The Claim that the Prophet (peace be upon him) Betrayed the Mothers of the Believers in the House of Our Lady Hafsah


Bayaan al-Islam Team

(Original article in Arabic located here)

Gist Translation by:

Abu Nadm al-Zahiri


The Gist of this Doubt:

Some of those who wish to sully the image of Islam claim that the final Prophet and Messenger, Muhammad (peace be upon him) betrayed his own wives when he slept with his concubine Maria the Copt in the house of our lady Hafsah on the day he was supposed to be with her. They pretend that the basis of what they say is in the verse:

O Prophet, why do you prohibit [yourself from] what God has made lawful for you.”[1]

They also attempt to prove their point with several prophetic narrations, from them the narration that Hafsah became angry and asked:

“in my home, on my bed, during my day?”

The Messenger then said that he would never approach Maria again if it would make Hafsah happy, to which Hafsah replied:

“How can what is lawful for you become prohibited?”

The Messenger then swore an oath that he would never touch Maria again anyway.

The critics then ask rhetorically:

“Isn’t what Muhammad did in this instance a betrayal of Hafsah and his other wives?

The Angle from which this Doubt is Refuted:

  • The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) wasn’t unprecedented in the practice of sleeping with a concubine such as Maria the Copt. Our lady Hagar was the concubine of the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), and the Prophet Solomon (peace be upon him) was said to have consorted with several hundred concubines. Thus, at those times, the practice was well known and wasn’t considered strange by anyone.
  • The statement of Hafsah “in my house, on my day, in my bed” wasn’t an accusation of betrayal, as her subsequent statement “how can I prohibit what is permissible for you” indicates that she knew it wasn’t an illegal act. Rather, her disapproval was the natural jealousy of a woman for her man, which is normal.
  • The reproach which God expressed in the verse was not one of dishonor or shame; due to this, we find the expression starting with “why do you prohibit that which God has made permissible for you?”
  • The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prohibited himself from Maria the Copt in order to please his wife, and this was standard behavior from him. He did not wish to gain the ire of his wife, and held that position until the verse was revealed. This indicates his concern for the feelings of others, not some sort of “betrayal.”

A Detailed Response:

First of all, Maria the Copt was a legal concubine of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and he wasn’t unprecedented in that practice. Maria was a gift from Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, to the Messenger along with the Messenger’s emissary Hatib ibn Abi Balta’ah, and she was accompanied by her sister and a eunuch servant. Similarly, Cyrus presented Porphet Muhammad (peace be upon him) with 1,000 gold coins and twenty fine garments from Egypt’s textile factories. The Messenger (peace be upon him) accepted Maria and awarded her sister to his poet, Hassan ibn Thabit.[2]

Ibn Sa’d quoted Aisha (may God be pleased with her) as saying:

“I was never jealous of a woman like my jealousy of Maria. She was stunning, and the Messenger (peace be upon him) would visit her first when coming to our neighborhood, spending much of the day and night with her. He treated her well and that was the most difficult part of it.”[3]

The Messenger (peace be upon him) slept with Maria as a concubine, and had her wear a headscarf in public. She eventually gave birth to his son Abraham in the month of Dhul-Hijjah in the 8th year Hijri. After the death of the Messenger (peace be upon him), the Caliph Abu Bakr supported her financially. When he died, the second Caliph Umar continued to do so until her death in the 15th year Hijri; he read her last rites and buried her in the famous Baqi’ cemetery.[4]

To clarify that concubinage isn’t prostitution, we return to the linguistic root in Arabic, “tasarry” which means to take a “sariyyah” or companion, as the Arabs would say: “tasarra al-rajul jariyatihi” or “the man has taken his maiden as a companion.” Thus in the language, she is a legally bound servant of the category with which sexual relations are allowed. The root word is “sirr” which is said to mean intercourse, though it is also pointed out that “sirr” means to hide something. Those linguists pointing to the latter meaning base their claim on the fact that historically men would often take a concubine without the permission of their wives. It is also claimed that the root is actually not “sirr” but “surr” which means delight.[5]

Concubinage is allowed in Islam as known from the Qur’an, the Hadith and Ijma’ if the legally binding conditions are fulfilled, as mentioned in the verse:

And they who guard their private parts, except from their wives or those their right hands possess, for indeed, they will not be blamed; but whoever seeks beyond that, then those are the transgressors.”[6]

The Messenger (peace be upon him) and some of his Companions (may God be pleased with them) engaged in the practice.

