By IBRAHIM H. MALABARI
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
Whenever the Prophet Muhammad’s name emerges, the image in many people’s minds is of a man with many wives. For Muslims, his multiple marriages had meaning and immense implications for Islam, and by extension, the history of the world. The issue remains controversial, and as such, any study of the matter requires an objective approach. Therefore we will endeavor to tackle this topic by being as objective as possible.
The Prophet Muhammad was driven by the goal to ensure that his mission as the Messenger of God was fulfilled and to establish a society based on God’s commands, not his own. In order to achieve this goal, he did everything he could: he forged relations with the various tribes of Arabia; concluded peace treaties with his sworn enemies; and kept relations with the heads of various tribes, nations, and religions. Taken together, his marriages were one way by which he fostered relationships with various influential tribes.
If one were to view the marriages of the Prophet through this lens, the motivating factors behind his marriages become clear. It would be very simplistic and incorrect to view his marriages as being merely for lustful ends.
Let us now briefly examine the context of each of his marriages. From the outset, it is of ultimate importance to note that, except for one of his wives, all his eleven wives were widowed or divorced. Most were in fact widowed.
His first marriage was to a widow named Khadijah, who had been married twice and whom he married when she was forty years old and he was twenty-five. She was the first woman to embrace Islam. She provided great consolation to him throughout his life and he continued to remember her in his later years as his most beloved wife. He stayed with her faithfully for 25 years until her death at sixty-five, when he was fifty years old.
If he was driven merely by lustful desires, as he was accused of doing by his opponents, he could have married several beautiful young women in a society where having numerous wives was the norm—there would be no reason for him to faithfully remain with an older woman until her death. This single fact would be sufficient to refute the charges against him in this regard. However, an examination of all his marriages, as we shall see, should put this question to rest.
After Khadijah’s death, he married another widow, Sawda, who was sixty-five years old. She and her previous husband, Sakran, were among those who had immigrated to Ethiopia, fleeing from the oppression and persecution of the Meccans. It was during their return to Mecca that her husband had died. Seeing her difficult condition, the Prophet married her.
Then he married Aisha, daughter of his lifelong friend and companion Abu Bakr. Aisha had first been betrothed to Jabir bin Mut’im at the age of five. (In many regions of the world, children were commonly betrothed to marry at a young age during that time.) She was the only one of the Prophet’s wives who had not been previously married, and who was born into a Muslim family.
One of the Prophet’s goals in his marriage to Aisha was to strengthen the bond of his brotherhood with Abu Bakr, who was his main defender against the Meccans. Second, Aisha was of a lineage known for honor and intelligence. The Prophet knew that she would tremendously benefit his community by transmitting crucial knowledge from his life, especially family and personal matters that others were not privy to. Indeed, the Prophet advised his community to learn half the knowledge of the religion from Aisha. The foresight of the Prophet proved itself, for she would live for 45 years after his death, and thus became one of the main sources of Prophetic wisdom and knowledge.
He also married another widow, Hafsa, who was the daughter of Umar Bin Khattab, his next closest companion. Her husband, Khunays, had been martyred in the Battle of Badr. He felt a duty toward Umar, whose acceptance of Islam provided a major boost for the Muslims in Mecca against their foes.
Zaynab, daughter of Khuzaima, was another widow whom the Prophet married. She had been married to Ubayda bin al-Haris, who was also martyred in the Battle of Badr. She was sixty when the Prophet married her. She was known as the “Mother of the Downtrodden.” She passed away after only two or three months of marriage.
He married another widow, Umm Salama. Her previous husband, Abu Salama, was martyred in the Battle of Uhud, leaving behind four fatherless children. Umm Salama was pregnant with her fifth child at that time and was extremely distressed and very sad. Needless to say, she needed much support. After she delivered the child, Umar proposed that the Prophet marry her. The Prophet accepted the proposal and married Umm Salama. What purpose can there be for a person of fifty-four to marry a widow with five children except love, mercy, and compassion? There was another crucial factor in this marriage: Umm Salama was from the Bani Makhzum tribe, which was the tribe of Islam’s archenemies at that time, Abu Jahl and Khalid bin Waleed. Though Abu Jahl never changed, Khalid later accepted Islam and became a brilliant military general. Once again, bringing influential and powerful tribes closer to Islam was one of the noble objectives of the Prophet’s marriage.
