Surah 33: The Militia, Part 4

What’s a prophet to do? Muhammad’s success is catching up to him. Everyone wants to watch him in order to imitate him. Everyone wants to watch him in order to criticize him. And that “everyone” is growing more and more as his mission draws converts, and his commands to emmigrate bring them close. His totalitarian reach is also catching up to him. Access to God means that everyone has a question for him. His centralized power makes him a target for challenge and usurpation. His increasing command of wealth and military are attracting pretenders.

And he has a growing number of pretty wives.

So what’s a prophet to do? Set up walls, screens, and veils. Ensure the privacy and exclusivity of Muhammad and Muhammad’s. This week we’re closing out this surah with the ayat that seek to protect Muhammad’s privacy primarily as concerns the outlets of his wives.

Muhammad’s Wives

This surah lowers a set of limits upon Muhammad’s wives, but before it does that it preps them for obedience. Muhammad is told to speak to the wives first in ayat 28-29. These two ayat read weirdly in English because they are connected together with the conjunction “but.” Approaching with Christian ears I first thought the message was supposed to be alike in sentiment to Matt. 6:19-20, in which earthly treasure and heavenly treasure are positioned in conflict with each other and are thus contrasted with the conjunction “but.” Here in these ayat the goals of gaining earthly wealth and eternal wealth aren’t in conflict, and moreover the methods to gaining them (going after Muhammad) aren’t in opposition either, so why are they connected with the contrastive “but”? Well, in these ayat it is the desire –not the object or method– being contrasted. The ayat are asking, “is Muhammad part of your means to an end? Or is Muhammad part of your means and your end?” Merely the former will gain merely earthly success, but adding the latter will also add eternal success. After speaking through Muhammad, God then addresses the wives in second person. He tells them that, as Muhammad’s wives, their lives earn double consequences. Every act of theirs gets twice the reward or twice the punishment as earned by other people. Their obedience entails higher stakes.

With those carrots and sticks established, God commands (still talking to them in second person): stay at home, do not display yourselves, and be careful that your voice doesn’t sound too lovely when you speak to men. Admittedly it would be hard to gauge how limiting these regulations were in practice by the Quran alone. For example, what does it mean to “stay” in your homes? Muhammad rotated between his wives, so was this censure just to keep them living in their individual homes rather than treating their residence as part-time and staying with their families/friends when it wasn’t their turn? Or what quantifies “the display of former ignorance”? For one, at what point do we set the era of “former ignorance”? Is that pre-any-Quran-at-all or just pre-this-passage? And what constituted that display? That helps us understand the relative standard this surah is speaking against. Because if the display was this kind of thing…

…then that’s a pretty easy standard to improve upon without much drastic effort.

So optimistically we could imagine that these censures didn’t manifest in very restrictive rules. “Staying” in your homes can be done without restricting the act of going out in public at all, and “not displaying yourselves” could be a rejection of ostentatious displays of privilege. Moreover, traditionally we think that the women were housed along the walls of Muhammad’s mosque, a very public space. So staying in their homes wasn’t even necessarily that secluded from public life.

Here’s one imagined rendering, houses set by but not built into the mosque.
A diagram with the wive’s chambers opening directly into the mosque, probably envisioning a later expansion in which there were more wives and believers to accommodate. Nine chambers on the left for the nine living wives.
And this series of models of the continual expansion of the mosque/home to the present.

But if we have optimistic outlooks at the limitations on the commands to “stay” and “not display yourselves,” they get hampered by the later order to men to only speak to Muhammad’s wives from behind a ḥijaab. In modern days we are used to the term ḥijaab as a specific jargon applying to the scarves Muslim women wrap around their heads and necks. The word in Arabic is not a specific term but one that refers generally to barriers, so “partition/screen/veil/barrier.” It does not get applied to an item of clothing in the Quran, but instead to metaphysical or structural barriers. And if you imagined an Islamic screen along these lines:

