The latest video on the vlog is up! Link: https://youtu.be/GxKZMLQlkns. Script below.
Hello, and welcome to #WhatThePatriarchy, where we are working to uproot the patriarchy! Thank you for being here with me.
This is Shehnaz.
Today I want to talk about the Prophet Muhammad – the prophet of Islam, objectively one of the most important humans to have ever lived, certainly the most important man in Islam.
I want to start the discussion itself with the recognition of Muhammad’s status as a mercy on humanity. I accept that and I do deeply believe that. But for me, as for many other Muslims, this doesn’t mean every single thing that Muhammad did is an act of mercy.
So, in today’s episode, we’re going to emphasize that the Prophet Muhammad was a complex figure – like all of us – and our relationship with him as a Prophet of Islam, as a human, as a man aren’t simply just plain good or bad, or consistently one way or another, but that they can be complex too and they change from thing to thing, specific actions of his. So, loving him doesn’t mean accepting and modeling every. Single. Thing. That he did and said, because, among a bunch of other objective facts, he was constrained, like all of us, by specific contexts – cultural, social, personal, and so on.
I’ll begin with his character or his personality traits, I’ll talk about his relationships with his own daughters and then also with women who were not his wives, I’ll address the question of loving him – sure, we have to believe in his prophethood as Muslims, but does that also mean loving him? And what does it mean to love him? So this video is going to complicate some stuff like the expectation that all Muslims are required to love the Prophet, and I’m gonna talk about what happens when you suggest otherwise. Some of the specific things we’ll talk about are his multiple marriages, his relationships with his wives and daughters AND with other women. I’ll discuss a couple of things that he did himself that he wouldn’t allow other men when his own daughters’ peace of mine was at stake as well as how he broke treaties and possibly didn’t apply specific quranic verses just to protect women!
So in terms of his character or personality, he cared about people regardless of how they treated him. There’s that very famous hadith of the woman dumping garbage on him, and when she doesn’t do it one day, he goes and checks on her to see if she’s okay and she’s like but I hate you why’re you here? And he’s like well you forgot to dump your trash on me today, so I got worried. And then there’s the other hadith where he stands up in respect for the deceased when a non-Muslim person’s funeral procession is taking place.
We also know he had a good sense of humor. I have a good friend who’s writing a dissertation on humor in the hadiths, including the Prophet’s humor, and when that’s published, I’ll let you know!
And he was deeply secure in his masculinity. And this is something that I don’t think most Muslim men get or appreciate – listen, Muhammad was incredibly secure in his masculinity. His relationships with his wives and other women speaks to that, the fact that he didn’t let the insecure men of his community dictate how his relationships with women were going to be, his wives challenged him, asked him difficult questions, and so on. And he didn’t shut them down – he didn’t say oh you can’t ask that question because tradition. Today, when we ask men difficult questions, they shut us down. Try searching for some of these on YouTube, something that women are likely to ask, like what do WE get in heaven? And watch how they react to women’s questions and dismissing a question as “modern” or “feminist” or “western.” These men get so angry and emotional they start shouting in response and go on irrelevant tangents attacking feminists, somehow, because we’ve apparently given Muslim women the confidence to dare to ask questions.
But the Prophet? Umm Salamah once asked him, how come the Qur’an never addresses women directly? Why is it talking to men only? (fun fact: I once did a conference presentation on this question, and much of the audience was angry (much of the audience was Muslim), and one person – a Muslim man – even asked me what the point of such a question is. I’m not gonna point out what kinds of privileges you have to have to think this question is irrelevant. But when Umm Salamah asked this question, the Prophet was totes chills! He does no silence her, he does not God, astaghfirullah!! You gotta repent right now!) And tradition – by which I mean hadiths – tell us that qur’anic verse 33:35 was revealed in recognition of Umm Salamah’s question. And personally, I don’t think this verse addresses her concern because I think she was asking something else, and I think the tradition has misunderstood her question. She didn’t mean that the Qur’an never mentions women – because it always had. I don’t think that the Qur’an, or God, misunderstood her question – that’s not possible. But I’m saying that our interpretation of this episode is incorrect. But I’ll talk about the Qur’an’s audience in a different episode. The point is that he was very secure in his masculinity, and in his Islam, so that when a woman challenged him or asked him a very difficult question, he didn’t silence her the way that we get silenced when we ask similar questions today.
