A Study of Muhammad's Personality


1. Muhammad and his Wives.

For twenty-five years Muhammad was married to only one woman, his faithful and upright wife Khadija, but after her death he took a number of wives. The exact number is not certain but it is believed that he had thirteen wives in all, nine of whom succeeded him. The polygamy he practiced, and which he allowed to Muslims in general, has often been looked upon as a further weakness in his character. A brief examination of his marriages after the death of Khadija will assist us to draw our own conclusions.

Before the Hijrah Muhammad married Sauda bint Zam'ah, a widow with a son who had been among the emigrants to Abyssinia. She was over thirty years of age. At about the same time he was betrothed to Ayishah whom he married formally three years later in Medina. She was his favourite wife and a woman who played a large part in the early development of Islam. At Medina she was once left behind during a journey home and was brought back by one of Muhammad's companions, Safwan, who had emigrated from Mecca. A scandal spread in Medina as sinister accusations were levelled against the two but, after being estranged from her for a while, Muhammad received a revelation (Surah 24.11-20) upholding her innocence and reproving those who had falsely accused her. They were subsequently beaten for their slanders.

Ayishah features prominently in the Hadith. A great number of traditions are attributed to her and her opinion was widely sought in many matters as she was a woman of considerable intellect and knowledge. One of the early Muslims said of her:

After Ayishah Muhammad married the daughter of Umar, Hafsah, whose husband was killed at Badr. He then married Umm Salamah and Zaynab bint Khuzaymah in quick succession. Zaynab died, however, within three months of her marriage to Muhammad. His next marriage was to a young woman named Juwayriyah of the Banu Khuza'ah, defeated in an attack by Muhammad in the fifth year of the Hijrah. Her marriage became a ransom for the whole tribe who were released immediately. The young Ayishah, becoming patently jealous of the increasing number of wives being added to the household, commented:

Ayishah wryly concluded: I do not know a woman who was a greater blessing to her people than she (op. cit.). After this Muhammad married Zaynab bint Jahsh and a Coptic slavewoman Mariyah. More will be heard of these two presently, but it is interesting to note here that, out of all his marriages at Medina, Mariyah alone bore him a child, a much-loved son named Ibrahim, who died after eighteen months.

Following these two were the daughter of Abu Sufyan, Umm Habibah, who had also emigrated to Abyssinia, and a Jewess Safiyah, who lost her father Huyayy, her husband Kinanah, and both her brothers during Muhammad's assault on the fortress at Khaibar. His last marriage was to a widow named Maymunah. The only wife left out is another Jewess named Rayhanah as there is some doubt as to whether she ever married Muhammad. She was one of the women captured after the siege of the Banu Quraydhah, the Jewish tribe near Medina subsequently massacred for colluding with the Quraysh. A Muslim writer says "The story about Raihana becoming a wife of the Prophet is a fabrication, for, after this event, she disappears from history and we hear no more of her, whilst of others we have full and circumstantial accounts" (Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 82). The manner in which she was brought into Muhammad's entourage is given in this brief narrative:

Having just witnessed the butchery of her husband and all her male relatives, it is hardly surprising to find that "She had shown repugnance towards Islam when she was captured and clung to Judaism (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p. 466). There are many Muslims who defend Muhammad's polygamous marriages by saying that most of his wives were divorcees or widows. It should be remembered that the two Jewish women attached to him were only widows because Muhammad's followers had slaughtered their husbands just before they were brought into his camp.

2. Muhammad's Marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh.

None of Muhammad's marriages has evoked as much comment as that with Zaynab bint Jahsh. This woman was his cousin and had been the wife of his adopted son Zaid. Muhammad had arranged the marriage but it appears that it went sour after a while. A remark by Muhammad himself one day added to the deteriorating relationship.

