Whenever Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ name emerges, the image in many people’s minds is a man with many wives. For Muslims, his multiple marriages had meaning and immense implications for Islam, and by extension, the history of the world. Needless to say, the issue remains controversial; therefore, we will endeavor to tackle this topic by being as objective as possible.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was driven by the goal to ensure that his mission as the Messenger of God ﷺ was fulfilled and to establish a society based on God’s commands, and not his own. In order to achieve this goal, he did everything that was humanly possible: he forged relations with the various tribes of Arabia, concluded peace treaties with his sworn enemies and nurtured relations with the heads of various tribes, nations, and religions. Taken together, his marriages were a way in which he fostered relationships with various influential tribes. If one were to view the marriages of the Prophet ﷺ from this context, the motivating factors behind his marriages become clear. It would be very simplistic and incorrect to view his marriages as being merely for lustful ends.
Let us now briefly examine the context of each one of his marriages to see whether this was the case. From the outset, it is of ultimate importance to note that, except one, all of his eleven wives were widowed or divorced. Most were in fact widowed.
His first marriage was to a widow named Khadijah, who had been married twice and whom he married when she was forty years old and he was twenty-five. She was the first person to embrace Islam. She provided great consolation to him throughout his life and he continued to remember her in his later years as his most beloved wife. During their loving union he stayed with her faithfully for 25 years until her death, at which time he was 50 years old, and she was 65 years old.
If he was driven by lustful desires, as accused by his opponents, he could have in the prime of his youth married several, beautiful young women in a society where having numerous wives was a norm – there would be no reason to faithfully remain with an older woman until the age of fifty. This single fact would be sufficient to put to rest charges against him in this regard.
It should be remembered that in pre-modern times there was no state apparatus to help widows, orphans and other vulnerable members of society with money, jobs or food. Often their only hope for survival was if an individual or family took responsibility for their well being. Moreover, if a person from one tribe married a person from another tribe, this had salutary effect on tribal relations even if those relations were strained. People from opposing tribe would view each other as having a relationship or connection through the inter-tribal marriage. The tribes were not only large, extended families, they were like communities and mini states onto themselves. They controlled certain territories, governed themselves by their own laws, provided security and protection for their members, entered into alliances, conducted trade, and fought wars. Marriage was one way tribes developed important bonds of trust and mutual consideration.
After Khadija’s death, the Prophet ﷺ married another widow, Sawda, who was 65 years old. She and her previous husband were among the first Muslim refugees who had immigrated to Ethiopia fleeing from the pagan oppression and persecution of Mecca. It was during their return to Mecca that Sawda’s husband had died. Seeing her difficult condition, the Prophet ﷺ married her.
Then he married Aisha, daughter of his lifelong friend and companion Abu Bakr. Aisha had first been betrothed to another man named Jabir bin Mut’im at the age of five. Child marriages were evidently the norm at that time although they were usually not consummated until children entered into puberty. Aisha was the only virgin among the Prophet’s wives and the only one who was born into a Muslim family. One of the Prophet’s ﷺ goals in this marriage was to strengthen the bond of his brotherhood with Abu Bakr, who was one of his main defenders against the Meccans.
Second, Aisha was known for her intelligence. She tremendously benefitted his Muslim nation (Umma) by transmitting crucial knowledge from his life, especially family and personal matters that others were not privy to. Indeed, the Prophet ﷺ advised his community to learn half of the knowledge of the religion from Aisha. She would live for 45 years after his death, and thus became one of the main sources of Prophetic wisdom and knowledge.
He also married another widow, Hafsa, who was the daughter of Umar ibn al- Khattab, his next closest companion. Her husband was killed in the Battle of Badr. The Prophet ﷺ felt a duty towards Umar, whose acceptance of Islam provided a major boost for the Muslims in Mecca against their foes.
Zaynab, daughter of Khuzaima, was another widow that the Prophet ﷺ married. She was married to Ubayda bin al-Haris, who was also killed in the Battle of Badr. She was sixty when the Prophet ﷺ married her. She was known as the “Mother of the Downtrodden.” She, however, passed away after two or three months of marriage.
He married another widow, Umm Salama. Her previous husband, Abu Salama, died in the Battle of Uhud, leaving behind four orphans. Umm Salama was pregnant at that time and was extremely distressed. Needless to say, she needed much support. After her delivery, Umar proposed that the Prophet marry her, which he accepted. What purpose can there be for a person of 54 years to marry a widow with four orphans except love, mercy and compassion? There was another crucial factor in this marriage: Umm Salama was from the Bani Makhzum tribe, which was the same tribe that several of Islam’s staunchest enemies came from such as Abu Jahl and Khalid bin Waleed. Though Abu Jahl never changed, Khalid later accepted Islam and became a brilliant military general. Once again, bringing influential and powerful tribes closer to Islam was one of the objectives of the Prophet’s marriages.
