Muhammad's wives: Background you need to know

By Parvez Ahmed | Special to the Sentinel

Posted December 4, 2002,0,6846801.story

When the Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel wrote that

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, would want to take one

of the body-flaunting beauties in the Miss World

pageant as his wife, Isioma was, besides exhibiting

insensitivity, factually incorrect.

Muhammad's 12 wives, although not all married to him

at the same time, were modest, courageous,

independent, outspoken, righteous, patient and loyal.

They were not known for their physical beauty --

certainly not the kind that is flaunted in public.

All of Muhammad's wives chose to remain devoted to him

out of their own free will. The Quran recounts this

choice: "O Prophet, tell your wives: 'If you want the

worldly life and its attraction, then come on! I'll

let you enjoy them and dismiss you in a handsome

fashion.' "[33:28].

For this noble choice, they were afforded the generous

title of mother of the believers, exemplars of Muslim


Why did Muhammad marry 12 women? John Esposito, in

Islam: The Straight Path , writes, "As was customary

for Arab chiefs, many were political marriages to

cement alliances. Others were marriages to the widows

of his companions who had fallen in combat and were in

need of protection."

Muhammad was far ahead of his time by marrying

Khadija, a widow and an independent business owner 15

years older than he was, as his first wife. This

monogamous relationship, which lasted nearly 25 years,

until Khadija's death, was contrary to the

then-Jewish, Christian and Arab traditions that

allowed for unlimited wives.

Perhaps even more eye-opening was the fact that

Muhammad took Sawda as his second wife when she was a

65-year-old widow. This marriage came as a great

surprise to Muhammad's contemporaries, who usually

took wives for their wealth or beauty, rarely out of

compassion and affording security to women.

In fact, all but one of Muhammad's wives were widows,

and many of them were over the age of 40 when they

married him.

Two of Muhammad's marriages have come under particular

attack from those who never lose an opportunity to

promote Islamophobia, much like the idolaters of

Muhammad's time. Even in their enmity, the Meccans of

Muhammad's time never accused him of moral ineptitude.

The current charge that Muhammad took his third wife,

Aisha, when she was a minor is based on apocryphal

traditions. The preponderance of evidence suggests

that Aisha was between 16 and 19 years old when she

married Muhammad.

Another marriage that has raised current scrutiny is

his seventh wife, Zaynab. This marriage, as with most

of Muhammad's actions, was done to instruct the

nascent Muslim community by setting personal examples.

At issue was the relationship of an adopted child to

his new parents.

Modern Westerners may disagree, but Islam's position

is that adopted children are not equivalent in legal

or biological status to children out of natural birth.

To illustrate this, God commanded Muhammad to marry

the wife of his adopted son following their divorce.

While Muhammad was Caesar and pope in one, he had none

of their worldly possessions. In fact a mini-revolt

erupted among Muhammad's wives not due to jealousy (as

one might have expected) but complaints about their

lack of worldly possessions.

Muhammad's daytime was spent fulfilling his prophetic

mission of teaching. His nights were spent in long

solitary prayers. This lifestyle was scarcely

conducive to sexual perversion as suggested in many

misinformed quarters.

Authentic traditions tell us that Muhammad used to

stand in prayer during much of each night. In the

process, his feet would swell up. Aisha asked him

about his extreme efforts to please God even though

God had given him the good news of admittance into

Paradise. Muhammad's answer was befitting a prophet:

"Shouldn't I be a grateful servant?"

To avoid the kind of excesses that we saw in Nigeria,

both Muslims and non-Muslims need to know the

traditions of the other more thoroughly. Perhaps one

place to start is with the figure of Muhammad.

Karen Armstrong, in an upcoming PBS documentary titled

Muhammad (to be aired Dec. 18), says, "Muhammad was a

man who faced an absolutely hopeless situation. . . .

Single-handedly in a space of 23 years he brought

peace and a new hope to Arabia and a new beacon for

the world."

Parvez Ahmed is communications director for the

Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic

Relations, the nation's largest Muslim advocacy group.

He is a member of the Independent Writers Syndicate

and a faculty member of the University of North

Florida's Coggin College of Business. He wrote this

commentary for the Sentinel. He can be reached at

Copyright  2002, Orlando Sentinel


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