Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
Jamal A. Badawi, Ph.D.
For any prophet to marry and beget children is quite natural. It is the norm, not the exception. [Qur'an, 13:38]. The practice of polygamy by prophets relates to their mission. Through marital bonds with different tribes and clans, prophets sought to bind various peoples together and reduce their enmity. Polygamy was practiced by many great Biblical [and Qur'anic] prophets, including Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon. According to the Bible, some of those prophets are said to have had dozens of wives and concubines.
Unlike adultery by those who are officially "monogamous", polygamy in itself is not immoral. It has been practiced in many cultures throughout history. It is simply another alternative form of family structure suited to certain circumstances and social needs in different times and cultures. Examples of such needs include caring for widows and orphans of victims of wars or dealing with demographic problems such as occasional imbalances in the sex ratio. Polygamy has been practiced as well by various religious communities, including some Jews, Christians and Muslims.
In fact, the Qur'an is the only monotheistic holy book that explicitly limited, restricted and regulated the then unregulated practice of polygamy [Qur'an, 4:3; 129]. Yet, due to the wide circulation of erroneous information about Islam, many have the impression that Islam introduced this form of marriage.
Among all great polygamous prophets, Prophet Muhammad is often singled out for criticism for practicing polygamy in the last few years of his life. In fact, none of his marriages raise any question about his chastity and moral excellence. Some ask, however, why did Prophet Muhammad limit his followers to a maximum of four wives, while he himself exceeded that maximum? 
The question itself reflects a serious misunderstanding. These limits, also the exception of the prophet were all divine instructions in the Qur'an, which to Muslims is the word of God, not the word of Muhammad or his own instructions or exceptions. After all, the practice of unlimited polygamy was common and socially accepted in pre-Islamic Arabia. If it were true that the Prophet wished to have more than four wives that "he restricted" his followers to, then why did he "restrict" them in the first place? Why not "live and let live"? A related question is this: Why did the Prophet limit himself to one wife [Khadijah] for the prime time of his youth and manhood, from the age of 25 until he was 50 years old when she died? This lengthy monogamous marriage spanning most of his marital life took place when polygamy was socially accepted and widely practiced and before any Qur'anic revelation restricting such a practice and limiting the number of wives to a maximum of four. To claim that the Prophet was untruthfully "making up" or forging verses in the Qur'an to "give himself" an exception, is inconsistent with his integrity and acknowledged truthfulness. It is also utterly contrary to reason.
A legitimate question however is this: why did God make such an exception to the Prophet? Like some other prophets before him, Prophet Muhammad was not only a prophet, but also a head of a community and eventually a political entity. As the central personality of both faith and community, he was in a unique position to reconcile various warring peoples to one another, reconcile the hearts of his enemies and fulfill his mission through the most peaceful means possible. An effective means of achieving this mission in a tribal society is bonding through marrying women from these tribes or clans.
This is one of the likely explanations of the Prophet's marriage to Umm Habibah, daughter of his archenemy, Abu-Sufian. Umm Habibah migrated to Abbysinia with her husband due to persecution of Muslims in Makkah. Her husband apostated there and invited her to apostate like him but she refused and remained steadfast in her faith. He later died there. The Prophet offered to marry her and she accepted. Besides the humanitarian gesture toward a helpless widow who was already rejected by her family due to her faith, this marriage might have softened the heart of her father, to a degree. In fact, he later embraced Islam and helped avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
A similar case is his marriage to Maymounah Al-Hilaaliyyah, a woman from Najd region who was twice married before and whose people were party to the treacherous cold-blooded murder of seventy of the Qur'anic memorizers who were there on a peaceful educational mission. Instead of revenge and more bloodshed, the Prophet married one of their women who needed care. As a result of this act of kindness, her people were at least neutralized and some embraced Islam.
To reconcile the hearts of those who fought against him and to give a good example of treating war captives, the Prophet himself freed three women captives and offered to marry them. This act of magnanimity helped to blunt the hatred and enmity of their clans. The offer to be wives of the Prophet himself and become revered "Mothers of the Believers" was no small feat and honor for them and their clans. It was also a remarkable goodwill gesture by the Prophet toward those who unfairly showed enmity to him and spared no effort in undermining his mission. Juwairiyah, Safiyyah and Rihaanah fall in this category. In the case of Juwairiyah, the example of the Prophet by freeing her resulted in an immediate action by the victorious Muslims who freed all their captives from her tribe. How could we have the in-laws of our Prophet as war captives? they said. Juwayriyah's father, Al-Harith ceased hostilities against Muslims and later embraced Islam.This seems to illustrate one of the measures to free those in captivity and gradually and smoothly end existing forms of slavery by drying up even the last source of captivity; war captives.
Other marriages of the Prophet were apparently intended to cement the relationship between the Prophet and his closest friends and helpers. This category includes his marriage to `Aishah and Hafsah daughters of his closest companions Abu-Bakr and Umar.
In Hafsah's case there was another humanitarian touch seen in other marriages of the Prophet as well; teaching the community to take care of widows. This is especially true of the widows and orphan children of those who sacrificed their lives in defense of their faith and their community. Hafsah's former husband, Khonays was a courageous defender in the Battle of Badr and continued to fight in spite of his injuries. He later died because of his injuries. That later motive is obviously behind the Prophet's marriage to other martyrs' widows such as Zainab Bint Khozaymah [who died shortly after her marriage to him] and Umm Salamah, who had four orphan children to look after following the martyrdom of her husband. The same caring attitude applies to his to Sawdah, an elderly widow he married after the death of his first wife Khadijah. This marriage opened the hearts of many of her clan to Islam.
One of the Prophet's marriages was obviously for a legislative reason; his marriage to Zainab Daughter of Jahsh. Zainab was a cousin of the Prophet. He persuaded her to marry his freed slave and former "adopted son" Zaid. The apparent reason for his encouragement, in spite of her reluctance was to break the attitude of aristocracy where a person from a noble stock would not consider marrying a commoner. The prophet sought to affirm the egalitarian nature of Islam where a person should be evaluated only on the basis of his/her qualities and moral conduct, not on the basis of his/her socio-economic status. Marital problems between Zaid and Zainab led eventually to divorce. The Arabs considered an adopted son, the same as a biological son. They gave him his adopting father's name, a custom that the Qur'an invalidated as it demanded truthful lineal identity. [Qur'an, 33:4-5; 40] Since this custom was a taboo, no one other than the Prophet was fit enough to start and lead the breaking of that taboo and implement the new divine law. A careful study of the Qur'an describes such a reason. It indicates that the Prophet was commanded to initiate this change in a practical manner by marrying Zainab, the divorcee of his former "adopted son" Zaid [Qur'an, 33: 37-39]. Some writers forsook the most authentic source of the Prophet's life; the Qur'an, in favor of less authentic narrations even though some normally reliable historians reported it. According to these often contradictory narrations, Zaid divorced his wife so that the Prophet can legitimately marry her. Aside from the unauthenticity of the story and its contradiction to the Qur'anic explanation, it is totally illogical. Zainab, after all was a cousin of the Prophet and he saw and knew her for decades as a close relative. She would have been most honored to accept to marry the Prophet if he wished. Why would the Prophet persuade her to marry his former slave to dwell with her as her husband, then divorces her so that the Prophet can marry her? Why not marry her before living with another man as a wife? 
