The women mentioned or referred to in the Qur’an run the gamut of social roles. Single mother, barren woman, fertile woman, wife of a great man, wife of a terrible man, woman without evidence of a spouse, married woman seeking to have an affair, and a divorcee are all examples of women found in the Qur’an. Their social status is not the main story but it is interesting, nonetheless, to know that nearly every possibility is represented.
The single mother
The single mother is, of course, Maryam, Mother of Jesus عليهما السلام
. Her femininity is expressed in the story of a woman with great confidence in her Lord. She gave a lesson to her uncle—a prophet—when he asked her where she got fruit that was out of season by responding, “...Indeed it is from God, God provides for whom He wills.”4
And her uncle listened carefully, returned to his Lord, and requested offspring. His prayer was answered when his wife, a woman who had passed her fertile years, became pregnant with Prophet Yahya عليه السلام
. The mother of Jesus was very young (13 or 14 according to Christian scholars) and the mother of Yahya was very old (in her 80s according to Christian sources and God knows best)—the Qur’an presents them both as women of faith and confidence in their Lord.
The story of Maryam (may God be pleased with her) is one of struggle and difficulty. We are with her when she gives birth to Prophet ‘Isa عليه السلام. We watch as, alone and in agony, she is sent comfort from God in the form of angels and a tree full of fruit. We see her return to her people who are, not surprisingly, shocked. She does not run away or hide but rather relies on a miracle from the One who gave her this gift: the infant in her arms speaks. She has great courage on every step of this journey, and we also see her commitment to the path that Allah gave her. We see a courageous, confident, and committed woman.
Āsiyya was married to one of the worst men ever—Pharaoh. He was an arrogant narcissist who said to his people, “I am your Lord, the Most High.”5
Āsiyya is presented as a woman of faith who was able to take a young Jewish boy from the river and save his life at the very time that Pharaoh was killing male Jewish babies. She does not cower to a husband’s wishes, nor is her later confidence in her Lord influenced by his cruelty. We learn that women have agency and must obey and worship God regardless of who their husband is. Then we meet the wives of Nuh and Lut عليهما السلام
who refused to believe and were punished. This story is important as well because, without it, we might have concluded that womanhood on its own was saintly. But in reality, women (like men) must choose goodness and belief on their own, separate from the good or bad choices of their spouse. In the examples of Āsiyya and the wives of Lut and Nuh, womanhood is not special. We all, male and female, are engaged in the same human struggle to believe or failure to believe that everyone from the beginning of time to the end of time has engaged in and will continue to engage in.
No evidence of a husband
The queen of Sheba, Bilqis, is presented in the Qur’an as a fair leader who consulted her advisors. Prophet Suleiman عليه السلام
tested her by altering her throne. He asked her if it was her throne and she said, “It is as though it is the very same.”6
Ibn Kathir says that this answer demonstrates her intelligence, strong resolve, and wisdom. The presentation of Bilqis in these verses is one of a capable leader and a woman who made her own decisions. The Qur’an says nothing about her marital status. It is irrelevant to the important aspects of her person—belief and good leadership. She was courageous in her interactions with Prophet Suleiman عليه السلام and confident in her discussion with her counselors. When she becomes a believer, it is with great commitment and she brings her citizenry with her.
Seeking an affair
We are then introduced to the wife of Aziz who is a married woman but is tempted by the good looks of her slave Yusuf عليه السلام
. She attempted to seduce him, then invited other women to her home so that she could prove to them his irresistible nature. They also desire him and he goes to jail. Later in the story she repents and identifies the source of her troubles, “Yet I claim not that my soul (nafs
) was innocent—surely the soul of humankind incites to evil—except inasmuch as my Lord had Mercy; truly my Lord is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate.”7
The Queen of Sheba is provided as an example of a woman who makes slow and deeply intelligent decisions. Zulaikha (the wife of Aziz) is passionate, pushed to make mistakes because of her desire but she is also brought to repentance and clarity at the end of the story. We learn that personality may influence how we act but it does not determine our ability to believe and do good deeds. Indeed, Zulaikha proves courageous in repentance and commitment to her Lord as she ultimately chooses God over a life of sin and following her desires.
The Qur’an also refers to the divorcée, Zaynab bint Jahsh رضي الله عنها
to whom God granted the great gift of marriage to the Prophet ﷺ. Zaynab’s story is one of the instances of a woman whose very life is used as an example for other believers. The lesson was that divorce is not a sign of a bad Muslim, nor of a failed woman. Indeed God said, “We joined her in marriage to thee.”8