At the time Mohammed was born in the 7th century, Judaism had already completed the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire and its leaders had already agreed on the collection of the New Testament. Although Rome had fallen to the Visigoths, but Constantinople was still the center of the Byzantine Empire. Mohammed’s recitations of God’s word to him threatened the Jewish and Christian strongholds around the Mediterranean Sea. Inspired by God, he unified the tribes of Arabia into one people – the Muslims.
When Muhammad was born women had few, if any rights. In fact, even their right to live was questioned, especially if there was a drought or if food was scarce, it wasn’t uncommon for young girls to be buried alive. In the Qur’an, it is on Judgment Day “buried girls” will rise out of their graves and ask for what crime they were killed. Part of Muhammad’s legacy was to end infanticide and establish explicit rights for women.
Muhammad was orphaned at an early age. He was raised by his paternal uncle and accompanied his uncle on trading journeys to Syria where he gained experience in commercial trade, the only career open to Muhammad as an orphan. When he was 25 of age, he caught the eye of the owner of a caravan, a wealthy, twice-widowed woman named Khadijah, who 40 at the time. Khadijah had intermediaries propose marriage, Muhammad accepted and the marriage was long-lasting and successful. In Khadijah’s lifetime, Muhammad did not take any other brides, which was unusual in a culture where men routinely practiced polygamy; Khadijah died when Muhammad was in his fifties. As the father of four daughters in a society that prized sons, he told other fathers that, if their daughters spoke well of them on the Day of Judgment, they would enter paradise.
Islam teaches that men and women are equal before God. It grants women divinely sanctioned inheritance, property, social and marriage rights, including the right to reject the terms of a proposal and to initiate divorce. The American middle-class trend to include a prenuptial agreement in the marriage contract is completely acceptable in Islamic law. In Islam’s early period, women were professionals and property owners, as many are today. Although in some countries today the right of women to initiate divorce is more difficult than intended, this is a function of patriarchal legislation and not an expression of Islamic values. Muhammad himself frequently counseled Muslim men to treat their wives and daughters well. “You have rights over your women,” he is reported to have said, “and your women have rights over you.”
Muhammad was working to establish a new community. In that context, over the next 10 years, he married several women. In some cases, these marriages occurred in order to cement political ties, according to the custom of the day. In some cases, the marriage provided physical and economic shelter to the widows of Muslims who had died or who had been killed in battle, and to the wife of a fallen foe. Of all his marriages, only one appears to have been controversial, and it was to the divorced wife of his adopted son.
Only one of his wives had not been previously married. Her name was Aisha, the daughter of one of his closest companions. Aisha was betrothed to Muhammad while still a girl, but she remained in her parents’ home for several years until she reached puberty. Years later, when absent from Medina, Muhammad often recommended that, if religious questions arose, people should take them to his wife Aisha. After Muhammad’s death, Aisha became a main source of information about Muhammad, and on medicine and poetry as well. Aisha’s assertion that Muhammad lived the Qur’an became the basis for Muslims ever since to emulate his example.
Muhammad’s daughters also played an important and influential role, both in his life and in the establishment of Islam. Most notable was his daughter Fatima, who is still revered by all Muslims, particularly Shiite Muslims.
Following the Battle of Uhud (625), in which scores of male combatants died leaving unprotected widows and children, Muhammad and the Qur’an decreed that, in order to protect the orphans of such families, men might take up to four wives. The permission itself is surrounded with language that discourages the very thing it permits, saying that unless a man can treat several wives equally, he should never enter into multiple marriages. The usual supposition in the modern monogamous West-that Islam institutionally encourages lustful arrangements-is rejected by Muslims themselves as an ill-informed stereotype. At the same time, Muslim feminists point out that in various cultures at different economic strata the laws of polygamy have frequently operated to the clear detriment of women. Polygamy is an uncommon occurrence in the modern Muslim world.
Halsell, Michelle “Muhammad and Women”. PBS Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. 2002. Web. 4 June 2013. http://www.pbs.org/muhammad/muhammadand.shtml
Hahn, Harley. “Interesting People : Muhammad”. Interesting People in Harley Hahn’s Internet Yellow Pages. 2013. Web. 4 June 2013. http://www.harley.com/people/muhammad.html
Matthews, Warren. World Religions. Belmont : Wadsworth. 2010. Print