Zaid then determined to divorce her but, upon approaching Muhammad, was told to keep her as his wife. Things did not improve, however, and Zaid duly divorced her. Shortly afterwards Muhammad himself took her in marriage, giving by far the biggest wedding-feast he had given for any of his wives. A scandal soon broke out because he had married the ex- wife of his own adopted son, something frowned upon by the Arabs as tantamount to incest. A revelation in the Qur'an soon justified the marriage:

The biography of at-Tabari suggests that Muhammad was visibly moved by Zaynab's beauty when he beheld her on this occasion and in many works this incident has led to a severe censure of Muhammad because it seems that he had caused the divorce between her and Zaid and had manipulated the situation so that he could marry her. This censure may well be unfounded. Zaynab was his own cousin and Muhammad had known her for many years and it is hard to believe that after all this time he was suddenly infatuated by an opportune view of her beauty. There seems to be much merit in the argument that Muhammad would have taken her in marriage himself at first rather than give her in marriage to Zayd (Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, p. 295).

Furthermore the marriage caused no rift between Muhammad and Zaid and he remained loyal to Muhammad until his death on the battlefield at Muta. "One of the greatest tests of the Prophet's purity is that Zaid never swerved from his devotion to his master" (Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 236). It is, however, hard to find a motive for the marriage if the attractiveness of this woman for Muhammad is denied altogether and it must be presumed that he had a deep spirit of affection for her. In his favour we must also remember that he steadfastly encouraged Zaid to keep her as his wife even when Zaid expressed a desire to divorce her. On the balance of probabilities Muhammad must be acquitted of the charge that he caused the divorce and took advantage of it to satisfy his own whims and desires.

As pointed out already, what shocked the Arabs was the fact that Muhammad had married within the customary prohibited degrees of relationship.

A Western writer says of the Arab scruple about the marriage of a man to his adopted son's ex-wife: This custom was such as Muhammed had every reason to abolish, and this he actually did (Roberts, The Social Laws of the Qur'an, p. 49). The Qur'an, in the verse quoted, states that God himself had ordained the marriage for the specific purpose of abolishing the Arab custom, but the writer just quoted views the matter as purely incidental to the predicament Muhammad found himself in through his marriage with Zaynab:

It is possible that Zaynab was the real pursuer in this case as she boasted constantly to Zaid of Muhammad's expression of favour towards her. After the marriage she continued in much the same vein as she boasted to the other wives of the prophet that her marriage alone had been ratified in heaven (Stobart, Islam and its Founder, p. 162). She was obviously very keen to marry Muhammad and found much comfort in the verse quoted where God is alleged to have arranged her marriage: "We joined her in marriage to thee". Muhammad apparently spent much time with her and it is hardly surprising to find his youngest wives, Ayishah and Hafsah, beholding the relationship between them with some jealousy (Zaynab was much older than both of them).

Muhammad loved perfumes and sweet-smelling spices but despised garlic and the like and this charge must have been keenly felt by him. One feels inclined to treat this tradition with some caution, however, as it may well have been invented, or more probably adjusted, to fit the permission given to Muhammad in Surah 66.2 to absolve himself from an oath taken to please his wives. As we shall see in the next part of this section, the verse has generally been taken to refer to a far more serious matter relating to another wife where the same consorts Ayishah and Hafsah again teamed up against him. It is not uncommon to find traditions in Bukhari's Sahih which are very similar in style to others in earlier Sirat literature but which neatly remove any details considered to be dishonouring to Muhammad. We will come across another in the section on Surah 53.19 to follow but at this stage, insofar as this tradition contains the germ of an incident in Muhammad's life, it does illustrate the spirit in which his youngest wives reacted to his subsequent marriages.

Muhammad's marriage with Zaynab nevertheless exposes him to censure when it is viewed from a Christian perspective. At the same time the Qur'an also exposes itself to critical review in its sanction of the whole affair. As we have seen, Surah 33.37 states that, even while Zaid was still married to Zaynab, it was the will of Allah that Muhammad should be married to her and he is reproved for encouraging Zaid to remain married when God had something else in mind.

This contrasts most unfavourably with the express will of God as stated in the Bible: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel" (Malachi 2.16). It is most significant that this decree is upheld in the Hadith as well:

One is reminded of the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees where the latter claimed that God had made divorce lawful. Jesus answered that, from the beginning, God had made one woman for the one man, adding "What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder" (Mark 10.9).

