As was his wont, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab patrolled the streets of Medinah at night, observing the state of his community at its most relaxed and vulnerable. Passing by a house, he heard the voice of a young woman raised in longing as she recited a couplet.
هل من سبيل إلى الخمر فأشربها؟
أو هل من سبيل إلى نصر بن الحجاج
“Is there no way for me to receive wine that I may drink it? Or is there no way for me to be with Nasr ibn Hajjaj?”
Alarmed by the desperation and longing in her voice, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab knew that he had to do something. The next day, he summoned the man known as Nasr ibn Hajjaj – and discovered that he was one of the most handsome men of Medinah.
Hoping to diminish the effect that this young man obviously had on the women of Medinah, Umar commanded that Nasr’s hair should be cut from the front - only to realize with dismay that the man’s beauty only increased.
Next, Umar told Nasr to wear a turban and cover his hair completely – with the same result. Exasperated, Umar finally demanded that Nasr’s hair be shaved off entirely. Unfortunately, Nasr’s handsomeness simply became even more obvious.
In response to Umar’s actions, Nasr composed the following poetry:
لظـن ابـن خطـاب ٍعلـي ّ بجُمـة ٍالى رُجّلت تهتـز هـز السلاسـل ِ
فصـلّـع رأســا ً لــم يصلّـعـه ربّــهيـرف رفيفـا ً بـعـد أســود جـائـل ِ
لقد حسد القرعان اصلع ُ لم يكناذا مـا مـشـى بالـفـرع مُتخـايـل ُ
"Umar could not see my curls,
My hair which when combed waved like a chain;
He made that head bald where once there was profuse hair;
He who was bald headed felt jealous of him who had hair,
As he could not be proud of his hair, he deprived me of his hair."
News of ‘Umar’s actions spread, and the young woman who had first recited the fateful couplet that had begun this entire saga shared her own feelings on the subject.
حلـقوا رأســه ليـــكـسـب قــبـحاً
غيرة مـــنـهــــم عـليـه وشـحـــا
كـان صـبـحـا عـلـيـه لـيـل بـهـيـم
فمحــوا لـيـلـه وأبـقــوه صـبـحـــا
"They shaved his head so that he may become ugly, jealousy from them of him and a stinginess,
The morning on him was like a dark night, then they erased his night and left him as morning. "
‘Umar was further vexed by how dramatic the situation had become. “Ya Ibn Hajjaj!” he exclaimed. “You’ve charmed the women of Medinah! By the One in Whose Hands is my soul, I do not want you as a neighbor in any town I live in.”
So saying, ‘Umar ordered Nasr to be exiled to the city of Basra (in Iraq), which was a military town. A few days later, Nasr sent ‘Umar a letter, pleading his innocence and asking to be allowed back to Madinah. Nasr’s mother went to ‘Umar, begging him to allow her son to return.
“Your sons are with you,” she told him. “But you have exiled mine! This is truly unfair.”
“Your son is a danger to the morals of the women of Medinah!” ‘Umar retorted. “As long as I live, I will not allow him to return and create temptation with his looks.”
While this story is usually mentioned with an air of jest, or as part of a discussion on the wisdom of ‘Umar’s policies, I want to take a moment to look at this incident through a slightly different lens.
When it comes to female desire, many Muslims react in one of two ways: either they deny it entirely, or they demonize it as a source of evil and ‘fitnah’ for men. A woman’s expression of desire, whether it be verbal or otherwise, is condemned as being something filthy and in need of being immediately silenced.
Yet when we look at this story and the way that ‘Umar (radhiAllahu ‘anhu) reacted to the unnamed woman’s poetry, we see a completely different attitude. ‘Umar did not storm into the woman’s house and command her to be quiet, or to be ashamed of herself, or to rebuke her for daring to give voice to her emotions.
Instead, he recognized her desires as being completely natural, and rather than targeting her for being out of line, went to the source of the fitnah itself: the object of her longing affection.
‘Umar’s concern for the women of Medinah was not tied to labeling them the fitnah or uncontrollable, but to acknowledge their difficult circumstances (it is said that this was a time during which many of the men in Medinah were participating in Jihad elsewhere) and to do what he could to make it easier for them to bear.
Consider this in comparison to the way that Muslim women today are treated when they dare to mention the struggles they experience, whether it be with regards to the temptations of developing emotional relationships with men they interact with regularly at school or at work, or the very real issues of masturbation and porn addictions.
We today need to change the way we look at women and female desire, and instead of viewing them as something strange, impure, or impious, remember the attitude of Ameer al-Mu’mineen ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (radhiAllahu ‘anhu): to understand, to empathize, and to help in a productive manner.
Ibn Asaakir; Taareekh Dimashq
Ibn Hajr; Al-Isaabah
Umar ibn al-Khattab, Volume 1, by Dr. as-Sallabi)