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Safiyah bint Huyayy (صفية بنت حيي‎, c. 610 - c. 670) (also spelled Saffiya, Safiyya, Safiya bint Huyai) was the bride of Kinana and the chief mistress of the Jewish tribes of Quraiza and An-Nadir. According to the sira Muhammad captured and married her after killing her husband. She and her husband were both captured after the victorious conclusion of Muhammad's conquest of Khaybar.

Her Story

When the Muslims invaded and conquered Khaybar, the fighting men were killed and Safiyah was taken captive (along with the rest of the women and children) and allotted as booty to Dihya Al-Kalbi, a Muslim.[1] Kinana, her husband, was tortured and executed by the Muslims in order to discover the hiding places of treasure,[2][3][4] and one source relates that he and Safiyah had been married for only one day.[5] She was so beautiful, that the Muslims began praising her in the presence of Muhammad[6], and so the prophet commanded that Dihya be brought before him along with Safiyah. Upon seeing her, Muhammad said, "Take any slave girl other than her from the captives"[7] and he selected her for himself (as was his custom, he had done similarly with Rayhana after The Massacre of the Banu Qurayza).[8] The Muslims left Khaybar to return to Medina and on the way they stopped at a place called Sidd-as-Sahba; it was at this time Safiyah became clean from her menses.[9] The "marriage banquet" consisted of haris (a kind of dish) served on a small leather sheet and a gathering of those who were conveniently nearby.[10] Another narrator describes the banquet in this way: "...there was neither meat nor bread in that banquet, but the Prophet ordered Bilal to spread the leather mats on which dates, dried yogurt and butter were put."[11] Muhammad stayed three nights there and consummated his marriage with Safiyah.[12] Despite this banquet, the Muslims were still not sure whether she would be considered a wife or a right hand possession until Muhammad set off and forced her to wear a veil as she rode behind him on his camel.[13] He considered her manumission to be an adequate mahr (dowry).[14]


From the information provided in the Hadith, it can be reasonably concluded that Safiyah did not have a choice in this marriage; rather she was war booty for Muhammad, a not uncommon practice at the time. She was held captive up until the marriage, and when Muhammad decided that she would be a wife rather than a slave-girl, that is when he made known that her manumission was her mahr. Based on the Hadith, it seems that Muhammad took Safiyah based on her beauty. Her social status would not have mattered in this particular situation because Muhammad did not intend on maintaining amiable ties with the Jews of Khaybar. In fact, he intended on forcing them into exile but was talked out of it by the Jews who agreed to cultivate the land and give half of its earnings to the Muslims.[15]

In later, non-sahih accounts, there are reports that Safiyah desired to become a Muslim, however there is no evidence of this in sahih accounts. She was the Jewish chief mistress of two tribes who had rebelled against Allah and his Apostle, so her religious piety would not have been a considering factor for Muhammad. Her wealth had been confiscated as war booty, so her wealth would not have been a considering factor either. Muhammad knew nothing about Safiyah until her capture and distribution as booty; his interest seems only to have been sparked when he heard about her beauty.

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, "A woman is married for four (things), i.e., her wealth, her family status, her beauty and her religion. So you should take possession of (marry) the religious women (otherwise) you will be a loser."[16]

Additional Narratives

Many narratives outside of the sahih hadith tradition exist about Safiyah:

When the Muslims conquered al-Qamus (the fort of B. Abu'1-Huqayq), Bilal (one of Muhammad's companions) brought Safiyah and another woman to Muhammad. He led them past the slain Jews, and when the woman with Safiyah saw them she shrieked and slapped her face and poured dust on her head. Muhammad said, "Take this she-devil away from me." He then commanded that Safiyah be put behind him and he threw his mantle over her, indicating that he had chosen her for himself. It had been said that the apostle asked Bilal, "Had you no compassion, Bilal, when you brought two women past their dead husbands?"[17]

The Sahih Hadith contradict this account, describing Safiyah being brought with Dihya, not another woman, for the sole purpose of satisfying Muhammad's curiosity about her beauty.

Safiyah had a mark on her face, and when Muhammad asked her about it, she told him that her husband had hit her so hard that he blacked her eye. She said she had a dream while she was married to Kinana, and in that dream the moon fell in her lap. When she described it to her husband, he said, "This simply means that you covet the king of the Hijaz, Muhammad", and then he hit her.[18]

In another story, Safiyah was veiled after the wedding feast and Muhammad put her on his camel in order to conduct her to the bridal tent. In the morning, Muhammad heard the noise of someone rustling against the curtain of the tent. Abu Ayub was there, and he had kept watch all night with a drawn sword. When Muhammad asked his reason for being there, his friend explained that he did not trust Safiyah because Muhammad had just slain her husband the previous day. Muhammad thanked him for his vigilance and sent him away.[19]

Modern Perspectives

The story of Safiyah is retold by Muslims in numerous biographies and books. This article provides a few examples of a contemporary Muslim retelling:

