The marital life of the Prophet (sws) has generally been misinterpreted by the critics of Islam. In this regard, unfortunately, the real stance of the Qur’ānhas often been misconceived even by some Muslim scholars. The following questions have been raised in this regard:
i. Why was the Prophet (sws) allowed to marry more than four wives?
ii. Why did the Prophet (sws) marry the wife of his adopted son?
iii. Why did not the Prophet (sws) marry his slave girl: Maria the Copt?
In the following paragraphs, the Qur’ānic viewpoint on these questions shall be explained.
The two initial marriages of the Prophet (sws), it is obvious, were solemnized in a normal perspective and on customary footing. He first of all married a widow, Khadījah (rta), when he was about twenty five years old, while she was almost forty years old. For the next twenty five years, the couple remained happily married and the Prophet (sws) during this period was seen in the role of an ideal husband, something which he maintained throughout his marital life. At the death of Khadījah (rta), the Prophet (sws) was left with small children. Consequently, he married a widow, Sawdah (rta), then fifty three years old. The need for this marriage like the previous one, it is obvious, arose from perfectly natural needs.
In the year 622, the Prophet (sws) migrated to Madīnah as its undisputed ruler. His marriage with ‘Ā’ishah (rta) the daughter of his dear Companion, Abū Bakr (rta) was consummated two years later. The marriage had been legally solemnized a couple of years before migration. It seems that this marriage was, in fact, a divine selection, for the services rendered by ‘Ā’ishah (rta) for the cause of Islam stand unparalleled. She was, perhaps, the greatest authority on Islam after the Prophet (sws). All the illustrious Companions of the Prophet (sws) consulted her for religious guidance. The Prophet’s marriage with ‘Ā’ishah (rta) and later with Hafsah (rta) daughter of ‘Umar (rta), also proved instrumental in the strengthening of ties with his two close Companions. Within the first few years after migration, many Muslim women were widowed, particularly due to their husbands having been killed in the battles of Badr and Uhud. A large number of them including their children were left helpless. The opening verses of Sūrah Nisā’ came to their rescue and suggested a way out to deal with their plight. The custom of polygamy which was prevalent in Arabia was utilized to solve this problem. The Qur’ān urged the Muslims to marry them if they could be just to all their wives and at the same time this number was not to exceed four. Since the Prophet (sws) was to set an example in this regard, he took the lead and married two widows Zaynab bint Khuzaymah (rta) and Hafsah binti ‘Umar (rta). At this stage, he had four wives ‘Ā’ishah (rta), Sawdah (rta), Hafsah (rta) and Zaynab binti Khuzaymah (rta). A few months later, Zaynab bint Khuzaymah (rta) died and the Prophet (sws) married Umm-i Salamah (rta) whose husband had been martyred in the battle of Uhud. Her deceased husband Abū Salamah (rta) had rendered meritorious services for the cause of Islam.
The Prophet (sws), while discharging his duties as the final Nabī, next married Zaynab bint Jahsh (rta) in the fifth year after migration. The reason for this marriage must be understood in the light of some important details: Islam inherited the inhuman institution of slavery. There were scores of slave-men and slave-women in every house. Instantly freeing them, it is clear, would have resulted in a lot of social and economic problems. Islam, therefore, adopted a gradual methodology to do away with slavery. It undertook various measures in this regard. However, freeing these slaves was not the only problem which was to be tackled. An even more important problem was to blend and graft them within the normal social structure of the society once they had been set free. Keeping in view the great sense of superiority the Arabs had over slaves, this was an extremely uphill task. Consequently, the Prophet (sws) in order to make them acceptable as normal members of a society took a very radical step. He persuaded his cousin sister Zaynab bint Jahsh (rta) to marry Zayd ibn al-Hārithah (rta), a slave boy he had set free and brought up as a son. The marriage took place, but, unfortunately, it could not continue due to certain reasons and Zayd (rta) had to divorce his wife. After this unfortunate dissolution of marriage, the only thing which could console Zaynab (rta) was if the Prophet (sws) married her. Furthermore, it was necessary to reform a social custom concerning some erroneous concepts about an adopted son. According to this custom, the Arabs regarded the adopted son as the real son in all respects. This, of course, is against human nature and as such had to be abrogated. However, as a social custom, it was so deeply rooted in the Arab society that it could only be the Prophet’s personality which could abolish it. Consequently, on the Almighty’s bidding, the Prophet (sws) married her to sympathize with her and to reform this custom.
Also, with this marriage, the normal law of having four wives was extended by the Almighty for the Prophet (sws) so that he could effectively discharge his responsibilities as a nabī and a rasūl.