Another time, when the Qur’anic verse 33:51 is revealed telling the Prophet that he can go to any of his wives whenever he feels like it and that he can change his mind about who he goes to when, Aisha has opinions about that too and she tells Muhammad: مَا أُرَى رَبَّكَ إِلاَّ يُسَارِعُ فِي هَوَاكَ. Roughly translating to, “Oh how God – YOUR God, your Rabb, hastens to fulfill your wishes and desires!” She says “your God.” I love it. (Source: https://sunnah.com/urn/44660)
I know that Shia Muslims have a whole different opinion on this. Basically, Shias don’t see her as a legitimate or reliable source of Islam, they don’t think positively of her, but in the Sunni tradition, she is highly revered.
So y’all, when Muhammad hears this from her, he doesn’t flit out! He doesn’t go how dare you, astaghfirullah, what do you mean that my God fulfills my wishes! Are you challenging GOD?! He doesn’t do any of that stuff that the patriarchy does to us today! But Muslim patriarchy has flipped out about this particular statement of Aisha’s. And how dare – oh how dare – Muslim men think that they’re protecting the Prophet s. that they’re defending him against women, like Aisha. These dudes are themselves so insecure, they themselves would brutally attack any woman in their life who challenges them like Aisha did Muhammad, that they will speak ill of Aisha – and again, I’m not talking about Shiis here, I’m not talking about polemics here, I’m talking about misogyny here! I’m talking about how they cannot handle a woman challenging a man because they’re not okay with women challenging them! So much that they end up attacking Aisha! These are Sunnis who’re doing this. To validate their own misogynist rage. Muslim male scholars – “scholars” always in quotes! – and teachers and preachers of Islam speaking poorly of Aisha and attacking her to show how wicked and manipulative WOMEN are is a total thing. There are KHUTBAHS out there on how wicked women are, how manipulative women are, and these are again Sunni male preachers who’ll say things like Aisha faked a headache once, and if Aisha the beloved of the Prophet, if one of the most important women highly revered by God could be this manipulative, then of course other women, ordinary women can also be like this! So beware! Totally a thing! They dare to think that this misogyny has any sort of validity in Islam. Hold on, I gotta have mytea. Okay, so, if Muhammad didn’t have an issue with it, who the hell do these misogynists think they are to criticize Aisha on behalf of Muhammad? But the truth is that they’re not doing it on behalf of Muhammad – they are doing it for themselves. They’re doing it on behalf of the patriarchy. They’re afraid of the possibility of more women like Aisha and Umm Salamah, brilliant and feisty, would be in their lives and challenge the patriarchy! They’re afraid of what these women represent. And what do they represent? Critical thinking. Brilliance, smartness, resilience. A challenge to the patriarchy! As long as the Prophet’s own wives are thinking like this and making statements like this, and the Prophet didn’t call them out for it and didn’t shut them down, these men are afraid we ordinary women will do the same thing because we can say our mothers – the Prophet’s wives, the ummahat al mu’mineen – did this so we can too, and we’ll get inspiration and confidence to be like them. We ordinary women are the women in these men’s personal lives and as long as we exist and use the example of the Prophet’s wives, these men have a lot to lose if they don’t shut down the Prophet’s wives on behalf of the Prophet! You see? being in their lives, taking over the project of interpreting Islam more widely, of critiquing men’s choices using Islam. It’s literally as simple as men’s insecurities, their investment in patriarchy. That’s it!
So what do they do? They project onto Muhammad (s.) their own insecurities and male fragility, accusing the Prophet Muhammad of being this insecure sexist man that too many Muslim men themselves are. How on earth THAT is not a sin is beyond me. How the fact that they dare to portray Muhammad as a fragile, insecure man like themselves is not haram is beyond me.
So speaking of accusations against the Prophet Muhammad …
I have a dear friend, an Islamic feminist blogger, The Fatal Feminist, who wrote an article a couple of years ago – link in description – on the idea of loving the Prophet Muhammad. She argues that Muslim women are allowed to have complicated relationships with the Prophet, that we don’t have to love him, that there are certain things that he did that we’re allowed to feel uncomfortable with – because there are consequences in his actions for us Muslim women.
