Everything Muhammad did was scandalous. He sometimes even shocked his own people, such as when he took the wife of his adopted son and added her to his ever-expanding harem. If he lived today, his behavior would be fodder for every tabloid on the planet. We’re giving it tabloid treatment as the hottest news item of the day. This story is taken from the book, It’s All About Muhammad, A Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet:
NOT LONG AFTER THE EXPULSION OF THE NADIR JEWS, MUHAMMAD
shocked even true believers by marrying the wife of his adopted son Zayd, breaking an Arab taboo and giving the “hypocrites” ammunition to discredit him. The matter quieted down only after he threatened to strip his critics of the protection of the shahada and kill them.
The official story goes as follows:
It was a warm afternoon and Muhammad was in a dreamy state when he knocked on the door of his adopted son Zayd, paying him a family visit. It was more than the usual wait, but when the door finally opened, it was as if Allah had just parted the gates of Heaven to grant him a vision of one of the dark-eyed damsels of Paradise. Standing before him was Zayd’s wife Zaynab, the daughter of Jahsh, and she was scantily clad. A diaphanous robe clung to her, revealing hips and cleavage to die for. Her lips pursed, as if inviting him to more than entry into the home: “O Messenger of Allah, what could it be that bringest thee to our humble abode?” Though he was an eloquent man in a land of eloquent men, he could hardly get out a word. He stammered, “I have, ah, come to see, ah, Zayd.”
Zaynab batted her eyelashes. “He is not at home, O Messenger of Allah. Shall I tell him that you came inquiring about him?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He made dizzied steps away from this temptress and muttered something that sounded like “Praise be to Allah who disposes the hearts!”
The literature holds that when Zayd returned home, she told him about Muhammad’s visit, and he said, “You asked him to come in, didn’t you?”
“I bade him to, but he refused.”
“Did you hear him say anything?”
“When he turned away, I heard him say something that I could hardly understand. I heard him say, ‘Praise be to Allah who disposes the hearts.’”
Zayd went to Muhammad at the mosque and said, ‘O Messenger of God, I learned that you came to my house. Did you come in?” When Muhammad told him that he had not, Zayd suspected it was because he had become enamored of his wife, and if that were the case he would be happy to part with her. “O Messenger of Allah, my father and mother are your ransom. Perhaps you liked Zaynab. I can leave her.”
Muhammad said, “Hold on to your wife.”
“O Messenger of Allah, I will leave her.”
“Keep your wife.”
In the usual rendering of the story, they tussled back and forth over the matter. The upshot was that Zayd divorced her, and after a waiting period of four months to ensure she was not pregnant, Muhammad sent Zayd to her to convey his desire to marry her, which she happily accepted. There was a wedding feast. All Muhammad’s other wives were joyful, Muhammad and Zaynab were joyful, and Zayd was joyful that they were joyful.
This tale of hand-clasped joy over Muhammad’s latest marriage obscures the real story of cruel betrayal and emotional abuse of a father to his son. Zayd was more than just a loyal follower. He was Muhammad’s adopted son, his only son. Zayd had looked up to him as his father for thirty years. His history is well known: Khadija’s nephew Hakim Hizam bought him at the Ukaz slave market and gave him to her as a present; she in turn gave him to Muhammad as his personal slave. When his real father came looking for him in Mecca, Zayd chose to stay with Muhammad, who rewarded his loyalty by adopting him and announcing this father-son relationship at the temple. Thereafter he was known as Zayd ibn Muhammad—Zayd, the son of Muhammad. Along with Khadija and Ali, Zayd was the first to believe in him when he became convinced that Allah had anointed him for a special purpose. Muhammad later married Zayd to Baraka, the Abyssinian slave he had inherited from his mother, and they had a son named Osama: Osama, the son of Zayd, the son of Muhammad. Zayd was proud of his relationship with Muhammad. When he introduced himself, he would puff out his chest and say, “I am Zayd, the son of the Muhammad!” And wherever he went, people would point to him and say, “That is Zayd, the son of Muhammad!” Later, along with Ali, Zubayr, Hamza, and other close relatives, Zayd could always be counted on to fight in the cause of his adoptive father. While he was never able to rack up the kill scores of Ali and Zubayr, he was reliably cold-blooded when necessary, such as after the disastrous Uhud battle when he tied a Meccan straggler to a tree and used him for target practice. A year after that battle, when Zayd was touching forty years old, Muhammad arranged for him to take another wife—this one being Zaynab.
She was the daughter of Muhammad’s aunt Umayma—one of possibly a hundred paternal first cousins who had descended from Muhammad’s grandfather, Abdul Muttalib. Zaynab and her first husband were early converts and were among the group to emigrate to Abyssinia to escape Meccan persecution, but her husband died in Abyssinia. After Muhammad fled for his life from Mecca, Zaynab left Abyssinia to join him in Yathrib. Other than being noted as an enthusiastic supporter of Muhammad during his rise to power in Yathrib, not much is known about her prior to her marriage to Zayd. It is said she objected to the marriage because he was a former slave while she was of the noble line of Abdul Muttalib, but the marriage was Muhammad’s idea, and she finally accepted after he gave her a generous dowry on Zayd’s behalf. At the time of the marriage, she was thirty-four years old.
