Muhammad and the treatment of wives

Sam Shamoun

The Quran sanctions polygyny under the condition that a person treats all of his wives fairly:

O people! be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (to) the ties of relationship; surely Allah ever watches over you. And give to the orphans their property, and do not substitute worthless (things) for (their) good (ones), and do not devour their property (as an addition) to your own property; this is surely a great crime. And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two AND three AND four (mathna WA thulatha WA rubaAAa); but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course. And give women their dowries as a free gift, but if they of themselves be pleased to give up to you a portion of it, then eat it with enjoyment and with wholesome result. S. 4:1-4 Shakir

This passage is a bit perplexing and rather incoherent. After mentioning the property of orphans and the fear of not being able to treat them fairly the text then goes on to mention marrying up to four wives. Is this a general injunction meaning that a person can marry any lawful woman? Or is it saying that a man can only marry up to four women from among the orphans? After all, Aisha herself said that this reference was initially given to address marriages with orphans:

Narrated Aisha:

There was an orphan (girl) under the care of a man. He married her and she owned a date palm (garden). He married her just because of that and not because he loved her. So the Divine Verse came regarding his case: "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls…" (4.3) The sub-narrator added: I think he (i.e. another sub-narrator) said, "That orphan girl was his partner in that date palm (garden) and in his property." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 97)

Narrated ‘Urwa bin Az-Zubair:

That he asked ‘Aisha regarding the Statement of Allah:

"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls…" (4.3) She said, "O son of my sister! An orphan girl used to be under the care of a guardian with whom she shared property. Her guardian, being attracted by her wealth and beauty, would intend to marry her without giving her a just Mahr, i.e. the same Mahr as any other person might give her (in case he married her). So such guardians were forbidden to do that unless they did justice to their female wards and gave them the highest Mahr their peers might get. They were ordered (by Allah) to marry women of their choice other than those orphan girls." ‘Aisha added, "The people asked Allah’s Apostle his instructions after the revelation of this Divine Verse whereupon Allah revealed:

‘They ask your instruction regarding women.’ (4.127)" ‘Aisha further said, "And the Statement of Allah: ‘And yet whom you desire to marry.’ (4.127) As anyone of you refrains from marrying an orphan girl (under his guardianship) when she is lacking in property and beauty." ‘Aisha added, "So they were forbidden to marry those orphan girls for whose wealth and beauty they had a desire unless with justice, and that was because they would refrain from marrying them if they were lacking in property and beauty." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 98)

Basically, the way Sura 4:3 is formulated there are three ways of understanding it: If you fear not to be able to treat the orphan girls fairly (in what regard?) then marry (a) two, three or four of THEM (the orphan girls), (b) two, three or four OTHER women (i.e. NOT those orphan girls), or (c) two, three or four of ANY women. However, if the latter option was meant, one wonders what does this have to do with orphan girls. After all, the statement is an "if ... then ..." construction, and one would expect that there is an obvious relationship between the two. This relationship is clearly missing, unless one wants to claim that only those who are in danger to treat orphans unjustly are allowed to become polygamous, while all others have to remain monogamous. Even more: Why does this verse not even give the option of marrying only one woman, why does it start with the number TWO? Does that mean that all Muslims should marry at least two women, or only those who fear that they can’t deal justly with the orphans in their care have to marry at least two women? This injunction is very incoherent and raises more questions than it answers.{1}

Furthermore, is this reference suggesting that a man can have up to four wives, or is it saying that a man can actually have a total of nine wives at one time? In other words, did the author of the Quran use the Arabic conjunction wa (and) to mean the same as "or," i.e. that a person can have either two, three, or four wives at any time, but cannot exceed four? Or did he intend for his readers to understand by the conjunction that they can actually add up all these numbers so as to arrive at a total of nine wives at one time? The passage also left some other issues untouched as the following Christian source notes:

Ja‘far al-Sadiq was asked about this verse: "Why is the main clause of the conditional sentence far from the conditional article without obvious reason?" His response was: "A camel load between the main clause and the subordinate clause from the Quran."

Other Islamic commentators offered solutions. Al-Razi said: "Marry of the women who seem good to you" does not include men slaves, since a slave cannot afford to marry unless he gets permission from his master. Sura al-Nahl 16:75 says: "Allah sets forth the parable [of two men: one] a slave under the dominion of another. He has no power of any sort." …

Any slave who would be married without the permission of his master is an adulterer. So the slave does not fall under the verdict of the above verse.

Most Islamic theologians said that a slave can marry four wives. Malik b. Anas said: "It is lawful for the slave to marry four wives." Al-Shafi said that marrying four wives is the right of the free person only. He quoted two Quranic verse to defend his idea. He quoted, "What your right hand possesses" while slaves do not possess, but are possessed by their masters. He also quoted "Take it and enjoy it" (Sura al-Nisa 4:4) even though slaves do not enjoy what is given them, because it is the property of their masters.

Some Muslims claim that it is lawful for a man to marry as many women as he wants. They use the following rationale:

1. "Marry of the women that seem good to you" is an absolute statement which embraces all numbers.

2. "Two, three, four" cannot be particularized for these numbers exactly, because one man can marry this number of women, and more above it. The verse is clear: marry whatever you want of women.