A physical but not strictly visual barrier

…Well, unfortunately that’s anachronistic and wouldn’t start appearing until Islam assimilated the skills and knowledge of Persian and Greek culture. To my understanding, this part of the world was still building their structures from simple woods, stone or brick, mud plaster, animal/palm fibre, and leather. This is how historians have speculatively reconstructed a room within Muhammad’s house:

So the partition was probably a woolen curtain, leather panel, or other visually dense barrier given the limits of the materials and artisinal culture of that time and place. This surah is almost certainly censuring the wives’ personal visibility and interpersonal interaction. Traditional accounts (if we accept them) only reinforce this understanding. We’ve already witnessed the extreme seclusion of Muhammad’s wives in the story behind Surah an-Nur, in which Aisha’s complete seclusion under a veiled howdah meant that the whole traveling contingent could go for miles without realizing that they had left her behind at their last campsite.

Something that indirectly affects the wives is also the ban upon the believers to enter Muhammad’s houses unless invited and only so long as there is food on the table. My assumption that this affects the women is in the word “houses” buyuut, which is full plural. Unless Muhammad himself operates private ownership of 3+ units, my guess is that this word includes the houses he has built for his wives. That this comes right before the decree of partitioning the wives from the sight of men also lends weight to this implication. If believers are not to enter Muhammad’s houses except when invited for meals and only insomuch as there is food on the table being eaten, then this places tight limits on the occasions and duration for which the wives may entertain guests.

Furthermore, Muhammad’s wives are never allowed to marry after Muhammad –ever. This is something uniquely applied to them. They are not like other women. They are Mothers to the believers. This is ironic from two different directions. For one, in a surah where incest laws are being removed from adoptive relationships, the wives –in consequence of their being Muhammad’s– are now made everyone’s adoptive mother and –in parallel consequence– are cordoned off in a way that only incestuous relationships are. For two, unlike other relationships where sexual unavailability meant that modesty laws could be relaxed, the wives are put under the most severe modesty regulations of any women. The wives really are the exceptions to the rules the Quran has established for it’s adherents, but not in a way that provides them any extra freedoms and only provides Muhammad the benefit of stricter privacy.

Why This Seclusion?

This is presented to the wives as for their own good, that God is protecting them and purifying them with this sort of quarantine. In their time at home, the wives are directed to the general behaviors of Muslims: prayer, charity, and obedience to God and Muhammad. They are also told to udhkirna what is recited in their homes of the verses of God and also the Wisdom (ayah 34). The root word dhakar means “remember,” whether remembering in one’s heart (thus sometimes translated as “heed”) or out loud (thus sometimes translated as “mention”). It’s a very common word in the Quran, and often comes as a command to Muhammad to recite what was revealed to him of the Quran. So the women are given a function as a memory bank. Their role and behaviors are not really any different from what is expected of other Muslims –all Muslims are commanded to remember/heed/mention — but their position in society has a more vital potential. Their intimate knowledge of Muhammad makes their memories particularly valuable to the community. Especially since most of the wives were younger than Muhammad, their active testimony outlived his own. Keeping them insulated and preventing them from coming under the authority of another man was a way of preserving the fidelity of their testimony.

One rationale in the Muslim community for this special seclusion of Muhammad’s wives is that they were being assigned the responsibility of teaching the women. Especially in very sex-segregated traditions of Islam, it is seen as impossible that Muhammad would have been able to teach the female Muslims directly. Thus his wives’ homes were developed into a learning center for women believers. After all, the practice of the partition was only relevant to contact with men, and the formal dress codes are also only required before men, so there was much less social restriction upon the wives’ interactions with other women. (Though this depends still on how that “do not come unless invited for food” ayah gets applied.) Before I accept that the wives did get used this way, I would like to see evidence that Islamic women had a parallel school of tradition developed through Muhammad’s wives. I was told that some hadith have women in their chain of transmission. I know that a considerable number of hadiths are sourced from the wives, though mostly from only two of them. So women were involved in the formation of Islamic tradition and at least of few of the women in Muhammad’s family earned some authority through their memories. What I would like to see, however, is their role used in a way that justified their seclusion. Did this start a tradition of women teaching women, or has history shown that women had their religion administered and taught patriarchally?

