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THE REASONS BEHIND THE SEVERAL MARRIAGES OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD

Some critics of Islam, either because they are not aware of the facts about the marriages of the Prophet Muham­mad, upon him be peace, or because they are not honest and objective about those facts, have reviled the Prophet as a self-indulgent libertine. They have accused him of charac­ter failings which are hardly compatible with being of aver­age virtue, let alone with being a Prophet and God’s last Messenger and the best model for all mankind to follow. However, if the facts are simply recounted-and they are easily available from scores of biographies and well-authenticated accounts of his sayings and actions-it be­comes clear that the Prophet lived the most strictly disci­plined life, that his marriages were a part of that discipline, a part of the many, many burdens that he bore as God’s Last Messen­ger.

The reasons behind the Prophet’s several marriages are various, but even in the privateness of some of those rea­sons, they all had to do with his role as the leader of the new Muslim ummah, guiding his people towards the norms and values of Islam. In the following pages we shall try to explain some of those reasons and, in so do­ing, demon­strate that the charges leveled against the Prophet on this count are as vile and indecent as they are utterly false.

The Prophet, not at that time called to his future mis­sion, first married at the age of twenty-five. Given the cultural environment in which he lived, not to mention the climate and other considerations such as his youth, it is remarkable that he should have enjoyed a reputation for perfect chas­tity as well as integrity and trustworthi­ness generally. As soon as he was called to the Prophethood he acquired enemies who did not hesitate to publicize false calumnies against him - but not once did any of them (and in their jahiliya (ignorance) they were not scrupulous men) dare to invent against him what no one could have believed. It is important to realize that his life was founded upon chastity and self-discipline from the outset, and so re­mained.

At the age of twenty-five, then, and in the prime of life, Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, married Khadija, a woman much his senior in years. This marriage was very high and exceptional in the eyes of the Prophet and God. For twenty-three years, his life with Khadija was a period of uninterrupted contentment in perfect fidelity. In the eighth year of Prophethood, however, Khadija passed away and the Prophet was once again single, as he had been until the age of twenty-five, though now with chil­dren. His enemies cannot deny, but are forced to admit that, during all these long years, they cannot find a single flaw in his moral character. During the life­time of Khadi­ja, the Prophet took no other wife, al­though public opin­ion among his people would have al­lowed him to do so had he wished to. After Khadija’s death, he lived a single life for four or five years. All his other marriages began after he reached the age of fifty-five, an age by which very little real interest and desire for marriage remains. The allegation that his marriages after this age were an expression of licentiousness or self-indulgence, is as groundless as it is foul.

A question people often ask is: How can the plurality of his marriages be in accord with his role as the Prophet? There are three points to be made in answering this question, but first let us recognize that those who continually raise such questions are either atheists (who themselves have no religion) or are ‘people of the Book’ i.e. Christians or Jews. Both these classes of critics are equally ignorant of Islam and religion, or willfully con­fuse right with wrong in order to deceive others and spread doubt and mischief.

Those who neither believe in nor practice any religious way of life have no right to reproach those who do. They have relations and unions with many women without fol­lowing any rule or law or ethic. However they may pre­tend otherwise, what they do is unrestrained self-indul­gence with, in practice, little regard for the consequences of their life-style upon the happiness and well-being of even their own children, let alone of the young in gen­eral. In certain circles who advertise themselves as the most ‘free’, sexual relations which most societies con­demn as incestuous are regarded as permissible; homo­sexuality is as ‘normal’ for them as any other kind of relationship; some even practice polyandry - that is, one woman having at the same time many ‘husbands’ - the agony of any children from such unions who may never be sure of who their father is, we leave to the reader’s imagination. The only motive that people who live in this way can have for criticizing the Prophet’s marriages is the foolish hope that they can drag Muslims down with them into the mess of moral confusion and viciousness in which they themselves are trapped.

Jews and Christians who attack the Prophet for the plu­rality of his marriages can only be motivated by their fear and jealous hatred of Islam. They plainly forget that the great patriarchs of the Hebrew race, named as Prophets in the Bible as well as the Qur’an, and revered by the follow­ers of all three faiths as exemplars of moral excellence, all practiced polygamy - and indeed on a far greater scale than the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace.

