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Islam and Sex |
The Prophet

Islam and Sex is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 91, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

From fiery A’isha to Christian Mary and Jewish Safiyah, Muhammad’s domestic life has a profound and lasting impact on Muslim attitudes towards sex and marriage

Islam and Sex - The Prophet’s women

Islam and Sex - The Prophet’s women
The striking covered face of a Bedouin woman from Oman (above). Muhammad’s complex home life with his ten wives and various concubines heralded increasing restrictions on the lives of Muslim women.

Managing his empire and keeping peace among the Arabs may have weighed less heavily upon Muhammad than another more intimate problem, namely managing his harem and keeping peace among his wives. He ventured throughout the last decade of his life into what the devout describe as a series of diplomatic marriages, though the early Muslim historians regarded these unions as merely evidence of a healthy and robust virility.

Muhammad remarried soon after the death of his first and probably most influential wife, Khadeja, mother of his four daughters and the only wife to bear him children, though a Christian concubine would, in his advanced years, produce a son. Khadeja’s immediate successor was Sauda, middle-aged, dowdy, but well able to raise his daughters. With that done, he divorced her. But she pleaded to be retained so that she could be “numbered with his wives” on the day of resurrection. He agreed and reinstated her as wife.

Though his first step beyond monogamy came with his marriage to the nine-year-old virgin child A’isha, his taste thereafter was distinctly for previously married women. A’isha was followed by and forced to share him with eight other wives and two or more concubines. (Two other candidates for marriage shocked the faithful by turning him down.) Though A’isha remained queen of the harem, she would turn treacherously conspiratorial after his death, helping to create a permanent schism in Islam. Since she is also the chief historical source for the affairs of his inner household, most of the countless anecdotes about it are stamped with A’isha’s perspective.

A’isha’s first rival on the scene was his third living wife, Hafsa, daughter of Umar. Hafsa’s first husband, an early convert, had been dead for six months. Umar, keen to see her remarried, offered her to the recently widowed Uthman, who did not yet want to remarry, and to Abu Bakr, who preferred his one wife. Chagrined, Umar brought the problem to Muhammad, who offered himself as a husband. Purely, say the devout, to confer on Umar the same status already enjoyed by Abu Bakr. The early Muslim historians admiringly advance another explanation. She was eighteen, dark and ravishingly beautiful. A’isha, now thirteen, confessed herself instantly jealous. But as the harem grew more crowded and political, Hafsa became her ally.

Within a year, Muhammad had acquired two more wives, both from the tribe of Abu Jahal, Muhammad’s chief adversary slain at Badr, a family he was at pains to appease. But again the women, both widows, were young and attractive (although one, Zaynab, died soon after). For A’isha, a far graver challenge was posed by wife number five, the startlingly beautiful Um Salema, a woman of wild passion, about thirty, and already noted for her devotion to the faith. Her husband had been wounded at Uhud and died eight months later. She at first resisted Muhammad’s marriage proposal, then agreed, and he spent the next three days exclusively with her, a favor that Muslim husbands would thereafter confer on new brides added to their harems. A’isha, Hafsa and Um Salema became the Prophet’s favored companions on the march, each taking turns with him in his red leather tent.

A’isha was a forgetful young lady. On the road with the army, she lost a necklace, and the whole contingent stood by while she searched for it and found her camel had been lying on it. Since it was then too late to move on, the army had to make camp where there was no water for drinking, washing or for the evening prayer ablutions.

The necklace caused a worse problem on another march. Having lost it when she left the camp “to fulfill a need,” A’isha went back to recover it, and when she returned, found the column gone. Her slaves had assumed her asleep inside when they lifted her curtained howdah onto her camel, and still asleep when they reached Medina and took it down. The next morning, she arrived in Medina atop a camel led by a Muslim soldier who had fallen behind the column, and hastening to catch up, had come upon her.

The result was a stupendous scandal. A’isha, the gossips said, was unable to have a baby by Muhammad and therefore was seeking a substitute father. Such talk, says A’isha, reached all ears but her own. She could not understand it, she said, when the Prophet suddenly became cool towards her, scarcely comforting her even when she was sick. Then one day, she learned what was being said from another woman in the Arab equivalent of a ladies’ room discussion.1 “I could not even finish what I was about,” she wrote. “I could not stop crying until I thought my liver would burst with my sobs.”