And I agree with her. We should be allowed to disagree with the actions of prophets, including the Prophet Muhammad. I don’t understand how it is okay for the male scholarly community to speak so terribly, so unacceptably of women – and I’m talking women in the Qur’an like the Queen of Sheba (will return to this in a bit) – but then turn around and accuse us of not being Muslim or proper Muslim if we so much as criticize a thing that a prophet did, for very good reasons, actually! Did you know, for example, that the tafsir tradition literally can’t handle a woman being in power, like a queen like Sheba, so they decided that she wasn’t human, or a full human and must have been a jinn, because – and this is the insecurity of Muslim scholars talking – what kind of men would allow a woman to rule over them? Astaghfs! (You can read more about this in a book called The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality, by Olfa Youssef. I’ve written a review of it on my blog that I’m gonna share the link to in the description.) My point is that Muslim patriarchy won’t let us criticize men because of whose actions, even if just one or two actions in the grander scheme of things, hurt women, but they have no problem attacking and literally dehumanizing women that the Qur’an itself in some cases, and certainly Islam, honors.
The Fatal Feminist in her article tells us, and I quote from her article now:
“auntie amina wadud came under fire a while ago for classifying Prophet Ibrahim—whose dreams regarding the slaughter of Ismail the Qur’an never claimed—of being a “deadbeat dad.” She is a Muslim woman and has the right to that frustration against a male prophet. My disciple, Misha, has been perplexed that Sulaiman was ready to start a war with Queen Bellekeyce for no apparent reason and heartbroken over and over regarding the treatment of Lut toward his daughters. She has the right to that horror. “Do not strain your heart to redeem him,” I had told her. Do not strain your heart to redeem him…. The undeniable truth is we have no idea why they are chosen and we should not pretend to know….Yunus was punished by al-Rahman Herself when he deserted his people and his mission. Only the Prophetess Maryam, mother of Isa, is described by the Qur’an itself as having been purified above all others for her task. I have said it to Misha and I will say it again: the moral errors of other prophets are documented in the Qur’an because they are not secrets. Women have a special right to harbor anger through their love, and no man has any right to challenge that.”
She ends her article with these beautiful words:
“May the woman who demands the Prophet’s accountability in his injustice against her find herself closer to heaven than the man who loves him at the dismissal of someone else’s suffering. Muslim women have the right not to love the Prophet. You have the right not to desire his company. You have the right to prefer other men over him.”
These words were healing when I first read them two years ago, and they’re even more healing today.
If you read the comments on her post, you’ll see a very gendered patterns. When it was first published, it angered the hell out of patriarchy. It went viral, and it even got the attention of some sexist misogynist male imams who literally gave khutbahs on it! The sad thing is that Muslim women were grateful for it. The worst that I saw a Muslim woman saying was something like, this makes me uncomfortable. Which I appreciate! Feeling discomfort over the article is one thing – but dismissing it and attacking Nahida AND also all Muslim feminists is not ok. Because the article went viral, I’m sure there were women who hated it like the patriarchy did – but my point here is about the reaction to an argument that Muslim women are entitled to having certain complicated feelings about the Prophet Muhammad s.
You, see, too many Muslims unfairly try to FORCE people to love the Prophet Muhammad. You can’t do that. That’s just inherently impossible. You can’t force someone to love someone else! Too many Muslims wrongly believe that we have to agree with and endorse everything Muhammad did because even if we don’t understand his actions, there must have been wisdom in what he did because he was a prophet. This is ridiculous. It’s inaccurate. The irony of it is that the Qur’an itself, God Herself, criticizes Muhammad. I know some people don’t think it’s criticism, so, fine, use softer language like “calling him out” or “reproaching him,” that works too. Does the qur’anic phrase ‘abasa wa tawalla mean nothing to you people? Look it up.
But, look. When Aisha was accused of adultery, how did Muhammad respond? Did he support her? Take her side? No, she was real sick and was sent to her parents’ house to be taken care of, and Muhammad went to the sahaba – male companions – and said, what do I do, y’all! Help! Some defended Aisha, and some didn’t.
And Aisha isn’t cool with this! See, according to the Sunni tradition, it was the Qur’an, God Herself who rescued Aisha here: the Qur’anic verses 11-20 of surat al-Noor, ch. 24, are believed to be about her. These verses, according to Sunnis, declared her innocence and introduced a punishment for her accusers. So the verse supporting her is revealed while Muhammad is visiting her at her parents’ house, and he says oh Aisha you’re innocent because God said so! And Aisha’s mother is like hey Aisha thank the Prophet for saving you! And you know what she says? No, I’m not gonna thank him I’m not gonna thank ANYONE but Allah – all of you heard this story, and none of you believed me! It’s God who saved me! So she didn’t approve of Muhammad’s way of handling this incident! (For Shias, by the way, these verse aren’t about Aisha but generally about slander and accusing chaste women of unacceptable things. Although some say that even IF the verses are about her, that doesn’t mean she’s a good, righteous person because yeah slander is wrong when committed against anyone, no matter who they are. They don’t like her for a bunch of reasons not essential to this discussion.)
