Answered by Shaykh Jamir Meah
Question: I have been reading the tafsir of surah Tahrim by Imam Suyuti. In his tafsir he mentions the incident about the Prophet being intimate with Mariyah in Hafsa’s house when she was away. Hafsa was very upset. I find this disrespectful and unbecoming of the Prophet.
How does one reconcile the above with the blessed personality of the Holy Prophet?
Answer: In the Name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate
Thank you for your question. May Allah grant you the best of states and guide you to what is pleasing to Him.
Your question is an important one as one may come across various traditions in our books, some of which are authentic and others not, but nevertheless can startle us and question our views. The best way to tackle such texts is head on, rather than ignoring them. After all, if Muslims are really seekers of the truth, we have to face the truth and all the facts that come with it, not pick and choose what suits us. Islam has nothing to hide, neither in its beliefs, laws, or in the life of the blessed Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).
Surat al Tahrim
As you correctly state, there is a difference of opinion as to the reason why the verses you mention in al Tahrim were revealed. Imams al Bukhari and Muslim and others relate, on account of Aisha, the narration regarding the Prophet staying longer at Zaynab’s quarters due to eating honey with her. Al Qurtubi, al Tabari, Ibn Arabi, Imam al Nawawi, and a great many scholars, all state that this incident is the reliable opinion for the opening verse of al Tahrim being revealed. [Tafsir al Wasit]
Ibn Jarir narrates on account of Zaid bin Aslam, and al Daraqutni relates on account of Ibn Abbas, the incident you mention regarding Hafsa and Mariyah. Some scholars hold this to be the reason for al Tahrim to have been revealed. [Safwat al Tafaasir].
There is also another narration in Al Nisaa’i and al Hakim on account of Anas, that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) had a slave girl [unnamed] that he had relations with, and that Aisha and Hafsa refused to be with the Prophet until he swore to make the slave girl prohibited to himself. [Tafsir al Wasit]
The incident concerning Mariyah is not rigorously authenticated, whereas the narration in regards the honey incident is rigorously authenticated. Imam al Nawawi mentions in his commentary of Sahih Muslim that, ‘The incident involving Mariyah has not been passed down with any sound transmission.’
However, because the incident of Hafsa and Mariyah, as you say, has some weight to it, and some scholars do regard it as the reason for al Tahrim being revealed, it behoves us to discuss this incident and clarify any misgivings, while at the same time, bearing in mind that the explanations given below are presented as if the incident was a fact, and in the knowledge that it is not a totally authenticated narration of events.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him)
For many of us, when it comes to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him), we all share a collective as well as individual idea of his character. This is instilled in us throughout or lives or from the books and stories we read. Rarely however, is this gained through reading the fundamental books of Seerah (prophetic biography), which really are the key to understanding the nature of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), or having learned scholars to navigate us through such books, so that our image of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) is sound and complete.
The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) is the perfected being, the most wondrous being ever created. He was the best of human kind in every possible aspect. Allah tells us in the Quran, in Al Qalam,
‘And thou (standest) on an exalted standard of character’ [68:4, Yusuf Ali]
And in al Ahzab,
‘Ye have indeed in the Apostle of Allah a beautiful pattern of (conduct) for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day’ [33:21, Yusuf Ali]
These verses of the Quran are clear verifications of the sublime character of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), and of the unquestionable standard of moral excellence that he possessed (peace and blessing be upon him). He was set as the ultimate example for man. Furthermore, this glowing character reference is offered by none other than Allah, the Creator of every atom in the universe!
At the same time, the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), like all other prophets, being human beings, shared human characteristics and emotions like all other humans, such as the need to eat and drink, to sleep, and the desire for procreation. Even with these human needs, he (peace and blessing be upon him) was the most perfected in them.
The problem when what we read or learn differs from our image of a person
Have you ever read a book then watched a live adaption of the same book? Or perhaps you heard of a person and formed a picture in your mind of them, and then later met them in person? Many who have will tell you that what they had in their mind and what they saw were two very different things. However, we cannot blame the casting crew of a play, or the real person for not living up to our own expectations! The only person who is entitled to a final definitive understanding and image of the character/person is the originator, the author.
In the case of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), as well as the rest of creation, the ‘author’ is God, and He will choose what His slave will do and say, and set the standard for ‘perfection’ and ‘exalted character.’ While we are entitled and encouraged to question and ask, it is not for us to judge the Prophet by our own standards of what moral excellence is and what perfection consists of.
When we don’t do the above, our image of a person is liable to crumble. Not because the person is in any way less in status or honour, but rather the fault lies in the incorrect image or standard that we hold to be correct.
