Marriage and Divorce
(Al-NikAh and Al-TalAq)

The eighth book is entitled the “Book of Marriage”; one section of it also discusses divorce (al-talAq).

Muhammad forbids celibacy.  “Those among you who can support a wife should marry, for it restrains eyes from casting evil glances and preserves one from immorality” (3231).  One of his Companions wanted to live in celibacy, but Muhammad “forbade him to do so” (3239).1

In fact, Muhammad discouraged self-denial in general.  One of his Companions said, “I will not marry women”; another said, “I will not eat meat”; and yet another said, “I will not lie down in bed.” Muhammad asked himself: “What has happened to these people that they say so and so, whereas I observe prayer and sleep too; I observe fast and suspend observing them; I marry women also?  And who turns away from my Sunnah, he has no relation with me” (3236).

A woman is a great safety valve, but if even that fails and a man is aroused by some other woman, he should come home and cohabit with his wife.  “Allah’s Messenger saw a woman and so he came to his wife, Zainab, as she was tanning a leather and had sexual intercourse with her.  He then went to his Companions and told them: The woman advances and returns in the shape of a devil, so when one of you see a woman, he should come to his wife, for that will repel what he feels in his heart” (3240).  We are all too ready to see the devil in others, but not in our own selves.


Muhammad allowed temporary marriages.  ’Abdullah b. Mas’ud reports: “We were on an expedition with Allah’s Messenger and we had no women with us.  We said: Should we not have ourselves castrated?  The Holy Prophet forbade us to do so.  He then granted us permission that we should contract temporary marriage for a stipulated period giving her a garment [for a dowry].” At this ’Abdullah felt happy and remembered the QurAnic verse: “The believers do not make unlawful the good things which Allah has made lawful for you, and do not transgress.  Allah does not like transgressors” (3243; QurAn 5:87).

JAbir reports: “We contracted temporary marriage giving a handful of dates and flour as a dower” (3249).  He told another group: “Yes, we had been benefiting ourselves by this temporary marriage during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet, and during the time of AbU Bakr and ’Umar” (3248). IYas b. Salama reports, on the authority of his father, “that Allah’s Messenger gave sanction for contracting temporary marriage for three nights in the year of AutAs [after the Battle of Hunain, A.H. 8] and then forbade it” (3251).

Sunni theologians regard this form of marriage as no longer lawful, but the Shias differ and still practice it in Persia.  The Shia theologians support this with a QurAnic verse: “Forbidden to you also are married women, except those who are your hands as slaves. . . . And it is allowed you, besides this, to seek out wives by means of your wealth, with modest conduct, and without fornication.  And give those with whom you have cohabited their dowry.  This is the law.  But it shall be no crime in you to make agreements over and above the law.  Verily, God is knowing, Wise” (QurAn 4:24).


The law appears to be quite indulgent, but it is not entirely so.  There are many restrictions on grounds of number, consanguinity, affinity, religion, rank, etc.  For example, a man cannot marry more than four free women at a time (QurAn 4:3)-there is no restriction on the number of slave concubines.  Also, one cannot marry one’s wife’s father’s sister nor her mother’s sister (3268-3277).  It is also forbidden to marry the daughter of one’s foster brother, or even the sister of one’s wife if the wife is alive and not divorced (3412-3413).

It is also forbidden to marry an unbeliever (QurAn 2:220-221).  Later on, this restriction was relaxed, and a male Muslim could then marry a Jew or a Christian (QurAn 5:5).  Under no circumstances could a female Muslim marry a nonbeliever.

Marriage is also disallowed when the parties are not equal in rank or status (kafa’ah), though what is rank is differently understood by different people.  Generally speaking, an Arab is considered higher than a non-Arab, the Prophet’s relatives being the highest.  One who had committed a portion of the QurAn to memory was considered a qualified match by Muhammad himself.  A woman came to him and entrusted herself to him.  He “cast a glance at her from head to foot . . . but made no decision” about her.  Then a Companion who was there stood up and said: “Messenger of Allah, marry her to me if you have no need for her.” But the man possessed nothing, not even an iron ring for a dowry.  He was turning away in disappointment when Muhammad asked him if he knew any verses of the QurAn and could recite them.  The man said yes.  Then Muhammad decided and said: “Go, I have given her to you in marriage for the part of the QurAn which you know” (3316).

One should also not outbid one’s brother.  “A believer is the brother of a believer, so it is not lawful for a believer to outbid his brother, and he should not propose an agreement when his brother has thus proposed until he gives it up” (3294).

ShighAr marriage is also prohibited (3295-3301).2 This is the marriage which says: Marry me your daughter or sister, and in exchange I will give you in marriage my daughter or sister.