Reading between the lines, the text shows a fear of the women being imperfect and reflecting poorly upon Muhammad. When God is talking to the wives in ayah 33, He contextualizes these restrictions with the intent to purify the whole household (pronouns in that sentence encompass men and women). This leaves me with the impression that the wives are seen as entry points of impurity into the house. There are also slaves and step-children in the house at this point, but I could imagine that their relationship to Muhammad is not so direct as to reflect upon His reputation. I also see a preoccupation in these limits that other men will want Muhammad’s wives, and moreover that the wives might want the men back. It’s telling that nestled in the ayah mandating a partition between the wives and non-family men there is a clause against hurting the Prophet. It’s as though the fear of his wives being found attractive is paired with a fear for Muhammad’s safety. Furthermore, this is paired with the ban on marrying any of Muhammad’s wives –ever– and that makes it feel like a motive is being removed from the table.

Exceptional Muhammad

Before the events of this surah Muhammad had four living wives: Sawda, Aisha, Hafsa, and Hind. That number was in compliance with the regulations other believers had to follow. (There are two deceased wives, Khadija and a different Zaynab.) Zaynab bint Jahsh made the fifth simultaneous wife. It would seem from the slightly eye-rolling tone of ayah 50 that some people are “throwing the book” at Muhammad, which leads this surah to have to affirm that such a ruling is still in force while also manufacturing a special loophole for only Muhammad’s use. The justification for giving Muhammad this explicit exemption is to negate his discomfort. Negating discomfort was a justification for allowing people to marry their adoptive step-daughters in ayah 37, ambiguously meaning the intrinsic discomfort of guilt/qualms or the extrinsic discomfort of social judgement. So this ayah is saying the same thing to Muhammad, that he can marry whom he wants (through legal means, as delineated by the requisites of paying the bride price or acquiring through slavery, whether the proposal originated from Muhammad of from the woman, and irrelative to whether she was a cousin) and should feel neither intrinsic nor extrinsic barrier to doing so. Why he deserves this unique exemption/ability, something not done for other prophets either, is not explained.

Now, I know that I backed an idea in my last post with the traditional opinion that Surah an-Nisa is dated after this one, but something that could place this surah after An-Nisa in timeline is ayah 50’s reference to a prior decree: “and we certainly know that which we said concerning your wives…” This could be a reference to that oblique passage in An-Nisa that is primarily concerned with the treatment of orphans but extends to mention some regulations upon number and sources of wives. This is a good time to restate that the suwar of the Quran are really hard to date. Most have no structure or rigid rhyming scheme that would make them hard to modify, and thus we can’t tell when a new line is inserted into an older surah, or when a surah is built of composite material. The Quran also makes references lending authority to religious and civic matters that are not explained or described in the Quran (most notably, the rituals of Safa and Marwa), and so there’s a potential that both suwar are referencing polygyny limits that were set outside of the Quran’s text. Or it could be that the traditional dating is wrong and An-Nisa predates Al-Ahzab. So this is just a warning not to put too strong of stock in arguments about chronology unless there are multiple points with which to back up the claims.

Case in point: ayah 52, in which Muhammad’s ability to take additional women or exchange out his wives is capped. Since the surah had only just opened up to Muhammad the possibility of acquiring any wife/concubine by legal means, it is jarring to have this option closed right after. Thus we speculate that ayah 52 was added in later, after Muhammad had taken advantage of his personal loophole more than once. After all, Muhammad took on (debatedly) four more wives after Zaynab bint Jahsh for a total of nine simultaneous wives. We don’t see another suppression of public outrage against Muhammad’s new marriages in the Quran, so that’s a clue this ayah was added in much later. Also, a future surah will threaten Muhammad’s wives with replacement, something this ayah bans. With these two internally derived points to argue from, I’m confident that this ayah was added to the surah much later. There is no rigid structure or difficult rhyming scheme that would make such additions difficult to incorporate.

