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In this time of sexual permissiveness and sexual scandals within certain religious and social circles, some people are claiming that polygamy is a social evil. Why, they ask, did Prophet Muhammad practice it?

Some critics of Islam have reviled the Prophet as a self-indulgent libertine. They have accused him of character failings that are hardly compatible with being of average virtue, let alone with being a Prophet and God’s last Messenger, as well as the best model for humanity to follow. However, based on the easily available scores of biographies and well-authenticated accounts of his sayings and actions, it is quite clear that he lived the most strictly disciplined life, and that his marriages were part of the numerous burdens he bore as God’s last Messenger.

The reasons for his multiple marriages vary. However, all of them were related to his role as leader of the Muslim community, and his responsibility to guide the new Muslims toward the norms and values of Islam.

Can you be more specific?

When Muhammad was 25, before he was called to his future mission, he married Khadija, his first wife. Given the surrounding cultural environment, not to mention the climate and such other considerations as his youth, it is remarkable that he enjoyed a reputation for perfect chastity, integrity, and trustworthiness. As soon as he was called to Prophethood, he acquired enemies who did not hesitate to raise false calumnies against him-but not once did any of them dare invent something unbelievable about him. Khadija was 15 years his senior.

This marriage was very high and exceptional in the eyes of the Prophet and God. For 23 years, their life was a period of uninterrupted contentment in perfect fidelity. In the eighth year of Prophethood, however, she passed away, leaving the Prophet as the sole parent of their children for 4 or 5 years. Even his enemies are forced to admit that, during these years, they can find no flaw in his moral character. The Prophet took no other wife during Khadija’s lifetime, although public opinion would have allowed him to do so. When he began marrying other women, he was already past 55, when very little real interest and desire for marriage remains.

How could a Prophet be polygamous?

People often ask how a Prophet can have more than one wife. This question is usually asked by those people who know next to nothing about Islam; their question is based either on genuine ignorance or the desire to spread doubt among believers.

Many of those who reproach the Prophet’s polygamous family life usually are themselves involved in casual relations and liaisons with numerous sexual partners. Considering themselves free, they engage in what most societies consider to be immoral behavior. One wonders why believers of other religions attack the Prophet for his multiple marriages. Have they forgotten that the great Hebrew patriarchs, considered Prophets in the Bible and in the Qur’an and revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as exemplars of moral excellence, all practiced polygamy? Moreover, as in the case of Prophet Solomon, they had far more wives than Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace. One wonders if they are moved more by their anti-Islam bias than genuine concern or interest.

Polygamy did not originate with the Muslims. Furthermore, in the case of the Prophet this practice has far more significance than people generally realize. In a sense, the Prophet had to be polygamous to transmit his Sunna (the statutes and norms of Islamic law). As Islam covers every part of one’s life, private spousal relations cannot remain untouched. Therefore, there must be women who can guide other women in these matters. There is no room for the allusive language of hints and innuendoes. The chaste and virtuous women of the Prophet’s household were responsible for explaining the norms and rules of such private spheres to other Muslims.

How did the Prophet select his wives?

Some of the Prophet’s marriages were contracted for specific reasons:

• Since his wives were young, middle-aged, and old, the requirements and norms of Islamic law could be exemplified in relation to their different life stages and experiences. These were learned and applied first within the Prophet’s household, and then passed on to other Muslims by his wives.

• Each wife was from a different clan or tribe, which allowed the Prophet to establish bonds of kinship and affinity throughout the rapidly expanding Muslim community. This also enabled a profound attachment to him to spread among all Muslims, thereby creating and securing equality and brotherhood in a most practical way and on the basis of religion.

• Each wife, both during and after the Prophet’s life, proved to be of great benefit and service to the cause of Islam. They conveyed his message and interpreted it to their clans: the outer and inward experience, and the qualities, manners, and faith of the man whose life was the embodiment of the Qur’an-Islam in practice. In this way, all Muslims learned about the Qur’an, hadith, Qur’anic interpretation and commentary, and Islamic jurisprudence, and so became fully aware of Islam’s essence and spirit.

• Through his marriages, the Prophet established ties of kinship throughout Arabia. This gave him the freedom to move and be accepted as a member in each family. Since they regarded him as one of their own, they felt they could go to him in person and ask him directly about this life and the Hereafter. The tribes also benefited collectively from their proximity to him: they considered themselves fortunate and took pride in that relationship, such as the Umayyads (through Umm Habiba), the Hashimites (through Zaynab bint Jahsh), and the Bani Makhzum (through Umm Salama).

Part of that discipline was providing each wife with the most meticulously observed justice, dividing equally whatever slender resources he allowed for their subsistence, accommodation, and allowance. He also divided his time with them equally, and regarded and treated them with equal friendship and respect. The fact that all of his wives got on well with each other is no small tribute to his genius for creating peace and harmony. With each of them, he was not only a provider but also a friend and companion.

If a Muslim man is allowed only four wives, why did the Prophet have eleven?

The number of the Prophet’s wives was a dispensation unique to him. Some of the merits and wisdom of this dispensation, as we understand them, have been explained. All other Muslims are allowed a maximum of four wives at one time. When that Revelation restricting polygamy came, the Prophet’s marriages had already been contracted. Thereafter, he married no other women.

* This article has been published separately in The Fountain’s July-September 2002 volume and thus is not contained in the book.