Polygamy was not originated by the Muslims. Further­more, in the case of the Prophet of Islam, as we shall see, polygamy (or, more strictly, polygyny) has, from the view­point of its function within the mission of Prophethood, far more significance than people generally realize.

In a sense, the plurality of wives was a necessity for the Prophet through whose practice (or Sunna) the stat­utes and norms of Muslim law were to be established. Religion may not be excluded from the private relations between spouses, from matters that can only be known by one’s partner. Therefore, there must be guidance from women who can give clear instruction and advice without using an allusive language of hints and innuen­does which leaves the meaning obscure and incompre­hensible. The chaste and virtuous women of the Prophet’s household were the teachers responsible for conveying and communicating to the people the norms and rules that concern the conduct of Muslims in their private lives.

Some of the marriages of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, were contracted for specific reasons to do with his wives:

· Since there were young, middle-aged and old women amongst them, the requirements and norms of Islamic law could be exemplified in relation to their different life stages and experiences. These provisions of the law were first learnt and applied within the Prophet’s household and then passed on to other Muslims through the teaching of his wives.

· Since each of his wives was from a different clan or tribe, the Prophet established bonds of kinship and affinity throughout the Umma. This enabled a profound attachment to him to spread amongst the diverse peoples of the new Umma, creating and securing equality and brotherhood amongst them in a most practical way and on the basis of religion.

· Each of his wives, from their different tribes, both whilst the Prophet was living and after he passed away, proved of great benefit and service to the cause of Islam. They conveyed his message and in­terpreted it to their clans; the outer and inward ex­perience, the qualities, the manners and faith of the man whose life, in all its details, public and inti­mate, was the embodiment of the Qur’an - Islam in practice. In this way, all the members of their clan, men and women, learnt about the Qur’an, Hadith, tafsir (interpretation and commentary on the Qur’an), and fiqh (understanding of the Islamic law), and so be­came fully aware of the essence and spirit of the Islamic religion.

· Through his marriages, the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, established ties of kinship throughout the Arabian peninsula. What this meant was that he was free to move and be ac­cepted as a member in each family, each of whose members re­garded him as one of their own. For that reason each felt that they could go to him in person to learn about the affairs of this life and of the life hereafter, directly from him. Equally, the tribes benefited collectively also from this proximity to the Prophet; they esteemed themselves to be fortunate and took pride in that relationship, such as the Umayyads through Umm Habiba, the Hashimites through Zaynab bint Jahsh, and the Banu Makhzum through Umm Salama.

What we have said so far is general and could, in some respects, be true of all the Prophets. However, now we will discuss the life sketches of Ummahat al-Mu’minin - the mothers of the believers - not in the order of the mar­riages but in a different perspective.

Khadija, may God be pleased with her, was the first among the Prophet’s wives. At the time of her marriage, she was forty years old and Muhammad, upon him be peace, was twenty-five. She was the mother of all his children ex­cept a son, Ibrahim, who did not live long. As well as being a wife, Khadija was also a friend to her husband, the sharer of his inclinations and ideals to a remarkable degree. Their mar­riage was wonderfully blessed; they lived together in pro­found harmony for twenty-three years. Through every contumely and outrage heaped upon him by the idolaters, through every persecution, Khadija was his dearest com­panion and helper. He loved her very deeply and did not marry any other woman during her lifetime. This marriage is the ideal of intimacy, friendship, mutual respect, support and conso­lation, for all marriages. Though faithful and loyal to all his wives, he never forgot Khadija after her death and mentioned her virtues and merits extensively on many occasions. The Prophet did not marry for another four to five years after Khadija’s death. Providing their daily food and provisions, bearing their troubles and hard­ships, Muhammad, upon him be peace, looked after his children and performed the duties of mother as well as fa­ther. To allege of such a man that he was a sensualist or suffered from lust for women, is as disgraceful and as stu­pid a lie as can be imagined. For if there were even the least grain of truth in it, he could not have lived as we know that he did.

