Mothers of the Believers

I finished reading another fascinating book – a volume with several essays by different writers on the theme “Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions” (1995; Edited by R.Kloppenborg and W.J. Hanegraaff).

There are two chapters on Muslim Female Stereotypes. One is on Sufi women saints and the other is titled, “The Mothers of the Believers: Stereotypes of the Prophet Muhammad’s Wives” by Ghassan Ascha. I don’t know if Ascha is Muslim but his research is fairly extensive into the subject. His approach seems objective, but he discusses some issues that a common Muslim would not discuss.

His essay discusses all the wives of the Prophet, offering detailed references to them found in the Quran and in some hadith and how their lives have become stereotypes for Muslim women in every era. However, Ascha blames every era of using these examples to their advantage. For example, he writes that early Muslims used their examples and references from Quran about the Mothers of the Believers to incarcerate women; today those same women and the same references from the Quran are used by feminists to show that Islam promotes gender equality. The example he uses often is that of Aisha in the Battle of Camel: medieval Muslims used that instance to say women must stay indoors and can’t become leaders, and contemporary Muslims use it to show Aisha’s bravery, defiance and stubbornness.

I’m not going to discuss the whole essay but a few points I wanted to note (for my records and for interested readers) are as follows:

  • I didn’t know that when the Prophet’s wives were given a choice to stay with him or leave him (Quran 33:28-31), there was a wife who chose to leave him. It is never mentioned by scholars who maintain that all his wives chose to stay with him. Ascha cites the story of Al Amiriyyah on page 92 from Ibn Saad. (I knew the Prophet had more than the nine wives and two slaves usually mentioned who either died or were divorced and that there was a woman Al Amiriyyah in his household but I didn’t know she chose to leave him. Scholars claim she became insane after leaving the Prophet and died soon afterwards).
  • I also didn’t know that Aisha had initially “set people against Uthman” before his murder (page 93), after which, she fought in the Battle of Camel against Ali for not avenging Uthman’s murder.
  • Ascha writes that, “it is probable that this jealousy (of the Prophet) has been the main reason why the Prophet’s wives are called “Mothers of the Believers” in this verse (33:6). This nickname came to strengthen the prohibition against marrying them after Muhammad’s death: what man would dare to marry his own mother?

This reminded me of the verse prohibiting Muslim men from making their wives haraam to themselves (like in the Times of Ignorance) by telling them that they were like “the backs of their mothers.” It was common practice in pagan Arabia to abandon a wife by uttering the words “you are like my mother/sister” and Quran warned against this practice (33:4). Two verses later, the Prophet’s wives are categorically called the Mothers of all Muslims thus prohibiting any Muslim man from proposing marriage to them. The Prophet is said in the Quran to be “closer to the believers than their own selves” (33:6) – not Father of the Believers, but his wives are the Mothers. I never thought about that.

  • I found Ascha’s conclusion interesting:

Each period has its own Mothers of the Believers, according to the prevailing cultural and moral values and social norms. Thus, the Prophet’s wives do not derive their importance from their historical personalities, but from the continuous modifications retouching and modernizations which these personalities have undergone. They have been used throughout the centuries, as we have seen, in order to justify a great variety of attitudes about the Muslim woman. They are ideal, obedient, gentle, affectionate, content, pious, dwelling inside the marital house and veiled. They are also jealous, angry, quarrelling, conspirational, endowed with great kayd, sowing fitna, and their mind (aql) is sometimes imperfect. But they are also erudite, teachers, daring endowed with strong personalities, intelligent, political activists, fighters, even leaders in wars… and, of course, feminists.

  • Ascha doesn’t mention Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter! She is the main stereotype for Shia Muslims and should have been mentioned.
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17 thoughts on “Mothers of the Believers

  1. Sara says:

    Interesting post and book! Since humans are generally complex, it makes sense that the mothers were all of those things mentioned in the last paragraph, and that we tend to focus on what benefits our argument.

    • Metis says:

      That is what I thought too!

