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Debating The Marriage Of ‘Aisha: Introduction & Overview

Debating The Marriage Of ‘Aisha: Introduction & Overview

Author: Dr Tabasum Hussain, MDI, Canada.

Core arguments

The marriage of six year old ‘Aisha bint Abu Bakr with the Prophet Muhammad over 1400 years ago has in recent years become a target for criticism and condemnation.  The core arguments against the marriage that have gained momentum and fuelled the agendas of those seeking to vilify the Prophet in the past century are:

  • ‘Aisha was too young for marriage at age six, and too young for consummation of marriage (sexual intercourse) at age nine because she was allegedly prepubescent when the marriage was consummated.
  • The age gap between ‘Aisha and the Prophet Muhammad was morally and socially reprehensible, tantamount to the marriage being an act of child abuse and paedophilia.
  • The marriage complies with Qur’anic injunctions to sexually engage with prepubescent girls, and continues to justify, support, and promote child marriages across Muslim communities worldwide.

Criticism of young ‘Aisha’s marriage did not emerge until the mid to late 19th century, so it is important to establish why it has drawn criticism and condemnation in recent times.

Setting the “standard”

The marriage of young ‘Aisha has been extracted from history and condemned in context of what is considered socially acceptable in the present day context.  At face value, the arguments against the marriage may seem credible in view of today’s social norms; a small corner of an oil painting when magnified would inevitably appear as an ugly blotch on canvas.  However, taking a step back from the magnified and seemingly ugly blotch on canvas sheds light on the bigger picture that can otherwise be distorted, overlooked, ignored, or forgotten in view of our sensitivities that are shaped by present day social norms.  When examining the legitimacy of the multifaceted criticisms and claims against the marriage of young ‘Aisha, the historical and religious context, and development of what was and now is considered to be a morally or socially acceptable age for marriage or sex cannot be ignored.  Much of the criticism against the marriage of young ‘Aisha has been spearheaded by Christian polemicists, albeit, often through a secular lens. A Christian polemicist under the alias Silas writes:

I thank God that our standards are better than his and those of Islam when it comes to protecting children. If Muhammad were a true prophet, why are the world’s standards better than his? [1]

Such a statement calls for a closer look at what exactly these “standards” are against which Islam allegedly fails.  Writing for a popular Christian apologetics website, undoubtedly Silas is pointing to Judeo-Christian tradition as our standards, while reference to the world’s standards directs the reader to the social norms of the secular world we currently live in. If Judeo-Christian or secular standards dictate that the marriage of young ‘Aisha should be condemned, it follows that these standards need to be more closely examined and compared with the Islamic view. Marital unions such as the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage with young ‘Aisha were known in the Judeo-Christian tradition and throughout the history of present day secular nations that include England, France, and the United States of America.  Polemicists typically dismiss references to such marriages that crossed cultural, religious, and geographical borders, arguing that it serves as a poor defence of a marriage that should be shunned regardless of any time period.  The measuring stick or reference point used by critics to arrive at the conclusion that the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad with young ‘Aisha should be condemned, irrespective of any time period, is often overlooked.  When something is criticised, it is important to ascertain whether the measuring stick used can be considered reliable or valid; inevitably, the following points need to be addressed:

  • Has there ever been a scriptural-based age for marriage in the Islamic or Judeo-Christian tradition, or a single universally agreed upon standard age for marriage across the secular world?
  • Historically, has child marriage always been synonymous with immediate permissibility for sex or consent to consummate the marriage with a child?
  • Has there ever been a universally agreed upon set of criteria that have defined an exact numerical age or “right time” for consummation of marriage or ability to engage in sex?

Blinding with science

Scientific advancement, especially over the past century or so, has gained momentum and earned a great level of respect in the world we live in today.  Some critics apply the fallacy of blinding with science by selectively extracting and misinterpreting or misrepresenting information from scientific sources in an effort to gain an unearned respect or support for their claims against the marriage of young ‘Aisha.  It is unlikely that most people will pause to question scientific sources, and this in turn serves to strengthen polemicist claims.  Unsubstantiated claims that ‘Aisha had not yet menstruated and was therefore a prepubescent child when she consummated her marriage rest on the implication that puberty in girls is incomplete without menarche (first menstruation).[2]   Critics attempt to define a girl’s level of sexual and cognitive maturity and preparedness for marriage by drawing an over-simplified and scientifically unsubstantiated definitive correlation between numerical age and biological development.  Overall, there is a tendency to downplay the cultural, social, and historical impact on the definition of puberty, childhood, and sexual maturity; scientific references that take this into account are typically ignored.

