Ibrahim and the Wives of the Prophet

Effect of the Conquest of Makkah upon the Peninsula

Muhammad returned to Madinah after his conquest of Makkah, his victory at Hunayn, and his siege of al Ta‘if. He had convinced all that no power could match his power within the Arabian Peninsula and that no tongue might henceforth vituperate him or spread any false information regarding himself or his cause. Both al Ansar and al Muhajirun returned heartened with joy that God had crowned His prophet's endeavor with such success; that He enabled Muhammad to conquer the city of the holy Mosque, that He guided its people to Islam ; and that He inspired all Arab tribes to pledge their allegiance, loyalty and obedience to him. They all returned to Madinah in order to settle down in peace. Muhammad had taken care to appoint `Attab ibn Usayd as governor of Umm al Qura, or Makkah, and Mu'adh ibn Jabal as teacher of the people in matters of religion and in the Qur'an. This victory, the like of which the whole history of Arabia and all its traditions have never known, left a profound impression upon the Arabs. Whether lords and masters of land and cities, men to whom it had never occurred that a day might come when they would be subject to Muhammad or accept his faith as their religion, or poets who labored as mouthpieces of those masters in exchange for their patronage and protection, or, finally, simple tribesmen for whom personal freedom was till death the most priceless possession, the Arabs were all strongly affected by the conquest of Makkah, Hunayn and the siege of al Ta'if. To one and all, it now seemed that the poetry of the poets, the mastery of the chieftains, and the personal freedom of the tribesmen were all to no avail before the tremendous power of Muhammad and his followers.


Conversion of Ka'b ibn Zuhayr

Muhammad's success among the Arabs of the Peninsula influenced them so profoundly that Bujayr ibn Zuhayr wrote a letter to his brother, Ka'b, after the Prophet's withdrawal from al Ta'if, informing him that Muhammad had killed a number of men in Makkah who had slandered his reputation by spreading false rumors concerning him. Bujayr, after informing his brother that a number of these men had run away in all directions, advised him to hurry to Madinah to give himself up and repent. He assured him that the Prophet would not kill anyone who came to him repentent and warned him that unless he was prepared to do so, he should escape to the most distant place on earth to remain alive. Bujayr had indeed told the truth. Muhammad commanded the execution of only four persons, one of whom was a poet who had vituperated the Prophet severely, and two of whom had hurt his daughter, Zaynab, when with her husband's permission, she sought to emigrate to Makkah to join her father. Ka'b recognized the veracity and timeliness of his brother's advice; and, anxious not to spend the rest of his life as an outlaw, he hurried to Madinah, spent the night at a friend's house, and came to the Prophet in the morning at the mosque to declare his conversion and pledge his allegiance. In the Prophet's presence, Ka'b recited his famous poem which opened with the verse: "Great distance now separates me from Su'ad. My heart is orphaned and bereaved. It awaits the sacrifice which will ransom my beloved." The Prophet forgave him and he became a good Muslim.


Conversion of Zayd al Khayl and Others

Another consequence of the same influence was that the tribes began to come to the Prophet to pledge their allegiance. Such was the case of a delegation headed by Zayd al Khayl who came to Madinah to pledge allegiance of the tribe of Tay'. Muhammad gave the delegation a fair welcome, conversed with their leader, and was so well pleased with him that he said: "No Arab has ever been praised before me but that when I finally met him I discovered that his eulogy surpassed his reality, except Zayd al Khayl concerning whom I had heard less than I have found." The Prophet then changed the name of his guest from Zayd a1 Khayl (meaning literally, "increase of horses") to Zayd al Khayr ("increase of goodness"), and the whole tribe of Tay' entered into Islam under Zayd's leadership.

'Adiyy ibn Hatim al Ta'iy was a Christian who felt the strongest hatred for Muhammad. As he witnessed the rise of the Prophet and the Muslims and the spread of their dominion over the Peninsula, he loaded his goods, family, and children on his camel and joined his fellow Christians in al Sham. Indeed, 'Adiyy escaped at the very time that 'Ali ibn Abu Talib destroyed, at the Prophet's command, the idol of Tay' and seized a number of captives, including the daughter of Hatim and sister of 'Adiyy and a large amount of booty. 'Adiyy's sister was brought to Madinah and was held in the captives' quarters by the Mosque's gate. As the Prophet passed through the gate one day, she said to him from behind the bars: "O Prophet of God! My father has perished and my supporter has deserted. Be merciful to me, that God may be merciful to you." When the Prophet learned that her supporter was 'Adiyy ibn Hatim al Ta'iy, the escapee, he refused to talk to her. She tried once more, and this time she succeeded. In conversation, the Prophet mentioned to her her father's old prestige and noble reputation in pre-Islamic days. He praised him for the good name his hospitality had given to all Arabs. The Prophet then granted her her freedom, gave her respectable clothes and pocket money to satisfy her other needs, and sent her to her people with the first al Sham-bound caravan. Upon joining her brother, she mentioned to him the noble treatment Muhammad had accorded her. 'Adiyy was so impressed by the Prophet's chivalry that he returned with her to Madinah and joined the ranks of Islam immediately.

Likewise, following the conquest of Makkah, the victory of al Sham, and the siege of al Ta'if, the great and the poor, the tribes and the individuals, all came to Muhammad to acknowledge his mission and to convert to Islam. In the meantime, Muhammad remained in Madinah and, feeling reassured that God has given him victory, he enjoyed a measure of peaceful existence.


Muhammad's Bereavement

The measure of peaceful existence which Muhammad enjoyed was not to last. His daughter, Zaynab, was seriously ill. After al Huwayrith and Habbar hurt her when she attempted to emigrate from Makkah, Zaynab suffered from a miscarriage from which she never recovered. With her loss, Muhammad's only surviving child was Fatimah, for Umm Kulthum and Ruqayyah had passed away earlier. Muhammad was saddened by the loss of Zaynab. He surely appreciated her compassionate disposition and loyalty to her husband, Abu al 'As! ibn al Rabi`, whom she had ransomed after his fall as captive at the Battle of Badr with jewelry her father had given her on her wedding. It did not matter that she, a Muslim, sought to ransom her husband, an unbeliever; nor that this unbeliever husband had fought against her father in a battle in which, had the Quraysh been victorious, Muhammad would have surely lost his life. The Prophet praised Zaynab's good disposition and strong loyalty to her husband, and bemoaned her suffering from sickness during the whole time since her emigration from Makkah. It is no wonder that he felt bereaved at her loss. He felt the same deep concern for the well-being and happiness of others. It was his nature to sympathize with every sufferer, every bereaved, and to take the trouble to go everywhere within and outside of Madinah to visit the sick, console the destitute, and reassure the wounded. The hand of fate had here touched his own daughter. His tragedy was not the first of its kind, but the fifth, as he had previously lost two of his daughters and two sons. If he had found in God's favorable disposition toward him a measure of consolation, he surely well deserved it.


The Birth of Ibrahim, Muhammad's Son

Soon, Muhammad's loss was to be compensated. Mariyah, his Coptic wife, gave birth to a son whom Muhammad called Ibrahim after the ancestor father of the Arabs as well as of hanifism and Islam. Until that day, and since the Archbishop of Alexandria had presented her to the Prophet, Mariyah had the status of a slave. She did not enjoy the benefits of a living quarter by the mosque as did the other wives of the Prophet, "the Mothers of Believers." Muhammad had provided Mariyah with a second-story residence in one of the outskirts of Madinah, called today Mashrabat Umm Ibrahim. Her house, which was surrounded with vineyards, was where Muhammad used to visit her every now and then. He had chosen her for himself and gave her sister Sirin to Hassan ibn Thabit. Muhammad did not expect to have any more children as none of his wives except the late Khadijah had ever conceived, though some of them were quite young and capable of bearing children. When Mariyah gave birth to Ibrahim, the event brought to Muhammad, a man past sixty years of age, great joy and filled his heart with reassurance and jubilation. By giving birth to a child, the status of Mariyah was raised in the Prophet's esteem; he now looked upon her as a free wife, indeed, as one enjoying a most favored position.


Jealousy of the Prophet's Wives

It was natural that this change would incite no little jealousy among his other wives who continued to be barren. It was also natural that the Prophet's esteem and affection for the newborn child and his mother increased that jealousy. Moreover, Muhammad had liberally, rewarded Salma, the wife of Abu Rafi`, for her role as midwife. He celebrated the birth by giving away a measure of grain to all the destitute of Madinah. He assigned the newborn to the care of Umm Sayf, a wet nurse, who owned seven goats whose milk she was to put at the disposal of the newborn. Every day Muhammad would visit the house of Mariyah in order to take another look at his son's radiant face and to reassure himself of the newborn's continued health and growth. All this incited the strongest jealousy among the barren wives. The question was, how far would these wives be able to bear the constant challenge?

One day, with the pride characteristic of new parents, the Prophet carried his son on his arm and walked into `A'ishah's quarters in order to show him to her. He pointed out to her his great resemblance to his offspring. `A'ishah looked at the baby and said that she saw no resemblance at all. When the Prophet observed how much the child was growing, `A'ishah responded waspishly that any child given the amount of milk which Ibrahim was getting would grow just as big and strong as he. Indeed, the birth of Ibrahim brought such disaffection to the wives of the Prophet as would go beyond these and similar unfriendly answers. It reached such proportions that revelation itself voiced a special condemnation. Undoubtedly, the whole affair had left its imprint on the life of Muhammad as well as on the history of Islam.

Such far-reaching effects were natural in the circumstances. For Muhammad had granted to his wives a position hitherto unknown in Arabia. `Umar ibn al Khattab said, "By God, in pre-Islamic days, we never gave consideration to our women. It was only after God had revealed in their regard what He did that we started to do so. My wife came once seeking to dissuade me from doing what I had planned to do. When I answered her that this was none of her business, she said: `How strange of you, `Umar ibn al Khattab! You refuse to be told anything whereas your daughter may criticize her husband, the Prophet of God-may God's peace and blessing be upon him-and do so so strongly that he remains worried the whole day long.' Upon hearing this, I took my mantle and went straight to my daughter, Hafsah, and said to her: `0 my daughter, is it true that you criticize the Prophet of God and do so so strongly that he remains worried the whole day long?' Hafsah answered: `Indeed, I and his other wives do criticize him.' I said: `You had better be warned that this will bring both the punishment of God and the wrath of His Prophet upon you. O Daughter, do not be deceived by that woman who became too proud of herself because of her beauty or Muhammad's love for her.' I left my daughter and went to visit Umm Salamah, another wife of the Prophet and a close relative of mine. Upon asking her the same question, Umm Salamah replied: `How strange of you, O Ibn al Khattab ! Are you going to interfere in everything, even in the Prophet's own domestic affairs?"' `Umar continued: "With this I was utterly rebuffed and I abandoned every thought I had entertained." Muslim has related in his Sahih that Abu Bakr once sought the permission of the Prophet to visit him, and so did `Umar. Upon entrance into the Prophet's living quarters, they found him sitting still and silent, surrounded by his wives. After announcing that he was about to break the silence with a story which he hoped the Prophet would find entertaining, he said: "O Prophet of God, if the daughter of Kharijah, [As in the Sahih of Muslim. In the account of Tabari there is no mention of a wife of 'Umar by this name. In Ruh al Ma,'ani of Allnsi, the same statement by 'Umar names "The daughter of Zayd" instead.] i.e., my wife, were ever seen or heard asking me for money, I would surely pull her hair." The Prophet laughed, saying, "Here are my wives surrounding me and asking me for money." Immediately, Abu Bakr rose to his daughter `A'ishah and pulled her hair and so did `Umar to his daughter, Hafsah. Both Abu Bakr and `Umar said to their daughters: "Do you dare ask the Prophet of God what he cannot afford to give?" They answered: "No, by God, we do not ask him any such thing." Actually, Abu Bakr and `Umar had sought to see the Prophet because the latter was conspicuously absent at the previous prayer in the mosque, and the Muslims had asked one another the cause of his absence. It was in connection with this conversation between Abu Bakr and `Umar and their daughters that the following verse was revealed

"O Prophet, tell your wives that in case they want the pleasures of this world and its ornaments, you will give them their freedom and send them on their way in fairness that they may elsewhere seek what they desire. But if they want God, His Prophet, and the other world, then remind them that God has prepared for the virtuous among them a great reward." [Qur'an, 30:28-29]


The Wives Plotting

As a matter of fact, the wives of the Prophet went as far as to plot against their husband. Muhammad was in the habit of visiting them immediately after the mid-afternoon prayer. According to one report, he once visited Hafsah (or Zaynab, daughter of Jahsh according to another version) and paid her an unusually long visit. This made all the other wives jealous. `A'ishah reported: "Hafsah and I plotted together that any wife whom the Prophet-May God's peace and blessing be upon him -will visit will complain to him that she finds his breath undesirable, and will ask him whether he has eaten any maghafir (i.e., sweets with bad smells, and the Prophet could not stand bad smells). As he entered upon one of his wives, she asked him that question to which he answered: "No, but I have taken some honey at the quarters of Zaynab, which I will never do again." Having agreed to the plot of `A'ishah and Hafsah, Sawdah related that when the Prophet approached her, she asked him whether he ate any maghafir to which he answered, "No." She asked him: "Where then does this bad odor come from?" Muhammad replied: "Hafsah gave me a little honey, so then it must be that the bees that made that honey had picked it up from the blooms of the awful tree which produces the maghafir." When he entered upon `A'ishah, the latter repeated to him the question of Sawdah, which he heard again from Safiyyah, whereupon he vowed never to touch that honey again. Upon hearing the other wives' reports, Sawdah said: "May God be praised! We have deprived him of something he truly likes." `A'ishah, however, looked askance at Sawdah and asked her to keep quiet.

Since the Prophet granted to his wives such an unusual position at a time when Arab women amounted to nothing at all in society, it was natural for his wives to abuse the liberty which none of their peers had known before, a liberty which went so far as to enable any of them to criticize the Prophet so severely as to spoil his disposition the rest of the day. He often ignored some of his wives, and avoided others on many occasions, precisely in order to discourage their abuse of his compassion. Even so, one of them was so moved by jealousy as to exceed all limits of decency. But when Mariyah gave birth to Ibrahim, they were incensed. They lost all the composure and self-mastery which Muhammad had for years been trying to instill into them. It was for this reason that `A'ishah had gone to the extreme of denying all resemblance between him and his son, a denial which amounted to an accusation of adultery on the part of the innocent Mariyah.




`Umar's Reconciliation of the Prophet and His Wives

At the end of the month during which Muhammad vowed to separate himself from his wives, the Muslims were despondent over the prospect of Muhammad's domestic affairs. Many signs of dejection and sorrow were apparent on their faces as they gathered in the mosque. `Umar ibn al Khattab sought out the Prophet in his isolation. He went to the storeroom and called out to his servant, Rabah, asking for permission to enter. Rabah went in to speak to the Prophet but came out silent, a sign that Muhammad did not wish to see anyone. `Umar asked once more. Once more Rabah went in and came out silent. At this, `Umar raised his voice that the Prophet might hear and, repeating his request for an audience, said: "O Rabah, seek permission for me to see the Prophet of God. I fear that he thinks that I have come to intercede for my daughter, Hafsah. By God, if he were to ask me to strike off her head, I would do so without hesitation." The Prophet then permitted him to enter. He came in, sat down as his eyes roved around the room, and began to cry. Muhammad asked him why he was crying. Actually `Umar cried out of severe shock at seeing the Prophet lying on the only piece of furniture in the room, the miserable straw mat, whose pattern of weaving had imprinted itself on the Prophet's side. He cried out of compassion for the Prophet's isolation in a room absolutely empty except for a little barley, a skin, and a small container of water. After hearing `Umar's explanation, Muhammad taught him a lesson on the necessity of renouncing the pleasures of the world in order to achieve inner peace. `Umar then said: "O Prophet of God, what difficulties do your wives present? If you have truly lost them through divorce, you still have God, His angels Jibril and Mikhail, Abu Bakr and me, and all the Muslims on your side." He kept on talking to the Prophet in this vein until the latter felt pleased and even smiled. As the Prophet's mood changed for the better, `Umar told him about the despondency of the Muslims gathered in the mosque and their bemoaning of his separation from his wives. The Prophet explained that he had not divorced his wives but that he meant only to teach them a lesson. `Umar immediately asked for and was granted permission to inform the Muslims waiting in the mosque. He hurried thither to announce the good news that the Prophet of God-May God's peace and blessing be upon him -had not divorced his wives. It was in connection with this incident that the following verses of the Qur'an were revealed

"O Prophet, why do you forbid yourself that which God has made legitimate for you, namely, to seek to please your wives? God is certainly compassionate and merciful. God has made it legitimate for you to release yourself from your vows. He is your Lord, and He is the All-Wise and All-Knowing. The Prophet had intimated information to one of his wives, but she did not keep the secret. When God brought knowledge to the Prophet of her insincerity, and the Prophet blamed her for it, her asking who had told him the news thus divulged her secret. The Prophet answered that God, the All-Knowing and Omniscient, had informed him of the deed. If the insincere wife and her insincere confidante were to repent to God and purify their thoughts, then they would be forgiven. But if they persist in striving against him, then God will compensate him with His friendship, with that of Jibril, Salih, the believers and angels, who will assist him in his plight. In case he should divorce his wives, God might even replace them with better ones, with women who are Muslims, believing, pious, repentant, and virtuous, whether widowed or virgins." [Qur'an, 30:1-5] With this revelation, the whole affair was brought to a close. The wives of the Prophet, having regained their wisdom and common sense, returned to their husband repentant, pious, and confirmed in their faith. Once reconciled by their repentance, Muhammad returned to his wives and his domestic life resumed its peace-the necessary prerequisite for any man with a mission to perform.


