The wives and concubines of Muhammad

According to the traditional Islamic narrative Muhammad married his first wife, the wealthy widow and his former employer, Khadija, when he was twenty-five and she was forty. Their marriage was monogamous and they are traditionally said to have had six children: two sons, both of whom died in infancy, and four daughters. Without a surviving biological son, they had also adopted a slave, Zayd ibn Harith (who would later be de-adopted, see 〈62.〉) Khadija is said to have died in 619 and in the twelve years or so following her death, Muhammad married by the lowest account at least ten more times, leaving nine widows at the time of his death. This far exceeded the limit of four wives that is believed to have been fixed by {4.3} (but see 〈58.〉)


The earliest list of the wives of Muhammad was compiled by Ibn Hisham and is appended to his biography of Muhammad. It reads as follows:

‘(The apostle) married thirteen women:

    • Khadija … his first wife whom her father … or according to others her brother Amr, married to him. The apostle gave her as her dowry twenty she-camels. She bore all the apostle’s children except Ibrahim …
    • He married Aisha in Mecca when she was a child of seven and lived with her in Medina when she was nine or ten. She was the only virgin that he married. Her father Abu Bakr [later the ‘first caliph’ of Islam, 632-634] married her to him, and the apostle gave her four hundred dirhams.

[for other references to Aisha, see 〈57.〉, 〈67.〉, 〈79.〉 and 〈89.〉 below].

    • He married Sauda … Salit bin Amr or according to others Abu Hatib married her to him … Ibn Ishaq contradicts this tradition saying that Salit and Abu Hatim were absent in Abyssinia at this time.
    • Zaynab bint Jahsh … She had previously been married to Zayd bin Haritha, the freed slave of the apostle 〈62.〉,
    • Umm Salama. Her name was Hind. Her son Salama married her to him and the apostle gave her a bed stuffed with palm leaves, a bowl, a dish and a hand mill. She had been married to Abu Salama…
    • Hafsa, bint Umar… [Umar would later become the ‘second caliph’ of Islam, 634-644],
    • Umm Habiba whose name was Ramla, daughter of Abu Sufyan [Meccan leader during the conflict with Muhammad, see 〈40.〉, above].
    • Khalid bin Said married her to him when they were both in Abyssinia and the Negus have her on behalf of the apostle four hundred dinars. It was he who arranged the marriage for the apostle. She had been married to Ubaydullah bin Jahsh,
    • Juwayriya bint al-Harith who was amongst the captives of the of the Banu Mustaliq…
    • Safiya bint Huyay whom he had captured at Kaybar and chosen for himself… 〈46.〉,
    • Maymuna …
    • Zaynab bint Khuzayma

The apostle consummated his marriage with eleven women, two of whom died before him, namely Khadija and Zaynab (bint Khuzayma). He died leaving the nine we have mentioned. With two he had not marital relations:

    • Asma bint al-Numan whom he found to be suffering from leprosy and so returned to her people with a suitable gift, and
    • Amra, daughter of Yazid.


Two further marriages are sometimes recorded following the conquest of Mecca:

    • Mayluka bint Ka’ab, whose father is said to have died defying the Muslim army during the conquest of Mecca 〈47.〉, and
    • Fatima bint al Dahhak, whose marriage to Muhammad had been sought by her father but who was divorced by him for her disobedience.


Muhammad is also said to have kept concubines including:

    • Rayhana, who had been an enslaved widow of the Banu Qurayza 〈44.〉, whom one tradition states that Muhammad married, then divorced and freed and thereafter came into the possession of for a second time following the conquest of Kaybar 〈46.〉, and
    • Maryam, a gift of the king of Egypt, who bore Muhammad a son, Ibrahim, see 〈23.〉 and 〈65.〉


