Refutation: The misconception of Aisha’s age

Many intellectuals who don’t hold a good view of Islam, time and again come up with this claim that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) got married to Aisha (may God be pleased with her), when she was merely a child. There are various claims on the matter, some quote the traditions which says that Aisha was six years old when she as married and nines years when the marriage was consummated. Others put the age of marriage at 10 and 13 at the time of consummation. So let’s explore the bits we know from historical records and the academic research which has been done on the matter.

Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s second marriage:

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was married to Khadija (may God be please with her) and their relationship lasted for more than two decades. At the time of their marriage Muhammad (peace be upon him) was twenty five (25) while Khadija was forty (40) and a widow. Polygamy in Arabia in those times (even now) was considered to be normal practice and the Arabs could marry any number of women without restriction or having to account for the social welfare of the woman.

After the death of his beloved wife Khadija, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was struck with grief. Witnessing his condition, a companion suggested that he should marry again and proposed the name of Aisha the daughter of Abu Bakar (may God be pleased with him) another companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him). The companion presented this proposal to Abu Bakar on the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s behalf. But at that time Aisha was already promised to Jubair (this was during the time when both Abu Bakar and Aisha were not Muslims). But now that Abu Bakar and Aisha were Muslims and deemed heretics within Mecca and the surroundings, Jubair distanced himself from claiming Aisha (broke off the engagement). Now the matter of adulthood of Aisha, it was agreed upon that the marriage will not be consummated until Aisha (may God be pleased with her) has attained adulthood. Thus the ‘marriage ceremony’ was virtually an engagement ceremony.

The misconception

So it is safe to establish that in pre – Islam Arabia, engaging young women (to be married) while they were about to reach puberty was not something out of this world. The popular misconception about Aisha’s age arises through a Hadith which is reported to be narrated by Aisha herself, the accounts of which can be found in Bukhari at two places at least.

However, the authenticity of these reports are challenged time and again by various academics. Hadith is a collection of reports about the life and actions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) which are reported / narrated by others to a person and it is upto that person whether to accept or reject them by testing these reports in historical context. Sometimes, the Hadith is reported and it is left on the imagination of the reader to interpret the actions or the quotations of the Prophet in anyway that makes sense and fits the context. As a rule of thumb, it should be kept in mind that if in a certain case, the Hadith is found to be contradictory to the Holy Quran, the Quran will be taken as the final authority.

Now having established the authority of the Hadith let us see what one of the famous writer / scholar of Islam has to say about the reports found in Bukhari. Maulana Muhammad Ali was the first Islamic scholar directly to challenge the notion that Aisha was aged six and nine, respectively, at the time of her engagement and consummation of marriage. This he did in, at least, the following writings: his English booklet Prophet of Islam, his larger English book Muhammad, the Prophet, and in the footnotes in his voluminous Urdu translation and commentary of Sahih Bukhari entitled Fadl-ul-Bari, these three writings being published in the 1920s and 1930s. In the booklet Prophet of Islam, which was later incorporated in 1948 as the first chapter of his book Living Thoughts of the Prophet Muhammad, he writes in a lengthy footnote as follows:

“A great misconception prevails as to the age at which Aisha was taken in marriage by the Prophet. Ibn Sa‘d has stated in the Tabaqat that when Abu Bakar [father of Aisha] was approached on behalf of the Holy Prophet, he replied that the girl had already been betrothed to Jubair, and that he would have to settle the matter first with him. This shows that Aisha must have been approaching majority [puberty] at the time. Again, the Isaba, speaking of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, says that she was born five years before the Call and was about five years older than Aisha. This shows that Aisha must have been about ten years at the time of her betrothal to the Prophet, and not six years as she is generally supposed to be. This is further borne out by the fact that Aisha herself is reported to have stated that when the chapter [of the Holy Quran] entitled The Moon, the fifty-fourth chapter, was revealed, she was a girl playing about and remembered certain verses then revealed. Now the fifty-fourth chapter was undoubtedly revealed before the sixth year of the Call. All these considerations point to but one conclusion, viz., that Aisha could not have been less than ten years of age at the time of her nikah, which was virtually only a betrothal. And there is one report in the Tabaqat that Aisha was nine years of age at the time of nikah. Again it is a fact admitted on all hands that the nikah of Aisha took place in the tenth year of the Call in the month of Shawwal, while there is also preponderance of evidence as to the consummation of her marriage taking place in the second year of Hijra in the same month, which shows that full five years had elapsed between the nikah and the consummation. Hence there is not the least doubt that Aisha was at least nine or ten years of age at the time of betrothal, and fourteen or fifteen years at the time of marriage.” (Bukhari, Book of Qualities of the Ansar, by Maulana Muhammad Ali)

To understand the events which the author is discussing, the tenth year of the Call which Muhammad Ali refers to is ten years after Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received his first revelations from God almighty, bestowing Prophet-hood on Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). “Hijra” is Arabic for emigration, it signifies the migration of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his followers towards Yathrib (later known as Medina).

More Research

Many more scholars took up the issue following Maulana Muhammad Ali and concluded that Aisha might have been much older than what Muhammad Ali has pointed out. A pamphlet by Abu Tahir Irfani (published by the Anjuman Isha‘at Islam, Bombay, India) points out as follows:

  1.  The famous classical historian of Islam, Ibn Jarir Tabari, wrote in his ‘History’:

    “In the time before Islam, Abu Bakar married two women. The first was Fatila daughter of Abdul Uzza, from whom Abdullah and Asma were born. Then he married Umm Ruman, from whom Abdur Rahman and Aisha were born. These four were born before Islam.” (Tarikh Tabari, vol. 4, p. 50. )

    Being born before Islam means being born before the Call.

