The Issue” is TMWT’s exploration of what Muslim women experience and the nuances that shape them. In this instalment, Fadilah Ali addresses the multidimensional controversies surrounding the Age of Aisha (RA), countering historical revisionism through contextual analysis.
Your prophet married a nine-year-old girl! How can a messenger of God do that?
The age of Aisha (RA) at the time she married the Prophet (PBUH) is one of the most controversial topics to be brought about Islam yet. For the person who actively seeks to prove how Islam is such a bad idea, this topic is the perfect starting point. To be fair, the issue serves the defamer’s narrative. Detractors have, in the 21st century managed to unfairly paint the Prophet (PBUH), the best man to ever walk this earth and mercy to all of mankind, as an ill-mannered, lustful and abusive person (Naudhubillah). However, after a series of academic and unbiased study, this issue proves to be just another exaggerated non-issue.
It is interesting how in all the vituperation generated, no one bothers to take into account that Aisha (RA) became the most knowledgeable woman of this Ummah, or that verses were revealed in the Qur’an because of her, or that she possessed the commendable qualities of courage, piety, steadfastness and generousity. No. She is reduced to just a number, a reference point made on why Islam is an evil religion.
Aisha (RA) was actually married to the Prophet (PBUH) when she was six. The match had already been made when she was six, and she eventually moved in with the Prophet (PBUH) when she turned nine. (Abu Dawud)
It will interest you to know that Aisha (RA) was engaged to another person before the Prophet, a young man by the name of Jubair ibn Mut’im. The engagement was eventually broken off by Jubair’s parents who were non-Muslims at the time because they feared that their son would turn Muslim if he had a Muslim wife. (Tabaqaat Ibn Saad)
Why this backstory?
I aim to give you a picture of the socio-cultural state of the Arabian society at the time. Why didn’t a single person find it strange that a six-year-old girl was getting married? And as she got married at six, why didn’t she move to his house immediately? Why did she wait till she was nine?
Of the problems of the 21st-century secular mind is absolute presentism and blatant inability to see matters from other paradigms, and I dare say that all of us are guilty of this at some point. When someone of the 21st century comes across a narration of the age of Aisha (RA) upon marriage, he thinks of his nine-year-old sibling who probably still plays with toys and as such cannot fathom how a nine-year-old girl could be married over 1400 years ago. Islam must be evil, he concludes, for it forces innocent nine-year-old girls to get married.
We must get rid of this moral superiority complex we have developed and managed to strengthen over time when dealing with other cultures, other civilizations, and especially other periods of time in the past. Yes, it is normal to be surprised at how diverse others can be, but we must not think of ourselves as morally superior to them. A person who lived in England centuries ago would probably be shocked out of his mind to see people wearing T-shirts in public today because T-shirts were once considered underwear. There was once a time in history when wristwatches were seen as womanly and the timepiece considered appropriate for a man was the pocket watch. Even today, the kilts are traditional attire for men in Scotland, whereas other places in the world may frown at the idea of men wearing skirts. Kohl for the eyes which may be considered feminine today was once a favourite of the Prophet (PBUH).
The Age of Aisha (RA): A Case Amongst Many
Marrying young was the norm, not just for the Arab society, but for the majority of the whole world throughout recorded history. This phenomenon finds its way into much of the literature produced at the time. For example, in Shakespeare’s novel Romeo and Juliet roughly four hundred years ago, Juliet is thirteen years old, and Romeo, though his age is never explicitly mentioned, can be considered near in age as well. Shakespeare himself got married at 18. Gandhi was married at the age of 14. And not only did people marry and have children at early ages, they also achieved considerably greater things. Sultan Mehmed II, for example, conquered Constantinople in 1453 at the age of 21.
When you imagine imposing that standard onto the average 21-year-old of today, you can, I hope, already see the problem. We are not morally superior to people who lived ages ago, because our paradigms are just not the same. Yes, they had their issues just as we have ours now but we must learn to look at events that happened at that time through lenses suited for the time.
