Islam and Contemporary Muslims: The Age of Ayesha (ra) at the Time of Her Marriage

By Dr. Aslam Abdullah, TMO Editor in Chief

The age of the mother of believers, Ayesha bint Abu Bakr (ra), has been a matter of great controversy among Muslims and non-Muslims for a long time.

Both Muslims and non-Muslims rely on sources mentioned in books of ahadith such as al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, an-Nasai and Ibn Majah and books of history to keep the controversy alive. There are reports in books such as Sahih Bukhari that claim that Ayesha (RA) got engaged with Prophet Muhammad (s) when she was six and the marriage was consummated when she 9.  There is no reference to this event in the Qur`an, nor does there exist any statement of the Prophet (s) that he married Ayesha (ra) when she was six. Muslim scholars, by and large have continued to propagate the accounts of this wedding as accurate and sound. Some have gone a step further, explaining that this marriage was planned in heavens and it was the intention or will of God that the Prophet (s) marry her at that age.

Not many scholars have questioned the authenticity of these accounts.

Not many have looked at the alternative narrations present in our books of history and ahadith. Not many have tried to evaluate the accounts on the basis of the criterion of the Qur`an. Even though there are narratives in our books of ahadith and history that challenge the notion that the mother of believers got engaged or married with the Prophet (s) at the age of 6 or 9, yet the majority of scholars have preferred accounts recorded in Sahih Bukhari or Sahih Muslim or other books of ahadith.

They have elevated these books to the status of the Qur`an whose every word is accurate and whose accounts cannot be questioned for their authenticity. It is interesting to note that the author of Sahih Bukhari, Muhammad Ibn Ismail Ibn Ibrahim Ibn al-Mughirah Ibn Bardizbah al-Bukhari himself purged over 98 percent of ahadith he had collected based on a methodology that he developed.  The methodology was not divinely revealed– as wahi or revelation comes to prophets only. It was the outcome of his personal genius mixed with piety. Yet, when anyone asks to critically look at the accounts of such books on the criterion of the Qur`anic message, they immediately categorize such people as deniers of hadith.

They rarely ask, is this what the Qur`an asks people to believe in and practice? Was Prophet Muhammad (s) sent to the world to set the example of marrying a six or nine year old child? They rarely ask is this account in line with the divine message on the issue of marriage? They rarely ask is this the character of the Prophet (s)? They spend their energy and resources to defend these accounts even if it meant tarnishing the image of the Prophet (s) or even Allah. Of course, this is not done consciously. It happens because most people often ignore the Qur`anic methodology to determine facts. The Quran constantly reminds people:

“Do not take a stand (regarding anything) where you have no personal knowledge. Mind it, the ear and the eye and the heart – all of them shall have to answer in regard to the question whether personal inquiry was made about the concerned matter.” (16:36) The majority of Muslim scholars show a paradox in their approach to the issue. When non-Muslims accuse the Prophet (s) of marrying Sayyida Ayesha at a young age, they get angry and describe the accusation a conspiracy to malign the Prophet (s), and when some Muslims respond to these accusations by pointing out alternative narratives, they denounce these efforts as heretical.

While in non-Muslim circles, they argue that the facts about the marriage between Ayesha (ra) and the Prophet (s) are not understood clearly and Islam does not promote young marriage, in Muslim circles they support young marriages on the basis of this account–claiming that they are only promoting a sunnah of the Prophet (s). None of them would ever give their six or nine year old daughter to even a 25 or 30 year old man. Probably, they might take someone else’s daughter to live one more sunnah. They have contaminated the minds of their followers to such an extent that any discussion on alternative narrative is unacceptable. The one who rejects their version of Islamic history is declared either an apostate, heretic or a deviant who must renew his faith before claiming himself a Muslim again. In their view, they alone have the right to define, and explain the facts. Anyone not in line with their thinking is either a culprit or a troublemaker.

Based on alternative narratives in our books of ahadith and history, here are some facts to look into before we take any position on this issue.

1.      Calendar

The hijra calendar was introduced by Umar bin Khattab (ra) during his caliphate. Even though the hijra of the Prophet took place in the month of Rabi ul Awwal as is recorded in many books, the first year of the calendar began with the month of Muharram. Among the tribes of Arabia, there was no elaborate system of recording death and birth. Often, the main events were used to describe the year of birth and death of a person. If a person is born in the year when a particular event took place, it would be said that such and such person is born in the year of such and such event. For instance, it is said that Fatima (ra), daughter of the Prophet was born in the year when the Kaaba was being reconstructed.According to this calculation, a person born in Muharram or in Zil Qada with be of same age.

2.      Sources

Hisham ibn Urwah (ra), a companion of the Prophet is the main source of the reporting on the issue. He said that he heard about it from his father that the marriage (event) took place when Ayesha bint Abu Bakr was six years of age. If this event had occurred as described, then there must be many other people who might have witnessed it or heard about it. Even though Malik ibn Anas (ra) was present, when Hisham was alive, yet he did not include this account in his book Muwatta, the earliest book of hadith. Moreover, Hisham bin Urwa (ra) did not report about the event when he was a resident of Medina for almost 71 years.

He reported it in Iraq at the age of 90. Yaqub ibn Shaibah in his Tehzibu’l-tehzib, reports: “He [Hisham] is highly reliable, his narratives are acceptable, except what he narrated after moving over to Iraq.” (Tehz’bu’l-tehzib, Ibn Hajar Al-‘asqala’ni, Dar Ihya al-turath al-Islami, 15th century.  Vol 11, p. 50). It was further reported:  “I have been told that Malik ibn Anas (ra) objected on those narratives of Hisham (ra) which were reported through people of Iraq.” (REF: Tehzi’b u’l-tehzi’b, Ibn Hajar Al-‘asqala’ni, Dar Ihya al-turath al-Islami, Vol.11, p. 50) In Mizanu’l-ai‘tidal, a book on the narrators on the life of the Prophet (s): it is reported: “When he was old, Hisham’s memory suffered quite badly” (Mizanu’l-ai‘tidal, Al-Zahbi, Al-Maktabatu’l-athriyyah, Sheikhupura, Pakistan, Vol. 4, p. 301)

In his criticsm of the methodology of collecting ahadith, Allama Shabbir Meeuthi rejects the interpretation of hadith that says that Ayesha (ra) married the Prophet (s) when she was six and conjugal relations when she was nine. He is that among Arabs was a common practice to shorten a sentence. So when Ayesha (ra) said she was six she meant that she was 16. To prove this point he cited an example from the Hadis itself. He quoted the narration reported by Bukhari himself on the blessed night (night of power) as Prophet (s) said seek this night in 25,27,29 of the month of Ramadhan.

3. Engagement

Tabari as well as Hisham ibn Urwah (ra), Imam Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Sad say that Ayesha (ra) was engaged at the age of six and she began to live with the Prophet (s) at the age of nine. But Tabari contradicts himself by writing at another place: “All four of his [Abu Bakr’s] children were born of his two wives—the names of whom we have already mentioned—during the pre-Islamic period.” (Tarikhu’l-umam wa’l-mamlu’k, Al-Tabari (died 922), Vol. 4, p. 50, Arabic, Dara’l-fikr, Beirut, 1979)

If Ayesha (ra) was born before the revelation of the Qur`an to the Prophet, than she would be about 14 years of age at the time of her engagement. It is also reported that prior to the engagement with the Prophet, Ayesha (ra) was engaged to another person.  It is reported Ayesha (ra) accepted Islam quite some time before Umar ibn Khattab (ra). This means that Ayesha (ra) must have accepted Islam during the first year of the Prophethood.

Tabari has also reported that at the time Abu Bakr (ra) planned to migrate to Habshah (8 years before Hijrah), he went to Mut‘am—with whose son Ayesha (ra) was engaged—and asked him to take Ayesha (ra) in his house as his son’s wife. Mut‘am refused, because Abu Bakr (ra) had embraced Islam, and subsequently his son divorced Ayesha (ra). Now, if Ayesha (ra) was only six years old at the time of her marriage, she could not have been born at the time when Abu Bakr (ra) decided to migrate to Habshah.

4. Age of Fatima (ra)

Ibn Hajar reports: “Fatimah (ra) was born at the time the Ka‘bah was rebuilt, when the Prophet (s) was 35 years old… she (Fatimah) was five years older than Ayesha (ra).”  (Al-isabah fi tamyizi’l-sahabah, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Vol. 4, P. 377,  Maktabatu’l-Riyadh al-haditha, al-Riyadh, 1978)  According to this narration, the age of Ayesha would be 12 at the time of her engagement with the Prophet (s) and not six as generally mentioned.

