Khawlah Bint Tha’labah r.a: The Inspirational Woman of Surah Al-Mujadilah

The journey of Khawlah r.a. in pursuit of justice, highlights the significance of fairness, patience, resilience, and forgiveness in navigating life’s challenges and conflicts.
by Ustazah Syafiqah Binte Mohammed 2024-02-28 • 25 min read
Syafiqah Mohammed is an alumni of Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah and Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah. She graduated with a degree of Qur’an and Sunnah from International Islamic University Malaysia. She is currently taking the Postgraduate Certificate in Islam in Contemporary Societies (PCICS).
2024-02-28 • 25 min read

In Islam, women are honoured. Within marriage, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. set an example of kindness, respect, and equality in his relationships with his wives. He emphasised the importance of treating one's spouse with love, compassion, and understanding.

However, it is important to recognise that cultural norms and practices sometimes diverge from the teachings of Islam. In some societies, patriarchal ideologies have become deeply ingrained, leading to the oppression or marginalisation of women. These practices are often wrongly attributed to Islam itself when, in fact, they stem from cultural interpretations or distortions.

Furthermore, mainstream media may perpetuate stereotypes and misrepresentations about Islam and women, contributing to the spread of misconceptions. Unfortunately, this could lead to the dismissal of the voices of women who not only plead against injustices but also contribute significantly to uplifting the standards of society. It is crucial to distinguish between cultural practices, individual interpretations, and the true teachings of Islam when discussing the status, rights, roles, and responsibilities of women in our faith.

Read: Addressing Misconceptions: Women and Islam

Khawlah Bint Tha’labah r.a, one of the female companions of the Prophet s.a.w, shattered stereotypes. It was her unwavering faith and her deep awareness of her own worth as a wife that emboldened her to voice her concern about the injustice made against her, which was a case of verbal abuse by her husband, Aws Bin Samit r.a. 

Her plea was heard by Allah s.w.t, thus leading to the revelation of Surah Al-Mujadilah (The Woman Who Pleads) that addressed the issue directly in her defence. This remarkable event impresses upon us the value of women in Islam.

The Revelation of Surah Al-Mujadilah

Imam Ahmad bin Hambal recorded that Khawlah bint Tha`labah r.a.[1] said, "By Allah! Allah sent down the beginning of Surah Al-Mujadilah in connection with me and Aws bin As-Samit. I am the wife of Aws bin As-Samit, and he was an old man whose temper was getting worse. One day, when he came home, I asked him something. He became angry and said, ‘You are like my mother's back to me.’ ” (an expression called zihar, which was lightly used but equivalent to a divorce in pre-Islam Arabian societies)

After saying those words, he left the house and sat in the meeting place of  his people for a while. Then he came back and wanted to have marital relations with me. I rejected him and said, “Don’t come close to me! By the One in Whose Hand is the soul of Khuwaylah! You will not have your way with me after saying what you said until Allah and His Messenger issue judgement about our case.” 

He tried to force himself on me, but I was able to resist. I finally gave him the kick of a strong woman against an old man until he fell. I next hurriedly went to one of my neighbours and borrowed a garment from her, and went to the Messenger of Allah s.a.w. I told him what happened and kept complaining to him about the ill-treatment I received from Aws. 

He s.a.w. said,

اِبنُ عَمِّكِ شَيخٌ كَبِير، فَاتَّقِي اللهَ فِيهِ

“O Khawlah! Your cousin (husband) is an old man, so have Taqwa of Allah regarding him.” 

Then I replied, “I will not go home, O Rasulallah, until the revelation of the Al-Qur’an regarding me.”

Suddenly, the Prophet s.a.w. received a revelation and fainted for a moment. He then woke up and said, “O Khawlah, the Quran has been revealed regarding you and your husband.”

He s.a.w. then recited Surah Al-Mujadilah to Khawlah r.a. This surah begins by describing her situation, stating:

قَدْ سَمِعَ ٱللَّهُ قَوْلَ ٱلَّتِى تُجَـٰدِلُكَ فِى زَوْجِهَا وَتَشْتَكِىٓ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ وَٱللَّهُ يَسْمَعُ تَحَاوُرَكُمَآ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ بَصِيرٌ

“Indeed, Allah has heard the argument of the woman who pleaded with you, O Prophet, concerning her husband and appealed to Allah. Allah has heard your exchange. Surely Allah is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.”

(Surah Al-Mujadilah, 58:1)

This verse highlights the divine recognition of the plea made by Khawlah r.a. regarding her husband and her appeal to Allah s.w.t. for justice. It also illustrates the importance of addressing grievances and seeking justice for those who are wronged.

