The Prophets reasons for his various marriages

by  Fethullah Gulen  

Questions this modern age puts to Islam
Fethullah Gulen.

What were the reasons behind the several marriages of the Prophet, upon him
be peace?

– Introduction
– Khadijah
-Umm Salamah
-Umm Habibah
-Zainab bint Jahsh
-Juwayriyah b. Harith
-Sawdah b. Zam’ah b. Qays

Some critics of Islam, either because they are not aware of the facts about
the marriages of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, or because they
are not honest and objective about those facts, have reviled the Prophet as
a self-indulgent libertine. They have accused him of character failings
which are hardly compatible with being of average virtue, let alone with
being a prophet and God’s last Messenger and the best model for all mankind
to follow. However, if the facts are simply recounted-and they are easily
available from scores of biographies and well-authenticated accounts of his
sayings and actions-it becomes clear that the Prophet lived the most
strictly disciplined life, that his marriages were a part of that
discipline, a part of the many, many burdens that he bore as God’s last

The reasons behind the Prophet’s several marriages are various, but even in
the privateness of some of those reasons, they all had to do with his role
as the leader of the new Muslim ummah, guiding his people towards the norms
and values of Islam. In the following pages we shall try to explain some of
those reasons and, in so doing, demonstrate that the charges levelled
against the Prophet on this count are as vile and indecent as they are
utterly false.

The Prophet, not at that time called to his future mission, first married at
the age of twenty-five. Given the cultural environment in which he lived,
not to mention the climate and other considerations such as his youth, it is
remarkable that he should have enjoyed a reputation for perfect chastity as
well as integrity and trustworthiness generally. As soon as he was called to
the prophethood he acquired enemies who did not hesitate to publicise false
calumnies against him-but not once did any of them (and in their jahiliyya
(ignorance) they were not scrupulous men) dare to invent against him what
no-one could have believed. It is important to realise that his life was
founded upon chastity and self-discipline from the outset, and so remained.

At the age of twenty-five, then, and in the prime of life, Muhammad, upon
him be peace, married Khadijah, a woman much his senior in years. This
marriage was very high and exceptional in the eyes of the Prophet and God.
For twenty-three years, his life with Khadijah was a period of uninterrupted
contentment in perfect fidelity. In the eighth year of prophethood, however,
Khadijah passed away and the Prophet was once again single, as he had been
until the age of twenty-five, though now with children. His enemies cannot
deny, but are forced to admit that, during all these long years, they cannot
find a single flaw in his moral character. During the lifetime of Khadijah,
the Prophet took no other wife, although public opinion among his people
would have allowed him to do so had he wished to. After Khadijah’s death, he
lived a single life for four or five years. All his other marriages began
after he reached the age of fifty-five, an age by which very little real
interest and desire for marriage remains. The allegation that his marriages
after this age were an expression of licentiousness or self-indulgence, is
as groundless as it is foul.

A question people often ask is: How can the plurality of his marriages be in
accord with his role as the Prophet? There are three points to be made in
answering this question, but first let us recognize that those who
continually raise such questions are either atheists (who themselves have no
religion) or are ‘people of the Book’ i.e. Christians or Jews. Both these
classes of critics are equally ignorant of Islam and religion, or wilfully
confuse right with wrong in order to deceive others and spread doubt and

Those who neither believe in nor practise any religious way of life have no
right to reproach those who do. They have relations and unions with many
women without following any rule or law or ethic. However they may pretend
otherwise, what they do is unrestrained self-indulgence with, in practice,
little regard for the consequences of their life-style upon the happiness
and well-being of even their own children, let alone of the young in
general. In certain circles who advertise themselves as the most ‘free’,
sexual relations which most societies condemn as incestuous are regarded as
permissible; homosexuality is as ‘normal’ for them as any other kind of
relationship; some even practise polyandry-that is, one woman having at the
same time many ‘husbands’-the agony of any children from such unions who may
never be sure of who their father is, we leave to the reader’s imagination.
The only motive that people who live in this way can have for criticising
the Prophet’s marriages is the foolish hope that they can drag Muslims down
with them into the mess of moral confusion and viciousness in which they
themselves are trapped.

Jews and Christians who attack the Prophet for the plurality of his
marriages can only be motivated by their fear and jealous hatred of Islam.
They plainly forget that the great patriarchs of the Hebrew race, named as
prophets in the Bible as well as the Qur’an, and revered by the followers of
all three faiths as exemplars of moral excellence, all practised
polygamy-and indeed on a far greater scale than the Prophet Muhammad, upon
him be peace.

