Aisha, Ayesha, 'A'isha, or 'Aisha1 (Arabic عائشه `ā'isha, "she who lives") was a wife of the prophet Muhammad. Aisha was the daughter of the second leader of the Muslim community, Abu Bakr. As one of Muhammad's wives, she is regarded as a 'mother of the believers' and so is a revered and respected figure. She is also remembered for her knowledge of the hadith (acts and words of Muhammad) and for a failed political and military intervention in the affairs of the early Muslim community. Islamic feminists who challenge what they see as the male-dominated official version of Islam have revived her legacy. Aisha's political intervention may have failed less because of the justness or correctness of her cause than because it could not overcome the strength of an emerging male elite. Much controversy still surrounds the age at which she married Muhammad but few—if any—contest that their marriage was a happy one.
Aisha played a key role in the emergence of Islam, a faith and life-system that gives meaning and purpose to millions of people in today's world, teaching that God is ultimately in control of human destiny. She was a source of great comfort for Muhammad, who says that she was the only wife in whose company he ever received revelation from God. She may be regarded as providing Muhammad with the support he needed domestically in order to establish Islam in the external world. One Muslim author described her as not only a wife of “the greatest man in human history [and] daughter of one of the greatest Muslims of all times,” but as a “towering Islamic personality in her own right” (Shafaat 1985).
It is not clear when Aisha was born. Most scholars calculate her age by reference to the date of her marriage to Muhammad (622 C.E.) and then subtracting her age at marriage. However, there are many theories as to her age at marriage.
Aisha was the daughter of Abu Bakr of Mecca. They belonged to the Bani Tamim clan of the tribe of the Quraysh, the tribe to which Muhammad belonged. Aisha is said to have followed her father in accepting Islam when she was still young. She also joined him in his migration to Ethiopia in 615 C.E.; a number of Mecca's Muslims emigrated then, seeking refuge from persecution.
According to the early Islamic historian al-Tabari (839-923), Aisha's father tried to spare her the dangers and discomfort of the journey by solemnizing her marriage to her fiancé, Jubair, son of Mut`am ibn `Adi. However, Mut’am refused to honor the long-standing betrothal, as he did not wish his family to be connected to the Muslim outcasts. The emigration to Ethiopia proved temporary and Abu Bakr's family returned to Mecca within a few years. Aisha was then betrothed to Muhammad.
The marriage was delayed until after the Hijra, or migration to Medina, in 622. Aisha and her older sister Asma only moved to Medina after Muhammad had already fled there. Abu Bakr gave Muhammad the money to build a house for himself. After this, the bride and groom celebrated the wedding very simply by the drinking a bowl of milk in front of witnesses.
Even though the marriage may have been politically motivated, to mark the ties between Muhammad and his companion Abu Bakr, most early accounts say that that Muhammad and Aisha became sincerely fond of each other. Aisha is usually described as Muhammad's favorite wife.
Shi'a, however, disagree and believe that there is sufficient evidence to prove that Khadijah was Muhammad's favorite wife. The various Shi'a groups believe that Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, was the prophet's appointed successor, and that the offspring of Ali and Fatima, Muhammad's daughter, are Islam's rightful rulers. According to Shi'a school of thought, Aisha opposed Fatima and Ali. Consequently, they tend to see Aisha in a negative light. This extends to the Shi’a versions of Aisha and Muhammad's marriage. Shi'a stress Aisha's jealousy, both of the deceased Khadijah, Fatimah's mother, and of Muhammad's other living wives. They also point to a disputed episode in which Aisha was accused of adultery.
Aisha was traveling with Muhammad and some of his followers. She left camp in the morning to search for a lost necklace; when she returned, she found that the company had broken camp and left without her. She waited patiently for half a day, until she was rescued by a man named Safwan and taken to rejoin the caravan.