Basically, imagine yourself in Aisha’s position – your spouse or partner suspects because of rumors going around that you may have cheated on them. How would you feel?
And one more thing on his polygamy because it’ll be relevant for a later point I’ll be making. Ok, get this. In all his marriage, he didn’t ask his wives’ permission if he could marry a new woman. None of his wives were okay with his marriages to other women. When he wanted to marry Umm Salamah, she specifically refused initially because, she said, he had other wives. And Muhammad tells her, I’ll pray to Allah to remove that jealousy from your heart. This is the thing. This kind of dismissal of women’s feelings about realities that affect them negatively is not okay. As a Muslim woman, I’m inherently affected by such language and the Prophet’s choices.
But the point here is about his complex character. then there’s the way that the Prophet Muhammad loved women as people, the way he protected them from harm, the way he fought the patriarchy of his time. Those are significant things. Fatima Mernissi suggests that he did whatever he could, that his role was complicated, and he had to try to win as many different sides as he could, try to bring different, competing viewpoints together. I mean, the fact that when he was married to Khadija, he was married to her ALONE is significant. Sure, we can speculate here and suggest that he probably couldn’t marry other women while married to Khadija because Khadija was his boss! But honestly, their relationship sounds way too healthy for this kind of fear and insecurity, for Muhammad to be afraid her or for her to be afraid of him. Clearly he wasn’t a greedy or exploitative person, and he wasn’t inherently polygamous.
Then you also have something like his relationship with his daughters and women he’s not married to. Sunnis believe that Muhammad had four daughters, all of them by Khadija; they were Zainab, Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum, and Fatima. (Most) Shi’is believe that Muhammad had only one daughter – Fatima. Here, I’m going to ahead and accept the Sunni belief that the other daughters existed.
We know that he loved Fatima to death. The Shias and the Sunnis agree on this. Apparently, when he was leaving on some journey, Fatima would be the last person he would visit and say goodbye to, and when he’d return, she’d be the first person that he’d see. A father’s immense, unbreakable love for his daughter isn’t necessarily sufficient evidence for his being a good person. But I’m saying here that he’s complicated, right? So while he himself married multiple women, without any regards for how the women were feeling about it, but when ALI wants to marry other wives while being married Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, Muhammad is like how DARE YOU even think about it. What the heck! Muhammad even taught Fatima all about the nikaah contract and being able to stipulate in it that her husband wouldn’t be allowed to take other wives being married to her. But one can argue that, well, as a prophet, he trusted himself to be a good husband to multiple wives but didn’t think other men were capable of it. Okay, then outright explicitly don’t allow it to anyone else either; why just Ali? Similarly, IF we accept the false hadith that Muhammad married Aisha when she was a kid, get this, ok: apparently, some older men wanted to marry Fatima when she was young, and the Prophet found that disgusting and was like hell no.
Then there are Muhammad’s other daughters. Okay, listen, y’all, Zainab was married to a MUSHRIK (a polytheist) and Muhammad never did anything about it! She marries her cousin Abu al-‘As before Islam, before Muhammad gets a revelation, and stays married to him for two decades. y’all, her husband isn’t even some regular mushrik – he’s literally actively fighting against Muhammad and the whole Muslim community; he literally fought in Badr against the Muslims! And he’s repeatedly captured by the Muslim, and Zainab keeps paying his ransom and getting him back. This one time, Zainab tells her father that she’s protecting her husband, and y’all, you know what the Prophet does? He introduces a law that says that whenever, at ANY time, when someone seeks protection with you, no matter who they are even if your enemy, you must absolutely grant them that protection and not turn them in. How this is not an immense, powerful gesture of the Prophet’s love, I don’t know.
