Muhammad and the Law of 'Iddah

Examining the Marriage of Muhammad and Safiyya
In regard to the Waiting Period for Widows

Sam Shamoun

The Quran states that the waiting period for widows is four months and ten days:

If any of you die and leave widows behind, they shall wait concerning themselves four months and ten days: when they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just and reasonable manner. And Allah is well acquainted with what ye do. There is no blame on you if ye make an offer of betrothal or hold it in your hearts. Allah knows that ye cherish them in your hearts: but do not make a secret contract with them except that you speak to them in terms honourable, nor resolve on the tie of marriage till the term prescribed is fulfilled. And know that Allah knoweth what is in your hearts, and take heed of Him; and know that Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Forbearing. S. 2:234-235

Renowned Sunni commentator Ibn Kathir stated in relation to the above prescription:

The `Iddah (Waiting Period) of the Widow

This Ayah contains a command from Allah to the wives whose husbands die, that they should observe a period of `Iddah of four months and ten nights, including the cases where the marriage was consummated OR OTHERWISE, according to the consensus (of the scholars).

The proof that this ruling includes the case where the marriage WAS NOT CONSUMMATED is included in the general meaning of the Ayah. In a narration recorded by Imam Ahmad and the compilers of the Sunan, which At-Tirmidhi graded Sahih, Ibn Mas`ud was asked about a man who married a woman, but he died before consummating the marriage. He also did not appoint a Mahr (dowry) for her. They kept asking Ibn Mas`ud about this subject until he said, "I shall give you my own opinion, and if it is correct then it is from Allah, while if it is wrong it is because of my error and because of (the evil efforts of) Satan. In this case, Allah and His Messenger are innocent of my opinion. She has her full Mahr." In another narration, Ibn Mas`ud said, "She has a similar Mahr to that of the women of her status, without stinginess or extravagance." He then continued, "She has to spend the `Iddah and has a right to the inheritance." Ma`qil bin Yasar Ashja`i then stood up and said, "I heard Allah's Messenger issue a similar judgment for the benefit of Barwa` bint Washiq." `Abdullah bin Mas`ud became very delighted upon hearing this statement. In another narration, several men from Ashja` (tribe) stood up and said, "We testify that Allah's Messenger issued a similar ruling for the benefit of Barwa` bint Washiq."

As for the case of the widow whose husband dies while she is pregnant, her term of `Iddah ends when she gives birth, even if it occurs an instant (after her husband dies). This ruling is taken from Allah's statement…

<And for those who are pregnant, their `Iddah is until they lay down their burden.> (65:4)

There is also a Hadith from Subay`ah Al-Aslamiyah in the Two Sahihs, through various chains of narration. Her husband, Sa`d bin Khawlah, died while she was pregnant and she gave birth only a few nights after his death. When she finished her Nifas (postnatal period), she beautified herself for those who might seek to engage her (for marriage). Then, Abu Sanabil bin Ba`kak came to her and said, "Why do I see you beautified yourself, do you wish to marry By Allah! You will not marry until the four months and ten nights have passed." Subay`ah said, "When he said that to me, I collected my garments when night fell and went to Allah's Messenger and asked him about this matter. He said that my Iddah had finished when I gave birth and allowed me to get married if I wished." (Source; capital and underline emphasis ours)

Ibn Kathir also mentions that one of the reasons why this period was prescribed is to see whether the woman is pregnant or not:

The Wisdom behind legislating the `Iddah

Sa`id bin Musayyib and Abu Al-`Aliyah stated that the wisdom behind making the `Iddah of the widow four months and ten nights is that the womb might contain a fetus. When the woman waits for this period, it will become evident if she is pregnant. Similarly, there is a Hadith in the Two Sahihs narrated by Ibn Mas`ud stating …

<(The creation of) a human being is put together in the womb of his mother in forty days in the form of a seed, and next he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and next a morsel of flesh for a similar period. Then, Allah sends an angel who is ordered to breathe life unto the fetus.>