He married a divorced woman, Zaynab, the daughter of Jahsh. She was married to Zayd bin Haritha, the freed slave of the Prophet. Zayd divorced her and the Prophet ﷺ married her when she was 38 years old. His marriage to Zaynab was aimed at emphasizing the invalidity of the age-old Arab practice of taking adopted sons as real sons. The marriage was divinely sanctioned, as stated in the Qur’an,
“When Zayd had come to the end of his union with her, We gave her to you in marriage …’’
Umm Habiba was another widow whom the Prophet ﷺ married. She was a daughter of Abu Sufyan who was one of the bitterest enemies of Islam but who became a Muslim toward the end of the Prophet’s ﷺ mission. She was initially married to a man who was a follower of the Prophet ﷺ. Both of them sought refuge in Ethiopia from religious persecution. Her husband eventually left Islam and later died there. Considering her very difficult situation, her father being an enemy of Islam and her husband a deserter, the Prophet sent an envoy to the King of Ethiopia requesting to arrange a marriage with her. The King arranged the marriage and she was married to the Prophet ﷺ when she was 36 or 37 years old. Like many of his marriages, his marriage to Umm Habiba resulted in bringing a major tribe of the Quraysh, Banu Abd al-Shams, towards Islam.
He married another widow, Juwayria. Both her father and husband were bitter enemies of Islam. The former had planned to attack Medina at the instigation of the Meccans. This led the Muslim army to march against the clan of her father. The result was their defeat at the hands of the Prophet ﷺ and the death of Juwayria’s husband. After the conflict, Juwayria was one of the many captured prisoners. Her father offered a ransom for her freedom. She requested to stay in the service of the Prophet ﷺ and he married her at her request. Juwayria’s marriage resulted in the freeing of all the prisoners of war of her tribe. Again, this marriage led to the establishment of peace and friendly relations.
He also married a widow named Safiyya. Her second husband was killed in the Battle of Khaybar. Her father was the chief of the famous Jewish tribe, Banu Nazir. He was killed in the Battle of Khaybar and Safiyya was taken prisoner. She was eventually freed and the Prophet ﷺ married her. Some complained that she was sympathetic to the Jews. Her answer was that they were her relatives and the Prophet ﷺ defended her position. He told her to respond in the following way: “My father is Aaron (Haroon) and my uncle is Moses (Musa).” This marriage had led to a closer relationship between the Muslims and the Jews of Medina.
His final marriage was to another divorced woman, Maymuna. She was married twice and was very old. She married the Prophet ﷺ when he was 57. The reason for her marriage was that the Prophet’s ﷺ uncle, Abbas, suggested it in order to bring her tribe – Halaliyyeen – to the fold of Islam. This is exactly what happened. After his marriage to Maymuna, they entered Islam in large numbers.
From the above, we see that it was not the Prophet’s ﷺ whims and desires that initiated his marriages, but rather it God had planned his marriages. He commanded His Messenger ﷺ after the last marriage (with Maymuna) not to marry any more (Quran 33:52), because by that time the objectives of his marriages were achieved as the Prophetic mission was nearing completion.
All of this does not mean that the Prophet ﷺ did not appreciate beauty or was someone who lacked sensuality. He said, “perfume and women are made dear to me. However, the joy of my eye is in prayer.” In fact, a look at his life would suggest that he approached the various aspects of human life with moderation – be it eating, drinking, or enjoying time with his wives – never indulging in any one thing excessively. His portrayal by some Western writers as promiscuous and licentious, mostly due to the fact that he had numerous wives, is far from the truth and historical facts, as shown above. Indeed, his marriages had a social motive and a higher goal than mere sexual gratification.
It would be relevant here to quote a female, Western scholar, Karen Armstrong, the author of Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, in relation to the issue of the Prophet’s ﷺ marriages and polygamy in Islam:
“The Qur’anic institution of polygamy was a piece of social legislation. It was designed not to gratify the male sexual appetite, but to correct the injustices done to widows, orphans, and other female dependents, who were especially vulnerable. All too often, unscrupulous people seized everything and left the weaker members of the family with nothing… Polygamy was designed to ensure that unprotected women would be decently married, and to abolish the old loose, irresponsible liaisons; men could have only four wives and must treat them equitably; it was an unjustifiably wicked act to devour their property… The Qur’an was attempting to give women a legal status that most Western women would not enjoy until the nineteenth century. The emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet’s heart.”
Another Western woman, the Italian Orientalist Laura Veccia Veglieri writes, bringing to focus the whole issue:
“They refuse to take into consideration the fact that during those years of his life when by nature the sexual urge is strongest, although he lived in a society like that of the Arabs where the institution of marriage was almost non-existent, where polygamy was the rule, and where divorce was very easy indeed, he was married to one woman alone, Khadijah, who was much older than himself, and that for twenty-five years he was her faithful, loving husband. Only when she died and when he was already fifty years old did he marry again and more than once. Each of these marriages had a social or a political reason, for what he wanted through the woman he married to honour pious women, or to establish marriage relations with other clans and tribes for the purpose of opening way for the propagation of Islam.”