Muhammad’s Christian Sex-Slave

In the following rebuttals,

Mary, Muhammad’s Concubine

Mary, Muhammad’s concubine and Round TwoRound ThreeRound Four, and Round Five

I demonstrated that, according to the Muslim sources, Muhammad took an Egyptian sex-slave named Mariya as further illustration proof of his being an immoral sensualist and imposter.

Noted Muslim scholar, Jonathan A. Brown confirms that Mariya was indeed Muhammad’s concubine, and provides an adequate refutation to those desperate Muhammadans who try to argue otherwise:

The intense moral crisis that the Prophet having a slave-concubine can precipitate for modern Muslims, and the pattern of contemporary Muslim scholars recasting Mariya as a free wife, have already been noted in brief by scholars like Kecia Ali and received a solid and insightful treatment by Aysha Hidayatullah. In her article on Mariya’s portrayal in a broad selection of Muslim historical and biographical sources, Hidayatullah records how Mariya has been referred to. Several modern and contemporary authors, such as Amira Sonbol, refer to her as a wife or marriage partner. All the sources that Hidayatullah consults from the premodern period (and many from the modern), however, use the word jariya, umm walad, milk al-yamim, surriyya or other phrases that unambiguously mean slave-concubine or female slave. It seems that only in recent decades has Mariya been portrayed as a wife rather than as a slave-concubine.

Some Muslim intellectuals and activists have developed lengthy arguments insisting that the Prophet freed and married Mariya. As Hidayatullah notes, one plank of this argument has been to point to the mainstay chronicles of al-Tabari (d. 923) and Ibn Kathir (d. 1374), bot of which list Mariya along with the wives of the Prophet. But listing slave-concubines, especially one who bore the Prophet a son, along with his wives is not surprising and does not suggest anything in particular.

A scholar named Kaleef Karim offers perhaps the most comprehensive argument. His main evidence is that the term jariya was often used to mean girl and not necessarily slave girl. This is certainly true, but numerous authoritative reports refer to Mariya as surriyya (slave-concubine) or umm walad (slave mother of the master’s child), which are unambiguous in their meaning. Karim presents numerous other quotations from classical sources, the sections of text are either not there or are liberal translations from Arabic into English that interpolate the wife aspect.

Karim does provide one compelling piece of evidence. He brings a report from the Mustadrak, a Hadith collection compiled by al-Hakim al-Naysaburi (d. 1014), in which Mus’ab bin ‘Abdullah al-Zubayri states that ‘Then the Messenger of God married Mariya… (thumma tazawwaja rasul Allah Mariya bint Sham’un…).’ Mus’ab bin ‘Abdullah al-Zubayri of Baghdad (d. 851) was a decently regarded Hadith transmitter but was more widely known as a scholar of genealogy (nasab) who compiled the respected Genealogy of Quraysh (Kitab Nasab Quraysh). He lived two centuries after the Prophet, which certainly in no way disqualifies his statement. But al-Zubayri provides no chain of transmission to an earlier source for his information; the statement appears as his own. Meanwhile, four other reports in the Mustadrak, including some with full chains of transmission back to the Companions, all refer to Mariya as jariya/umm walad. For example, al-Zuhri (d. 742) reports that ‘The Messenger of God took Mariya the Copt as a concubine, and she bore him Ibrahim (istasarra rasul Allah Mariya al-Qibtiyya fa-waladat lahu Ibrahim).’

This evidence, however, merely confirmed the received opinion, namely, that Mariya was the Prophet’s slave-concubine. It does not counter al-Zubayri’s report. His choice of wording, however, should not be given too much weight. Tazawwaja does mean ‘he took as a wife,’ but just a few reports later, and by the same chain of trransmission from al-Zubayri to al-Hakim, the compiler of the book, al-Zubayri states, ‘It has reached me that Mariya, umm walad of the Prophet passed away in the year 17 [AH].  The Commander of the Faithful ‘Umar b. al-Khattab prayed over her, and she was buried in the Baqi’ [Cemetery in Medina].’ This suggests that al-Zubayri himself thought that Mariya was a slave-concubine and was merely using the phrase tazawwaja in a loose sense of ‘took her as one of his women.’ This would not be the only time that tazawwaja has been used ambiguously to mean marry or have sex with a female slave, as Ann McDougall has shown. That al-Zubayri considered Mariya to be a slave-concubine of the Prophet is further supported by the fact that, in his book on the genealogy of the Prophet’s tribe, he says that Mariya was ‘given’ to the Prophet by the Muqawqis (the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria).

