We were told in the Hadith reports that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had concubines. Safiyyah and Juwayriyah were captives of war and he married them. However, Maria and Rayhana are less clear. Were these concubines, and how did it work?
Juwayriyah and Safiyyah would not count as concubines because they were captives of war. By default, they would be classified as slaves to the Muslim community. Hence, they were slave women who were married to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It’s in alignment with the Quranic verses that were mentioned earlier.
Our traditional narratives say that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) freed and married them. It is mentioned that when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) took Safiyyah into his apartment. People were waiting to see whether Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would impose the veil on her. This is the case since if he did, he took her as a wife. If he didn't, that would mean that he keeps her as a slave girl. That shows that marriage was very rudimentary at the time. The whole procedure was very simple and casual.
People may not have easily drawn that distinction, or they may not have known so clearly if a certain person was with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as a wife or a slave girl. We must bear that in mind as we look at the whole scenario.
However, it will be interesting for those who are not so familiar with Maria to talk about the story of how she came to be with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Also, we can look at the argument that she was married to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
It has been mentioned that in about the sixth year of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) migration to Medina, he sent out some letters to various leaders in surrounding polities. He received various responses.
In the Islamic tradition, one of the letters was sent to the patriarch of Egypt, referred to as Muqawqis. Muqawqis sent a reply letter, “He was expecting a prophet to come, but he thought the prophet would be in Syria.”
Nevertheless, he is responding in kindness. He sends some material possessions to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as a gift. Among these material possessions, he sent Maria and her sister, Sirin. They are given by name. In the letter, he says to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): “These girls are from a noble family so treat them well.”
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) received these two girls. The classical Islamic tradition says that because there were sisters, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) could not keep them both as his consorts. He kept Maria and gave over Sirin to one of his companions, Hassan ibn Thabit.
It is mentioned that Maria, the Coptic woman, gave birth to a son. The father is Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The son's name was Ibrahim. However, this son died in its infancy, it was only 18 months old when he passed away. Three or four years later, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) passed away. Meaning, from the time that Maria came to live with him. Maria passed away about five years after the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). That's where the story about her ends.
People were unclear whether Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) married Maria. However, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) could have married her. What we have seen from the Quran already, has encouraged Muslims to marry off the slave women. It is easy to imagine that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) being the prime follower of the Quran, is instructed to follow the dictates of Allah (SWT). We are instructed to follow the dictates of Allah (SWT).
God is telling us to marry off the slave girls. Meaning, to marry them to somebody else, or if in a situation one fears that one will not be doing justice from Surah 4:3. As a result, one can marry the women who are in your possession. When he's given this instruction to marry or to marry off the slave girls. What basis is he going to keep them as his consorts without marriage? It doesn't seem to fit together.
Moreover, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is noted in Hadith to have encouraged the freedom of slaves in general. The Quran is encouraging people to set the slaves, both male and female free altogether.
We don't even have any control over whom they're going to get married to. They will be free persons. They can decide for themselves whom they want to get married to. This is what we saw that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did in the case of Juwayriyah and Safiyyah. They were taken as captives of war when their people were at war with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Yet, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) freed them each and gave them the choice to marry him or not. They chose to marry him.
That is what we could expect that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did across the board. Whether we're mentioning Maria al-Qibtiyya or Rayhana, who is listed in Islamic tradition as one of the possible persons with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had a private relationship as one of his consorts.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) can be expected to have followed his only lead. He should have set the example. Rather than just telling all the people, “Free the slave boys and girls.”
There is a narrative in which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “If a man were to teach his slave girl good manners, free her and get married to her; He will get a double reward. He'll get a reward for teaching her good manners and for freeing her. The Hadith says he’s getting a double reward because teaching her good manners is a good virtue. It’s a good virtue because if one has a slave person under one’s control, then one can work them for own gains.
For example, one can re-employ them to somebody else for wages and one gets the wages. Yet, if one is going to take the time to teach them, that's a time that they're going to be off work.
Meaning, that one is doing a charitable deed by teaching a slave girl or boy. If one frees her, then that's a good deed. If you marry her, then that's a further good deed. Perhaps of the person's slave background and not so desirable for marriage. However, one knows and gets married to that person. As a result, one is doing a good deed.
If Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is recommending to his followers to do this specific good deed. Then, there are other reports that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the foremost in doing good actions. If there was something good to be done, he would be at the forefront of doing it. It is mentioned that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions got down to camp, and he was gathering the firewood. People said, “Messenger of God, we can do that for you.” He replied, “I don’t like others to proceed in doing good actions.” Something to that effect.
Therefore, he's recommending others teach one’s slave girls good manners, free them, marry them, and one will get a double reward. Yet, he’s not seeking that double reward.
Consequently, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave Maria freedom. If Maria was a slave girl because we didn't explore that in detail. Muqawqis sent her and said, “This is a girl from a noble family.”
This led a great scholar of Islam, Allamah Shibli Nomani, to say that she wasn't a slave girl. She was given good treatment by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In his opinion of good treatment was that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) married her.