Sometimes you will read that there is debate over Aïsha’s age and that she may have been much older than nine when she married Muhammad. Some of these claims are very strongly worded.
Recent researches have established beyond doubt that the age of ‘A’ishah (rta) at the time of the consummation her marriage with the Prophet (sws) was around nineteen or twenty. The Ahadith which report her age to be eight or nine years at the time of marriage are absolutely baseless.
People can “debate” what they like; but this is not an issue among scholars. Aïsha’s age on her wedding day is one of the best-attested facts of Muhammad’s life. All the early traditions state that she was nine, except for Ibn Hisham, who says she was “nine or ten.” This suggests that Ibn Hisham was not sure and so wrote an approximation. Aïsha herself was completely sure. To be precise, she was nine years and three months, plus or minus five weeks.
Muhammad Ali’s Theory
The idea that Aïsha must have been significantly older – at least nubile and perhaps as old as 23 – was first introduced in 1923 by the Ahmadiya writer Muhammad Ali. He seems to have been motivated by an intense embarrassment over the implication that Muhammad was a paedophile, which was not acceptable to him personally and which he knew would not be acceptable to Westerners.
Ali was unwilling to recognise that that his own morals were better than his Prophet’s, so he set out to rewrite history. He was not a scholar, and nearly every statement in his section on “The Prophet’s Marriages” is incorrect. He was apparently unaware that research must begin with a review of the literature, for he ignored the huge body of traditions that agree that Aïsha was married at nine. These traditions are supposed to be sound. If we make an arbitrary decision that they cannot be trusted, there is no reason why the traditions that Ali cited should be any more reliable than the ones he rejected.
However, by using only his favourite sources and ignoring the rest, he raked out three arguments for Aïsha’s being older.
1. Aïsha was engaged to someone else before she married Muhammad.
If Aïsha was old enough to be engaged, she must have been nearly grown up and much older than six.
A later writer has pointed out that she was engaged to Jubayr as early as 616, so she must have been by that date “a young lady, quite prepared for marriage.”
The sad truth is that betrothals were often arranged over cradles – not only in mediaeval Arabia but throughout human history. The pre-Islamic Arabs took this principle to an extreme, for they sometimes married off hypothetical daughters who had not yet been born. So if Aïsha was engaged to Jubayr in 616, this does not prove that she was any particular age at that date. Indeed, it is not by itself proof that she had even been born.
2. Aïsha was close to Fatima’s age.
According to Ibn Hajar, Muhammad’s daughter Fatima:
was born at the time the Ka’bah was rebuilt, when the Prophet (pbuh) was 35 years old … she (Fatimah) was five years older that Ayesha (ra).
The Kaaba was rebuilt in 605, so Aïsha must have been born in 610. That would make her 13 at the time of her marriage-consummation in 623.
Something like this can be found in Ibn Hajar, but the “quote” is a deliberate misrepresentation. What is the meaning of the ellipsis? Which words were omitted? Ali did not mention that Ibn Hajar was quoting two separate traditions about Fatima. This is what Ibn Hajar actually wrote.
There has been a difference of opinion concerning Fatima’s year of birth. [Waqidi says] Fatima was born at the time the Kaaba was rebuilt, when the Prophet was 35 years old. [Abdalbarr says] Fatima was born when the Prophet was 41, shortly before the Prophet received revelation, a year or more. And she was 5 years older than Aisha.
Waqidi’s tradition says that Fatima was born in 605 but it does not mention Aïsha. Abdalbarr’s tradition says that Fatima was born in 609 and that she was 5 years older than Aïsha, which places Aïsha’s birth in its accepted date of 614.
In other words, Aïsha’s birthdate is not disputed, but Fatima’s is. To calculate Aïsha’s age from Waqidi’s version of Fatima’s age and then Abdalbarr’s version of the age-difference, knowing that they disagree about Fatima’s age, makes no sense at all.
3. Aïsha remembered when chapter 54 of the Quraan was first recited.
Chapter 54 was recited no later than 615, and Aïsha narrated that she was then a girl (jariya). So Aïsha must have been born no later than 610. Later writers have added that a jariya is not a baby but “a young woman around adolescence or older”. This would make Aïsha a teenager in 615, placing her well into her twenties in 623.
In fact there are very few parts of the Quraan that can be precisely dated. Sometimes the Quraan contains direct references to identifiable current affairs, but not often. More usually, historians rely on traditions that relate, “On occasion X, Allah sent down chapter Y.” If we know the date of X (we don’t always) then we can infer the date of Y.
An important clue to the date of chapter 54 is that Aïsha remembered people talking about it. Since Aïsha’s birthdate is known precisely, that means we can use it to work out a much vaguer event, such as when chapter 54 was written. The scholarly consensus from this and other similar clues is that chapter 54 was not written in 615 but in the year 617-618, when Aïsha would have been about four.
As for the word jariya, the Arabs used it to mean a “little girl” who was old enough to walk. If Aïsha was four, nobody would have called her a baby (sibya), a woman (amra’a) or a lady (sayyida). She was certainly a jariya.
Modern bloggers and journalists still use Ali’s arguments in attempts to prove that “Aïsha was older”. They often bolster his case with an array of additional arguments, none of which is accepted by serious scholars. This mass of historical revision dates only from the late twentieth century, for it is not a longstanding or mainstream “controversy”.
4. Hisham ibn Urwa is an unreliable source.
The major narrator about Aïsha’s age is her grand-nephew Hisham. There are two main arguments against trusting Hisham.
A single narrator is not sufficient proof. There ought to be several narrators for an important event, otherwise it cannot be accepted.