It is possible that al-Zubayri meant that the Prophet received Mariya as a gift and then freed and married her, hence his wording ‘Then the Messenger of God married Mariya..’ i.e., then after being given her married her, etc. But then she would not be his umm walad, as al-Zubayri referred to her.

She would be referred to as his wife. It seems more likely that al-Zubayri, who often showed the chronology of events like marriages and children born by introducing each sentence with ‘Then (thumma),’ meant nothing more by ‘Then’ than a transition in his list of the Prophet’s womenfolk or in his recounting the events of the Prophet’s life. His report with the tazawwaja phrasing appears in isolation in the Mustadrak and does not appear in his Kitab Nasab Quraysh, so we do not know its context.

Lastly, this entire point may well be moot. The published editions of the Mustadrak with the tazawwaja wording (i.e., the Hyderabad edition, which is reproduced by the Dar a-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya and the Dar al-Haramayn printings), seem to include a manuscript copyist error in the relevant sentence. A more recent critical edition by Dar al-Ta’sil, which relies on four additional manuscripts not used in the Hyderabad edition, renders the above sentence as ‘thumma waladat li-rasul Allah Mariya… (Then Mariya bore a child to the Messenger of God…).’ This is also the conclusion of two other recent critical editions of the Mustadrak done by Dar al-Mayman and Dar al-Minhaj al-Qawim.

Another piece of evidence offered by those arguing today that Mariya was the Prophet’s wife is that, in one Hadith in Sahih Muslim, the Prophet counsels Muslims to do good toward Egyptians because that nation will enjoy protection under Muslim rule (dhimma) and that they possess sihr, or an in-law relationship. Proponents infer that the Prophet would not have used this word if Mariya had merely been his slave-concubine. It befits a wife. But this is only one narration of this Hadith, and not the main one listed in Sahih Muslim. The main narration says ‘they have dhimma and rahim (womb),’ meaning that Copts come from the same womb as the Arabs. In fact, the narrations of this Hadith that include the wording sihr only have it as a parenthetical insertion by one of the narrations of the Hadith: ‘…or he said dhimma and sihr.’ Commentators like al-Nawawi (d. 1277) understood this Hadith to be a reference to the idea that Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, was from Egypt. He does note that the alternate wording of sihr would be a reference here to Mariya, but this does not mean he believed this meant that she was the Prophet’s wife, particularly since al-Nawawi explicitly calls her the Prophet’s slave-concubine (tasarraha) in another of his works. In addition, a report in the ninth-century history Futuh Misr notes that ‘Umar, the mawla of Ghufra, commented about the sihr wording that it was because ‘The Messenger took a slave-concubine (tasarrara) from among them’.

In summary, the only evidence that Mariya was the wife of the Prophet as opposed to his slave-concubine is both externally rare and unreliable, or it is ambiguous. The evidence explicitly identifying her as his slave-concubine is overwhelming. Another question further narrows the likelihood that Mariya was a wife. Why would early Muslims propagate the idea that she was a slave-concubine if she was not? Why would they offer no resistance as this idea became the exclusive position among the biographers, historians and jurists? What agenda would this be serving? Elizabeth Urban has shown how contenders for the caliphate or rule who were the children of slave-concubines invoked the personas of Hagar and Mariya when their parentage was used to insult them. But it hardly seems likely that a historical consensus could be manufactured by a few, scattered claimants in a few dynastic conflicts. (Brown, Slavery in Islam [Oneworld Academic, 2020], Appendix 4: Was Mariya the Wife or Concubine of the Prophet?, pp. 294-297)

Further Reading

Was Mariya the Wife or Concubine of the Prophet?

Muhammad’s Multiple Marriages: A Dawagandist Seeks to Defend the Indefensible

Muhammad’s Multiplicity of Marriages

An Examination of Muhammad’s Marriage Privileges

Muhammad and the treatment of wives

Never Shall He Be Satisfied: Responding to one Muslim Polemicist’s Defense of Muhammad’s Multiple Marriages

Barra: Juwayriyyah’s Original Name or Nickname?

Muhammad’s Marriage to Safiyyah: A Case Study in Allah’s Mercy and Round 2 and Round 3 (Part 1Part 2)



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