Prophet Muhammad personifies the roles of perfect father and husband. He was so kind and tolerant with his wives that they could not envisage their lives without him, nor did they want to live away from him. He married Sawdah, his second wife, while in Makkah. After a while, he wanted to divorce her for certain reasons. She was extremely upset at this news and implored him, “O Messenger of Allah, I wish no worldly thing of you. I will sacrifice the time allocated to me if you don’t want to visit me. But please don’t deprive me of being your wife. I want to go to the hereafter as your wife. I care for nothing else” (Muslim).
Once he noticed that Hafsah was uncomfortable over their financial situation. “If she wishes, I may set her free,” he said, or something to that effect. This suggestion so alarmed her that she requested mediators to persuade him not to do so. He kept his faithful friend’s daughter as his trusted wife.
All of his wives viewed separation from the Messenger of Allah as a calamity, so firmly had he established himself in their hearts. They were completely at one with him. They shared in his blessed, mild, and natural life. If he had left them, they would have died of despair. If he had divorced one of them, she would have waited at his doorstep until the Last Day.
After his death, there was much yearning and a great deal of grief. Abu Bakr and `Umar found the Messenger’s wives weeping whenever they visited them. Their weeping seemed to continue for the rest of their lives. Muhammad left an everlasting impression on everyone. At one point, he had nine wives and dealt equally with all of them and without any serious problems. He was a kind and gentle husband, and never behaved harshly or rudely. In short, he was the perfect husband.
A few days before his death, he said, “A servant has been allowed to choose this world or his Lord. He chose his Lord” (Al-Bukhari). Abu Bakr, intelligent and smart, began to cry, understanding that the Prophet was talking about himself. His illness got worse daily, and his severe headache caused him to writhe in pain. But even during this difficult period, he continued to treat his wives with kindness and gentleness. He asked for permission to stay in one room, as he had no strength to visit them one by one. His wives agreed, and the Messenger spent his last days in `A’ishah’s room.
Each wife, because of his generosity and kindness, thought she was his most beloved. The idea that any man could show complete equality and fairness in his relationships with nine women seems impossible. For this reason, the Messenger of Allah asked God’s pardon for any unintentional leanings. He would pray, “I may have unintentionally shown more love to one of them than the others, and this would be injustice. So, O Lord, I take refuge in Your grace for those things beyond my power.” (At-Tirmidhi).
What gentleness and sensitivity! I wonder if anyone else could show such kindness to his children or spouses. When people manage to cover up their lower inborn tendencies, it is as if they have done something very clever and shown tremendous willpower. But they sometimes expose these very defects unconsciously while bragging of their cleverness. The Messenger, despite showing no fault, sought only God’s forgiveness.
His gentleness penetrated his wives’ souls so deeply that his departure led to what they must have felt to be an unbridgeable separation. They did not commit suicide, as Islam forbids it, but their lives now became full of endless sorrow and ceaseless tears.
The Messenger was kind and gentle to all women, and advised all other men to follow him in this regard. Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas described his kindness as follows:
`Umar said: One day I went to the Prophet and saw him smiling. “May God make you smile forever, O Messenger of God,” I said, and asked why he was smiling. “I smile at those women. They were chatting in front of me before you came. When they heard your voice, they all vanished,” he answered still smiling. On hearing this answer, I raised my voice and told them, “O enemies of your own selves, you are scared of me, but you are not scared of the Messenger of God, and you don’t show respect to him.” “You are hard-hearted and strict,” they replied. (Al-Bukhari )
`Umar also was gentle to women. However, the most handsome man looks ugly when compared to Joseph’s beauty. Likewise, `Umar’s gentleness and sensitivity seem like violence and severity when compared to those of the Prophet. The women had seen the Messenger’s gentleness, sensitivity, and kindness, and so regarded `Umar as strict and severe. Yet `Umar shouldered the caliphate perfectly and became one of the greatest examples after the Prophet. He was a just ruler and strove to distinguish right from wrong. His qualities enabled him to be caliph. Some of his qualities might seem rather severe; however, those very qualities enabled him to shoulder very demanding responsibilities.