When Muhammad consulted his aide Osama and his foster son Ali, the former vouched for A’isha’s unassailable fidelity. Ali was less reassuring. “Come now, Prophet,” he said, “there’s no shortage of women, and you wouldn’t have trouble finding a substitute.” That remark, later repeated to A’isha, would lead to his assassination twenty years later. Muhammad eventually terminated the gossip by denouncing it from the pulpit. The angel Gabriel assured him of his wife’s innocence, he said later.

But if A’isha was innocent, that meant the gossips must be guilty. The outcome appears in the sections of suras 4 and 24 of the Qur’an, setting out the penalties for adultery (death, as the Qur’an was subsequently interpreted), for fornication (one hundred lashes), and for slandering innocent married women (eighty lashes). Adultery and fornication, however, can only be established if four witnesses testify to it, and Muslim courts later declared all four had to have actually seen it taking place. Unless, therefore, it was virtually a grandstand performance, proof is impossible, and the law usually ineffective.

A’isha’s cousin Mistah and a servant girl got the lash for their slander. So did the loathsome poet Hassan, who had done much to spread the rumors. He is described as a propagandist, much favored by the Prophet for his verse, but otherwise dirty-mouthed, too cowardly to go into battle, fat, and given to combing his black hair in his eyes and dying his moustache scarlet. After the thrashing, Hassan went blind and suffered further at the hands of the now exculpated soldier who had saved A’isha. He went at Hassan with a sword, and wounded him grievously. The poet survived, however, and Muhammad compensated him with an estate outside Medina, and with a little Coptic Christian girl presented to Muhammad as a gift by the Christian ruler of Egypt. To thoroughly ingratiate himself, Hassan wrote a verse lauding the virtue, charm, wit and slenderness of A’isha, who heckled him as he recited it with jeers about his own absence of slenderness.

In the next affair of the harem, it was the Prophet himself whose virtue was brought into question. Zayd, the male Christian slave given him by Khadeja, though pug-nosed and physically repulsive, had proved exceedingly useful. He taught himself Aramaic so that Muhammad would not have to use a Jewish secretary, and was adopted by the Prophet as a son. Since in the Arab tradition an adopted son had the same status as a natural son, Zayd’s wife had the full status of daughter-in-law, which was much the same as that of daughter. To cohabit with a daughter-in-law, therefore, was incestuous.

Zayd had married Muhammad’s cousin, another Zaynab, who though in her mid-thirties had preserved a great beauty. Visiting Zayd one day, Muhammad found him absent, but Zaynab at home. On what happened next, the records disagree. Some say she dashed scantily clad from the room as he entered; others, that the wind blew aside the curtain to reveal her almost naked. Either way, the Prophet’s mental turmoil is much described. “Gracious Lord! Good heavens,” he said. “How thou dost turn the hearts of men.” When Zayd heard about it, he offered to divorce his wife so she could marry Muhammad. “Keep your wife to yourself and fear God,” the Prophet replied. Zayd divorced her anyway.

That the incident concerned Muhammad is made evident in the Qur’an where Gabriel, in Sura 33, berates him for fearing the condemnation of men. Hereafter, it says, the status of adopted sons will not be quite the same as that of real sons.2 He should therefore take Zaynab as his sixth wife. A great banquet in the mosque celebrated the wedding.

The diplomatic or social objective of his next recruit is obscure. The beautiful seventeen-year-old Jewish girl Reihana refused the role of wife and remained a concubine. It might have been argued that the union improved relations with her tribe, were it not for the fact Muhammad had just exterminated it. Wife number seven was also acquired through a conquest, this time the Prophet’s suppression of the Banu al-Mustalik, whose forces surrendered almost without a fight. Their two hundred women were among the prizes taken by the Muslim soldiers.

One of the two hundred was Juweiraya, about twenty, a pert and forthright young woman who was the chief’s wife. She was awarded to a Muslim officer who, considering her status, demanded nine ounces of gold for her return. Knowing no one in the tribe could afford that, Juweiraya asked him to take her promissory note. Refused, she took her case directly to the Prophet. “I had scarcely seen her before I detested her,” said A’isha, noting her husband’s fascination.

