Marriage Related Privileges of the Prophet: A Study in Chronology

𝐌𝐚𝐫𝐫𝐢𝐚𝐠𝐞 𝐑𝐞𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐝 𝐏𝐫𝐢𝐯𝐢𝐥𝐞𝐠𝐞𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐏𝐫𝐨𝐩𝐡𝐞𝐭: 𝐀 𝐒𝐭𝐮𝐝𝐲 𝐢𝐧 𝐂𝐡𝐫𝐨𝐧𝐨𝐥𝐨𝐠𝐲


The question about Prophet Muhammad’s () alleged inconsistency in taking more wives than allowed for Muslim men has generally been responded to by alluding to the Qur’anic verses that granted him certain marriage related privileges. The summary response, though correct, has faded some historical facts of Prophet’s () life bearing on this question into near oblivion.

Though they may not appear to matter much in the final analysis they certainly add important nuances to the issue. This paper seeks to lay bare those rather obscure facts through reflection on related verses of the Qur’an along with exegetical and historical reports analyzed and placed in their due perspective by delineating their relative chronology.

1. Introduction

Islamic law allows men to have a maximum of four wives at a time. It is, however, established that Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, had more than four wives together in final eight years of his life and he was actually survived by nine. Critics naturally pick on this and raise objections on apparent inconsistency on his part.

Traditionally, Muslims have responded by citing the fact that Allah had explicitly allowed him to take more than four wives as a special dispensation as provided in Qur’an 33:50. Not many have, however, considered studying as to when in the life of the Prophet (ﷺ) the stipulation of maximum four wives was legislated, how many wives did the Prophet (ﷺ) have by then and if, when, and under what terms was he allowed to marry after the limit to polygamy was set.

The few who did venture onto this plain did not quite keep in sight all the related facts. Muhammad ‘Izzat Darwaze (d. 1984) made a serious effort on this both in his commentary to the Qur’an and his unique work on biography of the Prophet (ﷺ) in the light of Qur’an. While he made use of a few little appreciated reports he did not take into account many other reported details on the marital life of the Prophet (ﷺ) and summarily passed over a few he did refer to.

[1] Dr. Hamidullah (d. 2002) made an eccentric bid to answer the objection of inconsistency on the part of the Prophet (ﷺ) suggesting that after the stipulation of four was revealed that Prophet (ﷺ) kept conjugal relations with four of his wives and kept others as ‘honorary wives’ only looking after their financial needs.

While he did refer to some important reports related to the issue he did not take into account the timeline of different marriages of the Prophet (ﷺ) and its relation to the verses relevant to the issue. Accordingly, his solution altogether disregarded the implications of reports on life details of the Prophet (ﷺ).[2] 

Some of his critics on the issue too failed to have a thorough view of the relevant data.[3] Dr. Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi (d. 2010) in one of his lectures made some passing remarks and alluded to various opinions on the issue but, as it happens in lectures, he did not dwell on details of the topic.[4]

This article is an attempt to make a holistic review of received information on relevant verses, and marriages of the Prophet (ﷺ) and put them in perspective delineating their chronological sequence and bringing out relation, if any, among them.

2. Chronology of the Prophet’s Marriages

After Khadija who had remained with the Prophet for twenty-five years passed away the Prophet (ﷺ) solemnized marriages with Sawda and ‘Aisha in Shawal of 10th year of the Prophethood (May 620). He married Hafsa in Sha’ban 3/625, Zainab b. Khuzaima in Ramadan 3/February 625, Umm Salama in the Shawal 4/March 625, Juwairiya b. al-Harith in Sha’ban 5/January 627, Zainab b. Jahsh in Dhu al-Qa’da 5/April 627,[5] 

Umm Habiba in 6/628, Safiya b. Hayy in Jumada-II 7/October 628, and lastly Maimuna in the Dhu al-Qa‘da 7/March 629. Whereas Zainab b. Khuzaima died in Rabi-I 4/August 625 it is clear that Sha’ban 5/January 627 onwards the Prophet (ﷺ) had more than four wives.[6]

3. Ceiling set for permissible polygamy

We have no definite information as to when the maximum number of permissible marriages was restricted to four. It could either be through Qur’an or commandment of the Prophet (ﷺ) by the way of hadith/sunnah.

The verse suggestive of this restriction is;

وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تُقْسِطُوا فِي الْيَتَامَى فَانْكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُمْ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَى وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلَّا تَعُولُوا

If you fear you might fail to give orphan women their (due) rights (if you were to marry them), then marry other women of your choice—two, three, or four. But if you are afraid you will fail to maintain justice, then (content yourselves with) one or those (bondwomen) in your possession. This way you are less likely to commit injustice. (Qur’an 4:3)

Of this verse we do not have any definite information suggesting its precise chronological context. All we know is that parts of Surah al-Nisa’ were revealed at different times. A section of it addressed to the Jews must have been revealed before the expulsion of Quraiza – the last major Jewish community in Madina – in the year 5/626, likewise verse 15 was surely revealed before the revelation of Surah al-Nur i.e. 5/626,[7] 

some part of it was revealed after Surah al-Mumtahina i.e. after Hudaibiya in Dhu al-Qa’da 6/628, verse 58 was revealed in the backdrop of conquest of Makkah in Ramadan 8/January 630, verse 95 was revealed in the backdrop of Battle of Tabuk,[8] 

and last verse of Surah was said be among the last of the revelations. Verses 2 onwards related to the orphans was revealed about a man from Ghatafan a tribe whose first significant conversions started around the Battle of Ditch (i.e. 5/627), however, it is not definitely known when thereafter. Making a mention of such information Ibn ‘Ashur (d. 1393/1973) is of the view that (much of) the Surah was revealed around 7 AH and its period of revelation was spread over a longer duration.[9]

Whereas, a number of scholars have explained how the wording used does not suggest permissibility of more than four, it is also acknowledged that it is not unequivocal in setting four as the upper limit for polygamy either. Accordingly, they have highlighted that unequivocal restriction of four comes from sunnah.

