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The Prophet and Polygamy (part 1 of 2)

By on June 04,2007



Most Westerners regard polygamy as intrinsically evil and its practice as immoral, forgetting that such institutions are a result of the circumstances and necessities of time.  Every age and society has its own standards.  What is suited for one time may not be suited for the other.  It is not fair to judge the past by the standards of present.  One may say that under no necessity should Prophet Muhammad have allowed or practiced the ‘evil’ of polygamy.  He should have forbidden it.  But this custom is not an ‘absolute evil.’  For a Muslim, the standards of morality are set by divine revelation, the Quran and the Sunnah, and not by prevalent modern perspective.  Furthermore, the great Hebrew patriarchs equally revered by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, and Solomon, to name a few – were undisputedly polygamous.  The example of Jesus, who never-the-less overlooked polygamy, is irrelevant, as he did not marry at all during his earthly ministry.  It is unclear why the Hebrew prophets took multiple wives, for their life stories are mostly unknown.  Yet no-one assumes those great prophets to be led into polygamy by sensual pleasures.  Furthermore, a careful study of the Prophet Muhammad’s biography - preserved in minute detail - reveals the reasons for his plural marriages.

1.      A Perfect Model

Muslims view Muhammad, may God praise him, as the last prophet, a mercy to all humanity, and a perfect model for all times.  He gave the world an ideal example of a chaste life up to the age of twenty-five, a monogamous life with an aged widow, and a polygamous life after the age of fifty.  He married the young and the old, the widow and the divorcee, the pleasant and the emotional, the daughters of tribal chiefs and freed slaves.  He was an example of perfection in all the diversity life had to offer.  Such an example could not have been possible without contracting all these marriages.

2.      Religious Education and Preservation of the Prophet’s Private Life

The ‘Mothers of the Faithful’, a title given to honor the wives of the Prophet, were scholars of the religion and spiritual mentors who guided the faithful, especially women, during and after the Prophet’s lifetime.  Islam has many special regulations unique to women regarding cleanliness, menses, bathing, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, breastfeeding, and testimony to name a few.  The laws specific to women had to be conveyed.  Naturally, women felt more comfortable talking to the wives of the Prophet regarding these matters.  In addition, the household of the Prophet instructed women in the etiquette of marital life, raising a family, and issues of women’s spirituality.  After the death of the Prophet, men and women resorted to them to find out the prophetic ideal of family life.

By marrying into different tribes, the Prophet opened the door to the spread of Islamic knowledge among them.  The wives of the Prophet spread the knowledge of Islam within their tribes.  For example, the knowledge of Aisha was absorbed by her sister, Umm Kulthum, her foster brother, Auf bin Harith, her nephews, Qasim and Abdullah, and her nieces, Hafsah and Asma, among others.  The knowledge of Hafsah was transmitted by her brother Abdullah ibn Umar, his son Hamza and his wife Safiyah.  Maimoonah’s students included her nephews, the most famous of whom is Abdullah ibn Abbas, an authority in the interpretation of the Quran.  Umm Habeeba taught her knowledge to her brothers, Mu’awiyah and Utbah, and her nephews and nieces.  Therefore, we see that the ‘Mothers of the Faithful’ became conduits of knowledge to their tribes.

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