First, it is not a valid historical method to decide that “one narrator is not enough”. Yes, it is always preferable to have two independent witnesses; but there are many historical “facts” for which we have only one source. If that narrator was in a position to know the facts, and if he had no reason to mislead his audience, and if nothing is known that contradicts his narrative – then we would normally take the word of that one narrator.
More importantly, this is not true. Hisham is not the only narrator. Here are some versions of the tradition that did not pass through Hisham.
We were told by Abd ibn Humayd, who was told by Abdalrazzaq, who was told by Muammar, from Zuhri, from Urwa, from Aïsha, that the Prophet married her when she was seven, and she entered his house when she was nine, and she played with her toys; and he died when she was eighteen.
Habib, the servant of Urwa, said: “… Aïsha was born at the beginning of the fourth year of prophethood, and she married the Messenger of Allah in the tenth year, in Shawwal, when she was six.”
We were told by Yahya ibn Yahya (who said Ishaq told him), and by Ishaq ibn Ibrahim, by Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shayba and by Abu Kurayb, who were told by Abu Muaawiyah, from Al-Aamash, from Ibrahim, from Al-Aswad, from Aïsha, that she married Allah’s Messenger when she was six and entered his house when she was nine, and he died when she was eighteen years old.
We were told by Ahmad ibn Saad ibn Hakam ibn Abi Maryam, who was told by his uncle, who was told by Yahya ibn Ayyub, who was told by Imara ibn Ghazan, from Muhammad ibn Ibrahim, from Abu Salama ibn Abdalrahman, from Aïsha, who said: “Allah’s Messenger married me when I was six years old and I entered his house when I was nine.”
We were told by Qutayba, who was told by Aabthar, who was told by Mutarraf, from Abu Ubayda, from Aïsha, who said: “Allah’s Messenger married me when I was nine years old, and I lived with him for nine years.”
It is said that at least eleven narrators reported from Aïsha and told the story of her wedding at age nine. There were additional narrators who learned the information from someone other than Aïsha. To discredit the “Aïsha was nine” tradition, it would be necessary to discredit every single one of these narrators. Many of them are such important narrators that this would amount to discrediting the whole body of Islamic traditions – leaving us with no information about the life of Muhammad, not even a certainty that he existed.
The only real discrepancy is that while most traditions state that Aïsha was legally married when she was six, a few say she was seven. This could mean that Aïsha was not completely sure of the date of the contract (after all, she was not present when it happened). Perhaps there was some legal hitch, due to the need to break off Aïsha’s first engagement and then to collect witnesses on a day when everyone was in town. It could be that what was first informally contracted in May 620 (when Aïsha was six) was not absolutely finalised until, say, November, when she had turned seven (lunar) years old. But there is no uncertainty about the date of consummation, which is always said to be at age nine.
Hisham’s memory became unreliable when he was elderly (when he narrated about Aïsha’s age). Malik ibn Anas talked about people who criticised the elderly Hisham. Therefore no evidence from Hisham can be used.
This point is trying to fool the reader into assuming that if Hisham can be discredited, therefore all narratives about Aïsha’s age are unreliable. This is illogical. On the contrary, the fact that Hisham agrees with so many other narrators on this point strongly suggests that, whatever mistakes he might have made elsewhere, this particular narration is accurate.
In any case, the remarks about the elderly Hisham’s memory are misleading. Malik only wrote about the criticisms of Hisham’s memory to explain why he disagreed with the critics; in fact Malik reported over a hundred traditions from Hisham, so he must have trusted him by and large. Hisham was never accused of dishonestly inventing details to replace what he had forgotten or even of being confused. He just lost the perfect recall of his youth. Ibn Saad’s summary is that Hisham “was reliable and firm, with a lot of narrations, and he was an authority.”
Hisham’s memory lapses do not affect the traditions that still exist. What has come down to history is what he still remembered – not what he had forgotten!
5. Tabari says that Aisha was born before 610.
The Persian historian Tabari reports that Aïsha was born before 610, which would make her at least 14 when she was married in 623. This is how Blankinship translates Tabari’s words.
In the Jahiliyyah, Abu Bakr married [Qutaylah]. She bore him Abdallah and Asma. He also married in the Jahiliyyah [Umm Ruman]. She bore him Abd al-Rahman and A’ishah. All of these four of his children were born in al-Jahiliyyah from his two wives whom we have named.
This certainly suggests that Aïsha was born before the end of 610. Blankinship comments on his own translation:
This statement appears to contradict the alleged age of ‘A’ishah of nine years at the time of the consummation of her marriage to the Prophet in Shawwal 1 (April–May 623), for which see al-Baladhuri, Ansab, I, 409-11; Ibn Hajar, Isabah, IV, 359-60. Even if she was born at the end of the Jahiliyyah period, in 609 C.E., she would have been at least thirteen solar years old by the year 1/622-623.
It is surprising that Blankinship wrote such a footnote, for he ought to have seen that the Arabic text is ambiguous. An equally valid way of translating Tabari’s last sentence would be:
All of these four of his children were born from his two abovenamed wives from al-Jahiliyyah.
That is, Abu Bakr married the two wives in the Jahiliya, but no statement is being made about when any of the children were born. Note that Tabari goes on to emphasise that Abu Bakr married two further wives after Islam.
Therefore this passage is too ambiguous to be used as a case for Aïsha’s earlier birth-date because it does not assert that the four children were also born before Islam. If this were the only tradition we had about Aïsha’s age, we would have to conclude that we did not know whether she was born before or after Islam.
However, Blankinship’s interpretation contradicts such a huge body of evidence that Aïsha was not born until 613 or 614 that it emerges as the less likely meaning of the sentence.