One should also not marry when one has put on the ritual garb of pilgrimage.  “A Muhrim should neither marry nor make the proposal of marriage,” reports UsmAn b. AffAn, quoting the Prophet (3281).  But this point is controversial, for Muhammad himself “married MaimUna while he was a Muhrim” (3284).

One cannot remarry one’s divorced wife unless she subsequently married someone else and the new husband had sexual intercourse with her and then divorced her (3354-3356).  A divorcee married but then decided to go back to her old husband.  Seeking the Prophet’s permission, she told Muhammad that all the new husband possessed was “like the fringe of a garment” (i.e., he was sexually weak).  The Prophet “laughed” but withheld the permission.  “You cannot do that until you have tasted his [the new husbands] sweetness and he has tasted your sweetness,” he told her (3354).3


A husband has complete sexual rights over his wife.  “Your wives are your tilth; go then unto your tilth as you may desire” (3363).  The same idea is also found in the QurAn (2:223).  Another hadIs in the same group tells the husband that “if he likes he may have intercourse being on the back or in front of her, but it should be through one hole” (3365), which means vagina only, as the commentators tell us.

It is the duty of a wife to be responsive to all of her husband’s overtures.  “When a woman spends the night away from the bed of her husband, the angels curse her until morning” (3366).


In return, a woman has her rights.  She is entitled to a lawful maintenance (nafaqah); if the husband fails to provide it, she can seek a divorce.  She is also entitled to a dowry (mahr), or what the QurAn in some verses (4:24, 33:50) calls her “hire” (ujUrat).  She can claim it when divorced.

She is also to be consulted in the choice of her partner.  “A woman who has been previously married (Sayyib) has more right to her person than her guardian.  And a virgin should also be consulted, and her silence implies her consent” (3307).  Theoretically, a Muslim woman is entitled to make the marriage contract herself, but in practice it is her nearest kinsman, the guardian (walI), who does it.  The father and the grandfather are even called “compelling walIs.” According to some schools, a minor girl given in marriage by a guardian other than her father or grandfather can seek dissolution of the marriage when she attains her majority.


Coitus interruptus is permitted, but it is useless if the object is to prevent conception, for that is in the hand of Allah.  AbU Sirma reports: “We went out with Allah’s Messenger on the expedition. . . . and took some excellent Arab women; and we desired them . . . but we also desired ransom for them.  So we decided to have sexual intercourse with them but by observing ’azl.” They consulted Muhammad, and he advised: “It does not matter if you do not do it, for every soul that is to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born” (3371).


Adultery and fornication are punished according to Muhammad’s law, but not if you commit them with the “women that your right hands possess,” that is, those women, whether married or unmarried, who are captured by the Muslims in jihAd, or holy war.  A QurAnic verse fortifies this position: “Also prohibited are women already married except those whom your right hands possess” (4:24).

AhAdIs 3432-3434 tell us that this verse descended on the Prophet for the benefit of his Companions.  AbU Sa’Id reports that “at the Battle of Hunain Allah’s Messenger sent an army to AutAs. . . . Having overcome them [the enemies] and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists.  Then, Allah, Most High. sent down [the above verse]” (3432).

The followers had a feeling of delicacy in the matter, based on an old moral code, but Allah now gave a new one.


It is permissible to cast a glance at the woman one wants to marry, from “head to foot.” A believer came to Muhammad, informing him that he had contracted a marriage with an ansAr woman and wanted him to contribute toward the dowry payment.  “Did you cast a glance at her, for there is something in the eyes of the AnsArs,” Muhammad asked.  The man replied: “Yes.” “For what dower did you marry her,” Muhammad inquired.  “For four Uqiyas,” the man replied.  “For four Uqiyas?  It seems as if you dig out silver from the side of the mountain (that is why you are prepared to pay so much dower).  We have nothing which we should give you.  There is a possibility that we may send you to an expedition where you may get booty.” The man was sent on an expedition marching against the BanU ’Abs (3315).

But this permission actually originated in a different incident.  An Arab woman named ’Umra, the daughter of one Jaun, “was mentioned before Allah’s Messenger.” By now the Prophet was an important man in Arab politics, so he commanded an official of his named AbU Usaid to send a messenger to the woman.  She was brought and she “stayed in the fortresses of BanU SA’idah.” Allah’s Messenger went out until he came to her to give “her a proposal of marriage.” She was “sitting with her head downcast.” They saw each other, and Muhammad talked to her.  She told him: “I seek refuge with Allah from you.” Meanwhile the Prophet had arrived at his own conclusion.  He told her: “I have decided to keep you away from me.” Then Muhammad retired with his host and told him: “Sahl, serve us drink” (4981).  

It is in this hadIs that one finds it permissible to cast a glance at the woman whom one intends to marry (note 2424).


