‘Aisha R.A: A Child Bride?

Part 1

By Mahnoor Naveed

Approx. 8 min read

Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim

Abstract:

The marriage of Hazrat ‘Aisha bint Abu Bakr R.A to Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) is one of the greatest points of censure by critics of Islam, and a source of causing doubts in the minds of the Muslim youth today. The reason is the very young age of Hazrat ‘Aisha R.A. and the relatively older age of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). This point is taken by critics and Islamophobes to project the image of Islam as a ‘barbaric’ religion which encourages ‘child’ marriages. This article takes a historical-anthropological approach to this issue which will dismantle the myth that early marriages were a monopoly of Islam, analyze the practice of marriages in major early societies, explore the fallacies brought about by Presentism, argue that childhood is more of a psycho-social process than a purely biological one, along with presenting many more arguments. The article will also focus on the actual character of Hazrat ‘Aisha R.A. and her contributions to Islam, looking beyond just her numerical age; and assert how arguments regarding her age overshadow narratives about her achievements and the legendary woman she was.

Note: The paper is in 2 parts/articles, the first being more theoretical while the second lists down important points about the specific situation of Hazrat ‘Aisha R.A. So, if your patience runs out on the first one, do read the second article. However, bearing with the length would be worth it if the question in your mind is cleared IA.

link to part 2: https://lrs.lums.edu.pk/aisha-r-a-a-child-bride-2/

The event of their marriage

“Narrated by Aisha: The Prophet (S.A.W) married me when I was six years old and consummated our marriage when I was nine years old. Then I remained with him for nine years (i.e., until his death).” [1]

The marriage of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) to lady ‘Aisha was based on a divine command as lady ‘Aisha narrated that angel Gabriel came to Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) carrying a green silk cloth with her image on it and said “this is your wife in this world and in the hereafter” narrated by al Tirmidhi.
After the death of Mother Khadjah R.A, one of the Prophet’s (S.A.W) lady companions, Khawlah bint Hakim, came over to Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) and suggested to him to marry lady ‘Aisha and she described her as the daughter of the most beloved person to Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) agreed and asked her to mention the Prophet’s marriage proposal to Abu Bakr R.A and his wife, Um Ruman. Khawlah conveyed the proposal to them to which Hazrat Abu Bakr R.A said “and would she be lawful to him and he is my brother?” so Khawlah went back asking the Prophet (S.A.W) and he replied “we are brothers in Islam and your daughter is lawful to me”.[2]

Presentism:

Presentism, as defined by David Hackett Fischer, is an anachronistic misinterpretation of history based on present-day circumstances that did not exist in the past.[3] In simpler terms, it means interpreting history and past events through the lens of modern-day values and concepts. There is no such thing as absolute objectivity since every human will view things differently based on their own understanding, which is shaped by personal experiences, to a large extent. However, the most recommended method by which presentism is countered, is for an individual to try to understand past peoples and their cultures by immersing oneself in past lives, their circumstances, their customs, way of thinking, and the conditions those people faced which, in turn, shaped the way they lived.

“The fallacy of presentism is a complex anachronism… it is the mistaken idea that the proper way to do history is to prune away the dead branches of the past, and to preserve the green buds and twigs which have grown into the dark forest of our contemporary world.”[4] 

It is not possible to completely cut oneself off from the time one inhabits and its values (Fischer even list this as a fallacy), but it is necessary to understand past people and their lifestyles on their own terms.   

Analysis of early marriages in early societies:

“Civilization and early marriage can, and do, go hand in hand.”[5] M.K Hopkins

The article will now do a historical analysis of early civilizations to demonstrate their marriage trends.

M.K Hopkins, in her article The age of Roman girls at marriage, scrutinises historical Roman records along with much recent scholarly work done on this topic to reach cogent conclusions regarding matrimonial trends in the Roman Empire. She cites numerous authors on this subject, and dismantles controversies major scholars have had over some issues.

