Q. In a universal competition on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, a Muslim brother from India was awarded the first prize, but I forget the name of the book. This brother claimed in his book that the mother of the Prophet's son Ibrahim was a concubine. This mate of the Prophet I believe was the Jewess from Egypt. Now I was under the impression that all the Prophet's mates were his "wives" and no concubines. What is the story on "concubines" in this instance, and in general?

In the same track, what is the definitive word on "those whom your right hand possess?" According to Muhammad Asad, "marriage" was a prerequisite before any sexual relation between the master and the "right hand possession." What is the story on this?

A. We must first of all know that the modern disparagement of concubinage is at odds with the historical reality. Solomon had concubines. Now in a society where there was a class structure, a slave presented to a person of authority who then took her as a legally married wife presented certain problems. It lowered the man in the eyes of the person who gave him the concubine, for it showed that he lowered himself to the level of the gift, considering that the concubines were not taken from the elite. There are several other considerations which we need not discuss, but suffice it to say that concubinage was a norm, especially existent where the two parties were of different cultures, or where a sovereign, upon entering a land, wished to take a woman from among the people. He would do this without letting his own people think that she had been given preference to his own as far as the choice of a mate was concerned.

In the Prophet's time, it was a tribal society. One married from within one's own tribe. To leave his tribe and take a wife from another was to show that he did not think that within his own tribe were women who were up to being his wife. What was the solution, given that politics had to be satisfied also? One took a concubine, it pleased everyone. The women of the man's tribe knew that he had not "married" over them; the people of the concubine's tribe knew that he had bestowed honor on them. Now all this -- that it existed in the Prophet's household -- is evident if one accepts only a part of the hadith that has come down to us that describe Marya, some of the wives did not like her to begin with. Next she was not a Jewess, but rather a Coptic Christian, which is why she is known as Marya al Koptiyya. As far as Asad is concerned, I think he is putting things into a modern perspective. In society's eyes, yes marriage today is the prerequisite for sexual relations, although I will ask what denotes a marriage. To me, it is a contract, or public declaration that person A will live with person B as husband and wife. The reason is that all society knows of this relationship and none will be accused of being in an illicit relationship, nor should any man try to make moves on the wife of another.

Now as far as "right hand" possession goes, it is my personal opinion, based on my reading, that with the disappearance of slavery, and with the disappearance of the laws of war that allowed men to take women from the captives to mother their children, the term is of no use, and those to whom it may apply do not exist. For again, in the days of the Prophet, it was legal to make slaves of the prisoners of war. Every nation today is signatory to treaties disallowing this, and so, like the months of haram, so too, the unanimity of agreement regarding the prohibition of taking the prisoners for this use makes them "sacred." In fact, one would now conceivably face rape charges. A Muslim who I respect greatly and who I had the great pleasure to meet, Muhammad Shahrour, and who has authored several books, disagrees with me. He feels that the women of today who are on welfare, for example, and whom a man may support, may make themselves available. Or a man who helps women who are very poor, and upon whom society looks down, but who have sexual needs too, may be taken by such rich man as "right hand possessions." If one looks at societies in the Far East, one cannot say that Shahrour can be proven wrong if the matter is assessed for its societal implications. The choice is yours. It may even be possible to entertain both opinions.

Please note that the Muslims -- and I do not know if Asad is using them as his source -- committed several blunders with the aspect of concubinage. The result was what we saw in Serbia. Islam allowed marriage to non-Muslims, and by this, obviously concubinage. But the Muslims at some point decided that Ibn Umar's supposed hadith was explicative of the Qur'an, that Christians were mushriks, and that the verse of marriage permission did not apply. They therefore would force these women to convert to Islam before relations could be commenced. I use the word "force" correctly. A woman is in a position where she is told that to accept Islam would gain her the position of a concubine, and to reject it would mean death, or simply life as a POW. Which would she choose, especially since the mere fact that someone had presented her with this offer was telling her that he had an interest in her? We know what the later Muslim warriors were, especially the Turks, and we dissociate ourselves from their travesties by placing the barrier of truth between them and ourselves. This is a sore topic with me, for what our "mujahideen" did in India and the Balkans is a thing of which I am ashamed, and which the horror of the rapine that the Bosnians now suffer cannot erase.

Posted August 25, 1999