The Qur’ān says:
يَاأَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ إِنَّا أَحْلَلْنَا لَكَ أَزْوَاجَكَ اللَّاتِي آتَيْتَ أُجُورَهُنَّ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ يَمِينُكَ مِمَّا أَفَاءَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكَ وَبَنَاتِ عَمِّكَ وَبَنَاتِ عَمَّاتِكَ وَبَنَاتِ خَالِكَ وَبَنَاتِ خَالَاتِكَ اللَّاتِي هَاجَرْنَ مَعَكَ وَامْرَأَةً مُؤْمِنَةً إِنْ وَهَبَتْ نَفْسَهَا لِلنَّبِيِّ إِنْ أَرَادَ النَّبِيُّ أَنْ يَسْتَنكِحَهَا خَالِصَةً لَكَ مِنْ دُونِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ قَدْ عَلِمْنَا مَا فَرَضْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ فِي أَزْوَاجِهِمْ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ لِكَيْلَا يَكُونَ عَلَيْكَ حَرَجٌ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًاتُرْجِي مَنْ تَشَاءُ مِنْهُنَّ وَتُؤْوِي إِلَيْكَ مَنْ تَشَاءُ وَمَنْ ابْتَغَيْتَ مِمَّنْ عَزَلْتَ فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْكَ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَنْ تَقَرَّ أَعْيُنُهُنَّ وَلَا يَحْزَنَّ وَيَرْضِيْْنَ بِمَا آتَيْتَهُنَّ كُلُّهُنَّ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مَا فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَلِيمًا لَا يَحِلُّ لَكَ النِّسَاءُ مِنْ بَعْدُ وَلَا أَنْ تَبَدَّلَ بِهِنَّ مِنْ أَزْوَاجٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكَ حُسْنُهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا مَلَكَتْ يَمِينُكَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ رَقِيبًا(33:50-52)
O Prophet! We have made lawful to you the wives whom you have paid their dowers and free women whom [you have gained in a military campaign] and the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts and the daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts who migrated [fromMakkah] with you and any believing woman who gifts her soul to the Prophet on the condition that the Prophet wishes to marry her. This directive is specifically for you alone and not for the believers. We very well know what We have imposed on them as obligations regarding their wives and slave girls – [a special directive for you] so that that there be no difficulty for you [in discharging your duties] and [and in case of any blemish], Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. You have the authority to keep any of them away from you and keep any of them near you and it is lawful for you to bring any of them near you whom you have kept away. There is no blame on you in this regard. This [explanation] is more proper so that they be contented and not be sorrowful – and feel satisfied with whatever you give them. And Allah knows what is in your hearts and Allah is All-Knowing and Most Forbearing. All other women besides these are not lawful for you nor can you change them for other wives, even though their beauty attracts you. Slave-girlshowever [are still] allowed to you. And [in reality] Allah does watch over all things. (33:50-52)
While analyzing the statutes on which this group of directives is based, Ghāmidī writes:
Firstly, after contracting marriage with Zaynab (rta), the Prophet (sws) could marry further for the following objectives:
i. To honour free women who were caught as captives in some military campaign.
ii. To show kind-heartedness to women who wanted to marry him just for the sake of associating themselves with him, and for this they were ready to gift themselves to him.
iii. To console and sympathize with his maternal or paternal cousin sisters who had migrated with him from Makkah and left their houses and relatives merely to support and back him.
Secondly, since these marriages of the Prophet (sws) were to be contracted only to fulfil certain religious obligations, he was not required to deal equally between the wives.
Thirdly, except for the women specified, he was prohibited to marry any other lady; he could also not divorce any of his wives nor bring a new one in her place however much he liked her.
Consequently, the Prophet (sws) married Juwayriyah (rta) for the first objective outlined above, Maymūnah (rta) for the second and Umm-i Habībah (rta) for the third.
It is also pointed out in these verses that the wives of the Prophet (sws) were the mothers of the believers; consequently, marriage to them was categorically prohibited. No Muslim was to even think of marrying them after the Prophet’s death:
النَّبِيُّ أَوْلَى بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْ أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَأَزْوَاجُهُ أُمَّهَاتُهُمْ (6:33)
The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves, and his wives are their mothers. (33:6)
وَلَا أَنْ تَنْكِحُوا أَزْوَاجَهُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ أَبَدًاإِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ عَظِيمًا(33:53)
Nor is it right for you that you should marry his widows after him at any time. Truly such a thing is abominable in Allah’s sight. (33:53)
It is evident from this discussion that these marriage directives were given to Muhammad (sws) as a religious obligation in his capacity as a Prophet and a Messenger of God. He followed these directives and there was no element of personal desire in these marriages. Consequently, the need arose to make these directives an exception to the general ones given to the Muslims in this regard.