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Biographies of Muhammad mentions that in his early childhood he was looked after by a wet-nurse Halimah, from a few days after his birth until he was 4. It seems customary for Meccan families to do so:

In Mecca, it was customary to entrust infants to wet nurses belonging to the nomadic Bedouin tribes living in the nearby desert. (source)

Why did they have this custom? Mecca being a relatively wealthy city at that time, presumably the quality of life and chance of survival is better than the desert. Why is it desirable to have desert nomads raise your baby?

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  • They were hoping by having one raised with the Fremen he would become the Kwisatz Haderach.
    – Marakai
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 10:52

3 Answers 3

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Because they believed their infant would have a better chance of surviving in the desert.

The child mortality rate from disease and malnutrition in Arab settlements was horrendously high, and it was believed that sending the child into the healthier environment of the desert increased the child's chance of survival.

- Gabriel, Richard A. Muhammad: Islam's First Great General. Vol. 11. University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.

I am no expert in 6th century Arabic health, but you should not presume "chance of survival" in Mecca would be better than in the desert. Historically, urban settlements tended to be demographic death traps, much of which took the form of child and infant mortality. It's a natural consequence of concentrating a population into an urban settlement, wealthy or otherwise.


For reference, this was true for Medieval Europe:

Medieval cities always suffered distinctly higher death rates than did the country side. Infant and child mortality was always high in these societies, but in the cities the rate was twice that of the countryside.

- Hoffmann, Richard. An environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

And during Classical Antiquity:

They were physically small, underdeveloped, and vulnerable ... Infant and child mortality was high in the classical city.

- Bunge, Marcia JoAnn, ed. The Child in Christian Thought. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001.

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  • +1. Thanks for explaining my mistaken assumption that cities are better, I thought deserts have less water, shelter, and harsher climate. I guess pre-modern urban concentration had worse effect than those things. Is it possible for your answer to expand on that (on why cities are such a bad place for infant mortality)?
    – Fitri
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 3:53
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    @Fitri Poor sanitation and infectious diseases, both due to (or exacerbated by) large populations living in a single concentrated area. I'm not too sure what kind of expansion you're looking for, but a more in depth examination of the issue deserves its own question.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 3:58
  • I can't provide a reference right now, but another reason is about language. Bedouins' speaking were more eloquent and fluent than Arabs in urban settlements. Also, only families who could afford a nurse were sending their children to the desert. Not all of them.
    – biri
    Commented Apr 6, 2015 at 8:21
  • Cities were, at times, unhealthy places right into modern times with rather poor sanitation, see e.g. the 1854 Broad Street Cholera Outbreak in London, at that time the largest city in the world.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 13:07
  • @DohnJoe: I would guess it was not until the 20th century that cities became anywhere near as safe as living in isolation on a farm for so many reasons. A modern person visiting any major mid-19th century city, including London but also Manhattan and Chicago would be absolutely appalled -- I was in Manhattan during a garbage strike during the 1980s and I suspect that began to give one what NYC 1850 was like but still was not nearly as bad -- we think of cars as being polluting but horses in large quantities were also terrible.
    – releseabe
    Commented Nov 14, 2021 at 8:41
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The most common reason behind abandonment of a newborn baby is physical malformation. Prophet had a swelling on back since birth. He was expected to have a paralyzed infancy and early death...so he was abandoned at birth. No other Arab child was abandoned like this...not even his own cousins. His malformation happened to be Cervicothoracic Meningocoele with normal life span...So he was accepted back at 8 years of age. This back tumor is described as SEAL OF PROPHETHOOD a swelling between shoulders.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 11:13
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Because simply, they wanted their children to be as best as possible in Arabic language.

This is because desert people Arabic is much better than in cities. A very critical part of Arabs life was poems, which of course require a good language tongue. That's why they were competing each other to send their children to deserts.

From wikipedia:

As was tradition among all the great families at the time, Aminah sent Muhammad into the desert as a baby. The belief was that in the desert, one would learn self-discipline, nobility, and freedom. This also gave Muhammad the chance to learn Arabic and Arab traditions. During this time, Muhammad was nursed by Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb, a poor Bedouin woman from the tribe of Banu Sa'ad, a branch of the Hawāzin, who would be with him during his time in the desert.

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  • But why didn't the teachers or parents learned the proper Arabic and then taught it to the children themselves?
    – user45891
    Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 15:59
  • This is because the cities where less fluent than urbans. Because simply not all parents are fluent, while they wish their children are. Exactly when a smoking father doesn't want his child to smoke too. Besides, Mohammed's father had died before his birth. Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 13:53
  • If language skill is the main objective, toddler age is not the most effective age to teach childen the finer aspects of language.
    – Fitri
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 1:46
  • @Fitri No ofcourse, because the basic language of human is learned immediately after infant. The most basic (and important) part of language is learned at early childhood. Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 6:05
  • Yes, I know that children learns the basics of a language when they're toddler, I'm a parent. By "basic", it means they learn how to put simple sentence, and use basic words like "yes", "no", "mama", "cat", "sheep", "eat", "pee", "poop" and stuff like that, and I think one's parent is sufficient for tat. It's not like they're learning making speeches, poetry and literature, which might require a special tutor..
    – Fitri
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 3:08

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