Marriage with the Holy Prophet: After the Muslims victory in the battle of Khyber all the prisoners of war were assembled. A companion of the Holy Prophet, Hadrat Dehia Kalbi, requested him for a maid. The Holy Prophet allowed him to select one. Accordingly, he picked up Hadrat Safiyah. But another companion brought to the notice of the Holy Prophet that Dehia had chosen the leading lady of the Bany Nuzair and Quraiza tribes, who should have gone to the lot of the Holy Prophet. He meant that the leading woman of an Arab tribe should not be treated as an ordinary woman. The Holy Prophet therefore, allotted another woman prisoner to Hadrat Dehia as his maid. He freed Hadrat Safiyah and married her. (Bukhari)

According to another story when Hadrat Safiyah had been assigned to Hadrat Dehia, the Holy Prophet went round the camp inspecting the prisoners. Hadrat Safiyah represented her case to the Holy Prophet stating that she being the daughter of the chief of her tribe, deserved better treatment than accorded to her. The Holy Prophet who was moved by the implorings of Hadrat Safiya, secured her freedom from Hadrat Dehia on consideration of seven heads of cattle. Thereafter was invited to accept the true faith of Islam. Hadrat Safiyah was already inclined towards Islam and hence she readily accepted the same. The Holy Prophet then married her. (Usudul Ghaba)

On his way to Medina the Holy Prophet halted at a place called Sahba where he held the Walima feast. While starting from Sahba, the holy Prophet got Hadrat Safiyah mounted on his own camel and covered her with his robe indicating that she had now become his wife. In happiness Hadrat Safiya forgot the tragedy that had befallen her family, thinking that now she was the most fortunate lady after marriage with the Holy Prophet of Islam.
Ahmed, Dr. (Mufti) M. Mukarram. (2005) Encyclopaedia of Islam. (pp 163-164). New Delhi: J.L. Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.

This version is remarkable for the very selective reading of the sources and outright recasting of some of the material. Gone are the accounts of Safiah being grieved at the death of her husband and the slaughter of her tribe. This clearly shows the contemporary Muslim drive to reconcile elements of the Prophet's biography which clash with contemporary liberal mores about war, slavery, and sexual consent.

The following quotes are from "Umm ul-Mukminin Safiyyah: The Jewish Wife of Muhammad" by Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi, September 20, 2005:

There has been some criticism going around as to the nature of marriage of Safiyyah(R), the Jewish wife of Muhammad(P). A rabid missionary hostile to the Prophet Muhammad(P) had in fact the audacity to say that:

Muhammad forced himself on a captured woman on the same day that he killed her father, husband and many of her relatives. He was a rapist.

This statement made by this ignorant missionary is due not only to the gutter environment that he was brought up and subjected to, but also because of his inability to understand the circumstances surrounding this event. Insha’allah, our purpose here is to explain the circumstances and the nature of the marriage of Safiyyah to the Prophet(P).

The above author clearly views a plain retelling of the facts as related by the tradition to be themselves attack up on the character.

The Marriage of the Prophet(P) to Safiyyah(R)
Safiyyah was the daughter of Huyayy ibn Akhtab, the undisputed leader of the Banu al-Nadir as well as a Jewish rabbi. Hence, she was of noble regal and rabbinical heritage. She became a captive of the Muslims when they seized al-Qamus, the fortress of Khaybar. When a Companion of the Prophet(P) heard of Safiyyah’s captivity, he approached the Prophet(P) with a suggestion that since she was a lady of Banu al-Nadir, only the Prophet(P) was fit enough to marry her. The Prophet(P) agreed to this suggestion and hence granted her freedom and married her.
Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad (North American Trust Publications, 1976), p. 373

The author above makes no mention of the role played by Safiyyah's beauty in the story.

This significant act of marrying Safiyyah(R) was indeed a great honour for her, for this not only preserved her dignity, it also prevented her from becoming a slave. Haykal notes that:
The Prophet granted her freedom and then married her, following the examples of great conquerors who married the daughters and wives of the kings whom they had conquered, partly in order to alleviate their tragedy and partly to preserve their dignity.1
John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, pp. 19-20

Conquerors in pre-modern times generally married the daughters and wives of the kings whom they had conquered to give themselves legitimacy as the new rulers (in addition, of course, to slaking their lust with women who could not refuse their offers of marriage). The feelings and dignity of the girls and women were the least of a conqueror's concern. In medieval England, for example, the Norman conquerors occasionally used intermarriage to claim land. The marriage to Safiyyah(R) has a political significance as well, as it helps to reduce hostilities and cement alliances. John L. Esposito notes that

As was customary for Arab chiefs, many were political marriages to cement alliances. Others were marriages to the widows of his companions who had fallen in combat and were in need of protection.2

Esposito posits peacemaking as a goal of the marriage, yet the tribe that Saffiyyah hailed from was and continued to be at war with the Muslims and was eventually expelled from Arabia according to traditional sources.

