The Prophet’s conduct with his wife Sawdah: The issue of divorce


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Waqar Akbar Cheema


With their efforts to malign the Prophet of Islam having failed on the oft-discussed issues, the critics now pick on lesser known aspects of his life. One such issue is about the Prophet’s conduct with his wife Sawdah. It is alleged that the Prophet divorced her after years of marriage solely because of her advancing age. This paper critically analyzes the available information and shows how the revocable divorce pronounced by the Prophet was meant only to bring out some practical lessons for the Muslim community. It also shows that the Prophet continued to show his love and affection for Sawdah even after the said incident.

1. Introduction

Failing to come up with objections having potential to cause real consternation with Muslims on general aspects of Islamic teachings and the highlights of the Prophet’s (may the peace and blessings of Almighty Allah be upon him) family life, critics of Islam have turned to lesser known issues. Other than asking for a critical and thorough response from Muslims, it shows the new levels of frustration reached by anti-Islamic polemicists.

One such issue is the blessed Prophet’s alleged divorce with Sawdah and the subsequent settlement among them. It is alleged that while she remained faithful to the Prophet, he divorced her because of her age. They say this was unjust on his part, and therefore, a violation of the Qur’anic instruction of justice among multiple wives (Qur’an 4:3).

In this article, we shall discuss this issue, analyze the available evidences on the details of it and to try to see the real picture of the alleged episode.

2. Did the Prophet divorce Sawdah?

There is contradicting evidence on whether the Prophet actually divorced Sawdah. Most authentic sources do not clearly indicate anything like this. They suggest Sawdah merely feared for it.

عن ابن عباس، قال: ” خشيت سودة أن يطلقها النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم، فقالت: لا تطلقني وأمسكني، واجعل يومي لعائشة، ففعل ” فنزلت: {فلا جناح} [النساء: 128] عليهما أن يصلحا بينهما صلحا والصلح خير فما اصطلحا عليه من شيء فهو جائز

Ibn ‘Abbas said: Sawdah feared that the Prophet was going to divorce her, so she said: ‘Do not divorce me, but keep me and give my day to ‘A’ishah.’ So he did so, and the following was revealed: ‘Then there is no sin on them both if they make terms of peace between themselves, and making peace is better. [4:28] So whenever they agree to make peace in something, then it is permissible.[1]

There are, however, some reports with mursal (disconnected) chains of narrators that indicate the divorce did happen. One of them states:

 حدثنا القاسم بن أبي بزة أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم بعث إلى سودة بطلاقها فلما أتاها جلست على طريقه إلى بيت عائشة فلما رأته قالت: أنشدك بالذي أنزل عليك كتابه واصطفاك على خلقه لم طلقتني؟ ألموجدة وجدتها في؟ قال: «لا» قالت: فإني أنشدك بمثل الأولى أما راجعتني وقد كبرت ولا حاجة لي في الرجال ولكني أحب أن أبعث في نسائك يوم القيامة فراجعها النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قالت: فإني قد جعلت يومي وليلتي لعائشة حبة رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم

Al-Qasim ibn Abi Bazzah narrated: The Prophet sent for Sawdah regarding divorce. When she learnt of this, she sat on his way towards the house of ‘A’ishah. Upon seeing the Prophet, Sawdah said: ‘I urge you, in the name of the One Who revealed His book to you and chose you from amongst His creation, why have you divorced me? Did you find some fault with me that made you angry?’ He said: ‘No.’ She said: ‘I urge you to take me back. I have become old and I have no desire for men, but I wish to be raised among your wives on the Day of Judgment.’ Therefore, the Prophet took her back. So she said: ‘Verily, I give the day of my turn to ‘A’ishah, the beloved of the Messenger of Allah.’[2]

Referring to such reports through this and other chains of narration,[3] al-Albani (d. 1420 AH) states:

ولعل هذه الطرق يتقوى أصل القصة بها وهى تطليقه صلى الله عليه وسلم لسودة ومراجعته إياها

These chains of narration together support the proof of the Prophet’s divorce to Sawdah and his revoking her.[4]

Reconciling the two reports, ‘Ali ibn Sulṭan al-Qari (d. 1014 AH) stated that first the Prophet made the pronunciation of a revocable divorce, which does not imply separation by itself. Fearing that the waiting period (‘iddah) may pass and result in separation, Sawdah approached the Prophet and had the conversation reported in the narration of al-Qasim ibn Abi Bazzah. When the Prophet revoked the divorce, she gave up her night turn, saying she had become old of age and did not need intimacy.[5]

From the above, it is clear that divorce happened first and when it was revoked, Sawdah offered to give up her turn in favor of ‘A’ishah. The sequence is of critical importance.

3. Reason for the divorce of Sawdah

There is no authentic report giving the reason for the divorce to Sawdah or her fear concerning the same. It is, therefore, upon us to analyze different pieces of evidence and find some answer to this question.

Mufti Muhammad Taqi ‘Uthmani writes:

وأما الحكمة في طلاقه صلى الله عليه وسلم إياها، مع كونها أقدم نسائه صحبة، فالذي يظهر لهذا العبد الضعيف أنه صلى الله عليه وسلم لم يكن يريد أن يفارقها رأساً، ولكنه صلى الله عليه وسلم بُعِثَ معلماً للكتاب مفسراً له، ولو لم يطلِّق أحداً من نسائه بقيت أحكام الطلاق خالية عن أسوته الحسنة، فطلقها صلى الله عليه وسلم، ثم راجعها، لتتبين سنته في الطلاق والرجعة كما تبينت في سائر نواحي الحياة، وليعلم تفسير قول الله عز وجل: {وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِنْ بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزًا أَوْ إِعْرَاضًا فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِمَا أَنْ يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحًا} وإلا فلا يتصور من مثله صلى الله عليه وسلم أن يفارق زوجته طالت صحبته معها لمحض كبر سنها،

As to the wisdom of the Prophet’s divorce to her while she was the oldest in company among his wives, it appears to me that the Prophet did not intend to part with her in the first place. However, since he was sent as the teacher of the Book and the commentator to it, had he not divorced any of his wives, the rulings of divorce would not find a place in his perfect life-example. Therefore, he pronounced the divorce and then revoked it to make the way of divorce and its revoking known, as happened with other aspects of his life. Likewise, [he did it] to make known the meanings of the verse: ‘If a woman fears ill treatment or aversion from her husband, then, there is no sin on them in entering into a compromise between them.’ (4:128) Otherwise, it cannot be thought of someone like the Prophet to part with his wife after a long companionship merely for her old age.”[6]

This is not just the good faith of a believer. Reason supports it fully. Generally, there can be three possible reasons for divorce:

  1. Not feeling attracted anymore.
  2. Financial constraints.
  3. In order to marry someone else.

Let’s analyze the given situation against these three possibilities.

Firstly, lack of attraction on the account of Sawdah’s advancing age cannot be the reason because Sawdah was already quite old and not particularly attractive when the Prophet married her.

There is no evidence of any pressing financial constraints that would make the Prophet consider divorcing her.[7]

Certainly, the Prophet did not need to divorce her and any other of his wives solely for marrying some other woman. Furthermore, he never married another woman after this event.

In fact, the Prophet was under no obligation to treat his wives equally though he always did so. Therefore, it is clear that no possible reason of divorce was there and there is no such suggestion in any of the reports. All this supports the idea that the Prophet did this only to bring out some practical lessons for the Muslim community. Al-Qasim ibn Abi al-Bazzah’s narration also confirms that the Prophet had no negative feelings against Sawdah.

One might say that the revocable divorce happened in the case of Hafsah as well. It is, however, to be noted that this incident happened during 8 A.H.,[8]whereas the divorce to Hafsah and its eventual revoking happened during 9 A.H.[9] This means by the time it happened the incident was the first and only instance of the Prophet teaching his community about the conduct of divorce.

4. Report alleging the Prophet divorced Sawdah for her old age

There is, however, a report alleging Sawdah’s old age as the cause of divorce.

Ibn Sa‘d (d. 230 AH) has related a narration of ‘A’ishah through his teacher al-Waqidi:

عن عائشة قالت: كانت سودة بنت زمعة قد أسنت. وكان رسول الله ص. لا يستكثر منها وقد علمت مكاني من رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – وأنه يستكثر مني. فخافت أن يفارقها وضنت بمكانها عنده فقالت: يا رسول الله يومي الذي يصيبني لعائشة وأنت منه في حل. فقبله النبي – صلى الله عليه وسلم – وفي ذلك نزلت: «وإن امرأة خافت من بعلها نشوزا أو إعراضا» النساء: 128.

