This week I wanted to write on a very interesting and enlightening piece I was referred to by a knowledgeable and enlightened academic and Muslim scholar. The piece brings in a different perspective to the argument of the age of ‘A’ishah, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) when she wed The Rasul (SAW). It was written by Sheikh Adil Salahi of the Islamic Foundation. One hopes after reading this well argued piece, there will be a better and general understanding that the issue of child bride in Islam is not as clear cut and basic as what some Nigerian politicians would like people to believe:
“Aisha’s Marriage and Her Age"
Much has been said about ‘A’ishah, the Prophet’s wife, and age at the time when she married the Prophet. In this piece we will try to establish the truth, relying on authentic reports and looking at ‘A’ishah’s attitude in certain situations and her reaction to various events.
1. The first thing we have to remember is that at the time when the Prophet received this message and began to advocate it, most Arabs were unlettered. He himself could not read or write. Moreover, the Arabs had no recognized calendar. They dated matters in reference to major events that affected their lives, hence, dating changed after each new major event. For example, the Prophet is said to have been born in the Year of the Elephant, which refers to the time when Abrahah, the ruler of Yemen, led a large army, headed by an elephant, aiming to destroy the Ka’bah. The Arabs had no registry of births and deaths. Hence, any mention of people’s ages during that period should be taken as approximate. To give an example, several contemporaries of the Prophet who attained to old age, such as ‘Abd al-Muttalib, the Prophet’s grandfather, and the two famous poets Hassan Ibn Thabit and al-Nabighah al-Ju ‘adi, are said to have lived 120 years. None of them is said to have lived 115 or 125 years, but all have the round figure of 120. Moreover, we often have various figures mentioned of the same person’s age. The Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, is often said to have been 40 years of age when she married the Prophet. Yet she gave him six children, which suggests that she was in the prime of her reproductive life. A woman of 40 may beget a child or two, but to give birth to six children over a period of ten years is extremely unlikely. When we consider over a period of reports put her age at the time of her marriage at 45, 35, 30, 28 and even 25, with all these figures mentioned in the same book, we realize that none of them can be taken as absolutely reliable. Besides, Arab and Muslim historians of the early period often concentrated on the event far more than on its timing. They often reported the event, without mentioning its time. All this tends to confuse dates and blur time factors. Invariably, in this state of affairs, people’s ages cannot be accurate.
2. The view commonly held is that ‘A’ishah was six when the Prophet proposed to marry her and she was nine when actual marriage took place. We contend that this is inaccurate. The first thing which we need to consider when we attempt to determine ‘A’ishah’s age at the point of her marriage to the Prophet is the fact that prior to her marriage, she was engaged to Jubayr Ibn Mut’im. When Abu Bakr, her father, was told that the Prophet wanted to marry her, he said: “The Mut’im family have already spoken of her for their son. I will skillfully pull her out of that.” This tells us that the engagement was a firm one since ‘A’ishah’s father needed to employ clever tactics to rescind it. It could not have been merely a question of casual conversation between the two families.
3. Let us now look at how the idea of the Prophet’s marriage to ‘A’ishah came about. The Prophet had married Khadijah when he was in his early or mid-twenties. They lived happily together for 25 years. Khadijah gave her husband two sons, both of whom died in infancy, and four daughters. At the start of his mission, the Prophet’s eldest daughter, Zaynab, was married to Abu al ‘As Ibn al-Rabi, while the second, Ruqayyah, and the third Umm Kulthum were engaged to ‘Utbah and ‘Utaybah, sons of his uncle Abu Lahab. In his determined opposition to the new message, Abu Lahab ordered his two sons to break their engagements, which they did. Ruquyyah then married ‘Uthman Ibn ‘Affan. When, at the Prophet’s advice, some of the early Muslims emigrated to Abyssiania in year five of the start of Islam, ‘Uthman and Ruqayyah were the first to act on this advice and travelled to Abyssinaian. Five years later, i.e. in year 10 of the start of Islamic revelations and three years before the Muslims’ emigration to Madinah, Khadijah died. It was after her death realized that Khadijah’s death was a great loss to the Prophet. It left a vacuum in his life. He lost the woman who ensured that he had a happy and comfortable home where he could forget the determined hostility most people in Makkah showed him. She was his main support and provided him with solace and encouragement. Khawlah, therefore, went to the Prophet with the suggestion that he should find himself a new wife. When he showed interest, she asked him: “Which do you prefer, a mature woman or a virgin?” He asked her who she had in mind. She said: “The mature woman is Sawdah Bint Zim’ah, and the virgin is ‘A’ishah, your friend’s daughter.” The Prophet told her to carry his proposals of marriage to both of them. The Prophet then married Sawdah shortly afterwards, and married ‘Aishah three years later, after his migration to Madinah.
When Khawlah went to Abu Bakr with the proposal, he made clear that he would be breaking ‘A’ishah’s engagement to Jubayr Ibn Mut’im. It is to be noted that neither the Prophet nor Abu Bakr and his family spoke of ‘A’ishah being too young for marriage. Yet the Prophet made this very comment on two occasions when two of his companions came with proposals to marry his youngest daughter, Fatimah. The question that arises here is: could Khawlah, who seems to be a Muslim woman with foresight, recognizing the effects of the loss of his wife on the Prophet, have suggested to him a child aged six, who was several years younger than the youngest of his four daughters? How could such a child compensate for the loss of Khadijah? Was it not more likely that she would be an added burden to the Prophet, if she were to move into his home? Yet Khawlah did not envisage that if the Prophet chose ‘A’ishah, the marriage would be delayed. She was suggesting something to be carried out without delay, as was clear in the case of Sawdah. Moreover, when she made her suggestion, she had no idea that the Prophet would choose to marry both women. She came with the suggestion any thoughtful and mature woman would make: that the Prophet should marry someone who could provide him with some of the comfort Khadijah used to provide. Her short list included two names from whom one was to be chosen. Had it been true that ‘Aishah was only six years of age, the very mention of her name in this context at that time would be exceedingly odd. A girl of six would have been in need of looking after, not assigned the task of looking after a man with the most difficult task in history. It must always be remembered that had she been six at the time, ‘A’ishah would have been younger than the youngest of the Prophet’s daughters, of whom two were still living with him.
4. Another clue to ‘Aishah’s age is the time when she adopted the Islamic faith. In his biography of the Prophet, which is the earliest detailed one, Ibn Ishaq lists 51 names under the heading, ‘the people who accepted God’s Messenger’s message in its early days’. The list does not include any children. Ali, who was only 10 or 12 when he embraced Islam, had already number of those mentioned and was not included in the list. A large number of those mentioned in this list were among the Prophet’s Companions who emigrated to Abyssinia in the fifth year of the start of the Islamic message. The number of the emigrants at the time was 101, while the number of all Muslims was around 200. Hence it is reasonable to assume that all those included in the list embraced Islam well before it was in its fifth year. Numbers 18 and 19 on this list given to “Asma’ bint Abu Bakr and her sister, ‘A’ishah, who was young at the time’. (The comment is Ibn Ishaq’s).
We forego any significance that the listing order may suggest, but it is very significant that ‘A’ishah is the only young person mentioned in the list. Had she been nine years of age at the time of her wedding, she would have been only one year old at the time we are talking about. We need make no comment. However, there is plenty of evidence that ‘A’ishah accepted Islam in its early days. If we say that she was 10 when she adopted Islam, and we put that event in the fifth year of Islam, she would be 19 at the time of her marriage. Yet Ibn Ishaq might have been speaking of a 12 year old who adopted Islam soon after her parents adopted it. That would make her age on her wedding a few years over 20.
