Even before Islaam was introduced to Yathrib (Madeenah), Rumaysaa bint Milhaan (ra) was known for her excellent character, the power of her intellect and her independent attitude of mind. She was known by various names including Rumaysaa and Ghumaysaa, but these were possibly nicknames. One historian says that her real name was Sahlah but later she was popularly known as Umm Sulaym. Umm Sulaym (ra) was first married to Maalik ibn an-Nadr and her son by this marriage was the famous Anas bin Maalik, one of the great Companions of the Messenger Muhammad (saw).
Umm Sulaym (ra) was one of the first women of Madeenah to accept Islaam. She was influenced by the refined, dedicated and persuasive Mus’ab ibn ‘Umayr (ra) who was sent out as the first missionary or ambassador of Islaam by the noble Messenger of Allaah (saw). This was after the first pledge of al-‘Aqabah. Twelve men of Madeenah had gone to al-‘Aqabah on the outskirts of Makkah to pledge loyalty to the Messenger of Allaah (saw). This was the first major breakthrough for the mission of Muhammad (saw) for many years.
Umm Sulaym’s decision to accept Islaam was made without the knowledge or consent of her husband, Maalik ibn an-Nadr. He was absent from Madeenah at the time and when he returned he felt some change had come over his household. Maalik was not pleased when his wife announced her acceptance of Islaam and that she had instructed her son Anas in the teachings and practice of the new faith. Umm Sulaym’s husband was now furious. He shouted at her, ‘don’t corrupt my son!’ She firmly replied: ‘I am not corrupting him!’ Her husband then left the house and it is reported that he was set upon by an enemy of his and was killed. The news shocked but apparently did not upset Umm Sulaym greatly. She remained devoted to her son Anas and was concerned Abut his proper upbringing. She is even reported to have said that she would not marry again until Anas approved.
When it was known that Umm Sulaym had become a widow, one man, Zayd ibn Sahl bin al-Aswad, known as Abu Talhah, resolved to become engaged to her before anyone else did. He was rather confident that Umm Sulaym would not pass him over for another. He was after all a strong and virile person who was quite rich and possessed an imposing house that was much admired. He was an accomplished horseman and a skilful archer and moreover he belonged to the same clan as Umm Sulaym.
Abu Talhah proceeded to Umm Sulaym’s house. On the way he recalled that she had been influenced by the preaching of Mus’ab ibn ‘Umayr (ra) and had become a Muslim. ‘So what?’ He said to himself. ‘Was not her husband who did a firm adherent of the old religion and was he not opposed to Muhammad (saw) and his mission?’ Abu Talhah reached Umm Sulaym’s house. He asked and was given permission to enter. Her son Anas was present. Abu Talhah explained why he had come and asked for her hand in marriage. ‘A man like you Abu Talhah’ she said, ‘is not easily turned away. But I shall never marry you while you are a kaafir.’
Abu Talhah thought she was trying to put him off and that perhaps she had already preferred someone wealthier and more influential. He said to her, ‘What is it that really prevents you from accepting me, Umm Sulaym? Is it the yellow and white metals (gold and silver)?’ ‘Gold and silver?’ she asked somewhat taken aback and in a slightly censuring tone. ‘Yes’, he said. ‘I swear to you, Abu Talhah, and I swear by Allaah and his Messenger (saw) that if you accept Islaam, I shall be pleased to accept you as a husband, without any gold or silver. I shall consider your acceptance of Islaam as my mahr (dowry).’
Abu Talhah understood well the implications of her words. His mind turned to the idol he had made from wood and on which he lavished great attention in the same way that important men of his tribe venerated and cared for their personal idols. The opportunity was right for Umm Sulaym to stress the futility of such idol worship and she went on: ‘Don’t you know Abu Talhah, that the god you worship besides Allaah grew from the earth?’ ‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘Don’t you feel stupid while worshipping part of a tree while you use the rest of it for fuel to bake bread or warm yourself? If you should give up these foolish beliefs and practices and become a Muslim, Abu Talhah, I shall be pleased to accept you as my husband and I would not want from you any sadaqah apart from your acceptance of Islaam.’ ‘Who shall instruct me in Islaam?’ asked Abu Talhah. ‘I shall,’ Umm Sulaym replied. ‘How?’ ‘Utter the declaration of truth and testify that there is no God but Allaah and that Muhammad is his Messenger. Then go to your house, destroy your idol and throw it away.’ Abu Talhah left and reflected deeply on what Umm Sulaym had said. He came back to her beaming with happiness. ‘I have taken your advice to heart. I declare that there is not God but Allaah and I declare that Muhammad is His Messenger’.
Umm Sulaym (ra) and Abu Talhah were married. Anas, her son, was pleased and the Muslims would say: ‘We have never yet heard of a mahr that was more valuable and precious than that of Umm Sulaym for she made Islaam her mahr.’ Umm Sulaym was pleased and delighted with her new husband who placed his unique energies and talents in the service of Islaam. He was one of the seventy-three men who swore allegiance to the Messenger Muhammad (saw) at the second Pledge of ‘Aqabah. Abu Talhah was devoted to the Messenger (saw) and took enormous delight in simply looking at him and listening to the sweetness of his speech. He participated in all the major military campaigns.
Abu Talhah and Umm Sulaym (ra) had an exemplary Muslim family life, devoted to the Messenger Muhammad (saw) and the service of Muslims and Islaam. Muhammad (saw) used to visit their home often. Umm Sulaym’s husband, Abu Talhah, died while he was on a naval expedition during the time of the third Khaleef, ‘Uthmaan bin ‘Affaan, and was buried at sea.
Umm Sulaym herself was noted for her great courage and bravery. During the Battle of Uhud, she carried a dagger in the folds of her dress. She gave water to and tended the wounded and she made attempts to defend the Messenger Muhammad (saw) when the tide of battle was turning against him. At the Battle of Khandaq, the Messenger (saw) saw her carrying a dagger and he (saw) asked her what she was doing with it. She said: ‘It is to fight those who desert.’ ‘May Allaah grant you satisfaction in that,’ replied the Messenger (saw). In the face of adversity, Umm Sulaym (ra) displayed a unique calmness and strength. One of her young sons (‘Umayr) fell sick and died while her husband was away looking after his orchards. She bathed the child and wrapped him in shrouds. She told others at her home that they should not inform Abu Talhah because she herself wanted to tell him.
Umm Sulaym (ra) also had another son whose name was ‘Abdullaah. A few days after she gave birth, she sent Anas with the baby and a bag of dates to the Messenger of Allaah (saw). Muhammad (saw) placed the baby on his lap. He crushed the dates in his mouth and put some into the baby’s mouth (made Tahneek). The baby sucked the dates with relish and the Messenger (saw) said: ‘The Ansaar are only fond of dates.’ ‘Abdullaah eventually grew up and had seven children all of whom memorised the Qur’aan.
Umm Sulaym (ra) was a model Muslimah, a model wife and mother. Her belief (and actions) in Allaah (swt) was strong and uncompromising. She was not prepared to endanger her faith and the upbringing of her children for wealth and luxury, however abundant and tempting. She was devoted to the Messenger of Allaah (saw) and dedicated her son Anas bin Maalik (ra) to his service. She (ra) took the responsibility of educating her children and she played an active part in public life, sharing with the other Muslims the hardships and the joys of building a true Islaamic community and living for the pleasure of Allaah (swt).