There is no independent evidence of most of these wives and concubines. Maryam, in particular, seems to enter the Muhammad story merely to replicate the role of Haggar to Abraham, and to depict Muhammad as a leader of international stature. His marriages to the enslaved widows of his enemies, Rayhanna, Juwayriya and Safiyya, were likely to have been similar inventions, created to emphasise Muhammad’s virility and his total humiliation of his foes. Yet we know that the Qur’an’s announcer had more than one wife, for verses of the Qur’an address his wives and prescribe special rules for them, 〈79.〉


The four in the above list who have the strongest likelihood of having actually lived are the four whose marriages to Muhammad are said to have influenced the succession to the leadership of the Arab community that he founded:

  • Khadija, some of whose descendants through her and Muhammad’s daughter Fatima are revered by Shia Muslims, as imams,
  • Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, whose succession to Muhammad is corroborated by a chronological chart of rulers compiled by Jacob of Edessa,
  • Hafsa, the daughter of Umar whose historicity is evidenced by a single roughly carved and probably contemporary rock inscription marking his death, and
  • Ramla, whose family, the Umayyads would establish themselves as a dynasty controlling the Arab world a decade or so after the death of Muhammad.


Family Tree


Hashemites v Umayyads

The first four leaders of the Arab conquerors are traditionally described collectively as the four Rashidun (literally ‘rightly guided’) caliphs, and Muawiyah is usually described as the first caliph and founder of the Umayyad dynasty. According to the traditional account, a swiftly convened council of senior members of the Islamic community selected Abu Bakr to be Muhammad’s first successor, whilst Ali, whom Shia Muslims believe was Muhammad’s intended heir, was engaged in washing and burying his father in law. When Ali and Fatima returned from the prophet’s funeral, Umar told him of the council that had been held in his absence and presented him with Abu Bakr’s succession as a fait accompli. Umar became the second leader of the community after the death of Abu Bakr and Uthman the third. It was only when Uthman was murdered in unclear circumstances, that Ali was finally able to claim the mantle of ruler for himself. However, Ali faced an immediate rebellion from Abu Sufyan’s son, Muawiyah, who had been installed as governor of Damascus, and was never able to establish his control over the Arab tribes. Eventually Ali withdrew his claim to be leader of the Arab community and Muawiyah became the fifth of the Arab rulers, styling himself ‘Emir [‘prince’ or ’commander’] of the believers’. In a shocking development, Ali’s son Hussayn and several other descendants of the prophet were ambushed and slaughtered at the Battle of Karabala in 680, an act of violence that drove a wedge between Arabs loyal to the family of Muhammad and those following the de facto ruler, which eventually became the Shia-Sunni divide.


Even if accepted at face value, these basic facts of Islamic history are capable of a quite different interpretation than the traditional model of four righteous and legitimate successors from amongst Muhammad’s early followers, followed by a lapse into politics and dynastic rivalries. It is implicit in the traditional narrative that ambitions and bitter rivalries amongst Muhammad’s inner circle broke into the open at the moment of his death. It has already been observed 〈40.〉 that it is the third so-called ‘rashidun caliph’, Uthman, and not Muawiyah who is the first Arab leader to come from the house of Umayy, and that whilst Muhammad married the daughters of Abu Bakr and Umar, symbolising his dominance and control over them, Uthman married not one but two of Muhammad’s daughters, a sign that the relationship between the Hashemites and Umayyad clans was  one of allegiance rather than submission. This is all the more remarkable since Abu Sufyan had been, if one were to believe to believe the traditional narrative,  the leader of the Meccans and Muhammad’s nemesis.


The details of this history are wholly unreliable, and written by the Abbasids who supplanted the Umayyads after a century of their rule, but if the family tree is at all accurate, it seems to tell its own story. Such a tightly drawn knot of marriages indicates that, far from being an aloof guru to a community of zealous devotees, Muhammad was weaving around him a tribal coalition. It is in this context that the historical record captures virtually no sense that the Arab assumption of control over the Middle East and North Africa was seen as a religious project and that the names of Muhammad and the existence of the  Qur’an remained virtually unknown until after 750.