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:
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.”
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:
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.
Some Koranic verses state plainly:
“Marry the single people among you and the righteous slaves and slave-girls” (24:32).
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:
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.
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.
4. On Smokescreens and Perception Management
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.
*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.