6. Aïsha and her sister Asma.
Many historians say that Aïsha was 10 years younger than her sister Asma. Asma died in 73 AH aged 100 (i.e. in 692 AD aged 97 solar years) so she must have been born in 595 AD. That gives Aïsha a birth-year of 605, making her 18 when she was married in 623.
The “many historians” who say that Asma was 10 years older than Aïsha are not independent witnesses; they are all quoting a single tradition from Abdalrahman ibn Abi’l-Zinaad.
For example, Dhahabi’s dictionary of biography includes an entry on Asma. He begins with information that was not disputed, such as the names of her parents and a list of people who learned narrations from her. He includes this statement.
She was 13 to 19 years older than Aïsha.
He continues with information for which he cites his sources, including:
Abdalrahman ibn Abi’l-Zinaad said she was 10 years older than Aisha.
Obviously this is different from what he wrote earlier. It is significant that the first statement is the one in the “undisputed” section, while the second is added as an isolated variant; it implies that Dhahabi preferred the first and mainstream tradition.
So who was Ibn Abi’l-Zinaad, the man whose arithmetic disagrees with everyone else’s? He was the son of a servant of a wife of Caliph Uthman. He was born in the year 718-719, so he never met anyone who had known Muhammad. The historian Ibn Saad says that many of his narrations were weak. Later generations did not consider him a great authority: he was described as “disturbed” in his narrations and “not a proof for scholars.” The fact that some historians quoted him does not prove that they agreed with him. It only proves that they knew what he had said.
The fact that an unreliable narrator heard or calculated that the age difference was 10 years (a suspiciously round number) does not prove that everyone who disagreed with him was wrong. If there is a discrepancy, it is necessary to ask who is more likely to be accurate. Many sound narrations tell us Aïsha’s age. Only one doubtful narrator mentions the age-difference. Besides, common sense indicates that the report of a person’s age is more likely to be accurate than the report of an age-difference.
If the age-difference between Asma and Aïsha is uncertain, then the alleged age-difference cannot be used to calculate Aïsha’s age. Even if the age-difference were certain, this would not prove that Aïsha had misreported her age. It might be that the less famous Asma was the one whose age was wrongly reported.
How old was Asma? The only narrator who reports her age as 100 is her grandson Hisham, the same Hisham whose memory was supposed to be “unreliable” concerning Aïsha! If his multiple narrations about Aïsha are untrustworthy, then his single narration about Asma cannot be trusted either. Asma’s age is far less established than Aïsha’s.
The truth is, the daughter of Abu Bakr should have known her age, and there is no reason to doubt that Hisham reliably reported what he heard. But what did he hear? Elderly people did tend to round up their ages, especially in a context where the exact age did not matter. Perhaps Hisham heard Asma saying something like, “Never in all my hundred years have I seen …” Nobody would accuse her of “lying” if she had really been only 95 or even 90.
Further, if Asma had literally lived to be 97 solar years, she would have been 49 when her son Urwa was born in 644, which is possible but improbable.
The traditional view is that Asma was born in 595 and that she was 19 years older than Aïsha. This could be correct. But perhaps she was born as late as 601, making her only 13 years older than Aïsha (close enough to the unreliable “10”), a plausible 43 when she gave birth to Urwa, and a venerable 91 (or 94 lunar, close enough to the round 100) when she died in 692.
In summary, we know Aïsha’s date of birth, but we not quite so certain of Asma’s. However, the really doubtful information is the claim of a “10-year age difference”. This is completely unreliable and it does not help us calculate the age of either sister.
7. Aïsha was converted before Umar.
Ibn Hisham says that Aïsha became a Muslim before Umar. He was a very early convert, so Aïsha must have converted in 610. If she had been old enough to think for herself at that date, this would place her in her late teens by the time of her marriage in 623.
Describing Umar as an “early” convert is misleading. He was certainly not “late,” but his conversion can be precisely dated to August–September 616. A person could have been converted at any date between September 610 and August 616 yet been “before Umar”.
Note that Ibn Hisham’s list of converts is not dated and is not necessarily in chronological order. However, it is probable that most of the listed people were indeed converted before Umar. There is no mystery about how Aïsha made it to the list, for Muhammad taught that every baby is born a Muslim until his parents convert him to some other religion. Since Aïsha was born to Muslim parents, she was never anything but a Muslim, so her “conversion” would have been assigned to the day she was born.
Since she was born early in 614, she would have been 2½ at Umar’s conversion. Most children of this age can speak sentences and parrot whatever they hear their parents saying. Aïsha was a very articulate child, so it is quite possible that she had recited the declaration of faith several months before she was 2½. She might not have understood what she was saying; but technically she “became a Muslim” before Umar did.
8. Aïsha was old enough to attend the Battle of Uhud.
Children under 15 were not allowed to fight in battles. But Aïsha was present at the Battle of Uhud in 625, so she must have been at least 15 then. This makes her at least 13 at her marriage 2 years earlier.
The eyewitness who saw Aïsha at the Battle of Uhud was Anas.
Anas ibn Malik narrated. I saw Aïsha bint Abi Bakr and Umm Sulaym [my mother]. Both of them had tucked up their garments, so I could me the anklets on their feet. They were carrying water-skins on their backs and would pour water into the mouths of the people. They would then go back, would fill them again and would return to pour water into the mouths of the soldiers.
If Anas could see the women’s anklets, he must have been standing close to them, so he was doing the same as they were (taking water to the soldiers). They were not fighting the battle but only serving as auxiliaries. Since Anas was only 13 years old himself, this shows that the age-limit of 15 did not apply to auxiliaries.
If Aïsha was present at Uhud, this only proves that in 625 she was old enough to carry a water-jug.
9. Aïsha was a bikr.
Aïsha was a virgin (bikr) when she was betrothed to Muhammad in 620.
All those who know the Arabic language, are aware that the word “bikr” in the Arabic language is not used for an immature nine year old girl. The correct word for a young playful girl, as stated earlier is “Jariyah”. “Bikr” on the other hand, is used for an unmarried lady, and obviously a nine year old is not a “lady”.
According to this argument, Aïsha must have been at least 3 years past menarche when her marriage was consummated.
This is just wrong. According to one native speaker:
This is ignorant nonsense, bikr means a virgin girl, a girl who has never been married even if her age is 0 and there is no unclarity here whatsoever.
If a bikr is of no particular age, knowing that Aïsha was a bikr does not tell us her age.
10. Aïsha seems to have been much older than 13 in 627.
Four years after their marriage was first consummated, whenever Muhammad was cold from guard duty, he would come to Aïsha’s tent, and she would “warm him in her embrace.”
This description certainly does not fit for a thirteen year old which would have been her age if we accepted the age of nine at consummation.
The argument here seems to be that most 13-year-olds are not this sexually active, so Aïsha must have been older than 13.
The argument that certain behaviours are not “fitting” assumes that people never behave “unfittingly”. But they frequently do. If Aïsha’s first sexual experience occurred when she was 9, then no matter how “unfitting” this was, there is no problem with believing that she was still sexually active four years later. To prove that she would not have “warmed” her husband when she was 13, we would have to begin by proving that their marriage was not consummated when she was 9.
If we are to argue Aïsha’s age from her behaviour, we might as well argue that her behaviour on her wedding day “fits” a 9-year-old because she played with dolls and a swing. Does this “prove” that she was 9, or could it be a sign that she was a very immature 19? We don’t know until we introduce more objective evidence.
11. Aïsha’s parents would not have abused her by doing something outside the social norms.
Abu Bakr and Umm Ruman would not have married off their daughter before she was old enough because:
all biographical reports indicate that they were loving and responsible parents who would have no reason to do anything contrary to their daughter’s best interests.
While Umm Ruman seems to have been a superficially affectionate mother, we don’t know enough about her to assert that she was also “responsible”. On the contrary, the best-attested fact about her parenting style is that she co-operated in handing over her 9-year-old daughter to a 52-year-old bridegroom. This is one indicator that she was not a responsible mother. But even if she had objected to this inappropriate marriage, would it have made any difference? Abu Bakr was certainly able to overrule her.
What evidence do we have that Abu Bakr was “loving and responsible”? He declared himself willing to kill his son Abdarrahman. He pressured his daughter Asma to remain in an abusive but politically convenient marriage. He punished his son Abdallah by forcing him into an unwanted divorce. Aïsha remarked that Abu Bakr was always chiding and rebuking her for failing to meet his standards. And there are numerous witnesses to his bad habit of slapping people. He struck out at his elderly father, his young wife, his married daughter (at least four times), his careless slave and a rabbi with whom he had a theological disagreement.
The keynote of Abu Bakr’s closest relationships seems to have been his control, violence and self-interest rather than any real concern for anyone else. On this showing, it would have been entirely in-character if he had sacrificed Aïsha’s interests to the politics of the moment.
12. Such a young marriage would have been against the Quraan.
Muhammad was Allah’s holy Prophet, so he would have never done anything against the Quraan.
Moreover, the Quran rejects the marriage of immature girls and boys.
This is untrue. The Quraan specifically assumes that “immature girls” will sometimes be married and that there is nothing wrong with this.
When you divorce women, divorce them for their prescribed time, and calculate the number of the days prescribed … And those of your women who have despaired of menstruation, if you have a doubt, their prescribed time shall be three months, and of those too who have not had their courses …
The Quraan assumes that girls who are too young to menstruate will not only be married but also divorced. If they are divorced, they must serve a three-month waiting period. Yet the Quraan also teaches that the waiting-period is not necessary if the marriage was not consummated.
O you who believe! when you marry the believing women, then divorce them before you touch them, you have in their case no term which you should reckon …
So the Quraan was written on the assumption that girls might be married before puberty and such marriages would be consummated. Therefore it was not “against the Quraan” for Muhammad to consummate his marriage with the pre-pubescent Aïsha.
It should also be noted that very few people are completely consistent in their behaviour. Most people at times behave in ways that are against their usual values. The fact that the Quraan forbids certain behaviours cannot be taken as an indication that Muhammad never behaved that way.
The reality is that Muhammad’s behaviour was often different from a given verse of the Quraan. Many of the rules in the Quraan were later abrogated, or were decreed to forbid what had previously been tolerated. So Muhammad was not acting “against the Quraan” if he did something before it was forbidden or after it had been abrogated. In addition, there were some rules that applied to everyone except Muhammad. For example, the Quraan forbids a man to have more than four wives, but Muhammad was a special exception to this rule.
So even if it could be shown that child-marriage was at some stage “un-Islamic,” this would not be evidence that Muhammad had never married a child. There might have been some special revelation that that rendered it permissible for Muhammad because of who he was or when he did it.
13. In those days, nobody really knew their age.
It is said that the Arabs did not think of numbers in the way we do.
Arabs of the time, like many other pre-modern people, did not have a calendar system and chronological accuracy was simply not a feature of their culture. It is almost certain that Aisha did not know her precise age …
In a society without a birth registry and where people did not celebrate birthdays, most people estimated their own age and that of others. Aisha would have been no different.
It is true that some cultures have had little concept of time or numbers; but this is certainly not true of pre-Islamic Arabia. They were merchants who not only counted their cash but knew how to calculate usury on their loans. They had a calendar, from which they calculated the “sacred” months. The great biographical dictionaries by Ibn Saad and Tabari list nearly everyone’s age at death, showing that most people knew their age at least to the nearest year. Even in the cases where the age is omitted or given as an approximation, it does not necessarily mean that the person did not know his age; it only means that the historian did not know it.
