Reflections on Surah 33 and Muhammad’s Many Marriages

Qur’an 33:57 is an interesting verse about how Muhammad used his prophetic authority.

In our ministry, we rarely open the Qur’an. In our context, most Muslims do not know the Qur’an. Therefore, there is little reason to open the Qur’an and discuss their book with them. As a result, I have not often taught nor written about the Qur’an.

However, in recent months, we have realized a need to help new followers of Jesus from Muslim-background by comparing their new faith with their previous religion. The reason is that some Muslim-background believers (MBBs) get stuck between following Jesus and Islam. A division of loyalty exists in their hearts and minds between Muhammad and Jesus. Therefore, it has been helpful to help some of these MBBs to compare the character of Muhammad and Jesus. Usually, such a comparison helps break their allegiance to Muhammad and strengthens their commitment to Jesus. 

I have been thinking about better ways to help MBBs make these comparisons in recent months. As I studied, I came across Surah 33 of the Qur’an and was surprised at what I found. I had read Surah 33 many times before but had never really stopped to think through the historical context and implications of this Surah. 

So, here are six reflections on Surah 33 from the perspective of a follower of Jesus.

Reflection #1. The historical context of Surah 33 is shocking. The historical purpose of this Surah was to encourage Muhammad’s adopted son, Zayd ibn Haritha, to divorce his wife, Zaynab bint Jahsh, so that Muhammad could marry her. 

Let me back up and give a bit more of the story. Zaynab bint Jahsh (590-641 AD) was Muhammad’s first cousin. She was a widow in her early 30’s, so Muhammad encouraged her to marry his adopted son, Zayd ibn Haritha (581-629 AD). Zayd had been a slave of Muhammad’s first wife but was later freed and adopted by Muhammad. Since Zaynab came from a highly respected family, she was initially reluctant to marry Zayd. Zayd and Zaynab married in 625 AD and did not have a pleasant marriage by most accounts. 

Muhammad related in Surah 33 of the Qur’an that he encouraged Zayd, “Retain you (in wedlock) your wife, and fear Allah” (Qur’an 33:37a). Muhammad encouraged Zayd to be faithful in his marriage to Zaynab. 

However, the same verse goes on to say, “But you [Muhammad] did hide in your heart that which Allah was about to make manifest: you did fear the people, but it is more fitting that you should fear Allah. Then when Zayd had dissolved (his marriage) with her, (with the necessary formality), We joined her [Zaynab] in marriage to you [Muhammad]: In order that (in future) there may be no difficulty to the Believers in (the matter of) marriage with the wives of their adopted sons, when the latter have dissolved with the necessary (formality) (their marriage) with them. And Allah’s command must be fulfilled” (Qur’an 33:27b). 

The Qur’an reports that it was Muhammad’s duty to marry his cousin, Zaynab, in light of this divorce. They divorced in December 626 AD, according to Islamic tradition. Muhammad married Zaynab in 627 AD and she was with him until he died in 632 AD. In other words, the primary historical context of Surah 33 was to give Muhammad permission to marry a woman when most of society disagreed about the legality of such a marriage. Qur’an 33:37 reports that Allah gave this command through Muhammad “In order that (in future) there may be no difficulty to the Believers.” Muhammad knew that Muslims would have questions in their hearts about whether it was lawful for their religious leader to encourage a divorce and then immediately marry the divorced woman. 

Two facts made this remarriage more difficult for the average Muslim in Muhammad’s time. First, it was considered against Arab culture for a man to marry the divorced wife of his adopted son. Only because of this command in the Qur’an did such remarriages become legal. Second, when Muhammad married Zaynab, she became his fifth wife. However, the Qur’an had elsewhere stated that a man could have a maximum of four wives. Here is a listing of Muhammad’s wives up to this point:

  1. Khadijah, married 595-619 AD
  2. Sawdah, married 619-632 AD
  3. Aisha, married 623-632 AD
  4. Hafsah, married 625-632 AD
  5. Umm al-Masakin, married 625-626 AD
  6. Umm Salamah, married 625-632 AD
  7. Zaynab, married 627-632 AD

Muhammad briefly had five wives after he married Hafsah, Umm al-Masakin, and Umm Salamah in 625 AD, but the death of Umm al-Masakin in 626 AD brought his total number of wives back down to four. So with his marriage to Zaynab, Muhammad again surpassed the number of legal wives in Islam.

