prophet muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) had eleven wives in all and nine at the one time. however, a muslim is allowed a maximum of four wives. how is that?
in his response to the question in point, the eminent muslim scholar, sheikh yusuf al-qaradawi , states:
"before the advent of islam, it had been the habit of men to marry an unlimited number of women. the old testament states that david had 100 wives and solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. however, islam nullified marriage to more than four women.
if a man became a muslim and he had more than four wives, the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would say to him: “choose only four and divorce the rest.”
polygyny is permissible in islam on the condition that the man treats all his wives equally, otherwise he should marry one only. allah almighty says, “and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only).” (an-nisa': 3)
however, allah almighty granted prophet muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) something that is not allowed to any other muslim. he almighty allowed him to keep the wives that he had married and did not order him to divorce, replace any of them, or to marry anymore women. allah almighty says: “it is not allowed thee to take (other) women henceforth nor that thou should change them for other wives even though their beauty pleased thee, save those whom thy right hand possesses.” (al-ahzab: 52)
this is because the wives of the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) have a special status: they are mentioned in the qur`an as mothers of the believers. allah almighty says, “the prophet is closer to the believers than their selves, and his wives are (as) their mothers.” (al-ahzab: 6)
due to this honorable position, they were forbidden to remarry after the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). allah almighty says, “and it is not for you to cause annoyance to the messenger of allah, nor that ye should ever marry his wives after him.” (al-ahzab: 53)
this means that if they were divorced, they would have been deprived of marriage for the rest of their lives, and they would also be deprived of the honor of being part the prophet’s family, which is considered an unjust penalty when they had not done anything wrong.
suppose that allah had enjoined the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to choose only four of his wives and divorce the rest. this would mean that four of them would have been chosen to be the mothers of believers and the other five would have been deprived of the honor. this would have been a very awkward situation since none of those exemplary women deserved to be dismissed from the prophet’s family and be denied the honor that she had gained.
therefore, it was allah’s will for them to remain as the prophet’s wives as an exception to him only. this is based on allah’s saying: “lo! the bounty is in allah's hand. he bestoweth it on whom he will. allah is all embracing, all knowing.” (al `imran: 73)
as for the answer to the question: why did the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) marry nine women in the first place? we can say that this is well known. he did not marry any of them for the reasons that the orientalists falsely claim. it was not carnal desires, which made the prophet marry any of his wives. if he were as they claim, he wouldn’t have been the young man married to a woman 15 years his senior. he was 25 when he married khadijah who had been married twice before and had many children.
the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) lived all his youth with her in happiness. when she died, he called that year "the year of grief". he loved, respected and kept praising her so much even after her death to the extent that `a’ishah (may allah be pleased with her) used to be jealous of khadijah despite her having been dead.
at the age of 53, after the death of khadijah and after hijrah (emigration to madinah), the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) began to marry his other wives. he married sawdah bint zam`ah, who was an elderly lady, in order to be his housewife. he married the daughter of abu bakr, who was his friend and companion, in order to strengthen their relationship although she was still too young to be married. then he married hafsah, `umar’s daughter, so that both of his companions, abu bakr and `umar, would be granted the same honor, even though hafsah was a widow and was not pretty.
he also married umu salamah who was a widow. when her husband, abu salamah, died, she thought she would never find a better husband. they had both emigrated and suffered a lot for the cause of islam. she said in her grief as a widow: “lo! we are allah’s and lo! unto him we are returning.” (al-baqarah: 156) she prayed to allah to help her and recompense her with a better husband, but she wondered whether she could ever marry someone better than her late husband. so allah recompensed her for her grief and bestowed on her a far better husband who was prophet muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). he married her and rewarded her for the loss of her husband and her abandoning her family in order to emigrate to madinah.
prophet muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) married juwayriyah bint al-harith in order to encourage her family to be muslims. in the expedition of bani al-mustaliq, the muslims captured a lot of juwayriyah's kinsfolk, and when the companions of the prophet knew that the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had married her, they set the captives free because they had become kin of the prophet muhammad. and so kin must not be captured.
the other woman was um habibah, the daughter of abu sufyan and who was the bitterest enemy of islam. she had left her father and preferred to emigrate with her husband to abyssinia (al-habashah) for the sake of islam. but then her husband died and she became alone in a foreign land. what was the prophet supposed to do in such case? would he leave her without help? of course not! so he sent his proposal to negus (an-najashi), the king of abyssinia , and authorized him to pay her the dowry and to make the marriage contract while he was in madinah. another good reason for this marriage is that marrying the daughter of abu sufyan would make him less hostile to islam due to the new kinship.
therefore, he did not marry any of his wives for lust or worldly desires, but for the good of islam in order to strengthen the ties between the people and the new religion, especially because kinship and blood relations were well respected among the arabs.
in conclusion, by marrying those women, the prophet aimed at unifying the arabs and solving many problems. his wives became the mothers of the believers, teachers of the muslim ummah in family and women’s affairs, and related a lot about his family life even in the most private situations.
everybody has private matters except the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) who asked people to relate everything concerning his life in order to teach the muslim ummah and guide them to what is right.
the most important point is that the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) set a good example for muslims in all aspects of life including family life. a muslim man can draw very good lessons from the life of prophet muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and in the way he treated his wives."