3. The Arabic wa ("and") implies the total of these numbers, which is nine. It can also mean eighteen.

Muslims support their views with these historical Islamic events:

1. Muhammad died while married to nine wives. It goes without saying that Allah commands us to "follow him," which implies nothing less than "permission."

2. To marry four wives was the way of the prophet who said: "If anyone turns away from my laws, he is not of me." Anyone who breaks this "golden rule" in Islam is guilty, as far as marrying four wives is concerned (see al-Razi’s commentary on Sura al-Nisa 4:3).

Yet some Islamic theologians stress enumeration, which is based on tradition. For instance, Ghilan became a Muslim with ten wives. The prophet said to him: "Keep four and depart from the rest." Nawfal b. Muawiya became a Muslim with five wives. Muhammad said to him "Keep four and depart from one." (True Guidance: Comments on Quranic Verses [Light of Life, PO Box 13, A-9503 Villach, Austria; First English Edition, 1994], Part 5, pp. 79-80)

Traditionally, Islamic scholarship has sided with the up to four wives interpretation which, unfortunately for Muslims, Muhammad expressly violated (1; 2).

There is another problem with this passage. Sura 4:3 says that a man can marry more than one woman provided that he can deal fairly with them. Yet this next citation says a man will not be able to deal fairly with his wives:

And they ask you a decision about women. Say: Allah makes known to you His decision concerning them, and that which is recited to you in the Book concerning female orphans whom you do not give what is appointed for them while you desire to marry them, and concerning the weak among children, and that you should deal towards orphans with equity; and whatever good you do, Allah surely knows it. And if a woman fears ill usage or desertion on the part of her husband, there is no blame on them, if they effect a reconciliation between them, and reconciliation is better, and avarice has been made to be present in the (people's) minds; and if you do good (to others) and guard (against evil), then surely Allah is aware of what you do. You will NOT be able to be equitable between your wives, be you ever so eager; yet do not be altogether partial so that you leave her as it were suspended. If you set things right, and are godfearing, God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. But if they separate, God will enrich each of them of His plenty; God is All-embracing, All-wise. S. 4:127-130

Note the tension between these references:

  1. Sura 4:3 states that men can marry more than one woman provided they can treat them all fairly.
  2. Sura 4:129 expressly says that a man will not be able to deal fairly with all of his wives, and yet still permits him to have multiple spouses.

Hence, instead of telling the person to keep only one wife as a result of not being able to be fair with all of them, this reference basically justifies the unfair treatment of wives! It allows the man to have more than one wife even when he cannot deal justly with all of them, which expressly violates the stipulation of Sura 4:3 that a man cannot marry more than one woman if he cannot be fair. Because of this blatant contradiction, two different explanations have been proposed. One explanation is to suggest that Sura 4:129 revokes the permission to marry more than one wife. The other, more common explanation is to assume that fairness in Sura 4:3 refers to financial responsibility, that a man must provide for all his wives equally, whereas 4:129 is referring to a man’s inability to love all his wives the same. The late Muslim scholar Sayyid Abu A‘la Mawdudi sums all this up in his comments on Sura 4:129:

This means that it is not possible for a man to accord complete equality of treatment to two or more wives under all circumstances and in all respects. It is possible that one is ugly, the other beautiful; one is old, the other young; one is permanently sick, the other healthy; one is irritable, the other good-tempered. These and other differences are likely to make a person less attracted to one and more to another. In such circumstances, the Law does not demand that one should necessarily maintain absolute equality between the wives in respect of love, emotional attachment and sexual relationship. What it does demand is that if a husband does not repudiate marriage despite aversion for his wife, either because of his own desire or out of consideration for the desire of his wife, he should at least maintain a good relationship short of which his wife begins to feel if she is without a husband. In such circumstances, while it is natural that a person should prefer one wife to the other, this should not go to the extent that the woman remains, as it were, in a state of suspension, as if she were without a husband at all.

Some point out that in this verse the Qur’an in one breath stipulates justice as the necessary condition for plurality of wives and in the other breath declares it to be impossible. On this ground they conclude that the Qur’an has itself revoked the permission to marry more than one wife. There is, however, absolutely no justification for such an inference. Such an inference would have been justified had the Qur’an merely said that: ‘You will not be able to treat your wives with (absolute) justice.’ But this statement has been followed by the directive: ‘… do not allow yourselves to incline wholly to one, leaving the other in suspense.’ This leaves no grounds at all for the blind followers of Christian Europe to force an interpretation of their liking on the verse. (Maududi, Towards Understanding the Qur’an: English Version of Tafhim al-Qur’an, translated and edited by Zafar Ishaq Ansari [The Islamic Foundation, Leicestershire, United Kingdom, Reprinted 2004], Volume II, Surahs 4-6, pp. 91-92, fn. 161; bold and italic emphasis ours)

Mawdudi’s response failed to consider that Sura 4:3 makes no such qualification since it rather emphatically states that the condition for having multiple wives is fair treatment for all.

