Syed Ameer Ali.

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proving him to be a self-indulgent libertine, would conclusively
establish that the man, poor and without resource himself, when
he undertook the burden of supporting the women whom he
married in strict accordance with the old patriarchal institution,
was undergoing a self-sacrifice of no light a character. And
we believe that a thorough analysis of motives from the stand-
point of humanity will demonstrate the falsehood and un-
charitableness of the charges levelled at " the Great Arabian."
When Mohammed was only twenty-five years of age, in the
prime of life, he married Khadija, much his senior in years.
For twenty-five years his life with her was an uninterrupted
sunshine of faithfulness and happiness. Through every
contumely and outrage heaped on him by the idolaters, through
every persecution, Khadija was his sole companion and helper.
At the time of Khadija's death Mohammed was in the fifty-first
year of his age. His enemies cannot deny, but are forced to
admit, that during the whole of this long period they find not
a single flaw in his moral character. During the lifetime of
Khadija, the Prophet married no other wife, notwithstanding
that public opinion among his people would have allowed him
to do so had he chosen .

Several months after Khadija's death and on his return,
helpless and persecuted, from Tayef, he married Sauda, the
widow of one Sakran, who had embraced Islam, and had been
forced to fly into Abyssinia to escape the persecution of the
idolaters. Sakran had died in exile, and left his wife utterly
destitute. According to the customs of the country, marriage
was the only means by which the Teacher could protect and
help the widow of his faithful disciple. Every principle of
generosity and humanity would impel Mohammed to offer her
his hand. Her husband had given his life in the cause of the
new religion ; he had left home and country for the sake of his
faith ; his wife had shared his exile, and now had returned to
Mecca destitute. As the only means of assisting the poor


woman, Mohammed, though straitened for the very means of
daily subsistence, married Sauda.

Abdullah, the son of Osman Abu Kuhafa, known afterwards
in history as Abu Bakr, was one of the most devoted followers
of Mohammed. He was one of the earliest converts to the
faith of the Prophet ; and in his sincere, earnest and unvary-
ing attachment to Mohammed he might almost be compared
with Ali.

Abu Bakr, as by anticipation we may well call him, had a
little daughter named Ayesha, and it was the desire of his life
to cement the attachment which existed between himself and
the Prophet, who had led him out from the darkness of scep-
ticism, by giving Mohammed his daughter in marriage. The
child was only seven years of age, but the manners of the
country recognised such alliances. At the earnest solicitation
of the disciple, the little maiden became the wife of the

Some time after the arrival of the fugitives at Medina there
occurred an incident which throws considerable light on the
conditions of life among the Arabs of the time. Those who
know the peculiarities of the Arab character — " pride,
pugnacity, a peculiar point of honour, and a vindictiveness of
wonderful force and patience " — will be able to appreciate the
full bearing of the story. Even now " words often pass lightly
between individuals," says Burton, " which suffice to cause a
blood-feud amongst Bedouins." Omar Ibn ul-Khattab, who
afterwards became the second Caliph of Islam, had a daughter
of the name of Hafsa. This good lady had lost her husband
at the battle of Badr, and being blessed with a temper as fiery
as that of her father, had remained ever since without a husband.
The disciples bent upon matrimony fought shy of her. It was
almost a reflection on the father ; and Omar, in order to get
rid of the scandal, offered his daughter's hand to Abu Bakr,
and, upon his declining the honour, to Osman. He also met
the offer with a refusal. This was little less than a direct
insult, and Omar proceeded in a towering rage to Mohammed
to lay his complaint before the Prophet. The point of honour
must, anyhow, be settled in his favour. But neither Abu
Bakr nor Osman would undertake the burden of Hafsa's


temper : — a dispute, ludicrous in its origin from our point of
view, but sufficiently serious then to throw into commotion
the small body of the Faithful. In this extremity the chief of
the Moslems appeased the enraged father by marrying the
daughter. And public opinion not only approved, but was
jubilant over it. 1

Hind Umm Salma, Umm Habiba, and Zainab Uinm
ul-Masakin, 2 three other wives of the Prophet, had also been
widows, whom the animosity of the idolaters had bereft of
their natural protectors, and whom their relations were
either unable or unwilling to support.