Abu Bakr was a recognised expert in genealogy and he would certainly have noted the birth-years of his own children. In addition to having a good memory, Aïsha was also good at arithmetic, and she was often consulted on division problems. If she could divide into thirds and sevenths, she could certainly count to ten. So there is no reason to doubt her word that she was born “early in the fourth year.” If she knew the time of year, she was unlikely to have been wrong about the year itself.
In fact there is clear indication that Aïsha also knew the month and perhaps even the day of her birth. If she was married in 1 AH at the age of 9, then by 11 AH (when Muhammad died) she should have been 19. Yet she insisted that at Muhammad’s death she was still only 18. This makes sense if Aïsha knew that her birthday fell after Muhammad’s death-date, i.e., later in the year than the 12th day of the 3rd month.
An Alternative Perspective
People who read the sources honestly know very well that Aïsha was only nine. Nevertheless, some apologists try to argue that this is not a problem. Their arguments are completely different from the ones above. Instead of arguing Aïsha’s age from the texts, they appeal to norms of culture and common sense to explain why this child-marriage was morally justified.
14. Aïsha had reached puberty.
Aïsha had reached puberty, so she was ready for marriage.
Even if she was in fact 9 years old, this marriage is still justified for the following reasons … (a) She reached the age of puberty.
She must have been an early developer for whom
it is most likely her puberty started at 8, and continued till she was 9, and once she was going through puberty and her menses, this made her a lady and not a girl anymore.
This is untrue. Aïsha had still not reached menarche in July 628, fully five years after the consummation of her marriage.
The episode in which Aïsha was accused of adultery was in January 628, when her age was just short of fourteen. In her long and detailed account of this event, Aïsha described herself as a jariya. This Arabic word can only be used for a little girl or a female slave. It is never used for a free woman who has passed puberty.
In this context, she also mentioned her light weight, which she attributed to eating so little meat. This “lightness” may explain why Aïsha reached puberty slightly later than average. Puberty begins when a girl has reached a certain weight; hence it would be expected that Aïsha, who was somewhat under-nourished, would be late.
Aïsha also refers to herself as a jariya in a different incident, when the Abyssinian spearmen were displaying in the mosque courtyard. She reminded her audience how “a girl of tender age is fond of watching sport.” This incident was after her marriage – but how long after it?
Since Muhammad had to screen Aïsha while she watched the display, it must have occurred after the Order of the Veil, which was certainly no earlier than 5 May 627. We know this because Aïsha was still unveiled during the Battle of the Ditch and Siege of the Qurayza. This war ended when Muhammad supervised the extinguishing of the Qurayza tribe on 4 May “far into the night.” After this he hosted Zaynab’s wedding banquet, where he declared the Order of the Veil. In theory the banquet could have been the next day, 5 May, but this does not leave much time to sleep off the exhaustion of the battle and prepare the feast. So it is more likely that the banquet was a few days later than this.
Aïsha says that the Abyssinian display occurred during the Mina days, which in 627 fell on 6–8 May. Therefore they coincided with or predated Zaynab’s wedding banquet. So while 7 or 8 May 627, when Aïsha was thirteen, is a possible date for the Abyssinian display, it would demand a very tight timeline.
It is more likely that the incident occurred the following year, on 25–27April 628. This was just after the Armistice of Hudaybiya, when Aïsha was fourteen and had been restored to favour after the Necklace Affair. Her mother died in the same month, although it is not known whether this was before or after the Mina Days.
It is even possible that the spearmen’s display occurred a year later still (14–16 April 629), when Aïsha was fifteen. Muhammad went to Mecca for the Minor Pilgrimage in March 629 and returned to Medina “in Zu’l-Hijja” (the month that began on 4 April 629). The exact date of his return is not stated, but the Quraysh wanted him out of Mecca before Zu’l-Hijja (the pilgrimage month) began. Since the journey only took about a week, it is safe to say that he arrived in Medina well before the 14 April and that he had time to arrange some festive Mina celebrations. If so, Aïsha was still a prepubescent “little girl” even at the age of fifteen
A third incident occurred in July 628, when Muhammad returned from Khaybar and discovered that Aïsha, then fourteen and a half, still played with her dolls. He did not mind; he laughed over it.
In fact playing with “dolls and similar images” was absolutely forbidden to adults because it was so close to idolatry. Only prepubescent children were allowed to keep dolls. Muhammad was very strict about not allowing his wives to keep images in their houses, so he would certainly have destroyed Aïsha’s dolls if he had caught her playing with them after she was too old. The fact that he just laughed over them shows that she was still young enough to keep them, i.e., that she had not reached menarche.
While the exact date of Aïsha’s menarche is not known, an exact date is not required here. The point is that it was well over five years, and perhaps more than six years, after the consummation of her marriage. Although this could not have been predicted on her wedding day, Aïsha actually belonged to the 10% of girls who are latest in reaching puberty. At nine she would have been flat-chested and only three-quarters of her future height; nobody could have mistaken her for an adult. The nine-year-old Aïsha was, in every sense of the term, a “child-bride”.
Although a few girls do reach menarche as young as age nine, it does not follow that those girls are ready for marriage. No nine-year-old has reached her full height, and a girl whose bones are still growing is definitely not ready for pregnancy.
15. Very young marriage was normal in pre-Islamic Arabia.
It is argued:
The marriage happened 1400 ago, not today. At that time, their marriage was not considered unusual …and the proof is that the enemies of Muslims at that time did not criticize this marriage. They attacked prophet Mohammad on many issues, yet they didn’t criticize his marriage to Aisha.