Therefore, despite our struggles to understand certain events that pertain to more of the human aspects of the Prophet’s life, and the various questions and doubts that arise to one’s mind in such situations, it is imperative to remind ourselves of the reality of who the Prophet truly is, and what his station with God is.
Examples where the more ‘human aspects’ of the Prophet were shown to us
We all know that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) was under Divine Protection even during childhood and his youth, rendering him as the perfect child and young man. Despite this, there are occasions when we see glimpses of the natural human instinct of his being. Ibn al Athir narrates a tradition that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) said, ‘I have never tried to do what my people do except for two times. Every time Allah intervened and checked me from doing so and I never did that again. Once I told my fellow-shepherd to take care of my sheep when we were in the upper part of Makkah. I wanted to go down to Makkah and entertain myself as the young men did. I went down to the first house of Makkah where I heard music. I entered and asked: ‘What is this?’ Someone answered: ‘It is a wedding party.’ I sat down and listened but soon went into deep sleep. I was awakened by the heat of the sun. I went back to my fellow-shepherd and told him of what had happened to me. I have never tried it again.’
Comment: This narration of the young Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) gives us insight into the natural human nature that the Prophet had, and who despite his wish to enjoy the typical things young men of his age would be enticed by, shows that God’s Providence intervened and averted him from anything unbecoming of a future Prophet, thereby preserving his perfection and preparing him for prophethood (peace and blessing be upon him).
In surat Abasa, the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) was engaged in conversation with one of the chiefs of Quraish. At that point, a blind man, Ibn Umm Maktum, approached him to seek explanation of some point concerning Islam. The Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) disliked his interruption and ignored him. Thereupon Allah sent down this Surah
‘The (Prophet) frowned and turned away.’ [80:1, Yusuf Ali]
Despite the seemingly reproachful tone of the opening verse, the Prophet actually had not done anything wrong. His ignoring the blind man and devoting all his attention to the Qurayshi leader was out of earnestly trying to persuade him to accept Islam, because as a caller to God, he felt it was important to gain the support of influential figures so as to make the spread of the religion more effective. This verse was God actually adjusting the Prophet’s method of preaching, and a reminder that every individual seeker of the truth was important, while every heedless and stubborn man was unimportant, even if he occupied a high position in society. In it is a lesson for us all.
Comment: What we can see from this verse is that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), perfected and infallible as he is, as a human being he made a choice according to his best judgement, and God, in his limitless Knowledge and Wisdom, then re-directed and showed the Prophet a better way.
After the battle of Badr, a decision had to me made in regards the prisoners of war. The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) consulted Abu Bakr and Umar (May Allah be pleased with them both). Abu Bakr suggested that they should be ransomed while Umar felt it was more appropriate to put them to death. The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) preferred Abu Bakr’s suggestion. The next day, Umar went to see the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), and found him and Abu Bakr weeping. When he asked them about the reason for their weeping, he was told that the following verse was revealed in regards to the decision taken by the Prophet,
‘It is not fitting for an apostle that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land. Ye look for the temporal goods of this world; but Allah looketh to the hereafter; and Allah is Exalted in might, Wise. Had it not been for a previous ordainment from Allah, a severe penalty would have reached you for the (ransom) that ye took.’ [8:67-68, Yusuf Ali]
Comment: Again we see that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), after having consulted his advisors, made a decision that he felt was in the best interest of the Muslims. Despite this noble endeavour, God sent revelation that corrected the Prophet’s (peace and blessing be upon him) decision.
In all these incidents, we get a glimpse of the Prophet’s human side, the side that we can all understand and appreciate, and thereby rendering the Prophet that much more accessible. But this does not detract from the Prophet’s complete and unadulterated perfection in any way (peace and blessing be upon him).
The incident with Mariyah al Qubtiyah
According to the narration of Zaid bin Aslam and Ibn Abbas, during Hafsa’s turn, and while she was out visiting her family, the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) called Mariyah to Hafsa’s house. Hafsa returned early and found Mariyah in her quarters. This made Hafsa understandably very upset and very jealous. The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) tried to calm her down and console her.
Hafsa, after having being consoled, took the situation a step further, and demanded that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) promise to never see Mariyah again, to which the Prophet finally agreed just so as to please her. He (peace and blessing be upon him) did not have to do this. After all, he could have just promised her that he wouldn’t bring Mariyah to Hafsa’s house again. However, Hafsa (May Allah be pleased with her) pushed the situation beyond what was justified. The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) then asked her to promise not to tell Aisha (or the other wives in one narration), and Hafsa agreed. The reason why the Prophet made this request is because the wives of the Prophet were extremely jealous over the Prophet and he did not want there to be more problems and clamour surrounding the incident. He (peace and blessing be upon him) was not hiding anything, but rather the situation had been resolved with Hafsa and there was no point in getting more people involved, especially when those people are other wives and some issues of jealous rivalry had already occurred previously.
