Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Women: The Milkmaid and the Empress

ONE LATE NIGHT, the second khalîfa Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb walked through the narrow streets of Madinah in silence, observing the state of his people. As he passed by one mud-brick home, two voices caught his attention. Both were female: one older and hardened by life; the other, youthful and quietly determined.
“Tomorrow, when you take the milk to sell,” said the older voice – a mother’s voice – “Mix it with water. We’ll make more money for less milk, when today you sold all the milk and brought back only a meagre profit.”
“Mother!” the younger woman exclaimed. “We cannot do such a thing. Didn’t you hear the Commander of the Believers, Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb, prohibit everyone from doing so?”
“And where is the Commander of the Believers now?” retorted her mother. “Even if he can’t see us, Allah surely sees us,” the daughter responded firmly.
Unseen, Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb smiled into the darkness and silently marked the door of their home with a piece of chalk. The next day, he brought his son Âṣim and had him propose marriage to the milkmaid whose taqwa was made clear on a dark night. “For perhaps,” ¢Umar told his son: “Allah will bring forth from this woman a people who are as pure and good as she is.” [1]
Umar’s words rang true. This story is famous, for everyone knows of the great khalîfa Umar ibn Abd Al-Azîz, often spoken of as the fifth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs… and how he was the grandson of Âṣim ibn Umar Ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb. Yet when Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb voiced his foresight, it was not only Umar ibn Abd Al-Azîz to whom his words applied.
Of the lineage of the unnamed yet famous milkmaid and the son of Umar Ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb was a woman who exemplified the knowledge, courage, and excellence of character found in her grandfather. Maymûnah bint Abd Al-Azîz was the sister of Umar ibn Abd Al-Azîz, and in her own way, was no less famous than her brother.
Maymûnah, also known as Umm Al-Banîn, was married to her cousin, Al-Walîd ibn Abd Al-Malik – who was at one point a khalîfa of the Umayyad dynasty, thus making Umm Al-Banîn the equivalent of a queen. Royal position aside, Umm Al-Banîn stood out as a unique individual due to her own qualities: she was known to be an âbida, an ardent worshiper who spent her nights in tahajjud; she was incredibly generous, and loved to donate her wealth for the sake of Allah; she was also an Islamic scholar in her own right – she was considered a great muadditha by Imam Abû Zur'a, who was himself an authority in the field of Hadith and specifically with regards to the chains of narration.
As impressive as all of this is, however, it is not the only thing that is known about Umm Al-Banîn. Rather, there is one particular incident that highlights the true mettle of her character.
Al-Walîd ibn Abd Al-Malik, Umm Al-Banîn’s husband, was an Umayyad khalîfa, and – perhaps somewhat shockingly – kept the infamously brutal Al-Ḥajjâj ibn Yûsuf in his employ as the governor of Baghdad. Al-Walîd’s father had instructed in his will that Al-Ḥajjâj be retained simply due to the fact that his vicious methods kept the unruly elements of the empire in check. Just because her husband had no qualms with Al-Hajjâj, though, it didn’t mean that Umm Al-Banîn would remain silent.
Umm Al-Banîn’s father, Abd Al-Azîz ibn Marwân, had been a man of strong principle and justice, who despised the methods that his siblings did not necessarily eschew. Abd Al-Azîz had instilled in his children a hatred for blatant evil, and the need to stand up to injustice wherever they perceived it.
Umm Al-Banîn abhorred Al-Ḥajjâj with a passion, and made her feelings clear to her husband. She would repeatedly ask him to get rid of Al-Hajjâj, citing his history of slaughter, his killing of some Companions of the Prophet œ and his corruption; Al-Walîd knew just how strongly she felt about his employee. As tends to happen, news spread, and Al-Ḥajjâj himself came to know of Umm Al-Banîn’s unfavorable stance towards him.
One day, Al-Ḥajjâj went to visit Al-Walîd ibn Abd Al-Malik, while the former was still attired in his armor and the latter was dressed in casual clothing. As they sat, a slave girl came to Al-Walîd and whispered in his ear, then left.
When she left, Al-Walîd said to Al-Hajjâj: “Abu Muhammad, do you know what this slave-girl said?” He said: “No, O Commander of the Faithful.”
Amused, Al-Walîd continued: “Umm Al-Banîn sent her to warn me about sitting in my home attire with an armed Bedouin (i.e., Al-Hajjâj) while innocent people are being killed. Umm Al-Banîn also said that she would prefer that I sit with the Angel of Death himself rather than Al-Hajjâj, for he is known to have killed many.”
Furious, Al-Ḥajjâj retorted: “Never listen to women! Do not apprise them of your matters, [nor] make them desirous of [knowing] your secrets, [nor] take their counsel, [nor] use them for other than their beauty. O Commander of the Faithful, do not be tender towards women nor frequent their gatherings because their gatherings are a humiliation and ignobility.”