So, these are four months and ten more days to be sure, as some months are less (than thirty days), and the fetus will then start to show signs of life after the soul has been breathed into it. Allah knows best. (Source)

The reason why we know that this is one of the main objectives for waiting, but not the main purpose in prescribing this period, is because a) the Quran doesn’t make the objective for the prescription explicit, and b) Ibn Kathir says that this waiting period must be observed even by widows who haven’t consummated their marriages with their husbands. The late Muslim scholar Abu A’la Mawdudi basically reiterated this latter position since he wrote in reference to this Quranic passage that:

259. The waiting period owing to death of the husband is obligatory EVEN FOR A WOMAN WITH WHOM CONSUMMATION OF MARRIAGE HAS NOT TAKEN PLACE. A pregnant woman, however, is exempted from this. Her waiting period expires with childbirth, irrespective of whether the time between the husband’s death and the childbirth is less than the waiting period prescribed by Law.

‘Umar, ‘Uthman, Ibn ‘Umar, Zayd ibn Thabit, Ibn Mas‘ud, Umm Salamah, Sa‘id ibn Musayyib, Ibrahim ibn al-Nakha‘i, Muhammad ibn Sirin and the founders of the four legal schools are of the opinion that during the waiting period a woman should stay in the house in which her husband died. During the daytime she may go out to do necessary errands, but her residence should be her own home. On the contrary, ‘A’ishah, Ibn ‘Abbas, ‘Ali, Jabir ibn ‘Abd Allah, ‘Ata, Ta’us, Hasan Al-Basri, ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and the Zahiris are of the opinion that a widow may spend her waiting period wherever she likes, and may even go on journeys… (Mawdudi, Towards Understanding the Qur’an: English Version of Tafhim al-Qur’an, translated and edited by Zafar Ishaq Ansari [The Islamic Foundation, Leicestershire, United Kingdom, Reprinted 1995], Volume I, Surahs 1-3, pp. 182-183; capital emphasis ours)

What this basically means is that a widow must observe this waiting period irrespective of whether she had consummated her marriage with her husband or not, regardless whether she is pregnant or not.

Herein lies the problem. Muhammad expressly violated this command when he married the Jewess Safiyya, whose father and husband he had killed, since he didn’t wait for her period to end before marrying her:

Narrated Anas bin Malik:
We arrived at Khaibar, and when Allah helped His Apostle to open the fort, the beauty of Safiya bint Huyai bin Akhtaq whose husband had been killed while she was a bride, was mentioned to Allah's Apostle. The Prophet selected her for himself, and set out with her, and when we reached a place called Sidd-as-Sahba, Safiya became clean from her menses then Allah’s Apostle married her. Hais (i.e. an ‘Arabian dish) was prepared on a small leather mat. Then the Prophet said to me, "I invite the people around you." So that was the marriage banquet of the Prophet and Safiya. Then we proceeded towards Medina, and I saw the Prophet, making for her a kind of cushion with his cloak behind him (on his camel). He then sat beside his camel and put his knee for Safiya to put her foot on, in order to ride (on the camel). (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 59, Number 522)

Narrated Anas:
The Prophet stayed for three nights between Khaibar and Medina and was married to Safiya. I invited the Muslims to his marriage banquet and there was neither meat nor bread in that banquet but the Prophet ordered Bilal to spread the leather mats on which dates, dried yogurt and butter were put. The Muslims said amongst themselves, "Will she (i.e. Safiya) be one of the mothers of the believers, (i.e. one of the wives of the Prophet) or just (a lady captive) of what his right-hand possesses?" Some of them said, "If the Prophet makes her observe the veil, then she will be one of the mothers of the believers (i.e. one of the Prophet's wives), and if he does not make her observe the veil, then she will be his lady slave." So when he departed, he made a place for her behind him (on his camel) and made her observe the veil. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 59, Number 524)

