I remember when I first read the story of the marriage of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to Zaynab bint Jahsh, the divorced wife of his adopted son Zaid ibn Haritha, may Allah be pleased with them. Although I was relatively young when I happened upon this story, I was deeply moved. I remember thinking how beautiful it was that the Prophet was able to put Allah before anything else, even in his inclination to marry Zaynab bint Jahsh.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized that the account that I had read of Prophet Muhammad and Zaynab (which reported that the Prophet felt a personal inclination to marry Zaynab after Zaid divorced her) was disputed amongst Muslim scholars regarding its authenticity. The scholars explained that because the marriage of the Prophet to Zaynab was a command from Allah, it is incorrect to assert that the Prophet had any feelings for Zaynab whatsoever prior to marriage. Some scholars even stated that this version of the story was fabricated by non-Muslim orientalists who wished to destroy the honor and integrity of the Prophet by attributing to him any physical attraction to Zaynab. “It is blasphemous to accuse the Prophet of desiring Zaynab!” they said. “He was just worried about what people would think if he married the divorced wife of his adopted son because that was against Arab custom.”
Yes, undoubtedly, the Prophet’s marriage to Zaynab was a command from Allah to clarify that adopted sons should not be viewed as blood sons regarding the impermissibility of marrying a son’s former wife, and naturally, due to Arab custom regarding adopted sons, the Prophet was concerned about how people would view the marriage.
But I remember being utterly confused. I couldn’t fathom why it would be considered blasphemy to believe that the Prophet was attracted to Zaynab after Zaid divorced her. And why was obeying the command of Allah mutually exclusive to natural human attraction?
It appeared to me that the underlying issue was that the alleged blasphemy was in believing that prophets experienced physical attraction or desire prior to marriage, and this baffled me.
Is Desire Unbecoming of Prophets?
Allah says to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him:
“Not lawful to you, [O Muhammad], are [any additional] women after [this], nor [is it] for you to exchange them for [other] wives, even if their beauty were to please you…”
Furthermore, regarding the famous story of Prophet Yusuf and the plot of the women, Allah says:
“He said, ‘My Lord, prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me. And if You do not avert from me their plan, I might incline toward them and [thus] be of the ignorant.’”
If desire itself is unbecoming of prophets, why did Allah mention to the Prophet that the prohibition on marrying more wives remains “even if their beauty were to please you”? Furthermore, what then was the severe struggle that Prophet Yusuf is referring to that inspired him to desire prison lest he fall victim to it—and that he feared he might incline toward?
True Honor Is in Overcoming Difficulty, Not in Never Facing It
By removing even the possibility of natural human desire from prophets’ existence, we have inadvertently lowered their status while raising ours to a level higher than theirs. After all, it is well known that the one who must overcome difficulty is of a much higher status than the one who doesn’t experience it in the first place. This is one explanation for why believers will ultimately enjoy a status even higher than angels. We as humans have the option to fall short in obeying Allah; angels don’t. Thus, our obedience is more remarkable and praiseworthy in the sight of Allah.
Why then do we remove from prophets the human honor borne of struggle?
The Prophet was once asked, “O Messenger of Allah, which people are tested most severely?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “They are the prophets, then the next best, then the next best. A man is tried according to his religion. If he is firm in his religion, then his trials will be more severe, and if he is weak in religion, then he is tried according to his strength in religion. The servant will continue to be tried until he is left walking upon the earth without any sin” (Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2398, graded sahih by At-Tirmidhi).
Why then do we view it as “unbecoming” or “blasphemous” for the severe trials of a prophet to include the trial that nearly every man and woman faces on earth, that of being attracted to the opposite sex?
Although it is undeniable that the Prophet, peace be upon him, married Zaynab only in obedience to Allah’s command, why is the mere possibility of his being attracted to her after the divorce viewed as slanderous or blasphemous?
Righteous People Don’t Have Desires?
Today, many Muslims view physical desire as “sick”, filthy, and unbecoming of those who “truly” love Allah. This is possibly why we can’t imagine any righteous person, let alone a prophet, having desires at all.
In a hadith narrated by Bukhari and Muslim, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Surely, you will follow the ways of those nations who were before you, in everything as one arrow resembles another (i.e. just like them), so much so that even if they entered a hole of a sand-lizard, you would enter it.” The Companions said, “O Messenger of Allah! Do you mean to say that we will follow the Jews and the Christians?” He replied, “Who else?”
And today, it seems that this lizard hole is our view of physical attraction between men and women.
In the Catholic church, the highest post for a man (that of Pope) is given to one who neither marries nor engages in any sexual intimacy; and the holy women (the nuns) are those who vow celibacy for life, thus shunning any desires, even in the sanctity of marriage.
Yet no such “honor” exists in Islam. In fact, in the Sunnah, this is considered a form of extremism. Why then are we allowing similar beliefs to enter our minds and hearts?
Yes, most Muslims acknowledge that the Prophet had desires after marriage, but many view it as slanderous to believe he had attraction before marriage—even toward women he proposed to and wanted to marry.
Yet, in the famous account of Juwairiyah bint al-Harith first meeting the Prophet, Ayesha is reported to have immediately disliked seeing Juwairiyah because she was extremely beautiful, and Ayesha spoke of the Prophet also seeing her: “I knew he would see what I saw [i.e. her beauty]” (Abu Dawud).
Unfortunately, in our zeal to defend the character of the Prophet, we deny his humanity. So many of us wish to believe that his marriages were inspired “purely” by higher goals of freeing slaves, making peace between warring tribes, and eradicating tribalism and racism. And although these higher goals certainly existed, it is odd to view them as mutually exclusive to physical attraction or desire.
When I hear claims like these, I often wonder, “What woman of today would view it as praiseworthy if her husband was not the least bit attracted to her prior to marriage?”
Why then do we find this preferable or “honorable” for the Mothers of Believers?
Our Self-Serving Definitions of Righteousness
In truth, many of our assertions about “righteousness” and the Prophet’s alleged lack of physical desire are made for selfish reasons: Often, Muslims today simply wish to deny obvious parts of their faith, namely the permissibility—and possible praiseworthiness—of a man marrying more than one wife. And given that the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is in obvious contradiction to this view, we wriggle out of blameworthiness by claiming that the Prophet didn’t marry for the reasons other men marry (i.e. due to physical attraction). Thus, any man who is attracted to a woman (especially if he is already married) has committed a “crime,” even if it culminates in the honorable institution of marriage as sanctioned by Allah.
Honesty Is True Righteousness
Speaking the truth is something that is an important virtue in all faiths, so it is undeniable that true Islamic righteousness is in being honest—with ourselves and with the world.
And a good place to start is concerning the remarkable beauty and mercy in Allah allowing men and women to be physically attracted to each other such that we find immense joy and pleasure in each other after marriage.
And what better reflection of righteousness is there than being grateful for these favors?
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This blog was first published via OnIslam.net on January 5, 2014