Going back to the original issue, we can already see why it is unfair to assert that the age of Aisha (RA) at the time of her marriage to the Prophet was wrong. Such thinking stems from us imagining today’s average nine-year-old and imposing the image to nearly a millennium and a half ago, expecting absolute equivalence. The answer is a resounding no. A nine-year-old of that time is nothing like a nine-year-old of today. It is a fact well known, that people in older civilizations matured and hit puberty quite faster than today, healthcare was not so great and so death rate from diseases was generally higher than it is now, and the life span of the average person was lower than that of the average person of the 21st century. If people didn’t live as long and the infant mortality rate was high and if people generally matured faster, then tell me why marrying young is such a morally wrong idea. Tell me why people who lived in the seventh century should have waited till they were eighteen or older before they got married. Tell me why you are keen on maintaining that people before you who had their own way of life were barbaric and uncivilized and that you are the paragon of modernity and civilization.
The socio-cultural circumstances of the post-modern era allow people the comfort of adolescence, where they’re no longer children, but not fully adults. That was a luxury people who lived millennia ago could simply not afford. Once you hit puberty, you were considered an adult, you were then responsible for your own decisions and you were RIPE FOR MARRIAGE.
When Did the Age of Aisha (RA) Become an Issue?
If we want to know for sure whether or not the age of Aisha (RA) at the time of marriage was considered wrong, we only need to look at how it was perceived at the time the marriage was conducted.
The Quraish were especially hostile to the Prophet (PBUH) and the message that he was sent with. Prior to that time, they all testified to his trustworthiness, honesty and good character. But when he began informing people of the message of Islam, they ignored his impeccable character and embarked on a smear campaign, calling him all kinds of names. First, they said he was a madman, then they said he was possessed by jinn, then they said he was a magician, and on and on it went. Even when he lost his infant sons in Makkah, they rejoiced at the fact that his lineage had been cut off from the male line. Years after he got married to Aisha (RA), the hypocrites of Madinah started to spread dirty rumours of lewdness about her, and it threw the Prophet (PBUH), his family and all the Muslims into despair for a whole month, till Allah revealed verses declaring her innocence and chastising the originators of the rumours. Even upon his marriage to our mother Zaynab (RA), they started to talk about that too, saying that the marriage was incestuous since Zaynab’s former husband Zayd (RA) was his adopted son, and an adopted son was considered a real son, back in the day.
All of these, including rumours about his personal life, and not one of them had anything to say about the age of Aisha (RA) at the time of her marriage to him. Of course, they didn’t miss the chance to spread rumours about her as well, but it was nothing concerning her age. I can assure you, none of the detractors of the Prophet in this day could hate the Prophet (PBUH) the way Abu Jahl did. Or Abu Lahab. Or Umayyah bin Khalaf. So why couldn’t they find anything wrong concerning his marriage to her? Simple. There was nothing wrong.
In fact, for much of history after the advent of Islam, multitudes of figures arose who wrote several invectives against the Prophet, yet none of them had any problem acknowledging his marriage to Aisha (RA). It just was not a concern until the early 20th century. The first known figure, at least to my knowledge, to have an issue with the age of Aisha (RA) was the British historian, David S. Margoliouth (d. 1940) who wrote in his book Mohammed and the Rise of Islam (1905) that it was “an ill-advised union, for how else should we characterize the marriage between a man of 53 and a girl of 9.”
The Reality of the Prophet (PBUH)’s Marriage to Aisha (RA)
How can a man in his fifties marry a girl of nine without the occurrence of some sort of power dynamic or abuse? Wasn’t she forced into the marriage?
I actually see where this is coming from, but a brief study of the seerah will disprove these claims. Several reports from Aisha herself make it glaring to the reader that they loved each other immensely, and that she was happy in her marriage. They joked with each other, drank from the same cup, raced one another and called each other with endearing names. She was the most beloved wife of the Prophet (PBUH) and he had no problem declaring his love for her in public. Amr bin al-As (RA) once asked him, “Oh Messenger of Allah, who do you love the most?” He replied, “Aisha.” And Amr asked, “And among the men?” He replied, “her father.” (Bukhari and Muslim).
She was extremely possessive over him with regards to his other wives, and this possessiveness extended to the first wife of the Prophet (PBUH), Khadijah (RA), despite having never met her as she died three years before Aisha married the Prophet (RA). She says, “I was never jealous of any woman as much as I was jealous of Khadijah because of Allah’s Messenger’s (PBUH) frequent mention of her.” (Bukhari and Muslim).