‘A’isha, may God be pleased with her, was his second wife, though not in the order of marriages. She was the daughter of his closest friend and devoted follower, Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr, one of the earliest converts to Islam had long hoped to ce­ment the deep attachment that existed be­tween himself and the Prophet, by giving to him his daughter in marriage. By marrying ‘A’isha the Prophet accorded the highest honor and courtesy to a man who had shared all the good and bad times with him through­out his mission.

‘A’isha, who proved to be a remarkably intel­ligent and wise woman, had both the nature and tempera­ment to carry forward the work of Prophetic mission. Her marriage was the schooling through which she was pre­pared as a spiritual guide and teacher to the whole of the female world. She became one of the major students and disciples of the Prophet and through him, like so many of the Muslims of that blessed time, her skills and talents were matured and perfected, so that she joined him in the abode of bliss both as wife and as stu­dent. Her life and her serv­ices to Islam after her mar­riage prove that such an excep­tional person was worthy to be the wife of the Prophet. For, when the time came, she proved herself one of the greatest authorities on Hadith, an excellent commentator on the Qur’an and a most distinguished and knowledgeable expert (faqih) in Islamic law. She truly represented the in­ward and out­ward qualities and experiences (zahir and batin) of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, through her unique understanding.

Umm Salama, may God be pleased with her, was from the clan of Makhzum. She was first married to her cousin. The couple had embraced Islam at the very beginning and emigrated to Abyssinia, to avoid the persecutions of the Quraysh. After returning from Abyssinia, the couple and their four children migrated to Madina. Her husband participated in many battles and received severe wounds at the battle of Uhud from which he later died. Abu Bakr and ‘Umar proposed marriage to Umm Salama, aware of her needs and suffer­ing as a widow with children to support and no means of doing so. She refused because, according to her judgment, no one could be better than her late husband.

Some time after that, the Prophet himself offered to marry her. This was quite right and natural. For this great woman, who had never shied from sacrifice and suffering for her faith in Islam, was now alone after hav­ing lived many years in the noblest clan of Arabia. She could not be neglected and left to beg her way in life. Considering her piety, sincerity and all that she had suf­fered, she certainly deserved to be helped. By taking her into his household, the Prophet was doing what he had been doing since his youth, namely befriending those who were lacking in friends, supporting those who were unsupported, protect­ing those who were unprotected.

Umm Salama was intelligent and quick in comprehen­sion just as ‘A’isha was. She had all the capacities and gifts to become a spiritual guide and teacher. When the gracious and compassionate Prophet took her under his protection, a new student to whom all the female world would be grateful, was accepted into the school of knowl­edge and guidance. Let us recall that, at this time, the Prophet was approaching the age of sixty. For him to have married a widow with many children, to have ac­cepted the expenses and responsibilities that entailed, cannot be understood otherwise than in humble admira­tion for the infinite reserves of his humanity and com­passion.

Umm Habiba, may God be pleased with her, was the daughter of Abu Sufyan who, for a long time had been the most de­termined enemy of the Prophet’s mission, and the most determined supporter of kufr (unbelief). Yet his daughter was one of the earliest converts to Islam. She emigrated to Abyssinia because of persecution by the unbelievers. Whilst there, her husband died and she was all alone, and desper­ate, in exile.

The Companions of the Prophet were then few in num­ber and had little in the way of material wealth to support themselves, let alone to support others. What then were the practical options open to Umm Habiba? She might convert to Christianity in Abyssinia and so obtain support from the Christians, but that was unthinkable. She might return to her father’s home, now a headquarters of the war against Islam, but that too was unthinkable. She might wander from household to household as a beggar, but again it was an unthinkable option for one who belonged to one of the richest and noblest Arab families to bring shame upon her family name by doing so.

God recompensed Umm Habiba for all that she lost or sacrificed in the way of Islam. She had suffered a lonely exile in an insecure environment among people of a race and religion different from her own; she was made wretched too by her husband’s death. The Prophet, on learning of her plight, responded by sending an offer of marriage through the king Negus. This was an ac­tion both noble and generous, and a practical proof of the verse: We have not sent you save as a mercy for all crea­tures (al-Anbiya’, 21.107).