In the official story line, it is suggested that the real reason she agreed to the marriage with Zayd was to be close to Muhammad. She would have preferred being married to him rather than to his former slave, and she must have made it known. Within a year, the marriage deteriorated, and Zayd’s jealousy was likely a factor. Her eyes would light up when she looked at Muhammad, but would dim when she looked at the short, dark, round-faced, flat-nosed, and otherwise nondescript former slave she had married. Whenever Muhammad came to visit, she came on strong to him. It could not have escaped Zayd’s notice. Muhammad picked up on her interest, perhaps prompting his visit to the home timed when Zayd would not be there. His lust had been aroused by those wandering eyes, and he needed to verify the truth of his desire. When Zaynab answered the door, he was certain it was the real deal. He wanted her so badly he pushed his adopted son to clear the path by divorcing her. “Praise be to Allah who disposes the hearts!”
Even accepting that Zayd truly believed God talked to Muhammad and angels regularly visited him to give him the latest verses, it is a stretch to think he eagerly relinquished his wife. It was likely an emotionally distraught Zayd who questioned Muhammad about the visit to his home. He was caught in a trap between loyalty and suspicion. He demanded to know what was going on: “I learned you came to my house. Did you come in?” It was more an accusation than a question.
Muhammad did not go public with his desire to take Zaynab as a wife until months later, after it was certain she was not pregnant. Then one morning, while in bed with Aisha, he fell into a swoon, and when recovered he was smiling ear to ear. He was excited, and it was clear he had something important to reveal, but he waited to speak about it. It was a quirk of Muhammad to form an expression on his face—be it joy, anger, or whatever—and then wait for someone to ask the meaning of it before revealing what was on his mind, so he said nothing until Aisha finally inquired, “What is it that makes you so pleased, O Messenger of Allah?” Muhammad could hardly contain himself: Allah had just made it permissible for him to marry Zaynab! Praise the Lord! He recited the freshly confected communiqué: “O Prophet! surely We have made lawful to you your wives whom you have given their dowries, and those whom your right hand possesses out of those whom Allah has given to you as prisoners of war, and the daughters of your paternal uncles and the daughters of your paternal aunts, and the daughters of your maternal uncles and the daughters of your maternal aunts who fled with you; and a believing woman if she gave herself to the Prophet, if the Prophet desired to marry her— specially for you, not for the (rest of) believers.”
Aisha, then a precocious thirteen-year-old, saw through it. Hurt by his indifference to her feelings and jealous that yet another rival for Muhammad’s attention was coming into her life, she said. “I see that your Lord hastens to confirm your desires.”
Muhammad had several ways of promulgating his verses. The chief method was to wrap sermons around them. Ensconced in the pulpit while his congregation sat cross-legged on palm mats, he would recite his work like a poet at a poetry reading and explain the meaning of the new verses—“revelations” he called them—and link them to whatever situation had given rise to them. “God has informed me that . . .” or “The angel has come to me with God’s statement that . . .” were formulas for introducing new verses. Another method was to have acolytes memorize the latest batch and send them out to the various communities to repeat them publicly. However the verses were disseminated, believers were expected to memorize them and recite them during their prayer performances. Before long the faithful were intoning, “O Prophet! We have made permissible to you your spouses . . . .”
Zaynab learned from a go-between about Muhammad’s proposal. In one of the versions, Muhammad sent a slave woman to bring her the glad tidings, but the most usual account is that Muhammad sent her now ex-husband Zayd. “Go and make mention of me to her,” he told him. Zayd obediently went to Zaynab. He entered without knocking. Zaynab’s back was to him, and she did not realize he was there. She was kneading dough, just as she used to do when they were together. Her black hair, clasped at the neck, cascaded down the back of her dress, the same one she used to wear when they were together. She was wearing the same sandals and the same beguiling anklets. When she turned to see who was there, her face dimmed, just as it used to dim when they were together. “O Zaynab, rejoice!” he is said to have said while his heart is said to have spilled over with happiness for her. “The Messenger of Allah has sent me to propose marriage to you on his behalf.”
A wedding feast was held at the mosque apartments, in the very room Zaynab would thenceforth occupy—next to the rooms of the other wives. While the other wives remained cloistered in their quarters, a flow of guests came to congratulate the newlyweds and partake of the feast, a dish of coarse bread and the meat of a freshly slaughtered goat. The feast dragged on, and when the visitors finally dwindled Muhammad stood up to signal it was over.