Malicious tongues started to wag, claiming that she must have been having an affair with Safwan. Some urged Muhammad to divorce his wife. He then received a revelation directing that four eyewitnesses prove adultery, rather than simply inferred from opportunity. One passage of the Qur'an (Q 24:11) is usually taken as a rebuke to those who slandered Aisha: "Verily! They who spread the slander are a gang among you…”
Muhammad's wife Zainab bint Jahsh was given a skin filled with honey, which she shared with her husband. He was fond of sweets and stayed too long with Zainab—at least in the opinion of Aisha and her co-wife Hafsa. Aisha and Hafsa conspired. Each of them was to tell Muhammad that the honey had given him bad breath. When he heard this from two wives, he believed that it was true and swore that he would eat no more of the honey. Soon afterwards, he reported that he had received a revelation, in which he was told that he could eat anything permitted by God (Q 66:1). In the following verses, Muhammad's wives are rebuked for their unruliness: "your hearts are inclined (to oppose him)."
Word spread in the small Muslim community that Muhammad's wives were tyrannizing over the mild-mannered prophet, speaking sharply to him and conspiring against him. Umar, Hafsa's father, scolded his daughter and also spoke to Muhammad of the matter. Muhammad, saddened and upset, separated from his wives for a month, sleeping by himself on a lumpy mattress. By the end of this time, his wives were humbled and harmony, of a sort, was restored.
There is a similar but alternative explanation of Surah 66 that involves Aisha and is explained in the article about Maria al-Qibtiyya, the Christian Coptic slave girl who bore Muhammad a son.
Ibn Ishaq, in his Sirat Rasulallah, states that during Muhammad's last illness, he sought Aisha's apartments and died with his head in her lap. The Sunni take this as evidence of the Prophet's fondness for Aisha. The Shi'a do not believe this story.
Aisha never remarried after Muhammad's death. A passage in the Qur'an forbids any Muslim to marry the prophet's widows.
After Muhammad's death in 632 C.E., Aisha's father Abu Bakr became the first caliph, or leader of the Muslims. This matter is extremely controversial. Shi'a believe that Ali should have been chosen to lead; Sunni maintain that the community chose Abu Bakr, and did so in accordance with Muhammad's wishes.
Abu Bakr's reign was short, and in 634 C.E. he was succeeded by Umar, as caliph. Umar reigned 10 years, and was then followed by Uthman in 644 C.E. Both of these men had been among Muhammad's earliest followers, were linked to him by clanship and marriage, and had taken prominent parts in various military campaigns.
Aisha, in the meantime, lived in Medina and made several pilgrimages to Mecca.
In 656, Uthman was killed by rebellious Muslim soldiers. The rebels then asked Ali to be the new caliph. Many reports absolve Ali of complicity in the murder. He is reported to have refused the caliphate, saying, "You are not a people fit for my rulership nor am I a master fit for you people." He agreed to rule only after he was threatened with death.
Zubayr (Ali's cousin and Aisha’s brother-in-law) and Talha (her cousin, a leading Muslim who had served on the committee that had nominated Uthman as the third caliph) both were disappointed that they had not been appointed governors. However, their aim was to take action against Uthman's murderers and they were critical of Ali for not having done so. Talha, too, had wanted the governorship of Basra. Along with Aisha, they raised a small army that successfully took Basra. Both men thought they had a good claim on the caliphate (and Aisha probably supported Zubayr) and that Ali was in the wrong for not avenging Uthman. Ali's army, however, marched on the city and battle ensued. Aisha's forces were defeated. Both Talha and Zubayr were killed (although Talha had decided not to fight he was hit by an enemy arrow). Ali is said to have regretted both deaths, commenting that Muhammad had said they would be with him in Paradise. Aisha was directing her forces from a howdah on the back of a camel; this 656 battle is therefore called the Battle of the Camel.
Ali captured Aisha but declined to harm her, respecting her status as a umm al-mu'minin (mother of the believers). He sent her back to Medina in the care of his own sons, Muhammad's grandsons. Thenceforth she lived a retired life until she died in approximately 678, at the age of 66. Ahmad Shafaat (1985), commenting on the Battle of the Camel, remarks that after this Aisha “accepted Ali as the lawful caliph.” The issues that led to the revolt were, he says, complex: “Aisha faced these questions, reached an answer, and then did what she felt she had to do. And this is all that history should expect from great men and women who are not prophets.” She devoted the rest of her life to “teaching Islam.”
