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Union or Utility!--------A Response to the Question of the Marriages of the Prophet (sws)


Mr. Shahzad Saleem, in his editorial of April 1995, has taken up the issue of the marriages of the Prophet (s.w.s). In his clear and straight forward manner he has successfully elucidated the problem with reference to the emerging Islamic ethos and against the historical back drop of the socio-dynamics of the tribal society of the 7th century Arabia. What distinguishes his exposition from similar attempts in the past, which usually stopped short at political, sociological, biological,1 and sentimental arguments,2 is that he has not only given due attention to the historical details of the problem but has also tried to situate it in the perspective defined by the twin functions of Nabi (prophet) and  Rasul (messenger) joined in the person of the Prophet of Islam.

In what follows we offer a few additional comments that may help to elucidate some intrinsic aspects of the problem that have not received sufficient emphasis due to other considerations, perhaps, but which still remain in need of further elaboration for a proper understanding of the matter.

Through out the centuries generations of Muslims have loved and venerated their prophet, in accordance with their  varying degrees of understanding and capabilities, with out entertaining any qualms over the number of marriages of the Prophet in particular or his attitude towards the concomitant issues that invariably arise whenever the topic is approached in discussion. Reflection should, therefore, be done to discern the reasons that gave rise to all sorts of objections concerning the issue of the marriages of the Prophet at a particular stage in history.3 It should also be considered that critics included both Muslims and non-muslims alike as Shahzad Saleem has mentioned at the beginning of his editorial. According to our estimations the criticism, grosso modo stems from two shortcomings on the part of the critics. Firstly, there is a lack of real familiarity with the life of Muhammad (S.W.S) according to the traditional sources. We say `traditional sources' because the profane biographers of the Prophet, whether Muslim, Jew or Christian, always seek to 'excuse him, the former in a lay and anti--christian sense and the latter, even in favourable cases, with a sort of psychological condescension. Any how, when one has acquired a real familiarity with the life of the Prophet the elements that stand out4 and which testify to his (S.W.S)  supreme sanctity and saving power, also explain the occurrence of all sorts of family and political vicissitudes. This real familiarity also leaves no room for having doubts 5 about the fact that through his marriages the Prophet (S.W.S) made a dilebrate entry into the earthly6 and social sphere and ipso facto an integration of collective human life into the spiritual realm given the nature of the prophetic substance. This last mentioned point calls for a certain digression.

Every divine messenger apart from bringing a message, lawgiving or other  wise, is a human respectable par excellence of divine qualities which are subsequently deployed on the earthly and human plane in accordance with the circumstances of his times. Emphasis  differs in the case of different divine messengers allowing us to bring out a fundamental distinction: there are those Revealers who represent exclusively the other world (i.e. nubuwwah), there are also those whose attitude is at the same time divinely contemplative and humanly combative and constructive (risalah). In the latter case the spiritual reality of the messenger is wrapped in certain human and earthly veils, and this is because of the function of the messenger  as a legislator "for this world". Former type is represented by Jesus, Buddha, some prophets of Israel and Hindu Avatars where as the latter type is represented by Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and above all Muhammad (S.W.S)

