According to the nature on which man has been created, the real benefit of the institution of the family can be obtained through the marriage of one man and one woman. As a human being, the Prophet (sws) too kept this fact in consideration in his life and never thought of marrying again in the presence of his first wife. His first marriage was with Khadijah (rta) at the age of 25. She had already been married twice before and also had children from her previous marriages. She was a pious lady and was called Ṭahirah because of this noble trait. The Prophet Muhammad (sws) spent all his youth and middle age in her companionship. This marriage lasted for almost 25 years till Khadijah's (rta) death. At her death, the Prophet (sws) was left alone to discharge his obligations towards his household. It has been reported in narratives that after her death, a lady by the name of Khawlah bint Hakim directed his attention to marry again as this was his need. She is reported to have said:
يا رَسُوْلَ اللّٰہِكاني أراك قد دخلتك خلة لفقد خديجة …أفلا أخطبعليك
O God's Messenger! I see that you have secluded yourself after the loss of Khadijah … shall I not find a match for you?
The Prophet (sws) inquired if a match was available. She replied: "If you want, both an unmarried and a divorced lady are available." The Prophet (sws) asked: "Who is the unmarried one?" Her reply was: " 'Ā'ishah, the daughter of your dearest friend Abu Bakr. The Prophet (sws) inquired: "Who is the divorced lady?" "She replied: "Sawdah bint Zam'ah who has professed faith in you and follows your religion." The Prophet (sws) said: "Proceed to ask them." When she talked to them, both proposals were accepted. Since they were given on behalf of the Prophet (sws), he could not have refused. So, he married both but consummated the marriage with Sawdah (rta) only. She was a divorcee and of the same age as the Prophet (sws), and in a better position to discharge household responsibilies. 'Ā'ishah (rta) remained at her father's house. For four years it was Sawdah (rta) who stayed in the Prophet's house. It was then that he brought 'Ā'ishah (rta) home once Abu Bakr (rta) directed his attention to this. Once she came to his home, the Prophet (sws) decided to divorce Sawdah (rta). At this, she submitted that she had reached an age when she was no longer interested in intimate relations and that she would forego her rights in favour of 'Ā'ishah (rta). She then requested that the Prophet (sws) should not divorce her and that it was her wish that on the Day of Judgement she appear as his wife. At this, the Prophet (sws) revised his decision. So, for all practical purposes, after this it was only 'Ā'shah (rta) who was his sole wife in this situation.
In his capacity of a human being, it was only these two ladies who remained his wives. Apart from them, he never married any other woman in this capacity. Thus those who accuse him of polygamy and try to cast aspersions on his pious and abstinent life are devoid of God's fear in their hearts. This is because a person whose character had dared not been criticized in the first 25 years of his life, who even in the prime of his youth married a lady who was a divorcee and also had children, who spent almost 25 years in the companionship of a single wife in a society in which polygamy was a general norm and never thought of marrying a second wife, who undertook his second marriage only when his first wife had died and that too with a widow of 50 years, who married only one virgin in the whole of his life and even delayed bringing her home for many years so that the older wife already in his home who was brought to take care of the household does not complain of any lack of attention – about such a person only someone sick in his mind can think that at the age of 55 the Prophet (sws) suddenly became obssessed with multiple marriages, and to satisfy his lust altered a law he himself had made and began marrying other women one after the other.
There is no doubt that in the last eight years of his life he married eight more women, and a special law too was revealed in this regard. However, neither were these marriages contracted in his capacity of a human being nor because of his own desire or to satisfy lust. All these marriages took place in his capacity of God's Prophet to discharge the responsibilities of this position. All of them were conducted on God's directive or indication. Any upright person who has tried to understand this whole issue by disregarding all prejudices cannot deny this reality. Following are its details:
1. The care and upbringing of the widows and orphans of many Muslims who were martyred in the battles of Badr and Uhud became a collective issue faced by the small state of Madinah. The Qur'an therefore stated that if the relatives and guardians of these orphans thought that they would not be able to befittingly take care of their wealth and since it was no easy a task to be able to do it alone, they should marry the mothers of the orphans lawful to them. This appeal was made by God, the Lord of the worlds. It was but natural that the Prophet (sws) take the lead in responding to it. This is exactly what happened and the Prophet (sws) responded by marrying three widows: Hafsah bint 'Umar (rta), Zaynab bint Khuzaymah (rta) and Umm Salamah bint Umayyah (rta).
