The Arabs were largely desert people. Even for those of them who lived in cities like Makkah and Madinah, their cities were urban areas in the middle of the desert. Hence, when we hear of a woman traveling by sea at that time, we would like to know more about the circumstances that led her to take such a risky adventure. But we will begin with an introduction of this lady.
Umm Haram bint Milhan was the sister of Umm Sulaym whom we introduced recently. Both sisters were very close to the Prophet, and he used to visit them in their homes. Umm Haram was married to Ubadah ibn Al-Samit, one of the early Muslims from Madinah. He was one of 12 men who gave the Prophet the first pledge by the Ansar for unwavering support. A year later, he joined 73 men of the Ansar who gave the second and most solemn pledge of support which led to the immigration of the Prophet and his companions from Makkah to Madinah.
The Prophet was very kind to all his companions, men and women, but he was even more so to Umm Haram and her sister. He used to visit her at home, and if it was midday and he was tired, he might have a nap at her house. Anas ibn Malik, her nephew, reports: The Prophet visited us and there were only myself, my mother (Umm Sulaym) and my maternal aunt (Umm Haram). He said: Let us pray in congregation'. No obligatory prayer was due. He led us in prayer. When we finished he prayed for us, members of our household, appealing to God to grant us of every good thing in this life and in the life to come. (Related by Muslim).
One day the Prophet visited Umm Haram and she gave him a meal. He lied down and she examined his head to pick up any stray insect. He dozed off. He then woke up smiling. She asked him the reason for his smile. He said: I was shown some people of my community going on an expedition of jihad, riding at sea, like kings on their thrones.
She said: Messenger of God, pray for me that I will be one of them. He said: You are one of them. He soon was asleep again. Once more he woke up smiling and she asked him why he was smiling. His answer was the same as he gave her the first time. Again she asked him to pray to God to make her one of them. He said: No. You will be among the first ones.
By the time the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, was in power, the Muslims had taken over Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Yet the Byzantine Empire continued to launch raids on the new Muslim land. Some of these raids started from Cyprus, using ships.
Uthman, therefore, decided to invade Cyprus. He instructed his governor in Syria, Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan to prepare for such an attack. Mu'awiyah built a fleet and sent a force to Cyprus. Umm Haram was all the time looking for the opportunity to join an army traveling by sea. When she realized that preparations were under way for that attack, she decided to join the army. The fleet set off, and when they landed in Cyprus, the Cypriots decided to negotiate peace. A treaty was signed with the Muslim state.
However, Umm Haram was riding a donkey in Cyprus when she fell off. Her fall caused her death, and she was buried in Cyprus in year 27 AH. People of Cyprus used to refer to it as the grave of the goodly woman'. Even non-Muslims used to visit her grave and pray for rain near it, knowing that she was a most devout woman.