One line of hostile argument against Islam and the Prophet begins in the following manner: he married multiple times, which proves he was a voluptuary! The argument then goes on to conclude that any serious study of the religion of which this licentious person was the primary spokesperson would be worthless. Even a cursory examination of Muhammad's (S) marriages however destroys these widely held myths. I will list Muhammad's (S) marriages in chronological order and describe the rationale and circumstances surrounding them.
1. Khadijah bint Khuwaylid
Khadijah , his first wife, was a widow who was much older than Muhammad (S) when she proposed to him. Because of her success in business and lineage, many of the wealthy among the Quraysh desired to marry her. She, however, was impressed by Muhammad's (S) character and so she initiated the marriage proposal. She was his steadfast supporter in extremely trying times and always provided wise counsel and solace. She was the first person to accept Islam. Khadijah died approximately twenty-five years after they married, and Prophet Muhammad (S) continued to revere her memory for the rest of his life.
2. Sawdah bint Zam'ah
After Khadijah's death, the Prophet married Sawdah. She was also a widow. She and her husband had accepted Islam very early in the mission and had been among the migrants to Ethiopia. She was a tall and rather heavyset individual. She was also very well known for her charity. The marriage of Muhammad (S) to Sawdah set the trend of the Prophet marrying widows of Muslims who had died of natural causes or during one of the many battles. The social structure of the time was not conducive for widows or women living singly. One could argue that today, in societies like Bosnia and Chechnya, where large members of men have become the victims of genocide, multiple marriages to widows would be a reasonable remedy for these women living in dire poverty and destitution, or turning to prostitution to survive.
3. 'A'ishah bint Abu Bakr
It was customary in the Arab society for close friendships and bonds to be strengthened by marriage into the family. Muhammad (S) married the daughters of his two closest associates, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq and 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, the first two Khalifahs (successors of the Prophet) of Islam. In turn, three of the daughters of the Prophet were married to the other two companions who became the third and fourth Khalifahs, Uthman ibn 'Affan and 'Ali ibn Abu Talib. The youngest of his wives, 'A'ishah , Abu Bakr's daughter, was a remarkable woman. Her lively personality comes through in the quotes attributed to her in the Sirah and Hadith literature. Muhammad (S) took permission from his other wives and spent the last days of his life with her and he died in her arms. She was extremely intelligent and erudite. Much of the stronger Hadith literature is attributed to her. Many of the companions would seek her help in resolving difficult legal problems.
4. Hafsah bint 'Umar
When Hafsah became a widow, her father 'Umar, one of the great Khalifahs of Islam, started looking for a husband for her. He initially asked Uthman. Uthman's wife, Ruqayyah, one of the Prophet's daughters, had just died. However Uthman demurred. 'Umar then asked Abu Bakr to marry her, but Abu Bakr also declined. He then finally asked Muhammad (S). Sensing what was going on, the Prophet readily agreed. Later when during Uthman's caliphate the authoritative version of the Qur'an was redacted Hafsah would be the custodian of the manuscript.
5. Zaynab bint Khuzaymah (The mother of the indigent)
Zaynab's husband 'Ubaydah was killed in the battle of Badr. Muhammad (S) immediately offered to marry her. She had the reputation of being extremely caring toward the needy and the indigent. She was known as Umm al-Masakin (The mother of the poor). She died within two or three months of her marriage to the Prophet.
6. Umm Salamah bint Abu Umayyah
Her real name was Hind, but she was known as Umm Salamah. Her husband, Abdullah bin Abdul Asad was known as Abu Salamah. They had migrated to Ethiopia, and Abu Salamah was well known for his courage and prowess as an equestrian. He died from injuries sustained during the battle of Uhud. Umm Salamah was pregnant at that time. After waiting the period, Muhammad (S) proposed marriage to her. She initially refused, citing reasons of being old and having children from the previous marriage, but Muhammad (S) insisted. She was with Muhammad (S) during the trip to Makkah from the pilgrimage, which resulted in the Hudaybiyah treaty. Her advice and counsel proved crucial during those very critical days.
