When asked to illustrate examples of social cohesion and absence of racism in the Islamic faith, Muslims will often point to the example of Bilal, may Allah be pleased with him: an Ethiopian slave who went on to become one of the foremost Companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the first muaddhin of Islam.
However, less frequently mentioned is Barakah bint Tha’labah: a woman who began life in Makkah as an Abyssinian slave girl, and who would go on to become “a mother after my own mother” to the Prophet ﷺ — a woman who would remain loyal to him and the mission of Islam for the rest of her life.
Little is known regarding Barakah’s parents or lineage. The daughter of Tha’labah bin Amr, he was one of many young girls and boys brought from around the region to the metropolis of Makkah to be sold as slaves. Many were treated poorly, with cruel and unforgiving masters.
By the mercy of Allah, Barakah was one of the fortunate ones. She became the only servant in the household of Abdullah bin Abd Al-Muttalib, the Prophet’s ﷺ father, who was known to be a kind and generous man. When Abdullah married Aminah bint Wahb, Barakah attended to her as well.
Shortly after Abdullah (ra) and Aminah (ra) were married, Abdullah was called away to a trading journey to Syria — a trip that would take many weeks. It was only after he left that Aminah (ra) realised she was pregnant. Aminah was greatly distressed by her husband’s absence, and it was Barakah who stayed by her side and comforted her throughout her pregnancy. When the trading caravans returned without Abdullah, and the news of his death was confirmed, Aminah was devastated. In Barakah’s own words,
When Aminah heard the painful news, she fainted and I stayed by her bedside while she was in a state between life and death. There was no one else but me in Aminah’s house. I nursed her and looked after her during the day and through the long nights until she gave birth to her child, ‘Muhammad’, on a night in which the heaves were resplendent with the light of God.
“Be a mother to him, Barakah.”
Barakah was the first person to hold the Prophet ﷺ when he was born. She stayed with Aminah during the five years when Muhammad ﷺ was sent to the desert to live with Halimah (RA). When Muhammad ﷺ turned six, Aminah, who still mourned the loss of her husband, resolved to visit the city of Yathrib. Barakah accompanied them on the arduous journey, where the young Muhammad ﷺ often slept with his arms around Barakah’s neck.
On the journey back to Makkah, Aminah fell seriously ill. With her remaining strength, she called out to Barakah in the darkness and whispered to her:
O Barakah, I shall depart from this world shortly. I commend my son Muhammad to your care. He lost his father while he was in my abdomen. Here he is now, losing his mother under his very eyes. Be a mother to him, Barakah. And don’t ever leave him. 
Barakah returned with the newly orphaned child to Makkah. She honoured Aminah’s dying wish and looked after Muhammad ﷺ while he was under the care of his grandfather, Abd Al-Muttalib, and again two years later when he went to live with his uncle Abu Talib. She stayed by his side until he was a grown man.
When the Prophet ﷺ married Khadijah, he turned to his wife and said:
This is Barakah. This is my mother after my own mother. She is the rest of my family.
Aiding the Prophetic Mission
When Muhammad ﷺ began his prophethood, Barakah, alongside the other members of his household, were the first to accept Islam. She delivered secret messages to the Prophet ﷺ at the House of Al-Arqam, at great risk to her life. Acknowledging her bravery, he ﷺ smiled and said:
You are blessed, Umm Ayman. Surely you have a place in paradise.
Ubayd ibn Zayd from the Khazraj tribe of Yathrib came seeking Barakah’s hand in marriage. The Prophet’s ﷺ arranged for her freedom, and she left for Yathrib with her husband and had a son she named Ayman. From this point onwards she was known, in keeping with the traditions of the time, as ‘Umm Ayman.’
Yet Barakah was sadly not married long; her devoted husband was killed, and Barakah returned to live with her ‘son’, Muhammad ﷺ.
One day, the Prophet commented to his assembled companions that, if ever someone wanted to marry a woman of paradise, it was Umm Ayman. She was close to 50 at the time and past the bloom of her youth. Zayd Ibn Harithah, the adopted son of the Prophet ﷺ stood and said,
Messenger of Allah, I shall marry Umm Ayman. By Allah, she is better than women who have grace and beauty.
Together, Zaid and Barakah had a son called Usama, who would grow up to become a distinguished Companion of the Prophet ﷺ as well.
