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The reasons behind the several marriages of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace
Apr 1, 1993

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 Allah’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 Allah’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 levelled 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 jahiliyya (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, married Khadijah, a woman much his senior in years. This marriage was very high and exceptional in the eyes of the Prophet and Allah. For twenty-three years, his life with Khadijah was a period of uninterrupted contentment in perfect fidelity. In the eighth year of prophethood. however, Khadijah 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 Khadijah, the Prophet took no other wife, although public opinion among his people would have allowed him to do so had he wished to. After Khadijah’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 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 wilfully confuse right with wrong in order to deceive others and spread doubt and mischief.

1. Those who neither believe in nor practise 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 wellbeing 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 practise 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 criticising 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 practised 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.

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

  1. Since there were young, middle-aged and old women amongst them, the requirements and norms/ statutes 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.
  2. Since each of his wives was from a different clan or tribe, the Prophet established bonds of kinship and affinity throughout the ummah. This enabled a profound attachment to him to spread amongst the diverse peoples of the new ummah, creating and securing equality and brotherhood amongst them in a most practical way and on the basis of religion.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Ummayads through Umm Habibah, the Hashimites through Zaynab bint Jahsh, and the Banu Makhzum through Umm Salamah.

3. What we have said so far is general and could, in some respects, be true of all the Prophets. However, now we will deal with the life sketches of ummahat-al-muminin, the mothers of believers, not in the order of the marriages but in a different perspective.

I. Khadijah, radi Allahu anha, 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, Khadijah 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, Khadijah 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 Khadijah 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 Khadijah’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 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.

II. Aishah, radi Allahu anha, 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 Aishah the Prophet accorded the highest honour and courtesy to a man who had shared all the good and bad times with him throughout his mission. In this way, Abu Bakr and Aishah Siddiqa acquired the distinction of being spiritually and physically near to the Prophet.

Moreover, Aishah, 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. This is surely why the Prophet was told in his dream that he would marry Aishah, and thus, when she was innocent and knew nothing about men and worldly affairs, she was prepared and entered into the Prophet’s household.

III. Umm Salamah, radi Allahu anha, 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 Madinah. 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 Salamah, 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 judgement, 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. In the circumstances in which Umm Salamah found herself, there was no kinder or more gracious way to give her what she lacked.

Umm Salamah was intelligent and quick in comprehension just as Aishah 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 that entailed, cannot be understood otherwise than in humble admiration for the infinite reserves of his humanity and compassion.

IV. Umm Habibah, radi Allahu anha, 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 converted to Christianity. As she remained a Muslim, she separated from him. When, shortly after that, her husband died 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 Habibah? She might convert to Christianity 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. Allah recompensed Umm Habibah 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 conversion and 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 [beings ]" (Al-Anbiya, 21. 107). Thus Umm Salamah joined the Prophet"s household as wife and student, and contributed much to the moral and spiritual life of the Muslims who learnt from her and, in their turn, passed on their knowledge to future generations. 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 Ummayads, who ruled the Muslims for 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 Salamah that began this change: the Prophet"s depth of generosity and magnanimity of soul surely overwhelmed them.

V. Zainab bint Jahsh, radi Allahu anha, was also a lady of noble birth, 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 Zainab for Zaid, Zainab"s family and Zainab 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 Zainab should marry Zaid, they all consented out of deference to their love for the Prophet and his authority. In this way, the marriage took place. Zaid had been taken captive as a child in the course of tribal wars and sold as a slave in Kahha. 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 Zaid his freedom and shortly afterwards adopted him as his son. The reason for his insistence on Zaid"s marriage to Zainab 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 Zainab or Zaid. Zainab, the lady of noble birth, was a good Muslim of a most pious and exceptional quality. Zaid, 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. Zaid 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 Zainab. Then, on an occasion while the Prophet was in conversation, the Angel Gabriel came and a divine revelation was given to him. The Prophet"s marriage to Zainab was announced in the revealed verses as a bond already contracted: We have married her to thee (al-Ahzab). This command was one of the severest trials the Prophet, upon him be peace, 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 Allah, just as Allah commanded. Aishah later said: Had the Apostle of Allah been inclined to suppress anything of what was revealed to him, he would surely have suppressed this verse (Bukhari and Muslim). Divine wisdom decreed the need to join so distinguished and noble a person as Zainab to the Prophet"s household, so as to provide her with true knowledge and prepare her for the task of guiding and enlightening the Muslims. In the event, after the marriage finally took place, Zainab 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 jahiliyya, the period of ignorance before Islam, 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 Quranic 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 their 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 Zainab was commanded by the Revelation. To have an unassailable authority for future generations of Muslims, the break in the taboo had to be achieved through the authority of the Prophet"s own example. It is but one further instance of the depth of faith of the man that he accepted the divine decree, against the most established customs of his people. As a result the Arabs were rescued from their pagan confusion of a legal fiction, however worthy, with a biological, natural reality.

