Last year, Nupur Sharma, the former spokesperson for India’s ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ignited a firestorm across the Muslim world when she went on live television and insinuated that the Prophet Muhammad was a pedophile.
Some 400 million people took to the streets in cities from Tehran to Jeddah and Karachi to protest against the insult. Nevertheless, media commentators sympathetic to the BJP doubled down, arguing that Sharma was correct, Muhammad was unequivocally a pedophile, and anyone who supported him supported pedophilia.
Obviously, this discussion was not in good faith. The Hindutva-inspired government is far better known for discriminatory citizenship laws and bulldozing homes in Muslim-majority communities than fostering interfaith dialogue with India’s Sikh, Muslim and Christian populations. Nevertheless, this does not completely delegitimize talking about the issue. A similar discussion in Europe would likely violate laws against the “disparaging of religion” — such as those established by a European Court of Human Rights case in Austria that recently ruled it was illegal to insult Muhammad. Yet an informed and nuanced debate among Muslims themselves would allow us to better reckon with the Prophet’s legacy, and whether this type of legal decision serves our modern world.
If there is enough evidence that Muhammad married a 6-year-old girl and consummated the marriage three years later, why should this not be the subject of discussion and critical inquiry? Many countries, such as Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, are navigating questions about the consequences of child marriage and abuse. While New Lines recently published an essay highlighting Oxford historian Joshua Little’s argument that reports of Aisha’s young age were largely fabricated for sectarian reasons, many Muslims are nevertheless more likely to accept traditionalist arguments and might dismiss such academic scholarship. Openly discussing what the prophet’s actions were and whether they would be acceptable today can better inform debates across the Muslim world, as governments consider the ways that their interpretations of religious laws impact the lives of women and children.
Let us begin with the sources. According to the ninth-century collection of Sunni Islam’s foremost Hadith authority, the Imam Muhammad bin Ismail al-Bukhari, which is popularly known as “Sahih al-Bukhari,” or “Bukhari’s Sound Hadith,” Aisha was 6 years old when her “nikah” (marriage) with Muhammad was officially contracted, and 9 years old when it was consummated. Some commentators, such as the right-wing author Douglas Murray, argue that this is sufficient proof that Muhammad is, in today’s terms, a pedophile, though Murray’s own analysis was more nuanced than simply condemning the prophet.
“Of course, most of us would also remember that in the past different norms existed, and we should try to understand their context,” he wrote. “But deciding that nothing critical can be said of such a person or set of actions is a problem, isn’t it?”
Others, such as the American Muslim scholar of Islam, Hamza Yusuf, argue that our current interpretations of childhood are extremely modern. Yusuf suggests that when lifespans were generally shorter, it was normal to marry and shoulder the burdens of adulthood at a young age. The Georgetown professor Jonathan Brown has made similar arguments, provoking extensive criticism. A key reason many Muslim scholars hesitate to challenge the authenticity of the hadith itself is that they do not want to challenge the authenticity of Bukhari. In their view, this would open the door to dismantling a key canon of Sunni Islam.
However, according to the Hadith tradition, this is not the full picture. As the 14th-century Hadith specialist Ibn al-Athir outlines in his work “The Compendium of Sources in Hadith of the Messenger,” which compiles all of the hadiths in the most popular collections (including those of Imams Nasai, Tirmidh and Abu Dawud, Malik’s “Muwatta” and, of course, the two collections of Bukhari and Muslim), different narrations of the same hadith show Aisha giving herself different ages. Some state her age as 6, others 7, and, while some discuss marriage at 9, others describe Muhammad contracting the marriage two years prior to emigrating to Medina and consummating the marriage much later. According to these pre-modern narrations, she could have either married at 6 or 7 and consummated her marriage at 9, or married at 9 and consummated the marriage three or four years later, at 12 or 13.
