The lives of the Prophet Muhammadsa, his wives and the women of early Islam are often portrayed by numerous Western historians and scholars largely based on inaccurate historical material or without consulting original sources. This misinformation has been disseminated in the media, magazines and news reports forming an adverse image of the women of early Islam to the world. The Review of Religions has commissioned a special series on the wives and female Companions of the Holy Prophetsa to present the true life stories of the noble women of early Islam. Our purpose is not to individually respond to such historians, but only to present the actual history and to let our readers make up their own minds.
This article details the life of Safiyyahra.
Translated from the Urdu by Murtaza Ahmad
Hazrat Safiyyah bint Huyayy’sra lineage can be traced back to the son of Jacobas, from the Levi tribe, and Aaronas, the brother of Mosesas.1 Safiyyahra belonged to the wealthy and influential household of a Jewish chief; her father, Huyayy bin Akhtab, was the chief of the Jewish tribe Banu Nadir. Her mother’s name was Barra bint Shamoeel.2 She personally owned around a hundred female slaves who had been appointed to serve in the house.3 Safiyyahra was known as Zainab before marriage. After entering the house of the Messenger of Allah, she became known as “Safiyyah.” The meaning of “Safiyyah” is “a pure, holy and clean person who is also a sincere friend.”4 Hazrat Safiyyahra was undoubtedly an embodiment of this, because after having accepted Islam her heart was purified and saturated with Divine love and the love of the Prophet Muhammadsa. Her first marriage was to a renowned Jewish-Arab poet, Sallam bin Mishkam al Qurzi.5 This marriage ended when Sallam divorced Safiyyahra. Her second marriage was to the Jewish chief and poet, Kinanah bin Abi Al Haqiq. This marriage took place close to the time of the besiegement of Khaibar, during which Kinanah was killed in the battle.6 There were no offspring from either marriage.
After the conquest of Khaibar, Safiyyahra was taken as a prisoner of war and handed over to Bilalra. As he escorted them past the dead Jewish bodies, Safiyyahra and another female prisoner became extremely distressed. When this came to the notice of the Holy Prophetsa, he expressed his anger and instructed that women captives should not have been escorted past the dead bodies of their own people, and should be protected from having to witness such distressing scenes.sa A companion, Dihya Al Kalbira, requested that the Holy Prophet7 allow him to have a slave-girl from the prisoners of war. The Prophetsa stated that he could choose any slave, upon which Dihyara chose Safiyyahra for himself. Albeit slavery connotes the harsh reality of the deprivation of rights after wars, this incident took place at a time when slavery was not only prevalent among the greatest civilisations; it was also the foundation and fabric of economies and societies. Islam was the first religion which paved the way for the gradual emancipation of slavery. No other scripture contains any teaching comparable to the Qur’an regarding slavery. At the time, the punishment for the subjugated party was that their female prisoners were turned into slaves with no rights. This led to many moral lapses. The Prophetsa never kept any slaves in this context however did not prevent His Companions from doing so, because the Prophetsa ultimately aimed to eliminate slavery gradually. This situation needs to be understood in the context of it being times of war which were fought in self-defence, after the enemies of Islam had perpetrated untold atrocities towards Muslims, committing horrific and barbaric crimes against them. It should also be borne in mind that in Islam, slaves commanded great respect in Muslim society for their faith and righteousness. Hazrat Bilalra, Hazrat Salmanra and Hazrat Saleemra, all highly respected companions of the Holy Prophetsa, were all freed slaves.8
Marriage with the Prophet Muhammadsa
The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa later learnt that there was a noblewoman from the Jewish clan among the prisoners of war. According to the customs of the time, if such a woman was treated with due respect and regard it could serve as a means to reducing the enmity brewing among the Jews. As Dihya Al Kalbira had already chosen her for himself, the Holy Prophetsa sought advice from his companions as to what ought to be done with this Jewish noblewoman. The companions suggested that if the Prophetsa were to marry Safiyyahra himself, this decision may attract the Jewish people towards Islam. The Holy Prophetsa decided to accept this suggestion, and with Safiyyah’sra consent and choice, the Holy Prophetsa brought her into the home. Although Safiyyahra was free to leave, she had observed the Holy Prophet’ssa impeccable character and had become greatly impressed by it. Since Dihya Al Kalbira had taken Safiyyahra into his custody with the permission of the Holy Prophetsa, the Holy Prophetsa gave him seven servants in exchange for her. He readily accepted this. The Holy Prophetsa had freed Safiyyahra from slavery, which was understood as a dowry9
In this sense, this marriage was necessitated by the requirements of the nation just as it was in the case of marrying Umme Habibahra, the daughter of the chief of Makkah Abu Sufyan; Juwairiyahra, the daughter of Haarith, the chief of Banu Mustaliq; and Mariah Qibtiyyahra, the Egyptian Coptic Christian. As per tradition, marriages were the age-old custom for building bridges between tribes. According to the Bible, it was with a similar motive, that Solomonas married the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt which resulted in Egypt not posing a threat to Israel.10 Seen from this context, the Prophet Muhammad’ssa marriage with Safiyyahra cannot be objected to as has been the case with some orientalists. Indeed it was a favour and mark of respect for the enemy, and thus an act of compassion and mercy.
