The Zaynab Affair

 According to tradition, Muhammed once had a matter of business to see to with his adopted son, Zayd, and went over to his house. Zayd was absent, but when Muhammed looked upon his wife, Zaynab, who was not properly dressed, he professed an admiration for her beauty. As Fatima Mernissi states: "It was, in effect, love at first sight."23 His words of admiration were repeatedly recited by Zaynab in her dealings with Zayd. He was not happy with his stepfather's admiration of her beauty. Finally he could not live in his shadow any more and decided to divorce his wife, despite Muhammed's protest.24 Muhammed had given them in marriage, his stepson and cousin, and as the guardian of that marriage he had to find another husband for Zaynab. Very soon, this Arabic Bathsheba was firmly established as Muhammed's wife.25
 According to an Arab custom, one's loyalty was to be shown to the master in every case, as the poem stated: "Be loyal to thy tribe, its claim upon its members is strong enough to make a husband give up his wife."26 In this case, Muhammed was the sheikh of the Islamic umma and Zayd was just one of its members.  If Muhammed really loved Zaynab, it was Zayd's duty to give up his wife willingly. Although ancient Arabian custom did not condemn the collective use of women, not even for a man and his son to have intercourse with the same woman, the tide had changed and, at that time, this kind of sexual relationship was obviously looked on with abhorrence. In order not to be condemned for sexual immorality, Muhammed produced a 'revelation' from 'Allah', making adoption illegal and thus removing the argument against him.

Prophet, have fear of Allah and do not yield to the unbelievers and the hypocrites... Allah has never put two hearts within one man's body. He does not regard the wives whom you divorce as your mothers, nor your adopted sons as your own sons...
After prohibiting adoption, the Koran adds:
Name your adopted sons after their [biological] fathers;  that is more just in the sight of your Allah. If You do not know their fathers, regard them as your brothers in the Faith and as your cousins. Your unintentional mistakes shall be forgiven, but not your deliberate errors...
 You [Muhammed] said to the man  [Zayd] whom Allah and yourself have favoured: 'Keep your wife and have fear of God.' You sought to hide in your heart what Allah was to reveal [Muhammed's intention to marry Zayd's wife]. You were afraid of man, although it would have been more proper to fear Allah. And when Zayd divorced his wife, We gave her to you in marriage, so that it should become legitimate for true believers to wed the wives of their adopted sons if they divorced them. Allah's will must needs be done.
 No blame shall be attached to the Prophet for doing what is sanctioned for him by Allah.27
The Koran came to consider adoption as illegal, due to Muhammed's trouble with Zaynab. We must, however, remember that those verses 'descended' after Muhammed had married Zaynab. Muhammed thus did not seek 'Allah's' permission, but had him justify his spurious marriage afterwards.
 However, for us non-Muslims, the Zaynab affair is atrocious, especially in the light of the social climate during Muhammed's time. In Arabia, there were two kinds of fathers; a) the biological, and b) the one who was married to the mother or protecting the child. The same Arabic word is even applied to 'father' and 'protector'. In pre-Islamic Arabia there was not so much of a difference between an adoptive and the biological father. It was not until Muhammed's lust for Zaynab had produced some problems that this system was changed. Thus, a whole system of Arabian social justice was abolished because of one man's lust for his stepson's wife.



23 Mernissi, The Veil, 104.
24 Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam (London, 1922), 235-236.
25 Muhammed later sent Zayd with a small Muslim force of 3,000 to Syria, where they faced 100,000 Byzantine soldiers, and of course, among the many dead was Zayd. This resembles the story of David and Uriah to a large extent.
26 Hitti, History of the Arabs, 27.
27 The Koran 33:1-5, 37-38.