5. Age of Asma bin Abu Bakr (ra)

Abda’l-Rahman ibn abi Zanna’d reports: “Asma (ra) was ten years older than Ayesha. (Siyar A‘la’ma’l-nubala’, Al-Zahabi, Vol. 2, p. 289, Arabic, Mu’assasatu’l-risalah, Beirut, 1992) Ibn Kathir, a commentator of the Quran also reports: “She [Asma] was elder to her sister [Ayesha] by ten years”. (Al-Bidayah wa’l-nihayah, Ibn Kathir, Vol. 8, p. 371, Dar al-fikr al-‘arabi, Al-jizah, 1933)  Ibn Kathir further reports: “She [Asma] saw the killing of her son during that year [i.e. 73 AH], as we have already mentioned, and five days later she herself died. According to other narratives she died not after five days but ten or twenty or a few days over twenty or a hundred days later. The most well known narrative is that of a hundred days later. At the time of her death, she was 100 years old.”

(Al-Bidayah wa’l-nihayah, Ibn Kathir (died 1333), Vol. 8, Pg. 372, Dar al-fikr al-‘arabi, Al-jizah, 1933) Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani notes: “She [Asma (ra)] lived a hundred years and died in 73 or 74 AH.” (Taqribu’l-tehzib, Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, Pg 654, Arabic, Bab fi’l-nisa’, al-harfu’l-alif, Lucknow) If Asma (ra) died at the age of 100 years in 73 AH, she should have been 27 or 28 years old at the time of hijra. If she is 10 year older than Ayesha (ra), then the age of Ayesha should have been 17 or 18 at the time of hijra.

6.   Battle of Badr and Uhud

In Sahih Muslim, Kitabu’l-jihad wa’l-siyar, Bab karahiyati’l-isti‘anah fi’l-ghazwi bikafir mentions the presence of Ayesha (ra) during the battle of Badr. In Sahih Bukhari, Kitabu’l-jihad wa’l-siyar, Bab Ghazwi’l-nisa’ wa qitalihinna ma‘a’lrijal records: “Anas reports that On the day of Uhud, people could not stand their ground around the Prophet (s). [On that day,] I saw Ayesha (ra) and Umm-i-Sulaim (ra), they had pulled their dress up from their feet [to avoid any hindrance in their movement].”

Sahih Bukhari, in Kitabu’l-maghazi, Bab ghazwati’l-khandaq wahiya’l-ahza’b: also records: “Ibn ‘Umar (ra) states that the Prophet (s) did not permit me to participate in Uhud, as at that time, I was fourteen years old. But on the day of Battle of Khandaq (Trench), when I was fifteen years old, the Prophet (s) permitted my participation.” If Ayesha (ra) participated in the battle of Badr and Uhud, she must be at least 15 years old as youth under that age were not allowed to accompany the Prophet (s).

7. Surah Qamar

Sahih Bukhari in kitabu’l-tafseer  reports that Ayesha (ra) was a young girl when Surah al-Qamar was revealed. “I was a young girl (jariyah)” when Surah Al-Qamar was revealed. (Sahih Bukhari, kitabu’l-tafsir, Bab Qaulihi Bal al-sa‘atu Maw‘iduhum wa’l-sa‘atu adha’ wa amarr) Surah Qamar is the 54th surah of the Qur’an and it was revealed eight years before Hijrah. Accordingly, she must be somewhere between 6-13 years at the time of revelation of Al-Qamar, and thereby she must have been 14-21 years at the time she married Prophet (s).

8. The Quran on Marriage

The Qur`an does not allow child marriages. It states:  “And make not over your property (property of the orphan), which Allah had made a (means of) support for you, to the weak of understanding, and maintain them out of it, clothe them and give them good education. And test them until they reach the age of marriage. Then if you find them maturity of intellect, make over them their property……” (4:5-6).

What is a marriageable age? In the words of Allah, it is an age when a person is able to decide on his or her own and he or she is in a position to give consent to proposals of marriage.  Not during childhood. It is the age of young adults. Prophet Muhammad (s) and his father-in-law Abu Bakar Siddiqi (ra) must be aware of these facts. To suggest that the Prophet (s) married a six year old child is like accusing the Prophet and his most trustworthy companion and suggesting that they violated the Divine commandment in this matter. It is unthinkable that they would violate this Quranic command.

What is evident from all the above mentioned sources is that the age of Ayesha (ra) was not six at the time of her engagement to the Prophet (s).

She was either 16 or 19 at the time when she was engaged and 19 or 22 when she joined the Prophet (s).

Some of these scholars tell us that in order to defend the honor of the Prophet (s) they would be willing to sacrifice millions of lives. What about about critically examining the hadith that gives distorted image of our Prophet (s)?


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