The next few verses address the specific issue brought forward by Khawlah r.a.

ٱلَّذِينَ يُظَـٰهِرُونَ مِنكُم مِّن نِّسَآئِهِم مَّا هُنَّ أُمَّهَـٰتِهِمْ ۖ إِنْ أُمَّهَـٰتُهُمْ إِلَّا ٱلَّـٰٓـِٔى وَلَدْنَهُمْ ۚ وَإِنَّهُمْ لَيَقُولُونَ مُنكَرًا مِّنَ ٱلْقَوْلِ وَزُورًا ۚ 
وَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَعَفُوٌّ غَفُورٌ

“Those of you who (sinfully) divorce their wives by comparing them to their mothers (should know that) their wives are in no way their mothers. None can be their mothers except those who gave birth to them. What they say is certainly detestable and false. Yet Allah is truly Ever-Pardoning, All-Forgiving.”

(Surah Al-Mujadilah, 58:2)

The practice of "zihar" where a husband would declare his wife to be like his mother, thereby prohibiting him from resuming marital relations with her, is condemned. Allah s.w.t. clarifies that such a declaration is unjust and false, emphasising that a sacred relationship between spouses cannot be nullified by mere words. Implicit in the verses is the fact that divorce should be conducted with fairness and justice, respecting the rights and dignity of both parties involved.

Nonetheless, Allah s.w.t. also highlights the possibility of forgiveness as it prescribes an expiation for those who have uttered zihar and seek reconciliation with their wives. It underscores the importance of repentance and making amends for wrongful actions.

وَٱلَّذِينَ يُظَـٰهِرُونَ مِن نِّسَآئِهِمْ ثُمَّ يَعُودُونَ لِمَا قَالُوا۟ فَتَحْرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ مِّن قَبْلِ أَن يَتَمَآسَّا ۚ ذَٰلِكُمْ تُوعَظُونَ بِهِۦ ۚ وَٱللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرٌ

“Those who divorce their wives in this manner, then (wish to) retract what they said, must free a slave before they touch each other. This ˹penalty˺ is meant to deter you. And Allah is All-Aware of what you do.”

(Surah Al-Mujadilah, 58:3)

فَمَن لَّمْ يَجِدْ فَصِيَامُ شَهْرَيْنِ مُتَتَابِعَيْنِ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يَتَمَآسَّا ۖ فَمَن لَّمْ يَسْتَطِعْ فَإِطْعَامُ سِتِّينَ مِسْكِينًا ۚ ذَٰلِكَ لِتُؤْمِنُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِۦ ۚ وَتِلْكَ حُدُودُ ٱللَّهِ ۗ وَلِلْكَـٰفِرِينَ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

“But if the husband cannot afford this, let him then fast two consecutive months before the couple touch each other. But if he is unable ˹to fast˺, then let him feed sixty poor people. This is to reaffirm your faith in Allah and His Messenger. These are the limits set by Allah. And the disbelievers will suffer a painful punishment.” 

(Surah Al-Mujadilah, 58:4)

When the Prophet s.a.w conveyed to Khawlah r.a. that her husband should free a slave, she responded that he did not have the means to do so. The Prophet s.a.w. then informed her that her husband should fast for two consecutive months, but she explained that her husband was too old for that. Finally, the Prophet s.a.w. proposed that her husband should feed sixty poor people, but she mentioned that he could not afford to do that.

The  Prophet s.a.w. mercifully told her, 

فَإِنَّا سَنُعِينُهُ بِعِرقٍ مِن تمَر

“We will help him with a basket of dates.”

Khawlah r.a. replied she would also help him with another sack of dates. The Prophet s.a.w. finally said to her,

قَد أَصَبتِ وَأَحسَنْتِ فَاذْهَبِي فَتَصَدَقِي بِهِ عَنهُ، ثمَُّ اسْتَوصِي بِابنِ عَمِّكَ خَيرًا

 “That is good and kind of you. Go and give charity on his behalf and take good care of your cousin (husband)”. 

She did as the Prophet s.a.w. instructed.

Lessons We Can Learn From the Story of Khawlah r.a.

The journey of Khawlah bint Tha’labah r.a. in pursuit of justice highlights the significance of fairness, justice, patience, resilience, and forgiveness in navigating life’s challenges and conflicts.

1) Fairness and Justice

The story of Khawlah bint Tha’labah r.a, voicing her concerns to the Prophet s.a.w. deeply leaves an impression regarding the status of women in Islam. Essentially, it provides profound lessons on how women should be respected.