Ticklish problems arise if one has more than one wife and if one marries often.  One of the problems, for example, is how many nights one should spend with one’s newly wed wife?  The answer is seven days if she is a virgin, and three days if she is a widow (3443-3449).

Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muhammad, tells us that when Muhammad married her, he spent three nights with her.  When he intended to leave, she “caught hold of his garment.” But the Prophet told her: “If you wish I can stay with you for a week, but then I shall have to stay for a week with all my wives” (3443-3445).

Though a husband should divide his days equally among all his wives, one wife could make over her day to another.  AhAdIs 3451-3452 tell us that when Sauda became old, she made over her day to ’Aisha.  So Allah’s Messenger “allotted two days to ’Aisha” (3451).

But sometimes the Prophet himself would ask a wife to forgo her day.  One wife told him: “If I had the option in this I would not have allowed anyone to have precedence over me” (3499).

Eventually the rule of rotation was withdrawn altogether by a special dispensation of Allah: “Thou may defer the turn of any of them that thou pleasest, and thou may receive any thou pleasest; and there is no blame in thee if thou invite one whose turn thou hast set aside” (QurAn 33:51).  Allah is very accommodating.  ’Aisha, for whose benefit He really spoke, taunted Muhammad: “It seems to me that your Lord hastens to satisfy your desire” (3453).


We have one important hadIs which provides another indulgence to the believers and also throws some light on the Prophet’s sexual code.  In order to be impartial, a believer should visit his wives by turn.  But while he is in bed with one of them, he is allowed to have his other wives around.  Anas, one of the servants of Muhammad, reports that “all the wives of the Messenger of Allah used to gather every night in the house of one where he [the Apostle] had to come. . . . It was the night in the house of ’Aisha, when Zainab came there.  He [the Holy Prophet] stretched his hand towards her [Zainab], whereupon she [’Aisha] said: it is Zainab.  Allah’s Apostle withdrew his hand.  There was an altercation between the two until their voices became loud.” When the morning prayer was announced, AbU Bakr came to get Muhammad; hearing their voices, he said: “Messenger of Allah, come for prayer, and throw dust in their mouths” (3450).


In other ahAdIs, the Prophet touches upon the excellence of marrying a virgin (3458-3464). JAbir reports: “The Apostle of Allah said: ‘JAbir, have you married?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He said: ‘A virgin or one previously married?’ I said: ‘with one previously married,’ whereupon he said: ‘Why did you not marry a virgin with whom you could sport?’ “ (3458), or “who might amuse you and you might amuse her” (3464).


Muhammad also made effective use of what are known in literary criticism as vulgar expressions.  Once the Prophet and his party returned from an expedition rather late, and his Companions wanted to hurry to their homes.  But the Prophet told them to wait till “the woman with dishevelled hair may comb it, and the woman whose husband had been away may get herself clean; and when you enter, you have the enjoyment” (3462).

The translator tells us that the Arabic word for “get herself clean” is tastahidda, which literally means “to remove the hairs on the private parts,” but it is here used metaphorically in the sense of getting ready for the husband’s company (note 1926).


“Had it not been for Eve, woman would have never acted unfaithfully towards the husband,” the Prophet tells us (3471).


Some incidents relating to the Prophet’s marriages with SafIyya (3325-3329) and Zainab hint Jahsh are mentioned (3330-3336).


Muhammad’s wars and raids not only fed his coffers, they also swelled his harem.  SafIyya, a beautiful girl of seventeen years, was the wife of the chief of a Jewish clan inhabiting Khaibar.  Muhammad’s custom was to make surprise attacks.  Khaibar was invaded in the same fashion.  Anas narrates: “We encountered the people at sunrise when they had come out with their axes, spades and strings driving their cattle along.  They shouted in surprise: Muhammad has come along with his force!  The Messenger of Allah said: Khaibar shall face destruction” (4438).  There is even a QurAnic verse relating to Muhammad’s sudden sweep on the valley and the fate of its people: “But when it descends [nazala] into the open space, before them evil will be the morning for those who were warned” (QurAn 37:177).  

In any case, many people were butchered, and many others were taken prisoners.  “We took Khaibar by force, and there were gathered the prisoners of war,” according to Anas.  SafIyya, the daughter of Huyayy b. Akhtab, the chief of the Quraiza and al-NazIr, was one of them.  Her husband, KinAna, was put to a cruel death (3325).4

Anas continues: “She first fell to the lot of Dihya in the spoils of war.” (Incidentally, Dihya was strikingly handsome.  Muhammad used to see Gabriel in his form.) But Anas adds that people “praised her in the presence of Allah’s Messenger and said: ‘We have not seen the like of her among the captives of war’ ” (3329).  Muhammad took her away from Dihya, Gabriel or no Gabriel, and even took her to his bed the same night her husband was killed, in violation of his own command, which enjoined the believers to wait until the beginning of the next menstrual cycle in their captive women.5


SafIyya was no exception.  Many other women, among them RIhAna and JuwairIya, were taken in and treated as part of the war booty.  RIhAna was a Jewish girl of the BanU Quraizah.  After her husband was beheaded in cold blood along with eight hundred other male members of her tribe in the genocide at Medina, Muhammad kept her as his concubine.  We shall touch upon this massacre again in our discussion of jihAd.

