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Sunday, February 28, 2021

‘A’ishah and the issue of child bride in Islam ‏

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One hopes after reading this 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 scholars would like people to believe.

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Aisha’s marriage and her age 

Much has been said about ‘A’ishah, the prophet’s wife and her age at the time 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 recognised 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 Abraha, 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, 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 realise 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 5 of the start of Islam, ‘Uthman and Ruqayyah were the first to act on this advice and travelled to Abyssinia. Five years later, that is, in Year 10 of the start of Islamic revelations and three years before the Muslims’ emigration to Madinah, Khadijah died. 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 Mecca 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 ‘A’ishah 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, recognising 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 shortlist included two names from whom one was to be chosen. Had it been true that ‘A’ishah 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 ‘A’ishah’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, was only 10 or 12 when he embraced Islam. A large number of those mentioned in this list were among the prophet’s companions who immigrated 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 Medina, 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 realised 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 Medina. Her marriage to the prophet took place a year or longer after the prophet’s settlement in Medina. 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 Mecca 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 realise the danger involved in communicating the secret to other people. Indeed, when the Quraysh people realised 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 defence. She was absolutely certain of her innocence and she hoped that God would make that clear to all. At that moment the prophet received Qur’anic revelations confirming ‘Aishah’s innocence. It is her reaction to this particular matter that should be taken into account. This event took place in the fifth year of the prophet’s migration to Medina, that is, 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 these 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 issues with her husband. She 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.  


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