Umm Habibah was married to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the proxy of the Emperor of Abyssinia. She was the daughter of the chief of Makkah.
Her name was Ramlah bint Abi Sufyan. She was born 25 years before the Hijrah. Being the daughter of a prominent merchant and leader of her people, Umm Habibah enjoyed a very easy and comfortable life.
She — herself one of the few literate Arabs at the time — was married to a wealthy Makkan who was versed in the knowledge of major religions of his time. Despite the fierce resistance the Makkan polytheists showed to Islam and the fact that her own parents were among the arch enemies of Islam, Umm Habibah was one of the early converts to Islam.
Out of fear for his followers, Prophet Muhammad advised them to emigrate to Abyssinia on the Western Arabian side of the Red Sea that separated the Peninsula from Africa.
Umm Habibah was one of the emigrants along with her husband, Ubaidullah ibn Jahsh. To her misfortune the husband, for some reason or another, apostatized and took to drinking.
Thus, Umm Habibah had to suffer not only separation from her home and family at Makkah, but she also suffered alienation from a beloved husband. Yet, as a courageous Muslim, she bore all these difficulties with patience and perseverance, finding solace in the freedom she enjoyed along with the other emigrants in Abyssinia under the protection of Emperor Negus who was an open-minded Christian.
Parenthetically, we may add that according to Muslim historians the Emperor of Abyssinia (known today as Ethiopia) did convert at a later date to Islam in secrecy, out of admiration for Islam and its teachings, which explains why Prophet Muhammad asked the companions to pray for him upon his death.
During the year of truce between the Muslims and the Makkan polytheists, Prophet Muhammad, sent messages to the heads of the big powers of the time, Khosrau of Persia, the Byzantine emperor and the ruler of Abyssinia.
Along with the missive calling Negus to Islam, the Prophet asked him to act proxy for him in the marriage to Umm Habibah. For Prophet Muhammad realized the agony she was going through in that far and strange land.
The best consolation he could offer her was honoring her by marriage to him. Politically this was also a tactful act, because through marriage to Umm Habibah, the Prophet would be an in-law to Abu Sufyan, the leading antagonist of Islam, which would, help in softening his hostile attitude.
Thus, Umm Habibah was honored not only by being asked in marriage to the Prophet of Islam, but she was also honored by having the Emperor of Abyssinia himself proxy suitor.
Upon hearing of the proposal, Umm Habibah appointed a Companion to represent her and act as guardian. The emperor celebrated the occasion on behalf of the Prophet by giving a feast to the Muslim emigrants who attended the wedding.
It was sometime later that Umm Habibah managed to go to Madinah to her husband along with the other Muslim emigrants led by a cousin of the Prophet, Jafar ibn Abi Talib.
At the house of the Prophet, Umm Habibah faced another important test of her faith, when she came face to face with her father Abu Sufyan who was (as mentioned earlier) the leader of the enemies of Islam.
For, when some allies of Quraish broke the terms of the peace truce with Prophet Muhammad, with the implicit approval of the people of Quraish, Abu Sufyan hurried to Madinah to cover up for the treacherous act.
The first person that came to his mind was certainly his daughter Umm Habibah, since she was the wife of Prophet Muhammad. He hoped she would intercede for him with her husband.
Upon entering his daughter’s room Abu Sufyan wanted to sit on the Prophet’s mattress. Umm Habibah quickly folded the mattress. He was surprised and asked:
“Are you trying to keep me away from the mattress or keep the mattress away from me?“
Umm Habibah answered: “It is the mattress of the Messenger of God. You are a disbeliever and unclean. I did not want you to sit on the Messenger of God’s mattress,“
He said: “By God, something has gone wrong with you.“
She answered: “On the contrary, God has guided me to Islam. Father, you are the master and leader of Quraish. How can you sit on it as you have not joined Islam and are still worshipping useless stones?“
The mission proved a failure for Abu Sufyan. But for Umm Habibah, she passed another difficult test. She had to choose between loyalty to her faith and love for her father whom she had not seen for many long years. She chose to take sides with her faith.
Thus, when Umm Habibah died 44 years after the Hijrah, her memory keeps living in the minds and hearts of millions of Muslims.