The Prophet did consult with his wives. The Messenger discussed matters with his wives as friends. Certainly he did not need their advice, since he was directed by revelation. However, he wanted to teach his nation that Muslim men were to give women every consideration. This was quite a radical idea in his time, as it is today in many parts of the world. He began teaching his people through his own relationship with his wives.
For example, the conditions laid down in the Treaty of Hudaybiyah disappointed and enraged many Muslims, for one condition stipulated that they could not make the pilgrimage that year. They wanted to reject the treaty, continue on to Makkah, and face the possible consequences. But the Messenger ordered them to slaughter their sacrificial animals and take off their pilgrim attire. Some Companions hesitated, hoping that he would change his mind. He repeated his order, but they continued to hesitate. They did not oppose him; rather, they still hoped he might change his mind, for they had set out with the intention of pilgrimage and did not want to stop half way.
Noticing this reluctance, the Prophet returned to his tent and asked Umm Salamah, his wife accompanying him at that time, what she thought of the situation. So she told him, fully aware that he did not need her advice. In doing this, he taught Muslim men an important social lesson: There is nothing wrong with exchanging ideas with women on important matters, or on any matters at all.
She said, “O Messenger of God, don’t repeat your order. They may resist and thereby perish. Slaughter your sacrificial animal and change out of your pilgrim attire. They will obey you, willingly or not, when they see that your order is final” (Al-Bukhari).
He immediately took a knife in his hand, went outside, and began to slaughter his sheep. The Companions began to do the same, for now it was clear that his order would not be changed.
The Messenger encouraged us through his enlightening example to behave kindly with women.
Counsel and consultation, like every good deed, were practiced by God’s Messenger first within his own family and then in the wider community. Even today, we understand so little about his relationships with his wives that it is as if we are wandering aimlessly around a plot of land, unaware of the vast treasure buried below our feet.
Women are secondary beings in the minds of many, including those self-appointed defenders of women’s rights as well as many self-proclaimed Muslim men. In Islam, a woman is part of a whole, a part that renders the other half useful. We believe that when the two halves come together, the true unity of a human being appears. When this unity does not exist, humanity does not exist — nor can prophethood, sainthood, or even Islam.
Our Prophet encouraged us through his enlightening words to behave kindly to women. He declared, “The most perfect believers are the best in character, and the best of you are the kindest to their families” (Abu Dawud and At-Tirmidhi). It is clear that women have received the true honor and respect they deserve, not just in theory but in actual practice, only once in history — during the period of Prophet Muhammad.
This World or the Next
The wives of the Messenger were given the choice of remaining with him or leaving:
[O Prophet, say to your wives: “If you desire the life of this world and its glitter, then come! I will provide for your enjoyment and set you free in a handsome manner. But if you seek God, His Messenger, and the Home of the Hereafter, verily God has prepared for you, the well-doers among you, a great reward.”] (Al-Ahzab 33:29)
A few of his wives who wanted a more prosperous life asked, “Couldn’t we live a little more luxuriously, like other Muslims do? Couldn’t we have at least a bowl of soup every day, or some prettier garments?” At first sight, such wishes might be considered fair and just. However, they were members of the family that was to be an example for all Muslim families until the Last Day.
The Messenger reacted by going into retreat. The news spread, and everyone rushed to the mosque and began to cry. The smallest grief felt by their beloved Messenger was enough to bring them all to tears, and even the smallest incident in his life would disturb them. Abu Bakr and `Umar, seeing the event in a different light as their daughters were directly involved, rushed to the mosque. They wanted to see him, but he would not leave his retreat. Eventually, on their third attempt, they gained entry and began to rebuke their daughters. The Messenger saw what was happening, but only said, “I cannot afford what they want” (Muslim).
The Qur’an declared [O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any other women] (Al-Ahzab 33:32).