The fact that the Qur’an contains a Surah whose primary purpose is to encourage the Prophet of Islam to pursue another wife in this way is shocking. When I read this Surah, it appears that Muhammad used his leadership influence to pursue his desires. Unfortunately, many men throughout history have used positions of power to abuse those under their leadership. To an outsider, it appears as if that is what Muhammad was doing in this Surah.

Consider this from another perspective. Muhammad had a monopoly on hearing the voice of God in early Islam. Muhammad’s followers believed that whatever Muhammad said was the Word of God. In that context, it would be easy for a man to abuse such authority. 

A biblical equivalent would be King David’s abuse of power in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11). In response to David’s abuse of power, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David and proclaim a curse upon him because of his sin (2 Samuel 12). King David repented from his sins and even wrote Psalm 51 as a permanent record of his repentance. However, in Islam, no one could come and rebuke Muhammad for his sins. My point is that God did not permit King David to remain in his sins. God’s concern for the leadership of his people was too great. 

Reflection #2. It is shocking that the Qur’an gave Muhammad explicit permission for more than four wives. This Surah goes on to say, “O Prophet [Muhammad]! We have made lawful to you your wives to whom you have paid their dowers; and those whom your right hand possesses out of the captives of war who Allah has assigned to you; and daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts, and daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts, who migrated (from Mecca) with you; and any believing woman who dedicates herself to the Prophet [Muhammad] if the Prophet [Muhammad] wishes to wed her – this only for you [Muhammad], and not for the Believers (at large); We [Allah] know that We have appointed for them as to their wives and those whom their right hands possess – in order that there should be no difficulty for you. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Qur’an 33:50). 

The verse from the Qur’an above is quite a long sentence. However, the main point is that the Qur’an permitted Muhammad to take as many wives as he wanted. However, the Qur’an is clear that this privilege was only for Muhammad “and not for the Believers (at large).” 

There is no biblical equivalent to this command in the Qur’an. We never see God give a single order in the Bible that loosens moral requirements for prophets or spiritual leaders. Instead, God’s demands for spiritual leaders are much higher in the Bible. 

For example, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 provides the qualifications for church leaders. One of those requirements is that church leaders must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2). It is surprising for those who know and love the Bible to see the Qur’an’s advocacy of polygamy. It is even more surprising when we see the Qur’an granting unlimited wives to the founder of Islam. 

In stark contrast to Muhammad is Jesus. Jesus never married. He lived a chaste and pure life. He became a model for us to give up our rights and desires. Philippians 2:5-8 puts this beautifully,

“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,

who, existing in the form of God,

did not consider equality with God 

as something to be exploited. 

Instead he emptied himself

by assuming the form of a servant,

taking on the likeness of humanity. 

And when he had come as a man,

he humbled himself by becoming obedient

to the point of death —

even to death on a cross.”

Reflection #3. It is shocking that the Qur’an permitted Muhammad to maintain sexual slaves (concubines). The Qur’an contains the phrase “those whom your right hand possesses” many times. In Qur’an 33:50, This phrase is explicitly about slaves. We read, “those whom your right hand possesses out of the captives of war whom Allah has assigned to you” (Qur’an 33:50). It is unclear how many sexual slaves (concubines) Muhammad had, but it is clear here that the Qur’an permitted him to have those slaves. In the context of Qur’an 33:50, it is clear that the Qur’an permitted Muhammad to have sexual relations with his sex slaves (concubines). 

Again, the New Testament picture of sex being only between a man and his one wife is in sharp contrast here. The idea of Jesus enslaving people is ridiculous. As a celibate man, Jesus never took a wife, much less a sexual slave! 

Here Muslims are quick to point out concubines in the Old Testament, which we must speak about to be intellectually honest. Concubines (Heb. phileges) are mentioned thirty-seven times in the Old Testament. The Old Testament says that Abraham (Genesis 25:6), David (2 Samuel 5:13; 15:16, etc.), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:3) had concubines. How should we feel about these men having concubines?

First, the Old Testament never explicitly permits the practice of having concubines. While men had concubines in the Old Testament, the Scriptures did not sanction them in the Law of Moses or anywhere else. In contrast, Qur’an 33:50 sanctioned the practice in early Islam.

Second, we must realize that New Testament forbids sex outside of marriage. The New Testament defines marriage as being between one man and one wife. Therefore, while men had concubines in the Old Testament, the New Testament eliminated this practice explicitly. 

Third, even the Old Testament shows the foolishness of rampant polygamy and having concubines. Solomon was known as the wisest man who ever lived. However, his many wives corrupted his spiritual life and caused the curse of God to come on him. “When Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away to follow other gods” (1 Kings 11:4a). Solomon’s unfaithfulness caused God to split the kingdom of Israel after his death leading to many long-term consequences for the people of God (1 Kings 11:11-12:33). My point is that the Bible paints Solomon’s many wives and concubines in a negative light because of the corrupting influence on Solomon’s life.

My stomach turns at the thought of sexual slavery. The fact that Abraham, David, and Solomon had sex slaves is disorienting to me. Since the New Testament makes no room for this practice, we usually do not think deeply about it in Christian ethics. Concubines are forbidden for followers of Jesus. The idea that not only Muhammad participated in this practice but that he prophesied that God gave him explicit permission to do so is heart-wrenching. 

Reflection #4. It is shocking that the Qur’an permitted Muhammad to show favoritism among his wives

In Islam, the rules on polygamy are complex. In brief, Islam allows a man to have up to four wives if:

  1. the man has enough financial resources to provide for each of his families,
  2. the man has the physical capability to satisfy the sexual needs of each of his wives, and
  3. the man shows complete justice and equality among each family in every way and without favoritism. 

As the founder of Islam, Muhammad was a rich man and able to fulfill the financial responsibility of many families (in this perspective, a family was a wife with her children). Muhammad is well known in the Hadith for his sexual stamina and thus was able to satisfy the sexual needs of many wives, according to the Islamic perspective. However, Muhammad struggled not to show favoritism among his wives, especially sexually. Surah 33 permitted Muhammad to have sex with whichever of his wives or concubines whenever he desired. In other words, the Qur’an permitted Muhammad to show favoritism among his wives based on his desires.

“You [Muhammad] may defer (the turn of) any of them [your wives) that you please, and you may receive any you please: and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose (turn) you have set aside” (Qur’an 33:51).

According to the Hadith, Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives, responded negatively when she heard this prophetic statement from Muhammad. The Hadith says,

“Narrated Aisha: I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah’s Messenger and I used to say, ‘Can a lady give herself (to a man)?’ But when Allah revealed: ‘You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) who you will of them (your wives), and you may receive any of them you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside temporarily.’ (33.51) I said (to the Prophet), ‘I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.'” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4788)

One of Muhammad’s wives responded to Muhammad’s prophecy by saying, “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.” Aisha was not naive (although she was only about 14 when Muhammad made this prophecy). She saw that Muhammad conveniently made prophecies that lined up with his wishes and desires. As the number of Muhammad’s wives and concubines grew, his sexual desires toward certain wives were stronger than others. Another Hadith says that one of Muhammad’s wives had already given up her sexual turn with Muhammad to Aisha. Some have surmised that Sawdah had given up her turn to avoid divorce since Muhammad no longer sexually desired her.

“Narrated by Aisha: Whenever Allah’s Apostle wanted to go on a journey, he would draw lots as to which of his wives would accompany him. He would take her whose name came out. He used to fix for each of them a day and a night. But Sawdah bint Zam’a give up her (turn) day and night to Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, in order to see the pleasure of Allah’s Apostle (by that action)” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2594). 

No doubt Aisha felt threatened by Muhammad taking on another beautiful wife. Muhammad cleared the way for him to pursue whichever wife pleased when he wanted sexually. Aisha was worried that Muhammad would prefer his new wife, Zaynab, over her. Therefore, she said, “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.” 

As a follower of Jesus, Muhammad’s marital relations and sexual practices are strange. A few more Hadith make this even stranger,

“Narrated Anas bin Malik: The Prophet used to visit all his wives in one night and he had nine wives at that time” (Sahih al-Bukhari 284).

“Narrated Qatada: Anas bin Malik said, ‘The Prophet used to visit all his wives in a round, during the day and night and they were eleven in number.’ I asked Anas, ‘Had the Prophet the strength for it?’ Anas replied, ‘We used to say that the Prophet was given the strength of thirty (men)'” (Sahih al-Bukhari 268).

Some Muslim men feel it is suitable for their Prophet to have had such a strong sex drive. They believe that it is an indication of his strength. However, I hope that most find these descriptions of a highly sexual Prophet strange. 

