Rufaida al Aslamia: Companion to Prophet Muhammad, nurse and founder of Islam's first health centre

5 min read
20 June, 2023
Rufaida Al-Aslamia, who lived during the time of the Prophet, was a pioneering figure in the field of Islamic medicine and social work. She is widely acknowledged as the first female Muslim nurse and the first woman surgeon in Islamic history.

The past few years have served as a reminder of the immense value of healthcare workers. The recent pandemic has highlighted their indispensable role in saving lives, as millions of medical professionals around the world worked tirelessly. 

As a global community, it's crucial that we recognise and appreciate the sacrifices made by others, not just during emergencies, but consistently. These crises have taught us the significance of acknowledging the efforts and contributions of others.

Here is, therefore, an inspiring and relatively unknown account of a Muslim woman who was a close companion of Prophet Muhammed and founded the first Islamic health centre in Medina. Her worth and contributions have since been valued for millennia. 

"While Florence Nightingale is often credited in western literature as the pioneer of modern nursing and the first nurse, it's worth noting that Rufaida al Aslamia held this title 1,200 years before Nightingale"

It is believed that the Greeks were the pioneers of medicine, but they did not have hospitals. Instead, their doctors would treat patients at home until many centuries later when the concept of medical facilities emerged.

When Islam began to spread globally in the 7th century, Muslims made significant contributions to the field of medicine, not only through scientific advancements but also by creating exceptional architectural marvels.

While Florence Nightingale is often credited in Western literature as the pioneer of modern nursing and the first nurse, it's worth noting that Rufaida al Aslamia held this title 1,200 years before Nightingale.

Not only that but under her leadership in the early days of Islam, the concept of establishing the first known Islamic care centre emerged, along with her ground-breaking contributions to the field.

Rufaida al Aslamia, a member of the Bani Aslam tribe of the Khazraj tribal confederation in Medina, was born in 620 AD.

Her father, Saad al Aslami, who was a physician, mentored and trained Rufaida to become a highly skilled medic. Rufaida embraced Islam early on and warmly welcomed Prophet Muhammed's arrival in Medina.

Prior to the Muslim army's military operations, Rufaida and a group of volunteers requested the Prophet's permission to participate in battles and assist injured soldiers. With the Prophet's approval, Rufaida played an active role in several battles, including Badr, Khaibat, Uhud, and Khandaq, where she used her medical expertise to treat wounded soldiers.

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Rufaida is recognised as the first known nurse in Islamic history, who established a tent outside the Prophet's mosque to provide medical care to patients, wounded individuals, and those suffering from diseases.

She also played a significant role in resolving social issues that emerged due to illnesses within her community. Besides, she trained and educated other women interested in nursing.

Some historians believe that even the Prophet relied on her, as he directed the wounded to be taken to Rufaida's tent for treatment. For instance, after the Battle of Al-Khandaq, the Prophet wanted Saad Ibn Muaath to receive treatment at Rufaida's tent, owing to her exceptional abilities and skills.

Throughout her remarkable life, she served as an invaluable source of inspiration for countless women, not only in her own era but for generations to come. As a devoted nurse and passionate social activist, she set a shining example for others to emulate.

Her powerful story stands as a resounding testament to the pivotal role that Muslim women played in society, especially following the advent of Islam.

Rufaida al Aslamia was granted permission by Prophet Muhammed to keep her small clinic near Masjid Al-Nabawi after the wars had ended. She confidently continued to educate women as nurses and provide medical care.

Prophet Muhammed recognised Rufaida al Aslamia's contributions and rewarded her with an equal share of the spoils of war, at the same rate as the soldiers. Rufaida's inspiring social work continued even after the wars ended, extending her efforts to help those in need, especially the poor and orphans. 

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Rufaida al Aslamia's legacy lives on in Pakistan, where the renowned nursing college at Aga Khan University proudly bears her name. Meanwhile, the University of Bahrain honours exceptional nurses each year with the prestigious Rufaida al Aslamiyah Prize.

She went beyond her duties as a nurse, dedicating most of her time to caring for the sick, assisting poverty-stricken individuals and orphans, and educating her community on medical matters.

Initially, her story was only shared through word of mouth, but in recent decades, scholarly articles have emerged to document her contributions.

Suad Hussain's research highlights Rufaida's significant contribution to the field of nursing. According to Hussain, Rufaida dedicated her life to the development and improvement of nursing, and her efforts resulted in the establishment of new rules and traditions that have led to better nursing practices.

Dr Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, academic, and journalist. His research areas and interests include Libya, the foreign policy of Turkey, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict and history

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat