There are strong similarities between the circumstances leading to the marriages of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to Juwayriyyah bint Al-Harith and Safiyyah bint Huyayy. Both were daughters of men who took a hostile attitude to Islam and the Prophet. Fathers of both women raised forces to wage war against Islam. Both women were married to men who were killed in the battles that their peoples were keen to fight. Both were taken captive and faced a life of slavery. Both were freed by the Prophet and offered marriage.
One must not underestimate the significance of such marriages, especially in the tribal environment of Arabia, where marriage relations between the families of the chiefs of different tribes signified alliances between those tribes. In the case of his marriage with Safiyyah, the Prophet wanted his companions and the vanquished Jews to realize that he was opening a new page in his relations with yesterday’s enemies. He realized that his marriage would go a long way to reassure the Jews that the door was open for them to have friendly relations with Islam. The Prophet would not have married Safiyyah had he intended not to treat her on equal footing with his other wives. On the contrary, we see him extending a most kindly treatment to her right from the beginning. As the Muslim army began its march back toward Madinah, and Safiyyah needed to climb into her howdah, she found that difficult because she was short. The Prophet bent his knee and she stepped over it so that she could manage to climb. This took place in front of his companions. He could have ordered that steps should be brought for her, but he preferred to be the one to help her. He thus taught by example that men should extend every kindness to their women folk. That practical example was very significant in a social environment that until a short while earlier looked at women as much inferior. Islam changed all this and established the full equality of the two sexes.
How did she take such a change in her circumstances? We have little evidence to tell us how she felt at first. However, one report suggests that when the Prophet wanted this new marriage consummated, Safiyyah kept aloof. He did not try to force her. Rather, he left her, and felt rather uneasy. A few days later, as the Muslim army marched on its way back to Madinah, the consummation took place. She later explained that she did not wish the consummation to take place so close to her people’s hometown, because “I feared that the Jews might try to do you harm.”
That uneasy feeling was also felt by some Muslims. When the Prophet had his first night with Safiyyah, Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari, his companion who was his host on his first arrival in Madinah, spent the night at close proximity to the Prophet’s tent, watching for any suspicious indication. The Prophet did not realize that he acted as a night watch. It was when he went out of his tent that he realized Abu Ayyub’s presence. He asked him what kept him awake. He said: “Messenger of God! We had just defeated this woman’s people and killed many of their men. I feared that she might entertain some evil thoughts against you.” The Prophet thanked him and prayed God to preserve him as he stood guard for him.
Thus, apprehension was felt by Safiyyah and by some Muslims. Yet there was no need. Safiyyah adopted Islam and was a devout and pious Muslim.