Note: This was originally tweeted on Sep. 11, and was compiled into text by Ahmad Gatnash, to whom I am grateful. I did very little editing, and only minor formatting, so this is mostly as-compiled. The conversation is still going on so this may need to be edited or revised soon. Find part 2 of this discussion here.
I originally posted this in the immediate aftermath of the whole “Innocence of Muslims” disaster. Before you get into this, please note that I did not present here anything new. Virtually everything I discuss here has been noted before by Muslim (and non-Muslim) commentators.
I do eventually add 4-5 arguments that are (to the best of my knowledge) new, in the follow up article that was posted a couple weeks after this one.
Did Islam’s Prophet really marry Aysha when she was 9 years old?
I don’t know how many times I’ve been spammed by insults to the Prophet and accusations of pedophilia, so I’m taking this head on. This is a fiery issue, with Islamophobes and with advocates of child marriage in the Arab world. And I don’t care that this historical slip gave ammunition to Islamophobes, what worries me is that it has justified child marriages.
Here’s my position: I don’t think it ever happened.
I think historians made a mistake, recording Aysha as being born 8 before Hijra when in fact it was 8 before Prophethood. Or perhaps they recorded her birth as 4 after Prophethood when in fact it was 4 before Prophethood. This kind of margin of error (10 years) isn’t unusual. There’s a similar dispute about the age of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima.
I think Aysha was closer to 19 when she got married to the Prophet, and here goes my case for saying so.
A bit of background
For the following discussion, note that 1 AH = 622 AD. BH = Before Hijra = before 622 AD. Prophethood was in 13 BH = 609 AD. We’re talking about people from the 7th century AD (1st century AH). Arabs didn’t have a calendar back then. The Hijri calendar was introduced in Umar’s caliphate, years after the Prophet’s death.
The first historian of Islam, Ibn Ishaaq, was born in 85 AH and wrote after 132 AH, over a century and a half after the events. How do we know about anything that happened so long back anyway?
This was a very important question when it came to establishing the Prophet’s traditions (or sayings, or “hadith”). Muslims developed “isnad”, an extensive system of authenticated traditions, based upon confirming the chain of narrations. This system of “isnad” was used not only to establish the Prophet’s traditions, but also historical events.
The science of “isnad” is one of the great achievements of our civilization, but there’s a big glaring hole in it. A lot of effort was spent authenticating the chain of narrations, but not enough on checking the contents of said narrations. I mean, they checked if the chain of narrations was solid but not if the narrations themselves were contradictory.
To be fair they developed principles for textual criticism (naqd-al-matn) but it was primitive compared to the elegance of isnad. They also developed this (bad) habit of assuming that if the chain of narrations is correct, the content must be correct too. According to this, if I heard that a pink elephant flew, and the chain of narrations is solid, then it’s possible that it really happened.
So let me make a stand here and say that not all hadiths with a “sahih” isnad are in fact authentic. A “sahih” label means their isnad is solid – their content may not be. There could be glaring contradictions.
Aysha’s Age is a classic case of this “gaping hole”, the chain of narrations seems a-OK, but the contents are so blatantly contradictory. And for Muslims out there, the Qur’an established a test of authenticity – what’s contradictory cannot be logically true.
It is relatively well established that Aysha died in 57 AH. Estimates of her age at death range from 63 to 77. There is a narration in Sahih Bukhari attributed to her that says that she was 6 years old when she married the Prophet, and 9 years old when she moved into his house.
However, there are narrations both in Bukhari and in other sources (before & after Bukhari) that call this into question. Keep an open mind as you consider the following.
Narrations say that Aysha was 10 years younger than her sister Asma, who died in 73 AH at the ripe old age of 100. By simple arithmetic, that means Asma was born in 27 BH, and Aysha in 17 BH. Narrations also say that her father (Abu Bakr) had all his children before the advent of Islam (before 13 BH), which checks out.
Abu Bakr married Aysha’s mother when he was 28, in 23 BH. They bore two children. This was an age before birth control. If they got married in 23 BH it seems plausible they had their two children within a few, say 6 years of that date.
Narrations also say that Aysha was the third child to accept Islam, along with Ali (born 23 BH) and Zayd (born 35 BH). That should place her age around theirs (say 18 BH) and not over a decade after theirs (6 BH). Aysha herself claimed to be the 19th person to enter Islam – impossible if she was born in 6 BH, plausible if in 16 BH or earlier.
Arithmetic aside, there are other inconsistencies that scream at you when you read the reports of how the marriage took place.
When the Prophet asked for her hand, her mother objected because Aysha was already engaged to a man from Banu Adi. Details suggest that her earlier engagement happened before 13 BH, which would be impossible if she was born in 6 BH.
Aysha gave an account of a main event that happened in 3 BH (Isra & Miraj). Would be impossible if she was 3 at the time.
Aysha narrates in Bukhari that when a certain chapter of the Qur’an was revealed, she was “playing, as an adolescent”; the chapter in question was revealed between 10 BH and 8 BH. This again suggest that she was born between 20 BH and 18 BH.
Aysha also gave a detailed, mature account of events of the Hijra itself (1 AH). Implausible if she was only six.
In 3 AH a major battle (called the Battle of Uhud) erupted near Medina. The Prophet sent home anyone under 15 years of age, but Aysha played a role in the battle, carrying water from Medina to the soldiers on the battle field. At nine years old?
In fact, there are indications that Aysha was on the scene at the Battle of Badr, in 2 AH, which would be extremely unlikely if she was a child of 7 or 8 years.
The Role of Historical Political Agenda
The final dimension I’d like to add is how traditions may have been modified or totally invented to serve political agenda. Always have a red flag go on in your head when you hear a tradition that could have served a convenient political role.
Aysha outlived the Prophet by some 40 years. She was a major narrator of his traditions (over 2000 hadiths). Aysha was very highly respected and renowned not only as an Islamic scholar & authority, but also as a political figure.
The early Islamic state ran through turbulent times as its founding ideas clashed with the culture of 7th century Arabia. During this period, Aysha became engangled in events that followed the murder of the third Caliph, Uthman, in 35 AH. These events brought Aysha into brief but bitter clash with the fourth Caliph, Ali, who is sanctified by the Shia.
This clash took place in 37 AH. The traditions were not collected & authenticated until over a century later. The compiler of the first “sahih”, Al-Bukhari, was born in 194 AH, 157 years after these events.
Between the actual events and their compilation, the “chain of narrations” travelled over some very rough socio-political ground. Needless to say, many a faction had more than a passing interest in bending the contents of the traditions one way or another.
Aysha lived & died in Medina, but the narrations concerning her age at marriage do not arise from or pass through Medina at all. They were only reported in Iraq, where certain socio-political forces had an interest in discrediting her as a source.
The narrations all go back to Aysha’s grand-nephew, who lived in Medina all his life, but moved to Iraq as an old man. It is therefore highly suspicious how these narrations were known only in Iraq but not in Medina at all.
Historians didn’t critically examine the contents of what they’r narrating until Ibn Khaldun in the 8th century AH. Not everything you find in a history book is a fact. Otherwise we must assert that Icarus really did fly on wings of wax.
Who Will Object Loudest?
Before I end, I’ll predict who will object to what I presented. Three groups: Islamophobes, radical Salafis, and radical Shias.
The first group, Islamophobes, don’t like it when facts come in the way of a juicy nugget of hate fodder. The second group, radical Salafis, have sanctified the chain of narrations to the point of making it a second Qur’an. The third group, radical Shias, dislike Aysha, and may wish to make her appear too young to have real knowledge of Islam.
Proceed to part 2 of the discussion.