UNTOLD: A HISTORY OF THE WIVES OF PROPHET MUHAMMAD
by Tamam Kahn, Monkfish, 2010
“Untold … 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….”
— The Huffington Post
Khadija was Muhammad’s first and only wife for the first twenty-five years that he was a married man. Traditional stories of Khadija portray her as calm, fearless, loving, and free of doubt. According to Tamam Kahn, author of Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad, Khadija was “the rock upon which Muhammad built his family and religion.” She was older than Muhammad. She was a wealthy businesswoman and widow, having borne children with her previous husbands.
Khadija and Muhammad had four daughters. The youngest, and favorite, was Fatima. They also had one or possibly two sons who died very young.
The open hand symbol we call hamsa — which means five in Arabic — is, according to Kahn, a defining symbol of protection for Muslim women, who call it “The Hand of Fatima.”
Khadija died at sixty-five and her death was closely followed by the death of Abu Talib, Muhammad’s uncle who loved him like a son. Muhammad’s relationship with Abu Talib was especially important because Muhammad’s father died before he was born, and his mother died while he was very young. After Khadija died, Muhammad took twelve more wives. Ten were also widows. According to Kahn, being a widow in Arabia was difficult, and marriage to Muhammad gave each woman protection, affection, and spiritual community.
Untold employs prose and short lyric poems to bring the wives of Muhammad into a new light. The format — called prosimetrum — includes prose narrative with poems embedded in it. Kahn’s prose carries authentic historical information from traditional Muslim sources, while her poetry adds texture and imagination. “Tamam Kahn has created a new genre of Islamic literature,” writes Islamic scholar Arthur Buehler. Her poetry gives us reason to linger, while the prose keeps us on the information highway.
Muhammad had two Jewish wives among the twelve he married after Khadija’s death. Kahn begins her chapter about them by comparing the stories of Sarah and Hagar as they are told in the Torah and the Qur’an. She then shares her research about the Jewish communities in Arabia in the seventh century. Following an early battle during which Muhammad is betrayed by a Jewish tribe, he chooses Rayhana from among the captives as a wife, and he begins to learn from Rayhana about Jewish customs. When Muhammad brings home Safiyya, his next Jewish wife “from the family of Sarah,” Safiyya takes an unfortunate spill off Muhammad’s camel just as she rides through a crowd of “Hagar’s descendents.” Kahn described the scene in poetry:
…They keep looking at the unconcealed
woman, spilled out, bruised. They stare at her ankle, cheek,
leg, shoulder, arm, neck, all the shock of luxurious curls,
at the trickle of blood down her arm. Safiyya will
spend the rest of her life dusting herself off, getting up
again and again as if tripped by the shadow —
Sarah’s words to Hagar — I’ll stay, you have to go.
The last line of the poem refers to Sarah, who asks her husband Abraham to send away Hagar, his other wife or concubine, together with Abraham and Hagar’s son Ishmael. The story of the Hebrew Sarah and her son Isaac, and the Egyptian Hagar and her son Ishmael, are recounted in both Torah and Qur’an and figure prominently among the stories of the founders of Judaism and Islam. In Kahn’s poem, she reverses the image, alluding to two of Muhammad’s Muslim wives who apparently taunted Safiyya for being Jewish. In the prose surrounding the poetry, Kahn writes that she suspects that Safiyya nevertheless created friendships with other wives of Muhammad and with Muhammad and Khadija’s daughter Fatima. As evidence of this, Kahn recounts that Safiyya is said to have offered Fatima precious gold earrings.
Kahn quotes author Reza Aslan from his book No god but God in which he states: “If Muhammad’s biographers reveal anything at all, it is the anti-Jewish sentiments of the prophet’s biographers, not of the Prophet himself.” In fact, positive stories about Muhammad’s Jewish wives seem to be missing from the Hadith — a compilation of stories from the community that expound on the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad and his wives and others important to the founding of the Muslim faith. Nevertheless, according to Kahn, Moroccan Sufis regard Safiyya as a murshida (spiritual teacher), who taught Torah to the women and girls in the inner circle of Muhammad’s family.
With ease and beauty, Untold gives readers a different perspective of Islam and its beginnings. As author Alicia Ostriker writes: “Untold should be read with joy by any reader who hopes to transcend current stereotypes about Islam. It is a bridge between worlds.”