Hazrat Maulana Hakeem Maulawi Nur-Ud-Din, Khalifatul Masih Ira, the first Successor to the Promised Messiahas, in response to a criticism made by William Muir with regards to the wedding of Hazrat Safiyyahra stated:
“Mr. Muir raised an objection. However little did he realise that in Arabia it was a custom to marry the daughter or wife of the chiefs in areas which had been conquered, in order for peace and order to be established and love nurtured for the influential people of its country. All subjects and the royal family would feel content that now there would be no threat. Therefore, after the conquest of Khaibar, all Jews wished to live there.”11
Before the wedding, the Holy Prophetsa entrusted Safiyyahra to the care of Umme-Sulaimra, a woman who belonged to a sincere Ansari household, so that when her menstrual period of waiting came to an end, she may prepare Safiyyahra for her marriage with the Prophet Muhammadsa.12 Upon returning from Khaibar, the Holy Prophetsa stopped at a place called Sadul Sahbaa’ and stayed there for three nights. It was here that Umme-Sulaimra prepared Safiyyahra, with her consent and happiness, for her marriage to the Holy Prophetsa.13 According to the customs of the time, the veiling of slave-women was not very strictly observed; whereas the standard of veiling observed by the wives of the Prophetsa was much stricter. As Safiyyahra was a prisoner of war, a separate Nikah (marriage announcement) was not required in order to include her in the harem. Thus, when the Holy Prophetsa asked Safiyyahra to wear the veil in the same way as his other wives did, this very action was considered to be sufficient as an announcement of Nikah.14
Walima [Marriage] Ceremony
The Holy Prophet’ssa companions enjoyed a degree of openness with him, which was a mark of their love and affection. Upon the occasion of marrying Hazrat Safiyyahra, a companion asked the Prophet Muhammadsa, “O Messenger of Allah! When will you invite us to the Walima?” The Holy Prophetsa replied, “A Walima is a [due] right and this will definitely take place.” The Holy Prophetsa then arranged for the Walima during their journey. The companions state that upon returning from the conquest of Khaibar, they stopped at a place called Saddul Sahbaa’a and after the marriage with Safiyyahra, the Holy Prophetsa arranged a Walima.15This was a simple but dignified function, despite it having occurred during a journey. The Holy Prophetsa said for the companions to collect whatever provisions they had. The Holy Prophetsa brought wheat and dates, carried in a loose robe. The food was laid out on a mat, and the Holy Prophetsa said to the companions, “Eat the food from your spiritual mother.”16 Hazrat Safiyyahra soaked some dates in a stone dish. In the morning, this nabeez (i.e., the sherbet of dates) was given to the guests to drink.17 According to some narrations, on his return to Madinah the Holy Prophetsa arranged for a second Walima after this party.18
Good Morals Win Over Safiyyahra
Many of Safiyyah’sra friends and family were killed during the battle of Khaibar, including her father and husband. Hazrat Safiyyahra spoke of the previous hatred she once had for the Holy Prophetsa. However, the kindness and affection that he showed her won her heart over. She states herself:
“When the Holy Prophetsa was about to depart for Khaibar and it was time for me to mount upon the camel, the Prophetsa first prepared the howdah and he folded the [cloak] that he was wearing and laid it down on the howdah where I was to sit so that it softened even more.”
