Quite a number of hadith exist to try and pin down the revelation of a specific ayah or surah to a distinct occasion within Muhammad’s biography. Often not much gets added by this, and indeed sometimes the connection of the circumstance to the ayah is laughable. But there is a circumstance behind the revelation of Surah al-Aḥzab, “The Militia,” and not one that you need to go to the hadith to find. Muhammad has married his adopted son’s ex-wife. This is a completed event, something that has already happened, and the Quran is now speaking up on the issues raised by the marriage. We have already dealt with how this surah has redefined relationships of adoption and incest. Today we’ll look at the event itself.
Before we get started with the Quran’s version of this story, you must understand who Zayd and Zaynab are. Zayd had been a member of Muhammad’s family since he was a very small child. The common explanation for his origins, though not one I’ve researched, is that Khadija gave Zayd to Muhammad as a wedding present, and then Muhammad manumitted and adopted Zayd as a son. Zayd had been named “Zayd ibn Muhammad,” and was accordingly considered a legal son of Muhammad’s. Zayd was for a while married to a cousin of Muhammad’s, Zaynab bint Jahsh. (Note, Zaynab/Zainab was a common name in Muhammad’s time and in his family, so the “bint Jahsh” part is crucial if you want to look up the right person.)
As to the divorce and marriage, there are two explicitly relevant ayat:
37: And [remember, O Muhammad], when you said to the one on whom Allah bestowed favor and you bestowed favor, “Keep your wife and fear Allah,” while you concealed within yourself that which Allah is to disclose. And you feared the people, while Allah has more right that you fear Him. So when Zayd had no longer any need for her, We married her to you in order that there not be upon the believers any discomfort concerning the wives of their adopted sons when they no longer have need of them. And ever is the command of Allah accomplished.Surah 33: 37-38 (Sahih International Translation)
38: There is not to be upon the Prophet any discomfort concerning that which Allah has imposed upon him. [This is] the established way of Allah with those [prophets] who have passed on before. And ever is the command of Allah a destiny decreed.
So this story tells that the matter was being wrought even while Zayd and Zaynab were still married. We don’t know why Zayd wanted to divorce Zaynab. We are told that lammaa qaḍaa Zayd minhaa waṭaran, which Sahih translates bluntly “when Zayd had no longer any need for her.” The meaning they derived from the phrase is mostly anchored in that word waṭaran, “a need.” It’s unique within the Quran to this verse and seems not to be common in Arabic.
I’d argue the most meaningfully appropriate translation of lammaa qaḍaa Zayd minhaa waṭaran is “when Zayd was through with her.” BUT, we must also remember than in Arabic there is no neutral pronoun, and it is quite common for the feminine pronoun to be applied to inanimate things (the masculine pronoun gets used thusly too, so don’t go there). As such, the Quranic Corpus translates waṭar as “necessary (formalities),” in order to read the passage as saying something along the lines of “when Zayd completed of it what he wanted,” i.e. when he got his divorce. It’s the exactly the difference between saying “when Zayd was through with it,” rather than “when Zayd was through with her.” This phrasing is a unique case within the Quran. There is a standard word for divorce, ṭalaaq, that could’ve been used instead. I do not know why it isn’t used here, except to maybe emphasize Zayd’s agency in the story: Zayd was no longer interested in Zaynab, or Zayd concluded the divorce that he wanted. This emphasizes that the divorce was a thing originating from Zayd, rather than a legal formality which could have been initiated from outside Zayd’s will.
Meanwhile, Muhammad’s agency in the matter is completely inverted. We are given no clues as to if there were circumstances driving Muhammad to want to marry Zaynab (ex. political maneuvering, charity, admiration). The emphasis is upon this being an event Muhammad didn’t want in his life, to the point that he even was trying to undermine it by encouraging Zayd to stay married. The Quran says that his unwillingness was due to a misplaced fear of people’s opinions rather than God, which is the kind of thing that has been treated as a serious crime elsewhere. The marriage is explained as a thing imposed upon Muhammad, not something that Muhammad entered into. Muhammad was the victim of God’s will, and thus he shouldn’t be made to feel any discomfort for the situation.