Ibn ‘Ashur writes:

والظاهر أن تحريم الزيادة على الأربع مستفاد من غير هذه الآية لأن مجرد الاقتصار غير كاف في الاستدلال ولكنه يستأنس به، وأن هذه الآية قررت ما ثبت من الاقتصار، على أربع زوجات كما دل على ذلك الحديث الصحيح

It is evident that the prohibition of taking more than four wives is established with proofs other than this verse, for exclusion is not enough to prove prohibition although it is suggested by it. By the way of exclusion this verse confirms the restriction of maximum four wives as is proven from authentic hadith …[10]

This explains al-Shawkani’s (d. 1250/1834) observation:

فالأولى أن يستدل على تحريم الزيادة على الأربع بالسنة لا بالقرآن.

It is better to prove the prohibition of more than four from sunnah rather than doing it from Qur’an.[11]

As for hadith, again there is no explicit information establishing the chronology available. What we can, however, study are the life details of individuals mentioned in reports in this context.

We have a report about al-Harith b. Qais al-Asadi:

عن الحارث بنِ قيسٍ الأسدي – قال: أسلمتُ وعندي ثمانُ نسوةٍ، فذكرتُ ذلك للنبي – صلَّى الله عليه وسلم -، فقال النبيُّ – صلَّى الله عليه وسلم -: “اختر منهنَّ أربعاً”

Narrated Al-Harith ibn Qays al-Asadi: I embraced Islam while I had eight wives. So I mentioned it to the Prophet (ﷺ). The Prophet (said) said: Select four of them (and part with the rest).[12]

Apparently, there is no other information about him that might help us chronologically situate this incident. There are, however, two indications; some reports mention that he said to the Prophet (ﷺ) about his wives, “They accepted Islam with me and emigrated with me” (aslamna ma‘i wa hajarna ma‘i)[13] which tells us that before being told to choose four of his eight wives he had emigrated.

Some versions of his report add that when the ruling was announced he came to the Prophet (ﷺ) and informed him that he had eight wives upon which he was instructed to choose four.[14] None of this, however, makes any definite suggestion about the timeline of the restriction.

The most famous account is that of Ghilan b. Salama al-Thaqafi:

عن ابن عمر، أن غيلان بن سلمة الثقفي أسلم وله عشر نسوة في الجاهلية، فأسلمن معه، «فأمره النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أن يتخير أربعا منهن»

Ibn Umar narrated: Ghilan bin Salamah al-Thaqafi accepted Islam and he had ten wives in Jahiliyyah who accepted Islam along with him. So the Prophet ordered (him) to choose four (of them).[15]

Ghilan accepted Islam after the conquest of Ta’if when the delegation of the town went to Madina in Ramadan 9/December 630 to negotiate the lifting of the siege of the town.[16]

Likewise, there are reports about Nofal b. Mu‘awiya[17] and Safwan b. Umayyah[18] that they had more than four wives and were asked to keep four and part with the rest. Both Nofal and Safwan came to Islam at the eve of conquest of Makkah i.e. Ramadan 8/January 630 but we have no indication as to when they were so instructed – immediately after having accepted Islam or sometime later.

We now turn to the case of ‘Urwah b. Mas‘ud al-Thaqafi who had remained away from Ta’if when the Prophet (ﷺ) laid siege over it but subsequently went to Madina and embraced Islam in Rabi-I 9/June-July 630.[19]  Counting him among those who had ten wives an early Muslim historian Muhammad b. Habib (d. 245/860), popularly known as Ibn Habib, notes:

ومات عروة مسلما ولم يكن أمر بالنزول عن بعض نسائه

‘Urwah died as a Muslim while he had not been ordered to turn away from a number of his wives.[20]

The above details about the people reported to have been instructed to part with wives other than four give us two dates Rabi-II, 9/July-August 630 when ‘Urwah b. Mas‘ud was killed[21] and Ramadan, 9/January 631 when Ghilan embraced Islam. Between these days, we can safely hold, the restriction of polygamy to four was legislated in Islam.

Going back to Qur’an 4:3; since we are not sure when the verse was revealed and as noted it is neither unequivocal in setting the legal bar to polygamy, we can say if revealed before Rabi-II, 9/July-August 630 it signified deploring extensive polygamy before setting a legal bar to it; if revealed later than that, we can say, it alluded to a limit already set.[22]

4. The Prophet () turns away from wives except four

Ibn Abi Shaiba (d. 235/850) mentions:

عن أبي رزين في قوله تعالى : {ترجي من تشاء منهن وتؤوي إليك من تشاء} فكان ممن آوى عائشة وأم سلمة وزينب وحفصة ، فكان قسمتهن من نفسه وماله فيهن سواء ، وكان ممن أرجى سودة وجويرية وأم حبيبة وميمونة وصفية ، فكان يقسم لهن ما شاء ، وكان أراد أن يفارقهن فقلن له : اقسم لنا من نفسك ما شئت ودعنا نكون على حالنا.

