At Muslims and Muhammad - the Impossible Task, I posted, "It is impossible that a man could encourage his own son to divorce his wife so that he, the father, could marry her, and be a prophet of God.
There is perhaps no incident in the life of Muhammad that more clearly demonstrates the difference between the way Muslims and non-Muslims think than in the events surrounding Muhammad's marriage to his cousin, daughter-in-law, and sixth wife Zainab.
The story as recounted by historian al-Tabari in his book The History of Peoples and Kings and other early Muslim historians is quite straightforward. A boy named Zayd was captured in an Arab intertribal war and given as a slave to Muhammad's first wife Khadijah. After Muhammad married Khadijah they adopted Zayd and he became known as Zayd Ibn Muhammad, Zayd the son of Muhammad. Zayd's father eventually found him and wanted to take him to his original home, but Zayd preferred to stay with Muhammad and Khadijah. Zayd, along with Khadijah, was one of the first converts to Islam. He married a woman and had children with her, but divorced her and upon Muhammad's advice married Zainab, who was the daughter of Muhammad's aunt and thus his first cousin.
Zainab was not happy about marrying Zayd, and the union was not a happy one. Islamic commentators have speculated that she, coming from one of the leading families of the Quraysh tribe, thought it was beneath her dignity to marry a freed slave.
Zayd and Zainab were among the Meccan immigrants who went to Medina with Muhammad. One day Muhammad went to Zayd's house to speak to him, but Zayd was not at home. The wind blew a curtain aside and Muhammad saw Zainab "hasirah" or "uncovered". She quickly dressed and invited Muhammad into the house, saying to him, "Come in, Oh Prophet of God, for you are as my father and my mother to me." This was in keeping with Arabic tribal tradition, where a daughter-in-law was regarded by the parents of her husband as their own daughter.
Muhammad was flustered by having seen Zainab undressed to the point that it was apparent to her. He refused to enter the house, mumbled something unclear under his breath, and then rushed away repeating, "Praise God who changes the hearts of men. Praise God who changes the hearts of men."
Zainab told her husband of the incident when he arrived home. Zaid realized his father had been affected by seeing Zainab undressed and immediately went to Muhammad to ask if he should divorce Zainab so that he could marry her. Muhammad initially refused and told Zayd to remain with her. A short time later, however, Muhammad informed his wife Aisha, who was now about 14,that someone should be sent to Zainab with the good news that she was about to marry the Prophet. Aisha was fearful about the union, since Zainab was known for her beauty even though at 39 she was 25 years older than Aisha, but Muhammad was not one to put the concerns of his wife above the commands of Allah. Muhammad married Zainab, freeing Zayd to become a commander in Muhammad's army. A few years later he was killed in Muhammad's first raid against non-Arabs, the Byzantine army at the Battle of Mutah.
A Muslim might object to my description of Zayd as Muhammad's son and Muhammad as his father by saying, "He was not Muhammad's son, he was only an adopted son." Comedian and religious critic Bill Maher says that when Biblical-literalist Christians are confronted with the story of Jonah and the whale their first response is, "It wasn't a whale, it was a big fish!" In reality, there is no difference. Friends of mine who have adopted children see no difference between the adopted children and their natural offspring. They love and treat them both the same.
A Muslim believes that the Quran is the perfect book, and Muhammad is the perfect man. The starting point in any Muslim's thinking, whether an uneducated villager or a world-renowned scholar, is what the Quran says. In the case of Muhammad and Zainab, there is an entire string of verses that not only allowed but practically forced Muhammad to marry his daughter-in-law. Zayd is the only "sahaba", whose who emigrated from Mecca to Medinah with Muhammad, whose name is mentioned in the Quran, and Zainab is the only woman concerning whom Muhammad received a direct order from Allah to marry.
Although Muhammad (or Allah, as a Muslim would say) in Quran 4:3 limited the number of wives for Muslim men at four, he himself received a special dispensation that gave him sexual and marital access to an unlimited number of women. A Quranic verse amazing to the sceptic, 33:50, says, "Oh Prophet, we have allowed for you the wives for which you paid a dowry, the slaves given you by Allah (including women taken as prisoners of war in Muhammad's many raids), your first cousins who emigrated from Mecca (including Zainab), and any believing woman who offers herself to you and with whom you wish to have sex." Here as in many cases, the individual who is able to read the Quran in Arabic has a great advantage over the person who is forced to rely on translations that deliberately tone down the blunt meaning of the original. The Arabic word used for "to have sex", istankah, means exactly that. The English translation "whom the Prophet wishes to marry" does not appear at all in the original.
The next relevant verse, Quran 4:23, in a long list of women that Muslim men were not allowed to marry, includes "the wives of your biological sons".
In respect to Zainab, the Quran had thus far taken care of the problem of her being Muhammad's daughter-in-law (Zayd was not his biological son), her being his paternal first cousin (those were allowed to him), and her becoming wife number six (he could have as many as he wanted). The only thing left was the socially sticky matter of her being the wife of his adopted son. In one fell swoop, the Quran dealt with that by declaring that adoption was no longer legal. Quran 33:4,5 states that just as no man has two hearts and no man has two mothers, so no man can have both natural and adopted sons. Those who had been adopted previous to this verse were to revert to the names of their biological fathers. In the case of Zayd, he was no longer known as Zayd bin Muhammad; he was henceforth called Zayd bin Harith.
Having removed all the roadblocks, the Quran now delivered its coup de gras. God next commanded Muhammad to marry Zainab. Quran 33:37 informed Muhammad that Allah had given him the wife of Zayd, and that Allah's command must be obeyed. Within a few days, Zainab was in Muhammad's bed.
An interesting sideline to the story is that Aisha's fears about Zainab proved true. Zainab never tired of reminding Muhammad's other wives that she was the only one God had commanded the prophet to marry.
The non-Muslim is not bound to limit his or her thinking to what is written in the Quran. As I analyze the story of Muhammad and Zainab, I cannot believe that a man who would do what Muhammad did with his daughter-in-law could be a prophet of God.