Muhammad married a woman divorced from her husband. Sarwar says that this was not just lawful in God's eyes but was his express will. This is extremely hard to believe of the all-holy God who hates divorce. On the contrary, Muhammad's marriage with Zaynab takes on a very different perspective and becomes exceptionally censurable when examined in the light of what Jesus said about precisely such marriages:

Surah 33.37, far from revealing that God specifically wills certain divorces so that his prophets may marry the wives of other men, appears to be a thoroughly unwarranted relaxation of God's express laws, also set forth very firmly in these verses:

Muhammad may not deserve the charge that he had a passionate desire for Zaynab and schemed his marriage with her, but his claim to prophethood does well appear to fall to the ground when this matter is considered in the light of the revealed law of God as found in the Christian Bible. Under that same light the Qur'an also appears to invalidate its claim to be the Word of God when it seeks to excuse the whole affair by alleging that it was all according to the predetermined will of God.

3. The Jealousy of Muhammad's Wives.

At least nine of Muhammad's wives survived him. The Qur'an only allows Muslims up to four wives at a time (Surah 4.3), but Muhammad was entitled to as many as he chose until the Qur'an forbade him to take any more (Surah 33.52). As already mentioned, polygamy, as sanctioned and approved in the Qur'an, has been regarded in non-Muslim circles as one of the weaknesses of Islam. Sensitive to any charge against the infallibility of the teaching of their religion and the practice of their prophet, Muslim writers invariably seek to justify polygamy. The Qur'anic verse allowing up to four wives adds the condition "If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one or (a captive) that your right hands possess" (Surah 4.3), and the argument usually put forward is that polygamy is perfectly in order provided the wives are given equal treatment. As Muhammad had many wives he is often strongly defended against the allegation that he could not have treated them equally. The surest way to discover the truth of the matter is not to ask whether he himself was persuaded that they were so treated, but to enquire from his wives whether they ever felt any jealousy for one another or whether any friction was caused by their very number in the household. One writer claims:

A study of the evidences shows that this statement is based on the author's idealism rather than historical facts for there are many traditions recording that Muhammad's wives were jealous of one another and not always pleased with him either. Indeed on one occasion he kept aloof from them for a while and threatened to divorce them all.

We have already seen that Ayishah and Hafsah expressed some displeasure to Muhammad over the length of time he spent with Zaynab bint Jahsh. Being the youngest of his wives, it is not surprising that they were usually at the heart of Muhammad's domestic problems. Indeed Umar, Hafsah's father, not only found that Muhammad's wives argued with him quite regularly but even suspected that his daughter envied Ayishah as well because Muhammad clearly regarded her as his favourite wife. He was prompted to enquire into the relationship between Hafsah and Muhammad by a sharp remark made by his own wife on one occasion to him:

It was Muhammad's custom to spend one day at a time with his wives in order but on one occasion the irrepressible Hafsah discovered him with Mariyah in her own apartment on the day properly reserved for her alone. A Muslim writer is refreshingly frank in his narrative of this incident:

He goes on to say that Hafsah could not keep her promise as jealousy continued to affect her disposition and that she discussed the matter with Ayishah. The only thing he omits from the story is the statement made by all the commentators who record it that the promise made by Muhammad was actually in the form of an oath. They add that Muhammad was later freed from this oath by a Qur'anic revelation:

Bukhari and others say that this verse refers to the incident where Muhammad was told that the honey he had eaten with Zaynab smelt like a bitter herb. One must take seriously the fact that the story about Muhammad's vow to avoid Mariyah's company in future is not recorded in the major Hadith and Sirat literature but only in later commentaries and is therefore founded on weak historical authority. This has prompted a Muslim writer to say that the whole story of Mariyah's intimacy with Muhammad in Hafsah's apartment on her day is absolutely false and malicious and that it is repudiated by all the respectable commentators of the Koran (Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 235).

