Why Was the Prophet Polygamous?
Some critics of Islam have reviled the Prophet as a self-indulgent libertine. They have accused him of character failings that are hardly compatible with being of average virtue, let alone with being a Prophet and God’s last Messenger, as well as the best model for humanity to follow. However, based on the easily available scores of biographies and well-authenticated accounts of his sayings and actions, it is quite clear that he lived the most strictly disciplined life, and that his marriages were part of the numerous burdens he bore as God’s last Messenger.
The reasons for his multiple marriages vary. However, all of them were related to his role as leader of the Muslim community, and his responsibility to guide the new Muslims toward the norms and values of Islam.
When Muhammad was 25, before he was called to his future mission, he married Khadija, his first wife. Given the surrounding cultural environment, not to mention the climate and such other considerations as his youth, 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 did not hesitate to raise false calumnies against him—but not once did any of them dare invent something unbelievable about him.
Khadija was 15 years his senior. This marriage was very high and exceptional in the eyes of the Prophet and God. For 23 years, their life was a period of uninterrupted contentment in perfect fidelity. In the eighth year of Prophethood, however, she passed away, leaving the Prophet as the sole parent of their children for 4 or 5 years. Even his enemies are forced to admit that, during these years, they can find no flaw in his moral character. The Prophet took no other wife during Khadija’s lifetime, although public opinion would have allowed him to do so. When he began marrying other women, he was already past 55, when very little real interest and desire for marriage remains.
People often ask how a Prophet can have more than one wife. This question is usually asked by those people who know next to nothing about Islam; their question is based either on genuine ignorance or the desire to spread doubt among believers.
Many of those who reproach the Prophet’s polygamous family life usually are themselves involved in casual relations and liaisons with numerous sexual partners. Considering themselves free, they engage in what most societies consider to be immoral behavior. One wonders why believers of other religions attack the Prophet for his multiple marriages. Have they forgotten that the great Hebrew patriarchs, considered Prophets in the Bible and in the Qur’an and revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as exemplars of moral excellence, all practiced polygamy? Moreover, as in the case of Prophet Solomon, they had far more wives than Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace. One wonders if they are moved more by their anti-Islam bias than genuine concern or interest.
Polygamy did not originate with the Muslims. Furthermore, in the case of the Prophet this practice has far more significance than people generally realize. In a sense, the Prophet had to be polygamous to transmit his Sunna (the statutes and norms of Islamic law). As Islam covers every part of one’s life, private spousal relations cannot remain untouched. Therefore, there must be women who can guide other women in these matters. There is no room for the allusive language of hints and innuendos. The chaste and virtuous women of the Prophet’s household were responsible for explaining the norms and rules of such private spheres to other Muslims.
Some of the Prophet’s marriages were contracted for specific reasons:
- Since his wives were young, middle-aged, and old, the requirements and norms of Islamic law could be exemplified in relation to their different life stages and experiences. These were learned and applied first within the Prophet’s household, and then passed on to other Muslims by his wives.
- Each wife was from a different clan or tribe, which allowed the Prophet to establish bonds of kinship and affinity throughout the rapidly expanding Muslim community. This also enabled a profound attachment to him to spread among all Muslims, thereby creating and securing equality and brotherhood in a most practical way and on the basis of religion.
- Each wife, both during and after the Prophet’s life, proved to be 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, and the qualities, manners, and faith of the man whose life was the embodiment of the Qur’an—Islam in practice. In this way, all Muslims learned about the Qur’an, hadith, Qur’anic interpretation and commentary, and Islamic jurisprudence, and so became fully aware of Islam’s essence and spirit.
- Through his marriages, the Prophet established ties of kinship throughout Arabia. This gave him the freedom to move and be accepted as a member in each family. Since they regarded him as one of their own, they felt they could go to him in person and ask him directly about this life and the Hereafter. The tribes also benefited collectively from their proximity to him: they considered themselves fortunate and took pride in that relationship, such as the Umayyads (through Umm Habiba), the Hashimites (through Zaynab bint Jahsh), and the Bani Makhzum (through Umm Salama).
What we have said so far is general and could, in some respects, be true of all 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 from a different perspective.
Khadija was the Prophet’s first wife. As mentioned above, she married him before his call to Prophethood. Even though she was 15 years his senior, she bore all of his children, except for Ibrahim, who did not survive infancy. Khadija was also his friend, the sharer of his inclinations and ideals to a remarkable degree. Their marriage was wonderfully blessed, for they lived together in profound harmony for 23 years. Through every trial and persecution launched by the Makkan unbelievers, she was his dearest companion and helper. He loved her very deeply and married no other woman while she was alive.
This marriage is the ideal of intimacy, friendship, mutual respect, support, and consolation. Though faithful and loyal to all his wives, he never forgot Khadija and mentioned her virtues and merits extensively on many occasions. He married another woman only 4 or 5 years after Khadija’s death. Until that time, he served as both a mother and a father to his children, providing their daily food and provisions as well as bearing their troubles and hardships. To allege that such a man was a sensualist or driven by sexual lust is nonsensical.