Mohammed had married his devoted friend and freedman,
Zaid, to a high-born lady of the name of Zainab, descended
from two of the noblest families of Arabia. Proud of her
birth, and perhaps also of her beauty, her marriage with a
freedman rankled in her breast. Mutual aversion at last
culminated in disgust. Probably this disgust on the husband's
part was enhanced by the frequent repetition, in a manner
which women only know how to adopt, of a few words which
had fallen from the lips of Mohammed on once seeing Zainab.
He had occasion to visit the house of Zaid, and upon seeing
Zainab 's unveiled face, had exclaimed, as a Moslem would
say at the present day when admiring a beautiful picture or
statue, " Praise be to God, the ruler of hearts ! "

The words, uttered in natural admiration, were often

1 The story told by Muir, Sprenger, and Osborn, with some amount of
gloating, of the domestic squabble between Hafsa and Mohammed, con-
cerning Mary, the Coptic girl presented to the Prophet's household by the
Negus, is absolutely false and malicious. A tradition, which is repudiated
by all the respectable commentators of the Koran, and which must have
been invented in the time of some Ommeyyade or Abbasside sensualist,
founded on the weakest authority, has been seized with avidity by these
critics for the vilification of the Prophet. The verse in the Koran which has
been supposed to refer to this story, refers, in truth, to a wholly different
circumstance. Mohammed, in his boyhood, when he tended the flocks of his
uncle, had acquired a fondness for honey, which was often supplied by Zainab.
Hafsa and Ayesha set to work to make him give up honey, and they succeeded
in inducing him to vow he would never touch it. But after he had made the
vow to her came the thought that he was making something unlawful in
which there was nothing unlawful, simply to please his wives. His conscience
smote him as to his weakness, and then came the verse, " O Prophet, why
holdest thou that to be prohibited which God has made lawful, seeking to
please thy wives ? " — (Zamakhshari.)

2 " Mother of the poor," so called from her charity and benevolence.


repeated by Zainab to her husband to show how even the
Prophet praised her beauty, and naturally added to his
displeasure. At last he came to the decision not to live any
longer with her, and with this determination he went to the
Prophet and expressed his intention of being divorced. " Why,"
demanded Mohammed, " hast thou found any fault in her ? "
" No," replied Zaid, " but I can no longer live with her." The
Prophet then peremptorily said, " Go and guard thy wife ;
treat her well and fear God, for God has said ' Take care of
your wives, and fear the Lord ! ' ' But Zaid was not moved
from his purpose, and in spite of the command of the Prophet
he divorced Zainab. Mohammed was grieved at the conduct
of Zaid, more especially as it was he who had arranged the
marriage of these two uncongenial spirits.

After Zainab had succeeded in obtaining a divorce from
Zaid, she commenced importuning Mohammed to marry her,
and was not satisfied until she had won for herself the honour
of being one of the wives of the Prophet. 1

Another wife of Mohammed was called Juwairiya. She was
the daughter of Harith, the chief of the Bani Mustalik, and was
taken prisoner by a Moslem in an expedition undertaken to
repress their revolt. She had made an agreement with her
captor to purchase her freedom for a stipulated sum. She
petitioned Mohammed for the amount, which he immediately
gave her. In recognition of this kindness, and in gratitude for
her liberty, she offered her hand to Mohammed, and they were
married. As soon as the Moslems heard of this alliance, they
said amongst themselves the Banu Mustalik are now con-
nections of the Prophet, and we must treat them as such.
Each victor thereupon hastened to release the captives he
had made in the expedition, and a hundred families, thus

1 Tabari (Zotenberg's translation), vol. iii. p. 58. This marriage created a
sensation amongst the idolaters, who, whilst marrying their step-mothers and
mothers-in-law, looked upon the marriage of the divorced wife of an adopted
son (as Zaid at one time was regarded by Mohammed) by the adoptive father
as culpable, To disabuse the people of the notion that adoption creates any
such tie as real consanguinity, some verses of chap, xxxiii. were delivered,
which destroyed the pagan custom of forbidding or making sacred the person
of a wife or husband, or intended wife or husband, by merely calling her
mother, sister, father, or brother — much less by her or him being first allied
to an adopted son or daughter. One of the greatest tests of the Prophet's
purity is that Zaid never swerved from his devotion to his master.


regaining their liberty, blessed the marriage of Juwairiya with
Mohammed. 1

Safiya, a Jewess, had also been taken prisoner by a Moslem
in the expedition against Khaibar. Her, too, Mohammed
generously liberated, and elevated to the position of his wife
at her request.