Polygamy was not originated by the Muslims. Furthermore, in the case of the
Prophet of Islam, as we shall see, polygamy (or, more strictly, polygyny)
has, from the viewpoint of its function within the mission of prophethood,
far more significance than people generally realise.

In a sense, the plurality of wives was a necessity for the Prophet through
whose practice (or Sunna) the statutes and norms of Muslim law were to be
established. Religion may not be excluded from the private relations between
spouses, from matters that can only be known by one’s partner. Therefore,
there must be guidance from women who can give clear instruction and advice
without using an allusive language of hints and innuendoes which leaves the
meaning obscure and incomprehensible. The chaste and virtuous women of the
Prophet’s household were the teachers responsible for conveying and
communicating to the people the norms and rules that concern the conduct of
Muslims in their private lives.

Some of the marriages of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, were
contracted for specific reasons to do with his wives:

1) Since there were young, middle-aged and old women amongst them, the
requirements and norms of Islamic law could be exemplified in relation to
their different life stages and experiences. These provisions of the law
were first learnt and applied within the Prophet’s household and then passed
on to other Muslims through the teaching of his wives.

2) Since each of his wives was from a different clan or tribe, the Prophet
established bonds of kinship and affinity throughout the ummah. This enabled
a profound attachment to him to spread amongst the diverse peoples of the
new ummah, creating and securing equality and brotherhood amongst them in a
most practical way and on the basis of religion.

3) Each of his wives, from their different tribes, both whilst the Prophet
was living and after he passed away, proved 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, the qualities, the manners and faith
of the man whose life, in all its details, public and intimate, was the
embodiment of the Qur’an-Islam in practice. In this way, all the members of
their clan, men and women, learnt 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 the essence and spirit of the
Islamic religion.

4) Through his marriages, the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace,
established ties of kinship throughout the Arabian peninsula. What this
meant was that he was free to move and be accepted as a member in each
family, each of whose members regarded him as one of their own. For that
reason each felt that they could go to him in person to learn about the
affairs of this life and of the life hereafter, directly from him. Equally,
the tribes benefited collectively also from this proximity to the Prophet;
they esteemed themselves to be fortunate and took pride in that
relationship, such as the Ummayads through Umm Habibah, the Hashimites
through Zaynab bint Jahsh, and the Banu Makhzum through Umm Salamah.

What we have said so far is general and could, in some respects, be true of
all the Prophets. However, now we will discuss the life sketches of ummahat
al-mu’min-the mothers of the believers-not in the order of the marriages but
in a different perspective.



Khadijah, radi Allahu anha, was the first among the Prophet’s wives. At the
time of her marriage, she was forty years old and Muhammad, upon him be
peace, was twenty-five. She was the mother of all his children except a son,
Ibrahim, who did not live long. As well as being a wife, Khadijah was also a
friend to her husband, the sharer of his inclinations and ideals to a
remarkable degree. Their marriage was wonderfully blessed; they lived
together in profound harmony for twenty-three years. Through every contumely
and outrage heaped upon him by the idolaters, through every persecution,
Khadijah was his dearest companion and helper. He loved her very deeply and
did not marry any other woman during her lifetime. This marriage is the
ideal of intimacy, friendship, mutual respect, support and consolation, for
all marriages. Though faithful and loyal to all his wives, he never forgot
Khadijah after her death and mentioned her virtues and merits extensively on
many occasions. The Prophet did not marry for another four to five years
after Khadijah’s death. Providing their daily food and provisions, bearing
their troubles and hardships, Muhammad, upon him be peace, looked after his
children and performed the duties of mother as well as father. To allege of
such a man that he was a sensualist or suffered from lust for women, is as
disgraceful and as stupid a lie as can be imagined. For if there were even
the least grain of truth in it, he could not have lived as we know that he



‘A’isha, radi Allahu anha was his second wife, though not in the order of
marriages. She was the daughter of his closest friend and devoted follower,
Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr, one of the earliest converts to Islam had long hoped to
cement the deep attachment that existed between himself and the Prophet, by
giving to him his daughter in marriage. By marrying ‘A’isha the Prophet
accorded the highest honour and courtesy to a man who had shared all the
good and bad times with him throughout his mission. In this way, Abu Bakr
and ‘A’isha Siddiqa acquired the distinction of being spiritually and
physically near to the Prophet.

