Female Warriors and Nurses in Early Islamic History
By Elmira Akhmetova
We are commonly taught that women in Islam are not advised to take part in battlefields. While discussing the rights of women to be selected as a caliph, Muslim scholars commonly deny it because women are considered incapable to lead a prayer and take part in battlefields as a military commander. Readings of early Islamic history, however, indicate that women during the time of the Prophet SAW were not restrained from fighting! But it was not compulsory for them to take part in battlefields as for men.
Throughout Islamic history starting from the time of the Prophet (SAW), there were many examples of Muslim women who made significant contributions to the improvement of welfare of their societies and public healthcare. The names of nineteen women are cited in Islamic biographical collections (sīrah books) as having participated in battles during the time of the Prophet (SAW), mostly as water bearers and treating the sick and wounded.[i]
The first professional nurse in the history of Islam was a woman named Rufaidah bint Sa’ad, from the Bani Aslam tribe of the Khazraj tribal confederation in Madinah. She lived during the time of Muhammad (SAW) and was among the first people in Madinah to accept Islam. Rufaidah received her training and knowledge in medical care from her father, a physician, Sa’d Al-Aslamy, by working as his assistant. Very soon, she became a professional nurse capable to treat sick and wounded independently, and a capable leader and organizer able to mobilize others with medical skills when needed.
In peace time, Rufaidah would treat the ill in her tent set up outside of the mosque of the Prophet (SAW). During war times, according to Omar Hasan Kasule, she was leading groups of volunteer nurses who went to the battle-fields, and would treat casualties and injured soldiers.[ii] Together with her team, she participated in the battles of Badr, Uhud, Khandaq and Khaibar, and the Prophet (SAW) used to direct that the casualties be carried to her hospital tent. At the battle of the Trench (Khandaq), for instance, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) instructed that Sa’ad bin Ma’adh who had been injured in battle be moved to her tent. Rufaidah nursed him, carefully removed the arrow from his forearm and achieved haemostasis. As cited in sīrah books, the Prophet visited Sa’ad in the hospital tent several times a day.[iii] It is also narrated that when the Prophet’s army was getting ready to go to the battle of Khaibar, Rufaidahand the group of volunteer nurses went to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). They asked him for permission “Oh messenger of Allah, we want to go out with you to the battle and treat the injured and help Muslims as much as we can”. The Prophet gave them permission to go. The nurse volunteers did such a good job that the Prophet (SAW) assigned a share of the booty to Rufaidah. Her share was equivalent to that of soldiers who had actually fought. This was in recognition of her medical and nursing work.[iv]
Rufaidah did not confine her nursing to the clinical situation alone. She went out to the community and tried to solve the social problems that lead to disease. She could be considered both a public health nurse and a social worker. Biographical sources describe Rufaidah as a woman possessing the qualities of an ideal nurse: compassionate, empathetic, a good leader and a great teacher, passing on her clinical knowledge to others she trained and worked with. The names of women who worked with Rufaidah were Umm Ammara, Aminah, Umm Ayman, Safiyat, Umm Sulaim, and Hind. Other Muslim women who were famous as nurses were Ku’ayibat, Amiinat bint Abi Qays al Ghifariyat, Umm ‘Atiyyah al Ansariyat, and Nusaibat bint Ka’ab al Maziniyyat.[v]
Another famous name mentioned in the biographical sources from the early Islam is Umm Umara al-Ansariyyah (her real name was Nusaybah bint Ka’ab), who acted as a nurse and brave fighter during the time of several battles,[vi]including Uhud (625 CE), Hunayn (630 CE) and Yamamah (632 CE).[vii] During the battle of Uhud, Umm ‘Umarah’s sword skills astonished those who saw her. The Prophet (SAW) later stated that in whichever direction he turned in the battlefield he could see her defending and protecting him. The Prophet (SAW) was very impressed with strength and courage of Umm ‘Umarah RA. He smiled and thanked Allah who gave her that success.