JuwairIya, another of these unfortunate girls, was the daughter of the chief of the Banu’l Mustaliq.  She was captured in the fifth or sixth year of the Hijra along with two hundred other women.  “The Messenger of Allah made a raid upon BanU Mustaliq while they were unaware and their cattle were having a drink at the water.  He killed those who fought and imprisoned others.  On that very day, he captured JuwairIya bint al-HAris” (4292).

In the division of the booty, she fell to the lot of SAbit ibn Qays.  He set her ransom price at nine ounces of gold, beyond the power of her relatives to pay.  ’Aisha’s reaction when she saw this beautiful girl being led into the presence of Muhammad is recounted in these words: “As soon as I saw her at the door of my room, I detested her, for I knew that he [Muhammad] would see her as I saw her.” And indeed, when Muhammad saw JuwairIya he paid her ransom and took her for his wife.  JuwairIya was at that time about twenty, and she became the seventh wife of the Prophet.  The whole story is given by Ibn IshAq, the Prophet’s biographer.6

There was another girl, named Zainab, again Jewish, who had seen her father, husband, and uncle killed.  She poisoned the roasted lamb she was ordered to prepare for Muhammad.  Suspecting something wrong, Muhammad spat out the very first morsel.  He was saved, and she was immediately put to death, according to some authorities (TabaqAt, vol. II, pp. 252-255).


Here we shall mention another Zainab, whose affair was not cruel but scandalous.  She was the wife of Muhammad’s adopted son, Zaid, and therefore, in the eyes of the Arabs, as good as his own daughter-in-law.  Muhammad went to her house when her husband was away, saw her in a state of seminudeness, and was aroused.  When Zaid heard about it, he offered to divorce her, but Muhammad, fearing a public scandal, told him to keep his wife for himself.  At this point Allah spoke and decided the matter (QurAn 33:36-40).  He chided Muhammad for telling Zaid, “Retain thou in wedlock thy wife,” and for hiding in his heart “that which God was about to make manifest.” Allah told Muhammad: “Thou feared the people, but it is more fitting that thou should fear God”; and He revealed His plan, present and future, to Muhammad thus: “We joined her in marriage to thee, in order that in future there may be no difficulty to the believers in the matter of marriage with the wives of their adopted sons.” He now also addressed Himself to the Muslims of all generations: “It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by God and His Apostle to have any option about their decision.  If anyone disobeys God and His Apostle, he is indeed clearly on a wrong path.”

Thus reassured, Muhammad made Zaid himself go to his wife with his marriage proposal.  “Allah’s Messenger said to Zaid to make a mention to her about him” (3330).  The marriage ordered from above was celebrated with unusual festivity.  “Allah’s Messenger gave no better wedding feast than the one he did on the occasion of his marriage with Zainab” (3332).


TalAq literally means “undoing the knot,” but in Islamic law, it now means annulment of marriage by the pronouncement of certain words.

The marriage and divorce laws of Islam derive from the Prophet’s own practice and pronouncements.  According to the Shias, the Prophet had twenty-two wives, two of whom were bondswomen; but that was a special divine dispensation for him alone.  The other believers are allowed only four wives at a time, exclusive of slave concubines, who do not count.  The total of four wives at one time cannot be exceeded, but individual wives can be replaced through talAq.  The procedure is not difficult; once a man says the word talAq three times, the divorce becomes operative.

Yet there are certain restrictions.  For example, it is forbidden to divorce a woman during her menstrual period (3473-3490).  ’Abdullah, the son of ’Umar, the future KhalIfa, divorced his wife while she was in a state of menses.  When ’Umar mentioned this to Muhammad, the latter ordered: “He [’Abdullah] should take her back, and when she is pure he may divorce her” (3485).


The word talAq has to be pronounced three times before talAq becomes operative (3491-3493).  But opinions differ as to whether it has to be pronounced on three separate occasions, after three successive menses, or whether three times at one sitting is enough.  According to the translator, “traditions are not lacking in which three pronouncements at one sitting were held as irrevocable divorce even during the time of the prophet” (note 1933).

