Khadijah (c. 555–619)

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Khadijah (c. 555–619)

Muhammad's first wife and the first convert to Islam, who supported her husband when his revelations began in 610. Name variations: Kadijah or Khadija. Born Khadijah bint Khuwaylid around 555 ce; died in 619 ce; third cousin to Muhammad once removed; married and widowed twice by the age of 40; hired Muhammad to manage one of her caravans to Syria in 595, and proposed marriage to the future Prophet shortly thereafter; children: (six with Muhammad) two sons, al-Qasim and Abdallah, who both died as infants; four daughters, Zaynab, Ruqaiyah, Umm Kulthum, and Fatimah.

Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, wealthy merchant of the important Quraysh (or Kuraysh) clan in Arabia, played a critical role in the origin and development of Islam. Her marriage to Muhammad in 595 provided the Prophet with the material resources to pursue his reflective inclinations, and her reassurance and emotional support of her husband in the early stages of his revelations gave him the strength and confidence to proclaim his religion's tenets. Khadijah's prominent role as Muhammad's beloved wife and supporter suggests that pre-Islamic Arabian women were capable of significantly influencing affairs and events—a point of view that surprises some in the modern West, who hold preconceived notions about the subordinate position of females in Middle Eastern societies and assume that it was always so.

Despite the important role Khadijah played in the Prophet Muhammad's career, very little is known about her early life. She was born around 555 during a period when matrilineal and polyandrous marriage practices existed side by side with patrilineal and polygamous forms. The presence of varied marital practices in pre-Islamic Arabia is significant in a consideration of Khadijah's life, because it suggests a social climate that allowed for her later career as a wealthy businesswoman. Matrilineal marriage customs allowed some women to remain with their own families, and thus a measure of independence from their husbands was possible in the pre-Islamic period. Khadijah's family, the Asad clan of the Quraysh tribe, was prominent in Mecca. She was married and widowed twice before 595, and had children with each of her husbands.

By the time Khadijah met Muhammad, she was approximately 40 years old and he was a young caravan worker aged 25. His background was one of disadvantage, as he had been orphaned at age six when his widowed mother Amina died. According to early Arabic writers in the century or so after Muhammad, Khadijah was impressed with the future Prophet's personality and honest business practices, and she commissioned him to conduct a caravan to Syria. Muhammad's first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, gave an 8th-century account of this trip's impact on Khadijah's decision to propose marriage to the future Prophet. According to Ibn Ishaq, a Christian monk recognized Muhammad as the future Prophet of the Arabians, and one of Muhammad's fellow workers on the caravan reported to Khadijah that he had observed angels protecting Muhammad from the hot sun. Khadijah conferred with one of her Christian cousins, Waraqa ibn Naufal, who enthusiastically affirmed the likelihood that Muhammad was indeed the Prophet of the Arabian people. When Khadijah proposed marriage, Muhammad accepted.

As the husband of the wealthy Khadijah, Muhammad enjoyed greater economic opportunity and security than he had experienced as an orphan. He spent considerable time in solitude, reflecting on religious matters. Arabic sources indicate that their marriage was a happy one. One surah (verse) in the Qur'an (or Koran, meaning the recitation) refers to Muhammad's deliverance from his impoverished state to the life of relative ease as Khadijah's husband:

Did He not find thee
An orphan and give thee
Shelter (and care)? …

And He found thee
In need, and made
Thee independent.
(Surah 93, 6 and 8)

Despite her age at the time of her marriage to Muhammad in 595 ce, Khadijah had two sons, al-Qasim and Abdallah, and four daughters, Zaynab , Ruqaiyah , Umm Kulthum , and Fatimah . The sons died while they were still infants, and only one of the daughters, Fatimah, outlived her father.

When Muhammad's revelations commenced around 610, Khadijah provided invaluable assistance to her husband. The Prophet was terrified when the messages from the angel Gabriel began, and he feared for his sanity—in-deed, three surahs of the Qur'an specifically deny that Muhammad was "mad or possessed" (7:184; 68:2; and 81:22). Yet it was Khadijah who provided the emotional and physical affirmation of her husband's startling new path: she wrapped him in her blanket in his moments of terror and doubt, and expressed her unwavering belief in the veracity of his revelations. Thus, Khadijah was the first convert to the new religion of Islam.

Khadijah enlisted the further support of her elderly relative Waraqa, who assured Muhammad that he was sane and a great Prophet given by God to the Quraysh people of Arabia. Many of the richer members of the Quraysh were extremely alarmed at the social and economic implications of his message, and resisted his attempts to enlist converts to Islam. By 616, when the stern monotheistic nature of Islam had been firmly proclaimed by Muhammad, violent clashes between the various clans of the Quraysh erupted. The Prophet and his family and supporters found it necessary to constantly guard against physical confrontations with Meccans who denied both the idea that God is singular, and the egalitarian message of socially responsible concern for the poor and weak that Muhammad insisted was God's command. While Khadijah shared her husband's difficulties in this turbulent period, the powerful Hashim clan leader, Abu Talib, Muhammad's uncle, protected the Prophet from his Meccan enemies.

In 619, the powerful Abu Talib became ill and died, and Muhammad lost his only political buffer against the angry Quraysh of Mecca. An even deeper source of sorrow to the Prophet was the death of his beloved wife Khadijah, aged 64 or 65, earlier in 619. Muhammad's early biographers designated this year the Prophet's "Year of Sadness." Perhaps she died as a result of the hardships and food deprivation she shared with her husband from 612 on. It is noteworthy that while Khadijah was his wife, Muhammad refrained from marrying other women, although he would go on to wed ten, perhaps twelve, women, and took a concubine as well. But only Khadijah had his children, and such was his affection for this remarkable woman that, years later, when his favorite wife A'ishah bint Abi Bakr jealously referred to Muhammad's first wife as a "toothless old woman," the Prophet rebuked her. According to one of his biographers, Muhammad denied A'ishah's assertion that God had given her to the Prophet as an improved replacement for Khadijah: "He has not given me a better one. She believed in me when no one else did. She considered me to be truthful when the people called me a liar. She helped me with her fortune when the people had left me nothing. Allah gave me children from her while he gave me none from other women." Khadijah thus influenced the Prophet more deeply than any other woman, and stands apart from his later wives in this regard just as she remained his only wife during the 25 years she shared with her husband.

A perfect woman, the mother of those that believe.

—From 'Abdullah Yūsuf 'Alī's commentary to the Holy Qur'an.

sources and suggested reading:

'Abdullah Yūsuf 'Alī. The Meaning of The Holy Qur'an. New edition with revised translation and commentary. Brentwood, MD: Amana Corporation, 1412 A.H./1992.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. San Francisco: Harper Books, 1992.

Keddie, Nikki R., and Beth Baron. Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Muir, William. The Life of Muhammad from Original Sources. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1923.

Walther, Wiebke. Women in Islam From Medieval to Modern Times. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1993.

Cathy Jorgensen Itnyre , Professor of History at Copper Mountain College, Joshua Tree, California