The Quran says that a mother is one who gives birth to a person:
God has heard the words of her that disputes with thee concerning her husband, and makes complaint unto God. God hears the two of you conversing together; surely God is All-hearing, All-seeing. Those of you who say, regarding their wives, 'Be as my mother's back,' they are not truly their mothers; their mothers are ONLY those who gave them birth, and they are surely saying a dishonourable saying, and a falsehood. Yet surely God is All-pardoning, All-forgiving. S. 58:1-2 Arberry
Clearly, under this quranic definition of the word "mother", everyone has and can have only one mother.
The intention of this passage is to abolish a certain way of divorce in Arab society (cf. this dictionary entry on ZIHAR). I agree with the quranic condemnation of such an unjust method of divorce. However, the author of the Quran goes too far and makes the mistake to attack the use of the word "mother" in a non-literal sense and to categorically rule that the word mother can ONLY be used for the woman who gave birth to the person, i.e. the word mother may not be used in any other way.
Although I consider this Quranic response inappropriate, the statement in S. 58:2 is consistent with the Quranic prohibition on adoption:
God has not assigned to any man two hearts within his breast; nor has He made your wives, when you divorce, saying, 'Be as my mother's back,' truly your mothers, neither has He made your adopted sons your sons in fact. That is your own saying, the words of your mouths; but God speaks the truth, and guides on the way. Call them after their true fathers; that is more equitable in the sight of God. If you know not who their fathers were, then they are your brothers in religion, and your clients. There is no fault in you if you make mistakes, but only in what your hearts premeditate. God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. S. 33:4-5 Arberry
The Quran reasons that since adopted children are not the adoptive parents' literal biological offspring, they shouldn't be reckoned as their children. Based on this verse, Islam has forbidden adoption. Again, children should only be called sons (or daughters) of their literal, biological fathers (and mothers). Vice versa, this certainly implies that only the biological parents should be called father and mother as in 58:2 quoted above.
Up to this point, the verses that have been quoted are consistent. However, the Quran states elsewhere that a person's wet-nurse is to be viewed like one's own mother, thereby making it unlawful for them to marry their wet-nurses or anyone nursed by the same woman:
Forbidden to you are your mothers and daughters, your sisters, your aunts paternal and maternal, your brother's daughters, your sister's daughters, your mothers who have given suck to you, your suckling sisters, your wives' mothers, your stepdaughters who are in your care being born of your wives you have been in to -- but if you have not yet been in to them it is no fault in you - and the spouses of your sons who are of your loins, and that you should take to you two sisters together, unless it be a thing of the past; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate; S. 4:23 Arberry
So which is it? Is a mother only one who gives birth to a person, or can a person consider others to be their mothers such as their wet-nurses?
On the one hand the Quran argues that only the genetic connection establishes motherhood or fatherhood, i.e. people should be called mothers or fathers ONLY in relationship to their biological offspring. On the other hand, in regard to marriage, nursing is claimed to establish the same kind of legal relationship as birthing.
Islam refuses to recognize the much stronger parenting bond between a child and the people who raised him or her for many years, forbidding them to even call them mother or father, but already a few weeks of nursing (which a child will usually not even remember) has strong consequences.
It will rarely happen that a man wants to marry his wet-nurse, but the prohibition to marry another person who merely drank milk originating from the same woman hardly makes sense, even more so if it is only offspring of a "wet-nurse sibling". In fact, this rule had consequences for Muhammad's own marriage intentions. He could not marry the daughter of a man who was nursed by the same woman as Muhammad himself, see the endnote in this article.
The inconsistency is compounded when we realize that Islam is over-strict in the area of wet-nurse relationship, but at the same time some Islamic scholars allow a man to marry his own biological daughter in certain circumstances, see this article.
There are at least four concepts of motherhood, i.e. people who could be called the mother or a mother of a person:
[ Side remark: For the purpose of this article, we will not discuss modern developments of surrogate mothers, i.e. when medical doctors implant fertilized eggs of one woman into the womb of another woman ... In that case, the Quranic definition of S. 58:2 will create another problem. Is the mother only the one who gave birth, even if she is genetically unrelated to the child she delivered? ]
Concept 1 is uncontroversial. The biological mother will usually also be the person who both breastfeeds and raises the child. Nevertheless, some children can have "mothers" in some or all of these categories. A child may be born of woman A, breastfed by woman B, then live with foster-parents for a few years (woman C), and finally be adopted by another couple (woman D).
Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, experienced the first three categories. His mother was Amina. Then he had a wet-nurse, Halimah, and a foster-mother, Fatima bint Asad.
[ Side remark: Interestingly, the Arabic language does not conform to the wishes of the author of the Quran. It uses the formulation ommahatukumu allatee ardaAAnakum (literally: "your mothers who nursed you") for wet-nurses, i.e. it uses an expression that includes the word omm ("mother"), even though one is not supposed to call that person mother according to the Quran. In other words, the Quran breaks its own command. It rules to call only those women mothers who have given birth to you, but then it states "your MOTHERS who nursed you", when this part could easily have been formulated as "the WOMEN who nursed you". ]
There is yet another inconsistency. We have just seen that the strong emotional bond of a foster parent to the child does not provide sufficient grounds to call someone mother or father. It is only the biological link. Yet the Quran explicitly calls some women mothers of others who have no biological link to them:
The Prophet is nearer to the believers than their selves; his wives are their mothers. Those who are bound by blood are nearer to one another in the Book of God than the believers and the emigrants; nevertheless you should act towards your friends honourably; that stands inscribed in the Book. S. 33:6 Arberry
Like a foster mother, the wives of Muhammad may have had an emotional bond to Muhammad's companions (and their wives). They may have cared and provided for the poor among them like a foster mother would love a child in her care. Here is one example how this verse was applied:
Abu Musa reported: There cropped up a difference of opinion between a group of Muhajirs (Emigrants) and a group of Ansar (Helpers) (and the point of dispute was) that the Ansar said: The bath (because of sexual intercourse) becomes obligatory only when the semen spurts out or ejaculates. But the Muhajirs said: When a man has sexual intercourse (with the woman), a bath becomes obligatory (no matter whether or not there is seminal emission or ejaculation). Abu Musa said: Well, I satisfy you on this (issue). He (Abu Musa, the narrator) said: I got up (and went) to 'A'isha and sought her permission and it was granted, and I said to her: O Mother, or Mother of the Faithful, I want to ask you about a matter on which I feel shy. She said: Don't feel shy of asking me about a thing which you can ask your mother, who gave you birth, for I am too your mother. Upon this I said: What makes a bath obligatory for a person? She replied: You have come across one well informed! The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: When anyone sits amidst four parts (of the woman) and the circumcised parts touch each other a bath becomes obligatory. (Sahih Muslim, Book 003, Number 0684)
This story expresses a closeness of relationship, trust and confidence, and a caring attitude for the Muslim community on the part of Aisha. If she had said "I am LIKE a mother to you", and if S. 33:6 had stated "his wives are LIKE mothers to the believers", there would not have been much of a problem, but it is said that "his wives ARE their mothers" and Aisha said "I AM too your mother" even though she had never given birth to anyone.
However, when the Quran calls the wives of Muhammad the MOTHERS of the believers, does it not contradict its own principle?
Again, for direct contrast:
... they are not truly their mothers; their mothers are ONLY those who gave them birth,
and they are surely saying a dishonourable saying, and a falsehood. ... S. 58:2 Arberry
The Prophet is nearer to the believers than their selves; his wives are their mothers. ... S. 33:6 Arberry
Or, putting the issue somewhat differently, we ask with E. M. Wherry:
"If this ‘saying’ is unjustifiable and a falsehood for the people, why not for the Prophet?"
(A Comprehensive Commentary on the Qur'an, Vol. 4, p. 124)
P.S.: Back to the introductory questions: Do you know the names of all your mothers? Find out how many wives Muhammad had, what are their names, and how he treated those women whom the Quran calls your mothers, e.g. Sauda bint Zam'ah.
A related article: The Quran's Use of Filial Terms
Contradictions in the Qur'an
Answering Islam Home Page