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‘Tahira’, they called the Arab lady

Tahira was not an astute businesswoman for nothing. She appointed her slave, Muaser, to keep watch over her new manager and give her a full account of his conduct. Renuka Narayanan writes.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2009 15:29 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Tahira means pure and good in Arabic and back in the sixth century, even in that pre-Islamic period later called Jahiliyat (ignorance), the disorderly and self-indulgent Arabs could tell a lady. That’s what they called a certain single woman, Makkah-born and based, who traded all over the Arabian Peninsula and maintained her own establishment, employing a number of men. Born to Khalid and Fatima, Tahira, at 40, was a widow and a person of repute, respected for her wealth and dignity by everyone around. But she needed a bright, honest man to manage her caravans and trade on her behalf in faraway places.

Someone told her about an orphan of 25, who was known to be exceptionally straightforward and well-behaved. Tahira thought she would like to try him out and negotiated through his uncle, Abu Talib, to hire him.

The young man was sent to the great old city of Damishq (Damascus) in charge of one of Tahira’s caravans, loaded as always with all sorts of profitable goods. Tahira was not an astute businesswoman for nothing. She appointed her slave, Muaser, to keep watch over her new manager and give her a full account of every detail of his conduct.

The good report she had of him made her think well of her new employee. Tahira sent him a proposal of marriage through his uncle. He agreed and their wedding took place (in 595 CE) with Khadija providing her own dower, out of her own wealth.

But some women in Makkah found fault with the match. “How could a wealthy person like her marry that penniless man raised on the charity of the Banu-Hashem?” they exclaimed.

But Tahira and her husband were too happy to care, despite the 15-year age gap. Their marriage lasted a full 25 years until her death at the age of 65. They had two sons and four daughters. Both sons, Qasim and Abdullah, took ill and died very young. A daughter, Ruqaiyya, went and settled far away with her husband in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Tahira also had to bear poverty, hardship and great hostility against her husband when he began his life’s work. Through all this, she was staunchness personified.

Her husband, they say, never looked elsewhere through all the years of their marriage. Ever after her passing, he spoke of her in glowing terms, with respect, love and gratitude for her support.

The irony cannot be lost on anyone today when they see what is done to women in the name of Islam. For, the first Muslim was a woman: ‘Tahira’ whose real name was Khadija, whose husband was none but the Prophet Muhammad. She believed in him when nobody did.

It was this couple who inspired me, when I counseled my younger sister to go ahead and marry her Danish boyfriend, who was 13 years younger.

Her friends thought it was a terrible idea. Everybody else was naturally concerned. But it was the honourable and happy precedent of Muhammad and Khadija that I held up to my sister as encouragement. Today, this against-all-odds couple has a beautiful baby girl who has refreshed us as a family. We’re lucky to have her, just as the Prophet was lucky to have Hazrat Khadija.