Was Muhammad a Wife-beater?

Today I continue my series on women and Islam. The question today is: Was Muhammad a wife-beater?

I don’t believe he was. Look, it is no secret that 7th century Arabia was a hostile place for women. Women were considered the property of the men in their lives. They had no rights and could be disposed of as one disposed of an animal. In light of that, some of Muhammad’s actions toward women are remarkable.

Muhammad criticized men for being too harsh on their wives. Women played a prominent role in his life and religion. His favorite wife, Aisha, became his spokesperson in many matters of religion. His daughter, Fatima, was an influential force after his death. He remained in a monogamous relationship with his first wife, Khadija, as long as she lived, and only took on other wives after her death, and even then, in the majority of cases, his marriages sealed political alliances or extended benevolence to poor widows . Under Muhammad, women were assured the rights to divorce their husbands and own property.

Muhammad allowed men to marry up to four wives only after the battle of Uhud (626), when scores of men were killed, leaving behind orphans and unprotected widows. Even as permission was granted, the language is such that it discourages it. A man was supposed to do that only if he was capable of treating each woman equally. That, of course, opened the door for abuse as no man who ever lived could possibly do that.

But there are some things that would make it hard to turn Mohammad into a poster boy for feminism even by 7th century Arabia’s standards.

Here are some examples:

1. In one of the hadiths, (“traditions”) of the prophet, according to his favorite wife, Aisha, in at least one occasion, Muhammad struck her and it wasn’t with a pheasant feather either. This episode refers to a time he thought she was asleep, quietly slipped out of bed and walked to another place. She followed him against his knowledge and then returned to her bed. Upon coming back, he asked her: “Why is it, O ‘Aisha, that you are out of breath? I said: There is nothing. He said: Tell me or the Subtle and the Aware would inform me. I said: Messenger of Allah, may my father and mother be ransom for you, and then I told him (the whole story). He said: Was it the darkness (of your shadow) that I saw in front of me? I said: Yes. He struck me on the chest which caused me pain…” (my emphasis). I am, of course, aware of the many attempts to make “struck” mean something else in this hadith, but many respected Muslim scholars do not buy it. In all fairness, though, Aisha also said in other places that Muhammad never struck a child, woman or animal, except when threatened in battle.

2. In some other hadiths, Muhammad clearly gives permission for husbands to beat their wives and does not prohibit them from doing so. On one occasion a woman wearing a green veil came to Aisha and showed her a green spot on her body caused by beating. Aisha complained to Muhammad: “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!” This is important because she is stating that the women outside of Islam were being treated better Muslim women. On another occasion Muhammad allowed the fathers of two of his wives to strike them in his presence without any protest on his part.

3. It is at least peculiar that Aisha was betrothed to Muhammad when she was 6 or 7 and he was already past 50. She became his wife when she was 9 or 10. I would never call this child abuse, as some have, but I would say that coming from a prophet of God, I imagine this took a lot of finagling with the Almighty. One can see how such practice, though common in those times, would later be cause for criticism against the prophet. Another controversial marriage was the one to the divorced wife of his adopted son. Even Muhammad was conflicted about that at first, and several of his relatives called it incest.

4. Though Muhammad allowed only four wives to Muslim men, he himself married 10-12, a special dispensation accorded him by Allah. Oh, the joys of prophethood! Yes, 7th century Arabia may have been harsh for women, but at least one man was already living in “paradise” and he didn’t even have to die a martyr to enter it.

Ivanildo C. Trindade