Adil Salahi
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2011-10-27 21:23

Al-Shifa was a woman of intelligence and was highly respected for her learning and wisdom. Very few women of her time learnt to read and write. This is not surprising, as the Arabs were mostly unlettered. In the society of pre-Islamic Arabia which treated women as inferior, learning was a luxury to which women generally did not aspire. However, Al-Shifa was skilled in this, and she taught others. In fact, the Prophet asked her to teach Hafsah bint Umar, his wife, how to read and write. She did so. The Prophet also asked her to teach Hafsah how to treat a skin illness which, on the basis of its description, appears to be eczema, for she was adept in certain aspects of medical treatment. Needless to say, medicine was still an underdeveloped discipline, and Al-Shifa was skilled in what was known at the time.
This shows how apt her name was. Shifa means cure and full recovery after illness. When the woman named Al-Shifa has medical skills, then her name and skills go hand in hand. Al-Shifa used to administer her treatment to patients before Islam. When she adopted Islam, she asked the Prophet if she could continue, and he encouraged her to do so. 
This shows how the Prophet always encouraged learning, and how the new Muslims were always keen to establish whether their old ways and practices were consistent with Islam.
Al-Shifa was married to a man from her own clan known as Abu Huthmah ibn Hudhayfah, and she gave him a son called Sulayman who grew up to be very religious and a man of good reputation. Al-Shifa was among the Muslims who immigrated with the Prophet to Madinah. The Prophet was keen to take care of his women companions, particularly those who immigrated with him to Madinah. He used to visit Al-Shifa, and sometimes he would have a nap in her home. She had a special mattress and a cover for him. These remained with her family for a long time. During these visits, Al-Shifa would ask the Prophet some questions of religion. As she also attended the mosque, she became a good scholar in her own right.
As the Madinah society developed, Umar felt that it was important that supervision should be provided in the market place, where people buy and sell. He appointed Al-Shifa as the market controller in Madinah. Her duties were to ensure that business practices should always be consistent with Islam. She would go around the market, making sure that no cheating or tricks took place and that buyer and seller conformed to Islamic values. Umar told shopkeepers that if they were in doubt about the legality of a particular transaction, then they should ask Al-Shifa. He trusted her knowledge of Islam. However, should she find difficulty with any problem, she would put the matter to him. He would either be able to sort it out himself, or he might refer to his consultative council.
The appointment of Al-Shifa was highly successful. Therefore, when Umar felt that it was advantageous to have a market controller, he appointed one in Makkah as well. What is contrary to our perceived ideas about Islamic society is that in Makkah also he appointed a woman, Samra’ bint Nuhayk, as market controller. This suggests that in those early Islamic societies, there were women shoppers and women shopkeepers. Had the market place been largely a man’s place, a woman would find it exceedingly difficult to discharge her duties as controller. Neither Al-Shifa nor Samra’ encountered such difficulties.

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