Moreover, ‘A’isha, who proved to be a remarkably intelligent and wise woman,
had both the nature and temperament to carry forward the work of prophetic
mission. Her marriage was the schooling through which she was prepared as a
spiritual guide and teacher to the whole of the female world. She became one
of the major students and disciples of the Prophet and through him, like so
many of the Muslims of that blessed time, her skills and talents were
matured and perfected, so that she joined him in the abode of bliss both as
wife and as student. Her life and her services to Islam after her marriage
prove that such an exceptional person was worthy to be the wife of the
Prophet. For, when the time came, she proved herself one of the greatest
authorities on Hadith, an excellent commentator on the Qur’an and a most
distinguished and knowledgeable expert (faqih) in Islamic law. She truly
represented the inward and outward qualities and experiences (zahir and
batin) of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, through her unique
understanding. This is surely why the Prophet was told in his dream that he
would marry ‘A’isha, and thus, when she was innocent and knew nothing about
men and worldly affairs, she was prepared and entered into the Prophet’s



Umm Salamah, radi Allahu anha, was from the clan of Makhzum. She was first
married to her cousin. The couple had embraced Islam at the very beginning
and emigrated to Abyssinia, to avoid the persecutions of the Quraysh. After
returning from Abyssinia, the couple and their four children migrated to
Madinah. Her husband participated in many battles and received severe wounds
at the battle of Uhud from which he later died. Abu Bakr and ‘Umar proposed
marriage to Umm Salamah, aware of her needs and suffering as a widow with
children to support and no means of doing so. She refused because, according
to her judgement, no-one could be better than her late husband.

Some time after that, the Prophet himself 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 in Islam was now alone after having
lived many years in the noblest clan of Arabia. She could not be neglected
and left to beg her way in life. 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 been doing since his
youth, namely befriending those who were lacking in friends, supporting
those who were unsupported, protecting those who were unprotected. In the
circumstances in which Umm Salamah found herself, there was no kinder or
more gracious way to give her what she lacked.

Umm Salamah was intelligent and quick in comprehension just as ‘A’isha was.
She had all the capacities and gifts to become a spiritual guide and
teacher. When the gracious and compassionate Prophet took her under his
protection, a new student to whom all the female world would be grateful,
was accepted into the school of knowledge and guidance. Let us recall that,
at this time, the Prophet was approaching the age of sixty. For him to have
married a widow with many children, to have accepted the expenses and
responsibilities that entailed, cannot be understood otherwise than in
humble admiration for the infinite reserves of his humanity and compassion.



Umm Habibah, radi Allahu anha, was the daughter of Abu Sufyan who, for a
long time had been the most determined enemy of the Prophet’s mission, and
the most determined supporter of kufr (unbelief). Yet his daughter was one
of the earliest converts to Islam. She emigrated to Abyssinia because of
persecution by the unbelievers. Whilst there, her husband converted to
Christianity. As she remained a Muslim, she separated from him. When,
shortly after that, her husband died she was all alone, and desperate, in

The Companions of the Prophet were then few in number and had little in the
way of material wealth to support themselves, let alone to support others.
What then were the practical options open to Umm Habibah? She might convert
to Christianity and so obtain support from the Christians, but that was
unthinkable. She might return to her father’s home, now a headquarters of
the war against Islam, but that too was unthinkable. She might wander from
household to household as a beggar, but again it was an unthinkable option
for one who belonged to one of the richest and noblest Arab families to
bring shame upon her family name by doing so.

God recompensed Umm Habibah for all that she lost or sacrificed in the way
of Islam. She had suffered a lonely exile in an insecure environment among
people of a race and religion different from her own; she was made wretched
too by her husband’s conversion and death. The Prophet, on learning of her
plight, responded by sending an offer of marriage through the king Negus.
This was an action both noble and generous, and a practical proof of the
verse: We have not sent you save as a mercy for all creatures (al-Anbiya’,

Thus Umm Habibah joined the Prophet’s household as wife and student, and
contributed much to the moral and spiritual life of the Muslims who learnt
from her and, in their turn, passed on their knowledge to future

Through this marriage, the powerful family of Abu Sufyan came to be linked
with the person and household of the Prophet, something that led them to
adopt a different attitude to Islam. It is also correct to trace the
influence of this marriage, beyond the family of Abu Sufyan, on all the
Umayyads, who ruled the Muslims for almost a hundred years. The clan whose
members had been the most fanatical in their hatred of Islam produced some
of Islam’s most renowned warriors, administrators and governors in the early
period. Without doubt it was the marriage to Umm Habibah that began this
change: the Prophet’s depth of generosity and magnanimity of soul surely
overwhelmed them.



