A criticism made by some regarding the respectable Prophet of Islam (S) is the issue of his many wives. Critics say that having many wives is essentially a sign of evil and unconditional surrender before lust. They question why the Prophet of Islam did not content himself with the four wives that he had legitimized for his followers and took up to nine wives at the same time.
This discussion has various aspects related to many verses scattered throughout the Qur’an. I will enter into an extensive discussion regarding all these aspects in the exegesis of the related verses elsewhere. Here I will suffice with a concise presentation of the matter.
First of all, critics must essentially realize that the polygyny of the Prophet was not due to excessive attraction to women. The Prophet’s marriages were related to other aspects which I will now succinctly discuss.
The first wife of the Holy Prophet was Khadījah1. He lived with her alone for over twenty years—two thirds of his life after this marriage—without taking another wife. The Prophet was appointed to prophethood in the period after this marriage. After his appointment, he lived in Mecca for thirteen years. After that, he immigrated to Medina and started his widespread religious promotion.
After Khadījah’s death, the Prophet married some women, both maidens and widows, young and old. This liberty in marriage lasted for around ten years and, after this, additional marriages were prohibited for the Prophet.2
Therefore, it is evident that the many marriages of the Prophet cannot be due to overt philogyny. The facts that early in his life the Prophet sufficed with only Khadījah and at the end of his life marriage was prohibited for him are inconsistent with the calumny of lasciviousness.
Furthermore, we see that men who have great passion for women, love their beauty and adornments and relish their coquetry and demureness. Such men are mostly fond of young and attractive women who are in the spring of their life. However, none of these characteristics is evident in the spiritual bearing of the Prophet of Islam.
In his marriages he was not bound by any of these matters. Thus, history shows that after marrying a maiden, he also married a widow.3 Also, after marrying a young and beautiful woman, he also married a feeble aged woman.4 The history of the Prophet is the best witness to this fact.
History attests that the Prophet’s marriage to Umm al-Salamah, who was an elderly woman, and Zaynab daughter of Jahsh, who was fifty, occurred after his marriage to ‘Ā’īshah and Umm Habībah, who were young and beautiful.
In addition, the Prophet himself enjoined his wives against adornments and luxuriousness. He gave them a choice between divorce and a life of austerity and abandonment of adornments and luxury. The best witness to this fact is the Qur’an:
﴿ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُلْ لأَزْوَاجِكَ إِنْ كُنتُنَّ تُرِدْنَ الْحَيَاةَ الدُّنْيَا وَزِينَتَهَا فَتَعَالَيْنَ أُمَتِّعْكُنَّ وَأُسَرِّحْكُنَّ سَرَاحًا جَمِيلاً * وَإِنْ كُنتُنَّ تُرِدْنَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَالدَّارَ الآخِرَةَ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ أَعَدَّ لِلْمُحْسِنَاتِ مِنكُنَّ أَجْرًا عَظِيمًا ﴾
“O prophet! Say unto your wives, ‘If you desire this world’s life and its adornment, then come, I will give you a gift and allow you a goodly release. But if you desire Allah and his Messenger and the Last Abode, then surely Allah has prepared for the doers of good among you a mighty reward’.”5
In principle, dislike of adornments and luxury cannot be a mental quality of a person who is madly addicted to relations with women.
A fair researcher has no choice but to justify the many marriages of the Prophet during his middle years on a basis other than lust and hedonism.
Some of his marriages were exclusively to gain influence. He hoped to extend his tribe and kin through marriage in the interests of proselytization.
Certain marriages were for the purpose of appeasing and assuaging various individuals. Though marriage he safeguarded himself against possible dangers to his mission.
In some marriages, his aim was merely to deliver a woman from misfortune and provide her livelihood. In this way he edified his followers in practice and taught them to support the poor and helpless.
In a number of his marriages, the aim was to carry out a divine decree and in this way eradicate some of the unsound thoughts of the Age of Ignorance. This was his intent in marrying Zaynab, the daughter of Jahsh. At first, she was the wife of Zayd ibn Hārithah, who was the adopted son of the Prophet of Allah.
Arabs believed that one could not marry the wife of an adopted son just as he could not marry the wife of his own son by birth. After Zayd divorced Zaynab, the Prophet married her in order to oppose this false thought. There are various Qur’anic verses in this regard such as:
﴿ ... فَلَمَّا قَضَى زَيْدٌ مِنْهَا وَطَرًا زَوَّجْنَاكَهَا لِكَيْ لا يَكُونَ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ حَرَجٌ فِي أَزْوَاجِ أَدْعِيَائِهِمْ إِذَا قَضَوْا مِنْهُنَّ وَطَرًا وَكَانَ أَمْرُ اللَّهِ مَفْعُولاً ﴾
“So when Zayd took his need of her and divorced her, We wed her to you so that there will be no fault for believers regarding marriage to the wives of their adopted sons after divorce and the command of Allah must be fulfilled.”6
Approximately one year after the passing of Khadījah, the Prophet married Sawdah daughter of Zama‘ah.7 Sawdah’s husband died when returning from the second migration to Abyssinia.8 Sawdah was a faithful woman who had gone to Abyssinia with her husband. She held the glorious title of émigré [muhājarah].