Narrated Anas bin Malik:
Allah’s Apostle said to Abu Talha, "Seek one of your boys to serve me." Abu Talha mounted me behind him (on his riding animal) and took me (to the Prophet). So I used to serve Allah's Apostle whenever he dismounted (to stay somewhere). I used to hear him saying very often, "O Allah! I seek refuge with You from having worries, sadness, helplessness, laziness, miserliness, cowardice, from being heavily in debt and from being overpowered by other persons unjustly." I kept on serving till we returned from the battle of Khaibar. The Prophet then brought Safiyya bint Huyai whom he had won from the war booty. I saw him folding up a gown or a garment for her to sit on behind him (on his she-camel). When he reached As-Sahba’, he prepared Hais and placed it on a dining sheet. Then he sent me to invite men, who (came and) ate; and that was his and Safiyya’s wedding banquet. Then the Prophet proceeded, and when he saw (noticed) the mountain of Uhud, he said, "This mountain loves us, and we love it." When we approached Medina, he said, "O Allah! I make the area between its two mountains a sanctuary as Abraham has made Mecca a sanctuary. O Allah! Bless their Mudd and Sa (special kinds of measure)." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 65, Number 336)

Anas (Allah be pleased with him) reported: I was sitting behind Abu Talha on the Day of Khaibar and my feet touched the foot of Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him), and we came (to the people of Khaibar) when the sun had risen and they had driven out their cattle, and had themselves come out with their axes, large baskets and hatchets, and they said: (Here come) Muhammad and the army. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Khaibar is ruined. Verily when we get down in the valley of a people, evil is the morning of the warned ones (al-Qur'an, xxxvii. 177). Allah, the Majestic and the Glorious, defeated them (the inhabitants of Khaibar), and there fell to the lot of Dihya a beautiful girl, and Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) got her in exchange of seven heads, and then entrusted her to Umm Sulaim so that she might embellish her and prepare her (for marriage) with him. He (the narrator) said: He had been under the impression that he had said that so that she might spend her period of 'Iddah in her (Umm Sulaim's) house. (The woman) was Safiyya daughter of Huyayy. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) arranged the wedding feast consisting of dates, cheese, and refined butter, and pits were dug and tiers were set in them dining cloths, and there was brought cheese and refined butter, and these were placed there. And the people ate to their fill, and they said: We do not know whether he (the Holy Prophet) had married her (as a free woman), or as a slave woman. They said: If he (the Holy Prophet) would make her wear the veil, then she would be a (free married) woman, and if he would not make her wear the veil, then she should be a slave woman. When he intended to ride, he made her wear the veil and she sat on the hind part of the camel; so they came to know that he had married her. As they approached Medina, Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) drove (his ride) quickly and so we did. ‘Adba’ (the name of Allah’s Apostle’s camel) stumbled and Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) fell down and she (Hadrat Safiyya) also fell down. He (the Holy Prophet) stood up and covered her. A woman looked towards her and said: May Allah keep away the Jewess! He (the narrator) said: I said: Aba Hamza, did Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) really fall down? He said: Yes, by Allah, he in fact fell down… (Sahih Muslim, Book 008, Number 3328)

Noted Muslim biographer Ibn Ishaq wrote:

The apostle seized the property piece by piece and conquered the forts one by one as he came to them. The first to fall was the fort of Na‘im; there Mahmud b. Maslama was killed by a millstone which was thrown on him from it; then al-Qamus the fort of B. Abu’l-Huqayq. The apostle took captives from them among whom was Safiya d. Huyayy b. Akhtab who had been the wife of Kinana b. al-Rabi’ b. Abu’l-Huqayq, and two cousins of hers. The apostle chose Safiya for himself.