On the other hand this story has come down purely through Islamic sources and could hardly have been widely accepted within the Islamic heritage if it had been invented. Unfortunately the Qur'an is somewhat vague at this point, saying only that the sanction to dissolve the oath arose out of the disclosure by one of Muhammad's wives to another of a matter of confidence (Surah 66.3) told by him to the first. This could refer to either story and, although Bukhari confirms that the two wives spoken of were the provocative young consorts Hafsah and Ayishah (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 408), this also does not help as it was these two who were the participants in both cases. A Western writer, however, makes a very interesting observation:

It is the Qur'an's treatment of the matter that makes it probable that the incident with Mariyah is really the one referred to. Firstly, if the oath spoken of was purely that relating to honey, it is hard to believe that such an issue would have been made of it in the Qur'an. One recent Muslim commentator notes the seriousness of the matter when he says "The sacred words imply that the matter was of great importance as to the principle involved, but that the details were not of sufficient importance for permanent record" (Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'an, p. 1569). The discreet omission of factual details in the Qur'anic passage, however, tends all the more to support the suggestion that a more sensitive matter was behind it.

Secondly, Surah 66.3 adds that Muhammad confirmed a part of the allegation made by the spouse and repudiated a part. Again, details are significantly omitted, but it is probable that Muhammad confirmed that he had been with Mariyah in Hafsah's apartment but denied having intercourse with her. It is hard to see how the confirming and repudiating of parts of the charge can be made to fit the somewhat petty story about the honey Muhammad had eaten with Zaynab.

Thirdly, the same verse states plainly that a matter purely between Muhammad and one of his wives was disclosed to another. This is inconsistent with the honey story as Ayishah and Hafsah were both well aware of the matter all along, having mutually conspired to mislead Muhammad. It does indeed seem that Surah 66.1-2 was a convenient revelation to enable Muhammad to break his vow not to go to Mariyah again. A Christian commentator says "From the Christian standpoint, he appears to have been guilty of breaking a solemn vow, and that in order to gratify unholy passion" (Wherry, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Qur'an, Vol. 4, p. 158). The Bible gives a very solemn warning about the taking of oaths:

If God sanctions the breaking of a vow by one of his apostles, how can we be sure that he will be faithful to his own promises? Vows and oaths are sacred things, but Surah 66.1-2 seems to undermine the whole purpose and value of oaths.

Shortly after this a timely revelation in the Qur'an gave Muhammad the right to abandon the fixed sequence he had followed with his wives up to this time:

Ayishah had openly complained of her jealousy towards those women (who are not named) who had "offered themselves to Allah's Messenger" (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 2, p. 748) and who gradually increased the size of the household as Muhammad under Qur'anic authority (Surah 33.50), duly took them as his wives (presumably Ayishah had at least Zaynab bint Jahsh and Juwayriyah in mind). As her own days to exclusively enjoy Muhammad's company grew further apart, her frustration naturally increased and when Muhammad claimed divine sanction to follow any sequence he chose, his young wife Ayishah, with a tongue as sharp as her wit, exclaimed:

It appears that his decision worked in her favour for the renowned commentator Zamakshari, commenting on Surah 3.49-52, says of Muhammad that he used to put off five temporarily in order to take four to himself, the four being Ayishah, Hafsah, Umm Salamah and Zaynab bint Jahsh (Gatje, The Qur an and its Exegesis, p. 91). Despite this it is clear that Ayishah possessed no small degree of envy for the other wives she had to share her husband with. Her caustic reaction to Muhammad's marriage with Juwayriyah has already been noted and, when Mariyah at last gave Muhammad a son at Medina, Ayishah was anything but delighted. When Muhammad brought the infant Ibrahim to her and proudly boasted of the likeness between father and son, she coldly answered "I do not see it". William Muir wryly says that she "would gladly have put Mahomet out of conceit with the little Ibrahim" (The Life of Mahomet, p. 412).

