Of Muhammad’s numerous wives, the two who are the most controversial are Aisha (see Muhammad’s child bride) and Zaynab bint Jash. As Muhammad’s adopted son’s former wife, Zaynab bint Jash is more controversial, although less well known, than Aisha in some ways. The marriage also had consequences that are affecting the Islamic world to this very day.
Zaynab bint Jash was renowned for her beauty and was the wife of Zayd ibn Harithah (Zayd mawla Muhammad before Muhammad abolished adoption), a former slave of Muhammad who became one of the first Muslims and was later adopted by him. Zaynab was also a cousin of Muhammad and had been chosen by him to be Zayd’s wife.
One day, when Muhammad paid an unexpected visit to her home, it is said the wind blew a curtain aside, and Muhammad saw Zaynab (20 years his junior) nearly naked. After dressing, she invited a shaken Muhammad in. However, being moved by her beauty he went away saying: “Praise be to Allah who changes hearts.”
Zayd, upon hearing of what had happened, and knowing that his former owner was the type of person who got what he desired, then said to Muhammad, “perhaps you liked Zaynab, in which case I leave her for you” (Tabari VIII:1). To this rather indecent proposal, Muhammad’s initial response was: “Keep your wife for you.”
However, conveniently for Muhummad’s desires, he received a revelation from Allah weeks later that dissolved Zaynab’s marriage, a marriage he originally ordained (and by extension, preordained the divorce all along), and gave Zaynab to Muhammad.
Quran 33.37: And when you said to him to whom Allah had shown favor and to whom you had shown a favor: Keep your wife to yourself and be careful of (your duty to) Allah; and you concealed in your soul what Allah would bring to light, and you feared men, and Allah had a greater right that you should fear Him. But when Zaid had accomplished his want of her, We gave her to you as a wife, so that there should be no difficulty for the believers in respect of the wives of their adopted sons, when they have accomplished their want of them; and Allah’s command shall be performed.
Furthermore, in a move that lessened the impropriety of Muhammad marrying his daughter-in-law, as adopted children were generally treated like biological children at the time, Allah also ended adoption.
Quran 33.4 Allah has not made for any man two hearts within him; nor has He made your wives whose backs you liken to the backs of your mothers as your mothers, nor has He made those whom you assert to be your sons your real sons; these are the words of your mouths; and Allah speaks the truth and He guides to the way.
One has to wonder how Zayd felt about losing his beautiful wife and adoptive father in a single swoop. However, any pain he felt would have been relatively short-lived as he was soon sent by Muhammad on an impossible military expedition from which he did not return alive.
The idea of any man marrying his former daughter-in-law made people pause even in Muhammad’s day. Muhammad, whom the Quran teaches was an example for humanity, not only married a former daughter in law but gave every impression of first breaking up their marriage. This hardly seems the way for a man who was supposed to be a prophet and a guide to act.
In addition, knowing that there are so many children without parents in the world, why would any god end the practice of adoption?
Furthermore, being his fifth wife, his marriage to Zaynab forced Muhammad to break his own rule stating that men could not have more than four wives. To get around this, the Qur’an 33:50 tells Muhammad he can have as many wives as he wants, including those his right hand possess (slaves).
O Prophet, indeed We have made lawful to you your wives to whom you have given their due compensation and those your right hand possesses from what Allah has returned to you [of captives] and the daughters of your paternal uncles and the daughters of your paternal aunts and the daughters of your maternal uncles and the daughters of your maternal aunts who emigrated with you and a believing woman if she gives herself to the Prophet [and] if the Prophet wishes to marry her, [this is] only for you, excluding the [other] believers. We certainly know what We have made obligatory upon them concerning their wives and those their right hands possess, [but this is for you] in order that there will be upon you no discomfort. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.
With his marriage to Zaynab, Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, noted how self-serving some of Muhammad’s revelations appeared.
Sahih Bukhari Volume 6, Book 60, Number 311:
I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah’s Apostle and I used to say, “Can a lady give herself (to a man)?” But when Allah revealed: “You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives), and you may receive any of them whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside (temporarily).’ (33.51) I said (to the Prophet), “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.”
As there is no denying the basic facts of what happened, the Muslim response to the marriage as typically been to say it was a way for Allah to tell men that they could marry their wives of their adopted sons. The problems with this explanation are:
- Surely, Allah could have found a better way than to break up a marriage.
- This would mean that Allah had planned the marriage all along with the intention of breaking it up.
- If Allah was going to end the practice of adoption, the teaching would become meaningless anyway (and it can even be debated as to whether or not this is a good and necessary teaching).
Other consequences of their marriage
The evening of his wedding, with Muhammad eager to be with his beautiful new bride, and his house guests staying too long, Allah again takes an interest in his personal well being so that his guests will depart more quickly. Even though there is some dispute as to what exactly is meant by partition in this verse, it is the main reason Muslim women veil to this day.
Quran 33:53 O you who have believed, do not enter the houses of the Prophet except when you are permitted for a meal, without awaiting its readiness. But when you are invited, then enter; and when you have eaten, disperse without seeking to remain for conversation. Indeed, that [behavior] was troubling the Prophet, and he is shy of [dismissing] you. But Allah is not shy of the truth. And when you ask [his wives] for something, ask them from behind a partition. That is purer for your hearts and their hearts. And it is not [conceivable or lawful] for you to harm the Messenger of Allah or to marry his wives after him, ever. Indeed, that would be in the sight of Allah an enormity.