When she lost her husband, if she had returned to her family, who were unbelievers, she would surely have been persecuted and maybe even killed. Moreover, they would have tried to force her to revert to her previous unbelief. Therefore, the Prophet married her so that she would be safe from torment and persecution.
Zaynab, daughter of Khuzaymah, was wedded to the Prophet after her husband, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Jahsh, was killed in the battle of Uhud. Zaynab was a great and virtuous woman from the Age of Ignorance. She was called “Umm al-Masākīn”—literally Mother of the Destitute—since she showed great kindness and compassion to the poor and needy. The Prophet married her to preserve her status and prestige.9
Another wife of the Prophet was called Umm al-Salamah and her original name was Hind. Before she became the Prophet’s wife, she was married to ‘Abd Allāh Abī Salamah, cousin and foster brother to the Prophet.
‘Abd Allāh was the first person to immigrate to Abyssinia. Umm al-Salamah was a virtuous and devout woman and also a religious authority. When her husband died, she was advanced in age and the guardian of her orphans. Under such conditions, the Prophet of Islam took her hand in marriage.10
The Prophet married Safiyyah, daughter of Hayy ibn Akhtab, chief of Banī Nadīr, after her husband was killed in the battle of Khaybar. Her father was also killed in the same battle. Safiyyah was among the prisoners of Khaybar and the Prophet chose her for himself and freed her. Then, he married her and thus saved her from abjectness. Also, through this marriage he became in-laws with Banī Isrā’īl.11
After the incident of Banī al-Mustalaq, the Prophet married Juwayriyah who was previously named Barrah. She was the daughter of Hārith, the chief of the Banī al-Mustalaq tribe. In the incident of Banī al-Mustalaq, Muslims captured the women and children of two hundred families.
From among them, the Prophet married Juwayriyah. Subsequently, the Muslims freed all the prisoners because they had become the Prophet’s kin. Freedom of the prisoners positively influenced the people of the tribe and the whole of the tribe’s considerable population turned to the Prophet and converted to Islam. In addition, this deed had a significantly favorable effect on all Arab people.
Another wife of the Prophet of Islam was Maymūnah. Her previous name was Barrah and she was the daughter of Hārith Halāliyah. After the death of her second husband, Abī Rahm ibn ‘Abd al-‘Uzzā, she gifted herself unto the Prophet. The Prophet set her free and married her. A Qur’anic verse was revealed with regard to this issue.
Umm Habībah was also among the wives of the Prophet. Her name was Ramlah and she was the daughter of Abū Sufiyān. She was formerly the wife of ‘Abd Allāh ibn Jahsh. She and her husband were part of the second hijrah to Abyssinia, where her husband became Nazarene. She, however, kept faith with Islam. During this time, her father was a bitter enemy of the Prophet and continually incited the people against Islam. The Prophet married Umm Habībah and thus put her under his protection.
Hafsah, daughter of ‘Umar, was also one of the wives of the Prophet. After her husband, Khanīs ibn Hudhāfah was killed in the battle of Badr, the Prophet married her. The Prophet had also previously married the maiden ‘Ā’ishah, daughter of Abū Bakr.
Considering these facts and what we have discussed regarding the customs of the Prophet throughout his life, the fact that he was an austere person and eschewed luxury and that he also enjoined his wives to austerity and against luxury, leaves no doubt that basically, the marriages of the Prophet were not like those of others who marry to appease their lusts.
One must also note that essentially the Prophet’s behavior with women was courteous and respectful. On the whole women’s rights, which in the dark Age of Ignorance had been destroyed under the caprice of men, were revived by the Prophet.
Thus women, who had lost their legitimate status in the human society after many dark aeons of Ignorance, achieved their true position. It is even narrated that the final testament of the Prophet on the threshold of death was a recommendation regarding women.
Regarding the importance of ritual prayer [salāt], the necessity of giving due consideration to servants, and advice about women he stated:
«الصّلاة الصّلاة وما ملکت ايمانکم لا تکلفوهم ما لا يطيقون، الله الله في النّسا فانهنّ عوان بين ايديکم»
“Ritual prayer, ritual prayer (is very important). Also, do not burden servants more than they can bear. For the love of Allah, (I advise you to be considerate) of women for they are allies that are always with you.”12
The Prophet’s justice, cordiality, and consideration for women were specific to him. We must also not leave it unsaid that, like continuous [wisāl] fasting, the permissibility for marrying more than four wives was restricted to the Prophet and it was forbidden for his followers to perform these deeds.
It was these characteristics of the Prophet that prevented people—even his enemies who were vehemently seeking his weak points—from any kind of protest.13