Marriages at a young age were nor just common, but the norm in the Roman Empire. The average age of Roman girls at marriage was from 13 to 16, or 17 but many girls were married as young as 12. Certain leading Roman doctors postulated the age of puberty in girls to be at 12 and 14 for boys.[6] However, age of menarche for girls varied in different social classes owing to differences in nutrition. Hopkins concludes that the doctors’ experiences must have been upper-class biased. Puberty was, and still is, one of the greatest determinants of matrimonial age in humans. However puberty and marriage have not always gone hand in hand – in Roman society, considered the pinnacle of civilisation of the ancient world, many girls were married even before they reached puberty. But pre-pubertal marriages were not always consummated immediately. “Pre-pubertal marriage of girls was then accepted by the Romans, even if it was not the most usual type of marriage.”[7] Yet, some of these marriages were consummated before puberty. There were notable differences in socio-economic classes – girls of the elite started marrying from 12 years of age. 

“..from the imperial family Octavia and Agrippina married at 11 and 12; that Julia, daughter of Augustus, married at 14; Aemilia Lepida at 15; Julia and Drusilla, daughters of Germanicus, married at 15 and 17, but in their cases there may have been political complications which delayed marriage.”

The legal minimum age of marriage from the reign of Augustus to 530 CE was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. However, this law was not always abided by and marriages did occur in earlier ages. For instance, Octavia the daughter of the emperor Claudius married at age 11; such ‘disobediences’ were more widespread as well. The Roman empire existed parallel to the Prophet Muhammad’s (S.A.W) time and was considered the most advanced & developed civilization of the time (rivalled only by the Sassanian empire). Therefore, marrying early was not solely the practice of the uncivilized nomadic Arabs.

In ancient Greece, where philosophy flourished as it attempted to find the best way to govern humanity, Athenian men married around 30 years of age, and their brides were usually half their age.[8] In Europe in the middle ages, the legal matrimonial age was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Girls were typically in their teens and boys in their early twenties at the time of marriage.[9] Dr. Jonathan Brown, the renowned scholar, points out that Europe has always been a unique example with relatively higher ages at marriage throughout history.[10] Citing the primacy of the divine command given in Genesis 1:28, the time between puberty and age twenty has been considered the ideal time for men and women to be wed in traditional Jewish thought. Some rabbis have recommended age 18 while other age 14 which is closer to the age of puberty since marrying as early as possible is considered almost a duty. Marrying before puberty is strictly forbidden.[11]

Historian Armam Tropper who studied the demographics of the Jewish family in late antiquity, states that most men married late enough to not be considered children but many women married so young that they would be considered girls by today’s standards. He states:

“For many girls, adolescence was not a time for fun, education, experimentation, or professional training, rather it was a time when one was already expected to assume the full responsibilities of a mature women, as wife and mother”.[12]

These trends may shock the modern mind but a closer study of the demographics of earlier societies reveals why such customs were considered actually necessary given the circumstances of the times. Just as the institutions of modern times such as the schooling system serve as one of the biggest reasons for the delay in marriages nowadays, the circumstances and institutions of those cultures and times served to make early marriages more beneficial.

Taking the case study of Roman society again, child mortality rates were very high: up to half of Roman kids died before the age of 10. Adult mortality rate was very high as well due to the high number of deaths of women during childbirth and men dying in military service, excluding points such as hard labor, famine etc. Even though many people lived to 60 years etc. but due to unpredictable conditions which led to young deaths, the average age of Romans was between 30 to 40 years as evidence suggests.[13] If you put yourself in a Roman’s shoes who knows the unpredictability of her life and the fact that she will lose a lot of her children during childbirth or later, you would also probably opt to have more pregnancies to secure some living children, given your society’s pressure on you to do so. You would also want to marry early in life to have more chance of watching your surviving children grow up. From a macro-perspective (looking at it from a societal point of view) early marriages were a way of increasing the population especially when it is at such dangers of dwindling; a weakness which would immediately be taken advantage of by your enemies. In Arab society, having more children (specifically sons) was a sign of power and prestige; many enemies of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) mocked him for not having any surviving sons, considering it a weakness. The infant mortality rate in the Arabian Peninsula was extremely high in the 6th century as evidenced by the practice of Arabs in Makkah to send their children to the desert with Bedouins because it was believed they had a better chance of survival there.[14]