The argument seems to be that because the marriage was culturally normal, there was nothing morally wrong with it.
Actually we do not know whether this marriage was culturally normal or not. We do not know much about the pre-Islamic Arabs because they left no written records.
It is true that there have been many cultures where it was normal for marriages to be arranged at a very young age and consummated immediately after puberty. However, there have not been many cultures where it was normal for a marriage to be consummated before puberty. People who believe that pre-Islamic Arabia was the exception to this norm should produce evidence to support their case.
These two issues should not be conflated. The first issue is that Aïsha was legally married before she was mentally mature enough to give informed consent. Further, her father forgot to tell her that she was married, so she had no opportunity to consent anyway. While no woman should be married without her own consent, whether she is six, sixteen, thirty-six or sixty, it was indeed “culturally normal” in most of the world.
Nevertheless, although this unethical practice of marrying infants was commonplace in Muhammad’s culture, it was certainly not universal. The Jews believed that a girl could not be validly married until she was mentally old enough to consent and she expressed her willingness. Muhammad claimed to be a prophet in the line of the Jews, so he should have had the same moral understanding as the Jews in Medina.
Even some Muslims in the generation after Muhammad felt uncomfortable about child-marriage, for they disputed whether a little girl was able to give informed consent to such a contract. They concluded that the debate about child-marriage only applied to children under nine, for:
The Prophet married a nine-year-old. Aisha said: “If she reaches the age of nine years, she is a woman.”
If the scholars needed to debate a minimum age, and if Aïsha needed to spell it out for them, then it was not a universally accepted cultural norm.
Therefore there were some people even in seventh-century Arabia who felt uneasy about child-marriage; but they were probably a minority. If pre-natal betrothals were legal, that suggests that the average Arab did not find anything wrong with marrying off children. Far from being ahead of his times, Muhammad held views on child-marriage that appear to have been average and mainstream for his culture. If we are to judge Muhammad by the standards of his own culture, the fact that he contracted marriage with a child is not too surprising.
The second issue, quite separate from Aïsha’s infant betrothal, is the fact that her marriage was consummated before she had reached puberty.
That was almost certainly abnormal. Most cultures throughout history have understood that a girl should not be touched before puberty. This is not a “cultural” norm based on the need to complete a certain type of education or to achieve a certain level of life-experience. It is a biological norm based on evolution. The idea of waiting until puberty is found in nearly all cultures.
The Jews in Medina most certainly understood this. It is assumed in the Bible that puberty is the minimum age of consent, and it is spelled out in the Talmud that a bride must have passed menarche in addition to being at least twelve and a half years old and of sound mind.
Unlike the informed consent issue, which simply reveals that Muhammad was a product of his culture, his willingness to consummate his marriage with Aïsha betrays that he was different from his own culture. He rejected the moral norms of his wisest contemporaries and abused a little girl for no better reason than that Abu Bakr had made it easy for him to do so. He demonstrated for once and for all that he had no timeless, universal moral insight to offer the world – in short, that he was not a prophet.
If the pagan Arabs had considered child-marriage wrong, Muhammad’s enemies would have criticised him for doing it.
Interestingly, of the many criticisms of Muhammad made at the time by his opponents, none focused on Aisha’s age at marriage. According to this perspective, Aisha may have been young, but she was not younger than was the norm at the time.
It would be difficult to prove that Muhammad’s enemies never criticised his marriage to Aïsha. We don’t know what people said behind closed doors; and we don’t know what they said that was of no interest to Muslim historians. Muhammad tended to assassinate his critics, so most people were afraid to say what they really thought of his behaviour. Those who did speak out focused on their really big complaint, which was that Muhammad killed people.
Even if it is true that early Arabia was such an ignorant, immoral and unmonitored culture that many girls were married off before puberty and nobody cared: so what? All that would prove would be that seventh-century Arabs did not understand children’s rights. It would not prove that their culture was morally correct.
Nothing is morally right just because it is culturally acceptable. For example, sixth-century Arabs buried unwanted babies in the sand (although the public opinion began to turn against this practice shortly before Muhammad’s time). Muhammad did not condone child-killing on the grounds that it was part of his culture; he joined the modern moralists who condemned it as murder.
Muhammad claimed that Allah had sent him to tidy up the “evil” things that were wrong with pre-Islamic culture. If child-marriage really had been part of Arabian culture, then it should have been Muhammad’s job to stop it, not to perpetrate it.
Mohammed was a son of his time and by his time must his actions be justified. Agreed. This fact, as we said at the very outset, might and would make us excuse and justify an ordinary man, the story of whose life is being told relatively to his times; and were Mohammedans consistent in taking this line, there would be the less to be said … Well, it may have been good enough for Arabia in the Seventh Century. But we were talking, we thought, of humanity for all time?
16. Aïsha suffered no harm from being a child-bride.
The argument seems to be that since Aïsha never suffered any adverse consequences, there was obviously nothing immoral about her child-marriage.
when a child is abused he suffers terrible physiological consequences … [Aïsha] lived the rest of her life in loyalty to him and honoring his name as the beloved one who was a cause of her joy and pride in this life and the life hereafter. Were there any women happier than her in marriage as her with him? Surely not.
The assessment that Aïsha had a very happy marriage is inaccurate. Although she loved Muhammad and was proud of her status as the Prophet’s wife, it is clear that many aspects of their marriage made her unhappy.
Our problem is that we don’t have enough information to make direct cause-and-effect links. It is difficult to assess how much of her unhappiness was due to her marrying too young, how much to her husband’s infidelity and how much to the general problem of living in a brutal culture where there was little respect for anyone’s rights.
