When was Aisha Born?

Iyad El-Baghdadi


Wednesday, 12 September 2012 15:28

Note: This was originally tweeted on Sep. 11, and was compiled into text by Ahmad Gatnash, to whom I am grateful. I did very little editing, and only minor formatting, so this is mostly as-compiled. The conversation is still going on so this may need to be edited or revised soon. Find part 2 of this discussion here.

I originally posted this in the immediate aftermath of the whole "Innocence of Muslims" disaster. Before you get into this, please note that I did not present here anything new. Virtually everything I discuss here has been noted before by Muslim (and non-Muslim) commentators.

I do eventually add 4-5 arguments that are (to the best of my knowledge) new, in the follow up article that was posted a couple weeks after this one.
Did Islam's Prophet really marry Aisha when she was 9 years old?

I don't know how many times I've been spammed by insults to the Prophet and accusations of pedophilia, so I'm taking this head on. This is a fiery issue, with Islamophobes and with advocates of child marriage in the Arab world. And I don't care that this historical slip gave ammunition to Islamophobes, what worries me is that it has justified child marriages.

Here's my position: I don't think it ever happened.
I think historians made a mistake, recording Aisha as being born 8 before Hijra when in fact it was 8 before Prophethood. Or perhaps they recorded her birth as 4 after Prophethood when in fact it was 4 before Prophethood. This kind of margin of error (10 years) isn't unusual. There's a similar dispute about the age of the Prophet's daughter, Fatima.

I think Aisha was closer to 19 when she got married to the Prophet, and here goes my case for saying so.
A bit of background
For the following discussion, note that 1 AH = 622 AD. BH = Before Hijra = before 622 AD. Prophethood was in 13 BH = 609 AD. We're talking about people from the 7th century AD (1st century AH). Arabs didn't have a calendar back then. The Hijri calendar was introduced in Umar's caliphate, a few years after the Prophet's death.

The first historian of Islam, Ibn Ishaaq, was born in 85 AH and wrote after 132 AH, over a century and a half after the events. How do we know about anything that happened so long back anyway?
This was a very important question when it came to establishing the Prophet's traditions (or sayings, or "hadith"). Muslims developed "isnad", an extensive system of authenticated traditions, based upon confirming the chain of narrations. This system of "isnad" was used not only to establish the Prophet's traditions, but also historical events.

The science of "isnad" is one of the great achievements of our civilization, but there's a big glaring hole in it. A lot of effort was spent authenticating the chain of narrations, but not enough on checking the contents of said narrations. I mean, they checked if the chain of narrations was solid but not if the narrations themselves were contradictory.

To be fair they developed principles for textual criticism (naqd-al-matn) but it was primitive compared to the elegance of isnad. They also developed this (bad) habit of assuming that if the chain of narrations is correct, the content must be correct too. According to this, if I heard that a pink elephant flew, and the chain of narrations is solid, then it's possible that it really happened.
So let me make a stand here and say that not all hadiths with a "sahih" isnad are in fact authentic. A "sahih" label means their isnad is solid - their content may not be. There could be glaring contradictions.

Aisha's Age is a classic case of this "gaping hole", the chain of narrations seems a-OK, but the contents are so blatantly contradictory. And for Muslims out there, the Qur'an established a test of authenticity - what's contradictory cannot be logically true.
It is relatively well established that Aisha died in 57 AH. Estimates of her age at death range from 63 to 77. There is a narration in Sahih Bukhari attributed to her that says that she was 6 years old when she married the Prophet, and 9 years old when she moved into his house.

However, there are narrations both in Bukhari and in other sources (before & after Bukhari) that call this into question. Keep an open mind as you consider the following.

Narrations say that Aisha was 10 years younger than her sister Asma, who died in 73 AH at the ripe old age of 100. By simple arithmetic, that means Asma was born in 27 BH, and Aisha in 17 BH. Narrations also say that her father (Abu Bakr) had all his children before the advent of Islam (before 13 BH), which checks out.

Abu Bakr married Aisha's mother when he was 28, in 23 BH. They bore two children. This was an age before birth control. If they got married in 23 BH it seems plausible they had their two children within a few, say 6 years of that date.