Rather than take her note, Muhammad had another idea. “And what,” she asked coyly, “might that be?” That he should pay the ransom and take her himself, came the reply. Juweiraya enthusiastically agreed. “Nobody ever did more for her tribe than Juweiraya,” observed A’isha. Since they were now related to the Prophet, the remaining prisoners were returned without ransom.

The eighth wife was the Jewish girl Safiyah, claimed after the fall of Khaybar–a marriage, the apologists explain, purely intended to pacify Arabia’s remaining Jews. It did little to pacify A’isha, however, whose share of the Prophet’s much-taxed physical estate diminished with each new acquisition. “How did you find her?” asked Muhammad, after wife number two had met wife number eight. “A Jewess,” replied A’isha drily, “like all Jewesses.” The Prophet was hurt, for this Jewess had become a Muslim.

Diplomacy is a more probable motive for Muhammad’s marriage to wife number nine, Um Habiba, a daughter of the Meccan leader Abu Sufyan. She was in her mid-thirties, the widow of a Muslim refugee who had died as a Christian in Abyssinia. At Muhammad’s request, she was married to him in absentia by Ethiopia’s Christian king, who provided ships to send her and the remaining refugees home. Negotiations were then proceeding for the capitulation of Mecca, where Abu Sufyan’s attitude would be crucial.

She did little herself to win her father over, however. “Don’t sit on that carpet,” she ordered Abu Sufyan when he visited her in Medina. “My dear daughter,” he replied, “I hardly know whether you think the carpet is too good for me or I am too good for the carpet.” She responded testily, “It’s the Apostle’s carpet, and you are an unclean polytheist.” She outlived the Prophet by thirty years, into the era of her formidable brother, Mu‘awiya, first of the long line of caliphs descended from her family.

Another marriage to emerge from the Meccan negotiations was the tenth and last, this one to Meimunna, sister of old Uncle Abbas’s wife, but herself only twenty-five years of age. Muhammad married her when he was under a deadline to get out of the holy city, then used the marriage as a pretext for prolonging the visit. “How would it harm you if you were to let me stay, and we prepared a [wedding] banquet, and you could come, too?” he asked the Qurayshite leaders. “We don’t need your food, so get out,” they replied, and he did, consummating the marriage at the first halt.

It was Gabriel who finally halted the Prophet’s matrimonial endeavors at ten. “No more women are lawful unto thee after this; nor that thou shouldest exchange any of thy wives for others, even though their beauty fascinate thee, excepting such as thy right hand may possess [i.e., slaves], and God observeth all things” (Sura 33:52).

He was also exempted from the daily grind of attending to each wife in turn: “Postpone the turn of such as thou mayest please; and admit unto thyself her whom thou choosest, as well as those whom thou mayest desire of those whom thou hadst put aside; it will be no offense to thee. This will be easier, that they may be satisfied, and not repine, and be all content with that thou gavest unto them” (Sura 33:51).

Reports of endless jealousies and tearful complaints recur throughout the traditions. The chief source of them was A’isha, to whom a distinct favoritism is always shown [though it must be remembered that many of the accounts of harem life originate with her]. She likened herself to an ungrazed and verdant pasture, much in contrast to the heavily worked pastures of her rivals, a reference of course to her initial virginity. Her vicious tongue once sent the Jewish wife, Safiyah, into the Prophet’s arms in a tearful rage.

Muhammad himself perhaps enjoyed the rivalry. In one revealing story, he holds a necklace before them all and says he will give it to “her whom I love the most.” They murmur that it will inevitably go to A’isha. Instead, he gives it to his granddaughter Umamah. A’isha’s reaction is not recorded.

The greatest crisis in harem affairs, however, was created by one of the concubines. This was Mary, Mariya in Arabic, one of two Coptic girls given Muhammad by the Roman governor of Egypt. (Her sister went to the repulsive Hassan.) She was young, delicate of feature, her fair-skinned face wreathed in curly black hair, and she immediately fascinated the Prophet, though she refused to abandon the Christian faith. She soon, however, gained a distinction not one of the wives could acquire. She became pregnant.3

The child would be called Ibrahim, the Arabic form of Abraham, and a special house was built for Mary that has been preserved until this day. The wives’ jealousy of the young Copt knew no bounds. Muhammad, who had produced no children in twenty-five years, doted on the infant, carrying him once to show off to A’isha. “Look how much he looks like me,” said the Prophet. “I do not see it,” she replied coldly. “What! Can’t you see the similarity, how fair and fat he is?” She replied that any baby would be fat who drank as much milk as this one. A special herd of goats had been established to provide him with milk.