Narrated ‘A’ishah: Sawdah became older and the Messenger of Allah did not visit her frequently. She knew my status in the eyes of the Messenger of Allah and that he frequently visited me. She became fearful that the Prophet may divorce her and wanted to keep her status with him. She said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, make the day of my turn for ‘A’ishah and you are at ease regarding this.’ The Prophet accepted this. In this context, the verse, ‘If a woman fears ill treatment or aversion from her husband, then, there is no sin on them in entering into a compromise between them.’ (4:128) was revealed.[10]

However, this report is very weak because it includes much criticized narrator, al-Waqidi.[11]

Moreover, it even contradicts an authentic hadith in stating that the Prophet did not frequently visit Sawdah even before the divorce happened.

عن عروة، قال: قالت عائشة: «يا ابن أختي كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم لا يفضل بعضنا على بعض في القسم، من مكثه عندنا، وكان قل يوم إلا وهو يطوف علينا جميعا، فيدنو من كل امرأة من غير مسيس، حتى يبلغ إلى التي هو يومها فيبيت عندها» ولقد قالت سودة بنت زمعة: حين أسنت وفرقت أن يفارقها رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يا رسول الله، يومي لعائشة، فقبل ذلك رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم منها، قالت: نقول في ذلك أنزل الله تعالى وفي أشباهها أراه قال: {وإن امرأة خافت من بعلها نشوزا} [النساء: 128]

Narrated ‘Urwah: ‘A’ishah said: “O nephew! The Messenger of Allah would not prefer any one of us to another with regards to spending time with us. Hardly a day would go by without him visiting all of us. He would come close to each woman, without touching her, until he reached the one whose turn it was, then he would spend the night with her. When Sawdah bint Zam‘ah had become old, and feared that the Messenger of Allah would leave her, she said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! My day is for ‘A’ishah.’ So the Messenger of Allah accepted that. We would say, concerning that [incident] that it was regarding her, and others in her situation for which Allah revealed: ‘And if a woman fears separation from her husband…[12]

‘Touching’ here refers to intercourse. The wording with ad-Daraquṭni (d. 385 AH) explains that during these regular day-time visits:

فيقبل ويمس من غير مسيس ولا مباشرة

The Prophet would kiss and touch without having intercourse.[13]

This authentic report says before Sawdah gave up her turn the Prophet would not prefer one of his wives over others with regards to spending time. It is, therefore, apparent that Ibn Sa‘d’s  report, besides being weak due to al-Waqidi, contradicts authentic narrations as well.

5. Why Sawdah?

Finding all their arguments rebuffed, the skeptics may even ask: if the purpose was to bring out practical lessons for the community, why was it only the aged Sawdah who was chosen for this? The answer is simple; Sawdah was advanced in her age and did not find herself inclined to men. This fact must have been known to the Prophet before her stating it as such changes never occur overnight. If the Prophet were to choose another of his wives, she would have to give up some right without feeling free of the need for it. Therefore, the choice was perfect.

6. The Prophet continued to visit and behave affectionately toward Sawdah

Despite all this, the Prophet continued to visit Sawdah, even though he spent the night of her turn with ‘A’ishah. ‘Urwah’s report above states that the Prophet used to visit all his wives every day and spent nights with them turn wise. While Sawdah gave up her night turn saying she had no desire for intimacy, the Prophet did not stop caring for her or giving her time. As stated earlier, the incident with Sawdah happened during 8 A.H., yet in the reports of the incident of honey which happened during 9 A.H.,[14] we find evidence of the Prophet visiting her just as he visited his other wives every day.

‘A’ishah reports:

كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يحب الحلواء، ويحب العسل، وكان إذا صلى العصر أجاز على نسائه فيدنو منهن، فدخل على حفصة، فاحتبس عندها أكثر مما كان يحتبس، فسألت عن ذلك، فقال لي: أهدت لها امرأة من قومها عكة عسل، فسقت رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم منه شربة، فقلت: أما والله لنحتالن له، فذكرت ذلك لسودة، قلت: إذا دخل عليك فإنه سيدنو منك، فقولي له: يا رسول الله، أكلت مغافير، فإنه سيقول: لا، فقولي له: ما هذه الريح، وكان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يشتد عليه أن يوجد منه الريح، فإنه سيقول: سقتني حفصة شربة عسل، فقولي له: جرست نحله العرفط، وسأقول ذلك: وقوليه أنت يا صفية، فلما دخل على سودة، قلت: تقول سودة: والذي لا إله إلا هو، لقد كدت أن أبادره بالذي قلت لي وإنه لعلى الباب، فرقا منك، فلما دنا رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قلت: يا رسول الله، أكلت مغافير؟ قال: «لا» قلت: فما هذه الريح؟ قال: «سقتني حفصة شربة عسل» قلت: جرست نحله العرفط، فلما دخل علي قلت له مثل ذلك، ودخل على صفية فقالت له مثل ذلك، فلما دخل على حفصة قالت له: يا رسول الله، ألا أسقيك منه؟ قال: «لا حاجة لي به» قالت: تقول سودة: سبحان الله، لقد حرمناه، قالت: قلت لها: اسكتي

