Thinkers and Activists

Speaking Truth to Power: A Legacy from Umm Sinān to Linda Sarsour

Written by Amira Zubairi

Islam places a lot of emphasis on justice as a virtue, and Muslims throughout history have stepped out of their comfort zones to take part in virtuous efforts toward social justice. It’s important to keep in mind that many of these Muslims were women. Today, the image of the Muslim woman is often coloured with negative stereotypes and misconceptions that presents her as either an oppressed, obedient wife and daughter, or, more recently, as a potential threat to public security. The reality is that many Muslim women defy these stereotypes – as they have throughout Islamic history – by actively working for the betterment of their communities and the society they live in.

As negative attitudes towards minorities (such as Muslims and/or blacks) continue to intensify, more Muslim women have stepped up to address the challenges being faced by these communities and to call for social justice. Outstanding examples include Dalia Mogahed, the Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and Linda Sarsour, a racial justice and civil rights activist, both of whom are speaking up to bring about a positive change when it comes to important social and political matters. They are active leaders inside and outside the Muslim community, and utterly shatter stereotypes about Muslim women through every book, interview, protest, or speech that they put out there.

But it’s important to make a point about whether this is really something new and unprecedented in the Muslim community. The historical evidence we have leaves no doubt about it. In fact, as early as the mid-7th century – just a few decades after Prophet Muhammad (s) clarified the God-given rights, freedoms, and social responsibilities of Muslim women – the very first generation of Muslim women were speaking out and taking a stand for social justice.

The ‘Alid women give us a particularly interesting set of examples. The caliph of the time, Mu’āwiyah b. Abu Sufyān (r), had come to power in 661 CE after several years of civil unrest in the early Muslim community. He had reluctantly been in conflict with ‘Alī b. Abi Tālib (r), the fourth caliph (r. 656-661), but after ‘Ali’s assassination, his son and successor Hasan b. ‘Alī (r) had decided to give up the caliphate to Mu’āwiyah (r) in an effort to reunite the Muslim community. However, many people, especially in Iraq, continued to be strongly pro-‘Alid. Among these were 16 Muslim women who travelled to Damascus, the caliph’s capital, to openly speak truth to power and demand justice from him.   

In the historical literature, these women are referred to as the Wāfidāt (Delegates). All of them had been present at the Battle of Siffīn in 657, when the forces of ‘Alī (r) and Mu’āwiyah (r) had clashed, and many of them had composed poetry that vilified Mu’āwiyah (r)’s camp – a fact that he or his advisors were quick to remind them of when they came to his court. But this did not make them shift their feet as they spoke face to face with the man who now ruled an empire stretching from Libya to Iran. But that didn’t matter. They were there to demand their rights and exercise their freedoms, regardless of their preference for ‘Alī (r).

Even prior to Mu’āwiyah (r)’s reign, women in Islamic society generally felt comfortable in approaching caliphs or governors, conveying complaints to them or demanding justice from them, expressing their voice and sharing their perspective. The 16 women who came to see Mu’āwiyah (r) sought justice for their relatives – some may have unable to come themselves, but others may have found their female relatives, once empowered by Islam, emerged even stronger in speaking truth to power than they themselves were. The cases generally involved injustice suffered at the hands of one of Mu’āwiyah (r)’s governors in various regions of the empire. This leads us to another important point: these women were confident enough – and the Islamic society they lived in was safe enough – for them to come out individually, not as part of a group or some kind of a popular movement.

Their effort reveals the kind of political action that women were made capable of undertaking during the early Islamic period. Umm Sinān bt. Haytama approached the caliph to request the release of her grandson, who was unjustly imprisoned by Marwan b. al-Hakam in Madinah. Mu’āwiyah (r) asked her why she had come to him now, when in the past she had recited poetry that favoured his rival, ‘Alī (r), and encouraged ‘Alī (r)’s forces against his own. Umm Sinān responded cleverly and with confidence, but she did not bend the truth to appease the caliph. She reminded him of the honourable and intelligent clan he came from, the Banu ‘Abd Manāf, who had always been known to be merciful and respectful.

