Prophet Muhammad’s Marriages
Some critics of Islam, either because they are unaware of the facts or are biased, revile the Prophet as a self-indulgent libertine. They accuse him of character failings that are hardly compatible with a person of average virtue, let alone with the Prophet, God’s last Messenger, and the best model for humanity to emulate. A simple account of these marriages, which are openly discussed in many biographies and well-authenticated accounts of his sayings and actions, shows that they were part of a most strictly disciplined life, and another burden that he bore as God’s Last Messenger.
The Prophet entered into these marriages due to his role as the Muslims’ leader and guide toward Islamic norms and values. In the following pages, we will explain some of the reasons behind his marriages and demonstrate that the charges are baseless and false.
The Prophet married his first wife, Khadija, when he was 25 and had not yet been called to his future mission. Given the surrounding cultural environment, not to mention the climate, his youth, and other considerations, it is remarkable that he enjoyed a reputation for perfect chastity, integrity, and trustworthiness. As soon as he was called to Prophethood, he acquired enemies who slandered him. However, none dared to invent something unbelievable. It is important to realize that his life was founded upon chastity and self-discipline from the outset, and remained so.
Muhammad married Khadija, a woman 15 years his senior, when he was in his prime. This marriage was very lofty and exceptional in the eyes of the Prophet and God. For 23 years, the couple lived a life of uninterrupted contentment in perfect fidelity. In the eighth year of Prophethood, however, Khadija died and the Prophet had to raise his children by himself. Even his enemies had to admit that during all these years they could find no flaw in his moral character.
The Prophet took no other wife while Khadija was alive, although polygamy was socially acceptable and widely practiced. He remarried only after he was 55, an age by which very little real interest and desire for marriage remains. The allegation that these marriages were due to licentiousness or self-indulgence is thus groundless and without merit.
People often ask how a Prophet can be polygamous. There are three points to be made here. But first, let’s recognize that those who continually raise such questions are non-Muslims who do not have accurate knowledge of either Islam and religion in general, and so, either deliberately or mistakenly, confuse right with wrong to deceive others and spread doubt.
Those who do not believe in or practice any religion have no right to reproach those who do. Their lifestyles, especially their multiple extramarital liaisons, are examples of unrestrained self-indulgence unhindered by such considerations as the happiness and well-being of young people in general, and of their own children in particular. Those who advertise themselves as free and liberated condone such practices as incest, homosexuality, and polyandry. One can only wonder how such relationships affect the children of such unions. Such critics have only one motive: to drag Muslims into the moral confusion and viciousness in which they themselves are trapped.
Jews and Christians who attack Prophet Muhammad for his marriages can be motivated only by fear, jealousy, and hatred of Islam. They forget that the great patriarchs of the Hebrew race, named as Prophets in the Bible and the Qur’an and revered by followers of all three faiths as exemplars of moral excellence, all practiced polygamy—and on a far greater scale than Prophet Muhammad.
Here we remember the words of Isaac Taylor, who spoke at the Church Congress of England, on how Islam changes the people who accept it:
The virtues which Islam inculcates are temperance, cleanliness, chastity, justice, fortitude, courage, benevolence, hospitality, veracity and resignation…. Islam preaches a practical brotherhood, the social equality of all Muslims. Slavery is not part of the creed of Islam. Polygamy is a more difficult question. Moses did not prohibit it. It was practiced by David and it is not directly forbidden in the New Testament. Muhammad limited the unbounded license of polygamy. It is the exception rather than the rule…
Polygamy did not originate with the Muslims
In the Prophet’s case, from the viewpoint of its function within the mission of Prophethood, polygamy (or, more strictly, polygamy) had far more significance than people generally realize.
In a sense, polygamy was a necessity for the Prophet, for through it he established the statutes and norms of Muslim family law. Religion cannot be excluded from private spousal relations or from matters known only by one’s spouse. Therefore, there must be women who can give clear instruction and advice, rather than hints and innuendos, so that everything is understood. These chaste and virtuous women conveyed and explained the norms and rules governing Muslim private life.