With such easy conditions of divorce, the limitation of wives to four at a time was not unduly self-denying.  Wives were constantly replaced.  ’Abdar-RahmAn, a senior Companion, adviser, and friend of Muhammad, AbU Bakr, and ’Umar, had children by sixteen wives besides those from concubines.  Somewhat later, Hasan, the son of ’AlI and grandson of Muhammad, married seventy-some say ninety-times.  People in his day called him the Divorcer.

It is no wonder that women had no sanctity.  Wives could be easily disposed of by gifting or divorce.  For example, on emigrating to Medina, ’Abdar-RahmAn was adopted by Sa’d, son of RabI, as a brother in faith-in accordance with the arrangement made by Muhammad to join every Emigrant to an ansAr in brotherhood.  As they sat together at supper, the host said: “Behold my two wives and choose one you like the best.” One wife was divorced on the spot and gifted away.7


There were two other forms of separation not amounting to legal divorce prevalent among the Arabs at the time of Muhammad: zihAr and IlA’.  In zihAr, the husband vowed that his wife would be unto him as the back (zahr) of his mother and then stayed away from her for a specified period.  This was a customary vow of abstinence among the Arabs, and according to some traditions, Muslims also took it during the period of fasting.  The purpose of the abstinence could be penitential or devotional, or the vow might be taken in a fit of anger.  The same formula was also used as a form of divorce.  Muhammad condemned divorce by zihAr (QurAn 58: 1-5) and allowed a husband who had taken the vow to go back to his wife.  The broken vow could be expiated by making a kaffArah (literally, “that which covers a sin”), which in this case is either a fast for two months or the feeding of sixty poor men and women.

There was another form of separation called IlA’ (“to swear”).  In this form, the husband swore an oath to abstain from sexual intercourse with his wife.  In the pre-Islamic period, the Arabs regarded IlA as a form of divorce, but it did not fully dissolve the marriage.  The oath of IlA was sometimes taken to penalize the wife and extort ransom from her.  Muhammad forbade this (QurAn 2:226).  A man who had taken such a vow was to go back to his wife without any blame to himself; if not, the marriage was ipso facto legally dissolved at the end of four months.  The broken vow could be expiated.  “When a man declares his wife as unlawful for himself that is an oath which must be atoned. . . . There is in the Messenger of Allah a model pattern for you” (3494-3495).

In due course, the two forms of separation died away in Islam.


IlA’ is a temporary separation from one’s wife.  In this sense of the term, the believers are indeed fortunate in having a “model pattern” in an example provided by the Prophet.

Muhammad himself had to undergo separation from his wives for a period which lasted twenty-nine days.  The SahIh Muslim narrates this incident in several ahAdIs; but before we take them up, let us provide some background information.

In visiting his numerous wives, Muhammad observed a rough-and-ready rule of rotation.  In fact, the days in his life were known by the name of the wife he was visiting.  One day Muhammad was supposed to be with Hafza, but instead she found him with Mary, the beautiful Coptic concubine.  Hafza was furious.  “In my room, on my day and in my own bed,” she shouted.  Muhammad, trying to pacify her, promised never to visit Mary again, but he wanted Hafza to keep the incident a secret.

Hafza, however, told ’Aisha, and very soon everybody knew about it.  Muhammad’s Quraish wives detested Mary and were jealous of the servile wretch, who had even given Muhammad a son.  Soon the harem was filled with gossip, excitement, and jeering.  Muhammad was very angry, and he told his wives that he would have nothing to do with them.  He separated himself from them, and soon the news was afloat that he was divorcing them all.  In fact, in the eyes of the believers this rumor was more newsworthy and significant than the reports that Medina was soon to be attacked by GhassAn (the Arab auxiliaries of Byzantium).

In a long hadIs, ’Umar b. al-KhattAb (Hafza’s father) reports: “When Allah’s Apostle kept himself away from his wives, I entered the mosque, and found the people striking the ground with pebbles and saying: Allah’s Messenger has divorced his wives.” ’Umar decided to find out what was actually happening.  First he asked ’Aisha if she had “gone to the extent of giving trouble to Allah’s Messenger.” ’Aisha told him to mind his own business.  “I have nothing to do with you.  You should look to your own receptacle [Hafza].” ’Umar next sought out Hafza and chided her.  “You know that Allah’s Messenger does not love you, and had I not been your father he would have divorced you,” he told her.  She wept bitterly.

Then ’Umar sought permission to be admitted into the presence of Muhammad.  The request was disregarded, but he insisted.  “O RahAb, seek permission for me from Allah’s Messenger. I think that Allah’s Messenger is under the impression that I have come for the sake of Hafza.  By Allah, if Allah’s Messenger would command me to strike her neck, I would certainly do that,” he told RahAb, Muhammad’s doorman.  He was admitted.