Once, Aisha herself reports, that on one of her nights, the Prophet (PBUH) took off his upper garment and shoes, put them near his feet, and retired to bed. He waited until he thought that she was asleep, then he quietly got up, put on his upper garment and shoes, and stepped out, quietly. She quickly put on her shoes, wore her head cover and ran after him. She followed him till she saw that he went to the graveyard al-Baqi, stood there for a long time, and raised his hands in prayer three times. Then he turned around to go home and she turned around as well, hurrying ahead of him till she reached the house and entered it. When he came back, he noticed that she was panting heavily, and so he asked her about it, to which she replied in the negative. He insisted, “You either tell me, or the Most-Subtle and Well-Aware will tell me.” And so she told him. He said afterward, “do you think Allah and His Messenger would be unfair to you by giving your rightful time to another wife?” And the he told her the reason for his night trip to the graveyard, for the Angel Jibril had come to him, telling him that Allah was commanding him to go to the (dead) people of al-Baqi and pray for forgiveness for them. (Muslim)
Tell me how and why any woman supposedly forced into marriage against her will would bother following her supposed abusive husband out in the middle of the night to see where he was going. Why would she care so much whether he spent time with any other wife of his? Why would she be jealous of the wife who died before her marriage? And why would she speak of him in the best and most honourable of words even after his passing?
The narrative of a forced or somehow toxic marriage is immediately dispelled when one takes the effort to read the books narrating these accounts. All the marriages of the Prophet (PBUH) including Aisha’s were filled with love and never for once did the Prophet fall short of displaying excellent manners towards them. He treated them impeccably and even when they erred, he never used force on them. As Aisha herself narrates, “the Prophet (PBUH) never raised his hand on any woman or servant.”
It will also be beneficial to note that Aisha (RA) was the only wife of the Prophet (PBUH) to be previously unmarried. All other wives were either divorced or widowed before they married him, and a number of them were older than him.
Should Nine-Year-old Girls in the 21st Century Get Married?
Absolutely not! In today’s world, nine-year-olds are school children who should never be made to marry. As earlier mentioned, a nine-year-old of today is simply not the same as a nine-year-old of a thousand years ago. Cultures have evolved, a long time has passed, and the average age of attaining physical and mental maturity has changed as well. It is unfair to lift the age of Aisha (RA) upon marriage from the pages of history and make attempts to impose it on people living in the 21st century. And a young girl should marry only when she comes of age, just like Aisha did.
Forced marriages and child marriages are extremely frowned upon in Islam, and are considered null and void. Marriage with a minor who cannot make decisions yet is simply not allowed in Islam, as the consent of both parties to the marriage is one of the things that validate a marriage.
I see your point. But why don’t other Muslims say it the way you’ve said it? They mostly try to rationalize how her age is not true, or try to avoid talking about it altogether.
Muslims from the 21st century suffer from presentism as well. I assure you, reader, that there are several issues from old that today’s Muslims cannot just wrap their heads around. They have associated evil around the issues of slavery, concubinage and conquering of other lands, that they find themselves in denial when confronted with issues that almost always go along the lines of “your prophet did this” and “how can a man of God do that”.
Before I started taking efforts to learn my religion along with its historical contexts, I also avoided this very controversial topic. I, in my 21st century mind, could not fathom how a girl could be married at nine years old, when I was still playing around and watching cartoons at nine. But as I studied and learnt, everything made perfect sense to me and I could finally understand why.
Unfortunately, multitudes of Muslims today who don’t bother to study Islam often find themselves teetering on a defensive edge whenever they are confronted with issues that appear problematic on face value, and with blatant Islamophobia on the increase, that has doubled. I have witnessed how Muslims tried to fault Aisha’s own account of her marriage to the Prophet (PBUH), the mental gymnastics employed in either implying that she was older when she married or just magically arriving at the highly convenient age of 19, given the significance of that particular age in today’s world. All of those were mostly done to appease detractors and to give Islam a “better” image before the western world, which to me is quite unnecessary.
We must understand that the world has changed so much since the coming of Islam. The questions raised about it a thousand years ago, and the issues exaggerated and problematized by detractors are not the same as the ones raised today. And I daresay that, given present circumstances and political climes, the world is going to change so drastically in a hundred years from now, that no one will ask the same questions as those of today.
And from the beginning up till this moment, the age of Aisha (RA) is still a non-issue.