Who was Aisha, the Wife of Muhammad?

Aisha was the daughter of Abu Bakr (the first caliph) and the child-wife of the Prophet Muhammad. According to tradition, Muhammad had several wives (Sahih al-Bukhari 3.47.755) of which Aisha was his favourite (1).

Muhammad married Aisha when she was six years old and their marriage was consummated when she was nine. This story is narrated in authoritative Muslim sources accepted by the vast majority of Muslims today: according to Sahih al-Bukhari, “[T]he Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his death).” (7.62.64) In Sahih Muslim, we read that “A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported: Messenger of Allah married me when I was six years old, and I was admitted to his house at the age of nine” (8:3309). According to Sunan Abi Dawud, “The Messenger of Allah married me when I was seven years old. The narrator Sulaiman said: or Six years. He had intercourse with me when I was nine years old” (11.2116). In the biography of al-Tabri: “The Messenger of God saw Aisha twice—[first when] it was said to him that she was his wife (she was six years old at that time, and later [when] he consummated his marriage with her after coming to Medina when she was nine years old” (History of al-Tabari Vol. 9, p. 131).

How have some readers interpreted Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha? This narrative of a man in his 50s marrying a six-year-old girl and having intercourse with her when she was nine has been embarrassing for some Muslims. For some, it has perhaps been a major reason for denouncing the religion as a whole. Such people frown upon Muhammad marrying a girl who was still playing on swings with her playmates and who played with dolls in his presence (Sahih al-Bukhari 8.73.151). Other Muslims instead reject these hadiths where the story is narrated or will engage in apologetic attempts to argue that the marriage was warranted.

The Islamic sources themselves, however, show no embarrassment and have no issue with Muhammad marrying Aisha at her young age. It also seems that others who witnessed this were unconcerned; for example, in Sahih Muslim, many women prepared Aisha for marrying the Prophet: “She took me to a house, where had gathered the women of the Ansar. They all blessed me and wished me good luck and said: May you have share in good. She (my mother) entrusted me to them. They washed my head and embellished me and nothing frightened me. Allah’s Messenger (,may peace be upon him) came there in the morning, and I was entrusted to him” (8:3309).

Many non-Muslims will be shocked at this narrative. But the denunciation of child marriage in most societies today is quite recent. In fact, it was widely practiced in the historical and ancient worlds across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Although many object to child marriage, people in seventh-century Arabia did not consider it strange or odd. It is also suggestive of Muhammad being deeply influenced by the traditions of his day. A critic of Islam might argue that Muhammad marrying a six-year with whom he had intercourse when she was nine challenges the deeply held Islamic belief that the Prophet is to be the paragon of moral virtue for all people and for all time. Muhammad was a man of his day, which means issues will arise if the customs of his day are made normative for all cultures and all times.

References

  1. Ahmed, Leila. 1993. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. Yale University Press. p. 51.

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