Was there “harm” done to Aïsha? Yes, beyond question. It is obvious that she sometimes dealt with the multiple difficulties presented by her life-situation by being equally disrespectful to people around her. However, we are in no position to gauge the extent to which her character flaws were directly caused by sexual abuse or by some other form of abuse as opposed to being ordinary human faults. We do not know how far her capacity for psychological intimacy was damaged, because we do not have enough information about her closest relationships. We do not know whether she grew up with an unhealthy sexuality, because her adult life was celibate. We do not even know how far her good traits can be attributed to the positive aspects of her childhood and how far to a personal determination to overcome difficulties.
It is possible that Aïsha did in fact suffer “terrible consequences” due to her abused childhood. Perhaps, if her childhood had been more normal, she would have chosen to forgive Ali early, and hence she would never have fought the Battle of the Camel. We just don’t have enough information to determine what drove her motivations.
Even if – for the sake of argument – we could demonstrate that Aïsha never suffered any harm from being married too young: so what? That is like saying: “I didn’t suffer any harm when the burglar stole my laptop. It was an old laptop that I was about to throw out, and now my insurance company has paid for a new one.” The lack of actual “harm” does not alter the principle that the burglar was wrong to steal.
Similarly, nothing can alter the principle that a fifty-two-year-old man should have known better than to engage sexually with a nine-year-old.
17. People who criticise this marriage are people with a problem.
Some modern writers make emotive suggestions that people who criticise Muhammad for marrying a child are almost as bad as people who use his example as an excuse for practising child-marriage today.
Those who manipulate [Aïsha’s] story to justify the abuse of young girls, and those who manipulate it in order to depict Islam as a religion that legitimises such abuse have more in common than they think. Both demonstrate a disregard for what we know about the times in which Muhammad lived, and for the affirmation of female autonomy which her story illustrates.
These arguments are simply emotional appeals lacking in logical content. They try to discredit people who criticise Muhammad by discussing the critics’ flaws instead of Muhammad’s.
These writers are usually Westernised Muslims who want to present Muhammad as a good person yet at the same time want everyone to behave better than he did. While they agree that some of Muhammad’s behaviour is “not suitable for today,” they don’t allow anyone to criticise Muhammad for setting an unsuitable example. Hence, they allege, people who blame a modern atrocity on Muhammad’s example are almost as bad as people who commit the atrocity. Critics who make a direct connection – that some people behave badly because they are copying Muhammad – must be motivated by hatred.
But common sense shows that there is no moral equivalence between people who commit child-marriage and people who complain about child-marriage. One group cares about children and wants to save little girls from lives of sexual abuse and domestic drudgery. The other group rejects the concept of children’s rights in order to use little girls as sex objects and domestic slaves. As long as the second group uses the excuse, “Muhammad set the example,” the first group must reply, “Muhammad was wrong to set that example.”
Was Muhammad a Paedophile?
Critics of Islam often include the charge that Muhammad’s marriage to a child made him a “paedophile”. This is an emotive word that of course provokes strong protests from Muslims.
If the question is “Was Muhammad mentally ill?” or “Did Muhammad have anti-social personality disorder?” the answer is that we don’t know. We don’t have enough information to make a formal psychiatric diagnosis about a person who lived so long ago.
If the question is “Would a modern law-court convict Muhammad of child molestation?” then of course the answer is yes. It would also convict Abu Bakr for facilitating and perhaps Umm Ruman and Asma for failing to protect. But this is beside the point, for Muhammad lived in a society were his actions were not recognised as criminal. If he had lived in our society, knowing that child molestation could be punished, he might well have behaved differently – we don’t know.
While there is no real point in asking whether Muhammad was mentally ill or criminally liable, the question that we can ask is: “Do Muhammad’s actions with Aïsha meet the diagnostic criteria for paedophilia?” Definitions of behaviour are always changing, but the DSM-5 gives this definition of “paedophilic disorder”.
Over a period of at least 6 months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger).
For at least five years, the adult Muhammad was involved in sexual activity with a prepubescent child. Therefore his behaviour meets the definition of “paedophilic disorder”. The reason he stopped his paedophilia was not, of course, due to his ceasing his sexual activity but due to the child’s reaching puberty.
We can see that most objections to labelling Muhammad’s behaviour as a paedophilic do not stand up to this official definition.
“We cannot prove that Muhammad had sexual fantasies or urges involving children.” No, we cannot, but we don’t need to. The definition does not say “and behavior” but “or behavior”. So if his behaviour meets the criterion, that is sufficient for a verdict of paedophilic disorder, and we don’t need to know his thoughts.
“Muhammad’s primary sexual interest was in adult women; Aïsha was an exception.” Yes, Muhammad was attracted to females of every age under forty-five. But this is irrelevant. The definition does not require that a paedophile be attracted exclusively to children. In fact, it recognises these sub-types.
Exclusive Type (attracted only to children)
Muhammad’s paedophilic disorder was of the non-exclusive type; it did not cease to be paedophilic.
“Muhammad did not have sexual activity with numerous children, but only with Aïsha.” This is also irrelevant. The definition says “child or children”. Sexual activity only needs to be directed to one child to meet the definition of paedophilia.
However, see chapter 20 [of Unveiled - The Nineteen Wives of Muhammad] for the stories of two children even younger than Aïsha in whom Muhammad also showed sexual interest. Nor can we be absolutely certain that Muhammad’s “small” wife Mulayka (chapter 14) had reached menarche. We cannot prove that he had fantasies or urges about these children, or that his interest in any of them lasted as long as 6 months; but the dating (i.e., after Aïsha had reached puberty) is circumstantial evidence that he continued to be attracted to children even after Aïsha grew up.
