Halima al-Sa‘diyah

Quranic Islamic Woman

Halima al-Sa‘diyah, or Halima bint Abi Dhuayb, was one of the wet nurses of Muhammad.  She was married to al-Harith ibn Abd al-Uzza of the Banu Sa’d.  Her son was Abd’Allah and her daughters were Unaysa and Hudhafa.

Islamic scholars seem to have been confused by the stories that Muhammad was taken out into the desert and nursed for several years and have invented some goofy excuses for this.  Some claim that upper class children were taught the “virtuous ways of the Bedouin” in this way or that in the desert, children were raised on pure “classical Arabic” (which is a simply hilariously anachonistic notion).  However, Bedouins were clearly held in low regard in the early sources when compared to the wealthier settled people, and there’s a much simpler reason.  From the 550s through the 570s, outbreaks of plague and other diseases caused severe problems the area, and it would have been better for the survival of small children to go out into the desert, away from settled towns that were too connected to trade routes that were major disease highways.  There’s even an allusion to this documented problem in some of the sources.

Here is the version of the nursing of Muhammad by Halima that is reasonable:

There was a famine, and the Banu Sa’d needed money for food for her family because their flocks were thin and suffering, so they came to Mecca so that the lactating women could take the infants of the town out into the desert and be their wet nurses in exchange for money.  No one wanted to take Muhammad because he was an orphan and they thought they wouldn’t get paid, but the other mothers all chose other women besides Halima, and rather than return with no child, she took Muhammad on.

She accepted Islam after the Battle of Hunayn.

Here is the complete folktale version transmitted by Ibn Ishaq in his Life of Muhammad:

Halima the apostle’s foster-mother used to say that she went forth from her country with her husband and little son whom she was nursing, among the women of her tribe, in search of other babies to nurse. This was a year of famine when they were destitute. She was riding a dusky she-donkey of hers with an old she-camel which did not yield a drop of milk. They could not sleep the whole night because of the weeping of her hungry child. She had no milk to give him, nor could their she-camel provide a morning draught, but we were hoping for rain and relief.

[Note that this makes Halima out to be deliberately plotting the murder of someone’s child–if she had no milk for her own child, she had no milk for any other.]

‘I rode upon my donkey which had kept back the other riders through its weakness and emaciation so that it was a nuisance to them. When we reached Mecca, we looked out for foster children, and the apostle of God was offered to everyone of us, and each woman refused him when she was told he was an orphan, because we hoped to get payment from the child’s father. We said, “An orphan! and what will his mother and grandfather do?”, and so we spurned him because of that. Every woman who came with me got a suckling except me, and when we decided to depart I said to my husband: “By God, I do not like the idea of returning with my friends without a suckling; I will go and take that orphan.” He replied, “Do as you please; perhaps Allah will bless us on his account.”

[Why would someone call on Allah in the time of polytheism and unbelief?]

‘So I went and took him for the sole reason that I could not find anyone else. I took him back to my baggage, and as soon as I put him in my bosom, my breasts overflowed with milk which he drank until he was satisfied, as also did his foster-brother. Then both of them slept, whereas before this we could not sleep with him. My husband got up and went to the old she-camel and lo, her udders were full; he milked it and he and I drank of her milk until we were completely satisfied, and we passed a happy night. In the morning my husband said: “Do you know, Halima, you have taken a blessed creature?” I said, “By God, I hope so.” Then we set out and I was riding my she-ass and carrying him with me, and she went at such a pace that the other donkeys could not keep up so that my companions said to me, “Confound you! stop and wait for us. Isn’t this the donkey on which you started?” “Certainly it is,” I said. They replied, “By God, something extraordinary has happened.” Then we came to our dwellings in the Banu Sa’d country and I do not know a country more barren than that.

‘When we had him with us my flock used to yield milk in abundance. We milked them and drank while other people had not a drop, nor could they find anything in their animals’ udders, so that our people were saying to their shepherds, “Woe to you! send your flock to graze where the daughter of Abu Dhuayb’s shepherd goes.” Even so, their flocks came back hungry not yielding a drop of milk, while mine had milk in abundance.

[The author felt the need for their own Jacob and Laban-like story, together with a conventional fairytale structure.]

‘We ceased not to recognize this bounty as coming from God for a period of two years, when I weaned him. He was growing up as none of the other children grew and by the time he was two he was a well-made child.

[A miracle of impossibly rapid growth–some sources claim that Muhammad grew in one day as much as other children did in one month.  This is a frequent theme in mythology around the world but would be seen as a sign of evil, corrupting influence of demonic-like forces in a Jewish or a Christian context, as this shows a contamination of human lineage with a divine component.  Islamic contexts tend to display syncretism that is tone-deaf to its supposed Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, somehow, Amina doesn’t notice that anything’s wrong.]

‘We brought him to his mother, though we were most anxious to keep him with us because of the blessing which he brought us. I said to her: “I should like you to leave my little boy with me until he becomes a big boy, for I am afraid on his account of the pest in Mecca.” We persisted until she sent him back with us.

‘Some months after our return he and his brother were with our lambs behind the tents when his brother came running and said to us, “Two men clothed in white have seized that Quraysh! brother of mine and thrown him down and opened up his belly, and are stirring it up.” We ran towards him and found him standing up with a livid face. We took hold of him and asked him what was the matter. He said, ‘‘Two men in white raiment came and threw me down and opened up my belly and searched therein for I know not what.” So we took him back to our tent.

[This is a recycling of part of the story of the Night Journey.]

‘His father said to me, “I am afraid that this child has had a stroke, so take him back to his family before the result appears.” So we picked him up and took him to his mother who asked why we had brought him when I had been anxious for his welfare and desirous of keeping him with me. I said to her, “Allah has let my son live so far and I have done my duty. I am afraid that ill will befall him, so I have brought him back to you as you wished.” She asked me what happened and gave me no peace until I told her. When she asked if I feared a demon possessed him, I replied that I did. She answered that no demon had any power over her son who had a great future before him, and then she told how when she was pregnant with him a light went out from her which illumined the castles of Busra in Syria, and that she had borne him with the least difficulty imaginable. When she bore him he put his hands on the ground lifting his head towards the heavens. “Leave him then and go in peace,” she said.’

[Of course, this is the only source for this “miraculous light,” which is in no conventional ahadith, but the obvious comparison is a muddled attempt to equal the Star of Bethlehem.]

A miraculous birth or childhood for Muhammad is simply not compatible with the Quran or the vast majority of the ahadith, which clearly and repeatedly state that there are no miracles associated with Muhammad during the Meccan period except for the Quran itself.  Either everyone had stroke altogether and temporarily forgot all these miraculous things that happened when Muhammad was a kid until after he died, or else it simply never happened. 

Author: Marya Harb