We are well aware of the role of some of the Prophet (sa’s) uncles in his life and in the trajectory that Islam took, but his aunt Saffiyah (ra) is often overlooked. She was a pillar of support to two of the most notable Companions- her brother Hamza (ra) and her son Az Zubair bin Awwam.
- Saffiyah was the paternal aunt of the Prophet (sa).
- Historians believe she was a year older or the same age as the Prophet (sa).
- She was first married to Harith ibn Harb, the older brother of Abu Sufyan.
- After Harith passed away, she married Awwam ibn Khuwailid, the brother of Khadeejah (ra).
- She had three sons- Az Zubair, Saaib and Abd Al Kaabah.
- Awwam died when the children were very young so she raised them as a single mother. She didn’t remarry.
- She ensured that her sons, especially Az Zubair (ra), were well versed in the arts of war. She even pushed Nawfil bin Khuwailid, her brother in law, to mentor Zubair (ra) so that he would get social exposure.
- She was a talented poetess and her poetry has been recorded by Seerah historians.
- She was very close to Hamza (ra) and accepted Islam when Hamza (ra) became Muslim.
- She lived with Az Zubair (ra) and his wife, Asma bint Abi Bakr (ra). Asma respected her as a mother.
- She lived in Madinah till she passed away during the Caliphate of Umar (ra) and he led her funeral prayers.
Points to Ponder
- Saffiyah (ra) was a strict disciplinarian as a mother because she feared her children would suffer as orphans in the unjust Makkan society. She was so stern and exacting with Az Zubair (ra) that Nawfil commented: ‘You discipline him as if you hate him.’ This deeply offended her because she wanted him to be strong and courageous since she feared him being bullied and mistreated. She recited a few lines of poetry as an answer to this accusation, claiming that ‘whoever says I hate my son is a liar. I hit him so that one day he can be strong and one day defeat armies and return with the spoils of war.’
- Despite being a young, vulnerable single mother, she wanted her sons to be empowered and her vision can be gauged from her poetry: ‘Did you find my son to be a fruit or did you find him to be a falcon?’
- The irony of her efforts is that Az Zubair grew to be so strong willed that he independently accepted Islam and remaining steadfast despite the torture and bullying. This shocked and distressed her because she feared that he would be dealt with even more harshly since he had no father to protect him. She threatened to never comb her hair as a means of forcing him to forsake Islam- a misguided form of trying to protect him. She even called Nawfil bin Khuwailid to torture him to forsake Islam, a job he did with utmost cruelty.
- As a mother she was seemingly harsh, but as a sister she was loving and devoted. Inseparable from Hamza (ra), she would comb his hair, greet him when he returned home after his journeys, and clean his clothes. She finally accepted Islam when he did and even migrated to Madinah with him.
- Despite her initial opposition to Islam, she developed a reverence for the Prophet (sa) which was tragically tested after the Battle of Uhud. Hamza (ra) was not only martyred but his body was horrifically mutilated and the Prophet (sa) quickly sent Zubair (ra) to stop Saffiyah (ra) from seeing her beloved brother’s body. Saffiyah (ra) was already rushing onto the battlefield with a dagger (or some say, a spear) in her hand, shouting at the Muslims for losing the battle. Zubair (ra) begged her to stop but she refused until he told her that the Prophet (sa) had commanded her to stop. She stopped in her tracks instantly and only turned to ask him if Hamza (ra) had really been martyred, promising to be patient.
- Saffiyah (ra) did demonstrate remarkable patience and restraint, for the Prophet (sa) finally allowed her to identify Hamza’s (ra) body. She cried and spent the entire night with his body, seeking forgiveness for him and for Allah’s (swt) reward for being patient with her loss. Her reaction and words are recorded as exemplary in the face of such grief and irreparable loss. Her final act of caring for Hamza (ra) was to buy a burial shroud for him herself.
- The Prophet (sa) loved and respected his aunt. During his efforts to preach to his family, he began by first addressing his beloved daughter Fatima (ra), then Saffiyah (ra) and finally he addressed the clan of Abd Manaf.
- She was an extraordinary woman of great strength and fortitude. In the Battle of the Trench, the women, children and elderly were in a fortress and Hassan bin Thabit (ra) was the only able-bodied man with them. Two armed men from Banu Qurayzah tried to attack and gauge if they were well defended. Saffiyah (ra) pushed Hassan (ra) to deal with them but he froze, so she herself attacked with a pole, killed the enemy and then threw his body down. This made them flee and she single-handedly protected them all.
- She composed poetry at the Prophet (sa)’s death despite her grief, describing him as ‘a sun wrapped up in darkness yet still shining’.
May Allah (swt) be pleased with the Iman of these beautiful Sahabiyah who are a beacons of light for us today in times of darkness and distress.