This is because cities suffer from a higher death rate as evidenced in medieval Europe as well where the rate in cities was twice that of the countryside.[15]

Childhood

“Many sociologists have put forward the idea, in various forms, that childhood is a social construction. Despite differences between advocates of this view, all agree that the idea of childhood, if it exists at all, varies from place to place and time to time.”[16]

The case that I will present in this part of the essay is that childhood exists and always have, but its perception has varied enormously over the ages and from place to place. Many sociologists and theorists such as the pioneer of the subject Phillipe Aries, have argued that childhood is a social construction and that a perception of childhood did not exist in the past. However, I will argue that the biological aspect of childhood is undeniable, and childhood has, and always existed, obviously as a biological process, but also as a psycho-social one. No one can argue as to whether a toddler can be considered the same as a twenty-year-old and that our ancestors were somehow oblivious to this difference. The case study of the medieval times (12th to 16th centuries approximately) in Europe will be presented. In Aries’ book Centuries of Childhood, Aries lists many differences between the treatment of children then, as compared to modern society. Parents did not get painters to do portraits of their children, and mourning was kept to a minimum when a child died (high infant mortality rate). There were few specialist clothes for children who were dressed as miniature adults. Once children were seen as physically capable of working, they were expected to help out and to take on what are now seen as adult roles and there was not much difference between children’s and adult’s past times. Very significantly, many people did not know their chronological ages. Things gradually changed by the end of the medieval era as children’s toys and clothes emerged as well as paintings of them. The most important reason listed by Aries is the development of modern schools, which created segregation between children and adults. However, this does not mean that past people did not have affection for their offspring. To interpret these differences as such stems from presentism and an ignorance of the circumstances of the times which shaped these attitudes.

Neil Postman is a much more recent and very influential theorist in the study of childhood in contemporary society. His book The Disappearance of Childhood argues that the idea of childhood was not given much importance in the past but gained special significance with the advent of the printing press and renaissance ideas. The “prime time” of childhood was from the 1850s to the 1950s approx. in America when children were treated very differently from adults as innocent creatures in need of protection from adult society. However, in the 21st century, the distinction between adults and children is again eroding, mostly owing to television (media). Postman begins his book by giving examples of 12 and 13 year old girls in the US being one of the highest paid models and gives examples of shows increasingly showing children acting more like adults etc. calling it the “adultification of children” on TV. So according to Postman, the special protection children received that was due to them started from a low point in the medieval times and rose to its peak in the 19th century before declining almost back to its former state. The 21st century does not treat children as it should. Even Greek society he says, paid scant attention to childhood as a special age category and there were no moral or legal implications against infanticide as late as Aristotle’s time.

The purpose of these dull paragraphs (thanks for the patience!) is simply this, that whom we consider children today were not always considered children centuries ago. I do not believe that past peoples loved their children any less than the people today but it is true that our societies have become much more child-centred now.[17]

Even today, there are huge differences between different cultures. In rural areas in Punjab for example, people especially from the preceding generation, to do not know their chronological ages or their birthdays. I know many youths from this generation who do not either. And these are people from a village with a government school for males and females. In their case, the necessity of knowing their chronological ages is something forced on them for legal purposes for their I.D cards. Many give tentative ages for their children to schools. None of this means that they love their children any less than city folk. It only means that their lifestyle does not follow a strictly chronological timeline. They work when they are old enough to and marry when they are deemed mature enough to. Constructing your life on your chronological age timeline is something imposed through modern schooling i.e. the system of schooling brought by colonialism. Bio-archaeologists Sian Halcrow and Nancy Tayles have listed the using of biological developmental standards for investigating ageing as an obstruction and state that many “traditional societies” take into account the chronological age along with skills, personality, and capacities of the individual when defining social age. Bio-archaeologist Mary Lewis summarizes this topic nicely:

“No matter what period we are examining, childhood is more than a biological age, but a series of social and cultural events and experiences that make up a child’s life…The time at which these transitions take place varies from one culture to another, and has a bearing on the level of interaction children have with their environments, their exposure to disease and trauma, and their contribution to the economic status of their family and society…What is clear is that we cannot simply transpose our view of childhood directly onto the past”.[18]

The colonial mind ran on the ideology that their views were superior and had to be imposed on their colonies to civilize those savages:

“Contemporary Western societies have distinctive ideas about childhood and it is often assumed that these ideas are normal and universal. From a social constructionist point of view they are not.”[19]

These two authors base their work on western society and their work has been chosen because the criticism of RasulAllah’s (S.A.W) marriage to Hazrat ‘Aisha comes from western culture.