Shehzad Saleem has tried to remove the `veils', mentioned above, by looking at the marriages of the Prophet from outside and, consequently, arrived at the result that, from this angle, most of the marriages had a political aspect, politics having here a sacred significance connected with the establishing on earth of a reflection of the City of God which formed a part of his function of Rasul. But to say that much only leaves the crux of the matter untouched and stops short at an other, though refined, kind of `utilitarianism'7 ----- provisionally termed as educational/political or at the most, religious utilitarianism. It does point toward the fact that, in the case of the Prophet marriage has a spiritualized character, as indeed has everything in the life of such a being because of the metaphysical transparency which phenomenon then assume.8 But the `transparency of phenomenon or the spiritualized character of marriages is taken into consideration only upto a certain extent. The treatment , does not extend itself to the more fundamental and intrinsic aspect of relationship between the male and female sexes which manifest itself in the polarisation of being at its deepest levels--- metaphysical, androgynec, archetypal and psychological. This brings us to consider the second shortcoming of the critics that we mentioned earlier. It comprises in the limitations of a moralistic theology, Christian in origin but which, nevertheless, has influenced Muslim minds as well. It works on the premises that, in principle, to realize God one must reject the world, since the latter moves as away form God in a variety of ways9. Thus a spiritualized character is denied to such a fundamental aspect of human psyche as the sexual union between the male and female. According to their logic, marriage and especially polygamy are opposed to spirituality, more  to a asceticism.10 A prophet being a spiritual figure par excellence should consider it below his dignity to participate in this activity, more so in its multiplicity i.e. polygamy. This is completely at the antipodes of the Islamic perspective and the worldview that informs it which regards marriage and thereby the union of sexes as having a sacramental quality.11 Islamic perspective is founded on the following principle: everything that has a natural and positive character12 is compatible, in principle if not always in fact, with the highest spirituality and may thereby assume the role of support or aid with respect to contemplation and realization. In other words, no positive or natural thing removes us from god by its nature as such. This is the perspective incarnated by the prophet (S.W.S). His domestic and personal life, which has been recorded down to the minutest details, and his relationship with this wifes all testify to the fact that in case of his marriages, the intrinsic aspect of union took precedence over other considerations that were of a secondary and contingent nature. As said earlier, like every thing else, marriage also assumed a spiritualized character, not because it served as a means to an end but for its fundamentally sacramental nature based on the metaphysical transparency of things. We understand that given the special mind -set of our critics as sell as the prevailing climate of opinion, it is quite  difficult to make people accept the point of view that we have adopted here without entering into a detailed elaboration of all the concomitant questions of human sexuality, relation between  sanctity and sexuality on the  one hand and beauty and love on the other, and the message and significance of human body. This is an obvious impossibility within the limits of the present discourse. However, two points are to be mentioned here which make an explicit reference to the precedence of the spiritual, archetypal and psychic over the more outward aspects of masculine -feminine relationship. One of these points is, infact, quoted by Mr Shehzad Saleem but he could not work out its implications for our theme. When the Prophet (S.W.S) was given  final directives on these matters (Qur'an, 33:50-2) it was said  that, ".... All other women besides these are  not lawful  for you nor can you change them for other wives, even though their beauty attracts you except those who are your slave-girls". The raison de etre of marriage is clear. It is primarily the attraction that exists between the human male and female and which is itself an earthly and pale reflection of the Divine love and mercy.13 That is to say that, in this connection, man is the instrument of the Divine will concerning terrestrial expansion. The purpose of sexuality is consequently the preservation of the species and the multiplication of individuals; but it has also a contemplative function by virtue of its prototypes in divinis or, what amounts to the same thing, by virtue of the metaphysical transparency of symbols

In the second place mention may be made of the famous hadith which says that "Women, perfumes and prayer were made (by God) worthy of love to me". People who have no idea either of oriental symbolism in general or of the Islamic perspective in particular attribute it to an astonishing arbitrariness and worldliness. The usual response given to the criticism made of this ternary mentioned in the saying of the Prophet (S.W.S), though plausible, does not seem sufficient enough. It says that since the Christian ascetics abstained from these things they were explicitly mentioned to elucidate the Islamic perspective in contradistinction to the christian---ascetical perspective. While admitting that this could be true on a certain level me would like to add that, firstly, one may not lose sight of the fact that the third element of the ternary i.e.  prayer, was  the sole vocation of the monks and its  mention cannot  possibly serve as a point of distinction. Secondly, in our view, the statement should be interpreted on a level higher than that of historical exigency. This saying of the Prophet (S.W.S) provides us with a doctrine which, far from being arbitrary, is entirely homogeneous and which is once  again founded on the metaphysical transparency of things, mentioned earlier in our comments. Its symbolism provides us with a concise doctrine of the outward reverberations of the love of the Inward. Woman synthesizes in her substance what is most lovable for man; in her highest aspect, she is the formal projection of merciful and infinite Inwardness in the outward; and in this regard she assumes a quasi--sacramental and liberating function.14 As for `perfumes", they represent qualities or beauties that are formless; that is to say that side by side with the formal projection of Inwardness, there exists also a complementary formless projection, symbolized, not by visual or tangible qualities, but by olfactory ones.

As for `prayer', the third element mentioned in the hadith, its  function is precisely to lead from the outward to the Inward, and it both consecrates and transmutes the qualitative  elements of the outward realm.

The nature of the three elements of the ternar can be further delineated with the help  of the notions---enumerated in the corresponding order---of `beauty', love' and `sanctity': it is beauty and love that reflect the Inward in the outward, and it is sanctity, or the sacred, which establishes the bridge---in both directions---between the outward and inward planes.15

To put another way: things are accursed16 ---or perishable17 ----in so far as they are purely outward and externalizing, but not in so far as they actualize the remembrance of God and manifest the archetypes contained in the inward and Divine Reality.18 And every thing in the world that surrounds us which gives vise to a concomitance of our love of God or of our choice of the `inward dimension' is at the same  time a concomitance of the love which God shows towards us. This is precisely what is expressed by the turn of phrase: `They (women and perfumes) were made (by God) worthy of love to me.


Compiled by: Muhammad al-Murid form  `Isa Nur al-Din's Understanding Islam and Dimensions of Islam.






1. By ` biological' we mean the sort of explanations which try to justify the multiplicity of the Prophet's  marriages by exclusively referring to his extra--ordinary Physical strength and super abundance of virility, gifts of Heaven, given to him to coup with the vicissitudes of his earthly mission.