Strikingly absent from the Quran’s telling is the lady herself. Whatever Zaynab’s role or thoughts were, the Quran does not record it. This is also a side effect of emphasizing Zayd’s agency in the matter. Saying “when Zayd was through with it/her,” de-emphasizes Zaynab’s participation in the process. Perhaps the Quran was deliberately keeping Zaynab out of view, something that is demanded in a literal sense later in the surah. Unfortunately, this robs us of what could have been a useful example of intention and agency. It gives us the impression of a woman being transferred between men like a material good.
This surah comes across as disingenuous. Having Muhammad be framed as the victim clashes with the reality that he comes away with the benefits: he gets to keep a new wife who had formerly been taboo to him. Though he gets chastised for resisting God’s will, this includes no consequences since it’s a matter already handled between Muhammad and God, and for all points and purposes Muhammad is still promoted to the people to be relied upon as infallible. Some public moral outrage is the only negative consequence Muhammad faces, and that is the consequence this surah seeks to dismantle.
The most transparently disingenuous moment is the in-a-nutshell moral provided in ayah 36, “We married her to you in order that there not be upon the believers any discomfort concerning the wives of their adopted sons when they no longer have need of them.” Why this specific articulation of the didactic moral of the story? The heart of the issue is whether adoptive family is legally in the same standing as their full-blooded equivalents. Ayat 4-5 ruled on that issue, and established the fundamental principle with which to handle Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab. As such, the in-a-nutshell moral should be along the lines of “so upon the believers there should be no discomfort concerning marriages with those they have adopted or the families of those they have adopted.” That is the universal principle, the fundamental point, and it should have been the encapsulating justification of the whole event. But instead, the summation of the whole issue is specifically worded to apply exactly to Muhammad’s situation and then presented to the world as if it’s a timeless gift. It is just too specific to a situation that constitutes no chronic social problem. It is the Quran catering exactly to Muhammad’s temporal quandary and then telling the world that is it all for their benefit.
Other implications that undermine the credibility of this surah include how, by shifting agency/blame off of Muhammad, these ayat really bring into question the character of God. Zayd and Zaynab were still married at the point when God decided to impose her upon Muhammad, but the ayah makes sure to clear Muhammad from suspicion of having part in the divorce. However, God is –with full disclosure to Muhammad– intent on transferring Zaynab immediately to Muhammad. Divorce process is undergone and the letter of the law was upheld, but was the spirit? There is a difference between when a marriage falls apart because one member decides to remarry, and when a marriage falls apart and then after the fact one member decides to remarry. It’s a matter of respecting the commitments of the original marriage. In this story, God Himself does not respect Zayd and Zaynab’s marriage. He has brought it to end specifically with the intent to marry Zaynab to someone else. He has even revealed to Muhammad His intention before the marriage has been ended. Imagine a play in which a mother goes about destroying someone else’s marriage specifically and openly to transfer the wife to her own son: how would you feel about the mother in such a play? God is a home-breaker in this surah, and I don’t like that this implication exists to exonerate Muhammad.
And another reason that this whole surah feels disingenuous is that it’s explaining these matters in retrospect. Now that the affair is in the past and receiving kickback, here comes the Quran with the necessary legalities and explanations to make it all okay. This hindsight perspective has all the components of a retcon, such as reinterpreting a past event to not mean what it seemed at the time. Again, this reflects poorly upon God. Can a God with a masterplan really not do better than to affect a cultural change with such clumsy haste? This kind of controversy would be easier to swallow and excuse if it had more setup. If the laws relegating adoption to foster-hood had pre-existed (the earlier the better), then the situation would feel more credible. If this event had happened to confirm relationships already taking liberty within these laws, rather than precluding a public demand that didn’t/doesn’t seem to exist, then it also would be more understandable.
There were also alternatives to illustrating this principle that didn’t involve wrecking another marriage. Indeed, Muhammad had also fostered his younger cousin, Ali. I can find no information concerning whether Ali –whose biological father Abu Talib was still alive through all/most of his childhood– ever was given Muhammad’s moniker. But what if for the grand scheme of things he had been? Because Ali married Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter and Ali’s foster-sister, and this would have very well illustrated the distinction between blood and adopted relatives, and also afforded an opportunity to touch upon incest law since she also was his first-cousin-once-removed, and would’ve highly involved Muhammad’s responsibility to make God-driven decisions. Really any involvement of Muhammad’s in a marriage that dealt with inter-foster marriages would have been enough. Or even just the Quran stating the law on its own terms, as it usually does. But instead, the principle was brought about in a way that excused Muhammad for having already married someone who was previously considered taboo to him.