Moreover, it is well documented that the wives, including Aisha, we’re particularly jealous of Mariyah, who is said to have been exceptionally beautiful. Despite her promise to not tell Aisha, Hafsa did, and it is said Hafsa did this in order to boast to the other wives that she was the one that caused the Prophet to abandon seeing Mariyah, which would have been no doubt pleasing to the wives (May Allah be pleased with all the Mothers of the believers).
Commentary: While no one would blame Hafsa for being upset and hurt by this incident, the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) had not done anything wrong. There is nothing haram in what he did. While one may feel when reading about such incidents that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) should have done it this way or that, or question why he met Mariyah in Hafsa’s quarters, we should remember that he did not do anything wrong, especially since his ‘home’ was in the house of whichever wife’s turn it was on that day.
The Prophet’s wish to see his slave girl at that time is not particularly odd. On that day, Hafsa’s house was his ‘home.’ His decision to be with his slave girl was simply part of the human side of the Prophet and it happening at Hafsa’s house was a decision he made at the time. Had God not wanted it to happen in this way and protect His Prophet from people questioning such incidents, He would have done so. We mentioned above other incidents when God corrected the choices the Prophet made. In this incident God did not reveal anything, but rather the revealed verse was,
‘O Prophet! why holdest thou to be forbidden that which Allah has made lawful to thee? Thou seekest to please thy consorts. But Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.’ [66:1, Yusuf Ali]
‘When the Prophet disclosed a matter in confidence to one of his consorts and she then divulged it (to another) and Allah made it known to him he confirmed part thereof and repudiated a part. Then when he told her thereof she said “Who told thee this?” He said “He told me who knows and is well-acquainted (with all things).” If ye two turn in repentance to Him your hearts are indeed so inclined; but if ye back up each other against him truly Allah is his Protector and Gabriel and (every) righteous one among those who believe and furthermore the angels will back (him) up.’ [66:3-4, Yusuf Ali]
If God protected and supported his Prophet in this incident, and revealed and took to task the machinations of the wives of the Prophet during it (wives who loved, honoured and had absolute veneration and full belief in the Prophet, regardless of such incidents and moments of rivalling jealousy), we do not have the right to feel upset or question the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him). It is not for us to question or to undermine the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) for this incident, or to say it was a mistake, oversight or an act of disrespect on behalf of the Prophet, or a blemish on his perfect character (peace and blessing be upon him).
Lessons to be learnt
We may well ask ourselves why did God choose this to happen? After all, He is the Doer of all things and the Creator of everything we do and say. God could have concealed this, but instead He chose to reveal it. The reason is simple. There is nothing to conceal or hide in any aspect of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him).
Likewise, it is a testification to the truthfulness, veracity, and faith of the Companions, Followers and the Islamic scholars that they recorded and preserved all these traditions as they were, without attempting to conceal or remove anything that may be perceived as damaging to the religion or the person of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him).
While we may feel upset for Hafsa when reading about this event, we should remember that Allah is the All Knowing and All Wise, and He alone knows the reality of every situation and the wisdom for its occurrence. Perhaps God, by making these incidents occur and revealing them to us, intended by it a test for us; a test of faith and a test of our love for the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him). There may have been a test for the wives and the early Muslims in this. God knows best.
Such incidences are also an opportunity for us to draw nearer to the Prophet and increase our love for him (peace and blessing be upon him). When someone or something seems to possess perfection, we struggle to identify and approach it. God revealing to us these insights into the life of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), despite his infallibility and perfection, is an opportunity for us to access the Prophet more readily and relate to his personal life and relationships.
Lastly, when we speak of the ‘human aspect’ of the Prophet, we should not forget that everything that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) did was for the sake of Allah, and for the sake of our guidance, and that everything that occurred in his blessed life (peace and blessing be upon him) was for a reason, with wisdom, and for our benefit, whether we perceive it or not. Our love for God and his Messenger should be unconditional, despite what our lower selves may whisper or incline to believe, and this is the reality of his saying (peace and blessing be upon him),
‘None of you will have faith until he loves me more than his father, his children and all mankind.’ [al Bukhari]
We ask Allah to make us of those who truly love the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) unconditionally, and more than anything in this world.
And Allah knows best.
Shaykh Jamir Meah grew up in Hampstead, London. In 2007, he traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he spent nine years studying the Islamic sciences on a one-to-one basis under the foremost scholars of the Ribaat, Tarim, with a main specialization and focus on Shafi’i fiqh. In early 2016, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continues advanced studies in a range of Islamic sciences, as well as teaching. Away from the Islamic sciences, Jamir is a qualified homeopath and runs a private clinic in Amman.