Others might save themselves by simply fulfilling their obligations, but those who were at the very center of Islam had to devote themselves fully so that no weakness would appear at the center. There were advantages in being the Prophet’s wives, but these advantages brought responsibilities and potential risks. The Messenger was preparing them as exemplars for all present and future Muslim women. He was especially worried that they might enjoy the reward for their good deeds in this world and thereby be included in [You have exhausted your share of the good things in your life of the world and sought comfort in them](Al-Ahqaf 46:20).
Life in the Prophet’s house was uncomfortable. For this reason, either explicitly or implicitly, his wives made some modest demands. As their status was unique, they were not expected to enjoy themselves in a worldly sense. Some godly people laugh only a few times during their lives; others never fill their stomachs. For example, Fudayl ibn `Iyad never laughed. He smiled only once, and those who saw him do so asked him why he smiled, for they were greatly surprised. He told them, “Today I learned that my son `Ali died. I was happy to hear that God had loved him, and so I smiled” (Abu Nu`aym, Hilyat al-Awliya’). If there were such people outside of the Prophet’s household, his wives, who were even more pious and respectful of God and regarded as Mothers of the Believers, would certainly be of a higher degree.
It is not easy to merit being together with the Messenger in this world and the hereafter. Thus, these special women were put to a great test. The Messenger allowed them to choose his poor home or the world’s luxury. If they chose the world, he would give them whatever they wanted and then dissolve his marriage with them. If they chose God and His Messenger, they had to be content with their lives. This was a peculiarity of his family. Since this family was unique, its members had to be unique. The head of the family was chosen, as were the wives and children.
The Messenger first called `A’ishah and said, “I want to discuss something with you. You’d better talk with your parents before making a decision.” Then he recited the verses mentioned above. Her decision was exactly as expected from a truthful daughter of a truthful father: “O Messenger of Allah, do I need to talk with my parents? By Allah, I choose Allah and His Messenger” (Muslim).
`A’ishah herself tells us what happened next: “The Messenger received the same answer from all his wives. No one expressed a different opinion. They all said what I had said.” They did so because they were all at one with the Messenger. They could not differ. If the Messenger had told them to fast for a lifetime without break, they would have done so and endured it with pleasure. However, they endured hardship until their deaths.
Some of his wives had enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle before their marriage to him. One of these was Safiyyah, who had lost her father and husband and had been taken prisoner during the Battle of Khaybar. She must have been very angry with the Messenger, but when she saw him, her feelings changed completely. She endured the same destiny as the other wives. They endured it because love of the Messenger had penetrated their hearts.
Mothers of the Believers
Safiyyah was a Jew. Once, she was dismayed when this fact was mentioned to her sarcastically. She informed the Messenger, expressing her sadness. He comforted her saying, “If they repeat it, tell them, ‘My father is Prophet Aaron, my uncle is Prophet Moses, and my husband is, as you see, Prophet Muhammad, the Chosen One. What do you have more than me to be proud of?'”
The Qur’an declares that his wives are the Mothers of the Believers (Al-Ahzab 33:6). Although 14 centuries have passed, we still feel delight in saying “my mother” when referring to Khadijah, `A’ishah, Umm Salamah, Hafsah, and his other wives. We feel this because of him. Some feel more love for these women than they do for their real mothers. Certainly, this feeling must have been deeper, warmer, and stronger in the Prophet’s own time.
The Messenger was the perfect head of a family. Managing many women with ease, being a lover of their hearts, an instructor of their minds, an educator of their souls, he never neglected the affairs of the nation or compromised his duties.
The Messenger excelled in every area of life. People should not compare him to themselves or to the so-called greatpersonalities of their age. Researchers should look at him, the one to whom angels are grateful, always remembering that he excelled in every way. If they want to look for Muhammad they must search for him in his own dimensions. Our imaginations cannot reach him, for we do not even know how to imagine properly. God bestowed upon him, as His special favor, superiority in every field.