The Jealous Prophet and His Heavenly Son
Monday, February 4th, 2013 | by Kalavai Venkat
Islamic sources report an interesting episode from the life of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Ibn Abbas, a cousin of Muhammad and a respected Islamic chronicler, reports that one day a man went to see one of Muhammad’s wives. Muhammad ordered him not to do so again. The man protested that the woman was his cousin and that neither of them had any wrong intentions. Muhammad replied, “I am well aware of that, but there are none so jealous as the Lord and myself.” The offended man muttered, “(Muhammad) forbids me to speak to my cousin. Anyway, I shall marry her after his death.” It was then that Muhammad forbade the remarriage of his widows after his death (Quran 33:53).
Muhammad, the jealous prophet, took twenty women as wives or concubines. His contemporaries criticized his unusual appetite for women (Quran 4:54-57). Modern Muslim apologists such as Haykal deny that Muhammad had any unusual fondness for women. He led an austere life for twenty years with his much older first wife Khadija and only after her death he took other wives. They argue that Muhammad’s matrimonial decisions were guided by nobler intentions and invoke the example of his marriage to the previously widowed Sawda, who was neither beautiful nor rich, in support of their argument.
However, the well-known Persian scholar Ali Dashti (23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, pp. 120-138)considers Haykal’s apology moot and points out that Muhammad could have married Sawda “to do his housekeeping and look after his four young daughters.” Dashti corroborates this by pointing out that the aging Sawda “feared that (Muhammad) might divorce her” and hence ceded her conjugal rights to Muhammad’s favorite wife Ǡ’esha and pleaded with him not to divorce her. Dashti cites many Islamic narratives that confirm that Muhammad took at least some women as wives or concubines for their beauty and discusses the episodes of Jowayriya b. ol-Hāreth, Omm Sharik, Zaynab b. Jahsh, and Ǡ’esha.
Jowayriya was captured in a battle and given to a Muslim warrior as his share of the booty. He ransomed her for 400 dirham which she could not pay. She appealed to Muhammad to lower the price. Ǡ’esha, who was present at the scene, says, “Jowayriya was so beautiful and charming that anyone who caught sight of her was captivated…I felt worried because I was sure that (Muhammad) would be carried away as soon as his eye fell on her. And so he was.” Muhammad offered to pay Jowayriya’s ransom and to marry her. Jowayriya consented.
Muhammad allowed Muslim men up to four wives and any number of concubines albeit with some restrictions. Marriage required the provision of dower, the presence of witnesses, and the approval of the woman’s father. Concubinage was only allowed with the captured wives of polytheists. However, Muhammad was quite powerful by then and some women that were neither his wives nor his concubines craved for his attention by offering themselves to him. Islamic texts inform us of four such women and Omm Sharik was one of those. She was so beautiful that Muhammad immediately accepted her offer which provoked the extreme jealousy and indignation of his favorite wife Ǡ’esha, who remarked, “I wonder what a woman who gives herself to a man is worth.” A quranic verse was promptly revealed to rebuke Ǡ’esha and to sanctify Muhammad’s behavior (Quran 33:49-51). Ǡ’esha evidently perceived this revelation as an expediency to suit Muhammad and impertinently told him, “I see that your Allah is quick to grant your wishes.”
Muhammad once freed the slave Zayd b. Hāretha and adopted him as his son. The careful transmitter of many Hadiths Abdullah b. Omar says that this adopted son was called Zayd b. Muhammad (Zayd, son of Muhammad) and that Muhammad proposed the marriage of his cousin Zaynab b. Jahsh to Zayd. Her parents were initially reluctant because of Zayd’s erstwhile slave status but a quranic verse was revealed to rebuke them that once Allah and his prophet had made a decision nobody can disobey it (Quran 33:36). Zaynab was married to Zayd.
However, one day Muhammad was aroused by the sight of his daughter-in-law Zaynab and said, “Praise be to Allah who makes heart beat!” Zamakshari reports in his commentary on The Quran that Zaynab understood Muhammad’s desire for her and began to nurture an ambition to become the wife of the powerful prophet of Islam. Driven by this motive, she invented the pretext that she never desired to marry Zayd and behaved coldly towards him. The Persian Tafsir (quranic commentary) informs that once Zaynab realized that Muhammad desired her, she told Zayd, “You cannot have me anymore. Go and ask (Muhammad) for permission to divorce me.” Zayd then took such a dislike to Zaynab that he could not bear to see her face. He went to Muhammad and offered to divorce Zaynab so Muhammad could marry her. Muhammad initially hesitated because marrying the wife of one’s adopted son was a taboo in Arab culture. However, he soon overcame the hesitation as a quranic verse (33:37) was revealed to retroactively annul adoption and to announce that Allah wished Muhammad to marry Zaynab. Muhammad yielded to the wish of the mighty Allah and married the beautiful Zaynab. He seems to have treated her with such special affection as to kindle rivalry in the heart of Ǡ’esha.