5. Had it been true that ‘A’ishah was nine at the time of her wedding, she would have been eight at the time of the Prophet’s migration to Madinah, accompanied by her father, Abu Bakr. Yet consider this report by ‘A’ishah:
“It was God’s Messenger’s habit to call at Abu Bakr’s house at either end of day, morning or evening. However, on the day when he received God’s permission to migrate, leaving Makkah and his people, he came to us around midday, which was very unusual for him. On seeing him, Abu Bakr said: ‘Something serious must have brought God’s messenger at this time.’ When the Prophet came inside, Abu Bakr left his place for him, and the Prophet sat down. No one was there other than my sister Asma’ and myself, but the Prophet said to Abu Bakr: ‘Let everyone here go out.’ Abu Bakr said: ‘God’s Messenger, these are my two daughters. What is the matter?’ The Prophet said: ‘God has given me instructions to migrate.’ Abu Bakr said: ‘May I be your companion on this trip?’ The Prophet said: ‘Yes, we will be together.’ By God, I never realized before that day that anyone could weep out of joy until I saw Abu Bakr weeping then. He then said:’ ‘Prophet! I have here two riding camels I have prepared for this purpose.’….
‘A’ishah is talking here about something she witnessed shortly before the Prophet’s migration to Madinah. Her marriage to the Prophet took place a year or longer after the Prophet’s settlement in Madinah. Had she been nine at the time of her marriage, she would have been eight or less when this conversation and reaction took place. Would a child of seven or eight distinguish the cause of her father’s weeping: joy or sadness? The natural reaction of such a child is to run to her father, feeling agitated and confused. Yet ‘A’ishah was sure that her father was weeping out of joy.
Moreover, the Prophet was keen to keep his departure from Makkah secret. When people are planning something and want it to remain secret, they would make sure that their young children would not know of it for fear that a child would not realize the danger involved in communicating the secret to other people. Indeed, when the Quraysh people realized that the Prophet and Abu Bakr had slipped away, Abu Jahl called at Abu Bakr’s place and asked his daughter Asma’ where her father was. When she said she did not know, he slapped her on the face. Had ‘A’ishah been eight years of age, the Prophet and her father would not have let her stay and learn that they were leaving.
6. Another example of ‘A’ishah’s reaction to events that is indicative of her status may be cited from the story of falsehood, which is discussed in detail in Hadith. A false rumour was circulated by hypocrites concerning ‘A’ishah. The rumour suggested that she had been involved with a young Companion of the Prophet called Safwan Ibn Al-Mu’attal. For a whole month, the rumour circulated and the Prophet could not do anything to establish the truth of the matter. ‘A’ishah was ill for most of the month, and she was moved to her parents’ home to be nursed. Visiting her there, the Prophet told her to repent if she had done wrong. She asked her parents to speak for her, but each of them said they could not say anything to the Prophet. She remained defiant, unwilling to say anything in her own defense. She was absolutely certain of her innocence and she hoped that God would make that clear to all. At that moment the Prophet received Quranic revelations confirming ‘Aishah’s innocence. It is her reaction to this particular that should be taken into account. This event took place in the fifth year of the Prophet’s migration to Madinnah, i.e. three or four years after his marriage to A’ishah. Had she been truly only nine when she married, she would have been 12 or 13 when this took place.
Let us look at the details: Here we have a wife at the centre of a rumour accusing her of adultery. Her parents cannot say a word in her defence. Her husband, who is God`s Messenger, comes and tells her that if she had done it she should repent and seek God`s forgiveness. What would a 13-year-old girl feel under all this pressure? Yet ‘A’ishah remains defiant, strong in her belief in her innocence. Then to every one`s relief, all is cleared and Divine revelations declare her innocent. The Prophet tells her that. Her mother immediately says to her: “Go up to him.” This is the attitude of a mother when all doubt surrounding her daughter is cleared and her marriage is safe. ‘A’ishah defiantly says: “No! By God, I shall not go up to him. I will thank only God for declaring my innocence.” Here we see a mature woman taking issue with her husband. Shoe does not look at the Prophet as God`s Messenger, but as her Husband. Her words carry a strong element of remonstration. It is as if she is saying: “how can you entertain any thoughts that I could be guilty? Should you not have shown more trust in me? How could you ask other people about my faithfulness? Do you not know your wife?” This is certainly not the attitude of a 13-year-old girl. It is more like a mature woman. At least in her early twenties, to take such an attitude, stressing her integrity and faithfulness while remonstrating with her husband.