Regarding the verse, “You, [O Muhammad], may put aside whom you will of them or take to yourself whom you will,” (33:51) Abu Razin said: Those the Prophet took for himself were ‘Aisha, Umm Salama, Zainab, and Hafsa, sharing with them equally his time and property.

Those who were put aside included Sawda, Juwairiya, Umm Habiba, Maimuna, and Safiyya sharing with them his time and property at will. He wanted to divorce with them, so they said, ‘Divide for us your time as you but leave us as we are (i.e. do not divorce us.)[23]

Ibn Mardawayh (d. 410/1019) likewise reported.

عن مجاهد قال كان المرجئات خمسا ومن أوى أربعا فذكرهن

On the authority of Mujahid who said: “[Of the wives of the Prophet] those who were set aside were five in number and those who were taken in were four,” he then mentioned their names. [24]

Here the choice of four and desire to divorce others is significant.[25]  This report refers to a happening other than the well-known seclusion of the Prophet (ﷺ) in which he turned away from all his wives following which the wives of the Prophet (ﷺ) were given the choice to either choose him or the worldly provisions and each of them chose him without any reluctance whatsoever.

Ibn ‘Abbas is reported to have noted that Qur’an 33:52 was revealed after the Wives of the Prophet (ﷺ) chose his company over worldly comforts which is known to have happened in the year 9/630.

[26] Suleman b. Yasar (d. 110/728) a client of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) wife Maimuna who was also a student of ‘Aisha and Umm Salama reports that verse 50-52 of surah al-Ahzab were revealed after the Prophet’s (ﷺ) marriage with Asma’ al-Jawniyya which, it is known, happened in Rabi-I, 9/June-July 630.[27] This timeline corresponds with the chronology suggested by the reports establishing the restriction of four wives mentioned above.

Accordingly, it is safe to suggest that the event of the Prophet (ﷺ) choosing four wives and turning away from the rest happened when the limitation of maximum four wives was ordained. And as the Prophet (ﷺ) considered divorcing all but four of his wives Verses 50-52 of Surah al-Ahzab were revealed.[28]

 5. Qur’an 33:50-52 and its importance vis-à-vis the Prophet’s (ﷺ) marital life

Let us now, therefore, turn to the verses 50-52 of Surah 33 and see how their meanings become all the more apparent when considered against the facts noted above.

يَاأَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ إِنَّا أَحْلَلْنَا لَكَ أَزْوَاجَكَ اللَّاتِي آتَيْتَ أُجُورَهُنَّ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ يَمِينُكَ مِمَّا أَفَاءَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكَ وَبَنَاتِ عَمِّكَ وَبَنَاتِ عَمَّاتِكَ وَبَنَاتِ خَالِكَ وَبَنَاتِ خَالَاتِكَ اللَّاتِي هَاجَرْنَ مَعَكَ وَامْرَأَةً مُؤْمِنَةً إِنْ وَهَبَتْ نَفْسَهَا لِلنَّبِيِّ إِنْ أَرَادَ النَّبِيُّ أَنْ يَسْتَنْكِحَهَا خَالِصَةً لَكَ مِنْ دُونِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ قَدْ عَلِمْنَا مَا فَرَضْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ فِي أَزْوَاجِهِمْ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ لِكَيْلَا يَكُونَ عَلَيْكَ حَرَجٌ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًا (٥٠) تُرْجِي مَنْ تَشَاءُ مِنْهُنَّ وَتُؤْوِي إِلَيْكَ مَنْ تَشَاءُ وَمَنِ ابْتَغَيْتَ مِمَّنْ عَزَلْتَ فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْكَ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَنْ تَقَرَّ أَعْيُنُهُنَّ وَلَا يَحْزَنَّ وَيَرْضَيْنَ بِمَا آتَيْتَهُنَّ كُلُّهُنَّ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مَا فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَلِيمًا (٥١) لَا يَحِلُّ لَكَ النِّسَاءُ مِنْ بَعْدُ وَلَا أَنْ تَبَدَّلَ بِهِنَّ مِنْ أَزْوَاجٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكَ حُسْنُهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا مَلَكَتْ يَمِينُكَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ رَقِيبًا (٥٢)

O Prophet! We have made lawful for you your wives to whom you have paid their (full) dowries as well as those (bondwomen) in your possession, whom Allah has granted you. And (you are allowed to marry) the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts, and the daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts, who have emigrated like you. Also (allowed for marriage is) a believing woman who offers herself to the Prophet (without dowry) if he is interested in marrying her.

(All this is) exclusively for you, not for the rest of the believers. We know well what (rulings) We have ordained for the believers in relation to their wives and those (bondwomen) in their possession. As such, there would be no blame on you.

And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful (50). It is up to you (O Prophet) to put aside or take unto him whoever you please of your wives. There is no blame on you if you call back any of those you have set aside. That is more likely that they will be content, not grieved, and satisfied with what you offer them all.

Allah (fully) knows what is in your hearts. And Allah is All-Knowing, Most Forbearing (51). It is not lawful for you (O Prophet) to marry more women after this, nor can you replace any of your present wives with another, even if her beauty may attract you—except those (bondwomen) in your possession. And Allah is ever Watchful over all things (52).[29]

5.1 The Prophet was allowed to keep more than four wives

These verses look a lot more meaningful if considered against the backdrop presented earlier. The words “O Prophet! We have made lawful for you your wives to whom you have paid their (full) dowries as well as those (bondwomen) in your possession, whom Allah has granted you” assured the Prophet (ﷺ) that all his wives taken till then remained lawful for him.

Thereafter, comes the very significant words, “(All this is) exclusively for you, not for the rest of the believers. We know well what (rulings) We have ordained for the believers in relation to their wives and those (bondwomen) in their possession.

As such, there would be no blame on you,” whereby it was confirmed that these rules were special to the Prophet (ﷺ). Not only is the flow of the verse clearly includes permission to marry more than four, authorities such as Ubay b. Ka‘b,[30] ‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar, Mujahid, and Qatada[31] have been reported to have stated that the words “We know well what (rulings) We have ordained” refer to stipulation of four.

The subsequent mention of the Prophet (ﷺ) being allowed to put aside or take unto him any of his wives confirming his prestige and position vis-à-vis his wives is followed by a very instructive sentence, “There is no blame on you if you call back any of those you have set aside. That is more likely that they will be content, not grieved, and satisfied with what you offer them all.

Allah (fully) knows what is in your hearts. And Allah is All-Knowing, Most Forbearing,” of which the true significance is highlighted if we see it in the light of reports of Abu Razin and Mujahid that the Prophet (ﷺ) had put aside all but four of his wives. It assured that there would be nothing wrong if he called back those of his wives he had put aside and that doing so would bring contentment and happiness to them all.[32] 

The phrase “Allah (fully) knows what is in your hearts” referred to what the Prophet (ﷺ) and his wives had felt during this time. It could also be indicative of the fact that the Prophet (ﷺ) himself did not want to divorce with any of them as underscored by the fact of him putting aside instead of immediately divorcing all his wives except four. The Prophet (ﷺ) instead waited for such a revelation to clear the matter.

One of the reasons both for the Prophet’s reluctance to immediately divorce all but four of his wives and was the fact that the Prophet’s wives had been made unlawful for all men for good and, therefore, unlike other women they could not remarry after the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) as declared in Qur’an 33:53

وَمَا كَانَ لَكُمْ أَنْ تُؤْذُوا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَلَا أَنْ تَنْكِحُوا أَزْوَاجَهُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ أَبَدًا إِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ عَظِيمًا

It is not for you believers to offend the Messenger of God. Moreover, never are you to marry his wives after him. Indeed, before God, either of these would, most surely, be an enormous sin.

Anas b. Malik assures us this verse was revealed at the eve of marriage of the Prophet with Zainab b. Jahsh[33] in Dhu al-Qa’da 5/April 627.[34]

Accordingly, while other men with more than four wives were required to keep four and divorce with the rest, when the Prophet (ﷺ) thought of divorcing his wives other than the four the revelation came making an exception for him and telling him that those he had married were lawful to him and there was no sin upon him in taking in whosoever from amongst them he wished. This practically did away with the need of turning away from any of them.

5.2 Other marriage related rules specific to the Prophet

Besides mentioning that all the women he had married or taken as slaves were lawful to him the verses set certain other exceptional rules for the Prophet (ﷺ) as well. These other specific rules where:

i) All the wives, the Prophet (ﷺ) had married by then even though more than four in number were declared permissible for him. He was, therefore, not required to divorce any of them.

ii)  If a Muslim woman gave a proposal for marriage to the Prophet (ﷺ) without dower the Prophet (ﷺ) was permitted to accept it.

It may, however, be noted that the Prophet (ﷺ) did not marry any women without paying her dower.[35]

iii)  Whereas generally Muslim men were allowed to marry any of their cousins the Prophet (ﷺ) was allowed only to marry his cousins who had like him migrated from Makkah to Madina.[36]

The story of Umm Hani’ bt. Abi Talib is relevant in this context. She was a cousin of the Prophet (ﷺ) who had not migrated to Madina.

أبا صالح مولى أم هانئ قال: خطب رسول الله أم هانئ بنت أبي طالب فقالت: يا رسول الله إني موتمة وبني صغار. قال: فلما أدرك بنوها عرضت نفسها عليه فقال: أما الآن فلا. لأن الله أنزل عليه: «يا أيها النبي إنا أحللنا لك أزواجك اللاتي آتيت أجورهن» إلى قوله: «اللاتي هاجرن معك» الأحزاب: 50. ولم تكن من المهاجرات.

Abu Salih, the client of Umm Hani’ said: The Messenger of Allah proposed to Umm Hani’ bint Abi Talib. She said, “Messenger of Allah, I am older and have young children.” When her sons came of age, she offered herself to him but the Prophet (ﷺ) replied, “Not, now,” because Allah had revealed to him, “O Prophet!

We have made lawful for you your wives to whom you have paid their (full) dowries as well as those (bondwomen) in your possession, whom Allah has granted you. And (you are allowed to marry) the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts, and the daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts, who have emigrated like you.” She was not one of those who emigrated.[37]

The report is further important for it confirms that Qur’an 33:50 was revealed after the conquest of Makkah (Ramadan 8/January 630) for otherwise the Prophet (ﷺ) would not have proposed her in first place. [38]

iv)  The Prophet (ﷺ) was not bound to divide his time equally between his wives.

The Prophet (ﷺ) nevertheless always divided his time equally amongst them.[39]

v)   Unlike other Muslim men who were allowed to marry even Christian or Jewish women the Prophet (ﷺ) was allowed to marry only Muslim women.

The Prophet (ﷺ) always followed this rule.

vi)    The Prophet (ﷺ) was not allowed to marry women outside the categories mentioned.[40]

6. Was the Prophet again allowed to marry?

We have seen that in vide Qur’an 33:52 the Prophet (ﷺ) was barred from marrying any other woman. There are, however, reports suggesting that towards the end of his life the Prophet (ﷺ) was again granted permission to marry at will.

عن عطاء، قال: قالت عائشة، «ما مات رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم حتى أحل له النساء»

Narrated ‘Ata: ‘Aishah said: “The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) did not die until the women had been made lawful for him.”[41]

Whereas, scholars differ about the authenticity of this report it is difficult to discard it altogether.[42] Moreover, it is also reported from other companions as well albeit through weaker chains of narrators.

How does then this report go with Qur’an 33:52? One way to see it is that initially verse 52 restricted the Prophet (ﷺ) from marrying any other woman besides the nine he had when the verses 50-52 were revealed but towards the end of his life the restriction was limited to the kinds of women mentioned in verse 50. In other words the narration defines the shift in the nature of restriction imposed on the Prophet (ﷺ) with regards to marriages.

It is a plausible way to go about it not only because it strikes a reconciliation between the two long debated interpretations of verse 52 but also because there is a good indication to it in the comparison of various reports from Ibn ‘Abbas on this point.

One report says that like Anas b. Malik and al-Sha‘bi, Ibn ‘Abbas also said that the verse stopped the Prophet (ﷺ) from marrying anyone which implies that the words لَا يَحِلُّ لَكَ النِّسَاءُ مِنْ بَعْدُ in verse 52 mean, “It is not lawful for you (O Prophet) to marry more women after this.”[43]

At the same time we have a report from Ibn ‘Abbas which shows like Ubayy and others he too held that prohibition was about marrying women of categories other than mentioned which implies that verse 52 actually means, “It is not lawful for you (O Prophet) to marry other women besides (those mentioned).”[44]

There, however, appears no real contradiction between these two interpretations if we consider that following the revelation of the verse the Prophet (ﷺ) was initially barred from marrying any women but was subsequently allowed to marry women from the categories mentioned in Qur’an 33:50. [45] 

This shift in nature of restriction, it appears, was underscored by the fact referred to in the report from ‘Aisha mentioned above. It may also be noted that one early source actually attributes the same report to Ibn ‘Abbas as well which explains the fact of him reported to have interpreted the verse both ways.[46]

It was after this change in nature of restriction that the Prophet (ﷺ) solemnized marriage with Qutaila bt. Qais in Late 10/Feb-Mar 632. [47]

7. Delineated chronology of events

Here is a recap of facts related to the subject in a chronological order.

Before the Prophet (ﷺ) married Juwairiya in Sha‘ban 5/January 627 he already had four wives.

The last of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) consummated marriages was solemnized in Dhu al-Qa‘da 7/March 629.

Prophet’s (ﷺ) marriage with Asma’ al-Jawniyya which ended before consummation was held in Rabi-I 9/June-July 630.

The limit of four marriages was set at sometime after Rabi-II 9/July-August 630 and Ramadan 9/December 630 when the Prophet (ﷺ) had nine wives.

Upon the revelation of condition of four the Prophet (ﷺ) set to put aside all but four of his wives.

At this eve verses 50-52 of Surah al-Ahzab giving marriage related dispensations and restrictions specific to the Prophet (ﷺ) were revealed whereby all nine wives he had then were made lawful for him but he was stopped from marrying any further.

Subsequently, around late 10/early 632 the Prophet (ﷺ) was again allowed to marry women of the categories mentioned in verse 50 of surah al-Ahzab. Prophet’s (ﷺ) marriage with Qutaila was solemnized after this only.

8. Summary and Conclusion

Whereas Sha‘ban 5/January 627 onwards the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) had more than four wives together the upper of limit of polygamy was not fixed until after Rabi-II 9/ July-August 630. After the limit was set Muslims in general having more than four wives were ordered to keep only four and part with the rest. In consideration of the fact that his divorcees could not remarry as already laid down in Qur’an.

And for the fact that shortly before they had all vowed to remain with him and had given solemnly up any desire for worldly comforts, the Prophet (ﷺ) did not immediately divorce any of his wives although he had nine by then and waited for revelation for due guidance.

Nevertheless he turned away from five of them and only took four with him. At this point Qur’an 33:50-52 were revealed whereby all his wives were made lawful to him and he was allowed to take in any and all of them freeing him of the need for the provisional arrangement he had made. Moreover, he was restricted from marrying any further.

Towards the end of his life, however, he was allowed to marry again changing the nature of restriction imposed vide Qur’an 33:52 from that of taking any other woman to marrying only women of categories mentioned in Qur’an 33:50. As a matter of fact, however, none of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) marriages solemnized after the setting of the limit to polygamy was consummated and he was survived by the same nine wives he had taken before the setting of the limit.


