Muhammad was the founder of the religion we know today as Islam. Through the centuries, much has been written that is critical of Muhammad’s multiple marriages. It is estimated that he had as many as nine wives simultaneously. The reported total number of wives is at least twelve: Khadijah, Sawdah, A’ishah, Hafsah, Zaynab, Umm Salamah, Zaynab, Juwariyah, Mariyah, Safyyah, Umm Habeeba, and Maymunah (Brooks, 1995, pp. 77-88). The usual Islamic response to this criticism is that Muhammad did not form these marriages out of lust or a desire for sex. Rather, the marriages were due to: (1) the desire to form alliances with diverse clans due to the swift expansion of Islam, thereby bringing peace with enemies by marrying their daughters; (2) the need to emancipate conquered clans by linking them to Muslim family clans; and (3) Muhammad’s desire to render benevolent assistance and care to widows (especially widows of men killed in battle), or to a displaced slave or captive (e.g., Pickthall, n.d., pp. 300-301). Muslim apologist Osama Abdallah offered the following justification for Muhammad’s polygamy:
Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him was a Messenger of God (filled with sympathy and mercy to people) and a leader for all Muslims. He didn’t practice polygamy for the sake of sexual pleasure at all. Most of his wives were either widows (older than him in age, too) or divorced women (also most of them were either older or same age). Only one of his wives was a virgin, and he only married her because her father was his best friend. He wanted to strengthen that relationship. And it was her father who offered her to our Prophet peace be upon him anyway.
If our beloved Prophet peace be upon him really seeked [sic] sexual pleasure, then he would’ve married young virgins from the Muslims. Back then, people loved Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him so much, that they would literally do anything for him. Certainly fathers would’ve given him their young virgin daughters if he wanted to. Many people offered him their young virgin bosomed daughters anyway to raise their families’ honor, but our Prophet never seeked [sic] that sexual privilege in life.
Because Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him was a smart political leader and a wonderful humble merciful true Messenger of Allah Almighty, he chose to marry the weak from his people to encourage the Muslim men to do the same; to create a balance in the Muslim society. Again, another emergency case that existed during Islam’s weak times that forced the Muslims (including Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him) to practice polygamy (Abdallah, n.d.).
Another defense of Muhammad’s polygamy is seen in the following general advocacy of the institution of polygamy [NOTE: “B.A.P.U.H.” stands for “Blessings and peace be upon him”]:
The ProphetB.A.P.U.H in his lifetime took eleven women in marriage. Majority of these marriages as described above were contracted due to cultural, social, political and moral necessity. In war when a large number of men are killed, the women outnumber men and in this situation, polygamy becomes a social and economic necessity. In case of chronically ill and infertile wife, polygamy prevents break up of marriage as the husband can contract another wife to have children. Polygamous instinct of men as compared to women is also recognised in science. Restriction of number of marriages to one for some men would most certainly encourage society to embark on adultery and prostitution. The modern world where such restrictions have been legally imposed is full of evidence to such evils.
It is universally recognised that laws, orders and limitations imposed on ordinary people are not enforced on special people chosen from among the people by themselves or by the Almighty Allah. Let us first take the rights of the leaders chosen by people such as kings, presidents, prime ministers, chief justices and general managers. They all enjoy special privileges, usually defined by the constitution or parliament of the country. When we do not object to these privileges given to ordinary men, how can we question the privileges given to the prophets? (“Polygamy,” n.d.).
Notice that the latter remarks justify Muhammad’s excessive polygamy on the basis of his special status as the prophet of Allah.
Of course, no one is in a position to know what was in Muhammad’s mind at the time these relationships were formed. Hence, no one can prove his motives to be either legitimate or illegitimate. If Muhammad’s polygamy is justifiable on the grounds that he was simply extending assistance to war widows, why not allow all Muslim men to take as many widowed wives as Muhammad? Even Muhammad could not accommodate all the widows of war. If their deprived and needy status was truly the issue, surely God would want all widows to be cared for in a similar fashion—thus opening the door to Muslim men besides Muhammad to marry more than four wives. The same may be said if polygamy is justifiable on the grounds of forming political alliances. Why not allow all Muslim men to assist with the strengthening of alliances, as well as the emancipation of conquered clans?
Regardless, these alleged justifications do not account for all of Muhammad’s marriages. A’ishah was only six years old when Muhammad claimed to receive dreams instructing him to marry her. He was past fifty at the time. What possible rationale can be offered to legitimize this intention? Much is made of the fact that Muhammad did not consummate the marriage at this point. Yet, it is admitted that he did so within three years when A’ishah was nine (see al-Bukhari, Vol. 5, Bk. 58, #234; Vol. 7, Bk. 62, #64). But whether he did so or not, the propriety of such a marriage, both in terms of the age of the child as well as the disparity in their respective ages, is appalling, repugnant, and, to say the least, unacceptable to the unbiased observer.
An even greater objection centers on Muhammad’s conduct with regard to the wife of Zayd, the freed slave whom Muhammad had adopted and reared as his own son. Seeing Zaynab, Zayd’s wife, in her home (some accounts say partially unclad) during Zayd’s absence, sparked the circumstances that led to Zayd divorcing his wife in order to accommodate Muhammad’s desire to have her. The shock waves that reverberated across the community elicited a string of curt, even stinging, revelations: (1) Surah 33:37, which declared the marriage of Muhammad to Zaynab as a “done deal”; (2) Surah 33:4-5,40, which clarified the previous revelation that forbade men from marrying the wives of sons by birth (4:23). The new revelation insisted that adopted sons were not included in the previous prohibition; (3) Surah 33:50-51, which granted special dispensation to Muhammad to exceed the Quran’s restrictive limitation of no more than four wives (4:3); and (4) Surah 33:53, which made three sweeping declarations. First, it chided visitors to Muhammad’s home for delaying their departure and overstaying their welcome. The guests who came to celebrate Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab lingered longer than the Prophet preferred, delaying his desire to be alone with his newest wife. Second, it required all future conversations with Muhammad’s wives to be conducted with a veil or curtain separating the guest from the wife. Third, no Muslim was ever to marry one of Muhammad’s wives. Also, henceforth, Muslims were to invoke blessings on Muhammad (vs. 56).
Once again, for the unbiased, objective observer, this event brings the credibility of Muhammad and his revelations into serious question. In the first place, the Bible consistently represents God as impartial and perfect in justice (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:17; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25; 1 Peter 1:17). The God of the Bible simply would not grant special dispensation to one man over others. He would not exempt one person from a law while expecting others to keep it. Prophets and inspired spokesmen of God in the Bible were never given the right to sidestep laws of God—let alone laws that all men are under obligation to obey.
Second, how can Zaynab’s divorce from Zayd be morally justifiable on any grounds? Observe carefully the wording of the Surah that speaks to this point:
And it becometh not a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His messenger have decided an affair (for them), that they should (after that) claim any say in their affair; and whoso is rebellious to Allah and His messenger, he verily goeth astray in error manifest. And when thou saidst unto him on whom Allah hath conferred favor and thou hast conferred favor: Keep thy wife to thyself, and fear Allah. And thou didst hide in thy mind that which Allah was to bring to light, and thou didst fear mankind whereas Allah had a better right that thou shouldst fear Him. So when Zeyd had performed the necessary formality (of divorce) from her, We gave her unto thee in marriage, so that (henceforth) there may be no sin for believers in respect of wives of their adopted sons, when the latter have performed the necessary formality (of release) from them. The commandment of Allah must be fulfilled. There is no reproach for the Prophet in that which Allah maketh his due (33:36-38).
One cannot help but be suspicious. This surah is worded the way one would expect it to be worded if it were produced by a man, unguided by God, who was seeking to justify his desire for another man’s wife. Likewise, the unbiased observer surely is stunned, incredulous, and dismayed at the lax attitude toward divorce. Absolutely no justification existed for Zayd to divorce his wife—except to make her available to Muhammad, under the guise that it was an unhappy marriage (see Pickthall, p. 300).