But Ibrahim fell gravely ill at about fifteen months, reducing the father to abject sorrow. In deep and bitter grief he wept over the child’s sickbed, others gently reminding him that he had warned that grief must be controlled. He had meant, he sobbed, the sort of loud ritualistic wailing that attended Arab funerals. Grief felt from the heart was permissible of expression.

“Ibrahim, O Ibrahim,” he prayed, “if it were not that the promise is faithful, and hope of resurrection sure, if it were not that this is the way to be trodden by all, and that the last of us shall rejoin the first, I would grieve for you with a grief sorer than this.” The child died in his arms. Muhammad followed the little bier to the graveside, and lingered over it. A solar eclipse that day darkened the earth, ascribed immediately to the Prophet’s sorrow, but he repudiated the conclusion. The sun and the moon reflect the affairs of heaven, not earth, he said.

This was not the last that Muslim history hears of Mary. The story that follows has been curiously ignored by the Prophet’s biographers, but western historians like Sir William Muir (Life of Mohammed from Original Sources) and Maxime Rodinson (Mohammed) derive it from the curious 66th sura of the Qur’an. Muhammad, they say, carried on with his concubine not only in her little house, but even in the sacred precinct of the mosque. Wife number three, Hafsa, returned unexpectedly and found the Prophet in her bed with his concubine. Moreover, it was to have been her day.

Hafsa flew into a rage, threatening to tell the other wives what had happened. Her embarrassed husband implored her to keep the matter quiet, and promised he would see no more of Mary. Hafsa, however, was too angry to remain silent, and told A’isha, who, fevered with indignation, told all the others. All now became cold to him. The Prophet, apparently frantic, besought Gabriel, who told him to warn them all that if they didn’t behave themselves, he would divorce the lot. Thus, according to historians Muir and Rodinson, the outcome of this domestic spat became part of the eternal Qur’an. Devout Muslims must therefore recite the details:

“O Prophet! Why hast thou forbidden thyself that which God hath made lawful unto thee [i.e., continuing to sleep with Mary], out of a desire to please thy wives; for God is forgiving and merciful? Verily God hath sanctioned the revocation of your oaths; and God is your master. He is knowing and wise. And when he had acquainted her [presumably Hafsa] with this, she said, ‘Who hath told thee this?’ He replied: ‘He told it to me, the Knowing and the Wise. If ye both [i.e., A’isha and Hafsa] turn with repentance unto God [for verily the hearts of you both have swerved], well and good. But if ye combine with one another against him, surely God is his master; and Gabriel and all good men of the believers, and the angels, will thereafter be his supporters. Haply, his Lord, if he divorce you, will give him in your stead wives that are better than ye, submissive unto God, believers, pious, repentant, devout, fasting. Both women married previously and virgins’” (Sura 66:1 and following).4

This threat of divorce spread consternation not only throughout the harem, but also throughout the top echelon of the Muslim establishment, for the two women at the center were the daughters of Umar and Abu Bakr, his senior lieutenants. Al-Bukhari tells how Umar went to see the Prophet about it, three times being denied an audience, until Muhammad finally let him in. The Prophet would not divorce his wives, much to the relief of Umar who then unburdened himself of his own problems.

In his household, too, he said, the women were becoming unruly. His own wife had taken to answering back, declaring that the Prophet’s wives all did the same, and that their daughter, Hafsa, was in the same habit. Muhammad blamed the sinister influence of Persia and Byzantium. Affluence, he said, was making women harder to handle. To resolve all this, Muhammad served notice on his wives that he would not see them for a full month.5

When he returned to them, they said it was only day twenty-nine. He reminded them that it was, in fact, a twenty-nine-day month, and he recited to them a special revelation for the wives of the Prophet, enjoining them to live exemplary lives, refrain from exhibitionism and dedicate themselves wholly to God (Sura 33:28 and following). All was thereupon forgiven, and the incident was over–but not the problems. Harem intrigue, politics, rebellion and conspiracy would continue as a permanent aspect of imperial Islam for the next twelve centuries.

This is the end of the Islam and Sex category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 91, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Islam and Sex from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at