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Notes & References:

[1] Darwazeh, Muhammad ‘Izzat, al-Tafsir al-Hadith, 2nd Ed. (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 2000) Vol.7, 401-403; also Darwazeh, Sirat al-Rasul – Suwar Muqtabasa min al-Qur’an al-Karim, (Beirut: Maktaba al-‘Asriyyah, n.d.) Vol.1, 69-72; Vol.2, 448

[2] Hamidullah, Dr. Muhammad, “Hal khalaf al-nabi ‘alaihi al-salawat wa al-salam awamir al-ayah mathna wa thulatha wa ruba‘a” in al-Dirasat al-Islamiyyah 24:4 (Islamabad, Oct-Dec 1989/Muharram-Rabi-I 1408) 5-12. He erred first in asserting with conviction that Qur’an 4:3 setting the ceiling to polygamy was revealed soon after hijrah (nazalat ba‘da qalil) and that by that time the Prophet (ﷺ) had nine wives. (p. 5).

This was evident slip of mind on his part for otherwise he for sure knew that of the consummated marriages the last one was solemnized towards the end of year 7 After Hijrah (AH). Furthermore, he did not take into account Ibn Habib’s testimony that by the time ‘Urwah b. Mas‘ud (d. 9 AH) died the stipulation of four had not been revealed. Incidentally, Ibn Habib’s book had been edited and then translated into Urdu by Dr. Hamidullah.

To be fair, however, it is important to note that before finally retracting this eccentric opinion Dr. Hamidullah for once responded to objections to his position. Unfortunately, I do not have access to any of the articles comprising a volley of arguments to this effect. His letter to editor of monthly Sada’i Islam, Peshawar, in which he in a great manifestation of modesty ended the discussion saying if the scholars were not satisfied on the soundness of his arguments he would not insist,

however, has been preserved in Haq, Muhammad Alam Mukhtar, Nigarshat-i-Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, (Multan: Beacon Books, 2009) 678-680

[3] Ahmad, Dr. Hafiz Iftikhar, “Kia Rasul Allah tehdid-e-azwaj kay paband thy?” in Tahqeeqat-e-Islami, 33:4 (Aligarh, Oct-Dec 2014) 57-76

[4] Ghazi, Dr. Mahmood Ahmad, Mahadarat-e-Sirat, 3rd Ed. (Lahore: al-Faisal Nashran, 2009) 503-505

[5] Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 90

[6] For references and discussion on the dates of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) marriages see our article, “Basic Facts on the Prophet’s Marriages

[7] See our article, “Opposition to Rajm (Stoning): Analysis and Refutation” (Section 2.5)

[8] For details see our article “Correction or Consolation? Qur’an 4:95 and Exemption for the Blind Man” (Footnote 6)

[9] Al-Tunisi, Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa al-Tanwir, (Tunis: Dar al-Tunisia, 1984) Vol.4, 212

[10] Al-Tunisi, Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa al-Tanwir, Vol.4, 225

[11] Al-Shawkani, Muhammad b. ‘Ali, Fath al-Qadir, (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1414 AH) Vol.1, 483

[12] Al-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, al-Sunan, (Beirut: Al-Resalah Publishers, 2009) Hadith 2241; classified as hasan by Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut

[13] Al-Jawzjani, Sa ‘id b. Mansur, al-Sunan, (Bombay: Dar al-Salafiyya, 1982) Hadith 1865; al-Tabarani, Abu al-Qasim, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, (Cairo: Maktaba Ibn Taimiyya, 1994) Vol.18, Hadith 923; al-Baihaqi, Abu Bakr, Sunan al-Kabra, (Beirut: DKI, 2003) Hadith 14051

[14] Al-Tha‘labi, Abu Ishaq, al-Kashf wa al-Bayan ‘an Tafsir al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2002) Vol.3, 247

[15] Al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa, al-Jami’ al-Kabir – Sunan al-Tirmidhi, (Beirut: Al-Resalah Publishers, 2009) Hadith 1158; classified as sahih by Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut

[16] Ibn Hisham, ‘Abd al-Malik, Sirah al-Nabawiyya, Edited Mustafa Saqa, (Cairo: Mustafa Babi, 1955) Vol.2, 537; Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.6, 46

Ghilan was in Thaqifite ranks when one of them killed ‘Urwah b. Mas‘ud al-Thaqafi upon his return to Ta’if after having accepted Islam in Rabi-I, 9/July 630. See, Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.6, 45

[17] Al-Shafi’i, Muhammad b. Idris, al-Musnad – Tartib Sanjar, (Kuwait: Gheras Publishing, 2004) Hadith 1153; al-Baihaqi, Sunan al-Kabra, Hadith 14057

[18] al-Baihaqi, Sunan al-Kabra, Hadith 14050

[19] Ibn Sa’d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.6, 45

[20] Ibn Habib, Muhammad, al-Muhabbar, (Beirut: Dar al-Afaq al-Jadida, n.d.) 357; It may be pointed out that on the authority of Abu ‘Awn Muhammad b. ‘Ubaid Ullah al-Thaqafi, al-Baihaqi gives a first person account in the name of ‘Urwah that when he accepted Islam he had nine wives and he was asked to choose four of them and part with the rest. See, al-Baihaqi, Sunan al-Kabra, Hadith 14055. Khatib al-Baghdadi,

however, gives another report on the authority of the same Abu ‘Awn al-Thaqafi which has the person with more than four wives named as Abu Mas‘ud b. ‘Abd Yalil b. ‘Amr al-Thaqafi. See, al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr al-Khatib, al-Asma’ al-Mubhama fi al-Anba’ al-Muhkama, (Cairo: Maktaba al-Khanji, 1997) 363. The version mentioning ‘Urwah has evident weakness as there is a manifest gap between ‘Urwah b. Mas‘ud (d. 9/630) and Abu ‘Awn al-Thaqafi (d. 116/734)

