Khadija bint Khuwalilid was Muhammad's first wife and was his only wife for almost a quarter of a century (595–619). Early sources provide sparse and differing information about her. It is reported that she belonged to the Asad clan of Quraysh, the most distinguished Arabian tribe. She was a wealthy merchant, was divorced and widowed, and had one or more children before her marriage to Muhammad. She employed the twenty-five-year-old future prophet to lead a caravan she was sending to Syria. On Muhammad's return, Khadija, reportedly forty years old, proposed marriage to him. The marriage gave Muhammad the security he had lacked since birth. Although a member of Banu Hashim, another clan of Quraysh, he had lost both parents as a child, had been brought up by close relatives, and lacked personal wealth. Thus, an elite and affluent wife provided security and social enhancement for her husband.
Despite the discrepancy in their ages, the marriage seems to have been a success. The couple had two or three boys (including Qasim and Abdallah), who died in infancy, and four girls (Zaynab, Umm Kulthum, Fatima, and Ruqayya), who survived, married, and immigrated to Medina. Muhammad did not take another wife until after Khadija's death in 619, and his fond memory of her aroused the jealousy of his later wives. The financial independence may have allowed Muhammad to pursue his spiritual quest. On one of his solitary wanderings in 610 he saw a vision informing him that he had been chosen as the messenger of God. Khadija assured her deeply shaken husband of the genuineness of the revelation. She was also the first person to submit to his mission. Henceforth she gave him the emotional and moral support he needed to face the growing hostility of his fellow Meccans, who were alarmed by his prophetic message.
Neither the biographies nor the exegetical literature conveys much information about Khadija. Reference to Khadija in the Qur'an is indirect and appears only once in a passage addressed to the Prophet in Mecca ("Did He not find you destitute and enrich you?" 93:8). The paucity of reference to Khadija differs extensively from those to Mary, who occupies an exalted position. One chapter is named after her (Sura 19), and she is mentioned in several other chapters. She represents the ideal of womanhood: She is chaste, devout, patient, and upright. The miracles associated with her (speaking to her mother before birth, the Annunciation, and the birth of Jesus) are presented as signs from God (Qur'an 23:50). Those miraculous events have been delineated and debated in the exegetic literature. However, the image of Mary in Islamic religious tradition must be viewed in the context of Islamic sacred history.
Despite the central role she has played in Muhammad's life, Khadija occupies a minor role in Islamic religious tradition and hagiography. Her daughter surpasses her in merit and as an exemplar because Fatima is the progenitor of all the Prophet's descendants. Likewise her love of her father and her grieving and death shortly after he died in 632 make Fatima equal to Mary.
Information about Khadija is limited, but it is possible to glean some insight about society and gender relations in Arabia during her lifetime. For example, her occupation as a merchant indicates that women were able to engage in commerce and possess wealth. In addition, divorced and widowed women could remarry easily. Her marriage proposal to the Prophet confirms the freedom that prevailed in gender relations. Even more significant is the importance of the assurance she gave her husband when he received the first revelation. Her confidence in the genuineness of the message and continued support of the Prophet's mission imply that she had knowledge of the monotheistic traditions that had penetrated into Arabia at that time.
Gauillaume, A., trans. 1955. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rodinson, Maxime, 1968. Mahomet. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
Watt, W. Montgomery, and M. V. McDonald. 1988. Muhammad at Mecca. Albany: State University of New York Press.