Official pre-modern histories of Islam typically tell the stories of prominent men and their lives. Unofficial chronicles and literary sources, however, muddy this picture for us – occasionally, they preserve for us accounts of prominent and not-so-prominent women who made a difference in the life of their communities and without whose contributions the Islamic tradition would not recognisably be the same.
One of these women is Umm ‘Umara. You are in good company if you ask: ‘who was she?’ There might even be an obvious reason why her name has receded to the sidelines of history, even though early biographers paid quite a bit of attention to the details of this early Muslim woman’s life. Umm ‘Umara, after all, was the kind of woman who makes many men (and some women) feel uncomfortable. She asked questions, she sometimes loudly protested the lack of fairness she saw around her, particularly in regard to women, and she was active in various public events. The truth of the matter is that she was typical of the early Muslim women from the generation of the Prophet Muhammad in the first century of Islam and through most of the early medieval period. Umm ‘Umara was one of the well-known women Companions of the seventh century and is particularly valorised in the early literature for her courage on the battlefield. According to the ninth-century biographer, Ibn Sa‘d (d. 845), she fought fearlessly in a number of the early battles in Islamic history. During the battle of Uhud, she defended the Prophet himself against a particularly ruthless enemy and as a consequence was fulsomely praised by him for her matchless bravery.