The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had many wives. This is a source of controversy, as most marriages are now monogamous. However, in the Middle East and across the world having multiple wives was common practice at the time Muhammad’s life. This was often due to the fact that young men tended to die more frequently and thus there was a “surplus” of women. While many people look down upon polygamous marriages, multiple marriages ensured that women would be taken care of and not remain widowed or single their whole life. In general, polygamous marriages are reserved for those males who have enough wealth to support multiple wives.
Muhammad had 11 or 13 wives depending on the bibliographical source, and married most of them later in his life, after he moved to Medina in AD622. While this number may seem extraordinarily high, it is important to understand that Muhammad married many of the women because they were widowed and in need of support. For Muhammad, marriage was as much an act of “charity” as it was an act of love.
According to various biographies, Muhammad’s first wife was Khadija bint Khuwaylid, a wealthy merchant in Mecca. Muhammad married her when he was 25 and she was 40 years old. At one time Khadija was Muhammad’s boss. Together, they had two sons, both of whom died young, and four daughters, though some scholars argue that three of the daughters were actually from Khadija’s previous marriage.
When Khadija passed away in AD 619, the Prophet Muhammad grew lonely. At this point Muhammad began to marry other wives, marrying two wives in AD 619. Muhammad’s second marriage was to Sawda bint Zamʿa, a devote Muslim who at the time was struggling and had no husband to support her. Muhammad offered to marry and support her.
Perhaps the most controversial of Muhammad’s marriages was to Aisha bint Abu Bakr. She was only 7 when betrothed to the Prophet Muhammad and was only 9 when they consummated the marriage. While by today’s standards this would be considered immoral, in the Middle East during the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad this practice was quiet common.
At this time (circa AD 620) the Muslims in Medina would be drawn into a long conflict with the Pagans who then occupied Mecca. This war would result in many Muslims dying and leaving behind widowed families. Muhammad, peace be upon him, saw it as his duty to marry many of these widows and to care for their families. This kind act of charity ensured that numerous young families, who otherwise may have been abandoned to the streets, were taken care of.
Collectively, the wives of Muhammad, peace be upon them, were given a high level of respect within Muslim society and were referred to as “Mothers of the Believers.” They lived with Muhammad, peace be upon him, in small dwellings next to the Mosque in Medina. When the Prophet passed away in AD632 his wives were widowed but according to the Quran it was forbidden that anyone should marry them. Many of the wives would remain actively involved politics and the expansion of Islam.