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Oxford Study Sheds Light on Muhammad’s ‘Underage’ Wife Aisha

New scholarship suggests the story of Islam's prophet marrying a minor is baseless propaganda fabricated for political and sectarian motives

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Oxford Study Sheds Light on Muhammad’s ‘Underage’ Wife Aisha
The Green Dome, where Prophet Muhammed is buried, used to be Aisha’s chamber. (Getty Images)

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As a historian of early and medieval Islam, the Oxford University scholar Joshua Little spends much of his time studying old texts — yet his trailblazing research has real-world significance in the here and now. Few aspects of the life of the Prophet Muhammad stir as much debate and controversy as the claim he married his third wife, Aisha, while she was a minor. It is into this explosive terrain that Little has chosen to wade, with results that may change our understanding of Islamic history.

Earlier this year, protests erupted in various Muslim-majority countries after two officials of the BJP, India’s ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist party, made disparaging comments about Muhammad, to the effect that he married and had sex with an underage girl.

A decade ago, the Islamophobic film “Innocence of Muslims,” which similarly depicted Muhammad as a pedophile, caused not only global protests and riots but also political rows between countries. The alleged child bride of Islam’s prophet is invoked by anti-Muslim critics of all stripes — Hindu nationalists, Christian polemicists and atheists — as well as by some Muslim fundamentalists. However, according to Little’s unpublished doctoral thesis — which he recently defended successfully — the charge is without foundation. According to Little’s findings, the report of Aisha’s young marital age is an eighth-century historical fabrication.

The idea that Muhammad married a child goes back to a report (or set of reports) attributed to Aisha herself, found in the collection of anecdotes known as the hadith — considered by many traditionalist Muslims to be a scriptural source second only to the Quran. In certain texts of the hadith, Aisha was betrothed at 6 years old and married at 9. Today, some Muslim fundamentalists defend and deploy the Aisha marital hadith to justify child marriage in our own time.

Like female circumcision (also called female genital mutilation), there is no simple or direct causal link between child marriage and Islam. The practice is known to occur not just in the Middle East but also in India and sub-Saharan Africa. That it is rooted more in culture than religion per se is indicated by census data showing, for instance, that 84% of child marriages in India take place between Hindus, compared to just 11% for Muslims. (India’s population is 80% Hindu and 14% Muslim, so the rates are similar, with child marriage tracking along local cultural lines as opposed to religious ones.) According to the International Center for Research on Women (a source Little himself referred me to), “no one religious affiliation was associated with child marriage across countries.” Therefore, targeting a particular religion across countries is not an effective way to address early marriage. Even so — and whereas child marriage is relatively uncommon across most of the Islamic world — religion interacts with culture in complex ways and, in at least some Muslim-majority regions, Islam is invoked to rationalize the practice. The religious argument is made that Muhammad was the ideal human exemplar and, as such, anything he did must be considered morally acceptable.

Liberal, modernist and reformist Muslims have long sought to deny the historical authenticity and religious authority of the Aisha marital hadith, while ultraconservative, fundamentalist and extremist elements forcefully defend it. Many moderate traditionalists fall somewhere in between, seeking to affirm the authenticity of the hadith (and the hadith canon overall) even as they discourage child marriage in practice, deeming it to be inappropriate in our modern-day sociohistorical context.

Into this fractious war of ideas now comes Little, a hadith specialist. Working under the supervision of Oxford’s Professor Christopher Melchert — a world-renowned expert in Islamic studies — Little subjects the traditional Islamic sources in general (and the Aisha hadith in particular) to the historical-critical method.

In contrast to traditional religious methods, the historical-critical approach involves using the latest techniques from the modern historian’s toolkit to ascertain historical plausibility or lack thereof. For example, scholars scour the text for historical anachronisms, which would alert them to a fabrication. Readers may be familiar with a similar historical-critical approach applied to biblical materials, popularized among the general public by such scholars as Bart Ehrman, who differentiate between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith, which are not necessarily the same thing.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, some Muslim apologists avidly consume such historical-critical scholarship as it pertains to the Bible and Jesus. Most serious historians, for example, consider the idea of Christ’s divinity and the doctrine of the Trinity as later developments of the Christian tradition. It is not difficult to see why Muslims would be sympathetic to such conclusions. On the other hand, some of these same Muslims may feel uneasy when a similar critical approach is applied to traditional Islamic sources. (Of course, this double-mindedness exists also among some conservative Christian apologists who, for instance, are all too happy to exploit the latest historical-critical findings in regard to the Quran’s transmission history, while at the same time dismissing Ehrman and others.)