The other highly disingenuous ayah of this surah is ayah 53, in which the Quran intercedes for Muhammad to banish guests from his house. The Quran lays down narrow parameters in which guests are allowed to enter Muhammad’s houses, and then says that it has to lay such out because Muhammad himself is too shy to tell people that they annoy him. Again, Muhammad is being presented to the public as the victim; his guests are the rude ones, imposing themselves upon a man who is too shy to confront them. In this ayah God has to do the hard work of laying out very tight regulations upon Muhammad’s guests and is given the unpleasant role of “telling it like it is.” Thus we get the impression of a good-cop bad-cop role relationship between Muhammad and God, with God playing bad-cop. This ayah is frustrating to me because it gives no long-standing benefit to the community of Islam. Are such limits to be leveled upon all hospitality? That doesn’t seem the case, nor is such reflected in the highly hospitable Islamic culture (where in my experience you can practically never leave). Why is Muhammad interceded for on such a temporal matter? And why is Muhammad’s “shyness” sanctioned, rather than the Quran demanding Islamic honesty of him? Why not lay out more universal principles about offering and receiving hospitality? There are lots of polite ways to wrap up hospitality, but the Quran leaves no model by interceding for Muhammad in this way. Rather than a timeless set of principles, we are given rules that do not apply beyond Muhammad’s death. The Quran instead aligns itself with Muhammad’s passive-aggression towards the public he had invited into his home.
Many Muslims draw the line at questioning God about the “whys” of His will. This humility and forbearance has a beauty to it. We live in a world where arrogance and assertion of will continually wreak new violence and harm to other people. I can understand why refraining from self-assertion would be held as a virtue and people would thus delight in their refusal to question the Quran’s statements and what unstated motivations might be behind them. Why question a book that is only telling you to be good, honorable, charitable, humble, etc.? Yet I also believe that looking at the “whys” of this surah reveals a more human set of priorities and motivations, and with that in sight it becomes more suspect when it leans harder upon the claim that it is the words of God.
Consent and Power
Here is the point where my imagination engages. All that above, that’s my reaction to what the Quran says. This here is my concern with what the Quran doesn’t say, namely on the ways that this surah affected the lives of Zayd and Zaynab.
Let’s start with imagining how this surah shook Zayd’s world. Zayd had grown up in Muhammad’s house and was emotionally a member of the family. He had been stylized “Zayd ibn Muhammad” and was considered a son with all the benefits thereof –the honor of Muhammad’s heritage, the inheritance rights, the desexualization of familial relationship. All that was lost once adoptees were redefined as foster children. As I said last week, this does not mean a loss of emotional intimacy. That this is not being done with the intent of slighting Zayd is made clear when ayah 37 refers to him as “the one on whom Allah bestowed favor and you [Muhammad] bestowed favor.” Where this does start inhibiting intimacy, however, is how Zayd’s new status as foster child inhibits his interaction with the women of Muhammad’s all-woman family. The three surviving daughters of Khadija, who Zayd had seen grow up as his sisters, were now required to maintain strict public dress in his presence. They are now to be considered sexual options for him and thus all must uphold the Islamic gender barriers accordingly. Zayd can also no longer even physically see his adoptive step-mothers (at this time including Sawda, Aisha, Hafsa, and Hind) and in consequence of that cannot spend time with Muhammad when the latter is with his wives. This lack of access to Muhammad has real consequences when you reflect that all of Muhammad’s elected successors were fathers/sons-in-law who had unrestricted access to Muhammad even in his private spaces. Zayd was one of the first converts, arguably the first male convert, but he’s just been walled out of Muhammad’s most intimate circles.