The age of Aisha at marriage is an extremely contentious issue. On the one hand, there are several hadiths which are said to have been narrated by Aisha herself, which claim that she was six or seven years old when betrothed and nine when the marriage was consummated. On the other hand, there is evidence from early Muslim chroniclers like Ibn Ishaq that indicates Aisha may have been 12 to 14 years old, just past the age of puberty, or perhaps even older.
Most Muslim scholars have accepted the tradition that Aisha was nine years old when the marriage was consummated. This has in turn led critics to denounce Muhammad for having sexual relations with a girl so young. Such criticisms may often be found in the context of criticizing the entire religion of Islam, though many Muslims may consider any criticism of Muhammad as equivalent. A response to this criticism has been that Aisha was post-pubescent at nine and that early marriageable ages were an accepted practice in most of the world before the modern Industrial Era.
However, some Muslim scholars point to other traditions that conflict with those attributed to Aisha in this matter. If the other traditions are right, this would imply that Aisha was either confused in her dating, was exaggerating her youth at marriage, or that her stories (which were not written down until more than 100 years after her death) had been garbled in transmission. If we believe traditions that say she was post-pubescent when married—extremely likely in light of practices in other societies where early marriage is common—then these other traditions from Ibn Ishaq and Tabari and others seem much more convincing.
From the viewpoint of the Islamic clergy, the ulama, this explanation, while relieving them of one difficulty, poses another. It values the biographical and historical literature, the sira, over the canonical hadith, or oral traditions accepted by the ulema. However, anything that threatens the value of the hadith, and especially hadith narrated by Aisha, threatens the whole elaborate structure of Islamic law, or sharia. The Shi'a version of sharia is less at risk in this one instance, as the Shi'a deprecate anything sourced to Aisha.
Liberal Muslims do not see any problem with saving Muhammad's character at the expense of traditionalism. Conservative Muslims, and the ulama, tend to embrace the "early puberty" theories.
These traditions are from the hadith collections of Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim b. al-Hajjaj (d. 875). These two collections are regarded as the most authentic by Sunni Muslims.
Other hadith in Bukhari repeat this information.
Controversy hit the headlines in June 2002, when former Southern Baptist President Jerry Vines, speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention on June 16, described Muhammad as a “demon-possessed pedophile,” referring to his marriage with Aisha. His source was a best-selling and award winning book (it received the Gold Medallion from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association) by Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner, Unveiling Islam (2002) which claims to be “a sympathetic and yet uncompromising presentation of the entire scope of Islam.” Sales have far outstripped that of the most popular scholarly introduction to Islam, John L. Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path. The Caners did not use the term pedophile, which Vine's introduced, but wrote, “How a prophet of noble character could wed someone so young, even in the culture of the day, remains a mystery. Many gloss over this act ... How could a man consummate a marriage with a nine-year old? This question usually is ignored” (59-60).
Subsequently, sections on pedophilia have appeared on Islamic websites. The site www.answering-christianity.com has a section on pedophilia in which the charge that Muhammad was a child molester is refuted. Author Osama Abdallah argues that puberty began very early at that time for girls. He then cites such Biblical verses as 1 Samuel 15: 3-4 to suggest that the Bible condoned mass murder of children. The debate continues with writers on the rival site, www.answering-islam.net (answering-islam.com takes you to Osama Abdallah's site which owns that domain name).
In his discussion of Muhammad's marriages, Esposito comments that polygamy was not only culturally and socially accepted at the time but that a chief was expected to contract "political marriages to cement alliances" (1988: 20). He comments that Aisha was the only virgin whom Muhammad married and that she was “the wife with whom he had the closest relationship.” He suggests that to deny or try to obscure the fact that Muhammad “was attracted to women and enjoyed his wives [contradicts] the Islamic outlook on marriage and sexuality found both in revelation and Prophetic traditions.” These emphasize “the importance of family and [view] sex as a gift from God to be enjoyed within the bonds of marriage.”
Note: Muslim tradition generally says that Aisha was six years old when married to Muhammad, and that this marriage took place in 1 A.H. All of the above arguments are based on the hypothesis that —as reported by the original sources —the age at which Aisha was married is wrong, while the time at which she married (in the same sources) is correct.