And, no, he didn’t convert to Islam until like the very end, almost at the time of her death. In the two decades that they’re married, Muhammad NEVER declares Zainab’s marriage invalid and never tells her to divorce him. The sources disagree on what went down, like oh supposedly Muhammad tells Zainab hey you can’t sleep with him until he accepts Islam, but this isn’t true because at the time of her death, Zainab was pregnant. She had a tragic death – two men attacked her and she bled and miscarried and died. I’ll be talking about this in detail in a separate episode on the topic of interfaith marriage in Islam, so please don’t make me give away more interesting facts here, BUT my point here is that Muhammad literally breaks what appears to be a clear meaning of “don’t marry the mushriks and the kuffaar!” in the Qur’an for his daughter! His two other daughters, Umm Kulthum and Ruqayyah, were also married to mushriks – the sons of Abu Lahab, y’all – but those marriages ended because Abu Lahab, NOT Muhammad, didn’t want his sons to stay married to Muhammad’s daughters.
So that’s an example of Muhammad going against, it looks like, two qur’anic verses that all Muslim male scholars insist mean that Muslim women are absolutely forbidden to marry all non-Muslims. And the funniest thing is that they find all kinds of excuses for why Zainab must’ve married Abu al-‘As, and some literally interpret her story as “aww poor Zainab, can you imagine how patient she must’ve been to have to stay married to an enemy of her father’s? Poor, poor thing!” NO! She loved her husband!!! She wasn’t forced to be married to him or to stay with him! She chose to stay married to him, and she chose not to force him to convert to Islam!
And then a final example I’ll give here has to do with the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah in the year 628. You see, this treaty took place between Muhammad and the mushriks of Mecca as a way to relieve some of the tension between the two groups. It was to last for ten years, and among its conditions was that anyone who leaves the Muslim community to go to the Mushriks was to say with the Mushriks and anyone who leaves the Mushriks to come to the Muslims WAS to be returned to the Mushriks. Well, lo and behold, women were apparently leaving their Mushrik Meccan communities and coming to Muhammad’s community. These women would come and tell Muhammad that look, I’m a Muslim now and I don’t feel safe going back to my community; my brothers or my husband or other men are coming after me. So Muhammad allows the women to go ahead and stay in his community, and the men coming after these women are like hey you can’t do that because we have an agreement – you need to return these women to us. But Muhammad is willing to break the terms of the contract to protect these women. There’s a whole qur’anic verse – 60:10, in al-Mumtahina– that endorses his decision or may even be the source of his decision.
Just like he protected Fatima from polygyny, just like he protected Zainab from divorcing a mushrik man she loved and was happy with, he protects Umm Kulthum and these other women seeking protection with him from their communities after having converted to Islam.
And since we’re talking about complexity – another example of his actions and their impact: So let’s assume that Muhamamd did marry Aisha when she was a child, for example. This isn’t true; evidence suggests this hadith is totally false (the hadith was actually forged after the year 795 CE, 179 in the Hijri calendar – more on Aisha’s age at the time of marriage another time). But IF Muhammad married her when she was 6 and consummated the marriage when she was 9—and too many Muslims believe that he did—this action of his has a direct impact on Muslim women today. Child marriage is still a thing that happens, universally to be sure, including in the U.S. (Fun fact: child marriage isn’t illegal in the U.S.) And no, it doesn’t exist because Muhammad did it, but too many people will use that example to say well if Muhammad did it, so can we. Twisted definitions of the sunnah will validate such harmful practices, so it doesn’t help that the hadiths tell us he did. But again, he didn’t do it.
So, ALL of this to say, Muhammad was a complicated figure, and we’re allowed to have complicated feelings about all the things that he did – the good and the bad, the ugly and beautiful, the kind and the unkind, the confusing and clear.
You’re allowed to criticize his choices and disagree with his choices and not wish them for yourself or someone else. Because his choices and decisions have a direct impact on your life.
Okay, so recap: we discussed the fact that the Prophet Muhammad was a very secure man, nothing like what Muslim male scholars portray him as; we questioned the false claim that we’re required to love the Prophet Muhammad s. and decided that it’s totes okay to have complicated feelings about him as a Muslim woman especially because his choices and actions have a direct impact on our lives; we discussed specific examples from his life like his multiple marriages, his marriage to Aisha, and his relationships with his wives as well as other women; we talked about the fact that he willingly broke treaties and rules and even went against – potentially – a very clear meaning of the Qur’anic verse on marriage to mushriks in order to support women’s decisions, which I read as a sign of his commitment to protecting women and the marginalized; and my personal favorite thing to talk about these days – the marriage of his daughter Zainab to a mushrik man.
Okay, I need to stop here. We’ll continue this conversation another time. Thank you so much for watching, and I’ll see you next episode!