Khawlah r.a’s husband, Aus, had uttered the words of zihar, by telling her, “You  are  to  me  like  my  mother’s  back!”.  This  was a  common expression  of  anger  in  the  pre-Islamic  period  that effectively nullified a marriage[2]. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon before Islam for the term to be used lightly without considering the consequences. The revelation that followed condemns this inappropriate behaviour and warns husbands against using zihar, which not only shows disrespect but also violates the principles of equality within marriage. The revelation in Surah Al-Mujadilah also informs us that zihar is not equivalent to a divorce but demands a penalty for its illegal basis and insult to the sacred bond of marriage before reconciliation.

Khawlah r.a. saw this as a grave injustice. She recognised the need to question the compatibility of such practices in a Muslim society. She pondered what would happen to her children and herself, with her failing eyesight and frail body, if zihar was considered equivalent to divorce.

This incident became a catalyst for change, as it ultimately led to the revelation condemning the inappropriate practice of zihar. It reinforced the principles of respect and equality within marriage, emphasising the responsibility of husbands to treat their wives with love and mercy, as stated in the Quran:

وَمِنْ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦٓ أَنْ خَلَقَ لَكُم مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَزْوَٰجًا لِّتَسْكُنُوٓا۟ إِلَيْهَا وَجَعَلَ بَيْنَكُم مَّوَدَّةً وَرَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّ فِى ذَٰلِكَ لَـَٔايَـٰتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.”

(Surah Ar-Rum, 30:21)

It was also narrated from Ibn 'Abbas r.a. that the Prophet s.a.w. said:

خَيْرُكُمْ خَيْرُكُمْ لأَهْلِهِ وَأَنَا خَيْرُكُمْ لأَهْلِي

"The best of you is the one who is best to his wife, and I am the best of you to my wives."

(Sunan Ibn Majah)

Just as Khawlah r.a. defended her honour and rights by speaking out against the unfair treatment she received, we also have the right and obligation to do so when we find ourselves in unjust or even abusive situations, whether at home, school or in the workplace. It is undeniably challenging and, at times, incredibly arduous. However, perhaps by contemplating the bravery of Khawlah r.a, we can find inspiration to advocate for our own causes. Recognising that we need not endure hardships in silence when we possess the capacity to effect change can be truly empowering.

Read: Islamic Quotes on Peace and Justice 

2) Patience and Resilience

In the face of adversity, Khawlah r.a. exemplified patience and resilience. Instead of engaging in a heated argument with her husband, she sought guidance and solutions from the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. This act of emotional control and her ability to refrain from impulsive reactions set a powerful example for us. Without the forbearance and foresight to do so, how many thousands of marriages have we seen that have been harmed?

According to the narration cited by Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut[3] in his book, Al-Fatawaa[4], Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. initially responded that Khawlah r.a. had become unlawful for Aus due to his zihar declaration, and no revelation had been sent down concerning it. 

It is difficult to imagine how a marriage can end so quickly over a brief moment of anger and a habitual pre-Islamic Arabian practice. Even though the response was not as she had hoped, Khawlah r.a. persisted to save her marriage. She attempted once more to inquire from the Prophet s.a.w. but his response remained the same. Still, she remained steadfast in her pursuit and turned to Allah s.w.t, displaying unwavering hope in His ability to resolve her predicament.

Khawlah r.a's story reminds us that when facing challenges, we should never lose hope, exercise patience, actively seek solutions and take action. This is all possible when we strengthen our faith and trust Allah in His wisdom, as He is a Solver. Allah s.w.t. mentions in the Quran:

وَقَالَ رَبُّكُمُ ٱدْعُونِىٓ أَسْتَجِبْ لَكُمْ 

 “Call on Me, and I will answer you”

 (Surah Ghafir, 40:60)

This verse shows us that our most potent weapon is dua (supplication). With unwavering trust in Allah s.w.t., we find solace in His answers, whether immediate or delayed, knowing that His wisdom and timing are beyond our comprehension. Sometimes, what we perceive as a delay in response may be a test of patience and faith. Indeed, impatience and hastiness in expecting immediate responses to supplications can be detrimental to one's reliance on Allah s.w.t. Therefore, let us never cease making dua and put our trust in Him to guide us through life's journey as we try to find solutions to our problems.

Read: Quranic Verses About Patience

3) Forgiveness 

Khawlah r.a's story takes an extraordinary turn as she forgives her husband, Aws, despite his transgression. She not only forgives but also assists him in fulfilling the charity due as kaffarah (penalty). She extended her sympathy towards him, who could not afford to do so. Her act of compassion and forgiveness bypasses the material concerns of this world, demonstrating the power of love and mercy in healing emotional wounds resulting from marital conflicts.

