Child Bride: A’isha’s age at marriage

Dear Reader,

People believe what they want to believe. That’s something I’ve learned these past months during the controversy that has surrounded my book, “The Jewel of Medina.” Some Muslims want to believe my book is “pornographic” or that it is disrespectful to Islam because they are used to racist treatment by non-Muslims. Even more disturbing to me, though, is the insistence by some bigoted, narrow-minded people that, because Muhammad supposedly married and had intercourse with A’isha when she was a young girl, he must have been a pedophile.

Some of the most disturbing hate mail I’ve received, in fact, comes from people who fear and loathe Islam and Muslims so much, they are enraged that I would choose a different interpretation of Islamic traditions and texts, one that is embraced by various scholars, including Muslims. Just recently, a racist radio host, apparently angry because I haven’t agreed to be on his show, called me a “wack job” and a “nut” before going on a rant in which he called Muhammad and A’isha rude, insulting names. No Muslim has ever treated me this way.

Given my complaints about how reporters only want to talk about controversy, imagine my delight to receive an e-mail interview from a reporter for the Turkish publication Milliyet in which he asks questions about the book! I was in heaven. Today I’m going to share with you the first question, about A’isha’s age at marriage, and my answer. Perhaps this will help shed light on this contentious subject:

* In your book you describe very well how early Aisha was forced/
arranged to marry Muhammad. Yet you say their marriage was not fully
consummated until she was around 16. Some experts in the Muslim world
debate that and use Muhammad’s argument to force girls to get married
early. What do you think is the historic fact behind this marriage?
And the reasons behind it?

In “The Jewel of Medina,” A’isha and Muhammad first have sexual intercourse when she is 14 years old. I made this choice based on my research, in which I found compelling arguments that she would have been older at the age of her marriage to Muhammad. Some hadith say she was six when she married him — engagement being as binding as marriage in those days — and nine when her marriage was consummated. Some scholars argue that the word “consummated” simply means the marriage contract was completed when she was nine. Others say that she must have been at least 15 when she married Muhammad, because he strictly enforced a minimum age of 15 for those present on the battlefield, and A’isha did accompany him to battles in the first years of their marriage. Some contend that she must have been 16 at engagement and 19 at marriage!

With all these differing options from which to choose, I took the middle path. I examined the evidence. Did Muhammad show, in his life, a preference for young girls? His first wife, Khadija, was 15 years older than he. All his other wives were widows. His marriage to A’isha was, by all accounts, a political alliance between him and Abu Bakr, who was A’isha’s father and Muhammad’s closest Companion. And Muhammad demonstrated in his life the highest regard and respect for women. Would he have forced himself on a young girl? I don’t think so.

I chose to keep A’isha at home with her parents until she began her menstrual cycle. I’ve been told by Middle Easterners that doing so was customary. Why would Muhammad have departed from custom? When she begins her menses, she moves in with Muhammad. Yet I waited even longer for the consummation because of all the contradictions about her age. As I said, I took the middle path.

People who fear and/or hate Islam like to point to A’isha’s age as evidence that Muhammad was a pedophile. Yet they ignore the fact that young girls were given in marriage all over the world at that time and hundreds of years beyond. I’m reading a book about Europe in the 13th century, and a queen of England is taking her 6-year-old daughter to marry an adult male. In those days, life expectancy was much shorter than today, and women began bearing children when they were much younger. Also, we didn’t have the medical and psychological information we have today, telling us that young girls are not ready physically or emotionally for childbearing. Back then, it was assumed that, as with animals, the menarche signals readiness for child bearing.

Today, we know different. So for anyone, Muslims or otherwise, to continue outdated practices such as child marriages based on what happened 1,400 years ago is wrong. The Prophet Muhammad was subject to the same information that we have today. And besides, scholars cannot even agree today about A’isha’s age. As Professor Denise Spellberg points out in her book on A’isha, nothing was written down about A’isha until 150 years after her death, making her life a “legacy” and an “interpretation” rather than an historical fact.

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