Allah’s Messenger used to like sweets and also used to like honey, and whenever he finished the ‘asr prayer, he used to visit his wives and approach (fayadnu) them. Once he visited Hafsah and remained with her longer than the period he used to stay, so I enquired about it. It was said to me, ‘A woman from her tribe gave her a leather skin containing honey as a present, and she gave some of it to Allah’s Messenger to drink.’ I said, ‘By Allah, we will play a trick on him.’ So I mentioned the story to Sawdah and said to her, “When he enters upon you, he will come near (sayadnu) to you, whereupon you should say to him, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! Have you eaten maghafir?’ He will say, ‘No.’ Then you say to him, ‘What is this bad smell?’ It would be very hard on Allah’s Messenger that a bad smell should be found on his body. He will say, ‘Hafsah has given me a drink of honey.’ Then you should say to him, ‘Its bees must have sucked from al-‘urfuṭ (a foul smelling flower).’ I too, will tell him the same. And you, O Safiyah, say the same.” So when the Prophet entered upon Sawdah, (the following happened). Sawdah said, “By Him except Whom none has the right to be worshipped, I was about to say to him what you had told me to say while he was still at the gate because of fear from you. But when Allah’s Messenger came near to me (dana), I said to him, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! Have you eaten maghafir?’ He replied, ‘No.’ I said, ‘What about this smell?’ He said, ‘Hafsah has given me a drink of honey.’ I said, ‘Its bees must have sucked al-‘urfuṭ.’ “When he entered upon me, I told him the same as that, and when he entered upon Safiyah, she told him the same. So when he visited Hafsah again, she said to him, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! Shall I give you a drink of it (honey)?’ He said, ‘I have no desire for it.’ Sawdah said, ‘Subhan Allah! We have deprived him of it (honey).’ I said to her, ‘Be quiet!’”[15]

Commenting on this hadith, Ibn Hajar (d. 852 AH) writes:

وفيه أن عماد القسم الليل وأن النهار يجوز الاجتماع فيه بالجميع لكن بشرط أن لا تقع المجامعة إلا مع التي هو في نوبتها … وفيه استعمال الكنايات فيما يستحيا من ذكره لقوله في الحديث فيدنو منهن والمراد فيقبل ونحو ذلك ويحقق ذلك قول عائشة لسودة إذا دخل عليك فإنه سيدنو منك فقولي له إني أجد كذا وهذا إنما يتحقق بقرب الفم من الأنف

In this hadith is the evidence that equal distribution of time between wives is basically about the night. As for the day, it is permissible to make it common to all with the condition that one would not have intercourse except with the one whose turn it is for the night….In this report, there is use of euphemism for what one feels shy to mention [openly]. The wording ‘he approached (fayadnu) them’ means ‘he kissed them’ and similar to it. It is confirmed by ‘A’ishah’s saying to Sawdah, ‘when he enters upon you, he will come near (sayadnu) you whereupon you should say to him I find such and such.’ This [feeling of odor] is confirmed [only] when the mouth comes closer to the nose.[16]

 Therefore, the hadith confirms two things. First, that even when Sawdah felt no desire for intimacy and gave up her night turn for ‘A’ishah, the Prophet used to visit her regularly during the day like his other wives. Secondly, it tells us that the Prophet, nevertheless, continued to express his feelings for her through affectionately getting close to her and kissing her.

7. Summary and conclusion

 Sawdah was already quite advanced in age when the Prophet married her.

 The general practice of the Prophet was to visit all his wives every day and Sawdah was no exception.

 The Prophet made the pronouncement of the revocable divorce to Sawdah only to practically teach the community how to go about the issue.

 It was only after a dialogue between the blessed Prophet and Sawdah resulted in revoking the divorce that she offered to give up her night turn, saying that she felt no desire for intimacy.

 Even after Sawdah had given up her night turn, the Prophet used to visit her and showed her affection and love.

 All these observations conclusively overturn any suggestions of the Messenger of Allah’s impassionate behavior toward his longtime companion and wife, Sawdah – may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon them both.

