Dear Dr. Abou El Fadl,
I would like to begin by saying that I am an avid reader of your work, and have a deep respect for the Islamic tradition. If it isn't too bothersome, I just have a few questions that I have yet to find satisfying answers too. A good friend of mine recently confronted me on the issue of the Prophet's (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) wife, Aisha. I was rather confounded on how to answer, particularly because he phrased the question approximately as such: "Did Muhammed rape a child?" The use of the word rape to describe the relationship between Allah's final messenger and his second wife threw me especially off guard, as my understanding was that the aforementioned marriage was one of great love and friendship, as recorded in the Sunna. I was also disturbed because I myself am a strong admirer of Aisha, for her bravery (such as at the Battle of the Camel), and for her extensive importance in the transmission of ahadith.
In all honesty, my attempt at an answer to my friend's question was shameful, and I desperately tried to explain that modern standards of marriage can't be applied to 6th and 7th century Arabia. This is indeed my opinion, but afraid of how my friend might view the religion that I love so greatly, I placed Aisha's age as twelve instead of nine. As I am sure you are well aware, Salih al-Bukhari records that Aisha herself narrated her age as six at the time of marriage, and nine at consummation. However, I have read the Ibn Sa'd al-Baghdadi, with Hisham ibn Urwah as his source, and Ibn Khallikan both placed nine as the age of marriage and twelve for consummation. Other, more modern theories, have placed her age as late as fifteen or even eighteen. These latter opinions I am inclined to disagree with, their logic is often stretched far too thin, and they occasionally frame Aisha as a liar who exaggerated her age. This proclamation I can not accept, as it compromises Aisha's integrity in recording the Prophet's (peace and blessings of God be upon him) life. I do apologize, as I am sure this is a subject brought up to you frustratingly often. I was wondering what your view is on al-Baghdadi and Ibn Khallikan's citations, as well as your personal opinion on Aisha's age and how you would respond to my companions question.
Thank you for time, and al-salamu 'alaykum.
[Name Withheld for Privacy]
Thank you for writing me. Yes, indeed, I am hesitant in responding to messages such as this. Not only because of the number of times I have had to address this question, but also because many of the inquiries I receive are from Islamophobes disingenuously trying to pose as sincere Muslims confronting a serious existential crisis.
The initial response is to become educated in historiography and the construction of didactic and dialectic traditions. As Denise Spellberg demonstrates in her book on Aisha, Aisha was a figure that has become as if a historical tapestry upon which many various competing ideological and historical orientations clashed, negotiated, and attempted to resolve Islamic normative values. If you have read the Bible, or indeed any historical source about marriage, you would become quickly aware that child marriages, or what we today call child marriages, were an extremely widespread phenomenon. Indeed, they continue to be a very widespread phenomenon. But the very idea of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood when most women did not reach the age of thirty or died at childbirth is an historically contingent construct--hardly some type of objective, empirical fact. Indeed, when Ibn Khallikan or Ibn Sa‘d, Ibn Hisham or Ibn Ishaq or al-Dhahabi would transmit reports about Aisha, what they were transmitting was not a specific age as a numerical number of years that a human being has been alive, but an age topos. Until modern times, and in fact, in the village where I spent my childhood, people rarely knew their age. And before passports, ID cards, and documents, people would hear contested stories about when they were born. My own grandmother was not sure when she was born and had no less than six different stories about her age. With a rudimentary, historical sensibility, we would understand that the historical topos is simply an allegation or claim that Aisha was a young person, younger than the regular age that most girls married. What specific age-year this was, we do not know and will never know. To say something such as this would make Aisha a liar makes absolutely no historical sense because a claim that Aisha was truthful or not assumes that Aisha indeed uttered any of the reports attributed to her, which is an unsupportable presumption.
Now, add to this, that because of Aisha’s political status and because she became a controversial political figure, and because she became a prominent public personality leading a rebellion against someone no less than ‘Ali (a cousin of the Prophet himself), she also became the subject of numerous historical inventions and counter-inventions. To our modern mind when we read a report that Aisha was six years old when she married (or when promised in marriage) or nine or twelve or indeed in some reports as high as 20, these reports sought to negotiate Aisha’s status either by portraying her as essentially an irrational, immature, young person when she rebelled against ‘Ali or by portraying her as older and hence more mature and sagacious when she clashed with ‘Ali in the Battle of the Camel. So Aisha’s age topos has little to do with the Prophet’s sexuality as we moderns project onto the historical tradition, but had everything to do with trying to credit or discredit Aisha as a public persona and as an aggressive, assertive, dynamic woman in a patriarchal and largely misogynistic society.
I add to this that if we accept the reports that imply that Aisha was a victim of rape, we would also have to make sense of the reports that claim a great mythical love between Aisha and the Prophet and also the reports that instead of portraying a murdered soul (which is often what happens to children who are sexually violated), what the reports construct is a very empowered and vigorous woman who becomes a political leader and a great jurist. There is an undeniable tension between the attempt to construct Aisha as a victim or the Prophet as an offender, and the numerous traditions in which the roles are reversed--reports that construct Aisha as an aggressive and dominant woman and the Prophet as a somewhat diminutive male who is unwilling to stand up to Aisha’s numerous demands. My point here is that we cannot exploit and abuse history in order to give leverage to our historical moments and their egotistical demands. For instance, take the figure Joan of Arc. If you believe that she was actually 15 or 16 when she led the armies of France, then I have a bridge to sell you. All we can know is that she was a young woman. She might have been 15 or 20, or she might have been a 25 year-old that looked very young. Similarly, Aisha could have been a spinster in which, as some reports claim, Abu Bakr’s attempts at finding her an appropriate suitor had consistently been frustrated. So she could have been an older woman who looked young, or who was invented in the reports to look young so that the Prophet was not marrying a woman who had been turned down by all others; or she could have been a youngish looking woman, or a young woman who had a childish look, or indeed a child by some historical measure. We simply do not know and we have to accept that we cannot know.
Finally, if someone is ignorant enough to be willing to accept that the Prophet raped a child, then we will have to enter into a long conversation about what rape means; what rape meant in the twenty-first century, in the 1990s, 1970s, 1930s, the early twentieth-century, the nineteenth century, and so-on. Any person with the slightest legal education would be aware that constructs such as rape, autonomy, consent, voluntarism, determinism, free will etc. are socially constructed and highly contingent. So if we say the Prophet raped a child, that also means that about 90% of the biblical figures, leave alone the figures that formed Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian and every other tradition in history, were also child rapists. I chose to respond to your message because I gleaned an air of sincerity and also I intend to make my response to you public without of course using your name. Thank you for writing me and I hope to hear from you in the future.
Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl