by Tara MacArthur
Then [Muhammad] emigrated to Medina and began spreading the word of Allah. Thereafter, he married eight women, all of them widows or divorcees, all old or middle-aged … He had married many of them in order to give them protection and safeguard their dignity. It was hoped that the Muslims would follow his example and provide protection to aged women, widows and their orphaned children … Thus do we see that each of these marriages had some solid reasons behind it; passion and lust were not among them.
This is a popular explanation for why Muhammad resorted to polygyny. If it is an accurate assessment, we would expect his eight new wives to be mature-aged matrons whom the wars had left poor and vulnerable. Let us check the facts.
After Muhammad married Aïsha, he ordered fourteen military attacks on other tribes and he also had to fight twice in defence. Sixteen Muslim men, or about 4% of the total, were killed in these battles. Muhammad was not well placed to care for new family-members, for he was still poor. Aïsha said that they never ate bread for more than three successive days, and sometimes the family had nothing to cook for two months on end.
In January 625 Muhammad married Hafsa, a widow of 19. Her father Umar gladly accepted the honour of being the Prophet’s father-in-law; but he warned Hafsa never to ask her husband for money. “If you need anything,” he said, “come and ask me,” for he was “one of the richest of the Quraysh.”
The following month, Muhammad married Umm al-Masakin, a widow in her late twenties. She had plenty of protectors to hand, for she had three brothers and two brothers-in-law living in Medina. Since she was childless, she would not have been much of a burden on the combined resources of these relatives. She died, however, only eight months after marrying Muhammad.
The wars continued. Muhammad launched nine more attacks and was placed three more times on the defensive, which cost him the lives of at least 134 more Muslim warriors. Nevertheless, by 627 the Muslim community was the whole of Medina, so deaths in battle never exceeded 5% of the total fighting stock. Given how frequently women died in childbirth, it is unlikely that this created a gender-imbalance. After Muhammad took over the property of the Nadir tribe in September 625, he was no longer poor, so he could afford new wives.
In April 626 Muhammad married Hind. This attractive widow was 28 and had four young children. She does not sound poor. Her response to her first husband’s death was, “I shall hire a mourning-party that will be the talk of the town!” as if money were no obstacle. She inherited two businesses from her husband, a tannery and half a date-orchard. She was not worried about how she would manage these enterprises alone, for she had six slaves to help her. She refused marriage proposals from two other suitors and she refused Muhammad twice before accepting him. After their marriage, he asked her to tone down her display of gold jewellery and musk, for silver and saffron were more appropriate to a Mother of the Faithful.
In March 627 Muhammad married his cousin Zaynab, who was 37 and very alluring to men. She was not poor, for she was also a tanner, and her business was doing so well that she gave away all her profits to charity. Nor was she alone in the world, for her brother lived next door to Muhammad. In fact she was not even single, for she was the wife of Muhammad’s adopted son. Zaynab had no need to find a new husband; rather, her existing husband had to divorce her to enable her marriage to Muhammad. Although this caused quite a scandal around Medina, Muhammad was by this time powerful enough not to care.
Two months later, Muhammad married a beautiful war-captive named Rayhana. Her first husband had been one of the 600 men of Qurayza who were beheaded at Muhammad’s order. Therefore Rayhana was only a widow because Muhammad had killed her husband; and she was only poor because Muhammad had appropriated her property. In fact Rayhana did not need to remarry to survive, for she was only a Quraziya by marriage; her blood-relations were the Nadir. The Nadir tribe were desperately searching the Arabian slave-markets for their Qurazi friends, and they bought back as many of the women and children as they found there. Of course they would have bought Rayhana, who was Nadir-born, if Muhammad had been willing to sell her. But he had already selected her for himself.
It is likely that the influx of female slaves from 627 onward changed the gender-balance of Medina. There was now some justification for the claim that these “excess women” were unable to marry monogamously. Let us see if the widows whom Muhammad married after this date were the ones who would have otherwise been left destitute.
The sixth widow whom Muhammad married in Medina was Juwayriya. Twenty years old and fabulously beautiful, she was only a widow because the Muslim raiders had killed her husband in battle. Her father, the tribal chief, was a wealthy man. He was willing and able to pay the hefty ransom set on his daughter’s head so that he could bring her home. It was Muhammad who, after accepting this payment, insisted that Juwayriya had already agreed to marry him. The dower that he paid his bride was only worth one-ninth of the ransom that he had just received from her father.
A few weeks later, Muhammad proposed to Ramla, an attractive widow of 34. She was one of the Muslims who had emigrated to Ethiopia, where they made a comfortable living selling leather. It is possible that Ramla was not herself a tanner and that the death of her husband left her unable to continue his business. However, the successful Muslim community included two of her first cousins, so they had a duty to care for her. If she had wanted to remarry, the community boasted twelve single men (including one of the cousins) and no other single women under 65, so Ramla had her choice of suitors without needing to resort to polygamy. These Muslims were under the direct protection of the Emperor of Ethiopia, who not only underwrote Ramla’s dower but carelessly added an extra zero to the usual amount. It does not sound as if he would have left her to starve.
If Muhammad had wanted to open his home to poor widows exiled in Ethiopia, perhaps he should have proposed to the other two widows, who were elderly and of the peasant class. However, he never mentioned them. Muhammad’s real motive for marrying Ramla seems to have been political. She was the daughter of his arch-enemy, Abu Sufyan, so her marriage, a public exhibition of her loyalties, was a snub to him.
At the same time, Muhammad married Safiya, whom he captured in his war against Khaybar. She was 16 years old and of dazzling beauty. She was only a widow because Muhammad had murdered her husband, and she was only poor because Muhammad had appropriated her family’s wealth for himself. Nevertheless, her poverty had not reached the level of absolute destitution, for many of her relatives were still alive in Khaybar. They had persuaded Muhammad to let them remain on the land and farm the dates in exchange for giving him half the revenues. If Safiya had remained in Khaybar, she too could have farmed dates.
Muhammad’s extended family lived off the wealth of Khaybar for the rest of their lives. Since Safiya was the First Lady of the ruling family of Khaybar, there was a very real sense in which Muhammad’s whole clan was living at her expense. Muhammad was not providing for Safiya; it was she who provided for him.
These were the eight women whom Muhammad married in Medina. Only one part of our lead prediction has been proved correct: they were all matrons. None was poor. None lacked a male protector. None was elderly. We must look for some other reason why Muhammad chose to marry them. It may well be relevant that he married the first two when there was a shortage of women while the other six were noted for their beauty.
Another aspect of our lead prediction is wrong: this is not the end of the list of Muhammad’s wives. In the last four years of his life, eight more women entered his household. So this analysis is to be continued.
One question we have not addressed here is why all these women agreed to marry Muhammad. There are some answers to that question in my book Unveiled.
 Ibn Ishaq 281-364, 369, 659-660.
 Muslim 42:7083, 7084, 7085, 7086, 7087, 7089, 7092, 7093, 7097, 7098.
 Ibn Saad 8:56, 58.
 Bukhari 5:59:342.
 Bukhari 7:62:119.
 Ibn Ishaq 216.
 Ibn Ishaq 218. Ibn Saad 8:82.
 Ibn Ishaq 370-482, 659-662, 666, 673-675. Ibn Saad 2:42-76, 80-96, 115-117.
 Waqidi 256.
 Ibn Ishaq 438.
 Ibn Saad 8:61, 66-67.
 Muslim 4:2007.
 Waqidi 186-187. Ibn Kathir 3:123.
 Malik 37:6:5. Bukhari 5:59:613; 7:62:162; 7:72:775. Bukhari, Mufrad 9:184. Muslim 26:5415, 5416; 32:6186. Abu Dawud 29:3921. Tirmidhi 1:2:381. Tabari 9:145. Ibn Kathir 4:480.
 Ibn Saad 8:61-65.
 Ibn Hanbal 6:26681 (Cairo).
 Tabari 39:9, 180-182.
 Ibn Saad 8:74, 77.
 Tabari 39:9, 180-182.
 Ibn Ishaq 463-468. Tabari 39:164-165.
 Waqidi 257.
 Ibn Ishaq 466. Waqidi 255-256.
 Ibn Ishaq 490, 493. Ibn Hisham #739, 918. Tabari 39 :182-184.
 Ibn Saad 8:68-69. Muslim 31:6095. Tabari 9:133. Ibn Hajar, Isaba 7:11185.
 Ibn Ishaq 146, 148, 527-529. Ibn Saad 8:68-69. Tabari 6:98; 9:133.
 Ibn Ishaq 179, 526-528
 Ibn Ishaq 514-515, 521-523. Waqidi 349. Ibn Saad 8:88, 89, 90. Muslim 8:3329. Tabari 39:184.
 Ishaq 437-438. Bukhari 1:8:367.