Moreover, many people are not aware that Sura 4:128-30 was addressing Muhammad’s failure as a husband, specifically in reference to his treatment of Sauda bint Zam’ah, who was one of his first wives after Khadijah’s death. Muhammad decided to divorce and desert her when she had become old and was no longer attractive. Renowned Sunni commentator Ibn Kathir wrote regarding this Sura:

Making peace is better than separation. An example of such peace can be felt in the story of Sawdah bint Zam’ah who WHEN SHE BECAME AGED, THE PROPHET WANTED TO DIVORCE HER, but she made peace with him by offering the night he used to spend with her to A'isha so that he would keep her. The Prophet accepted such terms and kept her.

Abu Dawud At-Tayalisi recorded that Ibn ‘Abbas said, "Sawdah feared that the Messenger of Allah might divorce her and she said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! Do not divorce me; give my day to ‘A'ishah.’ And he did…

In the Two Sahihs, it is recorded that ‘A’ishah said that when Sawdah bint Zam'ah BECAME OLD, she forfeited her day to ‘A’ishah and the Prophet used to spend Sawdah's night with 'A'ishah

<And making peace is better>. IT REFERS TO THE WIFE RELINQUISHING SOME OF HER MARITAL RIGHTS and his acceptance of the offer. Such compromise is better than total divorce, as the Prophet did when retained Sawdah bint Zam'ah. By doing so, the Prophet set an example for his Ummah to follow as it is a lawful act ... (the preceding citation taken and adapted from Tafsir Ibn Kathir - Abridged, Volume 2, Parts 3, 4 & 5, Surat Al-Baqarah, Verse 253, to Surat An-Nisa, Verse 147 [Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh, Houston, New York, Lahore; first edition March 2000], pp. 599-601, and Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Part 5, Sura An-Nisa, ayat 24-147, abridged by Sheikh Muhammad Nasib Ar-Rafa’i [Al-Firdous Ltd., London, 2000 first edition], pp. 193-194; bold emphasis ours)

One recent Muslim author says in a caption that:

Muhammad's personal and family life were not always smooth. His wives sometimes bickered amongst themselves and even once engaged in a petty plot against him. A'ishah, for example, disliked her Jewish co-wife, Safiyah, and insulted her periodically. Muhammad had to defend her status and honor a number of times and scold the youthful A'ishah. Hafsah became jealous of her co-wife, Maria, when she found her and Muhammad resting[sic] in her apartment one day. Sawdah gave up her allotted day with the Prophet WHEN SHE REALIZED HE WAS NOT REALLY ATTRACTED TO HER. As for the conspiracy, A'ishah agreed with two other co-wives to convince the Prophet that eating honey made him unpleasant to be around. When Muhammad vowed to never eat honey again, she privately repented to her co-conspirators. Though these incidents were not the norm, they demonstrate that the women in Muhammad's life were as human as the rest of us. (Yahiya Emerick, Critical Lives: Muhammad [Alpha Books, A Member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2002], p. 263; capital and underline emphasis ours) {2}

Commentator Al-Tabari stated that:

Umra bin Ali & Zaid bin Ahram said: second by Abu Dawud, said: second by Sulaiman bin Mu'ath, from Simak bin Harb, from Ikrimah, from Ibn Abbas, said: Saudah feared divorce by the messenger of Allah, so she said: Do not divorce me, and do not share with me! And he did, and this verse was revealed: And if a woman fears ill usage or desertion on the part of her husband.

Muhammad bin Husain said: He claimed that this verse came down in reference to the messenger of Allah, and Saudah bint Zama'h who became old, then the messenger of Allah wanted to divorce her, but they agreed that he will keep her but give her day to Ai'sha. (Arabic source; translated by Mutee’a Al-Fadi)

Al-Qurtubi wrote:

In this verse there are four issues: the first, Al-Tirmidhi told that Ibn Abbas said: Saudah feared that the messenger of Allah will divorce her so she said, "Do not divorce me and keep me, and give my day with you to Ai'sha." He did and this verse came down: "there is no blame on them, if they effect a reconciliation between them, and reconciliation is better." He said: this is a good and strange hadith. (Arabic source; translated by Mutee’a Al-Fadi)

The two Sahih collections provide additional corroboration for Sauda relinquishing her day to Aisha:

Narrated Aisha:
Whenever Allah’s Apostle wanted to go on a journey, he would draw lots as to which of his wives would accompany him. He would take her whose name came out. He used to fix for each of them a day and a night. But Sauda bint Zam’a gave up her (turn) day and night to ‘Aisha, the wife of the Prophet in order to seek the pleasure of Allah's Apostle (by that action). (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 47, Number 766)

‘A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported: Never did I find any woman more loving to me than Sauda bint Zam'a. I wished I could be exactly like her who was passionate. As she became old, she had made over her day (which she had to spend) with Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) to ‘A’isha. She said: I have made over my day with you to ‘A’isha. So Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) allotted TWO DAYS to ‘A’isha, her own day (when it was her turn) and that of Sauda. (Sahih Muslim, Book 008, Number 3451)

Ibn 'Abbas's Hadith, may Allah be pleased with them. 'Ata' related:
We were with Ibn 'Abbas at a funeral in Sarif, Ibn 'Abbas said: This is the wife of Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him); so when you lift her bier, do not shake her or disturb her, but be gentle, for Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) had nine wives, with eight of whom he shared his time, but to one of them, he did not allot a share. (Hadith number in Sahih Muslim [Arabic only]: 2660 (Source)

The Salafi scholars that write for cite references agreeing that Sura 4:128 referred to Muhammad’s mistreatment of Sauda:

Al-Tirmidhi reported via Sammaak from ‘Ikrimah from Ibn ‘Abbaas that he said: “Sawdah was afraid that the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) would divorce her, so she said: ‘O Messenger of Allaah, do not divorce me; give my day to ‘Aa’ishah.’ So he did so. Then this aayah was revealed.” Al-Tirmidhi said: “(This is) hasan ghareeb.” I say: there is corroborating evidence in a hadeeth from ‘Aa’ishah narrated by al-Bukhaari and Muslim, without referring to the revelation of the aayah. (From Fath al-Baari).