  2. The compiler of the famous Hadith collection Mishkat al-Masabih, Imam Wali-ud-Din Muhammad ibn Abdullah Al-Khatib, who died 700 years ago, has also written brief biographical notes on the narrators of Hadith reports. He writes under Asma, the older daughter of Abu Bakar:

    “She was the sister of Aisha Siddiqa, wife of the Holy Prophet, and was ten years older than her. … In 73 A.H. … Asma died at the age of one hundred years.” (Mishkat al-Masabih, Edition with Urdu translation published in Lahore, 1986, vol. 3, p. 300–301)

    This would make Asma 28 years of age in 1 A.H., the year of the Hijra, thus making Aisha 18 years old in 1 A.H. So Aisha would be 19 (nineteen) years old at the time of the consummation of her marriage, and 14 or 15 years old at the time of her nikah. It would place her year of birth at four or five years before the Call.

  3. The same statement is made by the famous classical commentator of the Holy Quran, Ibn Kathir, in his book Al-bidayya wal-nihaya:

    “Asma died in 73 A.H. at the age of one hundred years. She was ten years older than her sister Aisha.” (Vol. 8, p. 346.)

    Apart from these three evidences, which are presented in the Urdu pamphlet referred to above, we also note that the birth of Aisha being a little before the Call is consistent with the opening words of a statement by her which is recorded four times in Bukhari. Those words are as follows:

    “Ever since I can remember (or understand things) my parents were following the religion of Islam.”

This is tantamount to saying that she was born sometime before her parents accepted Islam but she can only remember them practicing Islam. No doubt she and her parents knew well whether she was born before or after they accepted Islam, as their acceptance of Islam was such a landmark event in their life which took place just after the Holy Prophet received his mission from God. If she had been born after they accepted Islam it would make no sense for her to say that she always remembered them as following Islam. Only if she was born before they accepted Islam, would it make sense for her to say that she can only remember them being Muslims, as she was too young to remember things before their conversion. This is consistent with her being born before the Call, and being perhaps four or five years old at the time of the Call, which was also almost the time when her parents accepted Islam.

The evidence by Muhammad Ali

In his Urdu translation and commentary of Sahih Bukhari, entitled Fadl-ul-Bari, Maulana Muhammad Ali points out reports of two events which show that Aisha could not have been born after the year of the Call. These are presented as follows:

  • The above mentioned statement by Aisha in Bukhari, about her earliest memory of her parents being that they were followers of Islam, begins with the following words in its version in Bukhari’s Kitab-ul-Kafalat. We quote this from the English translation of Bukhari by M. Muhsin Khan:

    “Since I reached the age when I could remember things, I have seen my parents worshiping according to the right faith of Islam. Not a single day passed but Allah’s Apostle visited us both in the morning and in the evening. When the Muslims were persecuted, Abu Bakar set out for Ethiopia as an emigrant.” (Muhsin Khan’s English translation of Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 37, Number 494.)

    Commenting on this report, Maulana Muhammad Ali writes:

    “This report sheds some light on the question of the age of Aisha. … The mention of the persecution of Muslims along with the emigration to Ethiopia clearly shows that this refers to the fifth or the sixth year of the Call. … At that time Aisha was of an age to discern things, and so her birth could not have been later than the first year of the Call.” (Fadl-ul-Bari, vol. 1, p. 501, footnote 1. )

    According to this claim her age should have be more than fourteen (14) at the time of consummation.

  • There is a report in Sahih Bukhari as follows:

    “On the day (of the battle) of Uhud when (some) people retreated and left the Prophet, I saw Aisha daughter of Abu Bakar and Umm Sulaim, with their robes tucked up so that the bangles around their ankles were visible hurrying with their water skins (in another narration it is said, ‘carrying the water skins on their backs’). Then they would pour the water in the mouths of the people, and return to fill the water skins again and came back again to pour water in the mouths of the people.” (Muhsin Khan’s translation and go down to report listed as Volume 4, Book 52, Number 131).

    Muhammad Ali’s footnote under the report quotes:

    “It should also be noted that Aisha joined the Holy Prophet’s household only one year before the battle of Uhud. According to the common view she would be only ten years of age at this time, which is certainly not a suitable age for the work she did on this occasion. This also shows that she was not so young at this time.” (Fadl-ul-Bari, vol. 1, p. 651).

Let’s expand the last account a bit more, as we have discussed in the previous section if AIsha was in fact nineteen at the time of consummation of her marriage, then one year later at the battle of Uhud she must be twenty. Adding to this, we should remember that battles which took place prior to this one, some passionate Muslim youth, out of eagerness, tried to join in the ranks of the Muslim army for battle. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) sent them back on account of their younger age. It will not be historically correct to assume that Aisha would have been just ten (10) years old during the battle of Uhud if she was performing her battle field duties at that time.

So we have ample evidence which quote the same sources from the Hadith and historical context to conclude that Aisha (may God be pleased with her) was nineteen years of age when she joined Prophet (peace be upon him) as his wife in the second year of Hijrah.

(This is part one which is written to debunk the lies put out there by those who are openly bigoted towards Islam, in Part two I will discuss the take of Christianity on marriage of young ‘virgins’ with much older men. The purpose of the article is not to disrespect Christianity, but to show the hypocrisy of the right wing Christian evangelists who use the Hadiths out of context to portray Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s as an immoral being.)

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