The age of Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, when she married the Prophet Muhammad is something that has only recently become controversial. The traditional account is that the marriage was consummated when she was nine years old, which naturally appears strange, if not uncomfortable, to many in a modern, western context. Many have gone so far as to stir up despicable sexual misconduct charges against the Prophet, with even some recent Muslims (of varying levels of intellectuality, motivations and scholarly qualifications) revisiting the sources and reinterpreting the traditionally adduced narrations, to suggest that Aisha may actually have been older, even though there are four Ahadith in al-Bukhari and three in Muslim clearly stating that Aisha reached puberty at nine years old when her marriage was subsequently consummated with the Prophet.
The first most important point to note is that the controversy is a relatively recent one. The Prophet’s own contemporaries took no issue with the Prophet’s marriage to Aisha; it was not problematic in their eyes as puberty indicated maturity and maturity meant readiness for marriage. This includes both his disbeliever antagonists and his believing followers. Certainly, his antagonists were ever eager to discredit him, and the Qur’an itself records details of this. They accused him of being a sorcerer, a madman or a soothsayer. They objected to his marriage to Zaynab, remonstrating that (according to pre-Islamic Arab culture) a man may not marry the divorcee of his adopted son just as he may not marry the divorcee of his biological son. Yet they did not attempt to discredit him on the basis of his marrying a girl much younger than him. Neither in the Qur’an nor in any historical source is there any mention of such an objection having been raised, despite the fact that these sources do mention numerous other strategies used by the Prophet’s opponents.
The reaction of Muhammad’s hostile contemporaries implies that it was acceptable, in 7th century Arab culture, for older men to marry younger girls (even as young as 9), and moreover that it was a practiced norm of the society at that time. Instead of sexual promiscuity such as ‘dating’, honorable families instead chose the more respectable avenue of marrying their children off at a young age.
The general character of the Prophet, and his marital history, speaks clearly against claims of sexual misconduct. His first marriage, at age 25, was to a widowed woman (Khadijah) who was 15 years his senior, and he remained in a happy and solid monogamous marriage to her for a quarter-century; the marriage ending only with Khadijah’s death, aged 65. It was only subsequent to her passing away, and often under specific circumstances that he married other women; with all of them being either widows or divorcees. Aisha was the third wife of the Prophet and the only virgin that he ever married.
Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha must be read in context to early Arab culture, and to avoid viewing the veritable tapestry of human culture, across space and time, through the colored lenses of contemporary, western culture. A slight familiarity with anthropology is sufficient to convince one that there has been, and still is, remarkable variety in human cultural practices and norms. For instance the Catholic Encyclopedia observes about the Virgin Mary that, “it is possible that Mary gave birth to her Son when she was about thirteen or fourteen years of age.” In Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was only thirteen, yet her mother tells her that “ladies of esteem” younger than her are already mothers. According to the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, both Christian Canon law and European civil law considered seven years as the age of consent, but judges in medieval England would approve marriages based on mutual consent at ages even lower than 7. As recently as the nineteenth century, ages of consent of 13 to 14 were common in Western countries.
To conclude, Aisha’s biography attests to the fact that she had a wholesome upbringing and then blossomed to become a woman of high intellectual calibre, a poetess and a medical advisor. She had a sharp inquisitive mind and at times, as the Prophetic narrations show, would often daringly question the Noble Messenger.
She is one of the fore-ranking specialists in narrating from the Prophet. She was also a commentator on the Qur’an and knowledgeable in Islamic law. Much of this was due to her early marriage to Muhammad, which made her an eye witness to the personal details of his life. She became a beacon of knowledge for the succeeding generations and a role model for women for all times.
Categories: Responses to anti-Islamic Polemics