The Judgment of Critical Historiography

In my opinion, the foregoing is the true account of the story of Muhammad's self-imposed isolation from his wives, of the choice he gave them, of the incidents which led to his isolation as well as of its causes and consequences. This account is confirmed by all the evidence of the books of Qur'anic exegesis and of Hadith, as well as by the accounts of various biographies. The fact remains, however, that not one of these biographies has presented all these data in the proper sequence, beginning with the causes and ending with the consequences in the manner we have done here. Most of the biographers have passed by this matter too quickly and too simplistically. They give the impression that they found the material too rough to handle. Some accounts have pondered the story of the honey and maghafir at length but have omitted to point to the affair of Hafsah and Mariyah. As for the Orientalists, they regard the story of Hafsah and Mariyah and the former's divulgence to `A'ishah of the secret she promised to keep as the cause of all that had happened. Their purpose is precisely to add to their already alienated readers further occasion to condemn the Arab Prophet by presenting him as a shameless runner after women. It is also my considered opinion that the Muslim historians are not justified in ignoring these incidents, or in omitting to examine all the data available with a view to giving them an objective interpretation. That is what we have sought to do here, though only in part. While the mistake of the Muslim historians was to underestimate the importance of these events, that of the western Orientalists is to exaggerate their importance, to violate historiographic precision, and to vent their Christian prejudice. Genuine historical criticism will not attribute to any man as great as Muhammad such a petty conduct as would be implied by referring his self-imposed exile solely to Hafsah's divulgence of a domestic secret to `A'ishah. In fact, Muhammad had nothing to hide since the women in question were all his own legitimate wives. Indeed, whatever the nature of that domestic secret, it is too insignificant to cause Muhammad to threaten to divorce all his wives. Genuine historical criticism would also refuse to explain these events as due to the "honey" affair. A man as great, forbearing, and compassionate as Muhammad, as all historians and biographers acknowledge, would not regard such incidents as justifying a whole month's isolation, let alone divorce. The critical attitude is satisfied only when all these incidents are arranged in such historical sequence as would not violate the causal interrelationships between them. Only such history-writing satisfies the requirements of objectivity and presents its data as elements in factual interrelationships acceptable to reason. The arrangement we have given these events seems to us to have achieved precisely this, and to accord perfectly with what is known of Muhammad's wisdom, greatness, determination and farsightedness.


Refutation of the Orientalists' Claim

Referring to some of the verses at the beginning of surah "Al Tahrim" quoted above, some orientalists argue that none of the holy books of the Orient make any mention of domestic problems such as those of Muhammad. I do not think we need to quote here the similar stories and accounts of other scriptures. Suffice it to mention here the People of Lot and their argument with the two angelic visitors of Lot, the story of Lot's wife and her vagrancies. Indeed, the Torah does tell the story of Lot's two daughters, of their deliberately intoxicating their father with wine that he might commit incest and save their seed, and how they then suffered the punishment they deserved. We may say that in fact, contrary to the Orientalists claim, all the holy books have told stories about the prophets and have given accounts of what happened to them so that they might serve as examples for the education of mankind. Likewise, the Qur'an tells many stories for the same purpose, stories which God related to His prophets for the best of purposes. The Qur'an was not revealed for Muhammad's benefit alone but for that of all men. Muhammad is a prophet and a messenger preceded by many prophets and messengers, some of whose tales the Qur'an took upon itself to tell. That the Qur'an should find it fitting to tell some of the stories of Muhammad's life and to give some account of his biography to provide examples for the education of Muslims, and that it should find it fitting to give aspects of Muhammad's wise, pious, and virtuous conduct so that the Muslims might find in him an example to emulate, is no different from the contents and purpose of any other holy book. Moreover, what the Qur'an reported about Muhammad is not different in content or purpose from what it reported of the lives of the former prophets. If, therefore, it is now asserted that Muhammad isolated himself from his wives, not for any single reason deducible from that fact, nor for Hafsah's divulgence to `A'ishah of Muhammad's legitimate love for Mariyah-a right which belongs to any man toward his free and slave wives-this would not be far from the truth. But it does expose the Orientalists whose claim stands on the shallowest grounds and whose historiography flies in the face of the biographical data common to all holy scriptures.