In pre-Islamic Arabia, women are said to have customarily taken part in warfare, infrequently as combatants themselves but more often as inciters of the men of their tribes and as providers of succor and aid to the wounded. This situation continued through the early period of Islam. Biographical works document the presence of women on the battlefield during the time of the Prophet, including some of his wives. Ibn Sa‘d (d. AH 231/845 CE), in his famous al-Tabaqat al-Kubra (The Great Generations), records the activities of some of these remarkable women, including their martial exploits in some cases, as does Ibn Hisham (d. 218/833) in his celebrated biography of Muhammad. More frequently, the women companions accompanied the men to battle to nurse the wounded and feed the thirsty. For example, Umm Ayman, the nurse and freedwoman of the Prophet, was present at the battle of Uhud in 4/625, at Khaybar in 7/628, and at Hunayn in 8/630, primarily in her capacity as a nurse. The pre-Islamic custom of goading the men to battle, especially by uttering imprecations on the enemy, appears to have been discouraged during the Islamic period. Ibn Sa‘d mentions that, when Umm Ayman invoked God’s curse on the opposing army, she was gently reprimanded by Muhammad. Several other women companions, such as Umm Sinan al-Aslamiyya and Ku‘ayba bt. Sa‘d al-Aslamiyya, are mentioned as having been present during a number of battles, primarily to tend to the sick and the wounded. The latter is said to have set up a tent in the mosque at Medina to serve as a makeshift hospital for the wounded.
There were actual female combatants as well: Safiyya bt. ‘Abd al-Muttalib, for example, is reported to have descended on the battlefield at Uhud with a weapon in her hand. However, the most famous female warrior of the early Islamic period is the Ansari woman Nusayba bt. Ka‘b, also known as Umm ‘Umara. She was present at Uhud, al-Hudaybiyya (9/630), Khaybar, Hunayn, and al-Yamama (12/633-34). At Uhud, she valiantly defended Muhammad (along with her mother, according to some accounts) when the tide began to turn against the Muslims. She fought with a sword and a bow and arrow, sustaining severe injuries in the process. Her assailant was a man named Ibn Qumi‘a from the opposing Makkan side, who had loudly declared his intention to kill the Prophet. Umm ‘Umara would later proudly state that she had managed to strike at Ibn Qumi‘a, ruing, however, the fact that ‘‘the enemy of God had on two suits of armor.’’ She would later lose a hand at al-Yamama during the battle against the false prophet Musaylima after the fall of Mecca in 9/630.
The early biographers speak approvingly of these heroic women; for example, Ibn Sa‘d gives a fulsome and laudatory account of Umm ‘Umara’s martial feats. The twelfth-century memoirs of Usama b. Munqidh (584/1188), a Syrian notable, contain references to women combatants during his own time, including his mother, which indicates that this practice had not become completely extinct during the later medieval period. However, Mamluk biographers like Ibn Hajar (d. 852/1449) tend to display ambivalence toward the martial activities of early women warriors. Ibn Hajar, in fact, considers the case of an obscure woman companion by the name of Umm Kabsha, who is said to have been denied permission to accompany Muhammad to an unspecified battle, as rescinding the earlier permission given to women to participate in battles, either as active combatants and/ or as providers of humanitarian services. Ibn Hajar’s opinion is to be regarded as being in accordance with the changed sensibilities of the Mamluk period, which involved a much more circumscribed public role for women.