Does Muhammad’s behaviour meet the formal definition of paedophilic disorder? Yes. According to the standards of his own culture, should he have known better? Yes. Is it appropriate to label Muhammad a “paedophile”? That depends on what you hope to achieve. There are some situations where it is better to steer clear of name-calling and anger-stirring because it will defeat your purpose. There are other situations that call for objective accuracy, even if that means using a clinical term like “paedophile”.
When people desperately insist that Aïsha could not have been a nine-year-old bride, we need to ask those people about their motives. Obviously they are not worried about Aïsha herself. She is dead, and it is too late to help her.
Do these apologists harbour some obscure hope that, if only they could convince the world that Aïsha was not a child-bride, then child-marriage among Muslims today would stop?
That will not work, for the weight of history is against them. There are several groups of people who are unlikely to give up their belief that Muhammad married a nine-year-old just because of a few cyberspace debates.
1. Muslims who know Islamic history. These people are not necessarily scholars, but they know what their traditions have always taught. They do not necessarily believe that child-marriage is acceptable for today, but they do tend to assume that it must have been all right for Muhamad.
2. Adult men who want to marry little girls. They do not necessarily care about the truth or about Islam (although some of them do), but they find it convenient to use Muhammad’s example as their justification.
3. People who hate Islam. Again, they do not necessarily care about the truth (although some of them do), but they will grab any excuse to prove that Muhammad was a very bad person.
4. People who care about children’s rights and, as a step towards stopping child-marriage, want an honest understanding of why it is happening. Some of these people also “hate” Islam (the philosophy), but only as a result of caring about human rights and not because they hate any group of people.
5. People who care about the truth, no matter what that might happen to be.
Trying to argue that “Muhammad did not marry a nine-year-old” is unhelpful because it is untrue. The weak and silly claim that “Aïsha was older than nine” might convince Westernised Muslims (the kind of people who would never support child-marriage anyway) and it might convince uninformed Westerners who want to believe the best of other cultures. But it will not convince anyone who knows Islamic history, with the result that it will not stop child-marriage in Islamic cultures.
Or is the history-rewriters’ true priority something quite different? Perhaps their real focus is not on Aïsha at all but on Muhammad. Perhaps they want to make him look like a hero, someone whose behaviour would be palatable and even inspiring to the West. That means they have to explain away any behaviour that the West would find unheroic, distasteful or despicable. Perhaps their true goal is to make Muhammad look good at any cost.
In that case, they should bear in mind that it is real children, this very day, who are paying that cost.
About the Author
Tara MacArthur is a pseudonym. If you ever meet a person whose real name is Tara MacArthur, she is not the author of this article.
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Literally, “a few years and ten”. The Arabic word translated “a few” means “three to nine”. Ten or more would be “many”.
 Dhahabi vol. 2 #143.
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However, Muhammad overruled Abu Bakr, and Abdallah was allowed to reunite with his wife.
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 E.g., Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) parts 2 and 3 orients the reader to time by mentioning dates in 35 separate instances. It is unlikely that Ibn Ishaq (writing 150 years later) was inventing these dates since there are other events that he leaves undated. More likely, he knew the dates of these 35 events because the dates had been marked in the time of Muhammad.
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Ibn Saad vol. 8 (Bewley), p. 47.
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 Muhammad ibn Umar al-Waqidi. Kitab al-Maghazi (The Book of Battles). Translated by Faizer, R., Ismail, A., & Tayob, A. K. (2011). The Life of Muhammad, p. 244. Oxford and New York: Routledge.
Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) p. 457.
 Waqidi (Faizer) pp. 251-252.
 Ibn Saad vol. 8 (Bewley) p. 76.
 Nasaï 2:19:1598. The Mina days of relaxation and celebration after the solemn pilgrimage days were 11-13 Zu’l-Hijja.
 Waqidi (Faizer) p. 312.
 Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) pp. 493-499. Waqidi (Faizer) pp. 208-216.
 Ibn Saad vol. 8 (Bewley) p. 193.
 Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) p. 530. Waqidi (Faizer) p. 365.
 Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) p. 531.
 Muhammad was also in Medina for the Mina Days of the subsequent year (4–6 April 630) (Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) p. 597). But we are reluctant to believe that Aïsha was still prepubescent at age 16. The following year, 24–26 March 631, is absolutely ruled out, since Abu Bakr was in Mecca at that date (Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) p. 617), but Aïsha specifically states that he was in Medina on the day of the Abyssinian display (Bukhari 2:15:70; Muslim 4:1940). In the final year of Aïsha’s marriage, the whole family was in Mecca for the Mina Days (Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) pp. 649-652).
 Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume) p. 530.
 Abu Dawud 42:4914.
 Bukhari 8:73:151.
 Bukhari 3:34:318. Abu Dawud 32:4146.
 See Finley, H. (2003). “Average age at menarche in various cultures.” The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.
See also Terry, M. B., Ferris, J. S., & Tehranifar, P., Wei, Y., & Flom, J. D. (2009). Birth Weight, Postnatal Growth, and Age at Menarche. American Journal of Epidemiology, 170, 72-79.
In the Middle Ages in the Middle East, the mean age of menarche was 12½ years. This is quite similar to today, when the standard deviation is about 18 months. So it was probably quite rare for any of Aïsha’s contemporaries to hit menarche before age 10 or after age 15. While it is not impossible for a well-nourished girl of only just nine to reach menarche (even under the natural circumstances before the era of environmental chemicals), the records clearly indicate that this is not what happened to Aïsha.
 Saleem (2008).
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 Ezekiel 16:7-8.
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 Rich (1996–2011).
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