In order for her to mount upon her camel, the Holy Prophetsa lowered his knee in front of her, and said, “Place your foot on this and mount upon the horse.”19 These small acts of kindness left an indelible mark upon Safiyyahra. She states:
“During a journey, an unlimited degree of affection was shown by the Holy Prophetsa towards me. At the time I was a young woman and many a time, after sitting in the howdah for a long time, I would be overcome by slumber and my head would hit against the wooden howdah. The Holy Prophetsa would support my head with much love and affection and make me go to sleep. He would say: ‘O daughter of Huyayy! Take care of yourself, lest in the state of sleep or slumber you get hurt.’”20
The Family of Safiyyah’sra Enmity for Islam
Winning over Safiyyah’sra affections was indeed a great triumph for the Holy Prophetsa. The Jews harboured a great enmity for the Muslims and this was especially so in Hazrat Safiyyah’sra household. In fact, Jewish scriptures prophesised a prophet appearing from the mountains of Faraan, in Arabia, through which they would be granted kingdom and conquest.21 Various Jewish tribes were in search of this prophet and came and settled in the orchard of Madinah. In the hope that the Prophet Muhammadsa was this promised Prophet, some started naming their children Muhammad. As many signs had come in support of the Holy Prophetsa, some of them accepted Islam. However, most of them rejected the Prophethood of Muhammedsa on the basis that he was not from among the progeny of Isaacas, son of Abrahamas and instead was from the progeny of the other son of Abrahamas, Ishmailas. The Jewish elders resolved to oppose the Prophet Muhammadsa. Safiyyah’sra father, Huyyay, was the leader of his tribe. Hazrat Safiyyahra narrated:
“My father and uncle loved me the most from among the children in the house. They would attend to me first, leaving the rest of the children aside. One day after the Prophetsa had migrated to Madinah and was staying in Quba, my father Huyyay bin Akhtab, and my uncle Abu Yasir bin Akhtab, went to Madinah early in the morning to learn a few things about him.
“In the evening, they returned crestfallen. They were walking back slowly. As was my habit, I ran towards them but on this day, they did not pay any attention to me. I thought that their hearts were weighed down by some sorrow; they seemed extremely weak. Then I heard Uncle Abu Yasir say to my father, ‘Brother, is he that (promised prophet)? My father replied, ‘Yes. By God! It is him!’ Uncle said, ‘Have you really recognised him through his signs that all the signs are fulfilled in him?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ My uncle asked, ‘Then what did you think about it?’ Father replied, ‘By God! Until our last breath, we must oppose Muhammad.’”22
This incident was clearly etched in her memory. While the Jewish family’s enmity for Islam is apparent, there is also an important lesson to be derived from this about the dangerousness of rejecting and opposing the one who is appointed by God. Such an act is synonymous to waging war against God and such prejudice and haste results in nothing but destruction and ruin. How clear was the verdict of the Holy Prophetsa concerning these prejudiced Jewish chiefs who stopped their people from accepting the truth! He said, “If ten Jewish (chiefs) believed in me, then all the Jews would have believed.”23 However, the Jews who had transgressed caused their people to drown as well as themselves. This incident certainly is a means of admonishment for today’s world. The other testimony regarding her family’s enmity for Islam is as follows:
“Right above my eye,” Hazrat Safiyyahra narrated, “There was a very deep yellow- or green-coloured mark. The Holy Prophetsa noticed it and asked, ‘What happened to you?’ I related the whole incident to him:
“When the Holy Prophetsa had besieged Khaibar, I saw in a dream that the moon of the fourteenth night fell into my lap. When I related the dream to my husband, he slapped me and asked, ‘Do you wish to marry the king of Yathrib [Madinah was called Yathrib before the advent of Islam]?’”24
In another narration it is mentioned that Safiyyahra related the same dream to her father. However, in this version, the sun is mentioned as having fallen onto her chest. Her father became angry and admonished her, “Do you desire the king who has come and besieged us?”25
It is possible that Safiyyara related the dream to both her husband and father in these narrations. In any case, Hazrat Safiyyahra witnessed the fulfilment of this dream during the besiegement at Khaibar and the incidents that transpired later, proving that the Holy Prophetsa was in fact the “moon of the fourteenth night” and “the sun” as the king of Madinah. The flames of revenge must have been raging in the hearts of those Jews who had been conquered in Khaibar. Zainab, the sister of the chief of Khaibar and Marhab, and the wife of Sallaam bin Mishkam, invited the Holy Prophetsa for dinner after the conquest of Khaibar, and mixed poison into the goat meat that she served him with. A companion of the Prophetsa, Hazrat Bishrra, ate some of the meat and died. The Prophetsa himself, up until his demise, experienced discomfort in his throat as a result of the poison. The Holy Prophetsa asked Zainab why she had committed this treachery to which she replied, “I thought that if you were really a prophet, you would be saved from the effects of the poison and if you were not a prophet, then we would be saved from you [forever].” In spite of this the Holy Prophetsa forgave her.
