The Historical Nursing Event: Rufaidah bint Sa’ad

As October is Islamic Heritage Month, it is befitting to discuss an important Muslim figure in the history of nursing: Rufaidah bint Sa’ad. Muslim civilization boasts a rich tradition of medicine; the science of medicine, known in Arabic as Al-Tibb Al-Nabawi (Prophetic Medicine), began with the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and continues to be practiced today. Due to Islam’s emphasis on ethics such as taking care of others, altruism, cleanliness, seeking cures, and holistically taking care of one’s body and health as it is a trust from God, it is no surprise that women also took to learning methods of healing and care.

Imagine my excitement when I came across Rufaidah bint Sa’ad, also known as Rufaidah Al-Asalamiyya, a female companion of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, in a nursing textbook:

In the Islamic world, Rufaidah is considered the first professional nurse (Kasule, 2010). Rufaidah bint Sa’ad learned medical care from her father, who was a physician and trained a group of women as nurses. These women prepared food, established tent hospitals, and attended the sick and wounded during the time of the Prophet Muhammad in battles during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. She is believed to have started the first nursing school in Islam when she taught women and girls the art of nursing the sick and wounded. She is described as having set down the first code of nursing rules and ethics in the world and is still considered a symbol of noble deeds and self denial in the modern Islamic world. Rufaidah was also involved in social work, providing assistance to the poor, the orphans, and the handicapped. [1] 

About 1,200 years before Florence Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing, Rufaidah bint Sa’ad was the first to introduce the nursing profession to the Muslim world. [2]

Rufaidah, also referred to as Ku’aibah in Prophetic narrations, was amongst the fortunate women of the Ansar who welcomed our beloved Prophet ﷺ to Medina. She was from the Al-Aslam tribe of the Al-Khazraj tribal federation. She acquired her skills in taking care of the sick and wounded from her father, a physician named Sa’ad Al- Aslami, and attained expertise in the field. Along with tending to the sick, Rufaidah would also prepare patients before invasive procedures by providing the necessary hygiene and care.

During times of war, Rufaidah used her skills to care for wounded soldiers, and  is credited with establishing the first mobile care tents to treat soldiers on the field. [3] Today, mobile tents are used during triage and emergency events like the pandemic of COVID-19. The tents were used to separate the infected patients from the uninfected patients to help reduce the spread of the virus. During triage, the mobile tents are placed on-site at the event to provide the necessary nursing care to prevent complications that may result in death. 

Rufaidah is said to have contributed her knowledge and skills to major battles in Islamic history such as Badr, Uhud, Khandaq, Khayber, etc. She is also mentioned in the Prophetic narrations for tending to the wounds of the famous Sahabi, Sa’ad ibn Mu’adh, the chief of the Aws tribe in Madina, upon whose death the Prophet ﷺ said the Throne of Allah shook and whose janazah was attended by 70,000 angels. [4]

Imam Ibn Hajar Al-’Asqalani states in Tahzib Al-Tahzib

[She was] a woman from Aslam who would medically treat injured soldiers. Asim Ibn Umar Ibn Qatadah narrated from Mahmud Ibn Labid that when Sa’d Ibn Mu’adh was gravely injured in the battle of the Trench, he was sent to the care of a woman known as Rufaida. Ibn Sa’d referred to her as al-Ku’aiba, so he mentioned her as Ku’aiba bint Sa’d al-Aslamiyyah. She pledged her allegiance to the Messenger  ﷺ after the pilgrimage. She is the one who had a tent in the Masjid where she treated the injured. Sa’d Ibn Mu’adh was being treated by her until he died under her care.

She was such an important asset to the Islamic cause that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is said to have given her a share from the spoils of war equal to the soldiers. In fact, at the end of the Battle Khayber, the Prophet Muhammad was so impressed by Rufaidah’s nursing skills that he permitted her to maintain a small clinic in a tent by Masjid Al-Nabawi, the central mosque of Madinah, to continue her nursing care for people in need. It was in this clinic that she trained women who wanted to learn how to care for the sick and wounded, thus, she is credited with founding the first nursing school. [5] 

Rufaidah emerged as a leader in her field and is said to have trained famous Sahabiyyat who volunteered to go out to battlefields (may Allah be pleased with all of them). She impacted the Muslim world by demonstrating that women can provide excellent care to any individual if given the proper training. Having established the first code of nursing rules and ethics in the world, she is still considered a symbol of noble deeds and self-denial in the modern era. She was also able to provide general health education regarding hygiene and cleanliness to the people of Madinah.

Rufaidah exhibited exemplary skills, knowledge, leadership, and character. She demonstrated how a nurse should treat a patient by being caring, kind, empathetic, and devoted to helping them through their illnesses. Her legacy remains through initiatives such as colleges being named after her in countries like Pakistan and Jordan, and awards such as the Rufaidah Al-Aslamia Prize which is awarded to students who excel in nursing care. She was able to inspire many women globally and beyond the Muslim world to seek education in the medical field. 

May Allah guide all of us in striving to be like the amazing companions and use our God-given gifts and blessings to benefit the ummah and the world at large, Ameen. 

Works Cited:

1. Blais K.K. & Hayes J.S. (2016). Professional Nursing Practice. Pearson Educational.
2. Yahya, S. (2017, March 31). Rufaida al-Aslamia – the first muslim nurse. Saudigazette
3. Yahya, S. (2017, March 31). Rufaida al-Aslamia – the first muslim nurse. Saudigazette
4. Sunan an-Nasa’i 2055
5. Blais K.K. & Hayes J.S. (2016). Professional Nursing Practice. Pearson Educational.

About the Author: Ustadha Raissa Khalil is the Marketing Director of Traversing Tradition and an ‘Ālimah based in the US. Her fields of interest include Theology (‘Aqidah/Kalam), Hanafi Jurisprudence (Fiqh), and Bioethics. You can subscribe to her channel on Telegram here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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