The hadeeth mentioned by al-Haafiz ibn Hijr (may Allaah have mercy on him) is in Sunan al-Tirmidhi, 2966, where it is reported that Ibn ‘Abbaas said: “Sawdah was afraid that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) would divorce her, so she said: ‘Do not divorce me. Keep me and give my day to ‘Aa’ishah.’ So he did so, then Allaah revealed the aayah: ‘… there is no sin on them both if they make terms of peace between themselves; and making peace is better…’ [al-Nisaa’ 4:128]. So whatever they agreed upon was permissible.” It is as if the last sentence was the comment of Ibn ‘Abbaas. Abu ‘Iesa said: this is a hasan ghareeb hadeeth.

Al-Mubaarakpoori said, commenting on this hadeeth:

‘Sawdah was afraid…’ This refers to Sawdah bint Zam’ah ibn Qays al-Qurashiyyah al-‘Aamiriyyah. The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) married her in Makkah after Khadeejah had died, and consummated the marriage there. The scholars agree that he consummated his marriage to her before he consummated his marriage to ‘Aa’ishah, and she migrated to Madeenah with him. She died at the end of the khilaafah of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab.

‘…was afraid that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) would divorce her, so she said…’ Al-Bukhaari and Muslim reported from ‘Aa’ishah that Sawdah bint Zam’ah gave her day to ‘Aa’ishah, so the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to give ‘Aa’ishah her own day and that of Sawdah. Al-Haafiz said in al-Fath: Abu Dawood reported this hadeeth (from ‘Aa’ishah): ‘The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) never used to prefer any of us over others in sharing his time (i.e., he was fair in dividing his nights among his wives, and each one of them had her allotted night). When Sawdah bint Zam’ah grew old and feared that the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) might divorce her, she said: ‘O Messenger of Allaah, my day is for ‘Aa’ishah,’ and he accepted this from her. Then concerning this and similar cases, the aayah was revealed (interpretation of the meaning): ‘And if a woman fears cruelty or desertion on her husband’s part…’ [al-Nisaa’ 4:128]. These reports agree that she feared divorce and so gave her day to ‘Aa’ishah.

Then al-‘Allaamah al-Mubaraakpoori said: The aayah may be explained thus: ‘If a woman fears’ means if she expects. ‘Cruelty’ means that he spurns her by refusing to sleep with her or by spending less on her than he should, because he dislikes her and wants to marry someone more beautiful. ‘Desertion’ means that he turns his face away from her. ‘There is no sin on them both if they make terms of peace between themselves’ means with regard to the sharing of his time and his spending on her, i.e., he should still give her something in this regard (sharing time or spending) in order to preserve the relationship: if she accepts, this is OK, otherwise the husband must either give her her full rights or divorce her. ‘Making peace is better’ means better than separation, cruelty and desertion. Whatever they agree upon between themselves is permissible. (Tuhfat al-Ahwadi Sharh Jaami’ al-Tirmidhi). (Question #2218: A man doesn’t want to live with his wife but doesn’t want to divorce her for the sake of the children; online source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Not only was Sauda said to be old, but other narrations mention her being overweight as well:

Narrated Aisha:
Sauda (the wife of the Prophet) went out to answer the call of nature after it was made obligatory (for all the Muslims ladies) to observe the veil. She was a fat huge lady, and everybody who knew her before could recognize her. So ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab saw her and said, "O Sauda! By Allah, you cannot hide yourself from us, so think of a way by which you should not be recognized on going out." Sauda returned while Allah’s Apostle was in my house taking his supper and a bone covered with meat was in his hand. She entered and said, "O Allah’s Apostle! I went out to answer the call of nature and 'Umar said to me so-and-so." Then Allah inspired him (the Prophet) and when the state of inspiration was over and the bone was still in his hand as he had not put in down, he said (to Sauda), "You (women) have been allowed to go out for your needs." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 318)

How despicable and cruel. The foregoing makes it embarrassingly obvious that Muhammad wanted to divorce Sauda because she had gotten old and had become unattractive, a point confirmed by the above hadith’s graphic depiction of her as "a fat huge lady." Sauda, in order to prevent this from happening, chose to make certain concessions such as relinquishing her day with Muhammad, to which Allah gave his divine approval!

Moreover, this handing over of Sauda’s visitation to Aisha meant that Muhammad preferred the latter and loved her more than the rest of his spouses. After all, Muhammad ended up spending two days with Aisha whereas all the rest of his wives only had one day to spend with him (with the exception of Sauda). Thus, Muhammad was being quite intentional in his unfair treatment of his wives and display of love.