- Since these women were of all ages, the Islamic requirements and norms could be portrayed in relation to their different life stages and experiences. These provisions were learned and applied within the Prophet’s household first, and then passed on to other Muslims by his wives.
- Each wife was from a different clan or tribe. This allowed the Prophet to establish bonds of kinship and affinity throughout the community. As a result, a profound attachment to him spread among many diverse people, thereby creating and securing equality, brotherhood, and sisterhood in a most practical way and on the basis of religion.
- Each wife, both during the Prophet’s life and after his death, was of great benefit and service to Islam. Each one conveyed and interpreted his message to her clan: all of the outer and inner experiences, qualities, manners, and faith of the man whose life, in all its public and intimate details, embodied the Qur’an. In this way, all clan members learned 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 Islam’s essence and spirit.
- Polygamy also allowed Prophet Muhammad to establish ties of kinship throughout Arabia. As a result, he was free to move and be accepted as a member in each family, for their members regarded him as one of their own. Given such a relationship, they were not shy to ask him directly about the affairs of this life and the Hereafter. The tribes also benefited collectively from this proximity, considered themselves fortunate, and took pride in that relationship. Some of these tribes were 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 Prophets. Now we will discuss the lives of Ummahat al-Mu’minin (the mothers of the believers) not in the order of the marriages but in a different perspective.
Khadija was the Prophet’s first wife. When they married, she was 40 and he was 25. She bore all of his children, except his son Ibrahim, who did not live very long. As well as being a wife, Khadija was also her husband’s friend who shared his inclinations and ideals to a remarkable degree. Their 23-year marriage was wonderfully blessed and passed in profound harmony. Through every insult and persecution, Khadija stood by him and helped him. He loved her very deeply, and did not marry another woman during her lifetime.
This marriage is the ideal marriage of intimacy, friendship, mutual respect, support, and consolation. Though faithful and loyal to all his wives, he never forgot Khadija and often mentioned her virtues and merits. After her death, the Prophet took care of his children for 4 or 5 years, performing the duties of mother and father. To allege that such a man was a sensualist or lustful is not even worthy of consideration. If even 1 percent of it were true, could he have lived such a life during and after his wife’s death?
‘A’isha was his second wife, though not in the order of marriage. Her father was Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest friend, devoted follower, and one of the earliest converts. He had long hoped to cement the deep attachment between himself and the Prophet through marriage. By marrying ‘A’isha, the Prophet accorded the highest honor and courtesy to a man who shared all the good and bad times with him throughout his mission.
‘A’isha, a remarkably intelligent and wise woman, had the nature and temperament to carry forward the work of Prophetic mission. Her marriage prepared her to be a spiritual guide and teacher to all women. She became a major student and disciple of her husband and through him. Like so many Muslims of that blessed time, she matured and perfected her skills and talents and thus joined him in the abode of bliss both as wife and student.
Her life and service to Islam after her marriage prove that she was an exceptional person fully worthy of such an exalted position. She is one of the greatest Hadith authorities, an excellent commentator on the Qur’an, and a most distinguished and knowledgeable expert in Islamic law. She truly represented the inner and outer qualities and experiences of Prophet Muhammad through her unique understanding.
Umm Salama was from the Banu Makhzum clan. Along with her husband, she had embraced Islam at the very beginning and emigrated to Abyssinia to avoid further persecution. After their return, they migrated with their four children to Madina. Her husband, a veteran of many battles, was wounded severely at the battle of Uhud and later died. Both Abu Bakr and ‘Umar proposed marriage, aware of her need and suffering as a destitute widow with children. She refused because, according to her judgment, no one could be better than her late husband.