While it is significant that this is a hadith transmitted by Aisha herself, the different and contradictory numbers are a sign of “idtirab,” or confusion between the narrators, making it “malul” (defective). Because of these inconsistencies, this hadith is not substantial enough to offer a conclusion on its own, as it is “khabar ahad” (from a single transmission), as opposed to “mutawatir” (mass transmitted). As such, it is not definitive as evidence and may be subjected to critique.
There are additional inconsistencies. Ibn Hajar, another famous commentator and exegete of hadiths, shows that within the Bukhari collection, references to the time frames between the marriage and consummation are inconsistent, possibly by as much as four years: up to two years before and two years after the migration. He also points out that some scholars suggest that Muhammad initiated his union with Aisha, whereas others say it was suggested to him to marry a year after his wife Khadija passed away. (Khadija, his former business partner as well as wife, was older than the prophet and already a widow when they were married; in fact, Aisha was the only wife of the prophet who had not been previously married, which is hardly the behavior of a pedophile, who, by definition, would prefer prepubescent partners.)
This brings us to another conflict in the early sources. Some reports state that one source, Urwah, narrates from Aisha, while the majority claim that it is Aisha herself. While some reconcile this as two different hadiths, other scholars, such as Ibn al-Qattan, raise the objection that Urwah’s son, Hisham, who later narrated the same hadith, had suffered deterioration of his memory, evident in the many errors that had crept into his works. But as there are other narrators with the same version of events, merely discounting Hisham is not sufficient to undermine his argument.
There are other relevant hadiths in Bukhari’s own collection, such as where Aisha says she was aware of both her parents’ conversion to Islam and the persecution of Muslims in Mecca. This latter event is well documented and dated: After the prophet spent three years privately preaching the Quran, he began spreading the religion publicly in 615 CE, and the backlash quickly followed. Yet Aisha’s marriage to the prophet was not until the 15th year of this mission, a full 12 years later. If she were aware of the early persecution at the time it was happening, she could not have been under 15 years of age when she was married — and is likely to have been even older. This brings us to the importance of including historical sources in the analysis of hadiths.
To illustrate why Aisha’s age is a thorny issue in Muslim theology, it is necessary to examine some complex debates on the sources and analyze how their veracity has been debated, challenged or accepted. There are disputes over the age of Aisha when she embraced Islam, her age when she married and the age of her passing, and the conflicts are not merely resolved by assessing the reliability of one hadith over another. On the contrary, the issues with the many and varied sources are layered and multifaceted.
While the Hadith refers to the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions (sometimes also known as “athar”), “sirah” refers to the genre of prophetic biographical works as a whole, while “tarikh” is the accepted facts of history. Hadith is subject to interpretation. The sirah, in certain matters, is accepted as more authoritative, such as well-known, documented facts in the traditions. An example of this is the fact that Aisha was among the first converts to Islam, to which we will return later.
A hadith’s reliability is first assessed based on analyzing its “sanad,” or chain of custody: the chain of people who relayed what they were taught, and how they passed on what they learned about Muhammad’s teachings and actions. The chains are divided into two broad categories: mass transmitted or a single transmission. Something that is mass transmitted is so widely known that it is basically accepted as true; to Muslim scholars, disputing it would be akin to spreading conspiracy theories, similar to denying the Holocaust or that COVID-19 killed millions of people around the world. Meanwhile, a singular chain of transmission, whose veracity relies on the reliability of each narrator in a long line, as opposed to the propagation of their message, is easier to dispute and harder to prove.
There should not be any breaks in the chain of custody. Narrators, those who relay the hadith to one another, should be contemporaries of the same historic era and ideally should have met. Additionally, a narrator must be reliable. This could be assessed in many ways. First, would someone vouch for them? If they were unknown or considered to be dubious, they may have lacked moral principles, or “adala,” and therefore would not be deemed trustworthy in their narration of prophetic hadiths. If they consistently made errors, perhaps mixing up matters as a result of old age or making mistakes that were caught when their narration was compared to that of others, their reports might be collected, but not relied on alone.
