Surah 33 (Al-Ahzab/The Parties): 4-5

4. God does not put two hearts within a man’s breast. He does not turn the wives you reject and liken to your mothers’ backs into your real mothers, nor does He make your adopted sons into real sons. These are only words from your mouths, while God speaks the truth and guides people to the right path.

5. Name your adopted sons after their real fathers: this is more equitable in God’s eyes – if you do not know who their fathers are (they are your) ‘brothers-in-religion’ and proteges. You will not be blamed if you make a mistake, only for what your hearts deliberately intend. God is most Forgiving and Merciful.


Surah 33 contains a number of related verses that are traditionally associated with the story of Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh, the former wife of his adopted son, Zayd. According to the traditional narrative, this marriage was problematic for Muhammad in two ways. First, Zaynab would be his fifth concurrent wife, exceeding the maximum of four wives that most Islamic jurists believe is fixed in {4.3} 〈58.〉. Second, and more scandalous, was the fact that the marriage would be to his former daughter in law.

In the traditional account both problems were avoided by a revelation that Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab was commanded by God for the purpose of demonstrating that adopted children were not to be treated as though they were biological offspring. The circumstances leading up to this marriage are recounted in several hadith, and in the following passage of Annals of Prophets and Kings written by al-Tabari:

The Messenger of God came to the house of Zayd bin Harithah (Muhammad’s adopted son)…

Perhaps the Messenger of God missed him at that moment, so as to ask: ‘Where is Zayd?’…

Zaynab bint Jahsh, Zayd’s wife, rose to meet him. Because she was dressed only in a shift, the Messenger of God turned away from her.

She said: ‘He is not here, Messenger of God. Come in, you who are as dear to me as my father and mother!’

The Messenger of God refused to enter.

Zaynab had dressed in haste when she was told the Messenger of God is at the door. She jumped up in haste and excited the admiration of the Messenger of God, so that he turned away murmuring something that could scarcely be understood. He did say overtly: ‘Glory be to God the Almighty! Glory be to God, who causes the hearts to turn!’

When Zayd came home, his wife told him that the Messenger of God had come to his house. Zayd said: ‘Why didn’t you ask him to come in?’ She replied: ‘I asked him, but he refused.’ He asked: ‘Did you hear him say anything?’ She replied: ‘As he turned away, I heard him say: ‘Glory be to God the Almighty! Glory be to God, who causes hearts to turn!’

So Zayd left, and having come to the Messenger of God, he said: ‘Messenger of God, I have heard that you came to my house. Why didn’t you go in, you who are as dear to me as my father and mother? Messenger of God, perhaps Zaynab has excited your admiration, and so I will separate myself from her.’

Zayd could find no possible way to (approach) her after that day. He would come to the Messenger of God and tell him so, but the Messenger of God would say to him: ‘Keep your wife.’ Zayd separated from her and left her, and she became free.

While the Messenger of God was talking with Aisha, a fainting overcame him. When he was released from it, he smiled and said: ‘Who will go to Zaynab to tell her the good news, saying that God has married her to me?’

Then the Messenger of God recited:

{33.37} And (remember) when thou said unto him whom God has blessed and whom thou hast blessed: ‘Retain your wife for yourself and reverence God’?

Thou wast hiding in thyself that which God was to disclose, and thou didst fear the people, though God has more right to be feared by thee.

Then when Zayd relinquished his claim upon her, We wed her to thee, so that there should be no restriction for the believers in respect to the wives of their adopted sons when the latter have relinquished their claims upon them.

And the Command of God shall be fulfilled.


At about the same time {33.50} was also announced which read:

{33.50} O Prophet! We have made lawful for thee thy wives to whom thou hast given their bridewealth, as well as those whom thy right hand possesses of those whom God has granted thee as spoils of war … and any believing woman if she gives herself (in marriage) to the Prophet and if the Prophet desires to marry her—for thee alone, not for (the rest of) the believers.


It is this verse that reputedly caused Aisha to sarcastically remark to Muhammad ‘Your lord hastens to fulfil your desires’ . Yet these two verses sit within a complex surah that deals with the role of the Qur’an’s announcer and his wives in relation to the community he was addressing on a more fundamental level than suggested by Aisha’s reported insinuation. To appreciate the overall scheme of Surah 33, a number of verses need to be considered together.

{33.4-5} (produced above) denounce the practices of zihar 〈60.〉 and of treating an adopted child as though they were one’s biological offspring.


