Why did the Prophet (s) marry Zaynab, the ex-wife of his adopted son?

At the command of Allah (swt), the Prophet (s) married Zaynab bint Jahsh, the former wife of his adopted son Zayd bin Haritha. This marriage served to remove the taboo of marrying the ex-wife of one’s adopted son. The Quran says:

When Zayd set her free, We gave her in marriage to you so that the believers would not face difficulties about the wives of their adopted sons when they are divorced.

Holy Quran (33:37).

It was important for the Prophet (s) as a guide and leader, to break the traditions of the period of jahiliyah (i.e. pre-Islam) regarding adoptive relationships.1 Pre-Islamic adoption traditions were much like those held in the modern West – they included the complete integration of a child into its adoptive family, such that the child even carried on the name of the adoptive family. This is not the case in Islam. Through adoption the blood relationship between the child and its blood family does not end, nor is a blood relationship created between the child and the adoptive family. This means that the rules of inheritance, hijab, and marriage do not change between adoptive family and child.2

Note: In no way should the establishment of these formalities detract from the bond between adoptive parent and child. Adoption is highly regarded in Islam for the opportunity it affords to orphans, amongst other reasons. In the example of the Prophet(s)’s relationship to Zayd bin Haritha, the Prophet (s) was known to express his love for Zayd openly and on the occasion of Zayd’s death he mourned as though he had lost his own son.

The Marriages of Zaynab bint Jahsh

Interestingly, both of Zaynab bint Jahsh’s marriages (to Zayd bin Harith and the Prophet (s)) served to break social restraints on marriage. Her first marriage crossed social class boundaries and her second marriage crossed both a taboo relationship and social class boundaries.1

Being the granddaughter of Abdul Muttalib, Zaynab was considered to be of noble lineage whereas Zayd bin Harith was only a freed slave. But the Prophet (s) personally went to Zaynab’s house to ask for her consent to marry Zayd. At first she was inclined to decline the proposal, out of her bias against the difference in class. However, Allah revealed the following verse to the Prophet which caused her to change her mind:

“It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error” .

Holy Quran (33:36)

Out of obedience to Allah (swt) and the Prophet (s), Zaynab, a lady of noble descent, married Zayd, a freed slave of the Prophet (s). However, later their marriage dissolved. The reasoning behind their divorce has not been made clear.

Allah (swt) then revealed the verse (33:37, see above) arranging for the marriage of Zaynab to the Holy Prophet. In this way the custom that declared the marriage of a man to the former wife of his adoptive son as a shameful was abolished. In marrying Zaynab, the Holy Prophet also sought to remove the stigma in marrying the former wife of a freed slave, another marriage across social status. Thus, two taboos were broken with the second marriage of Zaynab.

When people began to besmirch the name of the Prophet on the basis of his marriage to the former wife of his adopted son, Allah revealed the following verse to him: 

“Muhammad is not the father of [any] one of your men, but [he is] the Messenger of Allah and last of the Prophets. And ever is Allah, of all things, Knowing”.

Holy Quran (36:40).

This reinforced the fact that the relationship between the Prophet (s) and Zayd was not of a biological father and son, but of adoptive father and son and therefore, different rules applied to that relationship. 

An Alternative Narrative

It is said that once the Prophet (s) entered Zayd’s house and came across Zaynab in a state of undress and upon seeing her, he desired her. Zayd came to know of this interaction and out of respect for the Prophet, chose to divorce Zaynab so that the Prophet could marry her.


a) The Qur’an very clearly states that the Prophet’s (s.) intention in marrying Zaynab was to ensure “that the believers would not face difficulties about the wives of their adopted sons when they are divorced” (33:37).

b) Prior to her marriage to Zayd, Zaynab offered to marry the Prophet (s). At this time, the Prophet refused her and persuaded her to marry Zayd instead. At the time of her divorce to Zayd, Zaynab was over the age of 50. It stands to reason that she was far more attractive in her youth when the Prophet personally asked for her consent in marriage to Zayd. If physical attraction was the sole reason behind the marriage of the Prophet (s) and Zaynab, why did the Prophet not propose to her in the first place? In doing so, he would have also avoided challenging a societal norm. 

c) When Zayd approached the Prophet regarding his trouble with Zaynab, a verse of advice for Zayd was revealed to the prophet: “Say to the person to whom you and Allah have granted favour: ‘Keep your wife and have fear of Allah’” (33:37). In this verse Allah admonishes Zayd to stay with Zaynab and the delivery of such advice by the Prophet (s) shows the investment that he put into the marriage of Zayd and Zaynab.

d) To accuse the Prophet (s) of entering Zayd’s home unannounced and without permission goes against the verse of Quran which says O you who believe! Do not enter houses other than your own houses until you have asked permission and saluted their inmates This is better for you that you may be mindful. But if you do not find any one therein, then do not enter them until permission is given to you And if it is said to you: Go back, then go back This is purer for you And Allah is Cognizant of what you do (24:27-28). How would it be possible for the Prophet (s) to contradict the verses of the Quran? Such type of behaviour is also not consistent with the verse which praises the character of the Prophet (s) – and indeed you possess a great character (68:4).

A Hadith on the Prophet’s Belief on Marriage

It is apt to conclude here with a tradition of the Prophet (s) pertaining to the selection of a spouse. It is related that the Prophet of Islam (s) said, Do not marry a woman for the following four reasons: Wealth, beauty, ancestry and lust. It is obligatory upon you to marry a woman on account of her religion (Kanzul Ummal, H#44602)


Ali. S. Marriage, A Gift for the Youth. Retrieved from                                                                                        https://www.al-islam.org/articles/marriage-gift-youth-sajid-ali

Rizvi, S.M. (1990). Adoption in Islam. Shama newsletter. Retrieve from                                                              https://www.al-islam.org/articles/adoption-islam-sayyid-muhammad-rizvi

Subhani. J. (1984). The Message. Islamic Seminary Publications. Retrieved from https://www.al-islam.org/the-message-ayatullah-jafar-subhani/chapter-36-events-fifth-year- migration

Additional References

Rizvi. S.A. (1988). Slavery From Islamic And Christian Perspectives. Vancouver Islamic Educational     Foundation. https://www.al-islam.org/slavery-allamah-sayyid-saeed-akhtar-rizvi/slaves-history-     islam

Rizvi. S.A. (2015). The Life of Muhammed The Prophet. Darul Tabligh North America.         https://www.al-islam.org/life-muhammad-prophet-sayyid-saeed-akhtar-rizvi/marriages-holy-   prophet

Rizvi. S.A. (1971). Muhammad is the Last Prophet. Bilal Muslim Mission of Tanzania. https://www.al-islam.org/muhammad-the-last-prophet-sayyid-akhtar-rizvi/introduction

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