Puberty and maturity

Since historically and presently, marital age has been linked with the age at which a child reaches puberty, some discussion of it is warranted. The age at which people reach puberty greatly varies over time, place and circumstance. “The age of puberty, far from being a biological constant, has been changing for much of human history, and the clearest evidence is seen in women”.[20] Menarche affected Palaeolithic girls between the ages of 7 and 13. It then shifted into the late teens as humans settled into agricultural societies. In the current age, the age has lowered owing to better nutrition, conditions of sanitation, and disease control. The average global age today for the start of puberty is 10-11 for girls and 11-12 for boys.  So it is not surprising that Hazrat ‘Aisha RA reached puberty by 9 years.

However, psycho-social maturity does not always coincide with the age of puberty as evidenced today. 13 and 14-year olds (teenagers) are notorious in the current age for unstable emotions and reckless actions. The same applies to maturity and the legal age. An 18-year-old is classified as a mature, independent adult according to the law, but most 18-year olds are still economically (and usually emotionally) dependent on their parents for support, especially in non-Western countries. However, this was not the case with our ancestors. They reached maturity much earlier than people now as they were brought up to do so. They were not expected to spend their teenage years in the schooling system, relying on the community’s resources and their parents while giving back nothing to the society (economically and professionally). Their circumstances demanded them to take on ‘adult’ roles much before their twenties. In a reversal of roles, if our ancestors had a crystal ball (like Sybil Trelawney’s one in Harry Potter) through which they could see the future the way we analyze the past, they would be astounded that a twenty year old has yet to discover his craft, considers himself ‘not ready’ for marriage and settling down (something in the future after he has understood his path in life/figured himself out), and is fed and taken care of by his parents. I can imagine a bunch of tribal leaders having a good jeer about it, boasting about how they had fought battles, avenged their father’s murder or something, and were married with kids by that age. However, they would overlook the fact that the modern schooling system has artificially prolonged both childhood and teenage hood and the social institutions of our time shape us in this way and prevents us from transitioning into adulthood early. The frustrations of teenagers about their own situation, youth movements to lower the legal minimum age, and criticism of the schooling system would serve as evidence.

In this regard, endocrinologists Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson have stated that the mismatch between biological and psychosocial maturation is a recent phenomenon:

“For the first time in our evolutionary history, biological puberty in females significantly precedes, rather than being matched to, the age of successful functioning as an adult. This mismatch between the age of biological and psychosocial maturation constitutes a fundamental issue for modern society. Our social structures have been developed in the expectation of longer childhood, prolonged education and training, and later reproductive competence. This emerging mismatch creates fundamental pressures on contemporary adolescents and on how they live in society”.

This means that Hazrat Aisha and other Arab girls were more mature than we think. Their learning experience was not obstructed by their marriage rather it made them greater participants in society. In the case of Mother ‘Aisha, her marriage to Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) transformed her into one of the greatest female scholars of all time. The knowledge she learnt from him and the immense service she did to Islam is unmatched.

Conclusion

The above is not justification for child marriages; this essay does not support them at all and does not even address that issue. Child marriages today are empirically linked to abuse. This paper simply argues that characterizing Hazrat ‘Aisha R.A. as a child is empirically wrong. The perception of childhood and marriage changes constantly over time. She was considered old enough in her society to marry and her own narrations of her relationship with her husband RasulAllah (S.A.W) show their healthy relationship. More points proving this will follow in the next article.

Link to second part: https://lrs.lums.edu.pk/aisha-r-a-a-child-bride-2/

These articles are based on a series by Yaqeen Institute. To learn more on this subject, do read those articles. Link is in the bibliography.