As ’Umar entered, he saw “the signs of anger on his [Muhammad’s] face,” so he tried to calm him down.  He told him “how we the people of Quraish had domination over women but when we came to Medina we found people whom their women dominated.  So our women began to learn from their women.”

He also told him: “Messenger of Allah, what trouble do you feel from your wives, and if you had divorced them, verily Allah is with you, His angels, Gabriel, Mika’il, I and AbU Bakr and the believers are with you.”

Muhammad relaxed.  “I went on talking to him until the signs of anger disappeared on his face . . . and he laughed,” ’Umar narrates.  In this new mood, the famous verses descended on the Prophet, freeing him from his oath respecting Mary, threatening his wives with divorce, and incorporating ’Umar’s assurance that all the angels and believers supported him: “O Prophet!” said Allah.  “Why do you prohibit thyself what God has made lawful to you, craving to please thy wives? . . . Allah has already ordained for you the dissolution of your oaths.” Allah also told the Prophet’s wives in no uncertain terms that “his Lord if he divorces you will give him in exchange wives better than you.” Allah warned them, particularly ’Aisha and Hafza, in the following terms: “If ye both turn repentant unto God,-for your hearts have swerved!-but if you back each other up against him, verily, Allah, He is the sovereign; and Gabriel, and the righteous of the believers, and the angels after that will back him up.” Allah also told them that if they misbehaved, being the Prophet’s wives would avail them nothing on the Day of Judgment.  “God strikes out a parable to those who misbelieve: the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot; they were under two of our righteous servants, but they betrayed them: and they availed them nothing against God; and it was said, ‘Enter the Fire with those who enter’ “ (QurAn 66:1-10).

The matter blew over, and they became his wives again.  The Holy Prophet “had taken an oath of remaining away from them [his wives] for a month, and by now only twenty-nine days had passed, [but] he visited them.” ’Aisha mischievously reminded the Prophet that it was not yet one month but only twenty-nine days, to which Muhammad replied: “At times, the month consists of twenty-nine days” (3507-3511).

Now ’Umar stood at the door of the mosque and called out at the top of his voice: “The Messenger of Allah has not divorced his wives.” A verse chiding his followers for so readily believing in rumors also descended on Muhammad: “And if any matter pertaining to peace or alarm comes within their ken, they broadcast it.  But if they had only referred it to the Apostle, or to those charged with authority among them, the proper investigators would indeed know it” (QurAn 4:83; hadIs 3507).


It seems there were other occasions of domestic discord, some of them centering round money.  These must have occurred in the early days at Medina, when Muhammad lacked funds.  Once AbU Bakr and ’Umar went to Muhammad and found him “sitting sad and silent with his wives around him.” He told the two fathers: “They [his wives and their daughters] are around me as you see, asking for extra money.” Then AbU Bakr “got up, went to ’Aisha and slapped her on the neck; and ’Umar stood up and slapped Hafza” (3506).

On this occasion, the Prophet also gave his wives the option of a goodly departure if they “cared more for this world and its adornments than for Allah and His Apostle and the abode of the Hereafter” (QurAn 33:28-29).  The wives chose the latter.

The moral of these ahAdIs (3498-3506) as drawn by the translator is that “mere giving option to women to divorce does not make the divorce effective, but when it is really intended.”


FAtima hint Quais was divorced by her husband “when he was away from home.” She was very angry and went to Muhammad, who told her: “There is no lodging and maintenance allowance for a woman who has been given irrevocable divorce.” But he mercifully helped her to find another husband.  She had two suitors, AbU Jahm and Mu’Awiya.  Muhammad advised against them both, for the former did “not put down his staff from his shoulder” (i.e., he beat his wives), and the latter was poor.  In their place, he proposed the name of UsAma b. Zaid, the son of his slave and adopted son, Zaid (3512).

Later on a more generous sentiment prevailed.  ’Umar ruled that husbands should provide their divorced wives with a maintenance allowance during the period of ’idda on the ground that the true purpose of the Prophet’s words had been misunderstood by FAtima, a mere woman.  “We cannot abandon the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of our Apostle for the words of a woman” (3524).

’Idda is a period of waiting during which a woman cannot remarry.  It normally lasts four months and ten days but ends sooner if the woman gives birth to a child.  Once ’idda has ended, the woman can contract another marriage (3536-3538).

Having to provide an allowance for four months at the most was not very difficult.  Thus, since husbands had almost no fear of any future burden, and could get rid of their wives so easily, the threat of divorce hung heavily on Muslim women.