Enmity of the Jews and the Fears of the Companions
After this incident, some of the companions feared for the safety of the Holy Prophetsa. Abu Ayub Ansarira states that:
“After returning from Ghazwah-e-Khaibar [Battle of Khaibar] when the Prophetsa married Safiyyahra, the daughter of the Jewish Chief Huyyay bin Akhtab, in view of my passionate love for the Prophetsa and his protection, fears arose in my mind. All night, I guarded the tent in which they [the Holy Prophetsa and Hazrat Safiyyahra] spent their first night after marriage. In the morning, the Prophetsa saw me and asked how I was. I told him ‘Throughout the night, I stood guarding you all on my own.’ At that very moment, the Holy Prophetsa prayed, ‘O Allah! Always keep Abu Ayubra in your protection just as he was ready to protect me throughout the night.’”
This prayer was accepted as Abu Ayubra lived for a very long time. His grave is preserved in Constantine (Turkey) and is a place visited by many.26
Safiyyahra in Madinah
A companion of the Prophet Muhammadsa, Hazrat Anas bin Malikra, states:
“Upon returning from ‘Asfaan, we were travelling along with the Prophetsa. The Prophetsa mounted a camel and Hazrat Safiyyahra bint Huyyay was sitting behind him. The foot of the camel slipped and the Prophetsa and Hazrat Safiyyahra both fell off. Abu Talhara jumped off his camel and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! I am sacrificed unto thee! Are you okay?’ He retorted, ‘Enquire about the lady first.’ Therefore Abu Talhara veiled his face and went to Hazrat Safiyyahra and covered her in a chaadar [cloth used as head-covering] and prepared the camel.”27
Upon the arrival of the Holy Prophetsa at Madinah from Khaibar, arrangements were made for Hazrat Safiyyahra to stay with his companion, Hazrat Haaritha bin Nu’maanra. ‘Ata bin Yassar narrates narrates that when the Ansari women heard of the arrival of a noble bride, they went to visit her. ‘A’ishahra, one of the wives of the Prophetsa, also joined these women out of curiosity, but veiled herself so as not to be recognised. The Holy Prophetsa recognised her and asked, “O ‘A’ishah! How do you find her?” ‘A’ishahra replied curtly, “She is just a Jewess from among the Jews.”
The Holy Prophetsa said, “‘A’ishah! Do not say this. She has now accepted Islam and is a good Muslim.”28 Indeed, even though ‘A’ishahra was much loved by the Prophetsa due to her unique qualities and virtues endowed to her by God, he would occasionally admonish her for the sake of her moral training. Once she pointed her little finger at Hazrat Safiyyahra tauntingly, by way of saying that she was short in height. When the Prophetsa learnt of this, he reprimanded her severely and said, “You have spoken a word such that, if it were mixed in the water of the ocean, it would darken it.”29
Hazrat Safiyyahra states:
“The Prophetsa always treated me kindly. Once, somebody from among the noble wives taunted me by saying, ‘You belong to a Jewish tribe i.e., you are from among the progeny of the Jews.’ The Prophetsa came home and upon seeing me cry asked, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ I replied, ’O Messenger of Allah! Some of your wives are related to your family or to the Quraish [the dominant tribe in Makkah]. They said that they belonged to the family of the Quraish while I was the daughter of the Jews. The Prophetsa said, ‘O daughter of Huyyay! What need is there to cry? You ought to have responded to them by saying, “How could you fare better than me, while Prophet Aaronra was my father, the prophet Mosesra was my uncle and Muhammadsa is my husband!”
That is to say, she enjoyed a relationship with three Prophets while they (the other wives) were taking pride over the one relation they had with the Prophetsa.30
Hazrat ‘A’ishahra states:
“I had never seen anyone cook better than Hazrat Safiyyahra. On one occasion, she sent some food to the Prophetsa when it was my turn to be with him. I was overcome by jealousy and broke her dish. Afterwards, I mentioned to the Holy Prophetsa of my feeling much ashamed, ‘O Messenger of Allah! What is the atonement for this mistake of mine?’ He replied, ‘A dish for a dish and food for food.’”31
Part II to follow in the next edition.