Maimuna, whom Mohammed married in Mecca, was his
kinswoman, and was already above fifty. Her marriage with
Mohammed, besides providing for a poor relation the means of
support, gained over to the cause of Islam two famous men,
Ibn-Abbas and Khalid bin-Walid, the leader of the Koreish
cavalry in the disastrous battle of Ohod, and in later times the
conqueror of the Greeks.

Such was the nature of the marriages of Mohammed. Some
of them may possibly have arisen from a desire for male off-
spring, for he was not a god, and may have felt the natural
wish to leave sons behind him. He may have wished also
to escape from the nickname which the bitterness of his
enemies attached to him. 2 But taking the facts as they
stand, we see that even these marriages tended in their results
to unite the warring tribes, and bring them into some degree
of harmony.

The practice of Thar (vendetta) prevailed among the heathen
Arabs ; blood-feuds decimated tribes. There was not a family
without its blood-feud, in which the men were frequently
murdered, and the women and children reduced to slavery.
Moses had found the practice of Thar existing among his people
(as it exists among all people in a certain stage of development) ;
but failing to abolish it, had legalised it by the institution of
sanctuaries. Mohammed, with a deeper conception of the
remedies to be applied, connected various rival families and

1 Ibn-Hisham, p. 729.

2 With savage bitterness the enemies of the Prophet applied to him the
nickname of al-abtar on the death of his last son. This word literally means
" one whose tail has been cut off." Among the ancient Arabs, as among the
Hindoos, a male issue was regarded as the continuation of the blessings of the
gods ; and the man who left no male issue behind was looked upon as pecu-
liarly unfortunate. Hence the bitter word applied to the Prophet ; Koran,
chap, cviii. (see the Kashshdf). Hence, also, the idolatrous Arabs used to
bury alive their female offspring, which Mohammed denounced and repre-
hended in burning terms ; comp. Koran xvii. 34, etc.


powerful tribes to each other and to himself by marriage ties.
Towards the close of his mission, standing on the Mount of
Arafat, he proclaimed that from that time all blood-feuds
should cease.

The malevolence of unfair and uncandid enemies has distorted
the motives which, under the sanction of the great patriarchs
of ancient times, led Mohammed to have a plurality of wives,
and so provide helpless or widowed women with subsistence
in the lack of all other means. By taking them into his family,
Mohammed provided for them in the only way which the
circumstances of the age and the people rendered possible.

People in the West are apt to regard polygamy as intrinsically
evil, and its practice not only illegal, but the result of licentious-
ness and immorality. They forget that all such institutions
are the offspring of the circumstances and necessities of the
times. They forget that the great patriarchs of the Hebraic
race, who are regarded by the followers of all Semitic creeds as
exemplars of moral grandeur, practised polygamy to an extent
which, to our modern ideas, seems the culmination of legalised
immorality. We cannot perhaps allow their practice or con-
duct to pass unquestioned, in spite of the sanctity which time-
honoured legend has cast around them. But in the case of the
Prophet of Arabia, it is essential we should bear in mind the
historic value and significance of the acts.

Probably it will be said that no necessity should have induced
the Prophet either to practise or to allow such an evil custom
as polygamy, and that he ought to have forbidden it absolutely,
Jesus having overlooked it. But this custom, like many others,
is not absolutely evil. Evil is a relative term. An act or
usage may be primarily quite in accordance with the moral
conceptions of societies and individuals ; but progress of ideas
and changes in the condition of a people may make it evil in
its tendency, and, in process of time, it may be made by the
State, illegal. That ideas are progressive is a truism ; but that
usages and customs depend on the progress of ideas, and are
good or evil according to circumstances, or as they are or are
not in accordance with conscience, — " the spirit of the time "
—is a fact much ignored by superficial thinkers.