Narrations also say that Aisha was the third child to accept Islam, along with Ali (born 23 BH) and Zayd (born 35 BH). That should place her age around theirs (say 18 BH) and not over a decade after theirs (6 BH).

Aisha herself claimed to be the 19th person to enter Islam - impossible if she was born in 6 BH, plausible if in 16 BH or earlier.
Other Notes
Arithmetic aside, there are other inconsistencies that scream at you when you read the reports of how the marriage took place.

  1. When the Prophet asked for her hand, her mother objected because Aisha was already engaged to a man from Banu Adi. Details suggest that her earlier engagement happened before 13 BH, which would be impossible if she was born in 6 BH.

  2. Aisha gave an account of a main event that happened in 3 BH (Isra & Miraj). Would be impossible if she was 3 at the time.

  3. Aisha narrates in Bukhari that when a certain chapter of the Qur'an was revealed, she was "playing, as an adolescent"; the chapter in question was revealed between 10 BH and 8 BH. This again suggest that she was born between 20 BH and 18 BH.

  4. Aisha also gave a detailed, mature account of events of the Hijra itself (1 AH). Implausible if she was only six.

  5. In 3 AH a major battle (called the Battle of Uhud) erupted near Medina. The Prophet sent home anyone under 15 years of age, but Aisha played a role in the battle, carrying water from Medina to the soldiers on the battle field. At nine years old?

  6. In fact, there are indications that Aisha was on the scene at the Battle of Badr, in 2 AH, which would be extremely unlikely if she was a child of 7 or 8 years.

The Role of Historical Political Agenda
The final dimension I'd like to add is how traditions may have been modified or totally invented to serve political agenda. Always have a red flag go on in your head when you hear a tradition that could have served a convenient political role.

Aisha outlived the Prophet by some 40 years. She was a major narrator of his traditions (over 2000 hadiths). Aisha was very highly respected and renowned not only as an Islamic scholar & authority, but also as a political figure.

The early Islamic state ran through turbulent times as its founding ideas clashed with the culture of 7th century Arabia. During this period, Aisha became engangled in events that followed the murder of the third Caliph, Uthman, in 35 AH. These events brought Aisha into brief but bitter clash with the fourth Caliph, Ali, who is sanctified by the Shi'a.

This clash took place in 37 AH. The traditions were not collected & authenticated until over a century later. The compiler of the first "sahih", Al-Bukhari, was born in 194 AH, 157 years after these events.

Between the actual events and their compilation, the "chain of narrations" travelled over some very rough socio-political ground. Needless to say, many a faction had more than a passing interest in bending the contents of the traditions one way or another.

Aisha lived & died in Medina, but the narrations concerning her age at marriage do not arise from or pass through Medina at all. They were only reported in Iraq, where certain socio-political forces had an interest in discrediting her as a source.

The narrations all go back to Aisha's grand-nephew, who lived in Medina all his life, but moved to Iraq as an old man. It is therefore highly suspicious how these narrations were known only in Iraq but not in Medina at all.

Historians didn't critically examine the contents of what they'r narrating until Ibn Khaldun in the 8th century AH. Not everything you find in a history book is a fact. Otherwise we must assert that Icarus really did fly on wings of wax.
Who Will Object Loudest?
Before I end, I'll predict who will object to what I presented. Three groups: Islamophobes, radical Salafis, and radical Shi'as.

  1. The first group, Islamophobes, don't like it when facts come in the way of a juicy nugget of hate fodder.

  2. The second group, radical Salafis, have sanctified the chain of narrations to the point of making it a second Qur'an.

  3. The third group, radical Shias, dislike Aisha, and may wish to make her appear too young to have real knowledge of Islam.

Let me reassure my Western and non-Muslim friends that the vast majority of Muslim replies were positive. In fact, the loudest protests so far were from Islamophobes who thought that this was a hard fact (it's not; at the very least, it's debatable).

There were also protests from some tradition-bound Muslims who sanctify traditions & narrations - a point that I'll try to get to today. Of course I didn't tweet this in Arabic yet (still debating that with myself) so that would be the real "test of intolerance".

