This short note is intended to shed light on the controversies surrounding two of the Prophet’s wives, Aisha and Mary (Mariya or Mariyah), thereby clearing the good name of the Prophet.
1. Did the Prophet Marry Mary?
First, let us look at a statement of a writer who has implied that the Prophet had sex with Mariyya al-Qibtiyya (a female slave sent to him as a gift) out of wedlock. Since my intention is to correct a mistake rather than point fingers, I shall refrain from naming the writer, who makes the claim in a work published in 2006 (reiterated in its 2016 edition) and repeats it—in substantially the same words—in another publication in 2010. The following paragraph is taken from the latter:
Maria the Copt, as she is generally known, appears in most premodern sources as the Prophet’s slave, but many twentieth- and twenty-first-century works authored by Muslims imply or outright declare that she was his wife. For example, Henry Bayman writes, “[T]he Prophet was legally married to all his wives, even to slave girls with whom he was presented.” Bayman’s statement is circular: by definition, Muhammad was married to his wives; it is only through marriage that a woman becomes a wife. He presumably means that Muhammad was married to all the women with whom he had sex. Connecting the subject of concubinage to broader questions about sexual morality, Bayman insists that Muhammad did not simply have sex with “slave girls.” Nor did he seek them out; rather, he “was presented” with them. Bayman’s remarks associate Muslim marriage with lawfulness (“legal marriage”) and safety (“protective umbrella”), thereby claiming Islamic superiority in matters of sex. Nonetheless, to accept his characterization … requires one either to ignore the Islamic legal tradition’s permission for slave-concubinage and the hadith evidence showing that the Prophet (or even just his Companions, whose behavior has not been questioned by revisionists) had sex with female captives and slaves, or to define both legal doctrine and Muslim history as falling outside the scope of “Islam.”
This cannot be left unanswered. (I know this is long overdue, but as they say, better late than never.) Let us therefore break down the salient points. The author’s quote is taken from Henry Bayman, The Secret of Islam (2003), p. 173.
He presumably means that Muhammad was married to all the women with whom he had sex.
This is correct. That is indeed what I mean.
Bayman insists that Muhammad did not simply have sex with “slave girls.” Nor did he seek them out; rather, he “was presented” with them. (emphasis added)
The author says this, yet in the immediately preceding paragraph writes:
in seeking to establish friendly relations with the Prophet Muhammad, the Christian commander of Alexandria sent him two enslaved sisters as a gift, (emphasis added)
thus unwittingly corroborating my point. The Prophet did not seek out Mary, she was sent to him as a gift. Far from being a disproof, this is a vindication.
… the hadith evidence showing that the Prophet … had sex with female captives and slaves,
That is indeed a mouthful. Note the plural form, so that it is not just Mary who is implied. This is a stronger version of the 2006 claim, where the author wrote:
… the Prophet’s companions (if not the Prophet himself) had sex with female captives and slaves …
The claim has ballooned from weak to strong in the intervening four years. What has caused it to mushroom in this way? The author produces no new evidence by which this change of mind can be justified.
A claim of this magnitude calls for a response of the same order, especially in view of the fact that Aisha, never one to mince words, called the Prophet the most self-controlled man she ever saw. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Is there such evidence in collections of Traditions or Sayings of the Prophet (hadith)? And even if there were, would we be obliged to accept it as true?
In Islam, only the words of the Koran are considered to be entirely free of error. The Traditions, while they are the second most reliable source, do not share the Koran’s status of inerrancy. They were collected in written form more than a century after the Prophet’s passing. They have been graded by the scholars of Islam in order of reliability, but even the most reliable ones, called “authentic” (sahih), cannot be considered free of uncertainty. On the other hand, just as we can’t throw away a whole barrel of apples just because of a few bad ones, we can’t discard thousands of the Prophet’s Sayings out of hand because a few may be unreliable.
Third in reliability come the biographies of the Prophet, the first of which was again compiled more than a century after his demise. This means that these are even less reliable. But again, there is no need to dismiss them (or parts of them) so long as they do not give rise to controversy. In other words, when there is a contradiction between the biographies and Traditions, the latter take precedence, and ditto with the Traditions versus the Koran.