Then she mentioned the noteworthy qualities of his predecessor, ‘Alī (r), and boldly suggested that the caliph should do himself a favour by following in the footsteps of both his ancestors and his predecessor. She then repeated her request, and narrated the insults she had heard from Marwan b. al-Hakam (a relative of Mu’āwiyah (r)) against her family. Mu’āwiyah (r), affected by her courage, immediately pardoned her grandson. It should be noted that, considering the fact that she had a grandson who was already imprisoned, she must have been quite elderly. But she did not hesitate to speak truth to power or to seek justice – in doing the first she exercised her inalienable right, and in doing the second she fulfilled her social responsibility.

Similarly, another delegate, Sawda bt. ‘Amāra, came to see Mu’āwiyah (r) to seek justice for her community. She explained to him the undemocratic behaviour of Busr ibn Artāt, the governor who was appointed to her region by Mu’āwiyah (r). Ibn Artāt had always been one of Mu’āwiyah (r)’s strongest supporters. Recently, in Sawda’s region he had been inflicting violence on her pro-’Alid clan, the Banu Hamdān, by killing their men and depriving them of their property. Sawda emphasized that she and her clan accepted Mu’āwiyah (r) as the legitimate caliph, and that she was asking politely for the dismissal of Ibn Artāt. While she was at it, she also mentioned ‘Alī (r)’s sense of justice, and how he would listen, understand and comply with similar requests during his caliphate. Mu’āwiyah (r), unable to deny the qualities of ‘Alī (r) or to reject Sawda’s appeal for justice, approved of her request and dismissed Ibn Artāt.

The examples of both Sawda bt. ‘Amāra and Umm Sinān bt. Haytama show clearly how women in the 7th century didn’t mince their words when it came to issues of social and political justice. They were women who internalized the example of Prophet Muhammad (s), who not only prayed for the elimination of injustice in his society but did all that he could through his speech and actions to ensure that Allah’s answer to his prayers would come through – and it did. Like him, these women stood up and spoke out without ever feeling the need to violate the limits of Islam’s code of behavior. They did their part in standing for truth and justice so well that the caliph himself was inspired to acknowledge truth and deliver justice.  

In Islamic history, then, the efforts Muslim women like Linda Sarsour and Dalia Mogahed (among many others) are making today are neither unprecedented nor any less important than they always have been.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, is an excellent example of someone who shatters the stereotypes of Muslim women through her work as a racial justice and civil rights activist. As a Muslim Palestinian-American growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, Sarsour rarely experienced discrimination towards her Arab-Muslim identity until 9/11. The sting of discrimination that she felt after that tragic event sparked her journey as an activist and community leader in New York. She began using political participation and civic engagement as tools to help overcome problems faced by the Arab and Muslim communities.

Sarsour has devoted her life to eliminating the injustices faced by the Arab and Muslim communities by speaking out about the problems and working with government officials to change policies that affect these groups. But Sarsour recognizes that justice is a virtue that Islam or Muslims don’t have a monopoly over. Just as she strives for justice to be delivered to the Arab and Muslim community, she is also committed to speaking out for all other victims of injustice – women, prison inmates, victims of racial profiling, and many others.

Dalia Mogahed, an Egyptian-American Muslim, is engaged in the same effort. As a demographer, a public policy advisor, and a motivational speaker, Mogahed has contributed significantly to the reviving movement for social justice in the Muslim community. Sarsour and Mogahed are only two examples of the many bold and enlightened Muslim women who strive for justice in the societies they live in. They are the Wāfidāt of today. But it is important to remember that the torch they carry on behalf of our generation in the streets of America was first lit many centuries ago by the very first generation of Muslim women in the deserts of Arabia.

Source: Yazigi, Maya. “Some Accounts of Women Delegates to Caliph Mu’āwiyah: Political Significance.” Arabica July 2005: pp. 437-449. Print.

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About the author

Amira Zubairi

Amira is a student and freelance journalist based in Toronto. She is passionate about politics, human rights, social justice and international development. In addition to iHistory, Amira writes for MY Voice Canada, Ryerson Folio and The Eyeopener.

1 Comment

  • love the history. so nice to read something positive about Mu’āwiyah. that period of islamic history is tragic. i see from wikipedia there are two Mu’āwiyahs, the son being the terrible Yazid. you were clearly referring to the first. even devout sunnis don’t like yazid for good reason.

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