Given Muhammad’s increase in wives, ayah 51 allows Muhammad to pick and choose who he wants to spend time with. Traditionally it is understood that Muhammad rotated through his wives daily, with Aisha getting two days since Sawda didn’t want her own. This ayah allows Muhammad to postpone and approach the wives as he wills, and when blended with this traditional understanding we might guess this ayah means either that Muhammad is allowed to postpone and resume his usual rotation, or that he can disorder it as he so likes. The ayah also allows him to take back to himself any wife who he ʕazal, “set aside/removed/sequestered.” Within the justification for this is the idiom “so that their eyes may be cooled,” which probably has to do with crying, since in Arabic one’s eyes “grow hot” with tears. So the sequestered wife is understood to be unwilling in her sequestration, and her tears are open to interpret as remorseful, bitter, or disappointed. So depending on whether you want to elevate or criticize Muhammad’s example, you might interpret “…so that they may be pleased with what you have given them — all of them,” to be achieved through either regular allocation of attention or through disciplinary action. Since this ayah is nested between two special decrees specific to only Muhammad, it isn’t clear whether this ayah is also only for Muhammad, or whether this provides an example of how to handle multiple wives to all men.

The Quran has often spoken well of Muhammad, but for the sake of defense. For example, it will counter his detractors with the assertions that he was well-regarded in the community, that he has no madness in him, that he has good character. This surah goes to another level and praises Muhammad to the believers as an exceptional human being. Ayah 21 puts him before the believers as a man to be studied. This is the Quranic basis for the precedence of the sunnah –biographical model of Muhammad– in Islam. While the Quran has insisted that it is clear and enough, its dependence upon Muhammad has also rendered the prophet’s simplest life choices as potentially sacred instruction. Again, this begs the question of where God’s revelation starts and stops in Muhammad’s life, something we aren’t given a matrix for judging. Thus the Quran has set up a paradox in which it is supposed to be self-sufficient, but its own words direct people to Muhammad, an external resource. And it has set him up as the exceptional man to be copied, but also provided him with exceptions that cannot be copied.

The believers are commanded in ayah 56 to send blessings upon Muhammad and greet him with peace. Now, in and of itself, this ayah doesn’t have that much consequence. Given the broader context of this surah, with its broad trend of defusing unrest and negative publicity against Muhammad, redirecting the people to greet Muhammad kindly and with blessings is an understandable thing. Greeting all people –even one’s enemies– with blessing is a practice of Islam advocated in the Quran. I don’t see in this ayah any special blessing being demanded for Muhammad, and within his lifetime this was a clearly applicable decree. What led to this ayah becoming complicated is that Muhammad died, and the people are still left with an ayah specifically commanding them to bless and greet Muhammad with peace. This led to Islamic traditions where part of ritual prayer life is praying blessings upon Muhammad, a dead man, and always remembering his name with the tagline “Peace Be Upon Him” or sallallahu alayhi wa-salaam, “God’s blessings be upon him, and peace.”

No Successors

Surely one of the greatest fears any ideological leader can have is the matter of who succeeds him. That is the fear built into biblical stories, wherein the work of every generation seems to come apart at the next generation and the practice of passing on legacy is a recurring issue. With Muhammad building up such centralized power, there is a real need to discuss the matter of who and how will it be distributed once Muhammad dies. Though indirectly handled, some ayat of this surah narrow down the field of potential successors to Muhammad. What are ways that power usually gets handed down? Direct designation, legal process, or bloodline. The Quran still leaves no words on whether there is a practice of designation or legal process, but it does touch upon bloodline in a way that is indirectly reinforcing.

This surah has reinforced social order dictated by bloodline (ayah 6). Regarding Muhammad’s succession, the answer is not that bloodline does not get to determine his successors but only that it is impossible as regards to the most traditional form of bloodline inheritance, primogeniture. Ayah 40 starts, “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men…” This quotation might have been a little awkward some years later when Muhammad did father a surprise son with his concubine. That son died very young, but for about a year I wonder if there was tension with this ayah (assuming it was not a later addition). Regardless, this ayah does not deny the validity of primogeniture for choosing succession, it only points out that such cannot be done for succession to Muhammad’s power.