[21] Whereas it is related that ‘Urwah accepted Islam at Madina in Rabi-I 9/June-July 630 and was killed on his return to Ta’if no specific date of his return or death is reported. Assuming his sojourn in Madina to be short and accounting for travel time from Madina to Ta’if it would be safe to suggest that he was killed in Rabi-II 9/July-August 630.

[22] Al-Tunisi, Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa al-Tanwir, Vol.4, 225

[23] Ibn Abi Shaiba, Abu Bakr, al-Musannaf, Edited by Muhammad ‘Awwama (Beirut: Dar Qurtuba, 2006) Hadith 16734; Muhammad ‘Awwama classified it as mursal sahih

[24] al-Zaili‘i, Jamal al-Din, Takhrij al-Ahadith wa al-Athar al-waqi‘a fi Tafsir al-Kashshaf, (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaima, 1414 AH) Vol.3, 119; It may be argued that in al-Suyuti’s rendering of their report the Prophet (ﷺ) took for himself five and put aside four, counting Umm Habiba among those taken rather than those put aside.

See Al-Suyuti, al-Durr al-Manthur, (Cairo: Markaz Hijr, 2003) Vol.12, 94. In response it suffices to say that al-Zaili‘i’s rendering is more reliable for his being a comparatively early, more careful and focused scholar. al-Zaili‘i comments on the hadith saying it is “mursal” signifying that there was no other issue with the isnad in his view.

[25] Ibn Sa‘d, however, gives a report from al-Waqidi through “Muhammad b. Rifa‘a b. Tha‘laba b. Abi Malik, on the authority of his father, on the authority of his grandfather,” which says, “the Prophet (ﷺ) took in Zainab b. Jahsh, ‘Aisha and Umm Salama, and put the remaining aside.” (Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 159) Rifa‘a b. Tha‘laba, however, remains of unknown status in terms of reliability. Moreover, it could be that one of the narrators simply forgot to name Hafsa as well.

[26] Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 115; on dating of the Verse of Choice (ayat al-takhyir) see; al-‘Asqalani, Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1367 AH) Vol.7, 438;Vol.9, 286

[27] Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 159; for the dating of marriage with Asma’, see; Ibid., Vol.8, 115

[28] Darwazeh, Muhammad ‘Izzat, al-Tafsir al-Hadith, Vol.7, 402

[29] Qur’an 33:50-52

[30] Yahya b. Salam, al-Tafsir, (Beirut: DKI, 2004) Vol.2, 731; Al-Tabari, Ibn Jarir, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 2000) Vol.20, 287; Al-Tahawi, Abu Ja‘far, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, (Beirut: al-Resalah Publishers, 1994) Vol.1, 454; See also, Al-Tayyar, Musa‘id b. Suleman, Mawsu’a Tafsir al-Ma’thur, (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2017) Vol.18, 69-70 No. 62538-62539

[31] Al-Tayyar, Mawsu’a Tafsir al-Ma’thur, Vol.18, 70 No. 62542-62544

[32] Darwaza, ‘Izzat, al-Tafsir al-Hadith, Vol.7, 402; also Al-Tunisi, Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa al-Tanwir, Vol. 22, 75-76; Ibn ‘Ashur points out that the common interpretation given in Tafsir al-Kashshaf and followed by the laity that contentment and coolness of eyes in respect of the Wives of the Prophet would have been in them realizing that it was not their right but a favour from the Prophet (ﷺ), is farfetched.

[33] Al-Bukhari, Al-Sahih, Hadith 4791

[34] Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 90

[35] al-‘Asqalani, Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol.8, 526

[36] The condition of emigration was with regards to women of his parents’ family only. It was not with regards women in general. See, Shafi‘, Muhammad, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an, Translated by Muhammad Shamim (Karachi: Maktaba-e-Darul ‘Ulum, 2003) Vol.7, 192

[37] See, Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 121; al-Tirmidhi has it in a bit shorter form. See, Al-Tirmidhi, al-Jami’ al-Kabir – Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 3493; al-Tirmidhi graded it as hasan. Al-Hakim graded it as sahih (al-Mustadrak, Hadith 3574) to which al-Dhahabi concurred.

 Some scholars have considered the report weak due to Abu Salih but others have defended him saying that he was criticized for the fact of him being prolific in exegetical reports on the authority of much censured Ibn al-Kalbi. They have accordingly contended that this fact should have no bearing on his reports otherwise. See, Shakir, Ahmad Muhammad (editor), Sunan al-Tirmidhi, (Cairo: Mustafa Babi, 1977) Vol.2, 137.

For a detailed discussion regarding Abu Salih, see Al-‘Awni, Hatem Sharif, “al-Qawl al-Muharrir li-Tarjumati Abi Salih Badhan al-Mufassir” included in Ida’at al-Bahthiyya fi ‘Ulum al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyya, (Riyadh: Dar al-Sami’i, 2007) 524-547 especially p.529 where al-‘Awni confirms that isnad of report quoted above is sahih upto Abu Salih as well, and pp.544-545 where he notes al-Dhahabi’s assertion that reports of Abu Salih Badhan are no less than hasan in terms of authenticity.