Sometime later, the Prophet 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, was now alone after having lived for many years in the noblest clan of Arabia. She could not be neglected and left as a beggar. 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 done since his youth—befriending those without friends, supporting those without support, protecting those without protection.
Umm Salama, who was an intelligent and fast learner, also had the necessary qualifications to become a spiritual guide and teacher. When the gracious and compassionate Prophet took her under his protection, a new student to whom all women would be grateful was accepted into the school of knowledge and guidance. Let us recall that, at this time, he was approaching 60. For him to marry a widow with many children, and to accept the related expenses and responsibilities, can be understood only as a reflection of his vast reserves of humanity and compassion.
Umm Habiba was the daughter of Abu Sufyan, a longtime bitter enemy of the Prophet and the most determined supporter of unbelief. Yet his daughter was one of the earliest converts. She emigrated to Abyssinia, where her husband died and left her alone as an exile in desperate circumstances.
The Companions were few in number and could barely support themselves, let alone others. Umm Habiba had few options: she could become a Christian and seek their aid (unthinkable); she could go to her father’s house, a headquarters of the war against Islam (unthinkable); or live as a beggar, although she belonged to one of the richest and noblest Arab families, and so bring shame upon her family name.
God recompensed Umm Habiba for all that she lost or sacrificed in the way of Islam. She suffered a lonely exile in an insecure environment among people of a different race and religion, and remained devastated by her husband’s death. The Prophet, learning of her plight, sent an offer of marriage through the king (Negus). This noble and generous action was a practical proof of:
We have not sent you save as a mercy for all creatures (21:107).
Through this marriage, Abu Sufyan’s powerful family was linked with the Prophet and his household. This development led them to adopt a different attitude to Islam. This marriage also was influential far beyond Abu Sufyan’s family: his clan, the Umayyads, ruled the Muslim community for almost a hundred years and produced some of Islam’s most renowned warriors, administrators, and governors in the early period. This marriage started the change, for the depth of generosity and magnanimity of the Prophet’s soul simply overwhelmed them.
Zaynab bint Jahsh was of noble birth and descent and a close relative of the Prophet. She was very pious, fasted a great deal, kept long vigils, and gave generously to the poor. When the Prophet asked that Zaynab be married to Zayd (his adopted African son), her family and Zaynab herself were at first unwilling, for they had hoped to marry their daughter to the Prophet. Naturally, when they realized that he wanted Zaynab to marry Zayd, they consented out of deference to their love for the Prophet and his authority. The two were married.
Zayd had been captured as a child during a tribal war and sold as a slave. His master, Khadija, presented him to Muhammad when they were married. He immediately freed Zayd and shortly afterwards adopted him as his son. Through this marriage, the Prophet wanted to establish and fortify equality, to make this ideal a reality by ending the ancient Arab prejudice against a slave or even a freed-man marrying a free-born woman. The Prophet therefore was starting this hard task with his own relatives.
The marriage was an unhappy one. The noble-born Zaynab was a good Muslim of a most pious and exceptional quality. The ex-slave Zayd was among the first to embrace Islam, and also was a good Muslim. Both loved and obeyed the Prophet, but they were mutually incompatible. Zayd sought permission to end this marriage several times, but always was told to be patient and remain married to Zaynab.
Once when the Prophet was talking with someone, Gabriel revealed to him that he should marry Zaynab. This new marriage was announced as a bond already contracted: We have married her to you (33:37). This command was one of the severest trials for the Prophet up to that time. Yet he had to marry Zaynab, and thereby violate a tribal taboo, because God had commanded it. ‘A’isha later said:
“Had the Messenger of God been inclined to suppress anything of what was revealed to him, he would have suppressed this verse.”
Zaynab proved herself a most worthy wife. She was always aware of her responsibilities as well as the courtesies expected of her, and fulfilled them to universal admiration.