This doesn’t mean that Islam invented the practice, of course; it was well-known long beforehand. The religions before Islam acknowledged the practice, as it is known that Abraham (peace be upon him) was given Hagar by the King of Egypt during his time, and she bore him Ishmael (peace be upon him). It is also said that King Solomon (peace be upon him) had three-hundred concubines, and the practice was known among the pre-Islamic Arabs as well. However, Islam – the flag of which was carried by the seal of the prophets (peace be upon him) - restricted the practice with conditions so as to ensure a harmonious society. The conditions are as follows:

  1. That the woman is legally the man’s servant and not simply any woman on the street, or the wife of someone else, or the servant of someone else – per the aforementioned verses.[7]
  1. That the woman is a believer in an Abrahamic faith, if the man is a Muslim.
  1. That the woman isn’t from the categories of women who would also be legally invalid for marriage (such as a relative of the man), the wife of somebody else or the man’s own estranged or legally separated wife.[8]

We can thus see that the Messenger (peace be upon him) did not break Islamic law or betray his wives as claimed by some Islamophobes. He was legally allowed to sleep with Maria, had the same rights a husband has with his wife and engaged in the relationship within legal bounds.

Islamic law has allowed a man who is not wealthy enough to marry a free woman to marry a servant woman after paying her a modest dowry, per the verse:

So marry them with the permission of their people and give them their due compensation according to what is acceptable. [They should be] chaste, neither [of] those who commit unlawful intercourse randomly nor those who take [secret] lovers.”[9]

By this process, the man goes from being a master to being a husband. The same verse also renders such maidservants the same protection from abuse, as their abstinence from other men grants them the same rights as a wife. As for the master of a maidservant sleeping with her, then that comes from three situations:

  1. His relationship with her is as that with a concubine, with her receiving the rights of a married woman.
  1. That he sets the maidservant free and then proposes to marry her with freeing her serving as the dowry.
  1. That he sets the maidservant free and then proposes to marry her with a new dowry offered.

The Messenger (peace be upon him) has been quoted as promoting the first and second situations repeatedly, encouraging the Muslim community to set such women free in numerous authenticated traditions. He said:

“Any man who has a slave girl whom he educates properly, teaches good manners, manumits and marries her, will get a double reward.”[10]

And he said:

“Any man who manumits a slave girl and then grants her with a new dowry and marries her will get double reward.”[11]

Thus the practice of concubinage was common and accepted among many human societies up to that point in history, and it was neither rejected nor confused with cheating on one’s wife – perish the thought of the last prophet (peace be upon him) doing such a thing.

Second of all, the statement of our mother Hafsah “in my house, on my day, on my bed” doesn’t indicate a censure due to some perceived cheating or betrayal. Her exact statement was: “In my house, on my bed, during my day?”[12] It is clear that it is a normal show of a woman’s jealousy for her husband; the wives of the Messenger (peace be upon him) were not different from the rest of the human race in that regard. The entirety of the conversation they had is as follows:

“The Messenger entered Hafsah’s house with Maria, and Hafsah then entered and found them – she had been visiting her father’s house – and she said: ‘You brought her to my house? What have you accomplished other than causing disappointment among your wives?’ He then asked Hafsah not to mention the incident to Aisha and promised that he would never touch Maria again. Hafsah asked how the Messenger could prohibit his own concubine from himself, but he swore to it anyway.”[13]

Thus it was Hafsah herself who reaffirmed that it was legal for the Messenger to sleep with Maria, thus negating the claim of some people that he (peace be upon him) betrayed his wives. Other incidents from the prophetic biography also affirm that the Messenger didn’t betray his wives or cheat on them:

“When a man declares his wife unlawful for himself that is an oath which must be atoned, and he said: There is in the Messenger a noble pattern for you.”[14]

Meaning that the Messenger had prohibited himself from his concubine, and God Almighy said:

O Prophet, why do you prohibit [yourself from] what God has made lawful for you, seeking the approval of your wives? And God is Forgiving and Merciful. Allah has already ordained for you [Muslims] the dissolution of your oaths. And God is your protector, and He is the Knowing, the Wise.”[15]

Thus, he (peace be upon him) had to pay the expiation.

Third of all, this verse by which some of these Islamophobes attempt to approve their point contains a reproach of respect on the part of God to His Messenger, as the verse begins:

O Prophet, why do you prohibit [yourself from] what God has made lawful for you …”

The exegetes of the Qur’an explain this as a response to the Messenger (peace be upon him) prohibiting Maria for himself and swearing to it, along with his (peace be upon him) belief that such a swear was allowed for him. It was due to this that the verse was revealed, containing therein the method of expiation for those who opt out of a swear. Opting out of a swear by performing the required expiation is from the allowed matters in Islam, and that which is permissible for the believers is also permissible for the prophets; performing permissible acts does not sully their infallibility in religious matters.