Dihya b. Khalifa al-Kalbi had asked the apostle for Safiya, and when he chose her for himself he gave him her two cousins. The women of Khaybar were distributed among the Muslims. The Muslims ate the meat of the domestic donkeys and the apostle got up and forbade the people to do a number of things which enumerated. (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasulullah The Life of Muhammad, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, tenth impression 1995], p. 511)

When the apostle married Safiya in Khaybar or on the way, she having been beautified and combed, and got in a fit state for the apostle by Umm Sulaym d. Milhan mother of Anas b. Malik, the apostle passed the night with her in a tent of his. Abu Ayyub, Khalid b. Zayd brother of B. al-Najjar passed the night girt with his sword, guarding the apostle and going round the tent until in the morning the apostle saw him and asked him what he meant by his action. He replied, ‘I was afraid for you with this woman for you have killed her father, her husband, and her people, and till recently she was in unbelief, so I was afraid for you on her account.’ They allege that the apostle said ‘O God, preserve Abu Ayyub as he spent the night preserving me.’ (Ibid., pp. 516-517; bold emphasis ours)

He married Safiya d. Huyay b. Akhtab whom he had captured at Khaybar and chosen for himself. The apostle made a feast of gruel and dates: there was no meat or fat. She had been married to Kinana b. al-Rabi‘ b. Abu’l-Huqayq. (Ibid., pp. 793-794)


Kinana al-Rabi, who had the custody of the treasure of Banu Nadir, was brought to the apostle who asked him about it. He denied that he knew where it was. A Jew came (Tabari says "was brought"), to the apostle and said that he had seen Kinana going round a certain ruin every morning early. When the apostle said to Kinana, "Do you know that if we find you have it I shall kill you?" He said "Yes". The apostle gave orders that the ruin was to be excavated and some of the treasure was found. When he asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr Al-Awwam, "Torture him until you extract what he has." So he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead. Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad b. Maslama and he struck off his head, in revenge for his brother Mahmud. (Ibid., p. 515; bold emphasis ours)

Note the implications of the above references. Safiyya is the daughter of the leader of a Jewish tribe and the wife of the treasurer of that tribe who were killed by Muhammad’s followers. The Islamic narrations would have us believe that in a matter of some days after all these brutal atrocities were committed against her family, Safiyya falls in love with the very man who had caused the murder of her father and had her husband tortured to death! In light of this, does anyone really buy this story and actually believe that a sane woman would think of marrying her family’s bloody murderer?

Moreover, there is also a serious legal issue. Muhammad married Safiyya right away, within the first few days of her being widowed, thereby breaking the very orders of his god which stipulated that widows were to wait for four months and ten days before remarrying.

Now someone may say that Safiyya was a captive and so the normal rules do not apply to her. There are a couple of problems with this assertion. First, the Quran makes a general statement and nowhere restricts the waiting period to free married woman. The Quranic command is inclusive and applies to all married women, whether free or slave.

In fact, the hadiths themselves attest that even captives must undergo a waiting period:

Abu Said al-Khudri said: The apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) sent a military expedition to Awtas on the occasion of the battle of Hunain.  They met their enemy and fought with them.  They defeated them and took them captives. Some of the Companions of the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) were reluctant to have intercourse with the female captives in the presence of their husbands who were unbelievers. So Allah, the Exalted, sent down the Quranic verse, ‘And all married women (are forbidden) unto you save those (captives) whom your right hands possess’. That is to say, they are lawful for them WHEN THEY COMPLETE THEIR WAITING PERIOD. (Sunan Abu Dawud, English translation with explanatory notes by Prof. Ahmad Hasan [Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, Booksellers & Exporters; Lahore, Pakistan, 1984], Book 11, Volume II (2), Number 2150, p. 577; emphasis ours)

This perhaps accounts for why the following narration mentions that some Muslims assumed that Safiyya was sent to Umm Sulaim’s house in order to observe her waiting period:

… Allah, the Majestic and the Glorious, defeated them (the inhabitants of Khaibar), and there fell to the lot of Dihya a beautiful girl, and Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) got her in exchange of seven heads, and then entrusted her to Umm Sulaim so that she might embellish her and prepare her (for marriage) with him. He (the narrator) said: He had been under the impression that he had said that so that she might spend her period of 'Iddah in her (Umm Sulaim's) house… (Sahih Muslim, Book 008, Number 3328)

