General

Debating The Marriage Of ‘Aisha (Article II): Historical Context

Author: Dr. Tabasum Hussain

Muslim Debate Initiative, Canada

The marriage of young ‘Aisha bint Abu Bakr and the Prophet Muhammad took place over 1400 years ago in the Arabian peninsula, and it was not until the mid to late nineteenth century that this marriage was extracted from history and targeted for criticism and condemnation.  In recent years, there has been a revival of criticism against the marriage, as if such marital unions were non-existent and reviled outside of the religion of Islam and the Muslim world.  Can the marriage of young ‘Aisha or any such marriage be extracted from the pre-modern era and be condemned or criticised outside of its historical context?

Young ‘Aisha’s marriage unique to Islamic history?

While it has been argued that child marriages were virtually unknown, numerous examples of child marriages throughout the course of history lend credence to the acceptability of the marriage of young ‘Aisha in its historical context.[1]  Marriages were not always registered in pre-modern times thereby limiting data available to support the prevalence of such marriages. Records showing the age of a widow on the death of her husband bear witness to the pre-modern practice of child marriages.[2]  Notably, children from among the elite families would be married between five and ten years of age, only to be widowed while still in their early teens.[3]  As shocking as it may be in the present day context, history attests to the fact that until the mid to late nineteenth century, marriages of children aged between two and thirteen years were permitted, facilitated, accepted, and considered valid regardless of religious, cultural, or geographical boundaries.[4]  Shulamith Shahar writes, “The daughters (and sons) of the nobility were often betrothed while still in their cradles…” [5]  Making their mark on history, child marriages among the nobility and the monarchy were no secret, especially across England:

  • Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII and grandmother to King Henry VIII reportedly first married in 1444 when she was 1 or 3 years old. Lady Beaufort’s marriage was dissolved 3 years later, and she again remarried at age 12, only to be left widowed and pregnant by the time she was 13 years old.[6]
  • Agnes, Countess of Oxford (c. 1151 – c. 1212) was married at age 3 to Geoffrey de Vere, brother of the first Earl of Oxford.[7]
  • In 1478, Anne Mowbray, Countess of Norfolk was married at age 5.[8]
  • Mary Bohun, the first wife of the future King Henry IV, was reportedly married and pregnant by age 12.[9]

One of the most influential legal texts in seventeenth century England outlined that the marriage of girls under the age of twelve years was permitted and acceptable.[10] History bears witness to the prevalence of child marriages within different religious traditions and communities in the pre-modern era; Hindu law and custom dictated that a girl should be married before she attained an age of puberty.[11]  In reference to Jewish religious practices, Rabbi Isaac Klein comments, “Child marriages were very common in ancient days”.[12]  Young Jewish girls were reportedly married as young as eight and nine years old even up until 1849 C.E.[13]  Child marriage was noted as a common practice across parts of the Levant in the 16th century, Ruth Lamdan writes:

The numerous references to child marriage in the 16th- century Responsa literature and other sources, shows that child marriage was so common, it was virtually the norm.[Emphasis added][14]

The age gap in historical context

While history bears witness to the practice and acceptance of child marriages, critics further emphasise the age gap between young ‘Aisha and the Prophet Muhammad as a point of condemnation.  The age gap between nine year old ‘Aisha and the Prophet Muhammad who was in his 50’s at the time of marriage has become the focus of criticism and condemnation for polemicists and apologists in recent times, and also a matter of contention for some Muslims in the modern era.  In its historical context, there was no cause for concern, condemnation, or criticism of the marriage of young ‘Aisha, and such marriages were not considered socially or morally problematic even outside of the Muslim world.  The pagan Arabs criticised Muhammad’s marriage with Zainab bint Jahsh because it was against their custom that a man should marry the ex-wife of an adopted son, yet there was no objection to marriage with young ‘Aisha; this highlights the fact that nothing about this marriage warranted criticism even by his worst enemies who had sought to assassinate him.[15]  It was in the wake of shifting social norms in the mid to late nineteenth century that polemicists found opportunity to denigrate Islam by way of targeting and condemning the Prophet Muhammad for his marriage to young ‘Aisha. While modernity and shifting social norms now dictate that ‘Aisha’s young age and the age gap between spouses should be condemned, the same criticism or condemnation did not apply across the pre-modern era, and this was irrespective of religious or geographical boundaries.  On the age difference between marriage partners, in 1526, a Dutch scholar noted :

It is no uncommon case, especially in France, for a girl of scarce ten years to be married and a mother next year… It seems portentous, and yet we sometimes see it, especially in Britain and Italy, that a tender child is married to a septuagenerian…(a man in his seventies) Yet Church laws do not rescind such nuptials…[16]

In 385 C.E, Christian Theologian and Philosopher, St Augustine (known for his writings that influenced Western Christianity and Philosophy) ended an out of wedlock relationship of 15 years to enter an arranged marriage with a 10 year old heiress of higher social standing.[17]  St. Augustine was required to observe a two year waiting period to allow time for his young wife to reach a point of maturity before the marriage could be consummated (ie, sealed by sexual engagement), during this time St. Augustine opted for celibacy.  Regardless of the marriage coming to an end, the point remains that there was no objection, shock, criticism, or condemnation of the arrangement or marriage itself.