Consider now the following Tradition:
… the Noble Prophet married (tazawwaja) Mariah daughter of Sham’un. This is the same Mariyah who was sent by Maqauqis, the ruler of Alexandria, to the Prophet as a gift. (Hakim, Mustadrak, vol. 4, p. 36. See also this and this.)
(A short digression: The six great collections of Prophetic Traditions are called the “Six Books,” foremost among which are the collections by Bukhari and Muslim. Because of their stringent efforts to select authentic Sayings, the books of these two are known as the “Two Authentics” (sahihayn).
Around the year 1000 AD, Hakim of Nishapur (in Iran) set out to extend the work of Bukhari and Muslim, by identifying Sayings they had missed and among those that had subsequently come to light. His work is known as Mustadrak for short. (Its full name can be roughly translated as “Completing the Two Authentics.”) In compiling this study, he used the same criteria of selection used by the earlier two scholars. So in aspiration at least, the Mustadrak is a continuation of the authentic collections.)
The Arabic root ZWJ from which tazawwaja derives is the source of a family of words, all having to do with marriage (zawâj or izdiwâj: marriage, zawja: wife, azwâj: wives).
Even if we did not have such proof, however, it is inconceivable that the Prophet, in full cognizance of his task as ethical role model for humanity in the future, could have even contemplated extramarital relationships with anyone, especially when the Koran itself comes out so strongly against unlawful sexual intercourse. (“Do not even approach fornication/adultery,” 17:32.) Apparently, the well-worn defamation that the Prophet was lewd and lecherous is still an easy trap to fall into.
“marry … your slave-girl” (4:3).
“marry your believing slave-girls … This is for those who fear falling into evil.” (4:25).
“Marry the single people among you and the righteous slaves and slave-girls” (24:32).
(Although some translators have interpreted the pertinent NKH-rooted words in the sense of “marry off,” the correct grammatical form is directly “to marry.”)
When we consider Aisha’s remark that the Prophet’s “ethics was (identical with) the Koran,” it is clear that the Prophet would choose to marry Mary, for who was more God-fearing than him? She, in turn, had converted to Islam, so no obstacle remained to their marriage. In a footnote, the author has said: “A war captive, Rayhana, is likely to have been Muhammad’s concubine, though some sources suggest that he manumitted and then married her, as he had done with Safiyya, another war prisoner he purchased from her captor.” If there are sources that say the Prophet married Rihanna and Sophia, why should concubinage be considered likely (or more likely), and why should the situation (as regards marriage) be different in Mary’s case?
The confusion in this matter could possibly arise from a misunderstanding of the Arabic word jariyah. Jariyah means a girl, or young woman; also a female slave (Lane’s Arabic‐English Lexicon). However, it has also been used in the sense of concubine, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a woman with whom a man cohabits without being married”. Not all female slaves are concubines, and not all concubines are female slaves. So we cannot directly substitute one for the other. If we do this, however, it could result in the claim that Mary was a concubine because she was a female slave: in other words, female slaves could only be concubines, not wives. But the author personally states that the Koran “allows slaves to marry other slaves or free persons”. Hence, there is no obstacle to the Prophet’s marriage with Mary. The author continues: “Regulations for slave marriage and concubinage also developed over time… A man could not simultaneously own and be married to the same female slave.” This shows that this latter constraint was a subsequent (jurists’) construct. To quote the author again: “As an historical point, just because the jurists required something does not mean that the Prophet did it;” and vice versa—just because the jurists banned something does not mean that the Prophet did not do it.
Returning now to the author’s text:
… his Companions … had sex with female captives and slaves…
Another oversized claim. These are all predicated on “assuming one accepts that the accounts in Bukhari, Muslim, and other hadith compilations are essentially accurate”. I have argued elsewhere that we can accept such sources as long as they do not tarnish the Prophet’s impeccable moral purity. Otherwise, distortions or misreports cannot be ruled out. (Please recall that anything but the Koran is inevitably open to error.) Besides, the Prophet himself is the role model both for the Companions and for us. Who succeeded to what extent in emulating that model is another matter entirely.
