The Marriage of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her)

A question is occasionally raised by some people regarding the appropriateness of the marriage between the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his wife Aisha, as the age of Aisha at the time of the marriage is reported as being around nine years of age.

This article aims to address this question directly. The following brief discussion explains how this question is in reality, rarely raised and debated on the basis of any broad and balanced assessment of the facts. The article tries to offer a wider perspective and clarify the common types of misconception encountered regarding this issue.

However, it should also be clear that this article does not necessarily advise that a person marry at this young age, especially in any country where it is illegal to do so, rather it seeks to simply clarify why Islam permits (but does not require) one to marry at this early age.

To begin, it should be remembered that the marriage between the Prophet (peace be upon him) and Aisha was considered as normal in all the major world religions and cultures at that time and for many centuries later. Thus, both the Catholic Church and the Jewish faith considered early marriage as acceptable for a young lady, even though it may not be considered acceptable by Western society today.

The simple explanation for this is that in authoritative Christian and Jewish sources, Mary the mother of Jesus, was married to Joseph when she was around twelve years of age.[i]

If the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was beyond what could possibly be considered as acceptable, because the bride was below sixteen, the current minimum age for marriage in the UK, then the same objection may be levelled in the case of Mary.

It is also perhaps revealing to note, that whilst the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) seems to have been the subject of criticism in some quarters, one would perhaps have thought that at least some critique would also have been advanced in the case of Mary’s early marriage. Instead, we usually find a furore in one case and near pin drop silence in the other.

Notwithstanding the sanction of the three major monotheistic religions indicating that there is nothing untoward in early marriage, it is often assumed that only at a minimum age of sixteen, should it be considered right and acceptable to marry.

On this specific point, it can be argued that this age of sixteen does not have any special basis for preference over other ages. Surely sixteen is an arbitrary choice. Why sixteen and not fifteen as in France, or thirteen as in Spain? As for the monotheistic religions such as Christianity, it seems that they generally based the age of marriage upon the spouses reaching the age of puberty.

It is also important to remember that this type of early marriage at a young age, from an Islamic legal point of view, is not prescribed; rather it is at the discretion of the individuals involved. Thus, currently Muslim marriages are usually conducted above the age of sixteen, as is the practice in many Muslim majority countries.[ii]

Additionally, the wisdom of all three monotheistic religions permitting early marriage is more clearer when one takes into consideration that historically there was a time, for example in the middle ages and earlier, when life expectancy for an individual was around 20-30 years of age.[iii]

Thus, having marriage earlier also facilitated having children at an earlier age. Consequently, it can be argued that having the option of marriage at an early age, was not just a lifestyle choice, rather it was in some cases, a matter of real practical importance and perhaps even survival for the individual and society as a whole.

Similarly, even today, in certain parts of the world where life expectancy is low, for example in parts of Africa, such pressing needs can still exist for marriage at an early age. Islam, being a practical way of life, is sufficiently flexible to accommodate this genuine human need. Thus it permits such a marriage, whilst at the same time not prescribing it, as befitting a faith for all times and all climes.

The cultural and societal contexts with reference to the marriage of Aisha are also key factors in helping us to understand the issue from a broader perspective. The early local Arabian community, which had initially opposed the Prophet of Islam virtually every step of the way during his mission to propagate Islam, never once raised the issue of his marriage to Aisha as being anything out of the ordinary.

It is also pertinent to reflect on the point that the Prophet (peace be upon him) and Aisha began their husband and wife relationship only after she had reached puberty. In many cultures around the world, puberty is held as the normal changeover point to adulthood. The exact age at which puberty occurs varies from individual to individual and can start from the age of eight for girls.[iv]

Additionally, it is also clearly indicated in the Hadith traditions on the authority of Aisha herself, that in the custom, tradition and norms of her society, a girl was considered to have reached puberty and attained womanhood at the age of nine.[v] Consequently, it is self-evident that the concept of marriage at this young age, seen from the perspective and context of Arabia, was a part of the normative practice for that society and culture.

From a scientific perspective, empirical research and evidence related to this issue found in the social sciences, such as anthropology, offers a broader and more balanced understanding of the matter. Expert analysis establishes very clearly that, no individual has the right to make any moral judgement on the sexual behaviour and practice which is found in differing cultures and societies.