7. The Battle of Uhud was an important event in Islamic history as it gave Muslims a very important practical lesson. It showed the Prophet`s Companions, and all future Muslim communities that Good does not grant them victory simply because they profess to be Muslim. They have to fulfil their duties as good Muslims before they are granted God’s help. At Uhud, the Muslims suffered their first reversal in a military encounter with the unbelievers.
Shortly before the Battle, the Prophet inspected his troops. He saw a number of youths among them. He ordered everyone who was below the age of 15 to return to Madinah. One or two were 14, but even then the prophet ordered them to go back, they participated with the Muslim army the following year, when the allied forces of the unbelievers and the Jews tried to invade Madinah in an effort to eradicate Islam.
When the prophet went on a military expedition, a number of women travelled with the army. They provided auxiliary services, such as nursing the wounded and giving support. In the battle of Uhud some of them actually fought with the Muslims. We have several reports about the heroics shown by Nasibbah Bint Ka ‘b as she took part in repelling the unbelievers’ determined attempt to kill the prophet.3
The battle of Uhud took place in the month of Shawwal of the third year of the Prophet`s settlement in Madinah, i.e two years or less of the ‘A’ ishah’s marriage. Consider the following hadith, which is related by al-Bukahari under several headings:
Anas reports: “when the Muslim army was in retreat during the Battle pf Uhud and people moved away from the Prophet, I saw ‘A’ishah and Umm Sulaym, having lifted their skirts and I could see the lower parts of their legs. They were carrying water-skins on their backs and almost running to give people to drink, before going back to refill their containers with water and come back to pour it in people`s mouths.” [related by al-Bukhari and Muslim.] Had she been 9 at the time of her marriage, she would be 11, or even younger when that battle took place. Can we imagine that the Prophet, who did not permit young men of 14 to stay with the army, would have allowed a girl of 11 to stay?
8. Another factor that indicates ‘A’ishah’s age is her knowledge. She was known for the breadth age is her knowledge and her confident expression of her views. She never hesitated in stating her disagreement with some of the most learned Companions of the Prophet.
Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi devoted a book to explain all the points in which ‘A’ishah disputed the views of rulings other Companions of the Prophet expressed. He says in his introduction: “I have listed in this book the views of ‘A’ishah [may God be pleased with her] in which she stands alone in disagreement with all other scholars, whether based on personal opinion or relying on a proper practice by the Prophet, or on sound knowledge unavailable to others, and cases where she disputed the views of her contemporary scholars, or where she cited evidence for her rulings, or for which she provided a weightier argument.” Al-Zarkashi then lists a total of 59 cases, explaining them all. In these she disagrees with no less than 23 of the most prominent scholars among the Prophet’s Companions, including ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas.
‘A’ishah had the basic education young girls in Makkah received at the time, but she benefited by the facts that the belonged to a broad-minded family and her father was the Prophet’s closest friend. Then she learnt most of her knowledge from the Prophet. Needless to say, her knowledge was mostly concerned with Islam and its teachings. Had she been only nine years of age when she married the Prophet, she would have been 18 when he passed away. During such period, young scholars absorb whatever they are taught. Their critical views of what they have learnt develop later. It takes effort on the part of both teacher and student before such critical examination of one’s learning begins to take expression. A’ishah’s knowledge suggests that she was such a critical scholar, which means that she was several years older than what is generally assumed.
9. Can we determine the year when ‘A’ishah was born? We must say at the outset that this is not easy, considering what we said earlier about the Arabs having no fixed reference point by which they dated events and births. However, there are indications that give a good insight into that. The first is that al-Tabari, a highly respected historian of the third century of the Islamic era, mentions in his voluminous history that Abu Bakr, ‘A’ishah’s father, had four children, two by each of his two wives, and that all his children were born before Islam. ‘A’ishah’s marriage took place at least 14 years after the message of Islam started to be revealed. Secondly, it is confirmed that Asma’, ‘A’ishah’s sister who was 10 years of age, if not older, died in 73 AH and it is stated that she was 100 years of age if not older. We cannot say for certain that she was 100, or that the difference between the two was 10 years, but if these two pieces of information were correct, then ‘A’ishah was born four or five years before Islam and she was 18 or 19 at the time of her marriage.