2. Not to mention the host of apologetic literature produced since the 19th century, in India as well as in other parts of the Muslim World.

3. That is, precisely, after the beginning of the colonial era in the wake of the excessive missionary activities of the churchmen supported by the British/French/Dutch etc. governments and political subjugation of almost all the Muslim lands.

4. These have been designated by the terms; piety, combativeness and magnanimity.

5. The same familiarity would dispel other reservations as well. For instance, to realize that the Prophet gave enough examples of long abstinences---particularly in his youth, when passion is considered to most strong----is sufficient to consider him to be exempt form superficial judgments on this account.

6. We do not say: into the worldly and profane sphere.

7. We have here in view  the type of utilitarianism that the western theology has, by and large, adopted in facing the problem of marriage and sexuality. Traditionally the West is marked by a theology of Augustinian inspiration, which explains marriage from a more or less utilitarianist angle, while neglecting the intrinsic reality of the thing. According to this perspective--leaving aside every apologetic euphemism---sexual union in itself is sin; consequently the child is born in sin, but the Church compensates, or rather more than compensates, for this evil with a greater good, namely baptism, faith, sacramental life. According to the primordial perspective, on the other hand, which is founded on the intrinsic nature of the realities concerned, the sexual act is a "naturally supernatural" sacrament. In primordial man sexual ecstasy coincides with spiritual ecstasy, it communicates to man an experience of mystical union, a "remembrance" of the Divine Love of which human love is a distant reflection; an ambiguous reflection, certainly, since the image is at one and the same time both adequate and inverted. It is in this ambiguity that the whole problem resides.

8. The sunnah transmits this saying of the Prophet! "I have never seen anything without seeing God in it" or "without seeing God nearer to me than it."

9. This perspective is incarnated by Buddha and Christ.

10. This is to forget, apart form other things, that married life does not remove the rigour of poverty, vigils  and fasts nor render them easy and agreeable.

11. For Muslims, "marriage is the half of religion" a conception which, on the one hand transcends the biological utilitarianism of moral theology, and on the other, is diametrically opposed to the insolent libertinism of the world. As  regards the intrinsically sacramental character of marriage, it  will be recalled that, ever from the Christian point of view, Eve was  created because `it is not good that man should be alone' and also that `I  will make him an helpmeet like unto him'. (Genesis, II, 18); the Song of Solomon is likewise situated on a different plane from that of utilitarian morality, which is sufficient socially, but not humanly or spiritually. This point is easily forgotten by the critics as is the fact that if sexuality can be rejected through ascetism, because of its aspect of `outwardness' or `exteriorization', it can eequally be integrated, by contemplation, in the `love of God', by virtue of the quality of inwardness which belongs to it in principle and which is also proper to man as such and to union as such.

Moreover, it could be asserted that Christ, without any doubt, was not opposed to marriage, nor was he, perhaps, opposed  to polygamy either. The former is testified to by his consecrating or blessing marriage at Cana and to the latter the parable of the ten virgins bears a witness.

12. For a remarkable exposition of this notion as well as other important issues concerning different perspectives on sexuality, see F. Schuon, "The Problem of sexuality" in Esoterism as Principle and as Way, Perennial Books, England, 1981, p.

13. "And among this wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind so that you might incline towards them,  and He  engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think." (Qur'an, 30:21) M. Asad's trans.

Ashraf `Ali Thanawi, who advocated the `biological argument' in his treatise on the Prophet's  marriages, takes a different position regarding the attraction mentioned in the text; a stance which is more in accordance with our point of view. In one of his sermons, he  said that the reason that the people of God (ahl Ullah) were more strongly attracted towards conjugal love is that while for the ordinary man carnal ecstasy was an end in itself, the godly men received `the unveiling of (divine) love' (tajalli Hubbi) in it.

14. `li taskunu ilayha' could be interpreted in this way  as well .

15. This  ternary `Sanctity',  `Beauty' and `Love' is also found int he Quranic formula of consecration and opening: `In the Name  of God (Allah) the infinitely Good (Rahman) the infinitely Merciful (Rahim).' The Name Rahman contains the idea of intrinsic and radiant Bliss---or Beauty---and Rahim contains that of active Goodness. In other words: God intrinsically enjoys His Beauty; He has created the world by the radiance of His Beauty, and He supports, feeds,  illumines and saves creatures by the action of His Love; His Beauty contains  His Love, and inversely,and the two Qualities are united and immutable in His Holiness.

16. `Every thing on earth is accursed except  the remembrance of God', said the Prophet (S.W.S).

17. Qur'an, 28:88.

18. Qur'an, 17:44, 13:13, 16:48, 59:24.



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