Why Did the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) Want to Divorce Sawda?

Answered by Shaykh Shuaib Ally

Question: Assalam alaykum,

Why did the Prophet (peace be upon him) want to divorce Sawda?

Answer: Assalam alaykum,

I pray that you are well.

There are areas of convergence as well as divergence with respect to the relationship between the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) and Sawda (may God be pleased with her).

There is no disagreement over the fact that Sawda (may God be pleased with her) in her advanced age—gave her turn in the nightly rotation with the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) to Aisha (may God be pleased with her). This is established through numerous narrations, including the collections of Bukhari and Muslim.

There are varying reasons given in narrations, or through scholarly interpretation, for her doing so.

The most authentic narrations indicate that she did so out of a desire to please the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) by giving her turn to his preferred wife [Bukhari].

Other authentic narrations indicate that she did so because she thought that the Prophet (peace and blessings of God upon him) was going to divorce her because she was advanced in age. She gave up her turn, based on these narrations, to remain as a wife of the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) in this life and the next [Abu Dawud; Tirmidhi]. These narrations indicate that this was accepted by him.

Some scholars have interpreted the surrounding circumstances to indicate that the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) wanted to divorce her. There are no authentic narrations that state that he (peace and blessings of God be upon him) wanted to divorce her, or that he did in fact do so.

The most that can be authentically established, however, is that Sawda (may God be pleased with her) gave up her turn, and that she did this for one of the two reasons listed above.

It is not unlikely that Sawda (may God be pleased with her) would do this for the first reason listed above. The Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) preferred Aisha (may God be pleased with her)  among his wives. When he fell ill towards the very end of his life, he began to ask with whom he would be the following night. His wives understood that he wanted to stay with Aisha (may God be pleased with her) and allowed him to remain with her until his death (peace and blessings of God be upon him) [Bukhari].

If the reports of the latter reason for giving up her turn, that of her genuinely fearing divorce (may God be pleased with her) are an accurate representation of her beliefs, they may have been unfounded. The Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) was not known to have an inordinate interest in young females; most of his marriages were to women already relatively older in age.

However, the overwhelming bulk of scholarship, past and present, clearly considered this within the realm of possibility, as Sawda (may God be pleased with her) also may have.

God knows best.

Wassalam,
[Shaykh] Shuaib Ally

Shaykh Shuaib Ally is a scholar who has recently returned to Toronto after completing his studies overseas. He started his studies by completing his MA in Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto in 2008. He went on to study in a number of Islamic disciplines privately with scholars in Saudi Arabia, including Tafsir, Qur’anic Sciences, Shafi’i law, Usul, Hadith, Hadith Methodology, Grammar and Balagha. Shaykh Shuaib currently resides in Toronto.