Sayyida Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) occupies a huge place in the Islamic tradition. Being the second most prolific narrator of the prophetic sunnah means that approximately a quarter of what we know about the prophet (peace be upon him) has come directly through her. Thus, for a non-entity like myself, even thinking about writing such an article as this filled me with great trepidation, so that many times I considered abandoning the project altogether. For Muslims, Sayyida Aisha is not only one of the greatest Companions, beloved consort of the Beloved of God , but also, as the Quran has decreed, she is our mother. This article is not an apologetic response, but a sincerely held opinion after investigating the issue. Ultimately this is my opinion based on a reading of historical evidence. The job of the student of the Islamic tradition is to investigate to the best of his or her ability, and Allah knows best the reality of the situation. Ridhwan ibn Muhammad Saleem London, Friday 4 Rabi` al-Thani 1429 AH/11 April 2008 CE West London School of Islamic Stuides www.WLSIS.org
The widely-cited prophetic narration (hadith), recorded by al-Bukhari and others, in which Aisha stated that she was betrothed when she was 6 and the marriage was consummated when she was nine has become the basis of personal attacks on the character of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Perusing the extensive classical Islamic biographical literature reveals that birth dates, which were important in the authentication of hadith transmission, are almost always disagreed upon, even for the most famous personalities. Almost all biographical notes mention several opinions regarding the subject’s year of birth.
This is the case even following the introduction of the Islamic calendar during the caliphate of Sayyiduna Umar. It would not have been known at birth that a person was destined to become a hadith transmitter, and so just like any other medieval citizen, they would not be expected to know his year of birth or age except in an approximate sense. Pre-modern people, in general, simply did not measure and record time in the way we do today. This still exists, as it is not difficult to find people in less ‘developed’ countries who have only approximate ideas of their age.
The way pre-Islamic Arabs referred to the chronology of events was to relate them to particularly memorable occurrences. For example, the ‘Year of the Elephant’ referred to the year in which Abraha’s army tried to invade Makkah. We know when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was born because biographers mention that he was born in the ‘Year of the Elephant’. . Even today, most people can tell you what they were doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated (if they are old enough), the first man walked on the moon, the day the September 11th attacks in New York took place or even the more recent Westgate attacks.
In ancient Rome, according to historian, Karen Cokayne “… the Romans’ knowledge of age was often imperfect and many of the uneducated would have been unaware of their correct calendar age. Age-rounding, when age was rounded up to the nearest unit of 5 or 10, was also common, especially on the funerary epigraphy.” Looking at England as another typical case, historian Pat Thane writes, “Accurate, large-scale, systematic recording of births and deaths began in England only in 1837… Individuals were only gradually required to know their own exact ages as society became bureaucratized and official records increasingly required such information. Before the nineteenth century precise age was rarely required of people of any age…most could certainly offer an age when required, sometimes quite precisely, though some would ‘round up’ their possible age to a plausible round number or add years as they reached later ages.”
Even today, in rural communities in developing countries, one finds ordinary people do not know their age, and will typically approximate or ‘round’ up or down when questioned. A villager may tell you his age when questioned, only to give you a completely different figure when asked again sometime later. It is not that he is trying to mislead, but this is actually the culturally ‘normal’ way of expressing age.
End of Part 1
“It is reported from Aisha that she said: The Prophet entered into marriage with me when I was a girl of six … and at the time [of joining his household] I was a girl of nine years of age.”
In the next part, the hadith above is approached with the aid of historical evidence, including other hadiths and historical reports. A more accurate age is evidenced.
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