BORN: c. 555 • Mecca, Arabia
DIED: 619 • Mecca, Arabia
Arabian religious leader
Khadijah was the first wife of Muhammad (c. 570–632; see entry), the founder of the Islamic faith. She was his first convert to the new religion, and she helped him spread its teachings by using her wealth and influence. Khadijah was forty when she took Muhammad as her husband. At the time he was employed by the international trading system that she ran. She supported him when he declared he had received a vision from Allah and pronounced himself the prophet, or divine messenger, of a new religion. Khadijah has been seen as playing a significant role in Islamic history because of her loyalty to her husband. She is also a fascinating figure in her own right. Despite the fact that women were seen as second-class citizens during the period in which she lived, she became one of the world's first successful international businesswomen.
"And whoever does good deeds whether male or female and he (or she) is a believer—these shall enter the garden, and they shall not be dealt with a jot unjustly."
—The Holy Qurʾan, 4:124
A woman on her own
Khadijah al-Kubra, or tul Kubra, was born around 555 ce in the city of Mecca in Arabia (modern-day Saudia Arabia). At the time Mecca was an important trading center at the crossroads of major trade routes such as India's Spice Road and Arabia's Incense Road. Spices from India, silk from China, and farm products from east Africa all arrived at the port of Yemen and were then taken by camel caravan to Mecca. From there the goods were transported to Syria and then on to the rest of the Mediterranean world.
Mecca was considered the region's trading capital, and its leading citizens were merchants. Foremost in the merchant class was a tribe of ancient and powerful Bedouins ("desert dwellers" in Arabic) called the Quraysh. In addition to their trading business, the Quraysh had gained custody of the Kaʾaba in the fifth century. The Kaʾaba was the central shrine for pre-Islamic Arabs. It held idols, or images used as objects of worship, and the Black Stone, a sacred stone which was said to come from heaven. The Kaʾaba was a major holy site of the Arab people, and the Quraysh made money from the many pilgrims that came to worship.
Khadijah was from the Quraysh tribe. Her father was Khuwalid bin Asad bin Abdul Uzza bin Qusayy. Khuwalid was both a member of the Quraysh of Mecca and distantly related to members of the Bani Hashim clan. The Bani Hashim was the clan of Muhammad Mustafa, who would later become the Prophet Muhammad. Like the other Quraysh of Mecca, Khuwalid had made his fortune in the trading business. He sent out two caravans every year: one to Yemen in the winter to retrieve goods, and one to Syria in the summer to deliver goods.
At the age of fifteen Khadijah was married for the first time to Abu Halah Hind ibn Zarah, a member of the Makhzumi clan. The couple had three sons named al-Tahir, Halah, and Hind. Historians believe that Khadijah's first husband died and that she later was married a second time, to Ateeq ibn ʿAaith, also of the Makhzumi clan. The fate of her second husband is unclear, with some sources reporting that he also died and others that he and Khadijah divorced.
Khadijah's mother died in 575, when Khadijah was around twenty. Her father died a decade later, and the children then inherited the family's wealth. Only Khadijah seemed to inherit her father's commercial skills as well. Her brothers were apparently uninterested in the caravan business, so Khadijah took over its operation. She was advised by an uncle but made decisions on her own. This was very unusual for a woman in Arab society at the time, as women were generally considered much less important and intelligent than men. Typically only male children could inherit lands or businesses from their parents. Women had no rights and were thought to bring bad luck. Sometimes female infants were even buried alive by fathers who were disappointed not to have had a son.
Khadijah proved to be a worthy successor to her father, however, eventually mounting caravans as large as those of all her competitors in Mecca combined. She had a clever business sense and was able to buy and sell goods at the right time to make the most money. She was also a skilled judge of men, hiring caravan agents, or guides, who later demonstrated excellent navigation skills through the desert. The business prospered under her leadership.
Khadijah was known in Mecca as "the Pure One," "the Princess of Quraysh," and "the Princess of Mecca" because of her noble ancestry and the good deeds she performed. She helped provide for the poor in the city and supported all of her relatives financially. Historians believe that Khadijah, unlike her other family members and most Arabs of the time, did not worship idols. The pre-Islamic world had many deities (gods and goddesses) to whom the people prayed, and more than three hundred of these were housed in the Kaʾaba. Among these deities, Allah was considered by most Arabs to be the supreme god.
Khadijah was most likely influenced religiously by a distant cousin named Waraqah ibn Nawfal. He was a religious scholar and a believer in the unity of the creator, or in the existence of a single supreme being. Waraqah claimed that the Arabs were wrong to worship many different idols and deities. Historians believe that Waraqah's teachings caused Khadijah to reject polytheism, or the belief in many deities, in favor of monotheism, the belief in a single deity.
Wife of Muhammad
Although many men sought to wed Khadijah after her second marriage had ended, she instead devoted herself to her children and her business. One of the most important responsibilities Khadijah had as a caravan owner was the selection of caravan agents. These agents were essential to her business, as it was their duty to cross the desert to Syria in the summer leading huge caravans of camels. In the summer of 595, Khadijah had difficulty finding an agent. A relative of hers, Abu Talib, learned of her problem through the guild of merchants. Abu Talib went to her to offer the services of his young nephew, Muhammad, for whom he had become responsible after the death of Muhammad's parents. Though the young man had never led a caravan alone, he had accompanied his uncle on trips and was considered trustworthy. Khadijah hired the young man for a trial run, and the caravan proved a huge success.
Muhammad was accompanied on the caravan by a servant of Khadijah's named Maysara. They traveled by night to avoid the heat of the day and reached Syria in a month. They sold their goods, which included raisins, dried dates, perfumes, animal hides, and woven items, for cash or traded them for other goods that they could bring back for sale in Mecca. The servant Maysara observed the negotiations carried out by Muhammad and was pleased. Muhammad managed to make twice the profit of the usual caravan. When Muhammad returned to Mecca several months later, Khadijah was impressed by the stories Maysara told about him. Maysara told Khadijah how Muhammad had handled himself well in his business dealings and how absolute strangers had come to respect him quickly. Khadijah assigned him a managerial position until the winter, when she hired him to lead the winter caravan to Yemen and paid him three times the usual rate. The second trip was also successful.
Respect apparently turned to love, as Khadijah had either her servant or a close friend ask Muhammad if he would be interested in marrying her. She was forty at the time; Muhammad was twenty-five. He agreed to the proposal, and the two were married in 595. By all accounts the marriage was a happy one. The two lived in Khadijah's residence, which was off the main bazaar, or marketplace, in Mecca. Shortly after the marriage, the wealthy Khadijah retired from the caravan trade and focused on her husband and family. Muhammad, who had always been a thoughtful young man, also left the business world and began meditating on the nature of the world.
Women in Islam
Khadijah was just one of several strong wives taken by Muhammad over his lifetime. In total he married more than twenty women. One of his favorites, Aʾisha, was not only a judge but also a political activist and clever battlefield commander. Another of Muhammad's wives was an imam, or Muslim religious leader.
Yet if these women were living in parts of the modern-day Muslim world, as Lisa Beyer observed in Time magazine, "they might be paying a high price for their independence." The Qurʾan regards women as individuals responsible for their moral actions, and many Muslim women have taken leadership positions in religion and government. Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, however, extremists in many Muslim countries have taken away women's rights, confining them to their homes and requiring them to wear veils.
To these extremists, women are wives and mothers and should always be obedient to men. So-called honor killings, or the slaying of women who have been raped or have committed adultery (had sexual intercourse with someone other than their spouse), are seldom investigated by the law. In most Muslim countries women must wear the Islamic veil at all times, are forbidden to drive, and may travel only when accompanied by a husband or male relative. Muhammad himself would likely disapprove of these restrictions to personal liberty that are occurring among followers of the religion he founded. He was a believer in strong women like his wife, Khadijah. He outlawed female infanticide and established the rights of women to obtain education and to hold property.
Together the couple had two sons, Qasim and Abdullah, both of whom died in infancy. Many sources claim that all four of Khadijah's daughters, including the youngest, Fatima (c. 605–633), were born to Khadijah and Muhammad. As Khadijah was forty at the time of her third marriage, however, it is possible some of these daughters were actually from her second marriage. In 606 the couple become responsible for the upbringing of ʿAlī ibn Abī Tālib (c. 600–661; see entry), the six-year-old son of Abu Talib. Ali was a much younger cousin of Muhammad but was raised as his son. He later became one of Muhammad's most famous followers and married his daughter, Fatima.
As he grew older, Muhammad became increasingly thoughtful and reflective and went on trips to Mount Hira, near Mecca, to meditate. On one such trip in 610 he experienced a powerful vision in which the angel Jabraʾil, or Gabriel, appeared to him and had him recite the words that later became part of the Qurʾan, the Muslim holy book:
Recite in the name of thy Lord who created
Man from the blood coagulated.
Recite! The Lord is wondrous kind
Who by the pen has taught mankind
Things they knew not.
Shaken by this experience, Muhammad returned to his wife, Khadijah, who assured him that he was not insane. She convinced him that he had indeed received a message from Allah. Her cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, spoke with Muhammad and also became convinced that he was a messenger from Allah, and said that his coming had been foretold in Jewish and Christian scriptures. Muhammad continued to have visions, telling only those closest to him about them.
Midwife of Islam
Khadijah's support helped Muhammad believe in his visions and establish a new faith that he called Islam, which means "submission" in Arabic. Its followers were called Muslims, or "ones who submit." Muhammad began to travel and spread the word of Islam throughout Mecca. He preached belief in one god, Allah, who he claimed created the world and sat in judgment over humanity. Muhammad spoke of a life after death and of a god who was fair and would reward good deeds on Earth. Many poor Meccans and some merchants responded to Muhammad's call, but the new religion quickly earned Muhammad and Khadijah enemies. Many Meccans resented Muhammad saying that the traditional gods and goddesses were to be replaced by his Allah. They were satisfied with life the way it was. The powerful Quraysh fought against the new religion because they feared that Muhammad would destroy the Kaʾaba rather than embrace it for Islam.
Khadijah and her husband became increasingly isolated in Mecca as many of the new Muslim converts left the city for Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). Abu Talib, Muhammad's uncle, made clear to the town that Muhammad was under the protection of the Bani Hashim clan and that no harm should come to him. Eventually, however, Muhammad, Khadijah, their family, and their remaining followers had to hide from the powerful Quraysh in a wild mountain valley. They lived a grim and difficult life, and Khadijah was forced to use most of her money to buy water and supplies for the faithful. This isolation lasted for several years, until 619. In the end, however, the fight against Muhammad and the Bani Hashim clan was given up, and Muhammad and his family returned to Mecca. Worn out by the harsh conditions she had lived under, Khadijah died not long after returning home. Abu Talib also died soon thereafter. Muhammad remained in Mecca for three more years before leaving for Medina, where he was welcomed as the Prophet and Islam began to thrive.
Khadijah guided the religion of Islam through its early hardships by her love and devotion to her husband. Her belief in Muhammad's visions helped give him the faith to create his new religion. She also selflessly used her wealth to insure the survival of both their family and their new faith. Khadijah has long been revered in the Muslim world as a symbol of virtue and loyalty.
For More Information
Razwy, Syed A. A. Khadijah tul Kubra: The Wife of the Prophet Muhammad: May Allah Be Pleased with Her: A Short History of Her Life. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qurʾan, 1944.
Beyer, Lisa. "Life Behind the Veil." Time (November 1, 1990): 37.
al-Jibouri, Yasin T. "Khadijah Daughter of Khuwaylid: Wife of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)." Al-Islam.org. http://al-islam.org/biographies/Khadijah.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"Marriage of Khadijah." Islamic Web. http://www.islamicweb.com/history/Khadijah.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).