References

[1] Sahih Bukhari, Book 67, #69

[2] Dar ul Ifta Al-Misriyyah. http://www.dar-alifta.org/Foreign/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=144

[3] AsadUllah Ali. Understanding Aisha’s Age: An Interdisciplinary approach. Yaqeen Institute. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/asadullah/understanding-aishas-age-an-interdisciplinary-approach/

[4] David Hackett Fischer. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.

[5] M K Hopkins The age of Roman girls at marriage. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2173291?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

[6] Ibid p.g. 310

[7] Ibid

[8] “Historical age of marriage in Western Countries”. RasoulAllah.net. https://rasoulallah.net/en/articles/article/11704/

[9] “Marriage”. Medieval times. https://www.medievaltimes.com/teachers-students/materials/medieval-era/marriage.html

[10] Dr Jonathan Brown. Lecture. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsYk-tRp9jk

[11] Soloman Schechter and Julius Greenstone, “Marriage Laws”. Jewish Encyclopedia. www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10435-marriage-laws

[12] Amram Tropper, “Children and Childhood in light of the demographics of the jewish family in Late Antiquity,” Journal for the study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, 37:3 (2006), p.332.

[13] Frier, Bruce. “Roman Life Expectancy: The Pannonian Evidence”. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1088154.pdf

Revealed Rome https://revealedrome.com/2012/06/ancient-rome-daily-life-women-age/

[14] Richard Gabriel. Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General. Vol. 11. University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.

[15] Richard Hoffman. An environmental history of Medieval Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[16] Haralambos and Holborn. Sociology: Themes and Perspectives. 8th edition.

[17] Haralambos

[18] Mary Lewis, The bio-archaeology of children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.4.

[19] Haralambos

[20] Jessa Gamble. “Puberty: early starters.” Nature.com. https://www.nature.com/articles/550S10a

Bibliography

Ali, Asadullah, et al. “Understanding Aisha’s Age: An Interdisciplinary Approach.” Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, 14 May 2019, https://yaqeeninstitute.org/asadullah/understanding-aishas-age-an-interdisciplinary-approach/.

Brown, Jonathan. “Why Are You Agitated about the Age of Hazrat Aysha.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsYk-tRp9jk.

Haralambos and Holborn. Sociology: Themes and Perspectives. 8th edition. Print.

“Historical age of marriage in western countries.” Supporting Prophet Muhammad Website, https://rasoulallah.net/en/articles/article/11704/.

Hopkins, M. K. “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage.” Population Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1965, pp. 309–327. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2173291.

Fischer, David Hackett. “Historians Fallacies Toward A Logic Of Historical Thought : David Hackett Fischer : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/HistoriansFallaciesTowardALogicOfHistoricalThought.

Frier, Bruce. “Roman Life Expectancy: The Pannonian Evidence.” Phoenix, vol. 37, no. 4, 1983, pp. 328–344. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1088154.

Gamble, Jessa. “Early Starters.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 5 Oct. 2017, https://www.nature.com/articles/550S10a.

Mary Lewis, The bio-archaeology of children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.4.

“Medieval Marriage: What Was Marriage Like In The Middle Ages?: Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament.” Medieval Times, https://www.medievaltimes.com/teachers-students/materials/medieval-era/marriage.html.

Richard Gabriel. Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General. Vol. 11. University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.

Richard Hoffman. An environmental history of Medieval Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Schechter, Soloman, and Julius Greenstone. “JewishEncyclopedia.com.” Marriage laws – JewishEncyclopedia.com, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10435-marriage-laws.

Tropper, Amram. “Children and childhood in light of the demographics of the Jewish family in late antiquity.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, vol. 37, no. 3, 2006, pp. 299–343. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24669762.

“United States Age of Consent Map.” United States Age of Consent Laws By State, https://www.ageofconsent.net/states.

“Why Did Prophet Muhammad Marry Lady ‘Aisha When She Was Only 9 Years Old?” Dar Al-Ifta Al Misriyyah, http://www.dar-alifta.org/Foreign/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=144.

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