As non-Shia tradition would have it (Shiites are themselves all about Muhammad’s direct bloodline), the Islamic community after Muhammad was left to choose a successor through traditional oligarchy. The choices available to them were probably influenced by some of the implications of this surah. Who has more right to another than general believers? Family. Who had unlimited access to Muhammad even in his private spaces? His family. This gave some pretty strong direction on which candidates were more appealing. When you look at the line of successors after Muhammad, notice who they are:

  • Abu Bakr (father-in-law)
  • Umar (father-in-law)
  • Uthman (son-in-law)
  • Ali (son-in-law)

From the point after Ali (well, actually from the point after Uthman) the reign of the Arab Empire was explicitly determined by family bloodline, with the first dynasty being established through the family of Uthman, and the second dynasty claiming its right to control through having a more direct blood relationship to Muhammad.

But that handles the institutional authority. What about the authority of prophethood? Ayah 40 is famous for is the term “seal of the prophets,” which is the subject of some controversy. What does “seal” mean?

Closure? (Photo: S. Davis on flickr)
unsplash-logoEinar Jónsson
(You know I’m just joking. I never get to joke in this series.)

No, it’s less a matter of what a seal is than what it means to seal the prophets. Sahih dodged the ambiguity and declared Muhammad to be “the last.” Done. Don’t look at that metaphor over there. And the presence of a seal on a document does signify that the document has been concluded, so it’s not really that big a leap to say that being the “seal of the prophets” means the “final step to completion.” It also means an affirmation of all the contents on the document, implying the document is completed. So Muhammad is the fullest, most complete prophet whose ministry endorses and concludes the ministries of all those prophets who came before.

But does it also mean the prophets…after? God is not time-bound, after all, and the lives of the prophets are all predestined in a divine document. Couldn’t Muhammad’s role as Seal mean that he is the perfect, fullest embodiment of prophethood of all time, including of those who come after? Enter Ahmadiyya Islam, which has a tradition of living, continuous prophets. The Ahmadiyyas do not deny the term “Seal of the Prophets,” just the implications that an eternally consistent, non-temporal God who interacted with humanity through prophets through all history would change His method upon the temporal event of Muhammad, especially given how much novelty has entered society since then. In the same way that the Quran is supposed to be the definitive scripture by which all other scriptures are judged, Muhammad is held as the definitive prophet by which all other prophets are judged. Nothing new needs to be said, there just needs to be another prophetic model moderating the application of scripture to the current times just as Muhammad did for his own times. There is no new ground for prophets to break, Muhammad was the fullest prophet possible, and thus Muhammad is the seal without being the temporally last.

Concluding Thoughts

Ahhhh…. I thought I’d never end. Seriouly, there was so much novel content in this surah and such a wide range of implications that I could go on about it deeper and longer. I’d rather talk about this surah than write about it, I’ve decided, since in conversation one could organically explore the facets and rabbit trails. It’s been incredibly difficult deciding what order to talk about things in, how much time to spend on each topic, how many technical points to unpack at length. In truth, I don’t think I’ve done such a great job with it. I gave two small sets of ayat entire posts and then presented a larger range of them today in generalized form.

But I’m eager to move on, in large part because of how cynical this surah leaves me, and I feel bad for that and am worried about the consequences of me publicly unpacking it. A lot of people hate Islam, and I worry that they’ll use this to justify their existing hate. I find this surah egregiously servile to Muhammad, but again I know that it’s part of a package that many lovely people hold precious. The thing about holding this surah in contempt is that it threatens to taint what you think of its adherents too. Perhaps you are already looking for justifications to the discomfort you feel when seeing Islam and Muslims, and my criticism of this surah supplies you with an intellectual basis to use for justifying that feeling. Perhaps after reading my cynical insights into what this surah is doing, you are inclined to think Muslims must be blind or dumb to believe this book.