References and Notes:

[1] at-Tirmidhi, al-Jami’, Translated by Abu Khaliyl (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 2007) Hadith 3040; classified as sahih by al-Albani

[2] Ibn Sa‘d, at-Tabaqat al-Kubra, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1990) Vol. 8, 43; al-Albani said it is sahih mursal in Irwa’ al-Ghalil, Vol. 7, 147

[3] as-San‘ani, Abdur-Razzaq, al-Musannaf, (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1403 A.H.) Hadith 10657 on the authority of Haitham/Abu Haitham; al-Baihaqi, Sunan al-Kubra, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003)  Hadith 13435 on the authority of ‘Urwah

[4] al-Albani, Irwa’ al-Ghalil, (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985) Vol. 7, 147

[5] al-Qari, ‘Ali bin Sulṭan, Mirqat al-Mafatih Sharh Mishkat al-Masabih, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 2002) Vol. 5, 2116

[6] ‘Uthmani, Muhammad Taqi, Takmila Fath al-Mulhim,  (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2006) Vol. 1, 117-118

[7] Details in the author’s forthcoming article, “Were the wives of the Prophet dissatisfied with him?”

[8] al-Kinani, al-Mukhtasar al-Kabir fi Sirat ar-Rasul, (Amman: Dar al-Bashir, 1993) 92; al-Maqrizi, Imta‘ al-Asma‘, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1999) Vol. 6, 33; Ibn al-Mulaqqan, Ghayat as-Sul fi Khasa’is ar-Rasul, (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir) 119; ad-Diyarbakri, Tarikh al-Khamis fi Ahwal Anfas Nafis, (Beirut: Dar Sadir) Vol. 2, 65

[9] The divorce took place in the backdrop of what Qur’an 66:3 relates to (the incident of the honey which happened during 9 A.H.). See: ad-Diyarbakri, Tarikh al-Khamis fi Ahwal Anfas Nafis, Vol. 2, 122

[10] Ibn Sa‘d, at-Tabaqat al-Kubra, Vol. 8, 43

[11] al-‘Asqalani, Ibn Hajar, Tahdhib at-Tahdhib, (Hyderabad: Da’ira Ma’arif an-Nizamiya, 1326 AH) Vol. 9, 366-367

[12] as-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, as-Sunan, Hadith 2135; Translated by Yasir Qadi and Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 2008) classified as hasan sahih by al-Albani

[13] ad-Daraquṭni, as-Sunan, (Beirut: ar-Risalah, 2004) Hadith 3735-3736. See also, Ahmad Hasan’s translation of Sunan Abu Dawud, (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1990) Hadith 2130, where he aptly uses the word ‘intercourse’ instead of ‘touching.’

[14] ad-Diyarbakri, Tarikh al-Khamis fi Ahwal Anfas Nafis, Vol. 2, 122

[15] al-Bukhari, as-Sahih, Translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1997) Hadith 6972

[16] al-‘Asqalani, Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1379 AH) Vol. 9, 380

About the author

Waqar Akbar Cheema


  • As salam aleykum wa rahmatullah
    May Allah reward you akhy

    I found a completely contrary statement of sheikh al Albani rahimahu Allah in Silsila al Sahiha (volume 3 page 467) where he explicitly says that this narration of al-Qasim ibn Abi Bazzah is not authentic and that the prophet sws did not divorce from Sawda (ra).
    How do you reconcile between those two statements ?

    Barak’Allahu fik

    • Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu
      Jazak Allah khair brother

      Two issues here

      1) Reliability of ibn Abi Bazza report: In al-Irwa’ al-Albani said it is “mursal sahih” and in Sahiha reference you noted he says it was either mursal or mu’dal (i.e. it could have two links missing rather than one). Firstly, this difference is not very significant and secondly in another case al-Albani dubbed a ibn Abi Bazza report about the Prophet’s (saaw) time as mursal. See Silsala Da’ifa no. 2860.

      2) Overall reliability of the divorce account: al-Albani makes a case against it based on the reports that suggest Sawda rA only feared being divorced. This is not a very solid ground to question a reliable report albeit a mursal one especially when its substantiated by a number of reports through an expert historian al-Waqidi. Whatever has been said about al-Waqidi notwithstanding a narration from him with description of an event rather than a saying with legal import cannot be disregarded especially when it has a basis in reports of others as well. Moreover, the fear and actual (single revocable) divorce pronouncement are not mutually exclusive as the former could have been followed by the latter.

      In view of all this I would say al-Albani’s take in al-Irwa’ that I quoted makes more sense. In Sahiha he seems to have missed a point he made at a different time. Surely, the genius also slip at times.

      I hope it helps