Islam and Women

Does Muhammad’s relationship with women provide a model for modern Islamic behavior?

May 25, 2003

Does Muhammad's relationship with women provide a model for modern Islamic behavior?

In the aftermath of September 11, Islam, Muhammad and everything Muslim has come under close scrutiny — especially in those parts of America that seek to blame Islam for that horrible tragedy.

It seems that a section of U.S. society — evangelical Christians — are determined to label Islam as an evil religion and Muhammad as a Prophet of violence, all because of the actions of 19 Muslims.

Doing so is like blaming Jesus and Christianity for what Hitler did to Jews (the Holocaust). For what Queen Isabella did to Muslims and Jews (the Inquisition). For what Americans did to African Americans (slavery and racism).
Since September 11, evangelical Christian leaders have called the Prophet of Islam a “terrorist” (Rev. Jerry Falwell) — and a “demon-possessed pedophile who had twelve wives” (Rev. Jerry Vine).

In these and similar attacks, evangelical Christians are seeking to stem the tide of conversions to Islam.
By demonizing Muhammad as a pedophile and a polygamist, they hope to generate enough distaste for Islam that it becomes difficult for more open and tolerant Americans to be accepting of Muslims and Islam.

They also hope that they can reverse the growth of Islam in America. According to many scholars, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States attracting thousands of conversions to Islam from all segments of U.S. society. Those converts usually were Christians before they chose Islam.

While the traffic from Christianity to Islam is very heavy, the reverse flow — much to the frustration of evangelicals — is barely a trickle.
This tirade of hate from the evangelicals is merely the continuation of a very old Christian preoccupation with the demonization of Muhammad.

Christian thinkers have always abused the Prophet of Islam. A famous example is Dante. His Inferno is considered by many as perhaps the pinnacle of literature in medieval Europe — and quite certainly one of the most influential literary works of Western civilization. And yet, Dante throws Muhammed in the bowels of hell.
The earliest Christian thinker to launch polemics against Muhammad was a 9th-century activist, Eulogius of Cordoba. In a book titled Liber Apologeticus Martyrum, he presents a polemic against Muhammad. Other Christians who have abused the Prophet include Peter the Venerable (of Cluny) and Alexander Du Pont.

It is interesting to contrast Christian writings with those of the scholars of the Enlightenment. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in Theodize (1710) praised Muhammad for preaching a natural religion (Islam describes itself as Din-al-fitrah, or the natural religion).

Voltaire, in 1756, published his Essai sur les Moeurs, which includes a chapter on Muhammad titled “de l’Arabie et de Mahomet.” In it, he describes him as a wise man, an accomplished poet, a brilliant general — and a remarkable visionary. It is not difficult to see why the latter scholars are called enlightened thinkers.

While most Christian thinkers have recognized the greatness of Muhammad, many others have demonized him, as do contemporary evangelicals.
Often, the point of departure is his practice of polygamy, which is equated with the reduced status of women in Islam. Needless to say, Muslims disagree — and vehemently oppose such conjectures.

Muslims take everything that the Prophet did as divinely inspired and seek to imitate him. Many Muslim practices are essentially a result of Muslim attempts to emulate the personality of the Prophet in their lives through imitation.
Muslim men sport beards — not because the Quran mandates it — but because the Prophet (indeed all prophets) had a beard.
Muslims prefer the color green — because the Prophet liked the color green. From the trivial to the profound, Muslims have always imitated their Prophet.

However, they have not sought to imitate the Prophet in one crucial aspect — and that is in men marrying child-women (some as young as six). This so-called tradition has never become a common practice in Islamic societies.

There seems to be a silent and unstated consensus among Muslims not to heed this Sunna — or tradition of the Prophet. Without any overt discussion, Muslims seem to have rejected this tradition en masse. Is this so because Muslims think that old men marrying young children is wrong?
Then what happens to the claim that every act of the Prophet was divinely inspired — and is worthy of emulation? Why don’t we emulate him and give away our young middle-school daughters in marriages to men getting ready for retirement? The answer to this question lies in the decline of critical approaches in Islamic studies.

