The child-marriage controversy in Malaysia (brought to the limelight recently with an 11-year old girl being married to a 41-year old man) hangs, tenuously, on a 1,200 year old text. As many Muslims know but many non-Muslims may not, one of the reasons why Islam (generally) permits child marriages is due to a hadith which presents Aisha, one of the wives of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), as being six years old when she was betrothed to the Prophet, and only nine when the marriages was consummated.
This point is often taken up, ironically by both defenders of paedophilia and by Islam’s harshest critics. If the Prophet did marry a child, what is there to stop his followers from doing so?
Apologetics and responses have taken many forms. One is to claim that in seventh-century Arabia (indeed in most societies up to the nineteenth century), adulthood began with the onset of puberty. Aisha, under this view, was young but not younger than the norm. Another response is to question the hadith itself (hadiths being, of course, of lesser standing than the Q’ran) and to note how other historical records point to Aisha’s age being anywhere between 9 and 19. Yet another suggestion is to present evidence showing that the Prophet waited until Aisha reached physical maturity before consummating the marriage.
Interestingly, though, no writer (ancient or modern) paid much attention to Aisha’s age until the twentieth-century.
Even the Prophet’s Western biographers barely batted an eyelid, at least not until the 1970s’. Tom Holland suggests that this could be because early writers were more prone to suspect that Al-Bukhari (the author of the hadith in which Aisha’s marriage is mentioned) sought mainly to portray Aisha and her family in a positive light for ideological reasons. This is to say that accounts of her marriage to the Prophet, far from being ‘straight-forward history’, must be seen as a textual attempt to place her father Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, as being within a long-standing friendship with the founder of Islam himself and therefore justified to become the first Caliph as per Sunni thought.
In this view, Al-Bukhari, being Sunni himself, wanted to emphasize that because Aisha was so young, there was simply no way she could have been with another man prior to marrying the Prophet. This not only affirms her symbolic purity and potency (and leaves no doubt as to her virginity), it also underscores and validates her father’s status as the Prophet’s father-in-law and this would be something the first readers of Bukhari’s hadiths would understand.
Put simply, the reference to Aisha’s age must be interpreted in view of the politics of early Islam, especially the split between Sunni and Shia schools of thought. It should not be used as a justification for child marriages in modern times. To do so is, in my view, akin to Christians saying that we should go around stepping on snakes’ heads just because God told the serpent He would crush its head in Genesis (3:15).
Whilst I certainly don’t expect essays like this to change the minds of, say, leaders from PAS, I’m hoping that other Muslims will be reminded that there are many dimensions to reading a sacred text; as a Christian, I too struggle with the Bible’s many interpretations and ‘difficult passages’.
Spellberg D (1994) Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sonbol AE-A (ed.) (2006) Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Societies. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
Holland T (2015) The Christopher Hitchens Lectures: De-Radicalising Muhammad. Hay Festival. Available from: https://www.hayfestival.com/p-9673-tom-holland.aspx?skinid=16.