THE MATRIARCHS

THE PROPHET'S WIVES AND WET-NURSES
IN THE EARLY MUSLIM IMAGINARY

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I am preparing a second monograph tentatively titled, The Matriarchs after the Quranic verse (Q33:6). This project emerged from a panel that I organized last year at the IQSA conference titled, “Gender in the Qur’an.” I reworked the conference paper, “Safiyya bt. Huyyay: Muhammad’s Jewish Wife in the Sirah of Ibn Hisham” into one of the manuscript’s six chapters. Each chapter is a detailed case study on childless female figures called “Matriarchs” (ummahat) in early Muslim biographies of the prophet Muhammad. I suggest that the Matriarch / Mother typology that pervades these early Muslim accounts of Muhammad’s life is not simply an expression of domestic or filial piety, as it is reformulated in the later classical tradition. I propose that the ubiquitous Mother figure in the early historical tradition is an exegetical elaboration on the Quranic trope of prophetic fatherlessness. I show that this theme is in fact part of a systematic program of anti-Jewish and then anti-Christian polemic during the early post-Quranic period. Circumventing the ubiquitous Patriarch / Father typology in Jewish and Christian salvation histories in their milieu, early Muslim historian-exegetes elaborate and bolster the Qur’an’s counter-narrative of the fatherless and sonless prophet(s) through the recurrent figure of the Matriarch / Mother.


Excerpt:

SAFIYYA BINT HUYAYY
THE JEWISH MOTHER

According to the prosopographer Ibn Saʿd (d. 230/845), when Safiyya bint Huyayy, a freed Naziri war-captive [1], joins Muhammad’s household as his wife, she is met with antipathy from her Qurashi counterparts. “Another one of the Jews!” declares ʿAʾisha, another of Muhammad’s wives, at the arrival in Medina of Safiyya’s bridal entourage, comprised of women from the recently capitulated Jewish fortress at Khaybar. [2] 

Safiyya, being of noble descent, does not take her abasement lightly and protests to Muhammad, who suggests a retort citing her priestly lineage, “Why don’t you just say to them: My father is Aaron! My uncle is Moses!” [3] In line with this hadith, Ibn Saʿd opens his prosopographical entry on Safiyya with a lineage that stretches through eleven ostensibly Arab generations to “the children of Israel, from the tribe of Aaron b. Amram.”[4] The attribution of a scriptural lineage to this figure is symptomatic of a wider tendency in the early historiographical corpus, most notably articulated in Ibn Hisham’s (d. 218/833) prolegomenon to the Sira wherein he grafts Muhammad’s genealogy to Abraham’s. [5] In this chapter, I study early Muslim representations of Safiyya bint Huyayy and her counterpart Rayhana bint Zayd from the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza. These representations are heavily inflected by the Qurʾan's polemical program of communal supersession over previous prophetic communities. This trend continues into the post-Qurʾanic era, where shifting polemical and ideological exigencies led the early Muslim haggadists to embed hybrid scriptural genealogies into narratives of communal origin. In the early historiographical corpus, the scriptural Children of Israel are historicized, in part, as the Jewish tribes of Medina, namely the Banū Qurayzah, the Banu Nazir and the Banu Qaynuqaʿ. The soteriologically potent ancestry of the Medinan tribes is co-opted into the Muhammadan saga by way of these two intra-communal marriages. Muhammad’s marriage into the Aaronid line by way of Safiyya bt. Huyayy is a symbolic rupture in the impermeable communal boundary around the elect progeny of Jacob. Concurrently titled the ‘matriarch’ of the believers (umm al-muʾminin) and the ‘daughter’ of Aaron (bint harun), Safiyya is a genealogical nexus that recasts the insider community i.e. the proto-Muslims, as the figurative progeny of Jacob-Israel.

 

Notes:
(1) She was a member of the Banū Naẓīr, one of the three main Jewish tribes settled in and around Yaṯrib. According to traditional account, the tribe was exiled in 4/625 and confronted in battle at Ḫaybar in 8/629.
(2) Ibn Saʿd, Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kabīr (Cairo: Maktabat al-Khānjī, 2001), 10:122.
(3) Ibid., 10:123. This ḥadīṯ is quoted in slightly modified form in Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, al-Iṣābah fī Tamyīz al-Ṣaḥābah (Cairo: Maktabat al-Kullīyāt al-Azharīyah, 1977), 7:740; and also appears in Tirmiḏī’s Ṣaḥīḥ compendium in a variant that includes a third line, “And my husband is Muḥammad!” See Muḥammad b. ʻĪsā al-Tirmiḏī, al-Jāmiʿ (Medina: al-Maktaba al-Salafīya, 1967), 3:385.
(4) “Ṣafiyya bt. Ḥuyayy b. Aḫtab b. Saʿyata b. ʿĀmir b. ʿUbayd b. Kaʿb b. al-Ḫazraj b. Abī Ḥabīb b. al-Naẓīr b. al-Naḥḥām b. Yanḥūm min Banī Isrāʾīl min Sibṭ Hārūn b. ʿImrān.” Ibn Saʿd, al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kabīr, 10:116.(5) Ibn Hishām, Al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah (Beirut: Dar Sader Publishers, 2005), 17-19. cf. Gen. 5; Gen. 11:10-26; Gen. 25:13 and Isa. 60:7.