The story of Khawlah bin Tha’labah (RA) is narrated in Surat Al-Mujadilah (58) and the story is quite remarkable. A Muslim woman feels that her husband is treating her unfairly and so she decides to approach the Prophet (PBUH) to share her story and ask for guidance. The Prophet (PBUH) had no solution for her as he was not the law maker, so he advised her to persevere. Unsatisfied with this, Khawlah (RA) continues returning to the Prophet (PBUH) pleading her case and arguing with him, until God sent down a law that redressed the harm that had been inflicted on her and so many other women in her generation. This is where the title of the Sura was taken from, Al-Mujadilah in Arabic means the one who argues.
The Sura starts with an amazing example of the connection between heaven and earth. The example shows the way the Quran deals with matters of everyday life to rectify people’s shady behavior and mistakes, “God has indeed heard the statement of the woman who pleads with you concerning her husband and complains to God. And God hears your dialogue. God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” (58: 1) This verse shows how heaven intervened not only to resolve a dispute that plagued a simple family, but also to rectify the unfair norms of the society. God heard the voice of the woman who was arguing with the Prophet (PBUH) and complaining to God. The verses paint an image which fills the heart with the feelings of God’s nearness, mercy, and kindness.
The dispute which is the subject of this Sura is about an old tradition that the Arabs used to practice before Islam. Before Islam when a man got very angry at his wife, he would say to her, “You are like the back of my mother.” Once he uttered these words the wife became legally estranged from her husband; however, she would not be considered divorced. This forced the wife to live in a state of limbo as it meant that normal marital relations were now forbidden, yet she was not considered a divorcee. Up until this incidence with Khawlah (RA) had occurred, there was no Islamic ruling regarding this tradition. This is an example of the kind of abuse women suffered before Islam. Khawlah bint Tha’labah (RA) was married to Awas ibn Al-Samet (RA) who was old and had become increasingly impatient. One day, he became angry with his wife and said to her, “You are like the back of my mother.” He then left the house to go meet with his friends. When he returned, he wanted to have sex with his wife; however, Khawlah (RA) pushed him away saying, “I would not have sex with you until God and His Messenger (PBUH) settle this matter between us.” Awas (RA) tried hard to get to her but she was able to push him away and left to ask the Prophet (PBUH) for God’s verdict regarding this situation. She complained to the Prophet (PBUH) about the ill treatment that she was getting from her husband. There was no Islamic ruling regarding this situation; the Prophet (PBUH) could not help Khawlah (RA) so he advised her to be patient. But Khawlah (RA) would not give up and she kept arguing with the Prophet (PBUH) until God’s decree which resolved the problem was revealed. The decree did not only resolve Khawlah’s (RA) dilemma but also established a ruling to be followed by Muslim forever.
“Those of you who estrange their wives by equating them with their mothers (Zihar) – they are not their mothers. None can be their mothers except those who gave birth to them. And they indeed utter an ill word and a lie. And God is Effacer of Sins, Giver of Mercy.” (58: 2) This verse addresses those husband who practiced unfair tradition and used it to oppress their wives. Words uttered by an angry husband do not change the reality of the creation.
The process for redressing the wrong committed is then outlined, “Those of you who legally estrange their wives by equating them with their mothers, then wish to go back on the words they uttered, (the penalty) in this case (is) the freeing of a slave before they touch one another. This is what you commanded to do; and God is Totally-Aware of what you do.” (58: 3) The first act of penance is to free a slave. God made the freeing of those who were enslaved as a result of war, a step towards reparation of sins. An incentive for abstaining from sin is to remember that God is Totally-Aware of what we do. For those who did not have the means to free a slave they were told, “let him fast for two successive months before they touch each other; as for him who is not able, let him feed sixty needy persons; that is in order that you may have faith in God and His Messenger, and these are God’s limits, and the disbelievers shall have a painful torment.” (58: 4) Applying God’s rulings in matters of daily life is an expression of faith in God and His Messenger (PBUH). Those who willfully and obstinately transgress the boundaries set by God’s commands are considered among the disbelievers.
- The story entails God response to a complaint of one of His servants. Although, that response came in the form of a revelation because the Prophet (PBUH) was still alive, but God also promised to respond to the invocation made by His servants until the end of time.
- Islam opposes tyranny and oppression. Any act of oppression- be it on the basis of gender, race, or for any other reason – is completely forbidden.
- It is the duty of Muslim men and women to speak up against injustice. Even if it necessitates arguing with the highest authority in the land.
- Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was not a law maker, he was only a Messenger of God. He cared and was deeply concerned about the conditions of those around him.