Last, any prophet who prophecies to their advantage is prophesying falsely. Referring to false prophets, Peter wrote, “They will exploit you with their greed with made-up stories. Their condemnation, pronounced long, ago, is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep” (2 Peter 2:3). Peter warned his disciples that false prophets would attempt to exploit them with made-up stories. One mark of a false prophet is a person who seeks to use their prophetic gifting to exploit others. Peter referred to financial exploitation. Surah 33 is an example of sexual exploitation. A plain reading of this Surah should make thinking people reconsider whether Muhammad was a prophet. 

Reflection #5. Although Surah 33 commanded Muhammad not to take any more wives, he married several more wives after this Surah. Therefore, Muhammad broke the command he gave himself in the Qur’an. 

“It is not lawful for you [Muhammad] (to marry more) women after this, nor to change them for (other) wives, even through their beauty attract you, except any your right hand should possess (as handmaidens): and Allah does watch over all things” (Qur’an 33:52). 

Surah 33 is clear, Muhammad was permitted to take a fifth wife, but he was not supposed to take any more after Zaynab. However, Muhammad’s list of wives continued to grow after this Surah. While there is some debate about his wives, here is one list.

  1. Khadijah, married 595-619 AD
  2. Sawdah, married 619-632 AD
  3. Aisha, married 623-632 AD
  4. Hafsah, married 625-632 AD
  5. Umm al-Masakin, married 625-626 AD
  6. Umm Salamah, married 625-632 AD
  7. Zaynab, married 627-632 AD
  8. Juwayriyah, married 628-632 AD
  9. Umm Habibah, married 628-632 AD
  10. Safiyyah, married 629-632 AD
  11. Maymunah, married 629-632 AD

There is debate about whether some other women were wives or concubines. According to this list, Muhammad took at least four more wives after Zaynab. We know that he also took other concubines, but Surah 33:52 permitted Muhammad to continue taking more sex slaves even when he could not take more wives. Again, I am shocked to read statements like this in the Qur’an. 

Muslim apologists try to reconcile this by saying that Allah revealed Surah 33:51, which permitted Muhammad to take all the wives he wanted, AFTER revealing Surah 33:52, which said that Muhammad could not take more wives. Therefore, Surah 33:52 was abrogated by Surah 33:51. The meaning is that Surah 33:52 was no longer binding since Surah 33:51 overwrote it. I find such arguments perplexing. Imagine two consecutive verses in the Bible that we tried to put into conflict with one another in this way. It is madness! However, Muslims must find a way to vindicate their Prophet who disobeyed his own prophecy. 

Reflection #6. Muhammad used Allah’s voice to declare that anyone who annoys him would go to hell!

After discussing marriage and sexuality, I want to end with a lighter topic. It appears that Muhammad liked his privacy and did not like guests who stayed too long at his house. But instead of speaking to his guests directly, Muhammad had Allah make a prophetic revelation about it. The abuse of power demonstrated in these verses is appalling but also a bit amusing. 

“O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s houses – until leave is given you – for a meal, (and then) nor (so early as) to wait for its preparation: but when you are invited, enter; and when you have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behavior) annoys the Prophet: he is shy to ask you to go, but Allah is not shy (to tell you) the truth” (Qur’an 33:53a).

Then a few verses later,

“Those why annoy Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this world and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating Punishment” (Qur’an 33:57). 

When Muhammad became popular and people wanted to be with him, he was annoyed and declared that they would go to hell if they didn’t stop bothering him. In contrast, Jesus loved and had compassion on the crowds.

“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

Then a bit later, Jesus said,

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

It is unimaginable to think of Jesus rebuking the crowds and saying, “You are annoying me! Don’t you know that you will go to hell if you annoy me?” 

Conclusion

In conclusion, when Muslims follow Jesus, they often feel discord between serving Muhammad or Jesus. They have one foot in each world. They have been taught to see Muhammad as the perfect man by whose example they should live. They are attracted to the person and greatness of Jesus, but the old remains inside of them.

Sometimes, we have to help some Muslims at this stage to look at the life of Muhammad and compare it with Jesus. Surah 33 of the Qur’an is simply one of many places where we see a significant difference between the life of Jesus and Muhammad. May the Lord bless you as you continue to make disciples of many Muslims! If you want to read more about making disciples of Muslims, start with this article next. https://nocousinsleft.com/2022/10/08/how-should-mbbs-relate-to-islam-and-culture/

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