Today, for many women struggling against glass ceilings and unequal pay, the fact that the wife of the Prophet ﷺ, Khadijah (ra), was a wealthy entrepreneur in a time where most business owners were men is a source of pride. Often cited as a true representation of women’s empowerment under Islam, our knowledge of how Khadijah (ra) proposed marriage to the Prophet ﷺ when she was not only 15 years older than him but also his employer has led some to claim her as a bastion of women’s right to work, and even a feminist.
But is that really the case?
Khadijah (ra) was the first person to accept Islam and one of the greatest Muslims the world has ever seen. Her actions, thoughts and feelings were all inspired and guided by Islam, so it’s safe to say that women should strive to emulate her behaviour. So what do we know about Khadijah’s (ra) role as a businesswoman, and what does Islam have to say about women working?
The mother of the believers
Whilst the fact that Khadijah (ra) was an entrepreneur is well known, it’s relevant to the discussion to assess the nature of her work. Khadijah (ra) inherited the business of her father who had been a successful trader. She also had three daughters from her first two marriages and divided her time between their upbringing and expanding her business.
However, Khadijah’s business was hardly a one-woman company. Whilst she managed and approved all business dealings, her policy was to employ hard-working and distinguished managers to deal on her behalf. She would send these employees to travel far and wide on her behalf, exporting her goods as far as Syria. It was for this reason that she employed Prophet Muhammad ﷺ; the success of her business depended on the integrity of her representatives and the Prophet ﷺ had a reputation for trustworthiness.
Upon her marriage to Rasulullah ﷺ, the couple continued to run the business together. Khadijah (ra) was known for her generosity, and she readily spent her wealth in the path of Islam and to aid the Muslims. She remained a stalwart supporter of the Prophet ﷺ until her death, sacrificing all worldly luxuries, including her business, during the boycott of the Muslims.
A typical working mother?
When one considers what is involved in establishing and running a business today, there are clear differences to what Khadijah (ra) would have been involved in. Whilst she was the sole source of support to herself and her children before her marriage, as an entrepreneur, she was self-employed and outsourced much of the physical work to others. After her marriage to the Prophet ﷺ, she continued her role in the company, but again, had a full-time partner with whom she shared the load.
When drawing lessons from Khadijah’s (ra) life for Muslim women to apply today, its clear that such a reality was very different from our conception of work in the 21stcentury. Whilst Khadijah (ra) did work, it was not the nine to five schedule that has become standard in modern society, nor did she perceive her work as the sole priority in her life.
This understanding fits with the broader Islamic perspective on women working; namely that whilst it is permissible, a woman should not do so at the expense of her family life. Caring for her family is not a secondary and less valuable role, as capitalist societies today have deemed, but rather it is crucial for ensuring the unity of the family and the Islamic upbringing of the next generation.
However, with most families enduring a difficult economic situation today, the dream of a husband being able to support his family on one income, remains elusive for many. Consequently, many Muslim women rightly work to sustain their families and benefit their communities in the process.
This situation was endured by women at the time of the Prophet ﷺ as well. The wife of Abdullah Ibn Masoud, may Allah be pleased with them both, was known to sell her hand-crafted goods to support her husband, child, and herself and once complained to her husband that her work prevented her from doing other good deeds or charity. When she went to the Prophet ﷺ and explained that her husband was unable to work, necessitating that she provide for her family, the Prophet ﷺ told her to spend upon her family to receive the equivalent reward of giving supererogatory charity.
Throughout Islamic history, many sahabiyyat (ra) and Muslim women in subsequent generations held numerous positions alongside their duties to their families as scholars, judges and teachers. Thus, the discussion on women working, like many others, is one that requires balance and perspective.
Finding the balance
It’s a common discussion among Muslims and non-Muslims alike as to whether a balance between motherhood and having a career can ever be found. However, Islam is unique in this regard in that it has clearly defined priorities for men and women, such that a balance is achieved around those primary roles. It is due to the lack of such guidance that women otherwise fall into the trap of trying to “have it all”, and feel the need to excel in a high position at work whilst simultaneously juggling the role of homemaker and mother.
But in Islam, the job description of a Muslim woman is multi-faceted and endless. There are some responsibilities Allah ﷻ has given specifically to women, and others He has given to all of mankind; she has the responsibility of raising her children, of being a good wife, of calling people to the beauty of Islam, of speaking out against oppression, of giving charity, of being kind to her neighbours, of helping the poor and needy – and the list goes on. We should take pride in these responsibilities that Allah ﷻ has favoured us with, and fulfil them to the best of our ability, not solely by the standard today defined as success.
The reality is that our time is finite. As much as society may tell us we can have it all, do it all, the fact is that our priorities will dictate what we spend most of our time doing; our lives will be defined by what we believe the purpose of this life is. Allah ﷻ reminds us of this in the Qur’an:
“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” [51:56]
So while working may occupy a part of our lives, one that Allah ﷻ has made permissible, it should not be to the detriment of our faraa’id (obligations). Everything we do, whether it is setting up a business, taking kids to afterschool swimming lessons, or pursuing further education, needs to be placed in the context of the bigger picture of what the real purpose of this life is and whether or not the things we busy ourselves with contribute to that bottom line.
So was Khadijah (ra) a symbol of women’s empowerment? According to the standards of mainstream feminism, she most probably would not be, due to her allegiance to her family, children and religion over that of her business.
But from an Islamic perspective, she was the very definition of a Muslim woman who pursued her every role, as a wife, mother and businesswoman, out of total submission to Allah ﷻ, recognising that her true value lie not in any material success, but in dedication to her faith.