… the Islamic legal tradition’s permission for slave-concubinage …
The Islamic legal tradition is a corpus of law derived mainly from the Koran and the Traditions. It is a human construct, and as such, fallible. Furthermore, it is not set in stone: rulings can change with time. What is essential in religious terms is the two sources (the Koran and the Traditions), not what is derivative.
… to define both legal doctrine and Muslim history as falling outside the scope of “Islam.”
For legal doctrine, see the immediately preceding paragraph. As for Muslim history, it is largely a record of the failure to live up to the high standards of the Koran and Traditions. Anyone who was able to do that would become a saint, and history—including the history of sexual relations—would be totally different.
In a footnote, the author also says that Bayman “makes a point about the exemplariness of the Prophet, then segues into the numerical limit of four, but does not address the Prophet’s exemption from that limit.” Well, let me do that right here and now. Contrary to popular imagination, marriage with even two or three wives is a tremendous burden. The harsh realities of life have little to do with adolescent sexual fantasies. Marriage is fraught with heavy responsibilities; it is not a perpetual picnic in paradise. God and the Prophet were actually sparing the faithful by limiting the number to four. This is a blessing, not a loss: it prevents you from biting off more than you can chew. Believers should be grateful that they don’t have to marry multiple wives in order to forge political alliances or to protect elderly widowed women—it’s not the great fun some people seem to think it is.
In conclusion: a learned publication dating from 1892 mentions Mary among the Prophet’s “wives”. It is saddening to observe that since that day, scholarship on Islam has not progressed but actually regressed, despite all the energy and effort that have been expended.
2. Was Aisha 9 Years Old When She Married the Prophet?
Since we’re on this subject, here is another bone of contention. It is based on a Tradition in which Aisha relates that she was “9 years old” when she married the Prophet.
Reckoned by the age of her elder sister, Asma, it turns out that Aisha was 18-19 years of age when the marriage (i.e. its consummation) took place. (See also this.) At the time of the Migration, Asma was 27 years old. Aisha was 10 years younger than Asma, which means she was 17. She married the Prophet in the second year of the Migration: add 2, that makes 19. Further, the soundest reports of Aisha’s death relate that she died in the 58th lunar year after the Migration (678 AD) at the age of 72 (solar), again supporting the reckoning according to Asma (Ibn Abd al-Barr, Al-Isti’ab fi ma’rifat al-ashab, 2:108, cited here). What, then, can be the reason for the claim that she was nine years old?
There was no accurate recording of birth dates in seventh-century Arabia. (Nor is there even today in some parts of the world.) A girl could not know precisely when she was born. But she could accurately keep track of the time elapsed since the start of her periods (“menarche”). Hence, the age of girls could sometimes be reckoned from the onset of puberty. Assuming that this occurs at the age of at least 9 or 10 (and that the Tradition is not corrupt or misreported), therefore, Aisha—using this alternate convention—is actually saying that she was 18 or 19 years old, if not older (Item 2.*). Shia sources of Traditions also give this more accurate value. Note that this corroborates the age calculated by taking her elder sister Asma as reference, so that the figures 9 and 19 (and thus the divergent narrations) are reconciled.
Further, we know that before the Prophet proposed, Aisha was engaged to marry another suitor (Jubayr ibn Mut’im), proving that she was already of marriageable age. (She married the Prophet in 624 AD.) And her father Abu Bakr’s initial concern was not that she was too young to marry, but that he considered the Prophet his brother and was uncertain whether marriage with a nephew was allowed. (The Prophet assured him that there were no blood ties between them, that they were brothers in spirit.) Besides, the many and powerful enemies of the Prophet were ready to pounce on him at his slightest misstep—as they still are today. The fact that his enemies failed to bring up the subject of Aisha’s age at all is sufficient proof that the marriage was beyond reproach.
Unless you can show me an explicit verse in the Koran that says you can marry children, I am not going to accept that the Prophet did so. (To repeat: His morality “was the Koran,” as Aisha herself said.)
Yet untold amounts of time and energy have been spent in both slandering and defending the Prophet on this count. Again, it is inconceivable that the future role model for humanity would resort to such ethically questionable practices.