So the question is: what if Zayd was not okay with the circumstances of his demotion from son to foster child? And what if he wasn’t happy that Muhammad married his newly exed-wife? The surah words these ayat to communicate to us that Zayd was totally okay with the situation, but could he have realistically voiced his feelings if he wasn’t? As mentioned earlier in the surah, Muhammad had just concluded the highly successful Battle of the Trench and Conquest of the Banu Qurayza. Muhammad was for the first time the absolute ruler of a geographical area, and in some ways taking a wife who was taboo to him looks suspiciously like the kind of flexing a man in such a position would do. And in the face of such popular support, could Zayd really have stood up for himself if he’d wanted to resist an intimated desire of Muhammad’s? Moreover, thanks to ayah 6, Zayd no longer has the security of blood relationship. For the sake of survival and thriving, the safest route is to keep sure that you are always called “the one on whom Allah bestowed favor and [Muhammad] bestowed favor.”
Then there is Zaynab. How did she feel about all this? How much of it was surprising? How much of it did she consent to? Was she even asked for consent, given that this surah declares that the marriage was pre-ordained by God? We have no way of gauging Zaynab’s actual feelings and willingness, because she is not factored into the Quran’s view of the matter.
I’d expect that these people earnestly did believe in Muhammad’s Prophethood and revelations. How could they discern when Muhammad was enacting God’s will and when he wasn’t, when their only insight into God’s will was dictated through Muhammad? The Quran gives no metric to determine where God’s will starts and stops within Muhammad’s personal will. How was Zaid to know that Muhammad was not in tune with God when Muhammad combined the order to stay married to Zaynab with an order to piety? Instead the surah only bolsters the impression that there is no distinction when ayah 36 says, “It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error.” Muhammad’s will was being synonymized with God’s, and one has to wonder how much people –especially those whose standing in the community was established by reputation of their devotion– felt they had the ability to deny Muhammad anything. The people involved consented, but did that come from a place wherein they felt they had choice?
It is hard to measure or understand where consent happens when the matter involves two parties vastly unequal in power. In today’s world we are confronting the difficulty of holding people accountable when we discover the abuses of powerholders like priests, politicians, corporate heads, etc. Abuses often don’t get reported because without a good counter-power in which to take refuge, you can neither confront your abuser nor hide from their retribution. The only potential check is popular outrage, and the Quran here is banking upon Muhammad’s recent military success, threats, and religious leverage to stamp that out.
So… is this gossip? Given how few details we are actually privvy to, there is a lot of room for speculation about the motivations of the people in these events. This is all a discussion of someone’s private life, which is a quality of gossip, for sure. And given that this is an opportunity to read moral failure into a man who the Quran promotes as Perfect Role Model, it attracts a lot of gossip. Ayah 60-61 comes down with pointed threats to those agitators within the city who will not desist [in gossiping about the private life of Muhammad which the previous ayat had just veiled off]. And this would always continue even as the data became more and more distant and speculative.
You know who are some of the worst gossips? Islamic traditionalists. This is a story also where traditional accounts only make things worse. I never linked you to Zayd or Zaynab’s Wikipedia articles because those articles are chock-full of traditional material, and they all only exacerbate the problems within this story. Why did Zayd divorce Zaynab? What did Zaynab think of all this? How did Muhammad propose? These questions get answers in the traditions of hadiths and foundational Islamic historians, and their answers all “fix” one question while exacerbating another. They are not united in material either, having different dates and narratives for the same event, and if I included them I really wouldn’t know what I was talking about. But Wikipedia’s Islamic pages often show signs of having been written/edited by sympathetic Muslims, so it’s at least likely that the traditional material on Wikipedia is mainstream if not purely factual.
As regards this post, I would defend that the content here is not gossip. It is rooted in the material I know –the words of the Quran– and not that which I don’t. It is explorative, but part of examining the Quran is to also examine its omissions and question its honesty. It isn’t aimless, but rather is purposefully conducted to make sense of what mind created the Quran. Because I see a human mind in there, not God’s, and this surah has some thin moments in which I particularly glimpse that mind.
Seriously, the hadiths are huge in scope and have their own rules and methods of evaluation that are beyond my expertise. However, I did locate this past month another blog, The Islam Issue, whose author seems quite comfortable navigating the hadiths and traditional narratives. The writer is not Muslim (and is more prone to sarcasm), but the few articles I read on that site showed some good handle on the material. Take a look at his analysis of the validity of certain traditions pertaining to Muhammad’s reputed role in Zayd’s divorce.
If such would interest you, please explore that site further and report back to me your impression of it. Do they offer sympathetic interpretations? Do they categorically make statements about Islam? Do they just focus on data and evaluation of it? Do they use polemical language?