Muhammad's Marriages of Political Necessity

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Some have suggested that "Prophet Muhammad married most of his wives for political reasons" and that "He only married so many women at one time out of political necessity."

This reasoning does not convince many critics. No matter how urgent the needs of state, they argue, nothing justifies having more than one wife at a time. If Muhammad could not see any way around his political problems except polygamy, that simply proves he was not a "prophet".

You might take the line that polygamy was normal in seventh-century Arabia, and Muhammad was not doing anything wrong by the standards of his own culture. That may convince some of them that he was a decent person by the standards of his day. In that case, however, it would contradict Islamic theology, and there's still the question as to why Muhammad limited other Muslims to four wives each, yet at one point in his own life, he had eleven wives plus the intention of adding more. When Ghaylan ibn Salama became a Muslim, he had to divorce six of his ten wives – even though this was in early 630, when Muhammad himself had exactly ten wives.

Why did Muhammad pick the apparently random number of four and enforce this as the maximum number of wives, yet break this rule himself? If the answer is that it was politically necessary, we would expect some exceptional political situation that, in order to ensure the future survival of Islam, required Muhammad to marry all those women.

Many articles have been written by apologists to explain what these exceptional political circumstances were. Such writers do describe the political advantages of Muhammad’s marriages (at some sacrifice of factual accuracy) but they never attempt to explain why the political crisis was so urgent and compelling that Muhammad was required to break his own rules. They never face the question: “If Muhammad had not married this woman, what would have been the probable consequences for Islam?”

Imagine that Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, had lived another 15 years. Imagine that she, and not Aisha or any other woman, had been beside him as he lay dying. Imagine that Khadijah had remained his only wife ever. Would this have been a great disaster for Islam? What would have been the consequences for the great political crises of Muhammad’s life? Let's briefly list the major political disasters that Muhammad faced, together with a few words on how he handled them.

  1. 616-619. The Quraysh enforced a trade blockade against the Hashim clan in Mecca. The Muslims survived by living off Khadijah’s wealth. Although the Muslim historians do not state this directly, the blockade was probably lifted because Muhammad agreed to the Satanic Verses compromise.
  2. 622. The Quraysh pronounced the death sentence on Muhammad. He survived by escaping to Medina and moving his community there. If Khadijah had been alive, she and not Sawdah would have most likely accompanied Fatima in the rearguard party.
  3. 624-627. The Jews in Medina announced that they did not believe Muhammad was the Messiah, which seriously dented his credibility with the local pagans. He ejected two of the tribes and killed the third. He was now “Duke” of Medina. If Khadijah had been alive, the angel Jibreel would probably have brought all those urgent messages about the treachery of the Jews in her house instead of in Hind’s.
  4. 627. The Meccans, together with a few Bedouin chiefs and exiled Jews, besieged Medina, hoping to kill Muhammad in the battle. Muhammad dug a trench around Medina and so the siege failed. Muhammad then conquered a Kilab tribe and secured from them a trade blockade against Mecca. By the time Muhammad agreed to end the blockade (the date is not given, but the Meccans had become hungry), the Meccans had learned not to attack Muhammad directly. If Khadijah had been alive, Muhammad would have probably conquered the Kilabites and blockaded Mecca in exactly the same way.
  5. 628. Meanwhile, Muhammad took a pre-emptive strike against the surviving Jews. After a war of conquest against Khaybar, every Jew in Arabia was reduced to vassalage. There was a danger that their Ghatafan allies would retaliate, so Muhammad stock-piled weapons in anticipation. If Khadijah had been alive, perhaps she and not Hind would have been the one who carried the first aid box to Khaybar.
  6. 630. After Mecca was starved out, Muhammad mustered an army of ten thousand and marched in to conquer the city. The “Duke” of Mecca was converted at sword-point, and the city surrendered. This served as a warning to the Ghatafans, and even the Yemenites negotiated an “alliance” (surrender) rather than face the Muslim armies. If Khadijah had been alive, it’s really difficult to imagine how anything at all would have been different.
  7. 630–632. Muhammad conquered whatever was left of Arabia. By the time of his death, he was effectively “King”. If Khadijah had been alive, she would have been “Queen”.

None of these political crises was solved by a marriage alliance. If Khadijah had survived, it would have made little difference to the fortunes of Islam. Muhammad would have conquered the peninsula and imposed his religion upon it just the same.

Now let's look at it from a different angle. What would Islam have lost if Muhammad had failed to marry any of the other women?

  1. If he hadn’t married Aisha, Sawdah or Hafsah, he might have had to think of a different way of raising money. However, what with the plundering and taxing, Muhammad seemed to have had that problem worked out.
  2. If he hadn’t married his cousin Zaynab bint Jahsh, he would have saved himself quite a bit of trouble, as this marriage – the first to break his “four wives only” rule – caused him social embarrassment on several fronts.
  3. If he hadn’t married Mulaykah, Fatima, Asma or Amrah, he wouldn’t have had to divorce them, which might have kept his relations with their families smoother. But never mind about this – only Asma was of any political importance, and the divorce proved that even she was not as important as her family had hoped.
  4. If he hadn’t married Zaynab bint Khuzaymah, Hind or Maymunah, nothing at all would have changed.
  5. If he hadn’t taken four slave-concubines who were of no political importance of all, it’s just possible that he could have avoided the accusation of being a womanizer.

Only three of Muhammad’s marriages can seriously be considered “political” in any sense. These three marriages were all contracted in 628. But how crucial were the political issues in that year?

  1. Juwayriyah was the daughter of a petty chief whose tribe was flattened in a single raid. This tribe was not going to be any more trouble to Muhammad regardless of whether he married the chief’s daughter. Muhammad conquered plenty of more important tribes over the years, but he did not need to marry the chiefs’ daughters in order to maintain their submission.
  2. Ramlah was the daughter of Abu Sufyan, the “Duke” of Mecca. She had defected to Islam several years earlier and had barely spoken to her father since. It did not seem to bother her that the Muslims had killed her brother at the Battle of Badr or that Muhammad had sent assassins after her father (these assassins failed their assignment, but everyone knew that Muhammad had tried it). So marrying Ramlah did not create any kind of “alliance” with Abu Sufyan. Rather, it enabled Muhammad to deliver a psychological snub to his enemy, whose own daughter had rejected her father in his favour. Even when Abu Sufyan tried to negotiate through his daughter for peace with Muhammad, she refused to cooperate. This marriage might have been a psychological blow to the unlucky father, but it is unlikely that he was so discouraged that it directly contributed to his eventual defeat.
  3. Safiyah was the First Lady of Khaybar; she was related to everyone of importance in the Jewish community. Muhammad married her after he had humiliated Khaybar. This “alliance” brought no advantages to the Jews. The dying Muhammad actually stated in Safiyah’s presence that he wanted all the remaining Jews ejected from Arabia. It is highly doubtful that the marriage discouraged the Jews from further rebellion against Muhammad. The reason they gave him no more trouble was that they were not powerful enough to do so. If they had been strong enough to defy Muhammad, they would probably not have been deterred by the fact that Safiyah was a “hostage” in Medina; Safiyah herself would have probably expected her people to sacrifice her for the greater good.

If Muhammad had not married these three women, it is practically certain that their respective tribes would not have altered their behavior in any way. He did not need these marriages for political reasons.

See Also