Little’s conclusions are far-reaching and will come as welcome news to many Muslims. After analyzing all the various versions of the Aisha marital report, Little concludes the hadith was fabricated “whole cloth” by a narrator named Hisham ibn Urwa, after he relocated to Iraq between the years 754 and 765 CE. Not only would this put the circulation of this report almost a century and a half after the events it purports to describe, but it would also mean it was fabricated in the altogether different environment of Iraq, almost 1,000 miles away from the Arabian city of Medina (where the marriage would have taken place). As it turns out, the fabrication served distinct sectarian and political ends.

Little includes other reports — such as Aisha purportedly playing with dolls in Muhammad’s household — in his overall critical assessment, deeming them to be partisan sectarian and political stories that are historically untrue. In other words, critical historians have little reason to believe Aisha was in fact married as a child.

The findings of Little’s research line up with the work of several modern Muslim scholars and authors who have tackled the same topic before. However, many of these works — though certainly not all of them — have been apologetic in nature, poorly-argued, falling short of serious scholarship. What makes Little’s contribution especially noteworthy is that he argues the case from a rigorous academic perspective, even refining a scholarly methodology known as the “isnad-cum-matn analysis.” This method involves looking for correlations and patterns between the text of a hadith and its chain of transmitters to reconstruct the original from which the other texts disseminate. The process can help identify when a particular report originated (and from whom). Using this Western historical technique, Little’s conclusions vindicate the reformist Muslim position.

It should, of course, be noted that even within the classical Islamic tradition there has always been reason to doubt the Aisha marital hadith. As Little writes in his dissertation, Ibn Urwa — the originator of the report — was considered unreliable even according to traditional criteria, at least after he relocated to Iraq. He was accused of “senility” (a charitable way of explaining a narrator’s unreliable reports) and even of a form of academic deception called “tadlis” in hadith terminology. Tadlis in a hadith does not necessarily mean outright lying or fabrication but typically involves the omission of a flaw in the sourcing, such as by not mentioning a weak link in the chain of transmission so as to imply the hadith’s reliability. At minimum, tadlis is a form of sloppiness in transmission.

Little notes the absence of the marital age reports in the earliest sources, including in certain key biographical and legal works. Ibn Ishaq — Muhammad’s best-known biographer — mentioned nothing about Aisha’s age at marriage; the detail was, however, added later by the historian Ibn Hisham (d. 833 CE). Perhaps more damning is the fact the marital age hadith is absent from the earliest Medinan legal collections, including Imam Malik’s al-Muwatta, even though the latter cites Ibn Urwa dozens of times. As Little writes, “the failure of Malik to cite this hadith suggests not merely that Malik rejected it, but that it was not circulating in Medina at that time. This is especially given that the marital-age hadith has important legal ramifications, and thus would surely have demanded inclusion into a dedicated Madinan collection of Madinan legal Hadith.”

The hadith is also absent from al-Mudawwana, a proto-Maliki collection of Medinan legal transmissions. Indeed, Little writes that, to the best of his knowledge, the earliest Maliki work to cite any version of the marital age hadith appeared “nearly three centuries after the hadith’s initial mass-dissemination in Iraq.” In sum, the early marriage of Aisha is absent from key early sources in the very city where the event would have taken place. Using this argument from silence (i.e., the absence of this report in the early sources), Little concludes this was a story invented in eighth-century Iraq and only later back-projected onto the life story of Muhammad.

This, of course, begs the question: why? According to Little, the claim about Aisha’s age was part of medieval sectarian propaganda, concocted by a Sunni figure to bolster the image of Aisha against Shiite detractors. (Strictly speaking, the terms “Sunni” and “Shiite” only became current later; scholars of this period tend to refer instead to “proto-Sunni” and “proto-Shiite” movements and figures.) This explains why the hadith was fabricated in the Shiite hotbed of Iraq. Aisha, Muhammad’s wife and the daughter of the first “Rightly Guided” Caliph of Sunni Islam, Abu Bakr, had a famous rivalry with the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, the first imam for Shiites and the fourth caliph for Sunnis. Not only did Aisha’s father compete with Ali for the caliphate, but Aisha herself would also later lead an insurrection against Ali.