Ǡ’esha had got used to being pampered by Muhammad and to being the cynosure of his eye. She did not take kindly to being relegated to the background since the arrival of the equally beautiful Zaynab and Jowayriya. She seems to have nurtured resentment towards Muhammad and allowed it to manifest during one of Muhammad’s expeditions. Ǡ’esha had been chosen by lot to accompany Muhammad on this raid against an enemy tribe. During a halt on the return journey, Ǡ’esha walked into the desert to attend to nature’s call and then realized that she had lost her necklace. She searched for it for a long time and found it but missed the caravan, which had already left without realizing that Ǡ’esha had been left behind.
A young man, Safwān b. ol-Mo’attal, who had been instructed to follow the caravan at some distance found Ǡ’esha stranded in the desert. He mounted Ǡ’esha behind himself on his camel and brought her to Medina. The adventure did not go unnoticed. The sister of Zaynab accused Ǡ’esha of committing adultery with Safwān. The famous poet Hassān b. Thābet added his voice and soon a malicious gossip spread like wildfire. Dashti notices quite a few discrepancies in the version as it is reported. How could Ǡ’esha have been unaware of the decampment and departure of a caravan made up of hundreds of fighters? How could those who lifted her howdah not have realized that she was not inside it? Why did Safwān not catch up with the caravan when it would have halted next for rest? Dashti concludes that prima facie the evidence suggests that Ǡ’esha stayed behind in collusion with Safwān though he also concedes the possibility that the entire episode might have been a charade resulting from Ǡ’esha’s jealousy.
The episode dealt a serious blow to Muhammad’s reputation. It seems that he suspected Ǡ’esha because he sent her away to her parents’ place. In distress, he consulted his confidants Osāma b. Zayd and ‘Ali b. Abi Tāleb regarding the right course of action. Osāma vouched for Ǡ’esha’s innocence and proclaimed that the daughter of Abu Bakr would not have stooped to any impropriety. ‘Ali, on the other hand, advised Muhammad to replace Ǡ’esha with another wife. He also recommended interrogating Ǡ’esha’s maidservant to find out the truth. He gave her a thorough beating but the maid swore that Ǡ’esha was innocent. Muhammad was still nagged by doubts. So, he decided to interrogate Ǡ’esha at her parents’ place. She wept and claimed that she was innocent.
Muhammad then received a sudden quranic revelation that exculpated Ǡ’esha and recommended serious punishment for those who had earlier cast aspersions on her (Quran 24:2-26). It has not missed the attention of the skeptic that it took a month for this revelation to arrive. Why did Muhammad wait for a month to reveal this verse to proclaim Ǡ’esha’s innocence when an earlier revelation would have doused the rumor and saved his reputation? A possible explanation is that Muhammad was not sure that Ǡ’esha was innocent. What if a quranic verse had proclaimed her innocent and then she is found to be pregnant? It was known that Muhammad had not spent the preceding nights with Ǡ’esha. Vindicating Ǡ’esha in a haste with a quranic revelation only to subsequently discover her pregnancy would have cast a serious doubt over all quranic revelations and jeopardized his prophetic career. A prudent option would have been to wait for a month, confirm that Ǡ’esha did not miss her menses, and then reveal the verse exculpating her. Muhammad seems to have treaded this cautious path out of necessity.
As Muhammad aged, he was unchallenged as prophet. However, managing a harem of twenty wives and concubines did not become easier. Ǡ’esha reported (Sahih Bukhari 7:71:660) that Muhammad imagined “that he had sexual relations with his wives while he actually had not.” His wives formed factions and fought with one another. Hadiths inform (Sahih Bukhari 6:60:435) that his wives made life miserable for Muhammad and a quranic verse was revealed threatening them with divorce unless they mended their behavior. In the event of divorce, Allah would provide Muhammad with better wives: Muslims, submissive, devout and ready to fast, thayyebāt (widow), and abkār (virgin) (Quran 66:5). The Tafsir informs us that the word thayyebāt (widow) refers to the wife of the long dead Pharaoh whereas the word abkār (virgin) refers to the mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary. They are waiting to be married to Muhammad in heaven.
Muhammad’s life seems to have come full circle. It started with his marriage to an older Khadija, followed by marriages to young women, and seems to culminate in heavenly marriages to the even older Virgin Mary and Pharaoh’s widow. Who could have guessed that Jesus is the heavenly adopted son of Muhammad? One hopes that this information about Jesus b. Muhammad (Jesus, son of Muhammad) would help the ever-warring Christians and Muslims to realize that both Christianity and Islam originated from the same heavenly Holy Family and to work towards peace and mutual reconciliation.
Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, and a practicing orthodox Hindu.