who were from all over the world with many centuries between them teach us the importance of having high aspirations. Each of them had beautifully distinct qualities that they used to better themselves and those around them. They knew of their talents and aspired to do great things with them. By expanding our notions of beauty to outside of the purely physical realm, we can focus on what is really important: utilizing our God-given talents to help ourselves in this life and the next. Let us focus more on our inward beauty, the beauty that comes with believing in and worshipping God, and pray we can be like these women in their beautiful devotion.
Yusha’u, Jameel M. (2004). Nana Asma’u Tradtion: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of Women Rights in Islam During the 19th Century DanFodio’s Islamic Reform. Retrieved from: http://www.gamji.com/article3000/NEWS3642.htm
Al-‘Affani, S. (2009) Ruhban al-Layl. Cairo: Dar al-‘Affani (Arabic).
Bint al-Shati’ article (2008). Retrieved from: http://www.alarab.co.uk/Previouspages/North%20Africa%20Times/2008/04/27-04/NAT242704.pdf