VI. Juwayriyah b. Harith, radi Allahu anha, was one of a large number of captives taken by Muslims in an expedition to suppress an armed revolt. She was the daughter of Harith, chief of the defeated Bani Mustaliq clan. She was held captive, like other members of her proud family, alongside the common people of her clan. When the spoils were divided, she fell to the lot of one of the Ansar (those Madinans honoured as the Helpers of the Emigrant Muslims from Makka). The Ansari agreed to set her free for a certain sum. Juwayriah came to the Prophet, upon him be peace, to plead for his intervention on her behalf. 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 Juwayriyah accepted this offer can easily be imagined. About a hundred families, who had not yet been ransomed, were all set free when the Ansar and the Muhajir (the Emigrants) came to realize that the Bani Mustaliq were now among the Prophet"s kin by marriage. A tribe so honoured could not be allowed to remain in slavery. In this way the hearts of Juwayriyah and all her people were won. A hundred families who regained their liberty blessed the marriage of Juwayriyah with Muhammad, upon him be peace. Through his compassionate wisdom and generosity he turned a defeat for some into a victory for all; what had been an occasion of enmity and distress became one of friendship and joy.

VII. Safiyyah, radi Allahu anha, was the daughter of Huyayy, one of the chieftains of the Jewish tribe of Khaybar, who had persuaded the Bani Qurayzah to break their treaty with the Prophet. From her earliest years she saw her family and relatives determined in opposition to the Prophet. 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 Safiyyah 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." 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 Allah 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 honoured 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 Allah. Her attitude to her past experiences changed altogether, and she came to appreciate the great honour 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. It is also worth noting here that it is through such close relation with others that Muslims can come to understand how those others think and feel and live. And it is through understanding that Muslims can learn how to influence and guide, if Allah wills, those others. Without a degree of trust established by such generous actions as the Prophet"s marriage to Safiyyah, neither mutual respect nor tolerance can become social norms.

VIII. Sawdah b. Zamah-bin Qays, radi Allahu anha, was the widow of one Sakran. Sakran and Sawdah were among the first to embrace Islam and had been forced to flee 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 Sawdah. This marriage took place some time after the death of the noble Khadijah.

IX. Hafsah, radi Allahu anha, 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 Allah. 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 Hafsah 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 honour enraged or estranged tribes people, 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 equality and relationship between different people within the unifying brotherhood of faith in Allah; and to honour with family bonds the men who were to be the first leaders of the Muslim ummah 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 Aisha, all of the Prophet"s wives were widows, and all his marriages (after that with the noble Khadijah) were contracted when he was already an old man. Far from being acts of self-indulgence then, these marriages were acts of self-discipline. It was a part of that discipline that the Prophet, upon him be peace, provided for each of his wives with the most meticulously observed justice, dividing equally whatever slender resources he allowed to his household for their subsistence, accommodation and allowance generally. He also divided his time with them equally, and regarded and treated them with equal friendship and respect. That his household (despite the fact that his wives came from different backgrounds and had acquired different tastes and temperaments) got on well with each other, is no small tribute to his genius for creating peace and harmony. With each of them, he was not only a provider but a friend and companion. A final point to be made is that the number of wives the Prophet had was by a special dispensation within the Law of Islam and unique to his person. Some of the merits and wisdom of this dispensation, as we understand them, have been explained. The number of wives for any other Muslim may not exceed four at any one time. When that Revelation came restricting polygamy, the Prophet"s marriages had already been contracted. Thereafter, the Prophet also was prohibited to marry again. May Allah bless him and grant him peace, and may He enable us to understand and follow his noble example.