Thus the phrasing of the verse “why do you prohibit [yourself from] what God has made lawful for you” is a form of mild reproach and advice, as well as a form of sympathy toward his familial relationships. The point is that neither he nor anyone else is obligated to intentionally burden themselves on behalf of someone else – and affirmation of his prophecy was the first part of the verse, as a reassurance of it and his status. Why must he (or anyone else, for that matter) prohibit something for themselves when God has not prohibited it for them? This is specified in the wording of the verse “seeking the approval of your wives,” showing an actual reproach. Thus this was not merely prohibiting an allowed thing for himself, as that is from his (peace be upon him) common behaviors anyway; rather, it is specifically addressing his prohibiting of himself from a permissible thing for the sake of someone else.

Thus we find in the verse an exaltation of God to His Messenger by removing a burden he placed on himself for the sake of someone else, as he has more right for his wives – as well as all other believers – to perform actions for his sake.

If someone pretends that the verse also includes censure of God for His Messenger due to the latter having committed a sin, then they must finish reading the first verse: “wallahu al Ghafour ar Rahim.”[16] How, then, can the second verse be taken as a censure of the Messenger (peace be upon him) when the first verse already indicated forgiveness? The verse simply can’t be taken that way logically. Even were it in fact the case that the verse contains a form of reproach, it would still be a caring and respectful form of reproach considering the multiple reaffirmations of the prophecy of Muhammad (peace be upon him), starting from the very first verse. We see it again immediately after with

And [remember] when the Prophet confided to one of his wives a statement[17]

However, the main question still remains: how can the verse even be considered a reproach in the first place?

God Almighty states in the fourth verse:

If you two [wives] repent to Allah, [it is best], for your hearts have deviated.”[18]

Thus we see that if there is a reproach here, it is not a reproach of the Messenger (peace be upon him). Repentance was required of Hafsah and Aisha, the two wives referred to in the verse, and it would be more befitting to refer to any reproach as being directed to them. This is especially apparent linguistically in the Qur’anic recitation of Ibn Mas’ud, where it is clear that the verse is not a conditional sentence, but rather an atomic sentence. Under this understanding, the repentance from their act is expressed as obligatory upon them.

The verse could also be understood to mean that their hearts leaned toward the truth and away from their transgression; the verse would then be understood to mean that their transgression against the Messenger (peace be upon him) was not truly their intention, and that their reaction was merely borne from an outburst of jealousy not standard for their characters. The fourth verse can support this conditional understanding here, as theoretical continuation of transgression can be seen as contrasted to repentance from said transgression.

The next verse then moves on to a censure of the two wives of the Messenger due to their reaction in this incident:

Perhaps his Lord, if he divorced you [all], would substitute for him wives better than you - submitting [to God], believing, devoutly obedient, repentant, worshipping, and traveling - [ones] previously married and virgins.” [19]

The meaning here: wives who possess a totality of all positive qualities, especially in regard to helping to lighten the normal emotional tribulations of married life upon the Messenger (peace be upon him) to thus allow him to better fulfill his duty to mankind.

All of what has preceded proves the point that God’s opening statement in the first verse of the chapter was not a form of censure nor a form of reproach due to a sin, but rather a form of honor and esteem such as:

May God pardon you, [O Muhammad]; why did you give them permission [to remain behind]?[20]

The expression, then, is one of exaltation rather than condemnation; it is as though one says “how can you do such a thing” to a friend who swears off something which isn’t harmful or illegal to begin with. The most that could be said about the first verse in opposition to this is that the Messenger (peace be upon him) has abstained from a permissible, legal act; and that, in and of itself, is also technically permissible and legal.[21]

The end result is that this supposed proof on behalf of Islamophobes is actually against their claim rather than for it, as how can God esteem and honor His Messenger had he just betrayed his wives?

Fourth of all, the Messenger (peace be upon him) prohibited himself from Maria the Copt to please his wives and avoid their ire, and this was due to his manners and his concern for their feelings. This came despite the fact that, because Maria was a concubine, his action was both legal under Islamic law and accepted in human civilizations up to that point in time. A number of anecdotes indicate the Messenger’s concern for the feelings of his wives.

