Question: God Almighty reveals that the wives of the noble Prophet are not like any other women, and that they must be much more careful in their behaviors. What lessons should people today draw from this divine message?
Answer: The verses you refer to are from the Surah al-Ahzab in the Qur’an:
“O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women, provided that you keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety (and, therefore, act with awareness of your special status). So (even more than other believing women) do not be complaisant in your speech (when addressing men), lest he in whose heart is a disease should be moved to desire, but speak in an honorable way.
And (prefer to) remain in your homes (unless there is a need. If you do go out for a need) do not go out flaunting your charms as (women used to do) in the former times of Ignorance. And establish the Prayer in conformity with its conditions, and pay the Prescribed Purifying Alms, and obey God and His Messenger (in whatever they command). God only wills to remove from you, O members of the (Prophet’s) household, all that may be loathsome, and to purify you to the utmost of purity. Keep in mind and study what is recited in your homes of God’s Revelations and the Wisdom (which especially includes the Sunnah of His Messenger). Surely God is All-Subtle (penetrating down into the innermost part of people’s heart and mind), All-Aware” (al-Ahzab 33:32–34).
Subjective Responsibility according to a Person’s Position
With these verses, God Almighty provides people with signposts so that they can give dues to their honorable position. Wives of the beloved Prophet lived in an atmosphere where divine messages poured on them like a heavenly shower. They had the honor of always being in company of the Messenger of God, peace and blessing be upon him. This is a blessing worth giving worlds in return. Considering the perspective of Imam al-Maturidi, we can also say that as God Almighty knew with His eternal knowledge the mission they would carry out, He honored them with this address from the very beginning and reminded them of how sensitively they must act, guiding them to a “subjective responsibility” of a higher level.
At the beginning of the verse God reminded them that they were not the same as ordinary women. If they had been, then God Almighty would not grant them this honor. The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, chose all of his wives from among people who made serious sacrifices for the sake of God, who left their homes for this cause, and dedicated their souls to the path of the noble Prophet. So, God Almighty granted special favors to those noble souls who proved their eligibility, and honored them by joining the family of His Messenger.
Special Status Requires Utmost Piety
After reminding them of the significance of their special position, God required them to give their dues and commanded, “Keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety (and, therefore, act with awareness of your special status). So (even more than other believing women) do not be complaisant in your speech (when addressing men), lest he in whose heart is a disease should be moved to desire, but speak in an honorable way.”
The first point emphasized here is taqwa (piety, or fear of God). If we consider the meaning of taqwa in all its immensity, it includes being sensitive at living in compliance with the commands of God, refraining from anything unclear whether it is allowed by religion or not, and even refraining from certain—possibly allowed—things with the same consideration. In addition to observing the rules of religion, the meaning of taqwa includes discerning the laws made prevalent in the universe and acting with due sensibility.
After reminding them of their need to live within a frame of taqwa, they were then warned of being careful at talking to others and not letting their voice reflect feminine charm. Since not everybody has the same level, there can be people with a moral weakness in their hearts. Nevertheless, before these verses were revealed, someone even said, “When the beloved Prophet passes away, I may marry such and such a woman.” However, such feelings and thoughts were eliminated from the beginning when it was revealed that the wives of the noble Prophet are mothers of all believers and that marrying them was forever forbidden: “It is not for you to cause hurt to God’s Messenger, as it is unlawful for you ever to marry his widows after him” (al-Ahzab 33:53).
So the wives of the noble Prophet were warned about being serious and measured in order not to attract those with a weakness in their hearts. The same verse commanded that they would speak to strangers from behind a curtain: “When you ask something of them (his wives), ask them from behind a screen. Your doing so is purer for your hearts and for their hearts.” Particularly, mothers of believers such as Aisha, Hafsa, and Umm Salama conveyed the encyclopedic religious knowledge they had received from the noble Messenger of God, peace and blessing be upon him, to women and men from all over the world. As they carried out this exalted duty, they spoke from behind a screen when they addressed men. Even then, they acted with utmost sensitivity and followed the Qur’anic command to the point. They spoke in the same serious and dignified manner as a judge does in the courtroom.
