Another man’s daughter: the story of Zaynab bint Abu Salamah

There is a huge stigma in the Muslim community regarding the remarriage of widows and divorcees, especially those with children. Many Muslim men, whether they themselves are divorced/widowed or not, will shy away from considering remarriage with a woman who has been previously married, and more so when there are children involved. There is a sense that these women aren’t ‘good enough’ and that marrying them is somehow inferior to marrying a woman who has never been married before.

When Abu Salamah (radhiAllahu ‘anhu) passed away, Umm Salamah (radhiAllahu ‘anha) already had several children – Salamah and ‘Umar, and was pregnant with yet another. For most Muslim men today, considering a previously married woman with one child for marriage is seen as alarming, never mind three or more! There appears to be some sort of revulsion at the idea of caring for “another man’s children.” However, neither Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) nor his Sahabah ever expressed this type of attitude.

When Umm Salamah’s ‘iddah ended by giving birth to her daughter, Zaynab bint Abu Salamah, Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) – fully aware of her situation – proposed to her. When Umm Salamah pointed out that she had several children to take care of, Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa salam) reassured her with the simple words: “Your children are my children.” (Narrated by an-Nasa’i)

Those words were not spoken meaninglessly. While Zaynab bint Abu Salamah never grew up with her biological father, she was raised by a man who was her father in every other way – Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). It is narrated that whenever Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) came to visit Umm Salamah, one of the first things he would do is ask, “Where is our Zinaab?” (‘Zinaab’ was an endearment for the name ‘Zaynab’).

One narration states that when she was young, her mother asked her to attend to Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) while he was making wudhu. When she entered, Rasool Allah sprinkled her face with the water from his ablutions, and for the rest of her life, she remained looking youthful, barely revealing any signs of aging.

Zaynab bint Abu Salamah’s bond with Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was evident to others as well. Her uncle ‘Ammar used to pick her in his arms and say: “She is the one who has come between the Prophet  (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and his family.” (i.e. She was distracting him and keeping him busy as he used to give her a lot of attention.)

Once, RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was playing with his grandsons Hassan and Husayn (radhiAllahu ‘anhum) in the house of Umm Salamah, while Umm Salamah and Zaynab bint Abu Salamah were present. Overcome with love, he held them and made the following du’a: “May Allah exalt you, yaa Ahlul Bayt!”
Umm Salamah began to cry, and RasulAllah asked her what was wrong. “O Messenger of Allah, what about us?” she exclaimed. Understanding what she meant, RasulAllah gathered Umm Salamah and Zaynab in his arms and said, “You are part of my family, you are part of Ahlul Bayt!”

Imagine growing up in an environment knowing not only that your mother was the wife of the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), but to have him in your life as a father-figure, someone who was there literally from the first moments of your life, someone who cared for you as his own child, of whom your first memory is the endearing nickname he gave you? Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was much more than just a stepfather to Zaynab bint Abu Salamah – In the true sense of the word, he was her father.

The effect that Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) had on Zaynab bint Abu Salamah was an incredible one. Not only did he impact her emotionally by being a loving father-figure and providing a stable family environment, but she was also affected spiritually. How could she not when she grew up witnessing the Wahy (revelation) being revealed, when he would wake up his entire household to pray Qiyaam al-Layl in Ramadhan, when she heard his Divinely inspired words straight from his lips?

Zaynab bint Abu Salamah grew up to be a direct reflection of the environment she grew up in. She narrated seven ahadith directly from Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), and she also narrated from others amongst the sahabah, in particular, her stepmothers, the other wives of Rasool Allah, such as ‘Aishah (radhiAllahu ‘anha), Umm Habibah (radhiAllahu ‘anha) and others.

Zaynab bin Abu Salamah quickly grew to become known as an incredible scholar of Madinah, particularly in the field of fiqh. The famous Imam among the Tabi’un, Abu Rafi’ al-Sa’igh, referred to her as the most knowledgeable woman of her time on many occasions. Amongst her students were her son Abu ‘Ubaydah, Muhammad bin ‘Amr bin ‘Ata, ‘Irak bin Malik, Humaid bin Nafi’, her foster-brother ‘Urwah bin al-Zubayr, Imam Zain-ul-‘Abidin ‘Ali bin al-Hussain, ‘Amr bin Shu’ayb, al-Qasim bin Muhammad, Abu Qilabah, Salamah bin Abdur Rahman and others.

One particular incident demonstrated the true breadth of her patience as well as her wisdom. During the Hurrah (a rebellion against the governor of Madinah) in the reign of Yazid bin Mu’awiyah, she lost two of her sons in battle. On hearing the news, she proved herself to be a mountain in sabr as well as a true faqihah (scholar of fiqh). Holding her dead son before her, Zaynab bin Abu salamah said: “To God we belong and to Him we return! As for the first, he didn’t fight anyone but was ambushed and killed in his home. For him I am hopeful of Jannah. But the other one fought, and I am not aware what his intention was in fighting, and so the travesty for me is even greater in his loss (as I don’t know in what condition he met His Lord).”

Truly, Zaynab bint Abu Salamah was a heroine not only in her time, but for all time. SubhanAllah, all of this was because Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) chose to marry Umm Salamah (radhiAllahu ‘anha), a widow with several young children.

Nor was Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) alone in his practice of welcoming the children of previously married women into his family and raising them with as much love and affection as his own children. When Ja’far ibn Abi Talib (radhiAllahu ‘anhu) was martyred, he had a number of young children with his wife, Asmaa’ bint ‘Umays (radhiAllahu ‘anha). Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) himself assured Asmaa’ of her children’s safety and security. As an answer to the promise of Rasool Allah, Abu Bakr (radhiAllahu ‘anhu) proposed to Asmaa’, and the sons of Ja’far ibn Abi Talib were thus raised in the household of Abu Bakr.

Not only was Abu Bakr willing to care for them as his own children, but he was also in fact honoured to do so. The children of Ja’far were granted the double blessing of not only having a martyr, beloved to Allah and His Messenger (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), as their biological father, but to also have the greatest of the sahabah as their stepfather.

While blended families are becoming more and more common in society in general, they are still relatively rare and even taboo in Muslim communities. Even if both a man and woman agree to such a marriage, the family pressure and community scepticism can be overwhelming.

The idea of a man raising another man’s children is looked down upon and criticised, yet it is precisely those men who had the courage to do so, men such as Rasool Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and Abu Bakr (radhiAllahu ‘anhu), who were responsible for raising these children to become some of the greatest heroes and heroines of Islamic history.

It is high time that we embrace this Sunnah, not only acknowledging the challenges that inevitably accompany it, but the incredible rewards and payoff for doing so, in both this world and the Hereafter. Who knows? It could likely be the children raised in such a way are the very thing to bring us to the gates of Jannah.

Usud al-Ghabah fi Ma’rifat as-Sahabah
Tabaqat Ibn Sa’d
(With special thanks to a generous brother – who wishes to remain anonymous – for translating the original biographies.)


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