A further indication of Muhammad’s inability to treat his wives fairly is seen from his separating them into two groups. One group of wives he would sleep with more often, while the other group he would put off having sex with them. He would only have sex with this other group whenever he wished, not when they wished. Noted linguist and commentator Al-Zamakhshari wrote the following regarding this issue:

It is related that the Prophet (refrained from sexual intercourse and) put off temporarily the following wives: Sauda, Juwairiya. Safiyya, Maimuna, and Umm Habiba. In so doing he used to grant them a share (of sexual intercourse) according TO HIS WISH. Among the wives whom the Prophet preferred to take to himself belong ‘A’isha, Hafsa, Umm Salama, and Zainab (bint Jash). Thus, he used to put five off temporarily in order to take four to himself. (On the other hand) it is related that, disregarding divorce and the selection concerned with it, the Prophet treated (all his wives) the same, with the exception of Sauda, who relinquished the night belonging to her to ‘A’isha and said (to the Prophet): ‘Do not divorce me but let me remain in the company of your wives!’… (Helmut Gätje, The Qur'an and Its Exegesis, translated and edited by Alford T. Welch [Oneworld Publications, Oxford England], pp. 90-91; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Even the wives noticed Muhammad’s partial and unfair treatment, being clearly aware that he loved one particular wife more than the others. This moved them to jealousy and strife:

Narrated ‘Urwa from ‘Aisha:
The wives of Allah's Apostle were in two groups. One group consisted of 'Aisha, Hafsa, Safiyya and Sauda; and the other group consisted of Um Salama and the other wives of Allah's Apostle. The Muslims knew that Allah’s Apostle loved ‘Aisha, so if any of them had a gift and wished to give to Allah's Apostle, he would delay it, till Allah’s Apostle had come to ‘Aisha's home and then he would send his gift to Allah’s Apostle in her home. The group of Um Salama discussed the matter together and decided that Um Salama should request Allah's Apostle to tell the people to send their gifts to him in whatever wife’s house he was. Um Salama told Allah’s Apostle of what they had said, but he did not reply. Then they (those wives) asked Um Salama about it. She said, "He did not say anything to me." They asked her to talk to him again. She talked to him again when she met him on her day, but he gave no reply. When they asked her, she replied that he had given no reply. They said to her, "Talk to him till he gives you a reply." When it was her turn, she talked to him again. He then said to her, "Do not hurt me regarding Aisha, AS THE DIVINE INSPIRATIONS DO NOT COME TO ME ON ANY OF THE BEDS EXCEPT THAT OF AISHA." On that Um Salama said, "I repent to Allah for hurting you." Then the group of Um Salama called Fatima, the daughter of Allah’s Apostle and sent her to Allah’s Apostle to say to him, "Your wives request to treat them and the daughter of Abu Bakr ON EQUAL TERMS." Then Fatima conveyed the message to him. The Prophet said, "O my daughter! Don’t you love whom I love?" She replied in the affirmative and returned and told them of the situation. They requested her to go to him again but she refused. They then sent Zainab bint Jahsh who went to him AND USED HARSH WORDS SAYING, "Your wives request you TO TREAT THEM and the daughter of Ibn Abu Quhafa ON EQUAL TERMS." On that she raised her voice AND ABUSED ‘Aisha TO HER FACE so much so that Allah’s Apostle looked at ‘Aisha to see whether she would retort. ‘Aisha started replying to Zainab till she silenced her. The Prophet then looked at ‘Aisha and said, "She is really the daughter of Abu Bakr." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 47, Number 755)

Umar gave this advice to his daughter Hafsa, one of Muhammad’s wives:

… Then ‘Umar went on relating the narration and said. "I and an Ansari neighbor of mine from Bani Umaiya bin Zaid who used to live in ‘Awali Al-Medina, used to visit the Prophet in turns. He used to go one day, and I another day. When I went I would bring him the news of what had happened that day regarding the instructions and orders and when he went, he used to do the same for me. We, the people of Quraish, used to have authority over women, but when we came to live with the Ansar, we noticed that the Ansari women had the upper hand over their men, so our women started acquiring the habits of the Ansari women. Once I shouted at my wife and she paid me back in my coin and I disliked that she should answer me back. She said, ‘Why do you take it ill that I retort upon you? By Allah, the wives of the Prophet retort upon him, and some of them may not speak with him for the whole day till night.’ What she said scared me and I said to her, ‘Whoever amongst them does so, will be a great loser.’ Then I dressed myself and went to Hafsa and asked her, ‘Does any of you keep Allah’s Apostle angry all the day long till night?’ She replied in the affirmative. I said, ‘She is a ruined losing person (and will never have success)! Doesn’t she fear that Allah may get angry for the anger of Allah's Apostle and thus she will be ruined? Don’t ask Allah’s Apostle too many things, and don't retort upon him in any case, and don't desert him. Demand from me whatever you like, and don’t be tempted to imitate your neighbor (i.e. ‘Aisha) in her behavior towards the Prophet), for she (i.e. Aisha) IS MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN YOU, AND MORE BELOVED to Allah’s Apostle. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 43, Number 648)

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas:
that ‘Umar entered upon Hafsa and said, "O my daughter! Do not be misled by the manners of her who is proud of her beauty because of the love of Allah’s Apostle for her." By ‘her’ he meant ‘Aisha. ‘Umar added, "Then I told that to Allah’s Apostle and he smiled (on hearing that)." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 145)

Muhammad’s wives complained about his preferential treatment of Aisha and demanded to be treated equally. Instead of acquiescing to their demands, Muhammad justified his preferential treatment by claiming that divine revelations came to him on no other bed except Aisha’s! If Muhammad was correct this meant that Allah himself distinguished Aisha’s bed from the rest, thereby implying that it was actually Allah who caused Muhammad to expressly break the supposed divine command of being fair with all of one’s wives.