Undeniably, forgiving is not an easy thing to do, but it's important to recognise that holding onto grudges often magnifies issues rather than solving them. In Islam, forgiving others is encouraged as those who forgive will be rewarded by Allah s.w.t. As mentioned in the Quran:

وَجَزَٲٓؤُاْ سَيِّئَةٍ۬ سَيِّئَةٌ۬ مِّثۡلُهَا‌ۖ فَمَنۡ عَفَا وَأَصۡلَحَ فَأَجۡرُهُ ۥ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ‌ۚ إِنَّهُ ۥ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ 

“The recompense for an evil is an evil like thereof; but whoever forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is with Allah.” 

(Surah Ash-Shura, 40:42)

Read: 3 Good Deeds With Unlimited Rewards

In the realm of marriage, virtues like humility, patience, and honesty are essential, while vices such as irresponsibility, arrogance, and infidelity can be detrimental. This story serves as a timeless reminder that partners, regardless of the trials they face, possess the capacity to heal through forgiveness, compassion, and a commitment to moving forward together. This shows that forgiveness plays a crucial role in resolving conflicts and maintaining relationships. 

Read: How To Build Healthy Family Relationships

Even so, it should not lead to the abandonment of seeking justice in cases of wrongdoing. In an insightful article by Ustaz Dr Haniff, the variability of forgiveness among individuals is attributed to the inherent diversity within human nature. Emotionally, physically, and intellectually, people differ, impacting their capacity to forgive. While some may swiftly move past grievances, others may require more time to heal. Moreover, the nature of the wrongdoing itself varies from person to person, influencing the ease or difficulty of forgiveness.

Ustaz Dr Haniff emphasises that even if someone has forgiven numerous transgressions, there may still exist one that proves too painful to pardon, let alone forget. For Muslims grappling with forgiveness, it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge when one is not yet ready to forgive. Furthermore, Ustaz Dr Haniff stresses the validity of forgiving while retaining the memory of the offence, recognising that forgetting is not always feasible or necessary in the journey towards reconciliation.

Read: Forgiveness in Islam: A Virtue, Not an Obligation 

Happy Muslim family

The Story of Khawlah r.a. and the Caliph, Umar r.a.

There was a remarkable incident that unfolded during the era of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab r.a. as Caliph. According to Hamka[5], based on a narration, Caliph Umar r.a. was riding his carriage, accompanied by many attendants, when he stumbled upon Khawlah r.a. who was on the roadside. Khawlah r.a. requested him to pause his journey, so he did, as well as his attendants. Khawlah r.a. then began to offer advice which among them were:

“O Umar! When you were young, people called you 'Umair' (Little Umar). How much time has passed, and now people call you 'Amirul Mu’minin' (Leader of the Believers)! Therefore, fear Allah, O Umar! For whoever is certain that they will die should be fearful of their Lord's punishment in the Hereafter.”

After she finished advising, Umar r.a. resumed his journey. Some of the attendants inquired, "O Amirul Mu’minin! Who is that elderly woman that caused you to stop and stand for so long while she spoke?" He replied, "By Allah! If she had detained me from morning until evening, I would not have moved from my spot except for the five daily prayers! Do you know who that elderly woman is? She is Khawla binti Tha’labah, whose words were heard by Allah from above the seven Heavens. If the Lord of All the Worlds paid heed to her words, why would Umar disregard them?"

The story of this remarkable encounter between Umar r.a, a great Caliph and Khawlah r.a. shows how much the companions respected her. Even someone as important as Umar r.a, who was renowned for his wisdom and humility, gave his undivided attention to her important reminders as he valued the honour that was granted to her by Allah s.w.t. This emphasises the importance of  knowing her stories and virtues, as she can serve as a role model for us to admire and emulate. 


Conflicts are inevitable in human life. Nevertheless, when we reflect on the story of Khawlah Bint Tha’labah r.a, whose plea was heard by Allah s.w.t, we discover valuable virtues for navigating these challenges. It involves cultivating patience and resilience, seeking guidance from those wiser, and recognising the power of forgiveness in strengthening relationships. 

More importantly, this story teaches us to never lose hope in praying to Allah s.w.t. We may never know what could happen in the future that may very well change the course of our condition. Even if we may not see our well-thought prayers materialise in this world, we have faith that it is never in vain.

Let us continually remind each other through this story that we are all equal in the eyes of Allah, and He will always listen and respond to our concerns in His beautiful way.

[1] Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (Hamka), Tafsir Al-Azhar. Juzuk 28. Pg 10-11.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut was the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar from 1958 to 1963.
[4] Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (Hamka), Tafsir Al-Azhar. Juzuk 28., pg 13.
[5] Ibid, pg 20.


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