It was customary for the Arabs in Makkah when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born that they sent their newborn children to some Bedouins where the young ones were breastfed by wet nurses. They felt that spending the first few years in a desert environment ensured that the child would grow up physically and mentally strong. Indications suggest that Makkah suffered some infectious diseases, and its people felt that children would be spared such diseases in the desert’s open air. We have a detailed story of how the young Muhammad ended up with Haleemah, his Bedouin wet nurse. We need only mention that Haleemah and her family were most delighted to have him, feeling that the young child brought some subtle blessing into their life. Hence, after he was weaned, Haleemah begged Aminah, the Prophet’s mother, to allow her to keep him for some more time. This was agreed upon, and most probably Muhammad stayed with Haleemah until he was five years of age.

In normal cases, when a child spends the first few years of life with carers who are not of his own family, living away from his hometown, it is not expected that relations with such carers would be maintained into his adult life without an effort by both parties. Nor would it be expected that he would look at those days of his childhood with tenderness. Most of us remember very little of our early years. Besides, Haleemah and her people lived in the desert, while Muhammad (peace be upon him) spent the rest of his life in Makkah, except for his last ten years when he lived in Madinah. Yet we read that in his adult life, Muhammad showed genuine gratitude to those very people.

Haleemah heard of his marriage to Khadeejah. This took place when Muhammad was 25, according to the most common report, yet he might have been a few years older or younger. She felt that she had to see him and offer her congratulations. After all, she was a mother to him. He welcomed her so warmly and gave her the best reception she could have imagined. He asked her what life was like at her place. She told him that they suffered hardship as the year was one of little rain and scarce provisions. Muhammad was poor, but his wife was rich. It was she who chose him after being very impressed with his character. Now she saw what was to her a new but highly commendable attitude, which is loyalty to those who had done him kindness. Yet she was aware that Haleemah only breastfed Muhammad for wages. Nevertheless, she admired Muhammad for such loyalty and welcomed Haleemah warmly. As Haleemah was about to leave, she was given a very generous gift by the newly married couple: 20 sheep, including a few young and productive ones, as well as a strong mount. Haleemah went back to her people, feeling very proud of a son who has not forgotten her in her hour of need.

Muhammad’s meeting with Haleemah took place many years before the start of his prophethood. We take another incident that took place more than 30 years later when Muhammad (peace be upon him) was 61. The Prophet had just fought a battle against the Hawazin tribe, of which Haleemah’s people formed a clan. The Hawazin were soundly defeated and most of their fighting men, as well as many women, were taken prisoner. One of these prisoners, Bijad, who belonged to Haleemah’s clan, apparently did something that irritated many Muslims. He was taken to the Prophet together with a group of his own clan, including a woman called Al-Shayma bint Al-Harith. As they were being taken to the Prophet, she was told off by some Muslims. She told them that she was the Prophet’s sister through breastfeeding, but they did not believe her.

When Al-Shayma was brought in, she looked intently at the Prophet, trying to remember him as a playmate in their early years. Like all her people, she was extremely tired after running away in battle and falling prisoner. She spoke out to the Prophet: “Messenger of God! I am your sister through breastfeeding; I am Al-Shayma, Haleemah’s daughter.”

As the Prophet listened to her, he felt he should make sure that she was telling the truth. He asked her to corroborate her claim. She thought hard, then said: “Prophet! Do you remember a day when I had lied on your thigh after having been playing outside our tent, in the Bani Saad’s quarter? You then lovingly bit me on my back?” As his companions looked at him, they saw his face beaming, then drops of tears were in his eyes as his memory went so far back to his days of early childhood. He then welcomed Al-Shayma warmly, taking off his upper garment and putting it on the ground for her to sit on. She was so delighted, as she saw the Prophet’s companions looking at her with veneration. She stayed with the Prophet for a while, receiving a most kindly treatment. He then told her: “Sister, you can stay with me for as long as you wish, and you will need to complain of nothing. However, if you prefer to go back to your people, I will be generous to you and I will continue to take care of you.” She opted to go back to her people. The Prophet bid her farewell, giving her three slaves and a maid, as well as some sheep and money. He continued to inquire after her and send her gifts.

This incident reminded the captives of the Hawazin people of an old relationship with the Prophet. Many Hawazin people had converted to Islam. A delegation of them said to him: “Messenger of God, we are your people and your own clan. You know the sort of disaster which has befallen us. We appeal to you to show mercy to us, may God bestow His grace on you.” Their spokesman, Zuhayr ibn Sarad, said to the Prophet: “Messenger of God, those women who have fallen captive to you include some who are your aunts and some who were your wet nurses when you were young. Had we been in such a relationship with the king of Ghassan in Syria or the King of Al-Manadhirah in Iraq, and had this sort of disaster befallen us at their hands, we would still have hoped that they would show leniency toward us. You, God’s Messenger, are the best to return kindness.”

These spokesmen were simply referring to the Prophet being nursed by Haleemah, a woman from a branch of the major tribe of Hawazin. They were saying that every woman in the tribe was the Prophet’s aunt or wet nurse. The Prophet did not object to this; nor did he say that only Haleemah took care of him. He felt for them. Then he prevailed on his companions to ensure that they were all set free. Thus, not a single woman or child of the Hawazin was retained as a captive.