A woman whose husband dies must abstain from all adornment during the ’idda period, but mourning for other relatives should not last for more than three days (3539-3552).  AbU SufyAn, the father of Umm HabIba, one of Muhammad’s wives, died.  She sent for some perfume and rubbed it on her cheeks, observing: “By Allah, I need no perfume but for the fact that I heard Allah’s Messenger say, ‘It is not permissible for a woman believing in Allah and the Hereafter to mourn for the dead beyond three days, but in the case of the death of the husband it is permissible for four months and ten days’ ” (3539).


If a man finds his wife in adultery, he cannot kill the adulterous man, for that is forbidden; nor can he make an accusation against his wife, for unless he has four witnesses, he receives eighty stripes for making a false accusation against the chastity of a woman.  But if the witnesses are not always forthcoming, which is most likely in such a case, what should he do?  This was the dilemma confronting the believers.  An ansAr posed the problem to Muhammad: “If a person finds his woman along with a man, and if he speaks about it, you would lash him; and if he kills, you will kill him, and if he keeps quiet, he shall have to consume anger.” Muhammad supplicated God: “Allah, solve this problem” (3564).  And a verse descended on him (QurAn 24:6) which gives us the practice of li’An.  The word literally means “oath,” but technically it stands for that particular form of oath which brings about separation between husband and wife with the help of four oaths and one curse.  A husband’s solitary evidence can be accepted if he bears witness four times with an oath by Allah that he is solemnly telling the truth and then invokes the curse of Allah upon himself if he is lying.  Similarly, the wife can solemnly deny the accusation four times and then invoke the wrath of Allah on herself if her accuser is telling the truth.  One of them must be lying, but this closes the chapter, and they are wife and husband no more (3553-3577).


For some unexplained reason, a few chapters at the end of the book dealing with marriage and divorce are on slaves.  This may be due to a faulty method of classification, or it may be that emancipating a slave was considered a form of talAq, which literally means “freeing” or “undoing the knot”; or it may be that the subject really belongs to the next book, which is on business transactions-a slave, after all, was no more than a chattel.

Modern Muslim writers trying to boost Islam as a humane ideology make much of the sayings of Muhammad on the emancipation (’itq) of slaves.  But the fact remains that Muhammad, by introducing the concept of religious war and by denying human rights to non-Muslims, sanctioned slavery on an unprecedented scale.  Pre-Islamic Arabs, even in their wildest dreams, never imagined that the institution of slavery could take on such massive proportions.  Zubair, a close companion of the Prophet, owned one thousand slaves when he died.  The Prophet himself possessed at least fifty-nine slaves at one stage or another, besides thirty-eight servants, both male and female.  Mirkhond, the Prophet’s fifteenth-century biographer, names them all in his Rauzat-us-Safa.  The fact is that slavery, tribute, and booty became the main props of the new Arab aristocracy.  Slaves continued to suffer under the same old disabilities.  They were the property of their master (saiyid), who could dispose of them as he liked, selling them, gifting them away, hiring them out, lending them, mortgaging them.  Slaves had no property rights.  Whatever they acquired became the property of their masters.  The master had the right to live in concubinage with his female slaves if they confessed Islam or belonged to the “People of the Book.” The QurAn (SUra 4:3, 4:24, 4:25, 23:6) permitted this.  Slavery was interwoven with the Islamic laws of sale, inheritance, and marriage.  And though the slaves fought for their Muslim masters, they were not entitled to the spoils of war according to Muslim religious law.


The emancipation of slaves was not unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia.  Slaves could gain their freedom in several ways.  One way, and a very common one, of course, was that they were ransomed by their relatives.  Another was when a master granted his slave a free and unconditional emancipation (’itq).  There were two other forms of emancipation: tadbir and kitabah.  In the first, the master declared that on his death his slaves would be free.  In the second, slaves who were not ransomed by their relatives obtained their master’s permission to earn their ransom by work.

We have already seen how HakIm b. HizAm “freed one hundred slaves” (225) even before he became a Muslim.  We have also observed that it was an old custom among the Arabs of more pious disposition to will that their slaves would be freed at their death, a practice which was opposed in some cases by Muhammad because he did not want such emancipations to take place at the expense of the heirs and relatives of the masters.  On the whole, however, Muhammad’s response to the practice was positive, but this did not make him into a Messiah of the slaves.  On the other hand, he saw the time when the meek and the lowly would inherit the earth as a portent of the approaching end of the world.  “When the slave-girl will give birth to her master, when the naked, barefooted would become the chiefs of the people-these are some of the signs of Doom,” according to him (4).

To Muhammad, the freeing of a slave was an act of charity on the part of the master, not a matter of justice.  In any case, a slave should not seek his emancipation by running away.  “The slave who fled from his master committed an act of infidelity so long as he would not return to him,” says Muhammad (129).