Barakah made the difficult migration with her family to Madinah, and played her part in the development of the new Muslim community. At the Battle of Uhud, she distributed water to the fighters and tended to the wounded. When the archers left their posts, she risked her life to tend the wounded on the battlefield, and was shot in the shoulder by an enemy arrow. By the mercy of Allah, it was not a life-threatening wound and she continued to accompany the Prophet ﷺ on expeditions, such as Khaybar and Hunayn.
Barakah’s sons grew to be just as steadfast and God-fearing as their mother. Her eldest son, Ayman bin Ubayd, was a skilled warrior, who would eventually give his life defending the Prophet ﷺ in the Battle of Hunayn. His half-brother, Usama bin Zayd, was appointed as a commander of the troops sent to Syria despite his young age. His army was the first to successfully defeat the Byzantines, paving the way for the subsequent Islamic conquest of the Levant and Egypt. Barakah also outlived her husband Zayd bin Harithah, who was martyred at the Battle of Mu’tah in Syria, after a lifetime of service to the Prophet ﷺ.
“I am well, so long as Islam is well”
Barakah was about 70 years old by the time of the death of her husband, and was often visited by the Prophet ﷺ. When he ﷺ asked if she was well, Barakah would reply:
I am well, O Messenger of God, so long as Islam is well.
She was content so long as Islam was thriving, her happiness and well-being inextricably linked to the success of the religion. If Islam was well then all was well, because the implementation of Islam meant the manifestation of divine justice. It ensured the poor and needy were taken care of, that the Muslims near and far were protected by its armies, and that the laws of Allah ﷻ were being upheld.
Following the death of the Prophet ﷺ, the greatest tragedy to befall this Ummah, Anas (ra) narrates:
After the Messenger of Allah ﷺ had died, Abu Bakr said to ‘Umar: ‘Let us go and visit Umm Ayman as the Messenger of Allah ﷺ used to visit her.’ He said, ‘When we reached her she wept.’ They said, ‘Why are you weeping? What is with Allah is better for His Messenger.’
She said, ‘I know that what is with Allah is better for His Messenger, but I am weeping because the Revelation from heaven has ceased.’ She moved them to tears and they started to weep with her.
Barakah’s grief over the death of the Prophet was compounded by the loss of revelation. The precious link that the first Muslim community had to the Divine had been severed. She understood that the beloved Prophet ﷺ could have no better place than with Allah ﷻ, but her recognition of the implications of his death for the Muslim community, awed companions even as pious as Abu Bakr and Umar.
Living a life in service to the Beloved
There are so many lessons we can learn from the life of this noble and steadfast Sahabiyyah: a Black woman with no prior status or wealth, who was loyal to both the Prophet ﷺ and his mother, and the only person who can claim to have been by the Prophet’s ﷺ side from his birth until his death. When the Prophet buried his beloved wife, all of his children but one, his uncles, his grandfather and his mother, Barakah was his constant.
Barakah serves as an example of a Muslim woman who was fiercely loyal and remarkably brave. A woman who fetched water during battles and tended to the wounded. She raised sons who would go on to become fierce warriors and leaders of the Muslim army. She married and supported husbands who lived and died defending Islam, may Allah be pleased with them. She was a woman whose iman brought Companions like Abu Bakr and ‘Umar to tears. Her obedience to Allah ﷻ extended beyond her status as a wife and mother, and she understood the importance of the Prophetic mission and was willing to risk her life to ensure Islam’s success.
In today’s day and age, when stepping out of your house looking visibly Muslim serves as a political statement in and of itself, it is important now more than ever to look to the lives of the Prophet ﷺ and those around him to draw strength and inspiration from their lives.
The beauty of reading about the life of the Prophet ﷺ and the people around him is that they were essentially human beings. These were men and women who lived and struggled, just like we do. Their society outwardly rejected them and their call, peaceful though it was. They remained steadfast despite the insults and persecution. They also had families to feed and parents to look after. They looked forward to Ramadhan, and worried about finding a good spouse. They were people who sought ways to please Allah no matter what situation or difficulty they found themselves in.
For every situation we as individuals and as a community are going through today, there is a parallel in the Quran and Sunnah to guide us. And who better to learn from than the Prophet ﷺ and his beloved Companions?
Aishah A. is a medical doctor based in London. Raised in Malaysia, she is a student of Islamic studies and has delivered numerous talks aimed at empowering Muslim youth in the West.
Hamid, A. W. (1995), Companions of the Prophet, MELS
Hamid, A. W. (1995), Companions of the Prophet, MELS
Sunan Ibn Majah 1635