In most societies, the normal practice is that the prospective husband will propose marriage. A woman normally holds back from suggesting marriage, feeling that she should be sought after. This applies to families as well. The woman’s family would not initiate a proposal unless the woman’s father or guardian is certain that, if he were to suggest marriage, his proposal will be received well by the man concerned. The Prophet received proposals from several women who thought that they could not do better than being married to him. This normally took the form of the woman saying to the Prophet that she would gift herself to him. It is understood that the gift is one of marriage. In Islam, a woman cannot gift herself to a man in this way, but this was allowed for the Prophet only. The Prophet could take her as a wife, but he normally decided her case as her guardian. This special privilege given to the Prophet is stated in the Qur’an, in a verse that outlines women who are lawful to marry. The verse says in this particular case:

“And any believing woman who offers herself freely to the Prophet and whom the Prophet might be willing to wed: (this latter) applies to you alone and not to other believers.” (33: 50)

Needless to say, at the time when a proposal of marriage is made, the man and the woman will need to meet and discuss matters in order to carry the proposal forward or withdraw it. Sahl Ibn Saad reports: “A woman came to the Prophet and said: ‘Messenger of God! I have come to offer myself to you as a gift…’ The Prophet repeatedly looked up and down at her, then he lowered his head. When the woman realized that he has made no decision concerning her, she sat down.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.) Another version of this Hadith adds that the Prophet said to her: “I have no need for women nowadays.”

Commenting on this Hadith, Imam Ibn Hajar, who wrote an extensive commentary on Al-Bukhari’s authentic anthology in 14 large volumes, says: “This Hadith gives us several important points… One of these is the permissibility of looking carefully at a woman’s attractions when one is thinking of marrying her, even though such thoughts of marriage were not entertained earlier, nor was a proposal made. We see that the Prophet looked repeatedly at the woman, moving his looks up and down. The Hadith is stated in a way that implies a serious, long look. Needless to say, the Prophet did not consider marrying this woman prior to her proposal. He indeed told her that he had no desire at the time to go into a new marriage. Yet he looked seriously at her, which suggests that had he seen in her something that was attractive to him, he would have married her. Otherwise, he would not have looked so intently at her.”

Ibn Hajar suggests that the Hadith may be understood in other ways. We, however, prefer the view we have quoted because this is supported by other Hadiths that encourage looking at a woman if one intends to marry her. The present case is not dissimilar to that of a man making a proposal. This is supported by the following Hadith: “When the Muslims from Makkah arrived in Madinah, the Prophet established a bond of brotherhood between them and the Muslims from Madinah. He made Abd Al-Rahman Ibn Awf and Saad Ibn Al-Rabie brothers. Saad said to Abd Al-Rahman: ‘I am one of the richest people among the Ansar. I will share my wealth equally with you. I also have two wives. Look at them and tell me which one you prefer. I will divorce her and when she finishes her waiting period, you can marry her.’ Abd Al-Rahman said: ‘May God give you much blessing in both your family and your wealth…” (Related by Al-Bukhari.) Ibn Hajar comments that this Hadith confirms that it is proper that a woman looks carefully at a woman when he wants to propose marriage to her.

Perhaps we should add here that Abd Al-Rahman was as noble as his brother. He declined to take any money but started a business of his own to earn his living. Nor did he take the offer of marrying one of his brother’s wives after she is divorced. When his business took off, he married someone else.

It is also permissible for a woman to propose marriage to a man whom she thinks to be a good husband. Thabit Al-Bannani reports: “I was at Anas’ place, with one of his daughters present. Anas mentioned that a woman came to the Prophet offering to marry him. She said: Messenger of God! Would you like to marry me?’ Anas’ daughter said: ‘How shameless of her!’ He said to her: ‘She is better than you. She wished to marry the Prophet and she went to him suggesting that.” (Related by Al-Bukhari.)

Al-Bukhari enters this Hadith under the heading: “A woman’s proposal to marry a good man.” In his commentary on this Hadith, Ibn Hajar quotes Ibn Al-Muneer: “A subtle note by Al-Bukhari is that realizing the special privilege involved in this Hadith, he highlighted what is generally applicable, representing no privilege, which is the permissibility of a woman making a proposal to a good and pious man, thinking that she will be happy with him because of his piety.” Ibn Hajar adds: “There is nothing to be taken against a woman who wishes to marry someone who is in a better position than hers, particularly if her motive is a good one, either because the man is virtuous, or because she admires him to the point that it is feared that something wrong may happen unless such a proposal is made.”

We may add here a verse from the Qur’an mentioning a proposal made to a man by the father of a pious woman. The man concerned is Moses, but this took place long before he became a prophet. He had fled from Egypt where he was in danger of being killed. In Madyan, he helped two girls give water to their sheep. Then one of them invited him to meet her father, who was a pious man. When the father learned Moses’ story, he offered one of his daughters to him in marriage. “(The father) said: ‘I will give you one of these two daughters of mine in marriage on the understanding that you will remain eight years in my service. If you should complete ten years, it will be your own choice. I do not wish to impose any hardship on you. You will find me, if God so wills, an upright man.” (28: 27)
Moses accepted the proposal, married the girl, and spent ten years helping her father. Needless to say, had there been anything unacceptable in this story, the Qur’an would have made that clear.