Additionally, the hadith should not conflict with better-established reports or contain what were described as “ilal,” or hidden defects. These defects were often identified by a “hafiz,” or Hadith master, who could identify a defective hadith the way a money changer can identify fake coins, or a chicken sexer can determine the sex of a baby chick. A hafiz might, for example, use the religious teachings of one of Muhammad’s companions to demonstrate that they taught or acted contrary to a prophetic teaching that they had allegedly adhered to in the past. One particularly relevant example comes from Zayn al-Din Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali. The early Hadith master Abu Isa al-Tirmidhi suggests that Aisha instructed Muhammad that the marriage should not be performed without the presence of a guardian, or “wali.” Ibn Rajab contradicts this point with the fact that Aisha was known to have arranged the marriage of her own niece without any such guardian being present. As a result, he considers the narration defective, and therefore inconsistent and unsound.
But while a hadith is shaped by the reliability of the narration, the sirah is generally seen as the genuine substance of Muhammad’s life story. (Ibn Taymiyya, the influential 13-14th century theologian, ruled that a hadith in conflict with well-established sirah should be rejected as unsound.) The 8th-century historian Ibn Ishaq, who wrote one of the earliest well-established biographies of the prophet, as well as Hadith specialists such as Ibn Abdul Barr, discuss the many reports that Aisha accepted Islam after her father, Abu Bakr, embraced the faith and thereby became the first Muslim convert. This implies that Aisha would have had to be old enough to understand the religion that she was converting to, several years before meeting Muhammad for the purposes of marriage.
This is painstakingly demonstrated by Salah al-Din al-Idlibi, a contemporary Hadith and traditionalist scholar from Syria who has written a pamphlet elaborating on multiple reports that Aisha must have been older, speculating that she was closer to 17 or even 19 years old at the time that she consummated her marriage with Muhammad. Given that, in popular estimates, Muhammad’s mission in Mecca lasted 13 years, and Aisha married in the second year of the emigration or “hijrah” (from which Muslims traditionally have dated their calendars), she would have been at least 15, if not 19, given that she entered the faith and was not born into it. According to the very early Hadith scholar Abu Nuaym of Isfahan, who authored “Marifat al-Sahaba” (“Knowledge of the Prophetic Companions”), Aisha was born at least 17 years before the emigration and 10 years before the beginning of Islam. His analysis goes on to detail that Muhammad’s mission to Mecca actually lasted 17 years, which would make Aisha closer to 19 than 9 years old.
This is supported by Idlibi, who argues that Aisha would treat the wounded on the battlefield, which, if true, would point to her being much older, as 14-year-olds were seen as too young to go to battle. He also emphasizes that he is not concerned with whether this aligns with today’s values, he is simply discussing what is and is not historically accurate. Even medieval writers, such as Abd al-Aziz al-Lamati, who accepted the hadith, acknowledged that there was reason for dispute, as there were several different ages mentioned, which did not necessarily align with the rest of this story.
Do contemporary Muslims have to take the hadith in Bukhari as “gospel”? A single transmitted hadith is at best “dhanni,” or presumptively correct, but far from “ilm qatti,” or certainly true. This is a distinction that many well-known scholars, such as Imam al-Nawawi and Ibn al-Athir, made very early on, drawing the line between that which is self-evident and that which, like the hadith narrations, should be subject to scrutiny, or “nadhar.”
Historically, rejecting facts that cannot be confirmed or independently verified held no consequences for someone’s faith. It is not a Muslim’s duty to believe or investigate this, nor is it an essential teaching of Islamic creed or “aqida.” Nevertheless, many Muslims — particularly in the West — find it difficult to engage with this process of critical inquiry and instead feel the need to defend what they see as Muhammad’s actions, though there are exceptions. For example, the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research has published several pieces engaging with the debate. One highlights the work of Idlibi and his critical approach. Another acknowledges the conflict in the sources, stating that while Hadith scholars may have accepted the narration of Aisha being 9 at the time of consummation, they simultaneously transmitted the historical facts contradicting it. The example used is of Ibn Kathir, with the argument that he simply didn’t realize that he was wrong about the historical facts, and this doesn’t negate the hadith. In this case, therefore, the hadith should be given primacy over the historical “facts.”
