Al Khansa Manifesting the Spirit of Islam

In the sixth of our continuing series about exemplary women in Islamic history, Sheikh Faris Ali Al Mustafa turns the spotlight on the famous Arab poetess Al Khansa

Manifesting the Spirit of Islam

To those who have listened and believed, God's final message to mankind has bestowed countless benefits. In this manner, Islam requires an investment and offers a precious profit.

The emergence of Islam nearly one thousand five hundred years ago represented a total change for both society and the individual. The religion aimed to restructure the beliefs and practices of its followers according to a new way of thinking. This message was (and is!) a call for piety, morality and compassion. In that manner it overturned injustice. The ultimate objective of God has been to elevate mankind mentally, socially and spiritually from the squalor of life without values to the paradise of submission to His will.

A direct consequence of this standard is to unify and strengthen the community, to transform all men into brothers. This religion has provided the basis for a stable and just social life based on well-being, benevolence and cooperation. Islam thus established a divine standard of human rights to be manifest in the society as a whole, between men and women in the family unit, and within the individual. The message of God is addressed to all of mankind, and is based on love, peace and the disapproval of violence. It was the benign teachings of Islam (not the might of the sword) that empowered the miracle of the rapid Muslim conquest of Arabia, North Africa, Spain, Persia and India.

The women of Islam have always had a major and effective role to play in their societies. As an example we can look to the arts, where the literary heritage of the Arabs offers many examples of great women who have offered their talents to God and their society.

One such woman of note was the poetess known simply as Al Khansa. This artist was a contemporary of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, and she was already a poet of note in the city of Mecca prior to the revelation of the Word of God. Although the literary talent of Al Khansa thus appeared before Islam, it was the transformation of her life by the new religion which demonstrates the fantastic potential of Islam to reshape the social and spiritual life of the individual.

The poetry of Al Khansa was famous for its passion of deep anguish. Her sufferings had been profound, and her writing told a tale of grief and of revenge. Her two brothers had been courageous tribal chiefs killed during one of the constant tribal wars that plagued the Arabs. Al Khansa mourned them for many years, and the talent which had been bestowed by God transformed her profound sorrow into fine poetry.

In one of Al Khansa's famous pre-Islamic poems, she declares:

My tears are abundant, and my sadness has no limits.How can I tolerate such agony?

A standard method of the great poets during the pre-Islamic period was to compose in a long format called al mu'allaqaat, named in that manner because such poems were posted in the then pagan shrine of worship in Mecca. Many literary researchers of pre-Islamic poetry have rated the work of Al Khansa in this style as superior to the others in terms of its literary merits and its pathos.

Even before her submission to the will of God, Al Khansa established an abiding reputation for being a strong-willed women with a great sense of pride. This was demonstrated in a famous matching of wits with another famous poet of the time, Hassan bin Thabit al Ansary. He himself was so popular that poetry enthusiasts of the time gathered around him at the Okaz Souk, a well-known bazaar in the ancient city of Mecca where poets met to recite poetry. Another famous poet of the day, Al Nabigha al Zebyani, adjudicated their literary competition, and in later writings declared Al Khansa as more accurately portraying the false pride, self-esteem and prejudices of the Arabs.

But this state of affairs was not to last much longer. Arabic society was to be transformed by the revelation of the Word, as were the lives of the courageous early believers. Al Khansa was counted among them, as also was Hassan bin Thabit. The poetess was transformed from a wailing sister into a devout Muslim ready to sacrifice all to the cause, and Hassan was to dedicate the remainder of his life and works to the defence of the Word.

 The repute of Al Khansa's poetic expression prior to her conversion was founded on the eloquent eulogy of her brothers. The basis of her poetry was secular and godless, a defence of her tribe and the courage of her brothers. This loyalty was drawn from the harsh nature of desert life, where the family and tribal affiliation was the cornerstone of the social and moral structure of pre-Islamic life. The revelation of Islam added the divine dimension to these values. Military power then could only have meaning as a struggle to make manifest the rule of God, and bravery could only be significant in defence of His Word. Death was no longer simply an end to earthly suffering, but a door for the worthy to enter eternal paradise. Martyrdom with the name of God on the lips was a key to that door. Prior to Al Khansa accepting the revelation, her life was a wound of sorrow which never healed, a pain that never ceased. When Islam transformed her poor life, the poet found a source of strength for even the worst of pain.

It happened that an even greater horror than the death of her two brothers was visited upon her. During the famous battle of Kadissiah during the struggle to establish Islam, God claimed the lives of all four of her sons. Al Khansa suffered the worst pain that every mother would feel upon such a tragedy, but in her suffering the poet recognised a source of great pride. She thanked God for the honour that He had bestowed upon her and her sons.

In this manner Islam was capable of exalting the soul of the Arab and all Muslims. With single-minded devotion the believers are enabled to sacrifice all for the struggle to establish the Word, even to the extent of believing it an honour to achieve martyrdom.

When Al Khansa's mellifluous wailing was transformed into an eloquent submission to the unfathomable will of God, this Muslim woman became a symbol and inspiration to all the believers. If we compare her behaviour before and after her epiphany of belief, men and women can understand the profound effect of Islam on its followers. Al Khansa became so devoted to the Word that she eventually ceased her own writing, as she was too much in awe of the incomparable eloquence of the Holy Quran.

Islam does not just simply lay down laws to restrict the lives of the believers, it reveals the path to realise the divine in our lives. That is the lesson to be learned from the transformation of our eloquent sister Al Khansa. The early Muslims rose from the squalor of pagan life to a fear and love of the One God, a fear of separation from Him and a love of unity with Him. We will all stand before God on the Day of Judgement and be questioned about our acts of commission and omission.

This brief epistle has sought to shed some light on the life of an important woman in the history of the Arabs. The Word of God demonstrated its power to rapidly conquer much of the known world at the time of its revelation, but also perhaps more poetically to transform an unhappy woman intent on revenge into a dignified, patient believer submitting to the will of the One God.

Al Khansa has provided mankind with a remarkable lesson in womanhood and the capacity of faith to utterly change a life. Our modern era is in dire need of all believers to exalt themselves by emulating the timeless example of this devout woman. In the Holy Quran, God ordains that:

You will turn to God in repentance and you will resign yourself to His will.