More importantly, Muslims claim that Muhammad’s marriages were, for the most part, consummated for political reasons, to solidify relationships with his companions or certain tribes. Yet this is not the reason stated by some of the older Muslim references:

… Sahl at-Tustari said, "Women were loved by the Master of the Messengers, so how could we abstain from them?" Ibn Uyayna says something to the same effect.

The most ascetic of the Companions had a lot of wives and salve-girls and had much sexual intercourse with them. More than one of them disliked the idea of meeting Allah unmarried. (Qadi ‘Iyad Musa al-Yahsubi, Muhammad Messenger of Allah (Ash-Shifa of Qadi 'Iyad), translated by Aisha Abdarrahman Bewley [Madinah Press, Inverness, Scotland, U.K. 1991; third reprint, paperback], p. 46)

He said, "He made me love, in this world of yours, WOMEN and scent, and the coolness of my eye (i.e. my delight) is in the prayer," and then he indicated that his love was for women and scent which are worldly things for other people whereas his occupation with them was not for this worldly life, but rather for the life of the Next World because of the otherworldly benefits of marriage already mentioned and his desire to come to the angels wearing scent. Scent also encourages intercourse, assists it and stimulates it. He loved these two qualities for the sake of others and for the restraint of his appetite. His true love, particular to him, lay in witnessing the Jabarut of his Lord and intimate conversation with Him. That is why he made a distinction between the two loves and separated the two conditions, saying, "and the delight of my eye is in the prayer."

Yahya and ‘Isa were on the same level regarding the trial of women. However, there is an extra virtue in satisfying women’s needs. The Prophet was among those who have given the ability to do so and he was given it in abundance. This is why he was allowed a greater number of wives than anyone else.

It is related from Anas, "The Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, used to visit his wives in one hour of the day or night, and there were eleven of them."

Anas said, "We used to say he had been given the power of thirty men." Something similar was related from Abu Rafi’. Tawus said, "The Prophet was given the power of forty men in intercourse." A similar statement came from Safwan ibn Sulaym.

Salama, the female client of the Prophet, said, "The Prophet would go around in the night to nine wives and purify himself from each of them before going to the next. He said, ‘This is better and purer.’"

The Prophet Sulayman said, "I went around in the night to a hundred or ninety-nine women." So he had that capacity as well. Ibn ‘Abbas said, "There was the semen of a hundred men in the loins of Sulayman, and he had three hundred wives and three hundred slave-girls." An-Naqqash and others related that he had seven hundred wives and three hundred slave-girls.

In the hadith of Anas, the Prophet said, "I have been preferred over people in four things: generosity, courage, MUCH INTERCOURSE and great power." (Ibid., pp. 47-48; bold, capital and underline emphasis ours)

This reference unashamedly admits that the reason Muhammad was permitted to have more wives is because of his very strong sex drive!

The preceding factors present Allah as a deity who had nothing better to do than to please Muhammad’s desires. Allah’s primary focus, it seems, was to grant Muhammad his desires and wishes, an observation which even Muhammad’s child bride made. Aisha said by way of mocking:

Narrated Aisha:
I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah’s Apostle and I used to say, "Can a lady give herself (to a man)?" But when Allah revealed: "You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives), and you may receive any of them whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside (temporarily)." (33.51) I said (to the Prophet), "I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 311)

In light of all the data which we have presented, it is very hard to disagree with Aisha’s assessment of Muhammad’s special privileges.

Aisha also made an interesting comment which helps reveal her true feelings and the sadness she felt because of Muhammad’s conjugal favors:

Narrated Muadha:
'Aisha said, "Allah's Apostle used to take the permission of that wife with whom he was supposed to stay overnight if he wanted to go to one other than her, after this Verse was revealed:--
'You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives) and you may receive any (of them) whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside (temporarily).'" (33.51) I asked Aisha, "What did you use to say (in this case)?" She said, "I used to say to him, 'If I could deny you the permission (to go to your other wives) I would not allow your favor to be bestowed on any other person.'" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 312)

To summarize all of the problems we have noted:

  1. The Quran says that marrying two, three and (or) four wives is permitted provided that they are given equal treatment, otherwise a person should marry only one wife.
  2. It is not certain whether this means marrying up to four wives, or whether these numbers are to be combined in order to arrive at a total of nine wives.
  3. It is also not certain whether this refers to marrying orphan women, that a man can only have more than one wife provided that he chooses them from among the orphans. Or whether this refers to women in general, that a person can marry more than one woman irrespective of whether she is an orphan or not.
  4. The Quran further says that a man will not be able to treat all of his wives fairly in a context that is actually allowing a person to keep his multiple wives. This is clearly a contradiction within the Quran.
  5. Realizing this, two conflicting explanations have been proposed: (a) Sura 4:129 has canceled out the right of Muslims taking more than one wife, which implies that Sura 4:3 has been abrogated. This explanation is an indirect admission that these texts are contradictory.
    (b) Sura 4:3 is talking about providing equally for all of the wives, whereas 4:129 is talking about not being able to love all wives the same. The problem with this explanation is that the texts themselves do not make such distinctions. One will not find it stated anywhere that being just in one verse refers to providing financially for all wives whereas in the other passage it refers to loving them all equally. This interpretation is nothing more than ad hoc.
  6. Muhammad, whom many Muslims claim was the walking Quran, failed to treat his wives fairly thereby violating the express command of Sura 4:3. He even wanted to divorce one of his wives named Sauda on the basis that she had gotten too old and was no longer attractive to him, something which is quite disturbing to say the least.
  7. Allah justifies Muhammad’s neglect of Sauda by allegedly sending down verses sanctioning it. Unfortunately, this behavior by Allah’s "model for mankind" now provides a so-called divine sanction for other Muslims to mistreat wives whom they no longer find attractive.

Recommended Reading


{1} There is another interpretation proposed by a group of Quran-only Muslims. The writers at Free-Minds.Org claim that S. 4:3 is permitting Muslims to marry the mother of those orphans whom they have been appointed as guardians over:

You must be the GUARDIAN to these Orphans and caretaker to their inheritance BEFORE even considering Polygamy. It is not just for a man to just pick children off the street and claim that he will marry their mother. The man must be the Guardian to the children appointed by their deceased father or because they (the Orphans) are from his blood. ...

1. Orphans placed in our guardianship are to be treated fairly.
2. If we fear biased-ness or unfairness in treatment, we MAY marry their mother.
3. We MUST pay their mother her dowry as in the case of a normal marriage.

The keen reader can see the obvious problem with this exegesis since the verses in question make no mention of the mothers of the orphans! The word mother doesn't even appear in the Arabic text, yet the authors took liberty to insert this word in their version of the Quran in order to obscure this fact:

"You shall hand over to the ORPHANS* their rightful properties. Do not substitute the bad for the good, and do not consume their properties by combining them with yours. This would be a gross injustice. If you fear that you will not be equitable towards the ORPHANS*, then you may marry their mothers[sic]. You may marry two, three, or four. If you fear lest you become unfair, then you shall be content with only one, or with what you already have. Additionally, you are thus more likely to avoid financial hardship." (4/2-3) (underline emphasis ours)

The proposed explanation by these Muslims and their interpolations (more like willful tampering) to the text of the Quran simply provide further evidence of just how incoherent this passage truly is.

{2} The Council of American Islamic Relationships (CAIR) actually distributes this book free of charge for the asking (here). We encourage our readers to request their free copy of this book.


Awhile back Bassam Zawadi wrote a "reply" (*) to this specific article. Zawadi seeks to explain the rather incoherent structure of Q. 4:3 concerning the exact number of wives a Muslim can have at the same time by appealing to the Islamic expositors. Zawadi asserts that I normally refer to commentaries and that I am a big fan of Ibn Kathir, and therefore should have consulted him since Ibn Kathir supposedly explained the meaning of Q. 4:3.

There are several problems with Zawadi’s statements and his appeal to the Quranic exegetes to explain away the unintelligibility of Q. 4:3. First, I do not blindly accept or follow the opinions of Muslim expositors, especially when they are not deriving their exegesis from the text itself, but from later tradition which seeks to make sense out of the Quran.

This leads me to my second point. There is nothing stated by any of the commentators which adequately addresses the structural problems raised by Q. 4:3. They simply take their interpretation as a given and read that back into the text in order to explain the problems away. This is nothing more than a classic case of eisegesis, reading into a passage one’s own particular view or understanding.

This is not the only time the Muslim exegetes are guilty of this fallacy. For example, in trying to reconcile the contradiction between Q. 4:3 and 129 concerning the equal and fair treatment of wives, e.g. are Muslims supposed treat all their wives fairly or not, and if not then should they marry only one woman etc., Zawadi says:

Surah 4:129 is talking about men not ever being able to fair emotionally towards their wives. This is something natural. You cannot EQUALLY love two people. Even most parents would tend to love one child just a little bit more than the other while loving them all very much at the same time.


However, Surah 4:3 is saying that the person should be fair when it comes to things such as providing food, water, shelter etc. and spending equal time with them (unless they give permission otherwise).

He then proceeds to source commentaries to prove that this is the meaning of these specific passages. The problem is that this is not what the verses themselves say:

If you fear that you will not act justly towards the orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, four; but if you fear you will not be equitable (taadiloo), then only one, or what your right hands own; so it is likelier you will not be partial. S. 4:3


You will not be able to be equitable (taadiloo) between your wives, be you ever so eager; yet do not be altogether partial so that you leave her as it were suspended. If you set things right, and are godfearing, Allah is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. S. 4:129

The verses make no qualifications or define fair treatment or equitability in the manner proposed by Zawadi and his sources, i.e. being fair and just in one verse really means in terms of expenditure, that a Muslim must spend on and provide for all his spouses equally, whereas it means something completely different in the other passage, e.g. a Muslim cannot love all of his wives equally so he should do the best he can.