4. Polygamy in Islam from a Christian Perspective.

One cannot help feeling that Ayishah's expressions of jealousy are perhaps the best judgment that can be passed on the whole defence that polygamy is justified where all the wives are treated equally. She was the only virgin Muhammad married and, although most traditions say that Muhammad married Sauda before her, she openly claimed that she was the first betrothed to him after the death of Khadija. She said of Sauda (whom she held in high esteem):

If this was indeed so, then we need to appreciate the growing frustrations of a young virgin-bride seeing her husband taking other wives along with her in what must have seemed to her like an interminable procession of new weddings, apartments and the like.

The Christian Scriptures plainly teach that a husband is to regard his wife as his equal (Ephesians 5.33) and Jesus himself confirmed the divine decree that a man, married to his one wife, becomes one flesh with her (Matthew 19.5). When God saw that Adam needed a helpmeet he made but one woman for him, not four (or, worse still, nine). The point is that each man is not called upon to treat his wives equally with one another but to treat his one wife as his own equal. An equal relationship between a man and a woman cannot be shared with others. The woman is called to devote herself with unreserved loyalty to her one husband (Genesis 3.16). In the same manner the husband is called to an equal spirit of undivided love and devotion towards his one wife (Ephesians 5.25-31). It surely goes without saying that the husband cannot love his wife with an equal devotion when he has to divide his affection among a host of consorts.

Ayishah's frustrations and jealousies are the best proof that Muhammad could not treat his wives equally - if for no other reason that he did not regard her with the same total, undivided affection that she regarded him. She may have been his favourite wife but her grievances clearly were motivated, perhaps only sub-consciously, by the fact that she was not his only wife. Paradoxically, the fact that Muhammad singled her out as his favourite wife is further proof that he did not treat his wives equally. There is more than enough evidence in Muhammad's own marital affairs to prove that polygamy cannot ultimately be reconciled with God's perfect purpose for human marriage. It is no wonder that the perfect revelation of his will through the Gospel of his Son simultaneously outlawed polygamy. Muhammad had enjoyed a twenty-five year marriage with Khadija which was, in all respects, unimpeachable. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for his many marriages at Medina and one can only sympathise with the young Ayishah who obviously regretted that she could not enjoy the same undivided devotion from her husband that she willingly offered to him.

As said before, the Christian faith is the fullest revelation of God's perfect will for all men. Included in this revelation is a rejection of polygamy. As God made man to reflect his own glory, so he made one woman for the first man to reflect the glory of that man (1 Corinthians 11.7). Muhammad did well to preach and practice monotheism but he would have done equally well to preach and practice monogamy. To this day Muslim writers are on the defensive when seeking to justify polygamy. One says:

This argument falls down for reasons already given. The highest standard of spirituality was not revealed through the prophets in old covenant times but through the revelation of the new covenant in all its perfections as introduced by one who likewise far excelled all the prophets of old, Jesus Christ himself. Another writer is not quite as subtle in his apologetic for Muhammad - he says of the Zaynab affair Muhammad's violation was not one of a cosmic law but one of a social law, which is permissible to every great man (Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, p. 288). This is indeed a peculiar line of reasoning and one which exposes the writer's difficulty in justifying his Prophet's actions. Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived and his greatness did not give him the privilege of breaking God's laws but rather was proved in his perfect conformity to those laws in every aspect of his life. A more appropriate assessment of Muhammad's actions follows:

Far from the marriages of Muhammad being proof that he was the ideal husband (as Zain puts it), they rather are evidence of an inherent weakness in Islamic morality.

Although monogamy has become the norm in many Muslim societies today, this trend is not to Islam's credit but is rather a sign of the consciousness of God's real will for men and women and the best way in which a marriage can develop into a truly happy union. By taking to himself more than double the number of wives he allowed to his followers, Muhammad seems to have been something of a champion of polygamy rather than an advocate of monogamy and his tolerance of plural marriages, together with his schemes to rid himself of his personal enemies, negate his claim to be a true prophet of God. A Christian assessment of his character leaves him far short of the ideal - an ideal worked out to perfection in Jesus Christ - and the only conclusion to be drawn is that, despite his many qualities, he cannot be considered as the man God chose to be his best and final messenger to all mankind. That honour belongs to Jesus Christ alone.

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