Zainab bint Jahsh, radi Allahu anha, was also a lady of noble birth,
descended 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 asked for the hand of Zainab for Zaid, Zainab’s
family and Zainab herself were at first unwilling. The family had hoped to
marry their daughter to the Prophet. Naturally, when they realized that it
was the Prophet’s wish that Zainab should marry Zaid, they all consented out
of deference to their love for the Prophet and his authority. In this way,
the marriage took place.

Zaid had been taken captive as a child in the course of tribal wars and sold
as a slave. The noble Khadija whose slave he was, presented him to Muhammad,
upon him be peace, on the occasion of her marriage to the future Prophet.
The Prophet immediately gave Zaid his freedom and shortly afterwards adopted
him as his son. The reason for his insistence on Zaid’s marriage to Zainab
was to establish and fortify equality between the Muslims, to make this
ideal a reality. His desire was to break down the ancient Arab prejudice
against a slave or even freedman marrying a ‘free-born’ woman. The Prophet
was therefore starting this hard task with his own relatives.

The marriage did not bring happiness to either Zainab or Zaid. Zainab, the
lady of noble birth, was a good Muslim of a most pious and exceptional
quality. Zaid, the freedman, was among the first to embrace Islam, and he
too was a good Muslim. Both loved and obeyed the Prophet, but their marriage
was unsustainable because of their mutual incompatibility. Zaid found it no
longer tolerable and on several occasions expressed the wish to divorce. The
Prophet, however, insisted that he should persevere with patience and that
he should not separate from Zainab. Then, on an occasion while the Prophet
was in conversation, the Angel Gabriel came and a divine revelation was
given to him (Bukhari, Tawhid, 22). The Prophet’s marriage to Zainab was
announced in the revealed verses as a bond already contracted: We have
married her to you (al-Ahzab, 33.37). This command was one of the severest
trials the Prophet, upon him be peace, had yet had to face. For he was
commanded to do a thing contrary to the traditions of his people, indeed it
was a taboo. Yet it had to be done for the sake of God, just as God
commanded. ‘A’isha later said: Had the Messenger of God been inclined to
suppress anything of what was revealed to him, he would surely have
suppressed this verse (Bukhari and Muslim).

Divine wisdom decreed the need to join so distinguished and noble a person
as Zainab to the Prophet’s household, so as to provide her with true
knowledge and prepare her for the task of guiding and enlightening the
Muslims. In the event, after the marriage finally took place, Zainab proved
herself most worthy to be the Prophet’s wife; she was always aware of the
responsibilities as well as the courtesies proper to her role, and fulfilled
those responsibilities to universal admiration.

In the jahiliyya, the period of ignorance before Islam, an adopted son was
regarded as a natural son, and an adopted son’s wife was therefore regarded
as a natural son’s wife would be. According to the Qur’anic verse, those who
have been ‘wives of your sons proceeding from your loins’ fall within the
prohibited degrees of marriage. But this prohibition does not relate to
adopted sons with whom their is no real consanguinity. What now seems
obvious was not so then. The pagan taboo against marrying the former wives
of adopted sons was deeply rooted. It was to uproot this custom that the
Prophet’s marriage to Zainab was commanded by the Revelation.

To have an unassailable authority for future generations of Muslims, the
break in the taboo had to be achieved through the authority of the Prophet’s
own example. It is but one further instance of the depth of faith of the man
that he accepted the divine decree, against the most established customs of
his people. As a result the Arabs were rescued from their pagan confusion of
a legal fiction, however worthy, with a biological, natural reality.



Juwayriyah b. Harith, radi Allahu anha, was one of a large number of
captives taken by Muslims in a military expedition. She was the daughter of
Harith, chief of the defeated Banu Mustaliq clan. She was held captive, like
other members of her proud family, alongside the ‘common’ people of her
clan. When Juwayriyah was taken to the Prophet, upon him be peace, she was
in considerable distress, not least because her kinsmen had lost everything
and her emotions were a profound hate and enmity toward the Muslims. The
Prophet understood the wounded pride and dignity and the suffering of this
woman; more than that he understood also, in his sublime wisdom, how to
resolve the problem and heal that wounded pride. He agreed to pay her
ransom, set her free and offered to take her as his wife. How gladly
Juwayriyah accepted this offer can easily be imagined.

