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
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
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
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...
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.
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
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
27 The Koran 33:1-5, 37-38.