7. Zaynab bint Jahsh
Zaynab (ra) had been married to Zayd bin Thabit. Zayd was Muhammad's (S) slave before the advent of Islam. Muhammad (S) appeared to set a precedent that slaves should be freed and should carry no stigma from their past. Zaynab, who was Muhammad's (S) cousin, may have married Zayd under moral duress. The exact rationale behind the marriage is unclear. The marriage did not last long. It is possible that the Prophet felt some responsibility about the failed marriage and therefore the necessity to marry her. The Qur'an offers an additional explanation for the marriage. Two of the prevalent customs in the society were to banish "wives" into limbo by declaring them to be their husband's "mothers," (as discussed earlier, the practice was called Zihar), and to declare foster children as one's natural children. The Prophet's marriage to Zaynab (ra), who was divorced from Zayd, abolished the latter practice. Zaynab was known for her extraordinary piety and righteousness. She was in her late middle age when she married the Prophet.
8. Juwariyah bint al-Harith
The prisoners of war captured after the defeat of Banu Musta'liq (sub-tribe of Khuza 'ah) included Juwayriyah .She was the daughter of the defeated tribal chief. Her husband had been killed in the skirmish. She would have become a companion's, Thabit bin Qays', slave. She found that unacceptable and petitioned the Prophet. He freed her by paying Thabit her ransom and offered to restore her prestige by marrying her. She accepted, and an important byproduct of the marriage was that the entire over seven hundred prisoners of war of the tribe of Banu Musta'liq were freed.
9. Umm Habibah bint Abu Sufyan
Ramla (mother of Habibah) was initially married to 'Ubaydullah bin Jahsh The two migrated to Ethiopia, and after the migration 'Ubaydullah converted to Christianity. Ramla remained a Muslim, resulting in a separation and divorce. Muhammad (S) sent an envoy to Negus with a proposal that he should conduct his marriage to Umm Habibah "in absentia."
10. Safiyyah bint Huyay
Her real name was Zaynab, but she was known by the nickname of Safiyyah. She was a prisoner of war following an assault on Khaybar. Both her father and brother had died during the war. She was initially assigned to a companion, Wahyi Kalby, but when it was realized that she was the daughter of a tribal chief, other companions objected.
11. Maymunah bint al-Harith
Maymunah's first marriage resulted in a divorce, and her second husband died, making her both a widow and a divorcee. One of the Prophet's close companions, Abbas proposed that Muhammad (S) should marry her. He agreed, demonstrating that it was no longer a stigma for a woman to be both divorced and widowed. They felt it would be inappropriate for her to be assigned to anyone other than the Prophet. She was occasionally the subject of sarcasm because of her Jewish parentage. Whenever the Prophet became aware of this, he showed his annoyance.
Muhammad's (S) last son was born to Mariyah, the Coptic. She was one of the two slave girls presented to the Prophet by the Archbishop of Alexandria. She gave birth to a son, Ibrahim, who, like the other two sons born to Khadijah died in infancy.
The Rationale Behind Prophet's Marriages
The rationale behind these marriages is clear. Many were performed to rehabilitate divorced and widowed women, especially widows of companions who had been killed in the early battles. Sometimes, Muhammad (S) had to go to great lengths to persuade the women to marry him. Other marriages were done to strengthen bonds between friends and tribes. Some were done as an act of compassion toward a conquered foe. In the society of those times, they were regarded as acts of nobility and kindness. With the exception of the marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh, none appeared to create any controversy. The controversy surrounding Zaynab's marriage soon dissipated as the motive behind it became clear. All of his wives distinguished themselves in some area of charity, kindness, or, as in the case of 'A'ishah , erudition and knowledge. They were held to a higher standard and were informed that both their rewards and punishments were greater than of other women in the society. The Qur'an honors them as the "Mothers of the believers". Their marriages to the Prophet were voluntary and they could initiate and ask for divorce if they so desired. The Qur'an and Muhammad (S) made revolutionary changes in the status of women and his wives were in many ways exemplars of these changes. As the Prophet's dealings with his wives were based on love, affection, respect and dignity, others in the society were expected to follow his exemplary behavior. Men and women were declared equal in the eyes of Allah. Compassion, equity, and justice were mandated. Rules were laid down for marriage and divorce. Laws regarding ownership of property were promulgated. The notion of the moral superiority of men over women was shot down. Men were told they had the duty to protect women and children. As mentioned earlier the Qur'an stresses the moral and spiritual equality of men and women in emphatic and unambiguous language.
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