Another clue to the time of ‘A’ishah’s birth is the report that Abu Bakr was 28, at the time when he married ‘A’ishah’s mother, Umm Rawman. Abu Bakr was two years younger than the Prophet, which means that he was 38 at the time of the start of the Islamic message. In other words, he married his second wife ten years before Islam. We do not have any reports about his having any other children who might have died in infancy. It is reasonable to assume that his two children were born within the first five years of his marriage. This means that ‘A’ishah’s birth was at least five years before the start of Islam, making her 19 or 20 at the time of her marriage.
10. With all this evidence to hand, how come that people always repeat that she was six at the time of her engagement to the Prophet and nine when the marriage took place? The answer is that this information is mentioned in a hadith. I do not wish to discuss the subject of hadith acceptability, and the degree of authenticity that we can attach to each hadith. However, we may state that each hadith has two parts: a chain of transmission consisting of the reporters who transmitted it and the text attributed to the Prophet or to one of his Companions. Hadith scholars concentrated mainly on the chain of transmission, while scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, i.e. Fiqh, examine the text of each hadith. If a hadith text is free of a clear defect, they accept it as correct, provided that the chain transmission is acceptable. Scholars of Hadith established a very sophisticated system for the acceptability of reporters so as to judge each chain of transmission and grade every hadith accordingly. The hadith that mentions ‘A’ishah’s age being nine at the time of her marriage includes Hisham ibn all-Zubayr ibn al-‘Awwam as the main reporter. Hisham is graded as reliable by Scholars of hadith. However, they warn that during his stay in Iraq in his later life, he was generally lax in reporting what he heard from his father. This means that what he reported earlier when he was in Hijaz is accepted as authentic, while his later reporting left something to be desired. All the versions that we have from Hisham concerning ‘A’ishah’s age belong to this category. Hence, we can say that they are countered by much stronger evidence and we cannot accept this hadith as perfectly authentic.
When we take all this evidence into consideration, we are bound to reject the statement that ‘A’ishah was as young as nine at the time of her marriage to the Prophet. We say that most probably she was around 20; perhaps one or two years younger or older. While some of the evidence we cited is based on logical argument, some has a stronger basis, such as the way the marriage proposal came about, and her presence at Uhud.
Yet there will remain many people who will say that; “A’ishah was as young as nine at the time. Such people are of three types. The first type includes people who are hostile to Islam. They try to detract from the Prophet’s character using whatever ammunition they can find. No doubt such as report provides them with much ammunition. These we will not try to answer, because their hostility will always blind them to the truth. The other two types are Muslims, but one group will cling to what they learnt in childhood and will find anything that challenges old established information too difficult to accept. The other group includes traditional scholars who find it hard to reject a hadith when it is listed in one of the authentic anthologies. Both groups will try hard to justify themselves in believing that this marriage took place when ‘A’ishah was nine. They will come up with arguments like girls attaining puberty at a very early age in the hot climate of Arabia. Their efforts cannot yield any fruits. Such arguments will not prove anything other than the difficulty they find in examining long held views. We rest our case.
1. The event is related in detailed in Chapter 1, pp. 18-22.
2. Ibn Hisham. Al-sirah al-Nabawiyyah Also, Duwaydar, M.A., Suwar Min Hayat al-Rasul, Dar al-Ma arif, fourth edition, Caro, pp. 239-240
3. See, Chapter 20, p. 345.
4. Anas, the reporter of this haith was Umm Sulaym’s son.
5. Abd al-Haleem Abu Shuqqah, Tahrir al-Mar ahfi Asr al-Risalah, (n.d), Dar al-Qalam, Kuwait, Vol. 1 (abridged version), p. 116.