In fact, if you want to take just one thing away from this, it's that Aisha's age is a subject of debate and is not a hard fact. I prefer to start by presenting my new arguments and then getting to last session's talking points - so here goes.


New argument: Is a 13 year old girl as tall as a full grown man?
An argument that was pulled last session concerns an incident where Aisha & the Prophet watched an Abyssinian dance in the mosque. Supporters of the later date cite the incident in support of their view when it actually invalidates their view, as I'll explain.

Aisha said she wanted to watch the dance, and at the time the Prophet's wives were not to be seen in public, so she stood behind the Prophet and watched, in her own words, "with my chin over his shoulder". This incident happened in 7 AH when, according to the later date, Aisha must have been 13 years old.

Now I ask - how likely is it that a 13 year old girl was about the same height as a full grown man, to look over his shoulder? We know that the Prophet was not short, but was of average height compared to men around him. If we accept that Aisha was 23 at the time, then it's far more likely she was tall enough to look over the Prophet's shoulder.

Note: I could go into a lot more detail discussing this argument, but I do not intend to just yet. Suffice it to say that there's no mention in the narration that the Prophet was "carrying" Aisha, or that she was standing on a stool or chair; these "explanations" are also quite implausible. If you're interested in further details you could contact me directly.

New argument: How old was Aisha's mother when she had her?
Aisha's mother, Um Rouman, got married to her father, Abu Bakr, in 23 BH when Abu Bakr was 28 years old. At the time, Um Rouman had a previous marriage (she was widowed) and had a previous child. Details indicate Um Rouman's son from the previous marriage was grown up (8-10 years) at the time she married Abu Bakr. Putting it all together, Um Rouman seems to have been 30-32 years old at the time of marriage, meaning she was born around 55 BH.

If we accept that Um Rouman had Aisha in 6 BH, that would mean she was 49 years old when she had her. Now I'm not saying it's impossible for a 49 year old woman to have a child, but it's just not as likely. However, if we accept that Aisha was born in 16 BH, that makes Um Rouman 39 at the time, which is rather more likely.

Fact: A 45 year old woman has 1% chance at conceiving today (in the 21st century) (Thanks @betwixt2greens). For a 49 year old woman to conceive and have a healthy child would have been considered at least noteworthy, and probably miraculous.

New argument:  How old was Aisha in relation to her older brother, Abdulrahman?
Abu Bakr & Um Rouman had their first child in 24 BH, a boy called Abdulrahman, whose age is quite well established. If we accept that Aisha was born in 6 BH, that means there's an 18 year age difference between her & her brother.

Now if a woman had a child, then had no children for 18 years, and then had another child, it's something that people mention. I mean, even today such a huge age gap is noteworthy, and historians back then noted things far more mundane.

Point: No children for 18 years, followed by a child, would not only be noteworthy but would appear a miraculous & portentious birth; this was the case with John the Baptist. (Thanks @Kat_Missouri)

However I found no mention anywhere that Um Rouman had two children 18 years apart. Therefore I find it far more likely that she had her second child around 16 BH, six years (or less) after the first. This is also in line with Abdulrahman dying in 53 AH, five years before Aisha, of old age.

New argument:  What was Aisha's age as compared to Abu Saeed Al Khudri?
Aisha was a very famous and sought after scholar in the 40 years that she outlived the Prophet. In a particular instance, a companion called Abu Saeed Al Khudri gave a fatwa contradicting her own (which wasn't uncommon). Hearing this, Aisha said, "What would Abu Saeed Al Khudri know about hadith? He was only a small child."

Now Abu Saeed Al Khudri was born around 11 BH - accepting the later date makes him five years her senior. Would she call him a "small child" if he's five years her elder? I very much doubt so. However if we accept that she was born before 16 BH, that would make her 5-6 years older than him.

Note: We can establish the age of Abu Saeed Al Khudri since he showed up at the Battle of Uhud (in 2 AH) but was turned back due to his age, but by 5 AH during the Battle of the Trench he was of fighting age and joined the men.

New argument:  What was Aisha's age as compared to Masrooq bin Al Ajda3?
Masrooq was a well known personality who never met the Prophet, but met his companions including Abu Bakr himself. Putting the details of his early life together, we can conclude that Masrooq was born at or before 4 BH.