Through this marriage, the powerful family of Abu Sufyan came to be linked with the person and household of the Prophet, something that led them to adopt a differ­ent attitude to Islam. It is also correct to trace the influ­ence of this marriage, beyond the family of Abu Sufyan, on all the Umayyads, who ruled the Muslims for almost a hundred years. The clan whose members had been the most fanatical in their hatred of Islam produced some of Islam’s most renowned warriors, administrators and governors in the early period. Without doubt it was the marriage to Umm Habiba that began this change: the Prophet’s depth of generosity and magnanimity of soul surely overwhelmed them.

Zaynab bint Jahsh, may God be pleased with her, was also a lady of noble birth, descended and a close relative of the Prophet. She was, moreover, a woman of great piety, who fasted much, kept long vigils, and gave generously to the poor. When the Prophet asked for the hand of Zaynab for Zayd, Zaynab’s family and Zaynab herself were at first unwilling. The family had hoped to marry their daughter to the Prophet. Naturally, when they realized that it was the Prophet’s wish that Zaynab should marry Zayd, they all consented out of deference to their love for the Prophet and his authority. In this way, the marriage took place.

Zayd had been taken captive as a child in the course of tribal wars and sold as a slave. The noble Khadija whose slave he was, presented him to Muham­mad, upon him be peace, on the occasion of her mar­riage to the future Prophet. The Prophet immediately gave Zayd his freedom and shortly afterwards adopted him as his son. The reason for his insistence on Zayd’s marriage to Zaynab was to es­tablish and fortify equality between the Muslims, to make this ideal a reality. His desire was to break down the an­cient Arab prejudice against a slave or even freedman marrying a ‘free-born’ woman. The Prophet was therefore starting this hard task with his own relatives.

The marriage did not bring happiness to either Zaynab or Zayd. Zaynab, the lady of noble birth, was a good Muslim of a most pious and exceptional quality. Zayd, the freedman, was among the first to embrace Islam, and he too was a good Muslim. Both loved and obeyed the Prophet, but their marriage was unsustainable because of their mutual incompatibility. Zayd found it no longer tolerable and on several occasions expressed the wish to divorce. The Prophet, however, insisted that he should persevere with patience and that he should not separate from Zaynab. Then, on an occasion while the Prophet was in conversation, the Angel Gabriel came and a Divine Revelation was given to him (Bukhari, Tawhid, 22). The Prophet’s marriage to Zaynab was announced in the revealed verses as a bond already contracted: We have married her to you (al-Ahzab, 33.37). This command was one of the severest trials the Prophet had yet had to face. For he was commanded to do a thing contrary to the traditions of his people, indeed it was a taboo. Yet it had to be done for the sake of God, just as God commanded. ‘A’isha later said: Had the Messenger of God been inclined to suppress anything of what was revealed to him, he would surely have suppressed this verse (Bukhari and Muslim).

Zaynab proved herself most worthy to be the Prophet’s wife; she was always aware of the responsi­bilities as well as the courtesies proper to her role, and fulfilled those responsibilities to universal admiration.

In the jahiliya, an adopted son was regarded as a natural son, and an adopted son’s wife was therefore regarded as a natural son’s wife would be. According to the Qur’anic verse, those who have been ‘wives of your sons proceeding from your loins’ fall within the prohibited degrees of marriage. But this prohibition does not relate to adopted sons with whom there is no real consanguinity. What now seems obvious was not so then. The pagan taboo against marrying the former wives of adopted sons was deeply rooted. It was to uproot this custom that the Prophet’s marriage to Zaynab was commanded by the Revelation.

Juwayriya bint Harith, may God be pleased with her, was one of a large number of captives taken by Muslims in a military expedi­tion. She was the daughter of Harith, chief of the defeated Banu Mustaliq clan. She was held captive, like other members of her proud fam­ily, alongside the ‘common’ people of her clan. When Juwayriya was taken to the Prophet, upon him be peace, she was in considerable distress, not least because her kinsmen had lost everything and her emo­tions were a pro­found hate and enmity toward the Mus­lims. The Prophet understood the wounded pride and dignity and the suffer­ing of this woman; more than that he understood also, in his sublime wisdom, how to re­solve the problem and heal that wounded pride. He agreed to pay her ransom, set her free and offered to take her as his wife. How gladly Ju­wayriya accepted this offer can easily be imagined.