A significant age gap between spouses was known and accepted throughout the course of history especially in high profile marriages among nobility and monarchy:

  • In England in 856 C.E., Charles II “the Bald”, King of Franks, presented his daughter Judith when she was in her early teens for marriage to Aethelwulf of Wessex who was said to be in his fifties.[18]
  • Byzantine emperor, Andronicus Comnenus (1180–1183 C.E.) at age 65 married 12 year old Agnes. [19][20]
  • King Henry I married his 11 year old daughter to 27 year old German emperor, Heinrich V.[21]
  • In 1610, dubbed the founding father of Quebec City (The New France), Canadian Samuel De Champlain was 40 years old when he married 12 year old Helene Boulle.[22]

One of the most notable marriages in history was that of 29 year old King Richard II and 7 year old Isabel in 1396 C.E.[23]  While there is no record of the marriage being consummated, Isabella was sent to live with her spouse at age 7 without any waiting period, and reports suggest that the couple were known to have developed a love and respect for one another.[24]  Perhaps it would not serve the interests or agendas of Christian polemicists or anti-Islam activists in the present day context to extract and scrutinise the marriage of young Isabella from history to malign former Christian kings of England and France for such a marriage.  An expected counter-response would be that King Richard II and King Charles IV were not founders of a “new” religion.  The point remains that they were men of power and influence involved in the arrangement and consent to marriage of a seven year old girl.  The marriage was deemed morally and socially acceptable, and was agreed to, facilitated, and celebrated by all concerned at the time, ie, church authorities, jurists, and the general public across England and France.

tumblr_na8zc3JdYW1t05ay2o2_1280Depiction of 7 year old Isabella being given in marriage by her father King Charles IV to 29 year old King Richard II

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states:

…marriages were arranged by parents, who often espoused their prepubescent daughters to much older men’.[25]

According to apocryphal writings, and as noted in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia, Mary the mother of Jesus was between 12-14 years old when she married Joseph who was reportedly in his 90s.[26]  Christian apologists dismiss claims pointing to the age gap between Mary and Joseph; rejecting apocryphal writings as weak and unreliable, and so excluded from canonised scripture.  Notably, the same canonised scripture that Christian apologists rely on is not free from reference to apocryphal writings.[27]  Although rejected as information taken from apocrypha writings, the point remains that such unions were not unknown to the authors of these writings.  It is likely that the authors of these apocryphal writings would have been exposed to and accustomed to such marriages in their time.  Even if the age gap put forward by the authors is rejected as exaggeration or guess work, it is unlikely that these authors would guess at Mary’s age being at 12 years and Joseph’s at age 90 years if society at the time would have been repulsed by such a suggestion.  Undoubtedly, there would have been no motive or purpose for the authors of these apocryphal writings in inviting criticism or condemnation of this revered union between Joseph and Mary.

Would the marriage between Joseph and Mary have served to set a trend towards child marriages? The answer would probably be no.  With respect to the numerous historical examples of child marriages presented, were the nobility and monarchy across pre-modern Europe taking their cues from Islam or the marriage between ‘Aisha and the Prophet Muhammad? No.  Did the marriage between young ‘Aisha and the Prophet Muhammad set the trend for child marriages? History tells us, no.  Does the marriage of young ‘Aisha with the Prophet Muhammad justify child marriages in the present day? This will be addressed in later articles in this series.

In his criticism and condemnation of the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage with young ‘Aisha, Christian polemicist Sam Shamoun asserts that the practice of marrying prepubescent children should be rejected regardless of social norms of any time period, he writes:
That there were certain groups which accepted specific practices in the past do not mean that they are morally acceptable. After all, there are many cultural practices and behaviors which both Christians and Muslims frown upon, whether homosexuality, incest, pre-marital sex, cannibalism etc… In light of all these clear examples of Muhammad going against and doing away with certain, prevalent cultural practices and customs, he could have just as easily done away with the custom of marrying prepubescent girls… [28]

Two points to be noted:
• During the time of Jesus it was not unusual or shocking for prepubescent girls to be married, and these marriages would generally be followed by a waiting period to allow for the girl to reach a point of maturity before the marriage was consummated.[29] Jewish commentaries point to the marriage of Rebecca (the Biblical mother of Esau and Jacob) when she was three years old to forty year old Isaac.[30]  Ancient Jewish marriage customs evidently allowed for prepubescent girls to be married during Jesus’ lifetime without any objection.  Arguably, Jesus could have just as easily done away with the custom of marrying prepubescent girls if such marriages were frowned upon or comparable to homosexuality, incest, pre-marital sex, or cannibalism.