[38] there must be a reasonably longer span of time between Umm Hani’ regretting the Prophet’s (ﷺ) proposal and then getting back to him as the reason, the reports says, was her sons coming to age.

[39] Al-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, as-Sunan, Hadith 2135; classified as hasan by Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut

[40] See the next section for a discussion on this point.

[41] Al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa, al-Jami‘ al-Kabir, Hadith 3495; al-Nasa’i, al-Sunan, Hadith 3204-3205; Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Edited by Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut, (Beirut: al-Resalah Publishers, 2001) Hadith 24137, 25467; al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, (Dabhel: Majlis al-‘Ilmi, 1983) Hadith 14001; Ibn Abi Shaiba, al-Musannaf, Hadith 17187;  al-Busti, Ibn Hibban, al-Sahih, (Beirut: Al-Resalah Publishers, 1988) Hadith 6366; et al.

[42] Those who deemed it dubious did it for confusions across various chains of narrators of this report as to whether ‘Ata’ related it on the authority of (‘an) ‘Aisha and if he was sure he heard it from ‘Umair b. ‘Ubaid relating it from ‘Aisha (See Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut’s comments in his research on Musnad Ahmad – Hadith 24137).

Others have responded by saying that at first ‘Ata was not sure if he heard it from ‘Umair and, therefore, did not say it assertively subsequently, however, he confirmed the link and related it thus. (See, Muhammad ‘Awwama’s comment in his research on Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaiba – Hadith 17187). Al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Hibban in their respective collections and al-Albani in his research on their works also authenticated it.

[43] Al-Tabari, Ibn Jarir, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an, Vol.20, 297; it is reported through isnad involving ‘Atiyah al-‘Awfi and his descendants. Though criticized otherwise, the tafsir reports through this isnad are accepted since they are known to have been transmitted in writing. See, al-Turifi, ‘Abdul ‘Aziz, al-Taqrir fi Asanid al-Tafsir, (Riyadh: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011 ) 67-68

[44] Al-Tirmidhi, al-Jami’ al-Kabir – Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 3494; classified as hasan by al-Tirmidhi

[45] The report about Umm Hani’ mentioned above also confirms that the Prophet (ﷺ) was not altogether and for good barred from marrying after the revelation of Qur’an 33:50-52. If it had it been so the Prophet (ﷺ) would have referred to prohibition, not to a condition of permissibility. It appears that incident of Umm Hani’ happened towards the end of Prophet’s (ﷺ) lifetime when the temporary bar on marriages was removed for him. In all probability it happened when the Prophet (ﷺ) visited Makkah for the Farewell Pilgrimage in Dhu al-Hijja 10/March 632.

[46] Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 156-157

It may be pointed out that some of such reports have certain additional words such as; أحل الله له أن يتزوج من النساء ما شاء “Allah permitted him to marry women as much he wished.” (See, for instance: al-Nasa’i, al-Sunan, Hadith 3205; al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, Hadith 14001)

This addition can be related to a report from Ubay b. Ka‘b which signifies that verse 52 barring the Prophet (ﷺ) only from marrying women other than the categories mentioned in verse 50 and that of the categories mentioned he could marry “whoever he wished” (فكان يتزوج منهن من شاء). Accordingly, the report corroborates our position here, See Ibn Abi Shaiba, al-Musannaf, Hadith 17186

There is, however, another addition reported in some narrations: أحل الله له أن يتزوج من النساء ما شاء، إلا ذات محرم “Allah permitted him to marry whichever of the women he wished except those from forbidden relations”

This suggests the report implies permission beyond the categories mentioned in Qur’an 33:50 but this addition has not been reported through any authentic channel. It comes either through ‘Umar b. Abi Bakr [al-‘Adawi al-Mosali] who has been deemed as a liar (See, Al-Tahawi, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, Hadith 524; Ibn Abi Hatim, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim, (KSA: Maktaba Nazar, 1419) No. 17737), or Muhammad b. ‘Umar al-Waqidi who is likewise much criticized. (Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 156)

With sources other than Ibn Sa‘d, it is only in the reports attributed to Umm Salama that we find the odd addition “except those from forbidden relations” (illa dhat mahram) but whereas Ibn Sa‘d on the authority of his much controversial teacher al-Waqidi brings the report from ‘Aisha,

Ibn ‘Abbas, and Muhammad b. ‘Umar b. ‘Ali b. Abi Talib as well it is only with the report attributed to ‘Aisha that he gives these words and with the rest including that of Umm Salama he simply says they reported ‘likewise.’ (Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabaqat a-Kabir, Vol.8, 156-157). No other source attributes this addition to ‘Aisha. Knowing that al-Waqidi was most importantly criticized for mixing up isnad and contents it would be safe to surmise that this is what happened in this case as well.

[47] Al-Jazri, Usud Al-Ghāba, Vol.6, 240; Lecker, Michael, Jews and Arabs in Pre- and Early Islamic Arabia, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1998) 350; for more on Prophet’s (ﷺ) marriage with Qutaila which however remained unconsummated see our article, “Prophet’s Marital Life: Unconsummated Marriages, Unmaterialized Proposals