3. The Koran, 4:34 : The Prophet Never Struck His Wives
While we’re at it, let’s also consider the famous “wife-beating” verse. God only knows how much ink has been wasted and how many trees have died to blame the Koran about this.
The source of all this confusion is the word wa’dribuhunna/idribuhunna in 4:34. The root DRB from which this word derives also gives rise to a constellation of words with 30 or so (some say a hundred) different meanings (see also this and this). Among these are: 1. strike an example, 2. mint a coin, 3. set out on a journey, 4. go abroad, 5. kill somebody, etc. So it’s not at all obvious at first glance that the word has to be translated as “beat,” “strike” or “hit.” Of course, the context is susceptible to this kind of interpretation, but is it really correct?
Here’s a nice rule-of-thumb for you: When in doubt about the Prophet, consult the Koran, and when in doubt about the Koran, consult the Prophet. The two support and complement each other, and this is why we need both. So in order to resolve this matter, we should look at the life (and example) of the Prophet.
And when we do that, we discover that the Prophet never once struck any of his wives or any servant in his employ. Again, Aisha reports: “The Messenger of God did not strike a servant or a woman, and he never struck anything with his hand.” (Muslim, Sahih, 2328.) (It is true that he hit Aisha on the chest once, but he also did that to two other male Companions—in order to restore their faith, not out of anger or as punishment. In Sufic terms, he did it in order to realign the Psychic Center (latifa) of the Heart, which had shifted. Not many people, however, can be expected to know about this.)
On the contrary, it is related that one of his wives once hit the Prophet. Not only did he not retaliate, but when her mother chided her for striking him, the Prophet said, “Leave her alone.” (See e.g. this.)
On the other hand, we do know that what the Prophet did on one occasion of marital discord was to keep away from his wives for a month. This is known as the Incident of the Vow: he went elsewhere to live alone. But he did not divorce them. Given these conditions, Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation seems to fit the Prophet’s conduct best: “go away from them.”
However, neither women, nor men, nor translators are endowed with the superior ethics of the Prophet. So the verse keeps on getting mistranslated as it has always been—which meaning, however, is not what is intended.
A squid, when faced with danger and a threatening enemy, ejects a cloud of ink. While the opposing predator is trying to find its way, the squid makes its escape by covering its tracks.
In 2016, however, it was reported that squid also release puffs of ink when they hunt. The ink cloud serves as a smokescreen that prevents their prey from seeing the attacker’s movements. Their use of ink as a tool is considered to be “a concrete example that squid have intelligence.”
Ever since September 11, 2001, detractors of Islam have redoubled their efforts to discredit Islam and insult the Prophet. By cherry-picking some tiny detail and interminably nagging at it, they deflect attention from the things that matter most, obscuring the beauty and appeal of Islam. Skilled in the art of misdirection, they use these concocted problems as decoys that distract, divert, and otherwise preoccupy the attention of all parties ad nauseam.
Sowing confusion is a clever psy-op technique. These people have proved they are intelligent. In the future, we shall see just how far such attempts to tar the truth with mud succeed.
No matter how high the mountain, it cannot hide the sun.
— Chinese proverb
*As the source is in Turkish, I translate:
“2. Arabs of the [pre-Islamic] Age of Ignorance, who buried their daughters alive, generally did not record the ages of their daughters. Those who did not bury their daughters, but raised them despite strong social disapproval, would conduct a ceremony at the Dar al-Nadwa [public council] when their children reached puberty and announce that their daughter was now grown up to the public. [In a very real sense, that’s when a girl living in that time and place was truly “born”—she now had a future.] If we take this practice as basis, it will be necessary to understand Aisha’s claim of marriage at age 9 in the sense that she had been menstruating for 9 years. Taking into account 9 years of menstruation and 9 years of childhood, it will be understood that [Aisha] was a young girl of 18 when she got married.” (emphasis added)
(The author is a scholar specializing in studies of the Prophet’s life. The Dar al-Nadwa ceremony is mentioned in Jawad Ali’s well-known Al-Mufassal Fi Tarikh al-‘Arab qabla al-Islam [“Detailed History of the Arabs Before Islam”].) Seen in this light, one can even detect a note of defiance, against a society that placed zero value on female infants, in Aisha’s claim that she was 9.