•  There is nothing in Judeo-Christian tradition or scripture that prohibits or condemns the custom of marrying prepubescent girls.

In reference to the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage with young ‘Aisha, another Christian polemicist, David Wood writes:

‘…if Muslims want to show that Christians are being inconsistent, they need to show that Jesus, or Peter, or Paul, or someone central to Christianity, did the things that Muhammad did…’ [31]

David Wood would be correct in that there are no Biblical references connecting Jesus or his disciples to a marital union comparable to that of the Prophet Muhammad with young ‘Aisha. The underlying implication is that Jesus, Peter, and Paul did not engage in such marriages because they abstained from doing what they considered immoral. However, a practice cannot be condemned and labelled as immoral simply on the basis that Jesus, Peter, or Paul did not engage in it.  There is no scriptural evidence to show that Jesus, Peter, or Paul ever married, yet this is not indicative of marriage itself being an immoral or sinful practice in Judeo-Christian tradition, or according to the New Testament; 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.  Polemicists have yet to provide a scriptural reference point that would morally invalidate the marriage of young ‘Aisha due to her young age or the age gap between her and the Prophet Muhammad.

Why were child marriages permitted or acceptable?

Undoubtedly, in the modern era, it is difficult to understand exactly why a marriage such as young ‘Aisha’s could or should be considered acceptable even in its historical context. Such marriages are open to criticism and condemnation when socioeconomic, cultural, and religious factors that made such marriages acceptable in their historical context are ignored or overlooked.

As already discussed, it was not uncommon for marriages to be arranged by parents for their prepubescent children across pre-modern societies often for cultural reasons, and to secure or strengthen political alliances or familial ties.[32]  The marriage of young Isabella was contracted by her father King Charles IV of France in the hope of securing good relations between France and England in an effort to bring an end to the Hundred Years War and avoid “effusion of Christian men’s blood”.[33]

Regardless of age or age gap between spouses, early marriage also served as a means to “not let a good opportunity slip away”.  Socioeconomic challenges motivated parents to arrange early marriage for their prepubescent children to ensure “survival” during uncertain times.  In reference to child marriages in pre-modern societies across what are now secular developed nations, historian, Stephanie Coontz writes:

‘When parents and kin arranged a marriage for their child, they were investing in the child’s future as surely as a modern parent who sets up a college savings fund. Individuals in the Middle Ages understood that marriage was the most important “career” decision they would ever make. Accordingly, most generally followed their parents’ marital agendas… Young people also took their neighbours’ and friends’ opinions into account’.[34]

Jane Austen captured the fading tradition of arranging marriages for minors in her fictional work Pride and Prejudice; a reflection of the societal norms or practices that Austen was exposed to, and inspired to weave into her writing.[35]  The marriages of minors by their parents across pre-modern societies may seem shocking by today’s standards, and suggest that they lacked concern or compassion for their children.  Can it be argued that present day societies have progressed to a higher moral ground when it comes to the welfare of children where past societies may have failed?  General social acceptance of pre-marital sex versus delayed or absence of marriage, access to condoms, widespread and accessible sexually explicit images and language in popular music and entertainment in general, limited parental say or control over who their child may fall prey to via social media; all of this in the modern era may equally have been seen as shocking and repulsive across pre-modern societies compared to what they deemed acceptable as noble and legitimate marriages in their time, and ultimately a secure future for their children.

Concluding comments

It would be disingenuous to criticise the marriage of ‘Aisha over 1400 years ago in isolation as if it was an abnormal or condemned practice in the Judeo-Christian tradition or in the history of secular nations in general.  Undoubtedly, downplay or omission of historical references to other child marriages across non-Muslim pre-modern societies serves to add greater shock, impact, and credibility to polemicist criticism and condemnation today of the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to young ‘Aisha.

Child marriages were arranged, accepted, permitted, facilitated, and celebrated by parents, general public, jurists, political and religious authorities across pre-modern societies regardless of geographical or religious boundaries.  Regardless of whether present day social norms or mindset dictate that marriages such as the marriage of young ‘Aisha should be considered repulsive or socially unacceptable, we clearly cannot impose our own views onto past societies and what they deemed acceptable according to the cultural and social norms of their times.  What made child marriages acceptable for past societies, but unacceptable now?  If young ‘Aisha’s marriage was not and cannot be condemned in its historical context, then it is reasonable to ask why the marriage should be condemned today.  Obvious concerns would include consent, age of maturity considered acceptable for sexual engagement, compatibility, as well as the bond of love. These questions and concerns will be addressed in this continuing series of articles.     The next article begins by examining whether there is a religious basis for condemning the marriage of young ‘Aisha.  Can the marriage be viewed as sinful or morally wrong according to Judeo-Christian scripture?