The biggest disservice that Muslims do to Islam and Muhammad is their uncritical approach to Islamic sources.
Islamic religious sciences, which languished in the Middle Ages, confuse memorization with understanding — and literalism with faith. This posture towards religious sources has led them to allow false narratives and often bizarre interpretations to become cardinal elements of belief.

The general treatment of polygamy and the instance of Muhammad’s marriage to Ayesha are egregious examples of this condition. Why blame Jerry Vine for calling the Prophet a pedophile, when Muslims themselves have been saying this and believing it for hundreds of years?

The books of the hadith — sayings of the Prophet Muhammed — state this clearly. There is never any critical discussion of this issue. If it is false then it must be deleted form the books of faith. And if it is true, then Muslims must advance an explanation of this and accept that it can be a legitimate source of concern.

According to Islamic sources, there are many differing reports of how old Ayesha was when the Prophet married her. T. O. Shanavas, in an excellent article (“Was Ayesha A Six-year-old Bride,” The Minaret, March, 1999), shows by using Islamic sources that Ayesha could have been anywhere between 14-21 when she married Muhammad.
It is time Muslims revisited their sources with a critical perspective and discarded what is false, improbable and inconsistent with the values of mercy, tolerance and justice — all of which are constitutive to the Islamic creed.

As a believing and thinking Muslim, I am outraged by both Muslims and non-Muslims who make mean-spirited comments about my faith and the Prophet I love and admire. I am also outraged by Muslims who have allowed their narrow-minded view of knowledge to corrupt a great religion and bring shame to its Prophet.

By adhering to irrational, anachronistic — and often meaningless — traditions, they obscure the power and beauty of Islam and deprive themselves and the rest of the world from its message.

Muhammad did not practice polygamy because he was unable to resist his sexual desires. At the age of 25, he married a women, Khadija, who was 50 years old — and his boss. She owned a trading firm that Muhammad use to work for.

Marrying an older woman who was economically independent, richer and more powerful than him, is not what a narrow-minded male chauvinist does.
Muhammad was a man of great honor and was widely respected. He could have married whomever he wanted, and as many women as he wanted. At that time, men having many wives was common and often seen as a measure of a man’s status.

In his marriage that lasted nearly 25 years, 15 before his Prophethood and ten afterwards, he remained in a devoted monogamous relationship. I believe that this period of 25 years is a measure of Muhammad and his commitment to monogamy.
If he did not succumb to his alleged libido in his youth and when society had no problems with that practice he still chose to be the anomaly in his times — a monogamous man.

Muhammed's other marriages in his days as the political leader of Medina must be seen more in the light of his politics than his family life. They cemented alliances with tribes, they were institutions of social welfare for destitute women — and often responses to the contingencies of his time.

If Muslims chose to ignore 25 years of Prophet’s monogamy and chose 12 years of his polygamy as a benchmark for Islamic principles and values, then this is a sad commentary on those individuals — and not on the Prophet of Islam.
If Muslims chose to forget the 25 years and remember only the last 12 years, then — yes — Muhammad was a polygamist. After all, Muhammad is what we remember of him.

As far as pedophilia is concerned, there is no doubt in my mind that the report that Ayesha was six when Muhammad married her was false. It does not matter what her age was.
Muslims must come out of their simplistic understanding of Islamic sources and take a more enlightened view of the role their religion can play in their lives.

My advice is to hold firmly to the essential principles of Islam — justice, equality, fairness, mercy and compassion — and use these as beacons to guide the interpretation of specific texts and historical episodes while remembering Muhammad and constructing Islam.
Regardless of how Muhammad related with women, Muslims must realize that if they wish to develop more egalitarian, more progressive and just societies, they cannot allow one half of their community to languish while the other thrives. Muhammad would not have allowed it.