Marriage is the lubricant of a society based on kinship, such as the tribal society of seventh century Arabia. Marriage has been the means of creating and cementing relationship among rulers and leaders of innumerable societies of vastly different kinds up until very recent times.

Most of Muhammad’s marriages had a political context.

Muhammad married 11 women in all. But for most of his life, he was monogamous.

The earlier marriages aimed at cementing relationships with core group of Muhammad and its adherents. These marriages constituted the glue that bound his companions to Muhammad. Later marriages cemented tribal alliances or served as a rationale for reconciliation.

Prophet was married to Khadeeja 25 years till her death. She was the first Muslim business woman, running a profitable business on her on terms. Muhammad was just an employee of Khadeeja. And it was Khadeeja who came with the marriage proposal first and Muhammad accepted it. He was 25 and she was 40 at the time of their marriage.

Juwayriyya was taken captive in the skirmish with a tribe. When Muhammad married her the clan became the kinsmen of the Prophet.

Ummu Habiba was the daughter of Abu Sufyan, a leader of the Meccan elite so fiercely opposed to Muhammad. This marriage was an alliance with one of the most influential citizens of Mecca.

Two of Muhammad’s marriages have become quite controversial. The first is with Aisha, who he married when she was said to be 9 or 10 and he was 53.

Child marriage and considerable age difference were no impediment within the cultural context of seventh century Arabian society. Women were able to be married immediately after beginning of menstruation, a sign of maturation that has been the threshold in the most societies throughout much human history.

Should a prophet have been an example of how society and its sensibilities would change over millennia?

Is it proper to apply contemporary sensibilities, the modern construction of childhood, to persons who lived in entirely different circumstances?

It is clear from the sources that such a marriage, not consummated until Aisha had achieved what was regarded as maturity, caused no comment in Mecca at that time or in the Christendom of the Middle Ages.

The second marriage, with Zaynab did raise eyebrows in Arabia. It is the only marriage to be specifically mentioned in the Quran.

Zaynab was married to Zaid, Muhammad’s adopted son. But Zainab was not happy; and her brothers too rejected Zaid because they were of an aristocratic lineage while Zaid had been a slave.

Muhammad intervened to urge them not divorce. When the couple divorced, Muhammad married Zaynab. It was the legitimacy of this marriage that is authorized by the Quran.

The convoluted arguments of the classical scholars as well modern writers cannot take us beyond the simple fact. It was a subject of controversy in Muhammad’s time as it remains today.

What is more significant is that all of Muhammad’s wives except Aisha had been married before. This would have been a considerable change in a society in which virginity on marriage was a significant badge of status.

There is no trace of misogyny in his treatment of his wives, or women in general. Born into a society in which female infanticide was practiced, Muhammad proclaimed that those who loves their daughters and did not prefer their male child to her shall enter Paradise.

All his wives were independent minded and played significant part in the political life of the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death.

Hafsa was not only feisty but also literate and became the custodian of the original compilation of the Quran.

Zaynab was renowned for her work amongst the destitute and earned the nickname of ‘Mother of the poor’.

Umm Salama is credited with providing the strategy that helped Muhammad quell the dissension among his followers over the concessions he made in the treaty of Hudaibiya with nonbelievers of Mecca.

Most independent and forthright of them all was Aisha. She became a major figure in the political battles of the early Muslim community, a principal source of information about prophet’s life, character and actions, the very foundation of the reports that became hadith (sayings of prophet).

Thus, his wives were the prototype of the new social compact Muhammad was seeking to create in which women were encouraged to come forward as active participants in society.

Muhammad was a man of his time, shaped by the conventions and traditions of the world into which he was born. Within such a context he was clearly an enlightened man who sought radical change to set his society on a better moral and ethical path.

(Text is from Ziauddin Sardar: Muhammad: All that matters)

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