One of the most remarkable features in the history of early


Christianity is its depreciation of marriage. Matrimony was
regarded as a condition of inferiority, and the birth ot children
an evil. Monasticism had withdrawn from the world the most
vigorous minds ; the lay-clergy were either not allowed to
marry, or to marry but once. This morbid feature was partly
due to the example of the Master, and partly the resultant of
a variety of circumstances which pressed upon the early
Christian organisation.

The Nazarene Prophet's intimate connection with th^
Essene ascetics, his vivid anticipation of the immediate advent
of a kingdom of God, where all social relations would be at an
end, and the early cessation of his ministry, all explain his
depreciation of matrimony, and we may add, perhaps, his never
entering the married state. His association with the Baptist,
himself an Essene, throws light upon the history of a short but
most pathetic life. The strong and inexplicable antipathy of
Paul towards the female sex, joined to the words of the Master,
strengthened in the Church the Essenic conception that the
union of man and woman in the holiest of ties was an act of
sinfulness, an evil to be avoided as far as possible. Marriage
was regarded as having for its sole object the procreation of
children and the gratification of " man's carnal lusts," and the
marriage services of most of the Christian Churches bear to
this day the impress of this primitive notion. It was under
these influences, the idea engrafted itself upon Christianity,
which still retains its hold where not displaced by humanitarian
science, that a person who has never married is a far superior
being to one who has contaminated himself by marriage. The
ash-covered Yogis of India, the matted-locked ascetics of the
East generally, the priests of Buddha, were celibates. Accord-
ing to them, " knowledge was unattainable without sundering
all the loving ties of home and family, and infinity impossible
of realisation without leading a life of singleness." Celibacy
passed into Christianity through many hands from Eastern
Gnosticism and Asceticism. The " sinlessness " of Jesus has
been regarded by some as a proof of his divinity, by others as
an indication of his immeasurable superiority over the rest of
the teachers of the world. To our mind, the comparison or
contrast which is so falsely instituted between Jesus and


Mohammed appears wholly misconceived, and founded upon
a wrong estimate of moral ideals. If never marrying con-
stitutes a man an ideal being, then all the ascetics, the hermits,
the dervishes are perfect. A perfect life would then imply a
total abandonment of all domestic relations. Surely this view
would be a perversion of nature, and end in disastrous con-
sequences to humanity. But if it be not so, then why this
disparagement of the Prophet, who fulfilled the work of Jesus ?
Is it because he married more wives than one ? We have
shown what these marriages meant ; we have at least en-
deavoured to show that in those very deeds which have been
used to calumniate him, he was undergoing a sacrifice.

But let us look for a moment at his marriages from an abstract
point of view. Why did Moses marry more than one wife ?
Was he a moral, or a sensual man for doing so ? Why did
David, " the man after God's heart," indulge in unlimited
polygamy ? The answer is plain — each age has its own stan-
dard. What is suited for one time is not suited for the other,
and we must not judge of the past by the standard of the
present. Our ideals do not lose their greatness or their
sublimity by having acted truthfully and honestly up to the
standard of their age. Would we be justified in calling Jesus
a vain, ambitious, unpractical dreamer, or Moses and David
sanguinary sensualists, because the mind of one was filled with
vague imaginings of expected sovereignty, and the fives of the
others were so objectionable from the twentieth century
point of view ? In both cases we would be entirely wrong ;
the aspirations of the one, the achievements of the others, were
all historical facts, in accord with their times. It is the truest
mark of the Prophet that, in his most exalted mood, he does
not lose sight of the living in his anticipation of the yet unborn.
In his person he represents the growth and development of
humanity. Neither Jesus nor Mohammed could at once efface
existing society, or obliterate all national and political institu-
tions. Like Jesus, Mohammed contented himself, except
where ordinances were necessary, to meet the requirements of
the moment, " with planting principles in the hearts of his
followers which would, when the time was ripe for it, work
out their abolition,"


As regards the statement that Mohammed assumed to
himself a privilege which he denied to his followers, only thus
much need be said, that it is founded on a misconception
resulting from ignorance. The limitation on polygamy was
enunciated at Medina some years after the exile ; and the
provision regarding himself, instead of being a privilege
assumed by a libertine, was a burden consciously imposed on
a self-conscious, self -examining soul. All his marriages were
contracted before the revelation came restricting polygamy ;
and with that came the other which took away from him all
privileges. Whilst his followers were free (subject to the
conditions imposed by the law), to marry to the limit of four,
and by the use of the power of divorce, which, in spite of the
Prophet's denunciations, they still exercised, could ^nter into
fresh alliances, he could neither put away any of his wives,
whose support he had undertaken, nor could he marry any
other. Was this the assumption of a " privilege " ; or was it
not a humane provision for those already allied to him — and to
himself, a revelation of perfect self-abnegation in his prophetic
task ?