This point is summed up in the Encyclopedia Britannica in the following unequivocal words:

“In conclusion, the cardinal lesson of anthropology is that no type of sexual behaviour or attitude has a universal, inherent social or psychological value for good or evil - the whole meaning and value of any expression of sexuality is determined by the social context within which it occurs.” [vi] [Emphasis supplied]

Similarly, John M. G. Barclay, Professor of Divinity at Durham University, has indicated in his work entitled “Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews”, that social factors are clearly linked to why early marriage was commonly found in the Christian and Jewish communities in the Roman Empire. He also goes on to note that the majority of girls at puberty would be married:

“…the age categories we place ourselves in, or are placed by others, are manifestly social constructs. In the Greek and Roman worlds, at puberty a boy became a youth and a girl in most cases, a wife.” [vii]. [Emphasis supplied]

The widespread presence and indeed customary practice of early marriage in this historical context, is also stated by professor Guglielmo Cavallo in his book “The Byzantines”:

“…childhood came to an abrupt end with the onset of puberty, which was usually followed by betrothal and marriage. Early marriage and procreation of children was the norm in Byzantium…” [viii] [Emphasis supplied]

Similarly, within an English context, early marriage was also found to occur around the age of puberty and sometimes even before puberty, as mentioned by Dr Jennifer C. Ward, senior lecturer of medieval history at the University of London in her book "English Noblewomen in the Later Middle Ages":

If any marriage took place before the age of seven, the partners had to confirm their consent at maturity. The Church’s doctrine on marriage was accepted by the lay authorities, but betrothals and marriages did occasionally take place before the parties were seven years old. Richard Neville was aged six when he married Anne Beachamp, the daughter of Richard Earl of Warwick, a marriage which resulted in him succeeding to the Warwick earldom in 1449. [ix] [Emphasis supplied]

In conclusion, we can regard the marriage of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to Aisha from both a religious and non-religious perspective, as being within the normal practice of human society and in its own cultural context- an unremarkable and ordinary event. Rather, to construe his marriage otherwise, is patently untenable in the face of the well documented practice of early marriage found in history spanning different eras, religions, cultures and communities. It has also been established that the very normalcy of such early marriages in their own social contexts, is itself a proof of their validity and acceptability in accordance to contemporary social science.

Consequently, to single out the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad (peace upon him) to Aisha for criticism, which it sometimes has been, especially in recent times, seems not only unjustified, but perhaps wittingly or otherwise, may also reveal an underlying cultural bias. It is hoped that this brief article has provided an alternative and a more balanced perspective to help promote understanding of the issue and remove such misconceptions.

[i] See for instance Catholic Encyclopaedia, see: . Jewish law also finds nothing untoward in early marriage, as articulated by leading Jewish legal authorities such as Maimonides, see Jewish Law in Legal History and the Modern World, by B.S. Jackson, 1980, page 131.

[ii] Pakistan’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance 1961.

[iii] Encyclopaedia of Women’s Health, Springer, 2004, page 432 states: “...during the Roman Empire life expectancy was estimated at 22 years. In the Middle Ages…life expectancy in Europe was no more than 30 years".

[iv]For example in Adolescence by L. Steinberg, McGraw Hill, 1993, page 32 it mentions: "…the onset of puberty can occur as early as 8 years in girls and 9.5 in boys, or as late as 13  in girls  and 13.5 in boys...."

[v] English Translation of Jamia Sahih at-Tirmidhi, Darussalaam publishers, 2007, vol. 2, page 480: The Chapters on Marriage, [Hadith 1109] … Aisha has said: “When a girl reaches nine years of age she is a woman”.

وقال أحمد و إسحق إذا بلغت اليتيمة تسع سنين فزوجت فرضيت فالنكاح جائز ولا خيار لها إذا أدركت واحتجا بحديث عائشة أن النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم بنى بها وهي بنت تسع سنين وقد قالت عائشة إذا بلغت الجارية تسع سنين فهي امرأة.

See also Fath al-Bari (an Arabic commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari) by Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali: The Book of Prayer;

(يقطع الصلاة المرأة والكلب والحمار):

...ويقول : إذا أطلقت المرأة لم يرد بها إلا البالغ ، وزينب حينئذ كانت صغيرة ، والصغيرة لا

تسمى امرأة في الحال ؛ ولهذا قَالَتْ عَائِشَة : إذا بلغت الجارية تسع سنين فَهِيَّ امرأة.

[vi] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010, vol. 27, page 246-7.

[vii] John M. G. Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, Mohr Seibeck, 2011, page 260.

[viii] Guglielmo Cavallo, The Byzantines, University of Chicago Press, 1997, page 121.

[ix] Jennifer C. Ward, English Noblewomen in the Later Middle Ages, Routledge, 1992, page 13.

Fiqh Council Birmingham Resource Library Article 2015