      I do see some sense in the argument that we pick ad choose what we want to believe in and what we want to reject but I didn’t get whether he was in favour of the Mothers or against them 🙂

  2. Interesting! Also in light of the fact that the present always influences how history is viewed and interpreted.

  3. Mezba says:

    Had never heard of Al Amiriyyah! Would she be considered a “mother of the believers” ?

  4. Mezba says:

    Even Sheikh Google doesn’t give much on her! Do you have some online links?

    • Metis says:

      Mezba, like Roded points out in ‘Women in Islamic Biographical Collections’ one woman in biographies (including ahadith) is often mentioned more than once but it is hard to know because she is something referred to by her first name, sometimes by her tribe’s name (Al Amiriyah) and sometimes in relation to a husband/father/brother/son. She is cited in Ibn Sad’s Al Tabaqaat Al Qubra on page 138, and by Ibn Hisham in Sirat Ar Rasul Allah on page 794.

      I don’t have online links but I have a hard copy of Tabari, Ibn Sad and Ibn Ishaq. The first two are back home but I have Ibn Ishaq on me.

  5. Lat k says:

    The prohibition/haram of wives as Mothers of Believers and the prophet as not being the Father is interesting.But you have mentioned this before how a Sheikh’s women are treated in Arabic culture.So I just connect it to that.His women are forbidden to marriage to anyone after him but his case is different.

    • Metis says:

      Yes, that is the reason. But it is a great religious paradox as well, something that is theologically wrong but politically established. But I know a few examples where widows of heads of states don’t remarry, however they are called ‘Mothers of the Nation’ and their dead husbands are called ‘Fathers of the Nation.’

      • Lat says:

        Their husbands are not prophets but their wives share similarity with the Mothers of the Believers…not fair but I see that society has conformed to it without questions.

      • Sharshura says:

        I’m coming in late to this conversation and haven’t read all of the comments yet, but I can’t resist.

        I think of many things when you all discuss the Prophet (pbuh) was not named the father of the nation. The first was polygamy. Meaning if one of his wives died, he would have still been married to other women so calling him father would be an injustice to them since then he would have to divorce them all. (In reference to the 7th paragraph of the post)

        The other thing that I thought of is that he is not called one of the father’s of the community b/c Islam was one of many reform movements in the world which means many fathers aka prophets. I think by not calling him father, we are creating more of a clear hierarchy. Making sure to see the Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) as lower than God. Therefore, differentiating the religion further from Christianity.

        You always find the most interesting info, Metis. I would have never pondered this otherwise.

  6. Sumera says:

    But what people forget is that how the prophets wives were after his death and the restrictions they faced are not applicable to “normal” Muslim women – in terms of niqaab, having a public life, participation in society etc. Sure they can talk about their personality (i.e Aisha is known for being fiery and opinionated) but of course such things are rarely encouraged in some Muslim women – emphasis on being a subdued being is heavy – despite the prophets wives not being subdued personalities to any extent!

  7. susanne430 says:

    This book seems very interesting! I really enjoyed the few notes you shared. I guess he couldn’t put Fatima in a book about Muhammad’ s wives (according to the title), but if he just left it as “mothers of the believers,” he could have included her. It would have been nice reading his views of Fatima.

    “but I didn’t get whether he was in favour of the Mothers or against them”

    Then it’s an objective book, right?

    It IS really fascinating how – as Sumera mentioned – Muslim men (I’m assuming) emphasized women being subdued when the example of Aisha is anything but. Unless of course they don’t want their wives to act like her because they find her childish and truculent.

    Really enjoyed this post!

    • Metis says:

      That is right. He was focussing only on the Mothers. I wish he could have covered Fatima somehow.

      I think it was an objective chapter. But objectivity is not always appreciated, I have noticed.

  8. sana says:

    this is so interesting.
    I am thinking how a woman who chose to leave the prophet isn’t mentioned anywhere and why I am curious. this is new to me. and also that she became insane and died afterwards.

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