Now in the later years, Aisha called Masrooq "her son"; even "one of my children, the most beloved among them". In fact, a contemporary personality, Al Shu3bi, said that Aisha all but "adopted" Masrooq.

Now, if we accept that she was born in 6 BH, how can she call a man only 2 years younger than her "her child"? But if we accept that she was born in 16 BH, that makes her 12 years his senior, which makes far more sense.

Note: We can establish the age of Masrooq, since he met Abu Bakr and prayed behind him, was an adult by Umar's time, and fought at the Battle of Qadisiya in 15 AH.

New argument:  What was Aisha's age at the "incident of the accusation"?
In 5 AH, a false rumor spread in Medina that Aisha had committed adultery, this is referred to as "the incident of accusation". Now if we accept a later date of birth, that would mean she was just 11 years old at the time.

Her mother, Um Rouman, consoled her describing her as a "beautiful woman, which inspires jealousy and gossip". Now, would Um Rouman refer to an 11 year old girl as a "beautiful woman"? I say it's very unlikely, but far more likely if she was 21 years old at the time.

These are my five or six new arguments - I don't know if any of them alone is solid, but put together they say something.

Answering the Apologists: "It was normal."
Apologists argued that it was normal for a young girl to get married back then; not even the Prophet's enemies criticized him. That much is true; the fact that not even the Prophet's enemies criticized him for the marriage shows that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. This can either mean that child marriages were common at the time, or (more likely) that it never even happened.

I wish to challenge the view that child marriages were common at the time. If it was "normal" for a girl that young to get married, kindly produce 10-20 other historical cases (I couldn't find even one). My position is, no, it wasn't "normal"; and the reason no one criticized the Prophet is that it never happened.

Answering the Apologists: "Girls reached puberty earlier back then."
Apologists also argued that girls "back then" reached puberty faster than nowadays. I challenge that, on purely scientific grounds. The age of puberty (menarche) has been reducing readily in modern times, due to better nutrition and health care.

In fact Aisha herself described women back then as "thin, because they barely had enough to eat". Ask a doctor and he'll tell you that girls who are under-nourished tend to reach menarche later, rather than earlier.

Point: Research seems to suggest that 7 stone (45kg) is a trigger weight for a girl to hit puberty. Conversely, falling below 7 stone or 45kg is a trigger in grown women to develop amenorrhoea. (Thanks @der_bluthund)

Additionally, a girl is not fully "fertile" and fit to have children until several years after menarche; putting it together, my position is that "marriageable age" in pre-Islamic Arabia was closer to 15.

This is consistent with reports in our history books. For example, the Prophet's mother married at around 16 and had him at around 17. Halima became his wet nurse when she was around 16. Thawbiya, the Prophet's first wet nurse, was around 15. The Prophet's daughter married at 20 and Safiyya wed the Prophet when she was 17 or 18.

General Reponse to #Aisha's Age
In part 1, I predicted that opposition to what I present will mostly come from three sources: radical Islamophobes, radical Salafis, and radical Shi'as. So far, the loudest and most stubborn opposition has come from non-Muslims, which to me speaks volumes.

Some Muslims have wondered what all of this means about the authority & authenticity of the hadith vis-a-vis the Qur'an. By going through this exercise of textual criticism, are we "rejecting" the hadith? Short answer is, of course, a clear & loud no. The long answer will have to wait until I have more time for a tweet session on the topic.

I probably will never get the time to do a page-by-page, line-by-line referencing, but let me provide the general references for the earliest historical accounts of classical Islam.

The earliest historian was Ibn Isaac (d 151 AH) followed by Sayf bin Umar (d 180 AH) then Ibn Al Kalbi (d 204 AH). Next you have Al Waqidi (d 207 AH), Al Mada'ini (d 225 AH), Ibn Hisham (d 218 AH), Ibn Saad (d 230 AH).

The hadith books are a major references, especially Bukhari (d 256 AH) and Muslim (d 261 AH). Finally you have the very extensive historical work of Al Tabari (d 310 AH). Most of these books can be found online for free (in Arabic).

If you wish to know the specific reference for something I mentioned, contact me directly.