He married a divorced woman, Zaynab, the daughter of Jahsh. She had been married to Zayd bin Haritha, the freed slave of the Prophet. She was the cousin of the Prophet, being the daughter of his paternal aunt. Zayd divorced her and the Prophet married her when she was thirty-eight years old. His marriage to Zaynab was aimed at emphasizing the invalidity of the age-old Arab practice of taking adopted sons as real sons. The marriage was divinely sanctioned, as stated in the Qur’an, “When Zayd had come to the end of his union with her, We gave her to you in marriage . . .” (33:37).
Umm Habiba was the next the Prophet married. She was a daughter of Abu Sufyan, who was a bitter enemy of Islam until his conversion later. She was initially married to Ubaydallah, who was a companion of the Prophet. Both immigrated to Ethiopia, fleeing the persecution of the Meccans. Ubaydallah became a Christian and later died there. After considering her very difficult situation, her father being an enemy of Islam and her husband a deserter, the Prophet sent an envoy to Negus, king of Ethiopia, requesting to arrange a marriage with her. The king agreed and she was married to him when she was thirty-six or thirty-seven years old. Like many of his marriages, his marriage to Umm Habiba resulted in bringing a major tribe of the Quraysh, the Banu Abd al-Shams, toward Islam.
He married another widow, Juwayria. Both her father and husband were bitter enemies of Islam; the former had planned to attack Medina at the instigation of the Meccans. This led the Muslim army to march against the clan of her father. The result was their defeat at the hands of the Prophet and the death of Juwayria’s husband. After the conflict, the Muslims captured many prisoners, one of whom was Juwayria. Juwayria’s father offered a ransom for her freedom. She requested to stay in the service of the Prophet and he married her at her request. The marriage resulted in the freeing of all the prisoners of war of her tribe. Again, this marriage led to the establishment of peace and friendly relations with a formerly antagonistic group.
He also married a woman named Safiyya, a widow as well. Her second husband was killed in the Battle of Khaybar. Her father was the chief of the famous Jewish tribe Banu Nazir, who was killed in the Battle of Khaybar as well, and so Safiyya was taken prisoner. She was eventually freed and the Prophet married her. Some expressed concern that she was still loyal to the tribe of Jews who had just fought the Prophet. Her answer was that they were her relatives, and the Prophet defended her position. He told her to respond in the following way: “My father is Aaron (Haroon) and my uncle is Moses (Musa).” This marriage had led to a closer relationship between the Muslims and the Jews of Medina.
His final marriage was to another divorced woman, Maymuna. She was married twice and was very old. She married the Prophet when he was fifty-seven. The Prophet’s uncle, Abbas, suggested the Prophet marry Maymuna so that she could bring her tribe—the Halaliyyeen—into the fold of Islam. That was what eventually happened.
From the above, we see that it was not the Prophet’s whims and desires that initiated his marriages, but rather it was that God had planned his marriages. He commanded His Messenger after the last marriage (with Maymuna) not to marry anymore (Qur’an 33:52), because by that time the objectives of his marriages were achieved as the Prophet’s mission was near completion.
All this does not mean that the Prophet was not interested in sex. He was surely attracted by sex and beauty, and was not a prude in expressing it. He said, “Perfume and women are made dear to me. However, the joy of my eye is in prayer.” He also said: “I am in full control of myself.” In fact, a look at his life would suggest that he approached the various aspects of human life with moderation—be it eating, drinking, or enjoying time with his wives—never indulging in any one thing excessively. The portrayal of him by some Western writers as promiscuous and licentious, mostly due to the fact that he had numerous wives, is far from the truth and historical facts, as shown above. Indeed, his marriages had a social motive and a higher goal than mere sexual gratification.
It is relevant here to quote a female Western scholar, Karen Armstrong, the author of Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, in relation to the issue of the Prophet’s marriages and the practice of polygamy in Islam: “The Qur’anic institution of polygamy was a piece of social legislation. It was designed not to gratify the male sexual appetite, but to correct the injustices done to widows, orphans, and other female dependents, who were especially vulnerable. All too often, unscrupulous people seized everything and left the weaker members of the family with nothing. . . . Polygamy was designed to ensure that unprotected women would be decently married, and to abolish the old loose, irresponsible liaisons; men could have only four wives and must treat them equitably; it was an unjustifiably wicked act to devour their property. . . . The Qur’an was attempting to give women a legal status that most Western women would not enjoy until the nineteenth century. The emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet’s heart.”