Al-Walîd stood up and went to his wife directly to inform her of Al-Hajjâj’s words. Furious yet clever, Umm Al-Banîn arranged for Al-Ḥajjâj to meet her the next day. Desperately, Al-Ḥajjâj appealed to Al-Walîd to countermand her order, but he refused, and so, Al-Ḥajjâj was forced to present himself to Umm Al-Banîn. She made him wait for a long time before she would permit him to approach, and even then, kept him standing – a major insult. She addressed Al-Ḥajjâj with a speech so powerful and blistering that Al-Ḥajjâj later admitted: “I wish the earth had swallowed me up while she spoke!”
Some of her words were recorded and transmitted in the book Balaghât Al-Nisâ’[2]:
O Ḥajjâj, you most graciously conferred the murders of Ibn Al-Zubayr and Ibn Al-Ash'ath upon the Commander of the Faithful. You were a mere freeman (i.e. an insignificant slave). Truly, by Allah, were it not for you being the most worthless of Allah’s creation to Him, He wouldn’t have tried you with bombarding the Ka'bah nor with the murder of the son of Dhat Al-Niâqayn.
As for what I mean by the murder of Ibn Al-Ash'ath—by my life—he had overwhelmed you and dealt you one blow after another until you appealed for help. Were it not for the Commander of the Faithful summoning the people of Greater Syria—their arrows protecting you and their combat saving you—while your predicament was more straitened than a pulley, you would have had your head in a noose. Even given this, the wives of the Commander of the Faithful, had dusted the perfume from their locks and removed the jewelry from their hands and feet and dispatched them with his agents’ monetary support.
As for that which you’ve prohibited the Commander of the Faithful from –in terms of interrupting his pleasures and having his way with his wives– if, on the one hand, they open their legs for the likes of the Commander of the Faithful, then he will not comply with your request. If, on the other hand, they open their legs for the likes of whomever your mother opened her legs, then he would be deserving indeed of heeding your advice.
May Allah wage war on the one who said [these lines] while looking at you as Ghazalah Al-Harûriyya’s spearheads were between your shoulders:
O lion of peace, ostrich of wartime,
Black-plumed, you panic when a whistle sounds.
You should have faced Ghazalah in that war.
Instead, you flew with fear above war’s grounds.
Ghazalah cleft your heart with knights who left
A massacre, for fate must make its rounds.”
Having expressed her disgust fully, Umm Al-Banîn dismissed Al-Ḥajjâj from her presence.
Pale-faced, Al-Ḥajjâj went to Al-Walîd and asked him: “Why did you let her come and speak to me?! She did not stop talking until I felt that my soul had departed and that being buried in the earth was more beloved to me than walking upon it. I did not think that a woman could reach that level of eloquence or master that level of enunciation!”
Al-Walîd laughed and said to Al-Ḥajjâj: “Woe to you! Don’t you know who she is? She is the daughter of Abd Al-Azîz ibn Marwân ibn Al-Ḥakam!”
The milkmaid and the empress: these two women stand out in Islamic history on their own merit. Their piety and their determination to live according to principle, to stand for what is right, overrode what their surrounding circumstances could have convinced them to do otherwise.
The milkmaid’s poverty was an easy excuse to be less than ethical, yet her consciousness of Allah made it impossible for her to prioritize wealth over her spiritual awareness. In the darkness of night, with only her mother as a witness, she sought and expected nothing more than Allah’s Pleasure; in turn, Allah expressed His Pleasure with her by marrying her to the son of one of the greatest Companions of the Prophet.
The milkmaid’s story didn’t end with her living happily ever after, though. The du'a’ of Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb was accepted, and from the milkmaid’s progeny came the fifth of the Rightly Guided Khalîfas, and his sister, the empress, who stood up to Al-Ḥajjâj ibn Yûsuf.
As the wife of the leader of the Islamic empire, as an empress who could have accepted all the luxuries afforded to her without caring where they came from, Umm Al-Banîn proved that piety is not merely for the poor. Her royal status did not affect her willingness to make a stand against injustice; being married to the man who employed an oppressor did not stop her from making her feelings clear to them both.
Two women from dramatically different backgrounds, yet linked by blood and their courage to do the right thing – the unnamed milkmaid and Umm Al-Banîn show Muslim men and women today that one’s social, economic, and political status should never be a barrier to living in accordance to piety and principle. When faced with situations wherein it is all too easy for us to benefit from injustice or oppression, we must know that these are in truth the hardest tests that Allah places before us. True faith is that which is tried, tested, and succeeds precisely because we have chosen to make a difficult decision – the choice that is most beloved to Allah.
Do the people think that they will be left to say: “We believe” and they will not be tried? But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars. [Sûrat Al-¢Ankabût, 29:1-2]
It is those who profess their belief and who act on it, whether in private or in public, whether in times of difficulty or of ease, who are the heroes and heroines of this Ummah.

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