What does this mean for the legacy of Aisha herself? Aisha was not meek, nor did she slip into the shadow of her husband. Early Muslim scholars considered her to be one of the most knowledgeable scholars of her time, described by Ibn al-Attar as having unique characteristics among the women of her era, including, but not limited to, being able to stand her ground with Muhammad in arguments. She was a critic of hadiths, often correcting others who reported statements they misheard from Muhammad, and was the first to call superstitious narrations into question. For example, when she heard the view that coming into contact with a woman would break someone’s prayer, Aisha refuted it with accounts of praying alongside Muhammad, as well as sitting in front of him when he prayed so that he would move her out of the way — before simply continuing his prayer.
She was a scholar, whose views on Islamic laws are given precedence in correcting others and lead Muslims in times of tumult and civil strife. As we discuss her legacy, we should not focus on her as a child but as a political leader and a role model among women, one who would be at the forefront of the debate over how to recognize women’s rights while adhering to Islam.
Yet how then should we integrate this knowledge of the sources and Aisha’s history with our present-day lives? Contemporary scholars hold that “fiqh” (Islamic jurisprudence) requires that guardians must act in the best interests of the people whom they are looking after. Sometimes this means leaders looking after the interests of their citizens. At other times, it is parents looking after the best interests of their children.
With this in mind, we can see how scholars from different religious traditions support legislation to eradicate child marriage. One of the most notable examples is Hatem al-Awni, a scholar and Hadith specialist in Saudi Arabia who has written extensively about how Islamic jurisprudence can be used to tackle this problem. Ibn Uthaymin, a conservative jurist and former grand mufti of Saudi Arabia (d. 2001), issued a fatwa stating that a girl who could not give consent could not marry, as Muhammad had said that their consent should be sought, and this is meaningless if they cannot understand it. (This didn’t mean he forbade marrying a teenager in principle, as he didn’t specify an age; elsewhere, he implied that consent was possible at age 9.)
While Muslim jurists throughout history have debated whether this command was binding, Ibn Qayyim, a student of Ibn Taymiyya writing in the 14th century, said that interpreting Muhammad’s teachings in any other way would be far-fetched: It was a binding command from Muhammad that you cannot marry anyone off without their consent.
Over the last three years, authorities in both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have banned marriage below the ages of 16 and 18, depending on the circumstances. In his notable and widely respected work on fiqh, “Mawsua al-Fiqhiyya” (Encyclopedia of Islamic jurisprudence, published in 2010), the late Syrian jurist Wahba Zuhayli documented both Islamic law in theory and the reasoning behind legislation adopted by the state on matters of personal law. The relevant section opens with the opinions of Ibn Shibrima and Uthman Batti — very early jurists from the second generation of Muslims — forbidding minors from being married. He discusses dissenting views but then concludes that the relevant ages for marriage are 18 for a man and 17 for a woman. Yet the current regime in Syria, which hardly has a track record for safeguarding human rights, passed legislation in 2021 to the effect that, while the age of marital consent is 18 and 17 (for men and women respectively), exceptions can be made by judges, permitting marriages as young as 15 and 13, if cohabitation or sexual relations have already taken place — effectively circumventing the law.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, another country that has struggled with child marriage, the charismatic Sufi scholar Habib Ali Jifri has also issued edicts forbidding marriage to girls who are young, even if physically “mature” (that is, having started menstruating), due to the potential for harm, a stance that the government has adopted formally as law — though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Many scholars from both Yemen and Pakistan are working together to issue fatwas aligned with the Hanafi school, one of the four main schools of Sunni Islam, which would allow the state to outlaw such marriages. While this is in no way an exhaustive survey of Islamic scholars using jurisprudence to take a stand for women’s rights, it shows the way that many are parsing the textual tradition to address the abuse of young girls and the harms of child marriage.
Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.