The English translator of Sahih Muslim, Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, says in his footnote that the word ‘Iddah here means:

1872. This is a waiting period prescribed for a woman before contracting a new marriage. (Sahih Muslim by Imam Muslim, rendered into English by Abdul Hamid Siddiqi [Kitab Bhavan Exporters & Importers, New Delhi-India, 11th reprinted 1995], Volumes I & II, p. 721)

Now there are some narrations and sources that say that the waiting period for a captive woman is one menstrual period, or when she has her first menstruation, or, in the case that she is pregnant, until she gives birth. Again, the problem with this position is that it contradicts the Quran which makes no exception in its ruling on the waiting period for widows or divorcees, i.e. the Quran nowhere states that these rules do not apply in cases where the women are captives.

Suffice it to say that these Islamic sources presuppose that even captive women must observe Iddah, with the Quran giving the precise length of time that such a period of waiting should last.

Second, the Muslim sources state clearly that Muhammad had set Safiyya free in order to marry her to himself:

Narrated Anas bin Malik:
Allah’s Apostle manumitted Safiyya and regarded her manumission as her Mahr. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 23)

Narrated Anas:
Allah's Apostle manumitted Safiyya and then married her, and her Mahr was her manumission, and he gave a wedding banquet with Hais (a sort of sweet dish made from butter, cheese and dates). (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 98)

… There came Dihya and he said: Messenger of Allah, bestow upon me a girl out of the prisoners. He said: Go and get any girl. He made a choice for Safiyya daughter of Huyayy (b. Akhtab). There came a person to Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) and said: Apostle of Allah, you have bestowed Safiyya bint Huyayy, the chief of Quraiza and al-Nadir, upon Dihya and she is worthy of you only. He said: Call him along with her. So he came along with her. When Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) saw her he said: Take any other woman from among the prisoners. He (the narrator) said: He (the Holy Prophet) then granted her emancipation and married her. Thabit said to him: Abu Hamza, how much dower did he (the Holy Prophet) give to her? He said: He granted her freedom and then married her. On the way Umm Sulaim embellished her and then sent her to him (the Holy Prophet) at night. Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) appeared as a bridegroom IN THE MORNING. He (the Holy Prophet) said: He who has anything (to eat) should bring that. Then the cloth was spread. A person came with cheese, another came with dates, and still another came with refined butter, and they prepared hais and that was the wedding feast of Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him). (Sahih Muslim, Book 008, Number 3325)

Thus, she was no longer a slave when Muhammad married her.

Another possible objection that a Muslim may raise is that Safiyya was a Jewess and the prescribed period didn’t apply to her. This erroneous assertion is refuted by the fact that the Quranic passage in question doesn’t make a distinction between wives that are Muslims from those that are Jews and Christians, a point which is reiterated by this next text:

This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time, - when ye give them their due dowers, and desire chastity, not lewdness, nor secret intrigues if any one rejects faith, fruitless is his work, and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good). S. 5:5 Y. Ali

Clearly, the same rules of marriage, divorce, widowhood etc. apply to Jewish and Christian women whom Muslims have married.

Furthermore, Muhammad’s marriage to Safiyya made her one of the mothers of the believers:

The Prophet is closer to the believers than their selves, and his wives are (as) their mothers. And the owners of kinship are closer one to another in the ordinance of Allah than (other) believers and the fugitives (who fled from Mecca), except that ye should do kindness to your friends. This is written in the Book (of nature). S. 33:6 Pickthall

This title gave her the status of a Muslimah (female Muslim) since an unbelieving spouse could not be a mother to believing Muslims.

The foregoing conclusively shows that Muhammad clearly did not practice what he preached, and failed to follow the very commands he imposed on others.

Further reading:

Not only did Muhammad not follow the clear rule of 'idda for widows, the Quran itself is inconsistent in its 'Iddah rules for divorced and widowed women.

Muhammad's Inconsistency
Articles by Sam Shamoun
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