For example, the narration of Ibn ‘Abbas who narrated from ‘Umar (may God be pleased with them) who said:

"By God, in the Pre-lslamic Period of Ignorance we did not pay attention to women until God revealed regarding them what He revealed regarding them and assigned for them what He has assigned. Once while I was thinking over a certain matter, my wife said, "I recommend that you do so-and-so." I said to her, "What have you got to do with this matter? Why do you poke your nose in a matter which I want to see fulfilled.?" She said, How strange you are, O son of Al-Khattab! You don't want to be argued with whereas your daughter, Hafsah surely, argues with God’s Messenger so much that he remains angry for a full day!" ‘Umar then reported; how he at once put on his outer garment and went to Hafsah and said to her, "O my daughter! Do you argue with God's Messenger so that he remains angry the whole day?" Hafsah said, "By God, we argue with him." ‘Umar said, "Know that I warn you of God's punishment and the anger of His Messenger.”[22]

Thus his (peace be upon him) prohibition upon his own self from something which was permissible for him was well-intentioned and borne out of concern for his wives. The only issue here is that he prohibited for himself a permissible thing, and in a situation in which it was not necessary or even preferable for him to do so, hence the mild form of reproach in light of his status among mankind negating a need to place such a burden upon himself.[23]

We also see that his (peace be upon him) chivalry prevented him from simply dealing with Maria in the standard treatment of concubines at the time; rather, his relationship with her became a loving one within the boundaries of Islamic law, which was far more just in its injunctions on concubinage than the prevailing laws back then. He did not exploit his position, and in fact Maria became the mother of his child Abraham and she now holds a very esteemed status with all Muslims. Were the Messenger’s actions merely due to lust for women, he would not have spent his time with a concubine when his status in the world would have allowed him his choice from the free women of both the Arabs and the Romans. So how, then, do these people who intend to slander his character visualize this situation as somehow having been spousal betrayal?

All human beings are considered to be inherently equal in Islam, and it is only their actions which set them apart. There is no difference in Islam between the concubine and the free woman, between a black woman and a white woman and so forth; and in fact, Islam promises great blessings and rewards in the afterlife for the man who frees his concubine and then marries her, as we see in the narration of Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (may God be pleased with him) for example:

“The Messenger said that if a person teaches his slave girl good manners properly, educates her properly, and then manumits and marries her, he will get a double reward.”[24]

We also know from his (peace be upon him) biography the extent of his fairness with women. He never married a woman for her nobility or beauty, and he never shied away from marrying a woman who held a menial position or was considered unattractive. After his first wife Khadija, he married Sawda (may God be pleased with them both), who was an elderly widow with no position in society, not known for being exceptionally attractive and was old to the point that some people felt she was more in need of simple financial support than an actual husband. Some of the people of Mecca almost couldn’t believe the marriage at first, due to the difference in her age and the age of the Messenger, yet he married her and lived a normal married life with her.

The Messenger (peace be upon him) was a functional model for society and showed through his actions how all women are suitable for marriage given that their actions are pious and righteous. At various times during his life, he married both virgin and spinster, widows and divorcees, free women and manumitted former slaves, young women and old women. Reflect, then, on his interactions with those whom he married during his lifetime. He left for us an example as both a husband and a father, though his speech and his actions,[25] and he never ceased to exhort and advise the Muslims that:

“The best of you are those who are the best to their wives.”[26]

The Bottom Line:

  • The Messenger (peace be upon him) never sinned throughout his entire life, nor did he ever violate any of the laws which God entrusted to him, as it was God Himself who granted Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) alone infallibility in these matters of religion. These people who wish to tarnish Islam don’t have a leg to stand on, and were they to merely ponder the situation it would dawn on them that Maria the Copt was a concubine and was legal for the Messenger.
  • He (peace be upon him) was not without precedent in taking concubines, as the practice was known and allowed by prior religions and societies. Hagar, for example, was a concubine of Abraham (peace be upon him) and eventually became the mother of his son, Ishmael (peace be upon him). David (peace be upon him) had three-hundred concubines according to the Torah. The practice was known in pre-Islamic Arabia as well, and has been mentioned in the Qur`an and the prophetic tradition. There are also benefits of the practice to the society, as its legal restrictions place a form of control over the behavior of men and prevent the spread of diseases both medical and moral.
  • The statement of Hafsah was not one of condemnation, but rather normal jealousy. It was due to concern about her feelings that the Messenger prohibited himself from Maria such that God lightened his psychological burden in the first verse of the Qur`anic chapter at-Tahrim. Had he been guilty of cheating or some other illegal act, God would not have addressed him in a manner indicating honor and status, nor would Hafsah have asked: “How can you prohibit yourself from your own concubine?”
  • God’s speech to His Messenger in the chapter is one of mildness and consolation, not of condemnation or scolding. Were the latter the case, God would not have provided a defense of His Messenger (peace be upon him) right in the same chapter.
  • Despite Maria being a concubine of his, the Messenger (peace be upon him) still paid the expiation for breaking his oath not to sleep with her anymore – an oath he made not to do something legal for him – and didn’t abandon her or ignore her for a single day, as all the women of his household, free or servile, were equal to him.