Another criticism of the Prophet relates to his marriage to `Aisha, daughter of his companions Abu-Bakr. Some point out that in the collection of Hadeeth by Bukhari, `Aisha reported that her marital contract took place when she was six years old, and that she did not live with Prophet until three years later, after migration to Madinah. Some refer to this marriage as "child molestation" or "pedophilia". One wonder how such a respectable well-to-do father as Abu-Bakr, would give his beloved daughter `Aisha to be "molested" and with the blessings of his wife? And how come none of the watchful critics and archenemies of the Prophet never raised any question about this marriage, even though they were, like some of today's critics, eager to find any fault that may discredit the Prophet? This signifies that the marriageable age in that culture at that time, may be in other cultures and times as well, considered reaching adolescence [which may take place earlier in some cultures] as an acceptable marriageable age. The fact that that they were three years gap between the marital agreement and the dwelling of `Aisha with the Prophet seems to support the existence of this custom. In fact, `Aisha was engaged to another person before her parents decided to marry her to the Prophet instead. This shows how common this practice was. Needless to say that the successive increase of the minimum marriageable age, after reaching adolescence, is an arbitrary matter based on cultural and social norms, which is subject to change with time, culture and other circumstances.
It should be noted that the special exception to the prophet concerning the maximum number of wives [Qur'an, 33: 50] includes also special restrictions on him and his wives from privileges available to all others. For example, his wives as "mothers of the believers" were not allowed to remarry after him [Qur'an 33: 53]. If the Prophet were required to divorce wives beyond the maximum of four, it would have done them injustice; to be divorced and disallowed to remarry. Furthermore, for each of the Prophet's marriages there was a specific lesson, social or legislative. By divorcing some of his wives, those lessons are effectively negated, especially the unifying function of marrying women from different clans and backgrounds. This diversity allowed close observation of his private life and teachings and communicating them to their respective folks. Also, unlike any ordinary Muslim, the Prophet was not allowed to divorce any of his wives and marrying others [33:52].
In conclusion, it should be noted that when it comes to the Prophet's chastity, self-control and moral excellence, there is no match. His role is a universal, virtuous and practical one. He kept his chastity as an unmarried youth, maintained real and faithful monogamy, for the prime years of his youth and manhood; 25 years. Even when he practiced polygamy, he did so for humanitarian and reconciliatory reasons and in the last few and waning years of his life. His extraordinary schedule and responsibilities, his regular lengthy night prayers, his amazing achievements in such a short time, all that precludes any notion of obsession with worldly pleasures. Caring for women, especially older ones and for their orphan children in a context of marital relationship is not necessarily and exclusively a "sensual" matter, especially in such a social setting. Those who try to blemish the noble character of the Prophet only blemish their own objectivity and sense of fairness. May Allah cure their hearts from hatred, borne of ignorance and pre-conceived stereotypes and may He help all learn from the inspiring lives of all great prophets instead of unfairly and ignorantly reviling any of them. Gladly enough, the majority of their co-religionists do not share their "logic" or for that matter their prejudicial, offensive and hateful stances. Those from other faith communities who spoke up against hatred and for mutual respect and peaceful co-existence should be commended. Peace be upon all those who follow the guidance of God, manifest His love in deeds before words and sincerely promote human brotherhood and mutual understanding.
A more correct term is polygyny since the term polygamy includes multiple wives [polygyny] or multiple husbands [polyandry]. The later form is not permissible in Islam. However, since the term "polygyny" is unfamiliar to many, the term " polygamy" is used to refer to "polygyny" only.
See for example, The Bible, II Samuel 5:13 and Ikings 11:3.
See for example, Edward A. Westermarck, The History of Human Marriage, (5th Edition), Macmillan and Co., London, 1935, Vol. 3, pp. 42-43 also T.K. Cheney and S. Black (Editors), Encyclopedia Biblica, Macmillan, London, 1935, Vol.3, p. 2946.
The total number of consorts of the prophet throughout his life was thirteen. Two of them died in his lifetime [Khadijah and Zainab Daughter Khozaimah]. For 25 years his only wife was Khadijah. For another 3 years the only wife living with him was Sawdah since `Aisha was still in her father's home. For another two years, His wives living with him were `Aishah and Sawdah. The polygamous period was mainly during the last seven years of his life.
For a more detailed treatment of this and other marriages of the Prophet, check: www.islamicity.com/multimedia/Radio/RA200
. Scroll under "Series L: Muhammad the Last Messenger of Allah to programs 4l-50. For a general treatment of gender issues, check the author's Gender Equity in Islam at: www.jannah.org