Talk of Islam’s new moral order and the normative nature that Muhammad’s life had for Muslims seems to clash with Western perceptions of Islam. If Muslim tradition tended to mythify the Prophet, Western tradition too often has denigrated and vilified his memory. Two issues in particular-Muhammad’s treatment of the Jews and his (polygynous) marriages-have proven popular stumbling blocks, or perhaps more accurately whipping posts, for Western critics and polemics.
In his early preaching, Muhammad had looked to the Jews and Christians of Arabia as natural allies whose faiths had much in common with Islam. He anticipated their acceptance and approval. When the Islamic community was established at Medina, Muslims, like the Jews, had faced Jerusalem to pray. However, the Jewish tribes, which had long lived in Medina and had political ties with the Quraysh, tended to resist both religious and political cooperation with the Muslims. They denied Muhammad’s prophet-hood and message and cooperated with his Meccan enemies. While the constitution of Medina had granted them autonomy in internal religious affairs, political loyalty and allegiance were expected. Yet the Quran accuses the Jewish tribes of regularly breaking such pacts: “Why is it that whenever they make pacts, a group among them casts it aside unilaterally?” (2:100).
After each major battle, one of the Jewish tribes was accused and punished for such acts. Muslim perception of distrust, intrigue, and rejection on the part of the Jews led first to exile and later to warfare. After Badr, the Banu Qainuqa tribe and after the Battle of Uhud, the Banu Nadir, with their families and possessions, were expelled from Medina. After the Battle of the Ditch in 627, the Jews of the Banu Qurayza were denounced as traitors who had consorted with the Meccans. As was common in Arab (and, indeed, Semitic) practice, the men were massacred; the women and children were spared but enslaved. However, it is important to note that the motivation for such actions was political rather than racial or theological. Although the Banu Qurayza had remained neutral, they had also negotiated with the Quraysh. Moreover, the exiled Jewish clans had actively supported the Meccans. Muhammad moved decisively to crush the Jews who remained in Medina, viewing them as a continued political threat to the consolidation of Muslim dominance and rule in Arabia.
One final point should be made. Muhammad’s use of warfare in general was alien neither to Arab custom nor to that of the Hebrew prophets. Both believed that God had sanctioned battle with the enemies of the Lord. Biblical stories about the exploits of kings and prophets such as Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Samuel, Jehu, Saul, and David recount the struggles of a community called by God and the permissibility, indeed requirement, to take up arms when necessary against those who had defied God, and to fight “in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” Similarly, in speaking of the Israelite conquests, Moses recalls: “And I commanded you at that time, saying, ‘The Lord your God has given you this land to possess. . . . You shall not fear them; for it is the Lord your God who fights for you ” (Deuteronomy 3:18-22).
Muhammad’s marriages have long provided another source of Western criticism of the moral character of the Prophet. A noted British author has observed:
No great religious leader has been so maligned as Muhammad. Attacked in the past as a heretic, an imposter, or a sensualist, it is still possible to find him referred to as “the false prophet.” A modern German writer accuses Muhammad of sensuality, surrounding himself with young women. This man was not married until he was twenty-five years of age, then he and his wife lived in happiness and fidelity for twenty-four years, until her death when he was forty-nine. Only between the age of fifty and his death at sixty-two did Muhammad take other wives, only one of whom was a virgin, and most of them were taken for dynastic and political reasons. Certainly the Prophet’s record was better than that head of the Church of England, Henry VIII.
In addressing the issue of Muhammad’s polygynous marriages, it is important to remember several points. First, Semitic culture in general and Arab practice in particular permitted polygyny. It was common practice in Arabian society, especially among nobles and leaders. Though less common, polygyny was also permitted in biblical and even in post biblical Judaism. From Abraham, David, and Solomon down to the reformation period, polygyny was practiced by some Jews. While Jewish law changed after the Middle Ages due to the influence of Christian rule, for Jews under Islamic rule, polygyny remained licit, though it was not extensively practiced . Second, during the prime of his life, Muhammad remained married to one woman, Khadija. Third, it was only after her death that he took a number of wives. Fourth, Muhammad’s use of the special dispensation from God to exceed the limit of four wives imposed by the Quran, occurred only after the death of Khadija. Moreover, most of the eleven marriages had political and social motives. As was customary for Arab chiefs, many were political marriages to cement alliances. Others were marriages to the widows of his companions who had fallen in combat and were in need of protection. Remarriage was difficult in a society that emphasized virgin marriages. Aisha was the only virgin that Muhammad married and the wife with whom he had the closest relationship. Fifth, as we shall see later, Muhammad’s teachings and actions, as well as the Quranic message, improved the status of all women-wives, daughters, mothers, widows, and orphans.
Talk of the political and social motives behind many of the Prophet’s marriages should not obscure the fact that Muhammad was attracted to women and enjoyed his wives. To deny this would contradict the Islamic outlook on marriage and sexuality, found in both revelation and Prophetic traditions, which emphasizes the importance of family and views sex as a gift from God to be enjoyed within the bonds of marriage. The many stories about Muhammad’s concern and care for his wives reflect these values.
Excerpted from ‘Islam the Straight Way’ by Professor John L. Esposito, Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University