Indeed, when Bilal ibn Rabah(R), a Companion of the Prophet, brought Safiyyah along with another Jewess before him(P) by passing through the Jews that were slain in the battle, Muhammad(P) personally chided Bilal and said “Have you no compassion, Bilal, when you brought two women past their dead husbands?”3
3. A. Guillaume (trans.), The Life of Muhammad: A translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 515

In the above passage, one might surmise that Kinana was killed in battle, when actually he was murdered after the battle while he was a prisoner of war.

As for the accusation that Safiyyah was coerced into marriage or taken advantage of, as alleged by a known Islamophobic, this claim has no basis at all. It is known that Safiyyah(R) remained loyal to the Prophet until he passed away.4 We have in fact the Prophet(P) making the following offer to her, as recorded by Martin Lings:
He [the Prophet Muhammad - Ed.] then told Safiyyah that he was prepared to set her free, and he offered her the choice between remaining a Jewess and returning to her people or entering Islam and becoming his wife. “I choose God and His Messenger,” she said; and they were married at the first halt on the homeward march.[20]

Ling doesn't cite any source for this assertion. In contrast to Ling's assertion, we have Sahih Hadith that indicate that Safiyah was chosen for her beauty and kept captive up until her "wedding" night with Muhammad.

The other wives of the Prophet(P) used to show their jealousy of her by making slights upon her Jewish origin. But the Prophet(P) always defended her. Once Safiyyah was vexed to the extreme by the taunts of all the Arab wives of the Prophet(P). She took the complaint to the Prophet(P), who felt great compassion for her. He consoled and encouraged her. He equipped her with logic by saying: “Safiyyah, take courage and be bold. They are in no way superior to you. Tell them: I am a daughter of the Prophet Harun, a niece of the Prophet Musa, and a wife of the Prophet Muhammad”. This is thus an excellent example of the Prophet Muhammad(P) trying to wipe out pre-Islamic anti-Semitism amongst the Arabs.

"...trying to wipe out pre-Islamic anti-Semitism amongst the Arabs" is a an assertion that's not supported by the primary texts we have. In fact according the traditional sources Muhammad eventually expelled all of the Jews from Arabia, save the Banu Qurayza whom he slaughtered and enslaved to the last.

With the evidences laid bare before us, we do not see the justification of accusing the Prophet(P) of being a “rapist”, as those anti-Islamic critics allege. That the Prophet(P) himself married Safiyyah(R) so as to avoid the certainty of her being a slave of the Muslims and helped her to defend herself from the taunts of her co-wives is enough proof that the Prophet(P) was a man of exemplary conduct and remained honourable even to relatives of his most bitter foes.

The above shows a clear apologetic bias at work; no modern person, especially given contemporary concerns about sexual consent prevalent in modern culture, would cast the marriage of a woman taken as a slave to the man who had just defeated her tribe in battle and murdered her husband as an example of fair and equal consent. The author above is clearly more concerned with modern perceptions of Muhammad and how they conform to contemporary mores around things like sexual consent than the plain facts of what is written in the texts.

4. An account of how Safiyyah’s loyalty was affirmed by the Prophet(P) himself is recorded in Muhammad Husayn Haykal, op. cit., p. 374, of which an online document can be found.

See Also

External Links


  1. Sahih Bukhari 2:14:68
  2. Ishaq. I (Author), Guillaume. A (Translator). (2002). The Life of Muhammad. (p. 515). Oxford University Press
  3. Tabari vol. 8, p.123
  4. Muir, Sir William. (1878). The Life of Mahomet, New Edition. (pp. 390-391) London:Smith, Elder and Co.
  5. Muir, Sir William. (1878). The Life of Mahomet, New Edition. (pp. 392) London:Smith, Elder and Co.
  6. Sahih Muslim 8:3329
  7. Sahih Bukhari 1:8:367
  8. Sahih Bukhari 3:34:437
  9. Sahih Bukhari 5:59:522
  10. Sahih Bukhari 4:52:143
  11. Sahih Bukhari 5:59:524
  12. Sahih Bukhari 5:59:524
  13. Sahih Bukhari 5:59:524
  14. Sahih Bukhari 5:59:512
  15. Sahih Bukhari 3:39:531
  16. Khan, Dr. Muhammad Muhsin (Translator). (1994). Summarized Sahih Al-Bukhari: Arabic-English. (p. 889). Al-Madinah Al-Munawwarah: Islamic University.
  17. Ishaq. I (Author), Guillaume. A (Translator). (2002). The Life of Muhammad. (p. 515). Oxford University Press
  18. Ishaq. I (Author), Guillaume. A (Translator). (2002). The Life of Muhammad. (p. 515). Oxford University Press
  19. Muir, Sir William. (1878). The Life of Mahomet, New Edition. (pp. 392-393) London:Smith, Elder and Co.
  20. 5. Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based On The Earliest Sources (George Allen & Unwin, 1983), p. 269