{33.6} seeks to inspire affection for Muhammad and his household by proclaiming: ‘The Prophet is closer to the believers than they are to themselves and his wives are their mothers’.


{33.37} (also produced above) has God command his prophet to take Zayd’s ex-wife as his own, when ‘Zayd no longer wanted her’, (per Haleem) or when ‘Zaid had accomplished what he would of her’, (Arberry),


{33.40} states:

Muhammad is not the father of any man amongst you. Rather he is the Messenger of God and the seal of the prophets.

And God is Knower of all things.


{33.50-52} grant permission for the prophet alone to marry any believing woman whom he desires, but {33.52} adds a limitation: ‘women are not lawful for thee (i.e. Muhammad) beyond that’.


{33.53} lays down instructions for visitors to the Messenger of God’s home, see 〈79.〉 below, and forbids anyone to marry his wives after his death.


{33.60-62} gives a command to seize and ‘utterly slay’ those who spread false rumours as was ‘the wont of God with those who passed before’, and finally


{33.69} contains an instruction that believers should not be as ‘those who affronted Moses’, who was innocent of what they alleged.


When all these verses are read together they develop a scheme. The common theme in the prohibition of both zihar and of adoption is that both denounce the creation of an artificial familial relationship in substitution for nature. {58.2} (see 〈60.〉 above) states that a man calling a woman who did not give birth to him his mother is ‘indecent words and calumny.‘ This is very similar to the message of {33.4-5}: ’These are only words from your mouths, while God speaks the truth.’


However, the Qur’an having twice rejected language that seeks to usurp biological facts, {33.6} proceeds to create precisely such a fiction of its own, by declaring Muhammad’s wives to be ‘the mothers of the believers’, and {33.52} states that they are consequently forbidden for the believers to marry after Muhammad’s death. The reader might have expected that if Muhammad’s wives were the mothers of the believers, then Muhammad himself would be their father, but {33.40} denies this explicitly: ‘Muhammad is not the father of any man amongst you’. For it to be otherwise, all of his past marriages to believers (see 〈D.〉 The wives and concubines of Muhammad) would have become Quranically incestuous.


The command of {33.60-62} that expressions of discontent with this inconsistent arrangement would be met with lethal force in the tradition of ‘those who passed before’ is probably, especially given the appearance of Moses a few verses later, a reference to an incident in chapter 12 of the Book of Numbers in which God struck Miriam down with leprosy for having criticised her brother Moses’s marriage to a Cushite woman. However, to mollify any critics for whom such threats alone may not have been sufficient, {33.52} seems to guarantee that there will be no further marriages between Muhammad and his female followers.


These passages were the subject of a detailed exploration by David S. Powers, in Muhammad Is Not the Father of Any of Your Men, The Making of the Last Prophet. Powers concluded that the traditional story of Zeynab and Zayd was not a scandalous historical event but in fact was a literary device to cast Muhammad in the role of King David, see 〈23.〉 By Muhammad then sending Zayd to almost certain death in battle (Zayd is said to have died in battle in 629) the composers of the traditional narrative sought to replicate for Islam the motif of the sacrificed son, familiar to Judaism and Christianity in the figures of Isaac and Jesus respectively. The double rejection of Zayd – first by the abolition of adoption, then by having Muhammad sending him to his death – Powers suggests, may well have been motivated by a desire to prevent Zayd’s descendants from claiming leadership of the Islamic community as the heirs of Muhammad, with the story of Muhammad’s temptation by the lightly-clad Zaynab, a salacious detail added later to conceal the dynastic subterfuge.


The consequences today of {33.5} are that, under Sharia law, a child that is looked after by an adoptive family, retains their biological father’s name and, for the purposes of inheritance, an adopted child stands to inherit from their biological relatives, and not from their adoptive family. However, this abolition of adoption, is by no means out of keeping with the Qur’an’s approach to kinship. In a marked contrast to Judaism on the one hand, with its repeated focus upon bloodlines and self-perception as a chosen race, and Christianity on the other, in which all of humanity is presented as the beloved children of God, in the Qur’an the notion of belonging to a spiritual family is frequently eschewed:

{5.18} And the Jews and Christians say: ‘We are the children of God and his beloved ones.’

Say: ‘Why then does He punish you for your sins?’

Nay, but you are mortal of His creating…

For Muhammad, whose claims to descent from Ishmael were tenuous at best, and whom, it will be remembered, was orphaned in his infancy and whose own sons all died young, family connections are underplayed. An individual’s unswerving loyalty to God and His Messenger was of far more important than any biological lineage.