Umm ‘Umarah RA herself described her efforts in protecting the Prophet (SAW) accordingly. The Muslims were on the verge of defeat and they were scattering. She, along with her two sons and husband tried to surround the Prophet (SAW) in order to ward off and repel any attack on him. She had a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. If the enemy had been on foot and not on horseback, they would have slain all of them. When one of the enemies attacked her she warded off the attack with her shield; she then pulled at the bridle of the horse to turn it around. Taking this opportunity, she plunged her sword into the horse’s back. The wounded horse fell, taking the rider with him. Seeing this, the Prophet (SAW) called out to ‘Abdullah bin Umm ‘Umarah to help his mother. And together she and her son finished off the enemy soldier.
During this battle of Uhud she sustained at least twelve major wounds; the deepest one, the one on her shoulder, was so deep that she fainted; and it took a year for it to heal. When she regained consciousness her first question was about the well-being of the Prophet (SAW), rather than about her own sons or husband. When she learned that he was fine, she thanked Allah.
Later Umm ‘Umarah RA with other twenty women took part in the Battle of Khaibar, and they were given a share of the booty of war. Umm ‘Umarah RA got expensive dresses and jewellery and two Dinars. In the Battle of Hunayn, she had fought valiantly and received some part of the booty. Later in the battle against Musaylamah Al-Kadthab, she sustained eleven wounds and her arm was cut. She was sixty years old at that time. Khalid bin Walid RA, the General of the Muslim army, boiled some oil and immersed her arm in it to cure her wounded arm; but for Umm ‘Umarah RA, her happiness at the death of Musaylamah was much greater than her grief at the loss of her arm. Her son, Habib bin Zaid Ansari was martyred in this battle, slain by Musaylamah himself.
Another great woman, Umm ‘Atiyyah, whose real name was Nusayba bint Harith al-Ansari, lived during the time of the Prophet (SAW) and also took care of casualties on the battlefields and provided them with water, food and first aid. In addition, she performed circumcisions.[viii]
The name of the companion of the Prophet (SAW), Al-Shifa bint Abdullah, is also worthy to mention here. Her real name was Layla, but the nickname, Al-Shifa (the healing) was given for her profession as a nurse and medical practitioner. She belonged to the ‘Adi tribe of Quraish[ix] and had a strong presence in the early Muslim history as she was one of the learnt and extremely intelligent women of that time. She was literate at a time of illiteracy. She was involved in public administration and skilled in medicine. Al-Shifa used to use a preventative treatment against ant bites and the Prophet (SAW) approved of her method and requested her to train other Muslim women. As is narrated, after the migration to Madinah, Al-Shifa approached the Prophet (SAW), and said, “O Messenger of Allah, I used to do preventative medicine for ant bites during Jahiliyya (period of ignorance), and I want to demonstrate it for you.” He said, “Demonstrate it.” Al-Shifa said, “So I demonstrated it for him, and he said that [continue to] do this, and teach it to Hafsah [a wife of the Prophet].” In another version, he said, “Why don’t you teach this one [indicating Hafsah] the preventative medicine against ant bites, just as you taught her how to write?”[x]She is also known in the history of Islam as being appointed by the caliph ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab as a muhtasib (market inspector) in Madinah.[xi]
Very soon, starting already from the beginning of the 8th century, the governments began building mobile and permanent hospitals in various parts of the Muslim world to provide healthcare for the public, especially for poor and needy. As a result, skilled women with medical knowledge began being employed at hospitals, which had been called Bimaristan. The first official female nurses, from Sudan, were hired at Al-Qayrawan (Kairouan) hospital, built in 830 by the order of the Aghlabid ruler, Prince Ziyadat Allah I of Ifriqiya (r. 817–838).[xii]
[i] Ruth Roded, Women is Islamic Biographical Collections: From Ibn Sa’d to Who’s Who, (The United States of America: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994), 35.
[xii] M. Surty, Muslim Contribution to the Development of Hospitals, (Birmingham: Quranic Arabic Foundation, 1996), 66. See also, Salah Zaimeche, Al-Qayrawan (Tunisia), (United Kingdom: FSTC Limited, 2004), 7.
Writer is a faculty member at the Department of History and Civilization, International Islamic University Malaysia