About a hundred families, who had not yet been ransomed, were all set free
when the Ansar and the Muhajir (the Emigrants) came to realise that the Bani
Mustaliq were now among the Prophet’s kin by marriage. A tribe so honoured
could not be allowed to remain in slavery (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 6, 277). In
this way the hearts of Juwayriyah and all her people were won. A hundred
families who regained their liberty blessed the marriage of Juwayriyah with
Muhammad, upon him be peace. Through his compassionate wisdom and generosity
he turned a defeat for some into a victory for all; what had been an
occasion of enmity and distress became one of friendship and joy.



Safiyyah, radi Allahu anha, was the daughter of Huyayy, one of the
chieftains of the Jewish tribe of Khaybar, who had persuaded the Bani
Qurayzah to break their treaty with the Prophet. From her earliest years she
saw her family and relatives determined in opposition to the Prophet. She
had lost her father, brother and husband at the hands of Muslims, and
herself became one of their captives. The attitudes and actions of her
family and relatives might have nurtured in her a deep indignation against
the Muslims and a desire for revenge. But three days before the Prophet,
upon him be peace, arrived at Khaybar, and Safiyyah fell captive in the
battle, she had seen in a dream a brilliant moon coming out from Madina,
moving towards 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 him as a captive, the Prophet generously set her free and
offered her the choice between remaining a Jew 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 had the title of ‘mother of the
believers’. The Companions of the Prophet honoured and respected her as
‘mother’; she witnessed at first hand the refinement and true courtesy of
the men and women whose hearts and minds were submitted to God. Her attitude
to her past experiences changed altogether, and she came to appreciate the
great honour 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 also worth noting here that it is through such close relation
with others that Muslims can come to understand how those others think and
feel and live. And it is through understanding that Muslims can learn how to
influence and guide, if God wills, those others. Without a degree of trust
established by such generous actions as the Prophet’s marriage to Safiyyah,
neither mutual respect nor tolerance can become social norms.



Sawdah b. Zam’ah b. Qays, radi Allahu anha, was the widow of one Sakran.
Sakran and Sawdah were among the first to embrace Islam and had been forced
to flee Abyssinia to escape the persecution of the idolaters. Sakran died in
exile and left his wife utterly destitute. As the only means of assisting
the poor woman, the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, though himself
distressed for the means of daily subsistence, married Sawdah. This marriage
took place some time after the death of the noble Khadijah.



Hafsah, radi Allahu anha, 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 and who died of wounds received in
battle in the path of God. She remained without a husband for a while. ‘Umar
also desired, like Abu Bakr, the honour and blessing of being close to the
Prophet in this world and in the Hereafter, so that the Prophet, upon him be
peace, took Hafsah as his wife so as to protect and help the daughter of his
faithful disciple.



Such were the circumstances and noble motives of the several marriages of
the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace. We see that these marriages were
intended to provide helpless or widowed women with dignified subsistence in
the absence of all other means; to console and honour enraged or estranged
tribes people, to bring those who had been enemies into some degree of
relationship and harmony; to gain for the cause of Islam certain uniquely
gifted individuals, in particular some exceptionally talented women; to
establish new norms of relationship between different people within the
unifying brotherhood of faith in God; and to honour with family bonds the
men who were to be the first leaders of the Muslim ummah after him. These
marriages had nothing at all to do with self-indulgence or personal desire
or lust or any other of the absurd and vile charges laid against the Prophet
by Islam’s embittered enemies. With the exception of ‘A’isha, all of the
Prophet’s wives were widows, and all his marriages (after that with the
noble Khadijah) were contracted when he was already an old man. Far from
being acts of self-indulgence then, these marriages were acts of

It was a part of that discipline that the Prophet, upon him be peace,
provided for each of his wives with the most meticulously observed justice,
dividing equally whatever slender resources he allowed to his household for
their subsistence, accommodation and allowance generally. He also divided
his time with them equally, and regarded and treated them with equal
friendship and respect. That his household (despite the fact that his wives
came from different backgrounds and had acquired different tastes and
temperaments) 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 a friend and companion.

A final point to be made is that the number of wives the Prophet had was by
a special dispensation within the Law of Islam and unique to his person.
Some of the merits and wisdom of this dispensation, as we understand them,
have been explained. The number of wives for any other Muslim may not exceed
four at any one time. When that Revelation restricting polygamy came, the
Prophet’s marriages had already been contracted. Thereafter, the Prophet
also was prohibited to marry again. May God bless him and grant him peace,
and may He enable us to understand and follow his noble example.

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