The Qur’an, in Surah Nisa, chapter 4 verse 3, states that a Muslim is allowed to marry a maximum of only four wives. Another verse in the Qur’an makes Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) an exception to this rule.
In Surah Ahzab chapter 33 verse 52:
“It is not lawful for thee (to marry more) women after this, nor to change them for (other) wives, even though their beauty attract thee, except any thy right hand should possess (as hand maidens) and Allah doth watch over all things “. [Al-Qur’an 33:52]
This verse clearly gives Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) the permission to keep all his previous wives but prohibits him to marry any more women except those which his right hand possessed i.e. slave girls.
The Prophet (pbuh) was allowed to keep all his previous wives because no one was allowed to marry the Prophet’s wives (ra) after they were divorced or widowed as they were ummul-momineen (mother of the believers).
People falsely accuse the Prophet (pbuh) of being hypersexual (Maaz-Allah), because he had eleven wives. If you read the life history of the Prophet (pbuh), only two of his marriages one with Khadija (ra), and the other, with Ayesha (ra) were marriages in the normal course. All his other marriages were contracted as a necessity and were based on various considerations.
The first marriage of the Prophet (pbuh) took place when he was 25 years of age and he married Khadija (ra) who was twice widowed, and was 40 years old. If the Prophet (pbuh) was hypersexual, why would he marry a woman who was 15 years older than him and already twice widowed?
Until his first wife, Khadija (ra) was alive, he never took a second wife. Khadija (ra) expired when the Prophet (pbuh) was 50 years age and only after this, did he marry the others. If he married eleven wives for sexual reasons, he should have had multiple wives during his youth. Contrary to this, history tells us that all his marriages with his remaining ten wives took place when he was between the age of 53 and 59 years.
All his wives (ra) were between the age of 36 to 50 years, except for two wives (ra). His reputation had spread far and wide, not only in Arabia, but also in the neighboring countries. Could he not have easily got younger and lovelier girls to marry? Most of his marriages were for political gain and for the spread of Islaam.
In Arabia, no one could carry on the work of reform and upliftment unless he belonged to, or was related to some specific and respectable tribe. Thus, in the interest of his mission, the Prophet (pbuh) needed inter-tribal relationships. He wanted to weld the quarreling tribal and clannish factions into one Muslim ummah, as brethren in faith (Ikhwan fi’d-din).
For instance, his wife Juwayreeyah (ra) belonged to the Banu Mustaliq clan, which was very powerful. The entire clan was a bitter enemy of Islam from the start, and they were finally suppressed by military action. When the Prophet (pbuh) married Juwayreeyah (ra), the Muslims released all their prisoners, saying that they could not keep the prophet’s relatives in bondage. It was due to this marriage that the whole clan of Banu Mustaliq accepted Islam and became peaceful and obedient to the laws of the new Islaamic state.
Maymunah (ra) also came from a very powerful and recalcitrant clan from Najd and was the sister of the wife of the chief of the clan in those days. It was this clan which had brutally murdered seventy members of an Islaamic missionary deputation. The Prophet’s (pbuh) marriage with Maymunah (ra) changed the whole atmosphere and Najd accepted Madinah’s authority under the leadership of the Prophet (pbuh).
Umm Habibah (ra) was the daughter of the Quraysh chief, Abu Sufyan. It was after the Prophet’s (pbuh) marriage to Umm Habibah, that Abu Sufyan never fought against the Prophet (pbuh). This marriage was largely responsible for the conquest of Makkah. Furthermore, Umm Habibah was first married to a certain Ubaydullah and emigrated with him to Abyssinia, where Ubaydullah became a Christian and a drunkard. Excessive consumption of wine killed him since it was a double shock to her that her husband had become a Christian and later died, she was badly in need of solace.
Safiyyah (ra) was the daughter of a very prominent Jewish chief, Huyyah ibn Aktab. In consideration of her family status, she could not be merged into an ordinary household. So the Prophet (pbuh) himself married her. After this marriage, the Jews did not dare to revive their opposition to the Prophet (pbuh) and his mission.
In the case of Hafsah (ra), it was the Prophet’s (pbuh) desire to bind in relationship with those of his great companions (sahabah) who were his advisers and who were trained for future leadership. He had married Abu Bakr’s (ra) daughter, married two of his own daughters to Uthman (ra) and one to ‘Ali (ra). ‘Umar (ra) could not be kept outside this wide circle of relationship. By marrying Umar’s daughter Hafsah (ra), the Prophet (pbuh) forged a strong bond of relationship within the Islamic movement thus strengthening the pillars of the ummah.
The Prophet (pbuh) had married his first cousin, Zaynab (ra), to his freed slave, Zayd ibn Haritha (ra), whom he had adopted as his son. This marriage of Zaynab (ra) with Zayd (ra) was intended to break the family and social barriers, but the marriage did not prove to be successful and ended in divorce. When the Prophet (pbuh) saw that Zaynab (ra) was left alone, he felt his responsibility in the matter. He also had to break another convention, according to which an adopted son became a real son. This difficult problem was solved by the Prophet’s (pbuh) marriage to Zaynab (ra) (as mentioned in the Qur’an, in Surah Ahzab, chapter no 33 verse 37) to annul that pre-Islamic conception and promulgate an Islamic law instead.
Another lady Zaynab (ra), Umm al Masakin (mother of the poor and helpless), daughter of Khuzayma ibn Al-Haith, belonged to the Hawazin clan. Her husband was killed in the battle of Uhud. To rescue her from widowhood, the Prophet (pbuh) took her as his wife.
After the revelation of the verse in Surah Ahzab, chapter 33 verse 52, the Prophet (pbuh) only married Mary the Copt who was a slave girl sent as a present by the Christian Muqauqas of Egypt. Since the Christian Chieftain of Egypt sent Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) a slave girl as a present, he could not refuse this gift as a refusal would have disturbed the political alliance. He could not keep her as a slave girl, since Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) preached that slaves should be freed. The only option left with him was to marry her, since the Qur’an gave him the permission to do so. Later on she became the mother of Ibrahim (ra) who died in his infancy.