In subsequent generations, Sunnis and Shiites used rival lineages to claim religious and political authority. In order to elevate Aisha’s status (and their own lineage through her), some Sunnis asserted that she was Muhammad’s favorite and his only virgin wife. As a religious and tribal leader, Muhammad had several wives, most of them divorced or widows from his community; collectively, they were revered as “the Mothers of the Believers.” Aisha’s alleged youth was used to stress her virginal purity — or, rather, her virginal purity was implied by the extremely young age at which she was said to have been married.

Ancient Near Eastern cultures (like many others throughout history and into modernity) prized virginal purity due to the connotation of being free of carnal sin. For instance, both Christians and Muslims have stressed that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a virgin. Accordingly, the Virgin Mary, too, is often taken to have been a young girl when she was engaged and then gave birth to Jesus. Interestingly, Little tells us that “the spread of the marital-age hadith [in regard to Aisha] prompted some Shiites to assert that Fatima” — the prophet’s daughter, revered especially in Shiite (but also Sunni) Islam — “had been married at age nine as well.” In other words, in the absence of any societal opprobrium attached to early marriage, there were several reasons to exaggerate Aisha’s young age.

In addition to Little’s analysis, we might also reason that Aisha’s alleged betrothal and marriage at 6 and 9 years old, respectively, would have placed her in Muhammad’s household at an early age, competing with Ali who, at least according to traditional accounts, also entered Muhammad’s household at a young age. According to early Islamic belief, Muhammad’s household — and its descendants — were to be honored by the Muslim community. The earlier someone entered into Muhammad’s house, the more honor accrued to that person (and, of course, to anyone claiming descent from them).

Later generations of Muslims competed with each other over their claims of closeness to Muhammad through their respective lineages. Those who called themselves the Partisans of Ali stressed their connection to Muhammad through Ali, whereas some of their competitors claimed a rival lineage through Aisha, Muhammad’s (favorite) wife. Entire caliphates (and counter-caliphates) were rooted in such lofty claims of lineage, which would have also created a strong incentive to exaggerate the merits of those upon whom such claims were being made. All of this lends support to Little’s thesis: The Aisha hadith is not historical fact but, rather, sectarian propaganda meant to elevate the status of Muhammad’s third wife by stressing her purity and placing her inside the prophetic household from a very young age.

Though many Muslims will celebrate Little’s conclusions in regard to this particular hadith, others will no doubt be concerned about the wider ramifications. Here, we must understand that the vast majority of conservative traditionalists are not actually interested in defending child marriage as such — and their insistence on upholding the Aisha hadith should not be seen in this light.

Instead, the principal motivating factor appears to be a desire to defend the hadith canon in general against the findings of the modern historical-critical method, which have been aimed squarely at the traditional Islamic sources. Commenting on the issue of Aisha’s age in a 2018 Facebook post, the conservative Muslim scholar Yasir Qadhi wrote that such “doubts” were part a wider “attack” on the Sahih Bukhari hadith collection, considered by traditionalist Muslims as second only to the Quran.

Sahih Bukhari is widely regarded as the most reliable and revered book of hadith and a mainstay of Sunni orthodoxy. The Aisha marital hadith is found in it, which is why the debate over Aisha’s age can become so rancorous: An attack on the Aisha hadith is seen as an attack on Sahih Bukhari itself and the hadith in general. The Muslim scholar Yasmin Amin makes an interesting point, however, noting that the report in question is not technically a hadith at all, since it is ultimately attributed to Aisha and not Muhammad. She makes the argument that traditionalist Muslims can and should differentiate between prophetic and non-prophetic reports found in Sahih Bukhari. Yet some traditionalists see this in turn as an attack on the alleged religious consensus on the overall reliability of the two Sahihs (Sahih Bukhari and another almost equally revered collection called Sahih Muslim).

The perceived hostility of critical scholarly inquiry can be seen in Qadhi’s rhetorical flourish: “Such attacks are not even equivalent to a gust of wind that attempts to blow down a fortress.” Yet the truth is that this gust of wind may grow into a veritable hurricane as it comes bearing down on the fortress of Islamic sources, including those long considered unassailable by Muslims.