1. Usud-al-Ghaaba, vol. 5 (Beirut: Darul Ma’rifati, n.d.), 327.
2. Ibn Sa’d al-Baghdadi, Tabaqat-al-Kubra, vol. 8, n.d., 120.
3. Azwaaj-un-Nabi (Madinah-tul-Munawarah: Daarul Turaath, n.d.), 214.
4. “Safiy,” Al Munjid Qaamusul Muhdith, n.d.
5. Usud-al-Ghaaba, 5:327.
6. Imam Bukhari, “Kitabul Maghazi Bab Fathe-Khaibar,” in Sahih Bukhari, n.d.
7. Ibn Hisham, Al-Sira al-Nabawiyya, vol. 3 (Beirut: Daarul Kutubil Ilmiyyati, n.d.), 195.
8. (For a full discussion on Islam and the emancipation of slavery, see article by Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmadra which will be published in our next edition)
9. Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, “Kitabul Nikah Bab Fadheelati I’tikaaqu Umahu,” in Sahih Muslim, n.d.
10. The Bible, Kings 1:3.
11. Hazrat Hakim Maulana Nur-Ud-Din, Khalifatul Masih I, Khutbaat-e-Nur, n.d., 532.
12. The period after the death of a husband in which it may be confirmed whether the woman is carrying the deceased husband’s offspring. The menstrual cycle would confirm that the woman is not bearing any child and thus is free to get married.
13. Imam Bukhari, “Kitabul Maghazi Bab Fathe-Khaibar”; Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, “Kitabul Nikah Bab Fadheelati I’tikaaqu Umahu”; Ibn Hisham, Al-Sira al-Nabawiyya, 3:197.
14. Imam Bukhari, “Kitabul Maghazi Bab Ghazwah Khaibar,” in Sahih Bukhari, n.d.
15. Imam Bukhari, “Kitabul Jihad Bab Ghazulsabi Al-Khidmati,” in Sahih Bukhari, n.d.
16. Ali ibn Abu Bakr al-Haythami, Majma’ al-Zawa’id, vol. 9 (Beirut: Darul Fikri, n.d.), 405.
17. Ibn Sa’d al-Baghdadi, Tabaqat-al-Kubra, 8:125.
18. Ali ibn Abu Bakr al-Haythami, Majma’ al-Zawa’id, vol. 4 (Beirut: Darul Fikri, n.d.), 49.
19. Imam Bukhari, “Kitabul Maghazi Bab Ghazwah Khaibar.”
20. Ali ibn Abu Bakr al-Haythami, Majma’ al-Zawa’id, vol. 8 (Beirut: Darul Fikri, n.d.), 574.
21. The Bible, Deuteronomy 18:18, 33:2.
22. Ibn Hisham, Al-Sira al-Nabawiyya, vol. 1 (Beirut: Daarul Kutubil Ilmiyyati, n.d.), 517.
23. Imam Bukhari, “Kitabul Fazailusahaaba babu ityaanul yahood,” in Sahih Bukhari.
24. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu’jam al-Kabir, vol. 24, n.d., 67; Ali ibn Abu Bakr al-Haythami, Majma’ al-Zawa’id, n.d., 9:404.
25. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu’jam al-Kabir, 24:67.
26. Al-Seerah al-Halabiyyah, vol. 3 (Beirut, n.d.), 44.
27. Imam Bukhari, “Kitabul Jihad Bab Ma Yaqulu Izaa Raja’a Minal Ghazwah,” in Sahih Bukhari, n.d.
28. Ibn Sa’d al-Baghdadi, Tabaqat-al-Kubra, 8:126.
29. Abu Dawud, “Kitabul Adabi Bab Fil Gheebat,” in Sunan Abi Dawud, n.d.
30. Muhammad ibn ’Isa at Tirmidhi, “Kitabul Manaaqib Bab Fadhlu Azwaajin Nabi,” in Al-Jami’ As-Sahih, n.d.
31. Abu Dawud, “Kitabul Ujaarati Bab Fi Man Afsada Shaian,” in Sunan Abi Dawud, n.d.
Thanks for this presentation.