Dr. Susan Corso: ‘Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad': Demystifying Islam’s First Women
“Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad” is a mystical demystification of the women who were present at the founding of Islam. Bold in conception, shivery in detail, it sheds light on the influence of the women who, centuries ago, were caught in intrigue, war, clan concatenations, jealousy and a host of other exigencies of the human condition. The Prophet Muhammad didn’t start out as a prophet; neither was Jesus the Christ from day one. These divinely inspired men became what they were meant to be. And right alongside both, there were women. Women who witnessed, women who comforted, women who tended, women who loved, women who suffered. Tamam Kahn, a Sufi, has written a remarkable book. Just as Anita Diamant gave us the Jewish matriarchs in “The Red Tent,” and just as Marion Zimmer Bradley gave us the perspective of the women of the Arthurian legends in “The Mists of Avalon,” Tamam Kahn teases out, uncovers and re-imagines the women who surrounded Muhammad. Written in a prose/poetry form known as prosimetrum, she combines hadith with poetical imaginings. Consider this from the opening poem: “Conversation with these women / Will never end.” She’s right. As I read her book, I wished that every single one of them was alive to weigh in on the dreadfully politicized issue of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero. I am sure each one of them would have had something trenchant and accurate to say. Muhammad’s first wife was Khadija, the White Shade Cloud. It was she who saw Muhammad through the roughest years in his becoming a prophet. It was to her that he brought his fears of madness and his tears of wonder. She simply began to balance everyday life with Divine Wonder as part of ordinary reality. Known for her business acumen, she gave up everything — her wealth, her prestige, her everything — to believe in her husband as her prophet. His second wife was Aisha, Matchfire in the Backlight. She was his only virgin wife, a woman who studied law and learned the entire Quran by heart. His third was Zaynab, the Beautiful. It is she to whom responsibility for the creation of hijab falls. She was on display on her wedding night, and it was given: “And when ye ask of them [the wives of the Prophet] anything, as it of them from behind a curtain.” Hijab means both to separate and to protect. My favorite of the wives is Umm Salama, the Mother of Peace. Her name means “Mother of Salama”; she was called The Wise. Her wisdom arises in the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, a “crucial moment in Muhammad’s life where he enacted a peace treaty with the leaders of Mecca.” There were two Jewish wives, Rayhanna and Safiyya, and Mariya from among the Christians. Kahn writes the anguish of her heart over these women: “How can we have the name of the mule that came with her [Mariya] to Arabia — Dudul — and lack so many fundamental facts about the woman who was to become the mother of Prophet Muhammad’s son?” Indeed. Mariya calls herself “the one-woman-peacekeeping bride from Egypt.” There are seven others whom I will leave you to discover in this special book. The word Islam comes from etymological roots meaning “peaceful surrender.” A verse from the Quran says it beautifully: “It well may be that Allah will put love between you and those of them who are your enemies” (60:7). “Matrimony,” chimes the author, “rescued widows and was a kind of peace plan.” Tamam Kahn’s book goes a long way toward peace and surrender to the truth that Islam is a religion of the Book, just as are Judaism and Christianity. Read “Untold,” learn about these strong, miraculous women and weep for the years of peace that we have all lost.