By stating in the next verse: “And (prefer to) remain in your homes (unless there is a need. If you do go out for a need) do not go out flaunting your charms as (women used to do) in the former times of Ignorance,” God Almighty warned them against going out dressed in a tempting fashion and acting in a lighthearted manner, as women of the Age of Ignorance did. At this point, one may ask the following question: The people in question are the wives of the noble Prophet, who were already ordered to talk to strangers behind a screen, not talk in a lovely manner, and marry those who are eternally forbidden to others and who are the mothers of believers. Then is it ever possible for believers to bear certain negative feelings and thoughts about their mothers deserving so much respect?
In my opinion, there are two points we really need to recognize here: It is always possible for the latent evil inclinations in human nature to manifest themselves, like a scorpion preparing to sting. The slightest inclination of this kind about the wives of the beloved Prophet is a dangerous situation that can ruin a person’s eternal life. For this reason, the divine decree is meant for preventing even the slightest of these feelings before they appear.
If these matters are so delicate concerning the pure wives of the noble Prophet, who are the mothers of believers, it is better understood how careful other people need to be in relation to the opposite gender. In other words, even though the prime addressees of the verses are the wives of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, these verses essentially give a message to all believing women in the person of those blessed mothers.
Inner Purity besides the Outer One
The verses above teach believing women the essential logic of modest dress. Limiting the issue to a dress code will be a deficient perspective; the issue at hand is an entire code of manners. Accordingly, a Muslim woman outside the home should not accentuate her feminine qualities but mind her manners very carefully, even adjusting the tone of her voice. In the same way, it is not approved of Muslim women to wear ornamented clothes or put on noticeable perfume since these can make them attractive to others. Even if heedless behaviors of this kind evoke dangerous feelings in only five percent of men, the Qur’anic measures on this matter definitely need to be observed. In addition to being covered, inward purity should also be observed; manners and behaviors presented must call for respect toward women. In other words, one who sees a Muslim woman should find an exemplary lady with her modest dress and manners, wishing to be included in the prayers of that pious person.
On the other hand, when the words chosen by the Qur’an are considered by their characteristics, the following meaning can be drawn from the warning to the noble Prophet’s wives: Some people are brought to certain positions not because of their merit but as an extra blessing of God Almighty on them. As it is expressed in The Words, while others take the path to the left, they suddenly take another path after receiving a sign. And then they are showered with divine favors and benisons. Bediüzzaman calls these extra blessings “the blessings and bounties that God compels humanity,” since our free will does not play a direct role behind those favors. However, from the perspective of the Maturidi school of thought again, we can say that God Almighty takes individuals’ free will into consideration as a minor factor and grants such favors with respect to the future deeds of the people concerned. However, those who are honored with such favors need to humbly view the matter as a pure blessing beyond what they deserve, and then express their gratitude practically by giving dues to that blessing.
The Danger of Falling
As every favorable position is a bestowal, there are responsibilities due and that need to be carried out. As a principle, Divine punishment for ingratitude is proportional to the blessings granted. If someone allowed into a royal chamber does not appreciate this great honor and disregards the requisite etiquette, then that person will be ejected. It is for this reason that Bediüzzaman warns (in “The Twenty-First Gleam”) that one who destroys sincerity and falls from the pinnacle of friendship may possibly fall to the bottom of a very deep pit, not just on even ground. Relatively speaking, if those who are honored with a position to serve for the sake of God today do not appreciate this divine favor and act apathetically, they might receive Divine admonitions. Nevertheless, Bediüzzaman relates, by permission, examples of what he terms as “slaps of goodwill” as experienced by some of his students. As for the troubles he personally went through, he humbly interpreted them as a Divine admonition for taking his service in the way of the Qur’an as a means of spiritual and material progress. When his life is considered from the beginning to the end, it appears that he lived with utmost sensitivity. Nevertheless, he was a person who sincerely said, “If I see the faith of my people secured, I gladly accept burning in the flames of Hell,” and therefore it is unthinkable for his modest self-reproach to be true. Then you, as volunteers serving for the sake of God, can take his remarks as a guide’s words of wisdom showing the proper approach toward matters you need to consider, and thus apply these words to your own lives. That is, in a way, he guides your inner voice and virtually gives a warning: “Take heed! The position and bestowals you are granted are different. You are the earthly inheritors walking on the path of the beloved Prophet. If you take your serving humanity for the sake of God as a means of attaining spiritual or material benefits, worldly status, receiving due praise for distinguishing oneself, and to be treated as a respected figure, then you receive a ‘slap’ of admonition. Then, know the value of your position and act accordingly!”
This text is the translation of “Konumun Hakkı“