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]

Other articles in this series:

Debating The Marriage Of ‘Aisha: Introduction & Overview

Debating The Marriage Of ‘Aisha (Article III): The Christian Polemicist Standard

 

[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 (ie, Jesus), 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] Laslett, Peter. (1984) The World We Have Lost: Further Explored. New York: Scribner.
[2] Post, G.B. (1974) Another Demographic Use of Inquisitions Post Mortem. Journal of the Society of Archivists 5: 110-114
[3] Labarge, Margaret W. (1997) A Medieval Miscellany Carleton University Press p.52
[4] Shahar, Shulamith (2003) The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages Revised Edition p.134
[5] Ibid
[6] Gristwood, Sarah (2012) Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses Harper Press
[7] RaGena DeAragon (2007) The Child-Bride, the Earl, and the Pope: The Marital Fortunes of Agnes of Essex“, Henry I and the Anglo-Norman World Boydell & Brewer.
[8] Stephen, Leslie ed. (1894) Dictionary of National Biography Volume 39 p.225
[9] Orme Nicholas (2001) Medieval Children Yale University Press p.329
[10] Coke, Edward (1719) The First Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England 11th edition. London.
[11] Goody J. (1990) The Oriental, the Ancient, and the Primitive: Systems of Marriage and the Family in the Pre-Industrial Societies of Eurasia. Cambridge University Press p.208
[12] Klein, Isaac (1979) A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice The Jewish Theological Seminary of America  New York p.396
[13] http://www.utoronto.ca/wjudaism/journal/vol3n2/sehayek.html
[14] Lamdan R. (2000) A Separate People: Jewish Women in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt in the Sixteenth Century Brill p.47
[15] Brown, A.C. Jonathon (2011) Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction  Oxford University Press. New York
[16] Coulton G.G. (1944) Medieval Panorama New York: MacMillan, p.639.
[17] Saint Augustine of Hippo. (2006) The Confessions of Saint Augustine Translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey Echo Library
[18] Stafford, Pauline (1981) Charles the Bald, Judith and England. In Gibson, Margaret; Nelson, Janet L. Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom. Oxford. pp.137-51
[19] http://www.roman-emperors.org/andy.comn.htm
[20] Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. (1991). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. p. 1901.
[21] Leyser, Karl (1982) Medieval Germany and Its Neighbours. 900-1250, London UK. Hambledon Press
[22] Fischer, David Hackett (2008) Champlain’s Dream Simon and Schuster.
[23] Fabyan, Robert (d.1513) Marriage of Richard II. and Isabel of France Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century.
[24] Kirby, J. L. (2004) Isabella (1389–1409), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press, Sept; online edn, May 2006
[25] Botterweck G. J., Ringgren, H., Fabry, H-J. (1997) Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament Volume 8 p.144 – 145
[26] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08504a.htm
[27] Bible: New Testament ; Jude 1:9-15, 2Timothy 3:8-9, Hebrews 11:35-37.
[28] http://www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/prepubescent2.htm
[29] Vermes, Geza (1973) Jesus The Jew William Collins sons and Co Ltd, p.219-222
[30] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8220/showrashi/true
[31] http://www.answering-islam.org/Authors/Wood/pedophile.htm
[32] See [11]
[33] See [23]
[34] Coontz, Stephanie (2005) Marriage, A History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. Viking Penguin p.117
[35] Austen, J (1813) Pride and Prejudice ed., Anna Quindlen (New York, 1996) p140

 

3 replies »

  1. Lots of interesting historical details. However, Muhammad is the pattern or example S.33:21 for all believers at all times and places. If this action of Muhammad can be relegated to a mere custom of the day, can everything else he did? If not, is it just a case of arguing on an ad hoc basis to explain away embarrassing details?

  2. Spurgeonite You raise valid points, however you seem to have jumped the gun – the author aims to address the obvious issues that are being raised hence the need for this series of articles. Stay tuned because this is what the author has stated in the above article: “If young ‘Aisha’s marriage was not and cannot be condemned in its historical context, then it is reasonable to ask why the marriage should be condemned today. Obvious concerns would include consent, age of maturity considered acceptable for sexual engagement, compatibility, as well as the bond of love. These questions and concerns will be addressed in this continuing series of articles.”

  3. “There is no scriptural evidence to show that Jesus, Peter, or Paul ever married.”
    This is true with regard to Jesus and Paul. However, Peter had a mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed (Matthew 8:14, Mark 1:30, Luke 4:38). The wife of Peter (Cephas) is also referred to in 1 Corinthians 9:5.

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