[1] At-Tahrim verse 1.

[2] Dr. Shawqi Abu Khalil, al-Islam fi Qafas al-Ittiham, pg. 271. Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 1425AH/2004AD. 5th ed.

[3] Narrated by Zubair ibn Bakkar ibn Abdullah Ibn Mus’ab az-Zubairi, al-Muntakhab min Kitab Azwaj an-Nabi, hadith no.40. Beirut: Mu`assasat ar-Risalah, 1403AH/1983AD. 1st ed.

[4] Atiyyah Saqar, Mawsu’ah al-Usrah tata Ri’ayah al-Islam, vol. 6, pgs. 224-225. Cairo: Maktabah Wabhah, 1424AH/2003AD. 1st ed.

[5] Al-Mawsu’ah al-Fiqhiyyah, vol. 11, pg. 294. Kuwaiti Ministry of Islamic Affairs, 1407AH/1987AD. 1st ed.

[6] Al-Mu`minun, verses 5-7.

[7] Al-Mu`minun, verses 5-7.

[8] Al-Mawsu’ah al-Fiqhiyyah,, vol. 11, pgs. 297-298.

[9] Al-Nisa`, verse 25.

[10] Sahih al-Bukhari, Book of Marriage, Section on Concubinage and Setting One Free to Marry Her, no.7495. Sahih Muslim, Book of faith, Section on the Obligation of Faith in our Prophet Muhammad Having Been Sent to All Mankind, no.404.

[11] Musnad Ahmad, Book of the Kufans, Section of Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, no. 19673. Musnad at-Tayalisi, Section of Abu Bardah ibn Abi Musa narrating from his father, no. 501. Shu’aib al-Arna`ut verified the tradition in his comments on the Musnad of Ahmad.

[12] At-Tabarani, al-Mu’jam al-Awsat, Chapter on those named Abraham, no. 2316. Sunan ad-Daraqutni, Chapter on Marriage, Section on Divorce, Separation etc., no. 122.

[13] Al-Qurtubi, al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur`an, vol. 18, pgs. 178-179. Beirut: Dar Ihya at-Turath al-Arabi, 1405AH/1985AD.

[14] Sahih Muslim, Chapter on divorce, Section on the Expiation of Someone Who His wife for Himself Even if he Intended Divorce, no. 3750.

[15] At-Tahrim, verses 1 and 2.

[16] At-Tahrim, verse 1.

[17] At-Tahrim, verse 3.

[18] At-Tahrim, verse 4.

[19] At-Tahrim, verse 5.

[20] At-Tawbah, verse 43.

[21] Dr. ‘Imad as-Sayyid ash-Shirbini, ‘Ismah an-Nabi salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam fi Daw` al-Kitab wa as-Sunnah, pgs. 197 and 201. 1st ed. Cairo: Dar as-Sahifah Publishers, 1424AH/2003AD.

[22] Sahih al-Bukhari, Chapter on Qur`anic Exegesis, Section on the Qur`anic Chapter of at-Talaq, no. 4629. Sahih Muslim, Chapter on Divorce, Section on Marital Separation, Seclusion of Women and Selecting a Wife, no. 3765.

[23] Dr. Muhammad Abu an-Nur al-Hadidi, ‘Ismah al-Anbiya` wa ar-Radd ‘ala ash-Shubah al-Muwajjahah Ilaihim, pg. 472. Egypt: Matba’ah al-Amanah, 1399AH/1979AD.

[24] Sahih al-Bukhari, Chapter on Manumission, Section on the Preference of Properly Educating a Concubine, no. 2406. Sahih Muslim, Chapter on faith, Section on the Reward in the Afterlife for the Servant who Advises His Master to Help Him Better Worship God, no. 4412.

[25] Dr. Abd ar-Rahman al-Jairah, ar-Radd ‘ala Alex Bush and his Book “Muhammad, the Founder of the Islamic Faith,” pgs. 213-214. Cairo: Dar al-Muhaddithin, 1427AH/2006AD. 2nd ed.

[26] Sunan Ibn Majah, Chapter on Marriage, Section on Relationships with Women, no. 1977. Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Chapter on Morality, Section on the Favor of the Wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him), no. 3895. Albani authenticated this narration in as-Silsilah as-Sahihah, no. 285.



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