My piece for the International Museum of Women’s Muslima exhibition was published today here. It was shortened slightly from the original, which I’ve included below.
I’ve been thinking about how she encouraged me to be myself.
There she was, a single mother of three, managing a family business that her late father had entrusted her with. She worked with such professionalism, poise and proficiency that the community of men surrounding her held her in high esteem. Known for her hard work and competence, she was also regarded as a symbol of compassion and devotion to God. A number of men, enamoured by her vitality and charm, attempted to court her. After two marriages left her widowed, she would consistently turn a cold shoulder to these suitors, not interested in forging another bond in matrimony.
Until, that is, she met him.
He entered her heart when she wasn’t expecting it could open again to enclose the intense sensations of love and admiration that were unexpectedly flourishing within her. There’s always one person, it seems, who has the potential to awaken feelings of affection and enliven our drab daily routines. She was 40, while he, at 25, was determined, trustworthy and beaming with the integrity, intellect and virtue she sought after but rarely encountered.
Inspired by her feelings of fondness, she decided to do what was most natural: she proposed marriage to this gentleman 15 years her junior. Taken aback and flattered, he enthusiastically accepted. What followed was a marriage teeming with mutual reverence, respect, love and support that brought four new lives into the world, all of them girls.
It was almost three years ago when I first came across this story – the story of Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
At the time, I was beginning to uncover the layers of my faith in God that, for most of my life I’d allowed to remain dormant, buried in the background of my consciousness. My faith languished as I actively pursued a career in journalism and sought successes I deemed to be incompatible with the rigorous demands of spiritual development. Five daily prayers, regular fasting, remembrance through repeated supplications, and periodic acts of charity would be too difficult and impractical to incorporate into a modern lifestyle that revolved around long hours in the office, household chores and engagements with family and friends.
Or so I imagined.
As my spiritual radar became activated, the very expressions of faith I had long ignored nestled into my daily schedule seamlessly. Islam, which refers to a state of mind whereby one strives to live in complete devotion to God, or Allah in Arabic, was, I discovered, natural and easy. Aligning daily routines around acts of worship to God, rather than attempting to append spiritual activity here and there where convenient, became the only logical way for me to attain a consistent state of peace of mind.
Khadija taught me these lessons on devotion more than any other human being. She became my benchmark. By any measure in today’s world, she would embody the modern successful woman I’ve sought to become. We would commend her for the ambition that motivated her success, and for her ability to delicately balance this with qualities of compassion and maternal tenderness. We would applaud her for being so confident and audacious to propose marriage to a much younger man.
“Her chastity, dignity and elegance were virtues widely known and talked about,” writes Resit Haylamaz in a succinct biography on Khadija’s life, which describes her pivotal role in the Prophet’s journey to discovering Islam. “In today’s terms, she would be called an international businesswoman; she had many people working for her in different countries—in the Roman and Persian Empires as well as the Gassasina, Hira and Damascus regions.”
We would admire, too, Khadija’s unwavering faith in the one Almighty God at a time when the prevailing mainstream pressures surrounding her rejected this belief. She was the very first person in history to embrace Islam. When Muhammad, the last of a line of prophets including Abraham and Jesus, peace be upon them, received his first divine revelation, he returned home agitated and fearful. Seeking the comfort of his wife, he asked her to cover him with a blanket.
As she embraced him, Khadija advised Muhammad to “persevere and be steadfast.” “By Him in whose hand is my soul, I believe that you are the prophet of this nation,” she said, offering her spouse what a complementary partner should: encouragement and solace in times of trial.
During their 25-year marriage, Khadija and Muhammad endured enormous hardship as the predominant tribe in Mecca, where they lived, opposed the development of Islam. Muslims were persecuted, trade with them was forbidden and, eventually, Khadija was forced to leave the city of her birth along with other believers. The couple, who endured the death of two young sons, were exiled and compelled to live in hunger and poverty. Khadija could have forsaken her husband in favour of wealth and a life of comfort. She chose instead to remain steadfast in the face of cultural pressures to conform and, in the end, one of Mecca’s wealthiest women left the world, at 65, from a starving community in exile.
Her firm faith inspired my quest to orient my life around actions that would help me attain spiritual maturity. Khadija’s example also strengthened my resolve in the face of often-inflexible cultural distortions of Islam. As I acquainted myself with the mother of believers, the barriers that I imagined were hindering my path, particularly as I crossed the age of 30 without marriage, crumbled.
I grew up in a household of women. As circumstances placed a good deal of financial responsibility on me from a relatively young age, I ventured out into the world on my own to earn a living and carve a slice of success by employing the skills of writing, editing, researching and critical thinking God had given me. Along the way, I haven’t yet forged a bond strong enough to lead to marriage. As I embraced Islam, I realised that I didn’t need to regard this as a failure. God, after all, times each milestone with a precision and perfection that we simply cannot comprehend.
The seemingly impossible quest of trying to balance financial responsibilities toward my family with the demands of Arab culture that dictated I should marry young suddenly became achievable. Rather than denounce my circumstances for not conforming with social norms, I needed to turn off the surrounding noise and focus on accepting the path God had chosen for me: one that was uniquely mine, just as Khadija’s was uniquely her’s.
By embracing my faith, I’ve discovered how to separate myself from the emphasis society places materialism, consumerism, success and sex appeal to achieving lasting happiness. I’ve learned how to involve God intimately in each daily activity, knowing as we’re informed in the Holy Quran, that He is closer to me than my jugular vein. That my soul, too, is in His hands.
There is an intrinsic spiritual equality in the pages of the Quran, which charts out the path individuals take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the facade of modern life. God gives each human soul regardless of gender the chance to attain salvation through acts of prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. The simple, equalising and inherently rationale premise of Islam underscores its appeal to many women, including myself.
In Khadija’s example, and with God’s guidance, I have found more liberty in submitting myself to God in Islam than any feminist ideology, job title, self-help or how-to book, or piece of clothing could ever collectively even come close to giving me. Each day as I pray, and when I fast, give charity, and strive to apply qualities of virtue and consistency to all of my personal and professional relationships, Khadija, may God be pleased with her, is nestled in my heart. For me, she symbolises our potential as women to break through the mould our societies strive to dictate, and find fulfilment and meaning in the uniquely tailored trail God has fashioned for each one of us.