‘A’isha was the daughter of Abu Bakr, his closest friend and devoted follower. One of the earliest converts, Abu Bakr 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 had shared all the good and bad times with him. In this way, Abu Bakr and ‘A’isha acquired the distinction of being spiritually and physically close to the Prophet.
‘A’isha proved to be a remarkably intelligent and wise woman, for she had both 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 one of the Prophet’s major students and disciples. Through him, like so many Muslims of that blessed time, her skills and talents were matured and perfected so that she could join him in the abode of bliss both as wife and as student.
Her life and service to Islam prove that such an exceptional person was worthy to be the Prophet’s wife. She was one of the greatest authorities on hadith, an excellent Qur’anic commentator, and a most distinguished and knowledgeable expert on Islamic law. She truly represented the inner and outer qualities and experiences of Prophet Muhammad. This is surely why the Prophet was told in a dream that he would marry ‘A’isha. Thus, when she was still innocent and knew nothing of men and worldly affairs, she was prepared and entered the Prophet’s household.
Umm Salama of the Makhzum clan, was first married to her cousin. The couple had embraced Islam at the very beginning and emigrated to Abyssinia to avoid persecution. After their return, they and their four children migrated to Madina. Her husband participated in many battles and died after being severely wounded at the Battle of Uhud. Abu Bakr and ‘Umar proposed marriage to her, aware of her needs and suffering as a destitute widow with children to support. She refused, believing that no one could be better than her late husband.
Some time after that, the Prophet proposed marriage. This was quite right and natural, for this great woman had never shied from sacrifice and suffering for Islam. Now that she was alone after having lived many years in the noblest Arabian clan, she could not be neglected and left to beg her way in life. Considering her piety, sincerity, and what she had suffered, she certainly deserved to be helped. By marrying her, the Prophet was doing what he had always done: befriending those lacking in friends, supporting the unsupported, and protecting the unprotected. In her present circumstances, there was no kinder or more gracious way of helping her.
Umm Salama also was intelligent and quick to understand. She had all the capacities and gifts to become a spiritual guide and teacher. When the 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. As the Prophet was now almost 60, marrying a widow with many children and assuming the related expenses and responsibilities can only be understood as an act of compassion that deserves our admiration for his infinite reserves of humanity.
Umm Habiba was the daughter of Abu Sufyan, an early and most determined enemy of the Prophet and supporter of Makkah’s polytheistic and idolatrous religion. Yet his daughter was one of the earliest Muslims. She emigrated to Abyssinia with her husband, where he eventually renounced his faith and embraced Christianity. Although separated from her husband, she remained a Muslim. Shortly after that, her husband died and she was left all alone and desperate in exile.
The Companions, at that time few in number and barely able to support themselves, could not offer much help. So, what were her options? She could convert to Christianity and get help that way (unthinkable). She could return to her father’s home, now a headquarters of the war against Islam (unthinkable). She could wander from house to house as a beggar, but again it was an unthinkable option for a member of one of the richest and noblest Arab families to bring shame upon her family name by doing so.
God recompensed Umm Habiba for her lonely exile in an insecure environment among people of a different race and religion, and for her despair at her husband’s apostasy and death, by arranging for the Prophet to marry her. Learning of her plight, the Prophet 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).
Thus Umm Habiba joined the Prophet’s household as a wife and student, and contributed much to the moral and spiritual life of those who learned from her. This marriage linked Abu Sufyan’s powerful family to the Prophet’s person and household, which caused its members to re-evaluate their attitudes. It also is correct to trace the influence of this marriage, beyond the family of Abu Sufyan and to the Umayyads in general, who ruled the Muslims for almost a century.
This clan, whose members had been the most fanatical in their hatred of Islam, produced some of Islam’s most renowned early warriors, administrators, and governors. Without doubt, it was this marriage that began this change, for the Prophet’s depth of generosity and magnanimity of soul surely overwhelmed them.
Zaynab bint Jahsh was 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 arranged for her to marry Zayd, an African exslave whom he had adopted as his son, Zaynab’s family and Zaynab herself were at first unwilling. The family had hoped to marry their daughter to the Prophet. But when they realized that the Prophet had decided otherwise, they consented out of deference to their love for the Prophet and his authority.
Zayd had been enslaved as a child during a tribal war. Khadija, who had bought him, had given him to Muhammad as a present when she married him. The Prophet had freed immediately him and, shortly afterwards, adopted him as his son. He insisted on this marriage to establish and fortify equality between the Muslims, and to break down the Arab prejudice against a slave or even freedman marrying a free-born woman.
The marriage was an unhappy one. The noble-born Zaynab was a good Muslim of a most pious and exceptional quality. The freedman Zayd was among the first to embrace Islam, and he also was a good Muslim. Both loved and obeyed the Prophet, but they were not a compatible couple. Zayd asked the Prophet several times to allow them to divorce. However, he was told to persevere with patience and not separate from Zaynab.