What happened next made it into the Koran: Most of the remaining people got the message and left, but three men were in deep conversation and seemed oblivious that everyone else had gone except for Muhammad and Zaynab. Muhammad was said to be shy about asserting himself in such situations, and so he was reluctant to raise his voice and throw the dawdlers out. Instead, he paid visits to his various wives in their separate rooms. Between each visit he would glance into the banquet bedroom, and there they still were! Now that four months of formalities were out of the way, he badly wanted to sleep with Zaynab, but these inconsiderate laggards were the last remaining obstacle. He became sulky and suspected that the real reason they stayed was to ogle his bride.
They finally left, but Muhammad stewed about it to the point that he brought God into the matter. He had God issue rules of etiquette regarding such festivities, perhaps in anticipation of future love conquests and therefore more weddings and wedding feasts. God took time out from ruling the universe to say: “O you who believe! do not enter the houses of the Prophet unless permission is given to you for a meal, not waiting for its cooking being finished—but when you are invited, enter, and when you have taken the food, then disperse—not seeking to listen to talk; surely this gives the Prophet trouble, but he forbears from you, and Allah does not forbear from the truth.”
Public reaction to the marriage was split. Though shaken by his action, true believers were convinced Muhammad could do no wrong. How could he if God himself authorized the marriage? Even if in the darkest corners of their minds they suspected there was something fishy and that the verses came across as self-serving, they kept it to themselves. To criticize Muhammad for behavior God permitted would be tantamount to hypocrisy, punishable by hellfire. The nominals—those who had embraced Muhammad’s religion out of fear for their lives—were not so reticent. Led by the irrepressible Abdullah Ubayy who was always looking for a way to discredit Muhammad, they denounced him for immorality. Until the arrival of Muhammad, the Arabs had always been easygoing about sex, but taking the spouse of one’s son, adopted or natural, was a strict taboo because it set sons against fathers and destroyed families. Now Muhammad had violated the taboo.
Muhammad responded to the critics in the only way he could: He took the extraordinary measure of threatening to strip them of the shield of the shahada. In his God voice, he threatened bloody murder: “If the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is a disease and the agitators in the city do not desist, We shall most certainly set you over them, then they shall not be your neighbors in it but for a little while; Cursed: wherever they are found they shall be seized and murdered, a (horrible) murdering.”
Instead of killing his critics, he killed the reason for their criticism. Like a president signing an executive order, he abolished the age-old Arabian practice of adoption and the rights of inheritance that went with it. Not only did he forbid it, he made it retroactive. There were no longer any grounds to attack him because Zayd was no longer his adopted son. Nor had he ever been. Muhammad declared in his God voice that Allah was not the creator nor supporter of adoptions; it was a human invention, and the practice of giving your own name to someone who was not your own was displeasing to God. “Assert their relationship to their fathers; this is more equitable with Allah; but if you do not know their fathers, then they are your brethren in faith and your friends.”
Zayd was the first casualty of the edict. Not only was Muhammad now sleeping with the woman who had been his wife, his father of thirty years had rejected his loyal son. He was no longer Zayd, the son of Muhammad, but Zayd, the son of Haritha, Haritha being the name of his real father, the distraught man who had come searching for his lost son three decades years earlier in Mecca. Zayd’s emotional devastation was compounded by humiliation. Everyone knew what happened: He had been emasculated.
From then on he was a man in rage. He volunteered to lead raids and carried them out with unsparing ferocity. During one of the plunder missions, this one against a Bedouin tribe along the northern caravan route, he was wounded and some of his men were killed. After recuperating he returned at the head of a punitive force. The raiders slew everyone they could get their hands on and captured the wife of the tribal leader, Umm Qirfa, and her daughter. Zayd had Umm Qirfa killed in a manner that had never been done before: She was tied between two camels and ripped apart. It was a cruel death. She died slowly, in the midst of agonizing pain as her rent body was dragged through the desert behind one of the camels. Normally, it was only men who were slain while women and children were taken as slaves. Muhammad had issued a general order about it. Did Zayd do to the Bedouin woman what he wanted to do to his former wife? If so, what in his heart did he really want to do to Muhammad?
Zayd brought Umm Qirfa’s daughter to Muhammad, perhaps as an act of contempt that only Zayd would have understood: He was now the purveyor of women to his former father. She was a beautiful desert woman, young, strong, and proud, but now a slave. At first Muhammad wanted her, but one of his maternal uncles came to him and requested her. The uncle had seen her, was pleased by her looks, and wanted to take her as a concubine. After hesitating for a few days, Muhammad turned the woman over to his uncle.
Muhammad was David who sent the Hittite to die in battle so he could have his wife Bathsheba to himself. Following his marriage to Zaynab, Muhammad kept Zayd busy with raids, hoping to keep his seething former adopted son out of Yathrib as much as possible. Two years later Zayd met the Hittite fate—killed by a swarming enemy far from the land where his former father was sleeping with his former wife.
This article may be used in whole or in part provided the following attribution is given: F. W. Burleigh is the author of It’s All About Muhammad, a Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet. He blogs at www.itsallaboutmuhammad.com.