Another remarkable woman with great significance in early Islam is Sumayyyah bint Khayyat. She played an important role in early Islam by exhibiting strength in the face of persecution and being the first martyr in Islam.
Before embracing Islam, Sumayyah RA, a Black Abysinian (modern day Ethiopia) woman, was a slave in Makkah who was owned by Abu Hudhaifah ibn al-Mughirah, from the tribe of Makhzum. The tribe of Makhzum was one of the most powerful in Makkah and later became one of the most resistant tribes to both Islam and the clan of Banu Hashim (the clan of the Prophet SAW). Abu Hudhaifah ibn al-Mughirah gave Summayah in marriage to Yasir ibn Amir, a man from Yemen, and they had a son called Ammar ibn Yasir who was born in the same year as the Prophet SAW, the year of the elephant. Sumayyah RA's family lived in Makkah in service to the entire tribe of Makhzum. She was one of the first 7 people to embrace Islam as a 60-year-old woman, along with her son Ammar. Her husband Yasir RA also embraced Islam soon after, making her whole family amongst the earliest to embrace Islam.
Her Persecution by the Quraysh
When the Prophet SAW began to preach Islam publicly, it resulted in the active persecution of the small Muslim community, and due to the societal disadvantage of the family of Yasir, they were left vulnerable to persecution. This family was not rich nor powerful, they had no protection, and were therefore at the mercy of the tribe. Those without protection were often targets for the cruelty of the Quraysh, and Abu Jahal (one of the leaders of the tribe) was one of the strongest opponents against Islam often gave the worst punishments and torture to harm the followers of the Prophet. He did not have any mercy on the old age of Sumayyah and Yasir, but instead used many forms of pressure, threats and torture to get them to renounce their faith. The Prophet SAW was troubled by the persecution of the Muslims, especially the family of Yasir, but he was not able to do anything to protect them. The only thing he could do was to comfort them by saying “Patience O family of Yasir! For you are destined for paradise” (Sahih al-Tirmidhi). It was this promise of paradise which strengthened them to be steadfast in their faith and to be patient with the trials they faced in this world. They were beaten and humiliated in public under the hot sun with no one to defend them, but they chose the reward of the hereafter and stayed true and never went back on ‘La ilahaillAllah Muhammad ur-rasulullah’.
Despite their conviction and faith, Abu Jahal especially would not give up on targeting Summayah and her family, as he wished to send a message to the Muslims of Makkah that they would either need to renounce their faith or die. But, each time Sumayyah RA was tortured, she would respond with strength and conviction in Allah SWT and his messenger. This powerful man could not fathom how the faith of this old woman could not be shaken, which only enraged him further and on one occasion he took the violence to an extreme length, more than anything that had been seen before Islam. The entire family of Yasir were each tied to trees and tortured and beaten in front of one another so they would renounce their faith and curse the Prophet SAW. But, as physical torture increased, their perseverance and conviction would increase. Then, Sumayyah RA, weak from torture, used the remnants of her energy to spit at Abu Jahal from her position and humiliate him. A humiliation which would enrage him so far that that he took a spear and pierced her through her midsection, killing her and sending her to Allah SWT. Her husband Yasir RA also died soon after she did.
There is something wondrous about how this woman never saw bliss in this world and experienced only hardship, but with the first strike of Abu Jahal she was able to see the promise of the Prophet SAW, the promise of paradise. “And then that person from amongst the persons of the world be brought who had led the most miserable life (in the world) from amongst the inmates of Paradise. and he would be made to dip once in Paradise, and it would be said to him. 0, son of Adam, did you face any hardship? Or had any distress fallen to your lot? And he would say: By Allah, no,0 my Lord, never did I face any hardship or experience any distress.” [Sahih Muslim 2807].
So as the first mayr of Islam, although she did not see the glory days of the Islam, she preceded everyone from our Ummah to experience the promise of Allah SWT.
The Legacy of Lineage
In speaking about the legacy of Sumayyah RA we also speak of her son, Ammar ibn Yasir. He was a noble companion who faced a lot of persecution like his parents. However, on the occasion that he was tied to the tree, he was tortured until he had a moment of weakness and so maligned the Prophet SAW. Because of this, his life was spared by Abu Jahal. However, he recognised that he had erred and immediately went to the Prophet SAW and confessed. But the Prophet SAW asked ‘How did you find your heart?’, and Ammar RA replied that he was still a muslim in his heart so the Prophet SAW comforted him with the verses “Whoever disbelieves in Allah after his belief... except for one who is forced [to renounce his religion] while his heart is secure in faith. But those who [willingly] open their breasts to disbelief, upon them is wrath from Allah, and for them is a great punishment.” (16.106). After this, Ammar RA continued as a companion of the Prophet SAW and he helped build the first mosque in Islam. He participated in many battles and many years after the death of his parents, during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet SAW came to him and revealed “Allah has killed your mother's killer”, to help alleviate Ammar's anguish of seeing his parents' killer roam Makkah for years without consequence. Ammar ibn Yasir was a strong warrior and years later, in the Battle of Siffin, he was also martyred. Thereby gaining the title of a martyr like his parents before him and making theirs a family of martyrs who gave their lives to protect and spread the message of Islam.
The life of Sumayyah bint Khayyat was not one of ease before her death, again, she did not get to experience the ease in the glory days of Islam. Her life was one that was full of hardship, and as an old woman who was amongst the first to embrace Islam, she was persecuted, and her life became harder ever since. But her death is one of immense importance in Islamic history. Her death did not send the message of weakness which Abu Jahal had intended, but it sent one of strength and unshakeable faith. The significance of the fact that Sumayyah RA, an old Black Abyssinian woman, was willing to stand with her truth, and not just accept the torture but do what she could to fight back, and as a result lost her life, is the ultimate strength. She became a symbol of strength, courage, bravery and faith to all Muslims. The Prophet SAW himself assured her that her destination is paradise and she is an example that there is nothing more important than devotion to Allah SWT and standing strong in the face of adversity. She gave the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of Allah SWT, and Allah honoured her sacrifice and exalted her status to being the first shaheeda of Islam. Allah SWT does not take regard or interest about her distinctions of this world, he just elevated her position because of her faith, and she was honoured in the best way.
THE DEPTH BEHIND THESE LEGACIES
We have only touched upon a portion of the lives of these remarkable muslims. There is a lot more to be learnt when you uncover their histories, as well as the stories of many other figures in the history of Islam. We encourage you to do your best to learn more, and also stay tuned for our next blog post which will help you on your journey!