The thing is, if you accept the Quran at its word –that Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab was a demonstration of law for public good, that his wives were secluded for their own good, that Muhammad was allowed special exemptions and elevations just because he’s Muhammad– there is little direct consequence for the life of the believer. The individual ritual life of prayer, charity, monotheism, and honesty and the goodness of those things stand on their own. What does it matter that Muhammad had more wives than the ordinary man? Most men don’t marry more than one wife anyways. So what that Muhammad is given exclusive prophetic power to dictate to all time? Would you rather have to continually keep evaluating men’s claims to prophethood time after time again? The man who enjoyed these exemptions and special powers is dead. He was a prophet, but there are no more prophets, so it’s not as though Muhammad’s prophetic right to demand your property and life in warfare affects your modern faith. Rather, these topics are currents deep beneath the waves of religion on which men are sailing, ones that people might never care or need to confront. And I think this is consistent with the way that all men simplify their cognitive loads, to ignore or passively accept things that would cause them mental turmoil to question. The key thing to believe of Muslims is that they accept these things not because they want to condone or practice evil, but because they want to have hope that mankind is meant to be good and will be rewarded for that good. And the Quran offers that hope.

P.S. Because it didn’t fit into the flow but I can’t let it pass by unnoticed

Though it starts with the wives and daughters of Muhammad, ayah 59 is a command extended to apply to all believing women. The women are to lower over themselves an item new to us, the jilbab (pl. jilaabiib). Back in Surah an-Nur, we were given modesty laws built upon technical terms from traditional Arab fashion. There were the khumur “veils,” juyuub “neck plackets,” and thayaab “robes/garments.” I’m not sure whether the jilbab of this surah would combine with other garments or be an alternative kind of garment. Going through Lane’s Lexicon on the word jilbab, I’m not sure I come away with a confident definition. At any rate, it is either a garment so encompassing as to not even leave hands uncovered, or just a wrapper for the head and chest. In either case it is loose-fitting and billowy. Translators Ali and Pickthall parenthetically include in their translations their belief that this garment is meant for when the women are travelling abroad, suggesting that this jilbab was an alternative, special-use garment and not a normal part of public life.

I’d seen a Ted Talk some years ago by Samila Ali arguing that this ayah was about rendering the social status of Muslim women anonymous so that they would be less prey to attack, since the perpetrator would not be able to tell socially vulnerable women apart from those with the resources to seek retribution. However, to argue for this Ms. Ali rearranges the translation to say “so they not be known and assaulted” while the verse is syntactically arranged in Arabic to mean “that they be known and thus not harmed.” It is not anonymity from under a garment that protects the women, but the status signaled by garment. The implication in the text is that a jilbab is something only Muslim women would wear –as exemplified by the women of Muhammad’s family– and that being seen as Muslim provides some sort of assurance of protection. This ayah demonstrates that the Muslims are beyond the troubles of early days where being known as a Muslim made you more susceptible to attack.

I wanted to devote special space to this ayah to point out that one translator, Ghali, makes a contrasting point from his peers in translating the phrase “[they bring down] over themselves” as “[they bring closer] over themselves” (a very valid translation for that word, yudniin). He seems to think the ayah is commanding the women to make their clothes less flowy and obscuring so that people can actually recognize their identities. Perhaps Ghali sees this ayah as an attempt to keep the women perceivable as distinct people. Thus we can see that there is opposing dialogue at play in how this command concerning jilaabiib gets read and applied. I’m fond of opposing dialogue within a culture because such things can keep extremism in check. It’s easy to see how pro-covering rhetoric could take this ayah and say that coverage is a thing of status, dignity, and protection. If this kind of rhetoric goes unchecked, it can start trending towards ideas that higher status for women is achieved by ever increasing levels of anonymity, and that a woman who was raped or assaulted was at fault by not being dressed in a concealing enough manner. The alternate meaning presented by Ghali could promote a counter-argument that there is such a thing as too much anonymity, and that such concealment leads to women being stripped of social presence and turned into targets for predation. I think this idea is true and appreciate his willingness to find dialogue in the text.

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