It is obvious that Zawadi and his references are again reading into these verses their particular understanding in order to explain away the gross contradiction between them.

In fact, how does Zawadi know for certain that Q. 4:129 is not speaking of expenditure much like he thinks that Q. 4:3 does? How does he know that Q. 4:129 is not actually saying that it is perfectly alright for Muslims to have multiple spouses even though they will not be able to equally spend or provide for all of them? Our question becomes all the more relevant when we read the verse that immediately follows:

But if they separate (by divorce), Allah will provide abundance for everyone of them from His Bounty. And Allah is Ever All-Sufficient for His creatures' need, All-Wise. S. 4:130 Hilali-Khan

But if they separate, God will enrich each of them of His plenty; God is All-embracing, All-wise. Arberry

Since the text speaks of Allah enriching these spouses in the case they separate doesn’t this substantiate our point that Q. 4:129 is speaking of expenditure? And doesn’t Q. 4:127 speak of the very same exact subject of Q. 4:3, specifically of the fair treatment of orphans?

They ask thy instruction concerning the women say: God doth instruct you about them: And (remember) what hath been rehearsed unto you in the Book, concerning the orphans of women to whom ye give not the portions prescribed, and yet whom ye desire to marry, as also concerning the children who are weak and oppressed: that ye stand firm for justice to orphans. There is not a good deed which ye do, but God is well-acquainted therewith. Y. Ali

If so doesn’t this contradict Q. 4:3 per Zawadi’s interpretation of this particular passage since the immediate context of Q. 4:129 is dealing with the very same issue of being fair or equitable with the orphans and wives?

Moreover, how does he know that one of these passages has not been abrogated by the other, i.e. Q. 4:129 canceled out the permissibility of having more than one spouse since it emphatically says Muslims cannot treat them all equitability? Or it may even be the case that Q. 4:129 is actually permitting men to have more than one spouse despite their inability to treat them all fairly or to spend on all of them equally. How does Zawadi know for sure that these verses are not further examples of abrogated texts?

But even this interpretation implies that the citations are contradictory, since abrogation is simply a tacit admission that there are verses in the Quran which contradict one another and so one of them must have been canceled out.

Zawadi tries to respond to my points concerning Muhammad’s abuse and neglect of Sauda bint Zamaah after he lost interest and was no longer attracted to her. He also links to an article which he erroneously thinks addresses my arguments concerning Muhammad’s failure as a husband. Since his points have been refuted in the following articles and rebuttals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13), there is no need to address them again.

Yet what makes this interesting is that Zawadi quoted a narrative which says that any person who fails to deal with his spouses fairly will come dragging one of his sides on the Day of Judgment:

… Allah's statement …

(so as to leave the other hanging. ) referring to the other wives. Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Al-Hasan, Ad-Dahhak, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas, As-Suddi and Muqatil bin Hayyan said that Mu`allaqah [hanging] means, "She is neither divorced nor married.''

Abu Dawud At-Tayalisi recorded that Abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allah said…

(Whoever has two wives and inclines to one of them (too much), will come on the Day of Resurrection with one of his sides dragging.) …

Since Muhammad failed to love and treat his wives fairly, and left many of them "hanging," this means that many of them were neither married nor divorced and that Muhammad will be dragging his side on the day of resurrection!

The third problem with Zawadi’s statements that he is rather inconsistent in the way in which he handles his very own sources. For instance, he will quote me concerning Ibn Abbas being a very important authority in understanding the Quran:

This is what Sam Shamoun says about Ibn Abbas…

Hence, the commentary of Abdullah Ibn `Abbas who is one of the Sahaba (companions) and Mohammed's cousin. His opinions are held to be above the opinions and commentaries of all other Sheiks who are not Sahaba. (Sam Shamoun, The Quranic Witness To Biblical Authority, Source)

So according to Sam we should take what Ibn Abbas said and see how the companions of the Prophet understood how the Prophet explained the Quran (Surah 16:44).

Yet when we reference scholars such as Ibn Abbas to prove that the first Muslims did not believe that the text of the Holy Bible was corrupted Zawadi will either throw them under the bus, much like he tried to do with Ibn al-Qayyim and Shaikh al-Albani (1, 2), or he will come up with any explanation in order to deny the plain statements of his own authorities. To read the thorough refutation of Zawadi’s misuse and abuse of Ibn Abbas’ statements as well as other references concerning the Islamic view of the authenticity of the Holy Bible we recommend the following discussions and rebuttals (1, 2, 3, 4).

Be that as it may, Zawadi is basically utilizing our approach, e.g. he will reject any scholar who’s interpretation does not comport with an accurate reading of the Quran and the Islamic corpus (or at least with his understanding and explanation of the data, no matter how mistaken or erroneous his interpretation may be). So then, why should he object when we do the same?

In conclusion we must once again say that Zawadi failed to refute the points raised in our discussion. And instead of engaging our exegesis he simply committed the fallacy of appealing to authority and of appealing to the masses or majority (ad populum).

Articles by Sam Shamoun
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