Only a believing slave deserves freedom.  Someone once slapped his maid-slave in anger and then, in contrition, wanted to free her.  When Muhammad was consulted, he said: “Bring her to me.” She was brought.  Muhammad asked her: “Where is Allah?” She replied: “He is in the heaven.” Muhammad asked: “Who am I?” “Thou art the Messenger of Allah,” she answered.  Muhammad gave his verdict: “Grant her freedom, she is a believing woman” (1094).

Thus there is merit in freeing a slave.  “A Muslim who emancipates a Muslim [slave], Allah will save from Fire every limb of his for every limb of the slave, even his private parts for his” (3604).

One could also emancipate a jointly owned slave to the extent of one’s share in him.  For the rest a fair price for the slave was to be fixed, and the slave “will be required to work to pay for his freedom, but must not be overburdened” (3582).


Even if a slave’s person was freed, any property he might have or come to have was inherited by the emancipator (3584-3595).  ’Aisha was ready to help a slave-girl, BarIra, to purchase her freedom on the condition that “I shall have the right in your inheritance.” But the owner, though ready to free her for cash money, wanted to retain the right of inheritance for himself.  Muhammad gave his judgment in favor of ’Aisha: “Buy her, and emancipate her, for the right of inheritance vests with one who emancipates.” Muhammad then admonished: “What has happened to the people that they lay down conditions which are not found in the Book of Allah” (3585).


A freed slave is subjected to several other disabilities.  He cannot seek any new alliance, nor can he offer himself as an ally without the permission of his former owner.  One “who took the freed slave as an ally without the consent of his previous master, there is upon him the curse of Allah and that of His angels and that of the whole mankind” (3600).


Beyond all that may be said or done, the condition of a slave is no great evil.  It has its own reward.  “When a slave looks to the welfare of his master and worships Allah well, he has two rewards for him” (4097).


We close the “Book of Marriage and Divorce” by quoting one of the very last ahAdIs.  It is on a different subject but interesting.  ’AlI, the Prophet’s son-in-law, says: “He who thinks that we [the members of the Prophet’s family] read anything else besides the book, of Allah and the SahIfa [a small book or pamphlet that was tied to the scabbard of his sword] tells a lie.  This SahIfa contains problems pertaining to the ages of the camels and the recompense of injuries, and it also records the words of the prophet. . . . He who innovates or gives protection to an innovator, there is a curse of Allah and that of his angels and that of the whole humanity upon him” (3601).


1According to a tradition derived from Ibn ’AbbAs and quoted by Ibn Sa’d, popularly known as KAtib at-WAqidI, the prophet’s biographer, Muhammad said: “In my ummah, he is the best who has the largest number of wives” (TabaqAt, vol. II, p. 146).

2Is the prohibition connected with some event in the Prophet’s fife?  When He married ’Aisha, AbU Bakr’s daughter, the latter in turn waited on him for the hand of his daughter, FAtimah.  But Muhammad replied: “I am waiting for a revelation.” When AbU Bakr reported these words to ’Umar, the latter said: “He has rejected thy request” (Mirkhond, Rauzat-us-Safa, vol. I, part II, p. 269).

3We are told that this injunction was laid down to discourage divorce, which was sometimes lightly undertaken because reunion was easy.  A couple must realize that the marital relationship is a serious one and must think twice (in fact, thrice) before severing it.  But man is inventive, and he disposes what Allah proposes.  The new dispensation led to another abuse.  It gave rise to the institution of the temporary husband, hired by the first husband from among the ugly ones, to make the new contact unpleasant to the wife.

4KinAna was tortured in order to make him reveal his hidden treasure.  “Torture him until you extract what he has,” Muhammad ordered al-Zubayr b. al-’AwwAm.  The latter “kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead.  Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad b. Maslama and he struck off his head” (SIrat RasUl Allah, p. 515).

5In a case like SafIyya’s even Moses, whom Muhammad often followed, was more considerate.  The Mosaic law is: “When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hands, and you take them captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you have desire for her and would take her for yourself as wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and pare her nails.  And she shall put off her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house and bewail her father and mother a full month; after that you may go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.  Then, if you have no delight in her, you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her for money, you shall not treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her” (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).  When the Prophet was passing the night with SafIyya in a tent, AbU AyyUb took it upon himself to guard him.  In the morning, Muhammad saw him and asked him what he was doing there.  He replied: “I was afraid for you with this woman for you have killed her father, her husband, and her people, and till recently she was in unbelief, so I was afraid for you on her account.” Muhammad prayed for him: “O God, preserve AbU AyyUb as he spent the night preserving me” (SIrat RasUl Allah, p. 517).

6SIrat RasUl Allah, p. 493.

7KAtib al WAqidI, quoted by W. Muir, Life of Mahomet, vol. II, pp. 272-273.

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