Before Islam, an adopted son was regarded as a natural son, and his wife was therefore regarded as a natural son’s wife. According to the Qur’an, those who have been wives of your sons proceeding from your loins (4:23) fall within the prohibited marriages. But this prohibition does not include adopted sons, with whom there is no real consanguinity. This deep-rooted pagan taboo was ended by God’s command that the Prophet marry Zaynab.
Juwayriya bint Harith, daughter of Harith, chief of the defeated Banu Mustaliq clan, was captured and held alongside the common people of her clan. When taken to the Prophet, she was in considerable distress due to the fact that her kinsmen had lost everything and because of her profound hatred and enmity toward Muslims. The Prophet understood her wounded pride, dignity, and suffering, as well as how to heal all of them. He agreed to pay her ransom and set her free, and then offered to marry her. How gladly Juwayriya accepted this offer can easily be imagined.
About 100 non-ransomed families were freed when the Ansar (the Helpers) and the Muhajirun (the Emigrants) learned that the Bani Mustaliq were related to the Prophet. A tribe so honored could not be allowed to remain in slavery. In this way, the hearts of Juwayriya and all her people were won.
Safiyya was the daughter of Huyayy, a chief of the Jewish Khaybar tribe. This tribe earlier had persuaded the Banu Qurayza tribe to break their treaty with the Prophet. Since she was small, she had seen her family and relatives oppose the Prophet. Her father, brother, and husband had fallen at the hands of Muslims, and eventually she was captured by them.
The attitudes and actions of her family and relatives might have nurtured in her a deep hatred of Muslims and a desire for revenge. But 3 days before the Prophet arrived at Khaybar and she was captured, she dreamed of a brilliant moon coming from Madina, moving toward Khaybar, and falling into her lap. She later said: “When I was captured, I began to hope my dream would come true.” When she was brought before him, the Prophet set her free and offered her the choice between remaining a Jewess and going home or accepting Islam and becoming his wife. “I chose God and His Messenger,” she said. They were married shortly after that.
Raised to the Prophet’s household, she became a “Mother of the Believers.” The Companions honored and respected her accordingly, and so she witnessed at first hand the Muslims’ refinement and true courtesy. Her attitude changed completely, and she appreciated the great honor of her new status. This marriage caused many Jews to change their attitudes as they came to see and know the Prophet closely.
Sawda bint Zam‘a was Sakran’s widow. Both were among the first to embrace Islam. After being forced to emigrate to Abyssinia to escape persecution, Sakran died and left his wife destitute. To help her, Prophet Muhammad, although quite hard-pressed to meet his own daily needs, married her. This marriage took place sometime after Khadija’s death.
Hafsa was ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s daughter. She had lost her husband, who had emigrated to Abyssinia and then to Madina, where he died from wounds received during a battle. She remained a widow for a while. ‘Umar also desired, like Abu Bakr, the honor and blessing of being close to the Prophet in this world and in the Hereafter. Thus, the Prophet wed Hafsa to protect and help the daughter of his faithful disciple.
These are some of the reasons for the Prophet’s multiple marriages. Instead of sensuality, he married to provide helpless or widowed women with dignified subsistence; console and honor enraged or estranged tribes people; establish a degree of relationship and harmony between former enemies; gain certain uniquely gifted individuals for the cause of Islam, in particular some exceptionally talented women; establish new relationship norms among widely differing communities within the unifying bonds of faith in God; and honor with family bonds those men who would become his first two political successors.
These marriages were completely devoid of self-indulgence, personal desire, lust, and all other charges leveled by his detractors. With the exception of ‘A’isha, all of these women had been widowed, and all of his marriages (after Khadija’s death) were contracted when he was already old. If he had married any woman for pure pleasure, he would have chosen virgins. Far from being acts of self-indulgence, they were acts of self-discipline and self-sacrifice.
The number of the wives he was allowed was a special dispensation within the law of Islam and unique to his person. When the Revelation restricting polygamy came, he had contracted his marriages already. Thereafter, the Prophet also could not marry again.
By M. Fethullah Gulen