On the one hand, the Quran has fared relatively well against this barrage — or gust of wind (pick your metaphor). Most academic experts consider it to indeed go back to Muhammad, with its first major standardization taking place during the lifetime of his companions. This is so even if some of the details of the Quran’s complex textual history may differ from traditional narratives.

On the other hand, the hadith — the large and amorphous collection of reports attributed to (and about) Muhammad — has faced withering criticism from historical-critical scholars. Where the default position is that the Quranic pronouncements go back to Muhammad, the reverse holds for the hadith: The consensus among historical-critical scholars is that these reports do not reliably go back to Muhammad. Whereas most Islamic modernists take a similarly cautious or skeptical approach toward the hadith (and espouse a Quran-centric approach), traditionalist scholars consider the hadith to be a second scripture alongside the Quran (and thus feel the need to defend it fiercely against outside attack).

Most contemporary Muslims, however, appear to take a middle-ground approach, selectively affirming those hadiths that line up with Quranic principles, human rationality and common sense. There is an early historical precedent for this modern approach. Similar views were expressed, for example, by early Hanafi and Mutazili thinkers. From this perspective, many Muslims today will not be averse to moving away from the Aisha hadith, especially given how poorly it reflects on Muhammad (at least to modern eyes). Amin’s suggestion that the hadith is not actually a (prophetic) hadith to begin with may also open up further room for theological flexibility.

Debates about Aisha’s age are thus less concerned with the practical issue of child marriage and more about theoretical issues pertaining to scriptural canonicity. Little’s intervention reinforces the Western scholarly consensus and sides with those skeptical of the hadith. Everything scholars have learned from memory science and the study of oral societies — alongside the textual evidence itself — tells us that the hadith underwent rapid mutation in its early stages, rendering any ascription to Muhammad himself highly doubtful. As Ehrman puts it, it is actually much worse than the analogy usually given of Chinese whispers or the game of telephone.

Jonathan Brown, a Muslim academic at Georgetown University and author of two popular introductory books on hadith (one used at a graduate level), is a notable dissenter against this consensus. He argues that Harald Motzki, a towering figure of the field, successfully “demonstrates that Common Links [a technical term for the originators of hadith] are much earlier than previously thought, dating some to the time of the Companions in the second half of the seventh century.” Little disagrees with this assessment, suggesting that “Brown’s claims about the redating of [Common Links] back to the time of the Companions seem like exaggerations.”

Little’s dissertation overviews the hadith debate in Western academia and reasserts the consensus against its historical reliability.

Yet Brown’s dissent seems based more on a critique of the historical-critical method in general and so is actually — at least in some sense — a critique from outside the Western tradition. After all, Brown questions the very applicability of the historical-critical method, which he sees as a distinctly Western construct and a cultural imposition on Muslims. Whether one agrees with Brown’s formidable (but debatable) critique, the point is that the consensus of historical-critical scholars — one of skepticism toward hadith — holds. “As it stands,” writes Little, “any given hadith (sahih or otherwise)” — and he includes mass-transmitted (mutawatir) hadiths in this assessment — “should be presumed to be inauthentic or unreliable, until the contrary can be demonstrated.”

This viewpoint does not necessitate that scholars posit mass forgery (although this did take place, as even the Islamic tradition admits) or some sort of global conspiracy. Instead, there were several less sinister factors also at play, with many hadiths being the products of pious but dubious ascription, guesswork and faulty memory. More to the point, the primarily oral culture of early Islam would not have yet possessed the same understanding of precise transmission as would later develop with the rise and dominance of the written word. The early and dedicated projects to compile the Quran into a codex “between the two covers” bucked this trend and contrasted with the case of the hadith, which was recorded in writing only after a much longer period of oral fluidity.

Andreas Görke, another towering figure of the field of hadith studies, sums it up as follows: “While traditional Muslim scholarship assumed that the hadith critics by and large had been able to identify those hadiths that indeed constituted authentic reports of statements and deeds of the Prophet, scholars following the academic approach more or less agree that it is virtually impossible to securely date specific traditions to the time of the Prophet or the first generation of believers.”

As noted above, some Muslim apologists will no doubt recoil at these findings even as they celebrate Ehrman and historical-critical scholarship as it pertains to the Bible. For example, one prominent Muslim-run YouTube show invites one biblical scholar after another to critique the Bible, whereas the host and his Muslim guests simultaneously take a completely naive view of the traditional Islamic sources.