What a far cry from the teaching of the New Testament. Jesus declared in no uncertain terms: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9, emp. added). Jesus gave one, and only one, reason for divorce in God’s sight. In fact, even the Old Testament affirmed that God “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). The teaching of the Bible on divorce is a higher, stricter, nobler standard than the one advocated by the Quran. The two books, in fact, contradict each other on this point.
Separate from the question of Muhammad’s motives for contracting multiple marriages (whether to unite clans or aid widows), the more pressing question pertains to whether polygamy, itself, is a legitimate social institution—i.e., is it sanctioned by God? It certainly is true that plural marriages were commonplace in the Old Testament. Some prominent men of the Bible are said to have contracted multiple marriages, including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. Yet, this circumstance is simply reported (along with other violations of divine law) without any indication that God approved of it. One does not find the Bible stating explicitly that polygamy is God’s will. But that is precisely what the Quran does: “And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess” (Surah 4:3).
In contrast, quite the opposite is the case in the Bible. God ordained the institution of marriage at the very beginning of the Creation. He enjoined strict heterosexual monogamy (e.g., Genesis 2:24). Whatever human beings did throughout the centuries prior to Christ’s advent in their relaxation of the divine will on this point, God legislated one man for one woman for life. Disobedient man introduced polygamy into the world (Genesis 4:19). God tolerated (not endorsed) this sordid state of affairs prior to Christ, but with the institution of New Testament Christianity, God’s original intention for the human race received definitive reaffirmation and reinstatement: “Let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). Polygamy is sinful. Every New Testament passage that addresses the marriage relationship presupposes monogamy (e.g., Matthew 5:31-32; Mark 10:1-12; Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6; Hebrews 13:4).
Even as the church is represented as the bride of Christ (e.g., Ephesians 5:23-32), Jesus would no more have multiple brides than He would endorse men having multiple wives. In fact, God would be guilty of being a respecter of persons if He allowed men to have a plurality of wives, while disallowing women from having a plurality of husbands. Likewise, who could successfully deny that polygamy is damaging to the psyche and self-worth of women?
The Hadith confirms that Muhammad’s polygamy created jealousy, bickering, and bitter rivalry among his wives (see Brooks, p. 83). In fact, the Quran itself reflects this turmoil on the occasion of Muhammad adding to his harem the Coptic Christian slave girl, Mariyah. The bitter jealousy of his wives caused him to separate from her initially, only to reinstate her standing when the newly received surah commanded him to do so (Surah 66). The result was that Muhammad lived a month with Mariyah—undoubtedly spiting his other wives. Another surah then followed that reprimanded the wives and ordered them to make a choice as to whether they desired to be married to Muhammad (Surah 33). Was this special treatment extended to Mariyah, which punished the other wives by depriving them of their usual turn with Muhammad—a violation of the equal treatment clause of the Quran (Shorrosh, 1988, p. 65; cf. Lings, 1983, pp. 276-279)? Additionally, the consensus of the Islamic community has ever been that A’ishah was Muhammad’s favorite wife and that she received preferential treatment—a circumstance in direct violation of the Quran.
The religion of Islam and the Quran have a great many features that the Christian mind (i.e., one guided by the New Testament) finds objectionable. Polygamy is simply one among many such “difficulties.” The Bible and the Quran are in significant conflict on this subject.
Abdallah, Osama (no date), “When is Polygamy Allowed in Islam?” http://www.answering-christianity.com/polygamy.htm.
al-Bukhari, Sahih (no date), The Hadith, http://www.sahih-bukhari.com/.
Brooks, Geraldine (1995), Nine Parts of Desire (New York, NY: Anchor Books).
Lings, Martin (1983), Muhammad (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International).
Pickthall, Mohammed M. (no date), The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Mentor).
“Polygamy” (no date), http://www.answering-christianity.com/islam_polygamy.htm.
Shorrosh, Anis A. (1988), Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab’s View of Islam (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).
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