The “shock” tactic and emotional appeal  

Extracting and isolating the marriage of young ‘Aisha from its historical context makes it more shocking and serves to strengthen criticism and condemnation of the marriage.  The social norms across pre-modern societies that allowed for recognition and feasibility of such marriages are either ignored or downplayed.  Language and tone also play an important role in tapping into the mindset shaped by present day social norms; an appeal to emotions weighs in favour of arguments against the marriage.  One polemicist writes:

Picture this historical setting: A 49 year old man asks his best friend if he could have his permission to marry his 6 year old daughter. His friend agrees. The man then visits his best friend’s house and speaks with the 6 year old daughter.  Her parents watch as the he proposes marriage to the child.  He is serious; he wants to marry the little girl and is asking for her consent.  The little child says nothing; she only stares at him in silence… The bottom line is Muhammad, the creator of Islam, revered by his followers, had sex with a child!  Worse, Muhammad’s action and teachings on marriage established an Islamic precedent and Islamic law allows female children to be married off and engaged in sex… [3]

This polemicist concocts a narrative inviting the reader to draw a parallel between the Prophet Muhammad and a fictional character who aggressively pursues marriage with a six year old girl as a means to fulfill his sexual desires with a child.  Another underlying implication is that the Prophet Muhammad abused and used his ties of friendship to secure the marital union with young ‘Aisha, and that her parents lacked concern or compassion for their child by agreeing to the proposal.  The author of this narrative under the alias Silas adds …`weep for the Muslim children who are allowed by their faith to be used for sex’.

Many of the articles focusing on the marriage of ‘Aisha featured on popular apologetics websites are laced with loaded words and crude language obviously aimed at evoking feelings of shock, disgust, or hatred against the marriage.  Use of such tactics has been effective in presenting the marriage as problematic and unacceptable, a marriage that was otherwise socially, morally, and culturally acceptable up until the mid to late nineteenth century.  It is obvious that most people today would reject the notion of parental arrangement of marriage for their six year old girl, let alone prompt consummation of that marriage when she reaches age nine.  Tapping into emotions driven by social norms of the day has overshadowed context, proof, or reason.

Quoting Islamic sources

Primary and secondary Islamic sources have been misquoted and misinterpreted to further support arguments against the marriage; for example, certain hadiths are quoted to support the claim that ‘Aisha was prepubescent when she consummated her marriage.  It is also claimed that chapter 65 verse 4 of the Qur’an implicitly allows for men to engage in sex with female children.[4]  What was and is understood by marriage versus consummation of marriage (or sex) is often overlooked, and the misapplication and/or definition of terms such as child, marriage, and puberty in this respect is ignored.

Quoting Muslims

To reinforce their arguments, polemicists often quote the opinions of Muslims who have expressed discomfort with authenticated hadith narrations that attest to ‘Aisha’ being age six or seven at marriage and age nine at consummation of marriage:

My Prophet was a gentleman. And he did not marry an innocent seven or nine year old girl. The age of Ayesha has been erroneously reported in the hadith literature. Furthermore, I think that the narratives reporting this event are highly unreliable. Some of the hadith (traditions of the Prophet) regarding Ayesha’s age at the time of her wedding with the Prophet are problematic. [5]

This type of Muslim response is not surprising; Muslims and non-Muslims alike have not been exposed to such marriages that were part of the social norms across pre-modern societies, regardless of religious orientation.  Buckling under the pressure of present day social norms and rising anti-Islam sentiment, some Muslims insist that ‘Aisha was probably much older when she married and consummated her marriage.  Muslims who take the stance that ‘Aisha was probably older at the time of marriage point to evidences derived from estimating her age on the basis of certain historical events documented during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. [6][7]  While such evidences pointing to an older age may deserve attention, they ultimately fail to magic away or nullify authenticated hadiths that clearly specify ‘Aisha’s young age at marriage.  Moreover, many of the evidences presented have effectively been addressed by translator of classical Arabic texts, writer, and muhaddith, Dr. Gibril Haddad. [8]  Notably, Muslims who reject authenticated hadith narrations in favour of offering alternative explanations to support an older age for ‘Aisha unwittingly concede to polemical assertions that the marriage should be considered socially and morally reprehensible.  In his book Misquoting Muhammad, Professor of Islamic Studies, Jonathan A.C. Brown references one of the most popular Egyptian authors of the twentieth century known for his anti-imperialist views, stating:

‘Aqqad had admitted that his argument about Aisha’s marriage age was intended as a rebuttal against the moral disapproval of Orientalists.  But in revising the received Muslim position on Aisha’s marriage age, ‘Aqqad was implicitly admitting that Western norms and criticisms of Islam and the Prophet were valid. [9]

Other Muslims tend to argue that ‘Aisha’s young age at marriage can be reconciled in light of the social norms and practices prevalent at the time across cultures, regardless of geographical boundaries, even up until the late nineteenth century.  The idea that the marriage of ‘Aisha conformed to the social norms of the day is again quickly dismissed by critics as a poor defence of a marriage that should be considered irreconcilable irrespective of any time period.  The polemicist argument often presented is that a man who is revered as a Prophet of God failed to comply with the moral standards of God; the actions of a Prophet of God should ideally withstand the test of time and shifting social norms.

Presenting the marriage of young ‘Aisha as it was

While some Muslims seemingly come to the “defence” of the Prophet Muhammad and his marriage with ‘Aisha, this is not the objective of this series of articles.  To “defend” implies coming to the aid of something that is weak, threatened, or may otherwise cease to exist.  The passage of time already bears witness to the strength, influence, and impact of Islam and the noble character of the Prophet Muhammad; this is despite a revived effort to denigrate both, even amid the present chaos and unrest across the Muslim world.  What if ‘Aisha was six years old at marriage and nine years old at consummation of marriage as the hadiths state?  Stepping beyond shock and emotional appeal, this series of articles addresses criticisms against the marriage of young ‘Aisha at a young age, as it was stated in authenticated hadith narrations.  The main objective of this series of articles is to simply provide a one stop counter-response to as many of the multi-faceted claims and criticisms against the marriage of young ‘Aisha.  The following points will be the focus of this debate series of articles:

  • Historical and current age at marriage and consummation of marriage; taking into consideration use and understanding or definition of the terms “underage”, “age of consent”, and “child”, in light of the implications or impact of puberty.
  • Claims that the marriage of young ‘Aisha allegedly confirms, supports, or alludes to permission to sexually engage with prepubescent girls in view of specific verses in the Qur’an.
  • Claims that Islamic sources support the polemicist view that young ‘Aisha was allegedly still a prepubescent child when she consummated her marriage.
  • Claims that Islamic sources point to the marriage being wrong for various other reasons.
  • Weaknesses, double standards, and inconsistencies of the claims and criticisms surrounding the marriage of young ‘Aisha.

Professor Jonathan Brown describes the views once expressed by a member of Egypt’s religious establishment, Ahmad Shakir:

Muslims, Shakir believes, are supposed to derive their laws and sensibilities from the Islamic heritage, not from Europe.  He minces no words.  Aisha’s marriage to the Prophet at the age of nine was historically correct and the basis for Shariah ruling that marrying an underage woman was permissible.  There were to be no apologies for this. [10]

Asides from the underlying misconception that Europe was devoid of such marriages, Shakir’s words essentially set the tone for this upcoming series of articles that engage in the debate surrounding the marriage of young ‘Aisha.

N.B. These articles are a detailed follow-up to a video lecture presented by Dr. Tabasum Hussain: ‘The Marriage of Young Aisha: A Muslim Response’, Dr. Tabasum Hussain [MDI Canada]

[Disclaimer:  The benedictions “peace and blessings be upon him” after the name of Prophet Muhammad, “peace be upon him” after the names of other respected Prophets of God, and “may Allah be pleased with her” after the name of ‘Aisha, or “may Allah be pleased with him” after respected family members and Companions of the Prophet Muhammad have been omitted for the sake of continuity, and is left to the discretion of the Muslim reader to observe.]

[1] www.answering-islam.org/Silas/childbrides.htm

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid                                                             

[5] www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/prepubescent2.htm

[6] www.islamawareness.net/FAQ/what_was_ayesha.html

[7] www.understanding-islam.com/q-and-a/sources-of-islam/what-was-ayesha-s-ra-age-at-the-time-of-her-marriage-to-the-prophet-pbuh-5107

[8] http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=7&ID=4604&CATE=1

[9] Jonathan A.C Brown 2014 Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy. Oneworld Publications  p.148

[10] ibid

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