Little’s dissertation surveys the scholarly debates over the historical reliability of the traditional Islamic sources and the hadith in particular. Only after first establishing a general skepticism toward hadith in general does Little then turn to the specific Aisha marital age hadiths, to show why they too should be considered historically unreliable.

Yet one should not deem the hadith to have no historical value whatsoever. As Little himself affirms, the hadiths tell us much about the early Muslim communities and the debates in which they partook. In the case of the Aisha hadith, we learn from Little’s analysis about the sectarian environment in which the report was generated.

Although the Aisha hadith was produced for sectarian reasons, it would soon thereafter be used in a legal capacity to defend early marriage and circumvent the religious mandate — also narrated in the hadith literature! — necessitating a female’s consent for marriage. Today, we may say the Aisha hadith has long since lost its original sectarian purpose and is now only used to defend the legality of child marriage. For this reason, many reformist Muslims will welcome Little’s conclusions and use them to push back against fundamentalist clerics who defend child marriage.

If questioning the authenticity of the Aisha marital hadith is one way to disempower child marriage advocates, Little notes there is also a potentially easier argument to make. In the pre-modern, pre-literate and stateless society of seventh-century Arabia, “it is extremely unlikely that Aisha would have known — or even could have known — her own age.” This is borne out by numerous studies of pre-literate societies even in our own day, as Little documents.

The attribution of this young age to Aisha should thus be understood as reflecting not chronological or historical accuracy but, rather, a symbolic concern for her virginity, chastity and purity.

All this is to say nothing of the wildly conflicting reports about Aisha’s age in the hadith literature itself, which claim variously that Aisha was betrothed at 6, “6 or 7,” 7, 9, or even 10 —consummating her marriage at 9, “9 or 10,” or 10. Chronological historical reconstructions have placed the marital age of Aisha anywhere from 12 to 19 (or even older). Little rightfully critiques these reconstructions as hopeless due to the conflicting nature of the source material, which in itself reinforces the general skepticism about Aisha’s reported age. Historical-critical scholars have long noted the unreliability of the chronological ordering of the events described in the early sources.

Ages and dates were often selected for symbolic reasons rather than historical accuracy. Muhammad was said to have been 40 when he received his first divine revelation. Forty is an important number in ancient Near Eastern societies, connoting when a man reaches full rational maturity and wisdom. Similarly, Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, was said to have been 40 when she married Muhammad — a highly implausible claim, given she went on to have at least six children. (The discrepancies in the reported number of her children tells us more about our sources and their reliability — or lack thereof.) If Khadija’s age at marriage was exaggerated in one direction to stress her seniority, Aisha’s age was exaggerated in the other direction to stress her youth and virginity.

We also know from the fabrication/origination of the Aisha hadith in the eighth century that the idea of what we today call “child marriage” was not considered socially unacceptable in its time. If it had been, Muslim traditionists would not have ascribed such a report to their own prophet. In fact, as Little notes, menarche (the first occurrence of menstruation) was “the average and/or minimum age of marriage for girls in Ancient and Mediaeval societies around the world.”

Even though the historical evidence suggests Muhammad did not in fact marry Aisha at this young age, we commit the fallacy of presentism by foisting modern ideals and sociocultural norms onto past societies.

There is, of course, an undeniably strong element of Western cultural domination and ideological imposition permeating this entire discourse. And yet, the vast majority of reasonable Muslims today would not wish to marry off their own daughters at such a young age. They realize the changed sociohistorical circumstances, which must be factored into any reasonable interpretation of Islam or Islamic law. From this perspective, even a conservative figure like Qadhi agrees that, though we should not impugn entire societies of the past, a marital age limit in our current social and cultural environment makes all the sense in the world.

While I personally am convinced by the arguments raised by Little, they are ultimately only the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute in academic and religious circles on this highly contentious issue. Human rights advocates may be more concerned with the particular on-the-ground issue of child marriage, but for the religious actors themselves there is something more at stake. As modern historical-critical scholarship comes bearing down on traditional Islamic sources, a sense of apprehension is palpable among at least some Muslim scholars and clerics. The battle lines are drawn between Islamic reformists on the one hand and conservatives, as well as fundamentalists, on the other. Whether or not they like it, historical-critical scholarship will be used in this war of religious ideas, either as a weapon or as a target.

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