About a hundred families, who had not yet been ran­somed, were all set free when the Ansar (the Helpers) and the Muhajirun (the Emigrants) came to realize that the Bani Mustaliq were now among the Prophet’s kin by marriage. A tribe so honored could not be allowed to remain in slavery (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 6,277). In this way the hearts of Juwayriya and all her people were won.

Safiyya, may God be pleased with her, was the daughter of Huyayy, one of the chieftains of the Jewish tribe of Khay­bar, who had persuaded the Bani Qurayza to break their treaty with the Prophet. From her earliest years she saw her family and relatives determined in op­position to the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. She had lost her father, brother and husband at the hands of Muslims, and herself be­came one of their cap­tives. The attitudes and actions of her family and relatives might have nurtured in her a deep indignation against the Muslims and a desire for re­venge. But three days before the Prophet, upon him be peace, arrived at Khaybar, and Safiyya fell captive in the battle, she had seen in a dream a brilliant moon coming out from Madi­na, moving towards Khaybar, and falling into her lap. She later said: ‘When I was captured I began to hope that my dream would come true.’ When she was brought be­fore him as a captive, the Prophet generously set her free and offered her the choice between remaining a Jew and returning to her people or entering Islam and becoming his wife. ‘I chose God and his Messenger’, she said. Shortly after that, they were married.

Elevated to the Prophet’s household she had the title of ‘mother of the believers’. The Companions of the Prophet honored and respected her as ‘mother’; she witnessed at first hand the refinement and true courtesy of the men and women whose hearts and minds were submitted to God. Her attitude to her past experiences changed altogether, and she came to appreciate the great honor of being the Prophet’s wife. As a result of this marriage, the attitude of many Jews changed as they came to see and know the Prophet closely.

Sawda bint Zam‘a, may God be pleased with her, was the widow of one Sakran. Sakran and Sawdah were among the first to embrace Islam and had been forced to emigrate to Abyss­inia to escape the persecution of the idolaters. Sakran died in exile and left his wife utterly destitute. As the only means of assisting the poor woman, the Prophet Muham­mad, upon him be peace, though himself dis­tressed for the means of daily subsistence, married Saw­da. This marriage took place some time after the death of the noble Khadija.

Hafsa, may God be pleased with her, was the daughter of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the future second Caliph of Islam. This good lady had lost her husband who emigrated to both Abyssinia and Madina and who died of wounds received in battle in the path of God. She remained without a husband for a while. ‘Umar also desired, like Abu Bakr, the honour and blessing of being close to the Prophet in this world and in the Hereafter, so that the Prophet, upon him be peace, took Hafsa as his wife so as to protect and help the daughter of his faithful disciple.

Such were the circumstances and noble motives of the several marriages of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace. We see that these marriages were intended to pro­vide helpless or widowed women with dignified subsis­tence in the absence of all other means; to console and honor enraged or estranged tribespeople, to bring those who had been enemies into some degree of rela­tionship and harmony; to gain for the cause of Islam certain uniquely gifted individuals, in particular some exceptionally talented women; to establish new norms of relationship between different people within the unifying brotherhood of faith in God; and to honor with family bonds the men who were to be the first leaders of the Muslim umma after him. These marriages had nothing at all to do with self-indulgence or personal desire or lust or any other of the absurd and vile charges laid against the Prophet by Islam’s embittered enemies. With the exception of ‘A’isha, all of the Prophet’s wives were widows, and all his marriages (after that with the noble Khadija) were contracted when he was already an old man. Far from being acts of self-indulgence then, these marriages were acts of self-discipline.

The number of the wives the Prophet had was a special dispensation within the law of Islam and unique to his person. However, when the Revelation restricting polygamy came, the Prophet’s marriages had already been contracted. Thereafter, the Prophet was also prohibited to marry again.


Recommended Reading:
The Prophet as universal educator

Last Updated on October 09, 2000

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