Zaynab bint Jahsh (c. 590–c. 640)

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Zaynab bint Jahsh (c. 590–c. 640)

Wife of the Prophet Muhammad who was legendary for her generosity. Name variations: Zainab bint Djahsh; also known as Umm al-Hakam and Barra. Pronunciation: ZAY-nab bint josh. Born around 590 in Arabia, probably in Mecca, to the tribe of Quraysh; died in Mecca in 640 or 641; daughter of Jahsh and Umayma or Umaimah (who was the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad's paternal grandfather 'Abd al-Muttalib); given in marriage by the Prophet Muhammad to his adopted son Zayd Ibn Haritha (in 624, Zayd divorced her so that she could marry the Prophet); married Muhammad, in 627 ce; children: no information.

Zaynab bint Jahsh and her family were among the Prophet Muhammad's earliest followers who moved north with him from Mecca to Medina in 622. Zaynab was nearly 30 and according to some traditions a widow, although others said she had never been married. By all accounts, she was beautiful.

Soon after the emigrants settled in Medina, Muhammad arranged a marriage between Zaynab bint Jahsh and his adopted son Zayd Ibn Haritha, who was a former slave of his first wife Khadijah . However, the marriage between Zaynab and Zayd was not destined to last, and the events surrounding their divorce and Zaynab's subsequent marriage to Muhammad inspired one of the most colorful stories from the life of the Prophet.

The longest handed (most generous) of my wives will be the first one who joins me in heaven.

—The Prophet Muhammad

According to tradition, Muhammad came to visit Zayd one day but did not find him at home. Instead, he caught a glimpse of Zaynab who was not fully dressed. The Prophet was struck by her beauty and fell in love with her immediately. When Zayd returned home, Zaynab told him what had happened. He went to Muhammad and offered to divorce Zaynab so that the Prophet could marry her. Muhammad declined, but Zayd, who could not tolerate his arrogant and ambitious wife, divorced her anyway. The Prophet Muhammad was concerned about the propriety of marrying Zayd's former wife, but he received a revelation (Qur'an 33:36–39) confirming that it was legitimate for Muslim men to marry the wives of their adopted sons after they divorced them. So, following the waiting period required by Islamic law, Zaynab bint Jahsh and the Prophet Muhammad married. Their wedding was celebrated by a great feast, and Zaynab claimed superiority over the Prophet's other wives since her marriage had been confirmed by divine revelation.

The early Muslims who told this story, and recorded it in historical and literary texts, sought not only to inform their audiences, but also to entertain them. While they succeeded at this, they did not explain the factors that motivated the Prophet Muhammad, Zayd Ibn Haritha, and Zaynab bint Jahsh in sufficient detail to satisfy the curiosity of modern historians. The personal feelings of Muhammad, Zayd, and Zaynab must remain a mystery, but it is clear from the historical record that Zaynab bint Jahsh's marriage to the Prophet Muhammad was important to the early Islamic community for two reasons.

First, like all of the Prophet Muhammad's actions, his marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh established precedents for his community to follow. In fact, their union was associated not only with the revelation permitting men to marry the divorced wives of their adopted sons, but also with a second revelation (Qur'an 33:53) stipulating that if a visitor to the Prophet's house needed to ask his wives for anything, he should speak to them from behind a curtain.

Second, the Prophet Muhammad's marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh helped to forge a crucial political alliance. The social structure in early Islamic Arabia was based upon kinship, and powerful families often used the institution of marriage to cement relationships within and among tribal groups. By marrying Zaynab, the Prophet Muhammad confirmed his support of her brother, 'Abd Allah, who was both a confederate of the Banu Umayya (a powerful family in the Prophet Muhammad's tribe of Quraysh), and a prominent soldier among the emigrants who had accompanied Muhammad to Medina.

Considering the significance of Zaynab bint Jahsh's marriage to the Prophet Muhammad within the early Islamic community, it is somewhat surprising that so few details about her life have been preserved. Literary anecdotes often present her in competition with her co-wife A'ishah bint Abi Bakr , who is well known to have been Muhammad's favorite after his first wife Khadijah. However, other reports portray Zaynab as attractive, intelligent, and generous, and suggest that her relationship with Muhammad was good. Biographers noted that he granted her dates, barley, and wheat when his army captured Khaybar in 628, and that she accompanied him at the siege of al-Ta'if the following year.

Zaynab bint Jahsh died in 640—only eight years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632—and she was carried to her grave on a bier built by Asma bint 'Umays , another early Muslim woman. According to tradition, Zaynab bint Jahsh's death fulfilled Muhammad's prophecy that the most generous of his wives would be the first to join him in heaven.


Abbott, Nabia. Aishah the Beloved of Muhammad. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Ahmad, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Ibn Sa'd, Muhammad. Kitab al-tabaqat al-kabir. Ed. by Eduard Sachau, et. al. 9 vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1904–40.

Spellberg, Denise. Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: the Legacy of 'A'isha bint Abi Bakr. NY: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Vacca, V., ed. "Zainab bint Djahsh," in Encyclopaedia of Islam. 1st ed.

Waqidi, Muhammad b. 'Umar al-. Kitab al-maghazi. Ed. by Marsden Jones. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Kate Lang , Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages, Assistant Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Wisconsin