But then one day Gabriel came with a Divine Revelation that the Prophet’s marriage to Zaynab was a bond already contracted: We have married her to you (33:37). This command was one of the severest trials the Prophet, had yet had to face, for he was being told to break a social taboo. Yet it had to be done for the sake of God, just as God commanded. ‘A’isha later said: “Had the Messenger been inclined to suppress any part of the Revelation, surely he would have suppressed this verse.”
Divine wisdom decreed that Zaynab join the Prophet’s household, so that she could be prepared to guide and enlighten the Muslims. As his wife, she proved herself most worthy of her new position by always being aware of her responsibilities and the courtesies proper to her role, all of which she fulfilled to universal admiration.
Before Islam, an adopted son was considered a natural son. Therefore, an adopted son’s wife was considered as a natural son’s wife would be. According to the Qur’anic verse, former “wives of your sons proceeding from your loins” fall within the prohibited degrees of marriage. But this prohibition does not apply to adopted sons, for there is no real consanguinity. What now seems obvious was not so then. This deeply rooted tribal taboo was broken by this marriage, just as God had intended.
To have an unassailable authority for future generations of Muslims, the Prophet had to break this taboo himself. It is one more instance of his deep faith that he did as he was told, and freed his people from a legal fiction that obscured a biological, natural reality.
Juwayriya bint Harith the daughter of Harith, chief of the defeated Bani Mustaliq clan, was captured during a military campaign. She was held with other members of her proud family alongside her clan’s “common” people. She was in great distress when she was taken to the Prophet, for her kinsmen had lost everything and she felt profound hate and enmity for the Muslims. The Prophet understood her wounded pride, dignity, and suffering; more important, he understood how to deal with these issues effectively. He agreed to pay her ransom, set her free, and offered to marry her.
When the Ansar and the Muhajirun realized that the Bani Mustaliq now were related to the Prophet by marriage, they freed about 100 families that had not yet been ransomed. A tribe so honored could not be allowed to remain in slavery. In this way, the hearts of Juwayriya and her people were won. Those 100 families blessed the marriage. Through his compassionate wisdom and generosity, the Prophet turned a defeat for some into a victory for all, and what had been an occasion of enmity and distress became one of friendship and joy.
Safiyya bint Huyayy was the daughter 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 days, she had seen her family and relatives oppose the Prophet. She had lost her father, brother, and husband in battles against the Muslims, and eventually was captured by them.
The attitudes and actions of her family and relatives might have nurtured in her a deep desire for revenge. However, 3 days before the Prophet reached Khaybar, she dreamed of a brilliant moon coming out from Madina, moving toward 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 the Prophet as a captive, he set her free and offered her the choice of remaining a Jewess 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 witnessed at first hand the Muslims’ refinement and true courtesy. Her attitude to her past experiences changed, 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. It is worth noting that such close relations between Muslims and non-Muslims can help people to understand each other better and to establish mutual respect and tolerance as social norms.
Sawda bint Zam’ah ibn Qays was the widow of Sakran. Among the first to embrace Islam, they had emigrated to Abyssinia to escape the Makkans’ persecution. Sakran died in exile, and left his wife utterly destitute. As the only means of assisting her, the Prophet, though himself having a hard time making ends meet, married her. This marriage took place some time after Khadija’s death.
Hafsa 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, where he was fatally wounded during a battle in the path of God. She remained without a husband for a while. ‘Umar desired the honor and blessing of being close to the Prophet in this world and in the Hereafter. The Prophet honored this desire by marrying Hafsa to protect and to help the daughter of his faithful disciple.
Given the above facts, it is clear that the Prophet married these women for a variety of reasons: to provide helpless or widowed women with dignified subsistence; to console and honor enraged or estranged tribes; to bring former enemies into some degree of relationship and harmony; to gain certain uniquely gifted men and women for Islam; to establish new norms of relationship between people within the unifying brotherhood of faith in God; and to honor with family bonds the two men who were to be the first leaders of the Muslim community after his death. These marriages had nothing to do with self-indulgence, personal desire, or lust. With the exception of ‘A’isha, all of the Prophet’s wives were widows, and all of his post-Khadija marriages were contracted when he was already an old man. Far from being acts of self-indulgence, these marriages were acts of self-discipline.
Part of that discipline was providing each wife with the most meticulously observed justice, dividing equally whatever slender resources he allowed for their subsistence, accommodation, and allowance. He also divided his time with them equally, and regarded and treated them with equal friendship and respect. The fact that all of his wives 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 also a friend and companion.
The number of the Prophet’s wives was a dispensation unique to him. Some of the merits and wisdom of this dispensation, as we understand them, have been explained. All other Muslims are allowed a maximum of four wives at one time. When that Revelation restricting polygamy came, the Prophet’s marriages had already been contracted. Thereafter, he married no other women.
By M. Fethullah Gulen