The subject of divorce has proved a fruitful source of mis-
conception and controversy ; but there can be no question that
the Koranic laws concerning the treatment of women in divorce
are of " better humanity and regard for justice than those of
any other scripture."

Among all the nations of antiquity, the power of divorce has
been regarded as a necessary corollary to 'the law of marriage ;
but this right, with a few exceptions, was exclusively reserved
for the benefit of the stronger sex ; the wife was under no
circumstance entitled to claim a divorce.

The progress of civilisation and the advancement of ideas
led to a partial amelioration in the condition of women. They,
too, acquired a qualified right of divorce, which they were never
backward in exercising freely, until the facility with which
marriages were contracted and dissolved under the Roman
emperors passed into a bye-word.

Under the ancient Hebraic Law, a husband could divorce
his wife for any cause which made her disagreeable to him, and
there were few or no checks to an arbitrary and capricious use

S.I. Q


of his power. Women were not allowed to demand a divorce
from their husbands for any reason whatsoever. 1

In later times, the Shammaites, to some extent, modified the
custom of divorce by imposing certain restrictions on its
exercise, but the school of Hillel upheld the law in its primitive

At the time of the Prophet's appearance, the Hillelite
doctrines were chiefly in force among the Jewish tribes of
Arabia, and repudiations by the husbands were as common
among them as among the pagan Arabs.

Among the Athenians the husband's right to repudiate the
wife was as unrestricted as among the ancient Israelites.

Among the Romans, the legality of the practice of divorce
was recognised from the earliest times. The laws of the
Twelve Tables admitted divorce. And if the Romans, as is
stated by their admirers, did not take advantage of this law
until five hundred years after the foundation of their city, it
was not because they were more exemplary than other nations,
but because the husband possessed the power of summarily
putting his wife to death for acts like poisoning, drinking, and
the substitution of a spurious child. But the wife had no right
to sue for a divorce ; 2 and if she solicited separation, her
temerity made her liable to punishment. But in the later
Republic, the frequency of divorce was at once the sign, the
cause, and the consequence of the rapid depravation of

We have selected the two most prominent nations of antiquity
whose modes of thought have acted powerfully on modern ways
of thinking and modern life and manners. The laws of the
Romans regarding divorce were marked by a progressive spirit,
tending to the melioration of the condition of women, and to
their elevation to an equality with men. This was the result
of the advancement of human ideas, as much as of any
extraneous cause.

" The ambiguous word which contains the precept of Jesus
is flexible to any interpretation that the wisdom of the legislator

1 Ex. xxi. 2 ; Deut. xxi. 14, xxiv. 1. Compare also Dollinger, The Gentile
and the Jew, vol. ii. pp. 339, 340 ; and Selden's Uxor Hebraica, in loco.

2 PollinPT-r, The Gentile and the Jew, vol. ii. p. 255.


can demand." 1 We may well suppose that at the time Jesus
uttered the words, " What God has joined, let not man put
asunder," he had no other idea than that of stemming the
torrent of moral depravity, and he did not stop to consider the
ultimate tendency of his words. The subsequent rule, which
makes fornication 2 (using the translated word) the only ground
of valid divorce, shows abundantly that Jesus was alive to the
emergency. 3 But the " wisdom " of subsequent legislators
has not confined itself to a blind adherence to a rule laid down
probably to suit the requirement of an embryonic community,
and delivered verbally. The rule may be regarded as incul-
cating a noble sentiment ; but that it should be considered as
the typical law of divorce is sufficiently controverted by the
multitudinous provisions of successive ages in Christian

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 28 of 55)