2. When the Qur'an directed the Muslims to eradicate slavery and raise the status of slaves in the society, the Prophet (sws) showed exemplary conduct in its compliance: he wedded his paternal cousin Zaynab (rta) with his liberated slave and adopted son Zayd (rta). This was an extra-ordinary measure and had far-reaching consequences. Unfortunately, this marriage did not last and Zayd (rta) decided to divorce her. This was a matter of immense grief for Zaynab (rta). This was because in the first place she had consented to marry a liberated slave to reform a social custom and later became a divorcee. Thus to comfort and solace her and to uproot the prevailing social custom of the prohibition of marrying the wife of an adopted son, the Almighty directed the Prophet (sws) to marry Zaynab (rta) even though at that time he already had four wives. In order to warn those who may raise an objection on this step, the Almighty stated in the Qur'an that since he was the final prophet, it was he who had to reform this custom. There was no one after him who could do so. The Prophet (sws) himself thought that perhaps marrying Zaynab (rta) was the only way out because of what had ensued between her and Zayd (rta), but he never expressed these thoughts. The Almighty revealed these inner thoughts and told him that the messengers of God did not care about the reaction of people while discharging their responsibilities. Consequently, the Prophet's marriage with Zaynab (rta) was proclaimed by the Almighty Himself in the Qur'an:
وَ اِذۡ تَقُوۡلُ لِلَّذِیۡۤ اَنۡعَمَ اللّٰہُ عَلَیۡہِ وَ اَنۡعَمۡتَ عَلَیۡہِ اَمۡسِکۡ عَلَیۡکَ زَوۡجَکَ وَ اتَّقِ اللّٰہَ وَ تُخۡفِیۡ فِیۡ نَفۡسِکَ مَا اللّٰہُ مُبۡدِیۡہِ وَ تَخۡشَی النَّاسَ ۚ وَ اللّٰہُ اَحَقُّ اَنۡ تَخۡشٰہُ ؕ فَلَمَّا قَضٰی زَیۡدٌ مِّنۡہَا وَطَرًا زَوَّجۡنٰکَہَا لِکَیۡ لَا یَکُوۡنَ عَلَی الۡمُؤۡمِنِیۡنَ حَرَجٌ فِیۡۤ اَزۡوَاجِ اَدۡعِیَآئِہِمۡ اِذَا قَضَوۡا مِنۡہُنَّ وَطَرًا ؕ وَ کَانَ اَمۡرُ اللّٰہِ مَفۡعُوۡلًا (37:33)
And remember [O Prophet!] When you were repeatedly saying to one who had received the favour of God and your favour: "Retain your wife, [in wedlock] and fear God." And you were hiding in your heart that which God was about to make manifest: and you were fearing the people, but it is more fitting that you should fear God. So when Zayd broke his relationship with that [lady], We wedded her to you so that there remain no difficulty on the believers in the matter of marriage with the wives of their adopted sons when the latter have dissolved their relationship with them. And this command of God had to be fulfilled. (33:37)
3. Right after this proclamation, the Almighty revealed detailed directives specifically for the Prophet (sws) regarding marriage and divorce. In these directives, the restrictions of polygamy meant for general Muslims were repealed but certain other restrictions were imposed on him that were not imposed on other Muslims. These detailed directives are stated in verses 50-52 of Surah al-Ahzab. The statutes on which they are based are as follows:
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.
i. To show kind-heartedness to women who wanted to marry him just for the sake of associating themselves to 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.
It was clearly evident from this that the Almighty wanted that the Prophet (sws) marry women who were afflicted with sorrows as result of accepting his call or were aggrieved as a result of some step taken by him or if any of them merely had a strong desire to be associated to him. This was an expression of great affection on the part of God.
Consequently, the Prophet (sws) while comprehending this divine will married Jawayriyah (rta) and Ṣafiyyah (rta) for the first objective outlined above, Maymunah (rta) for the second and Umm-i Habibah (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 was eternally prohibited for them. No Muslim could even think of marrying them after the Prophet's death:
اَلنَّبِیُّ اَوۡلٰی بِالۡمُؤۡمِنِیۡنَ مِنۡ اَنۡفُسِہِمۡ وَ اَزۡوَاجُہٗۤ اُمَّہٰتُہُمۡ (6:33)
The Prophet holds priority for the believers over their own selves, and his wives are their mothers. (33:6)
وَ لَاۤ اَنۡ تَنۡکِحُوۡۤا اَزۡوَاجَہٗ مِنۡۢ بَعۡدِہٖۤ اَبَدًا ؕ اِنَّ ذٰلِکُمۡ کَانَ عِنۡدَ اللّٰہِ عَظِیۡمًا(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 God'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. The above-mentioned regulations stated in Surah al-Ahzab cite this very exception.
(Translated by Dr Shehzad Saleem)
. See: Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad ibn Sa'd al-Zuhri, Al-Ṭabaqat al-kubra, vol. 8 (Beirut: Dar sadir, n.d.), 57.
. Abu 'Abdullah Ahmad ibn Hanbal al-Shaybani, Musnad, vol. 6, (Egypt: Mu'assasah Qurtubah, n.d.), 210, (no. 25810).
. Consequently, because of these restrictions, the Prophet (sws) could not marry Mariyah (rta) and she remained in his house as a slave lady.