Sunni historians praise Aisha as a Mother of Believers and a learned woman, who tirelessly recounted stories from the life of Muhammad and explained Muslim history and traditions. Other hadith record that her knowledge of the sunnah was so extensive that the believers never asked her about “a tradition regarding which they were in doubt without finding that she had some knowledge of it” (Mishkat-at-Masabih Vol. 2: 1762). Muhammad stated that “inspiration never comes to me when I am under the cover of a wife, except that wife be Aisha” (Mishkat 2: 1762). She is considered to be one of the foremost scholars of Islam's early age and is revered as a role model by millions of women. According to Indian reformer, Chiragh Ali (1844-1895) she was founder of a legal tradition.
Shi'a historians take a much dimmer view of Aisha. They believe that Ali should have been the first caliph, and that the other three caliphs were usurpers. Aisha not only supported Umar, Uthman and her father Abu Bakr, she also raised an army and fought against Ali, her step-son-in-law. The Shi’a believe that in opposing Ali, the divinely appointed successor of Muhammad, she committed a grievous sin.
Feminist scholar Fatima Mernissi (1991, 1993) argues that because Aisha's revolt constituted the first fitnah (civil disorder), women's leadership in Islam has been associated with disaster. The hadith states, “those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity” (Bukhari, Vol 9, Bk 88, Ch 18, Hadith 119) is cited as evidence that women's leadership contravenes the sunnah. This hadith is attributed to Muhammad on hearing that a Queen had succeeded to the throne of Persia. Mernissi points out that it was only after the Battle of the Camel, 25 years after these words were supposed to have been said, that the narrator, Abu Bakra, first mentioned the hadith. Abu Bakra had previously been punished for lying (1991: 60). Mernissi has systematically revisited many misogynist hadith in the light of published but largely ignored refutations by Aisha. Such hadith include, “I looked into heaven and saw that the majority of people there were poor; I looked into hell and saw that the majority of people there were women” (Bukhari, 8, Bk 76, Ch 16, hadith 456) which, Mernissi suggests, was said in jest. Mernissi's work has revived Aisha's significance as a Traditionalist. Her source is a fourteenth century collection by Imam Zarkashi called (in English) Collection of Aisha's Corrections to the Statements of the Companions. Many of the dubious hadith were narrated by Abu Hurayra, who appears to have been jealous of Aisha's intimacy with Muhammad and who once criticized her for spending her time frivolously with her cosmetics while he “was attentive to the prophet's every word, memorizing them for posterity” (1991: 22). However, according to Aisha, Hurayra had only half-heard what Muhammad said, for example, when he narrated the hadith “three things bring bad luck, dogs, asses and women.” What Muhammad actually said was, “May Allah refute the Jews, who say three things bring…” (1991: 76).
Mernissi also applies traditional hadith criticism to the texts, such as that Muhammad would never have prescribed a punishment disproportionate to the offence. Thus, the hadith narrated by Abu Hurayra that Muhammad told a woman that she would go to hell for mistreating a cat cannot be authentic. While Muhammad was renowned for his fondness of cats, Aisha is reported to have stated that, “A believer is too valuable in the eyes of God for Him to torture a person because of a cat,” as she rebuked the narrator for false reporting. Abu Hurayra has been accused of narrating far too many hadith (5,300) compared with Aisha herself (1,200) and the very cautious Umar, a closer companion than Hurayra (see Bennett 2005, 141). See also chapter six ('Women Scholars of Hadith') of Muhamamd Zubayr Siddiqi's Hadith Literature: Its Origin, Development, Special Features and Criticism (1991) for a positive assessment of Aisha's scholarly legacy.
Mernissi concludes that the narrators, not Muhammad, had misogynist tendencies and that there is nothing in the sunnah that prevents women from exercising authority, even over men. At Q58: 1 and 60: 10 -12 women were included in discussion, while Q27: 23-44 praises the Queen of Sheba with no suggestion that God disapproved of her role.
Note 1: Ayesha is sometimes used as a woman's name. Once popular only among Muslims, it was briefly popular among English-speakers after it appeared in the book She by Rider Haggard (1956-1925). The name is used more widely in the African American community than in other ethnic groups.
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