What Lies Beneath... The Prophet's Marriages
Some critics of Islam, either because they are unaware of the facts or are biased, revile the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), accusing him as a self-indulgent libertine.
They accuse him of character failings that are hardly compatible with a person of an average virtue, let alone with the prophet, whom Muslims believe to be God's last messenger, and the best model for humanity to emulate.
A simple account of these marriages, which are openly discussed in many biographies and well-authenticated accounts of his sayings and actions, shows that they were part of a most strictly disciplined life, and another burden that he bore as God's last Messenger.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) entered into these marriages due to his role as the Muslims' leader and guide toward Islamic norms and values. We will explain some of the reasons behind his marriages and demonstrate that the charges are baseless and false.
The prophet married his first wife, Khadijah, when he was 25 and had not yet been called to his future mission. Given the surrounding cultural environment, not to mention the climate, his youth, and other considerations, 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 slandered him. However, none dared to invent something unbelievable. It is important to realize that his life was founded upon chastity and self-discipline from the outset, and remained so.
When he was 25 and in his prime, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), married Khadijah, a woman 15 years his senior. For 23 years, the couple lived a life of uninterrupted contentment in perfect fidelity.
In the eighth year of his prophethood, however, Khadijah died and the prophet had to face raising his children by himself. Even his enemies had to admit that during all these years they could find no flaw in his moral character.
The prophet took no other wife while Khadijah was alive, although polygamy was socially acceptable. He remarried only after he was 55, an age by which very little real interest and desire for marriage remains. Then, the allegation that these marriages were due to licentiousness or self-indulgence is thus groundless and without merit.
People often ask how a prophet can be polygamous. There are three points to be made here. But first, let's recognize that those who continually raise such questions are atheists, christians, or jews who do not have accurate knowledge of either Islam and religion in general, and so, either deliberately or mistakenly, confuse right with wrong to deceive others and spread doubt.
Jews and christians who attack the prophet forget that the great patriarchs of the hebrew race, named as prophets in the bible and the Qur’an and revered by followers of all three faiths as exemplars of moral excellence, all practiced polygyny — and on a far greater scale than prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Here we remember the words of Isaac Taylor, who spoke at the church congress of England, on how Islam changes the people who accept it:
The virtues which Islam inculcates are temperance, cleanliness, chastity, justice, fortitude, courage, benevolence, hospitality, veracity and resignation.... Islam preaches a practical brotherhood, the social equality of all Muslims. Slavery is not part of the creed of Islam. Polygyny is a more difficult question. Moses did not prohibit it. It was practiced by David and it is not directly forbidden in the New Testament. Muhammad limited the unbounded license of polygyny. It is the exception rather than the rule.
Polygyny did not originate with the Muslims. Furthermore, in the case of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), from the viewpoint of its function within the mission of prophethood, polygyny had far more significance than people generally realize.
In a sense, polygyny was a necessity for the prophet for through it he established the statutes and norms of Muslim family law. Religion cannot be excluded from private spousal relations or from matters known only by one's spouse.
Therefore, there must be women who can give clear instruction and advice, rather than hints and innuendoes, so that everything is understood. These chaste and virtuous women conveyed and explained the norms and rules governing Muslims private life.
Since these women were of all ages, the Islamic requirements and norms could be portrayed in relation to their different life stages and experiences. These provisions were learned and applied within the Prophet's household first, and then passed on to other Muslims by his wives.
Each wife was from a different clan or tribe. This allowed the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), to establish bonds of kinship and affinity throughout the community. As a result, a profound attachment to him spread among many diverse people, thereby creating and securing equality, brotherhood, and sisterhood in a most practical way and on the basis of religion.
Each wife, both during the Prophet's life and after his death, was of great benefit and service to Islam. Each one conveyed and interpreted his message to her clan: all of the outer and inner experiences, qualities, manners, and faith of the man whose life, in all its public and intimate details, embodied the Qur’an.
In this way, all clan members learned 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 Islam's essence and spirit.
Polygyny also allowed Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to establish ties of kinship throughout Arabia. As a result, he was free to move and be accepted as a member in each family, for their members regarded him as one of their own.
Given such a relationship, they were not shy to ask him directly about the affairs of this life and the Hereafter. The tribes also benefited collectively from this proximity, considered themselves fortunate, and took pride in that relationship. Some of these tribes were the Umayyads (through Umm Habibah), the Hashimites (through Zainab Bint Yahsh), and the Banu Makhzum (through Umm Salama).
What we have said so far is general and could, in some respects, be true of all prophets. In the second part we will discuss the lives of the Prophet's wives, known to Muslims as the mothers of the believers, not in the order of the marriages but in a different perspective.