Qualities of Aisha and her role in Islam
In any discussion on the age of Aisha (ra: may Allah be pleased with her) at the time of her marriage with the Holy Prophet Muhammad (may peace and the blessings of Allah be upon him), it is of the greatest relevance to note the pivotal role she played as a teacher, exponent and interpreter of the religion of Islam. Aisha was an exceptionally intelligent and astute woman, a young prodigy, and this was the main reason why she was got married to the Holy Prophet, as is clearly proved by events after the Holy Prophet’s life. She entered his household, shortly after his emigration to Madina, just at the time when the teachings of Islam in all fields of life for the Muslim community were starting to be revealed to the Holy Prophet and demonstrated by him by his example and practice. An intellectually gifted person was required who would have daily contact with the Holy Prophet at the closest and most personal level, so as to absorb the teachings that he was giving on all aspects of life by his words and actions. Such a person would need to possess the following qualities:
- an excellent, precise memory to retain a vast amount of detail accurately,
- the understanding to grasp the significance and the principles of the teachings,
- powers of reasoning, criticism and deduction to resolve problems on the basis of those teachings,
- the skills to convey knowledge to a wide range of audience,
- and, finally, have the prospect of living for a considerable period of time after the death of the Holy Prophet in order to spread his message to distant generations.
That Aisha possessed all these qualities and carried out this mission is an absolutely positive and undeniable, historical fact. After the Holy Prophet’s death, she acted as a teacher and interpreter of Islam, providing guidance to even the greatest of the male Companions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. They made a special point of going to her to gain knowledge and seek her opinion. A vast number of sayings and actions of the Holy Prophet are reported from her in books of Hadith. She not only quoted his sayings and reported her observations of events, but interpreted them to provide solutions to questions. Whenever necessary, she corrected the views of the greatest of the Companions of the Holy Prophet. She made rulings and judgments on which Islamic law is based.
The following are two examples of what the Holy Prophet’s male Companions said about her:
“Abu Musa said: Whenever there was any hadith that was difficult [to understand] for us, the Companions of the Messenger of Allah, and we asked Aisha we always found that she had knowledge about that hadith.”
“Musa ibn Talha said: I never saw anyone more eloquent than Aisha.” 
In the famous compilation of the lives of saints in Islam, Tadhkirat-ul-Auliya, the author Farid-ud-Din Attar, who lived eight centuries ago, introduces the life of the early female saint Rabia of Basra as follows:
“If anyone says, ‘Why have you included Rabia in the rank of men?’, my answer is that the Prophet himself said, ‘God does not regard your outward forms’. … Moreover, if it is proper to derive two-thirds of our religion from Aisha, surely it is permissible to take religious instruction from a handmaid of Aisha.” 
It is thus recognised, from the earliest times in Islam, that some two-thirds of Islamic Sharia is based on reports and interpretations that have come from Aisha.
In view of these exceptional qualities of Aisha and the towering role played by her in the transmission of the teachings of Islam, it is simply preposterous and outrageous to suggest that she was the victim of some form of child and marital abuse. We ask in particular the Christian and Jewish critics of Islam, who are reviling the Holy Prophet Muhammad on the basis of his marriage with Aisha, whether they can point out any example of a woman in their religions who played a role like that of Aisha in learning the religion from its founder and becoming the teacher and instructor of all his followers, including men, after his death.
Age of Aisha at time of marriage with Holy Prophet Muhammad
It is believed on the authority of some Hadith reports that the marriage ceremony (known as nikah, amounting to betrothal) of Aisha with the Holy Prophet Muhammad took place when she was six years of age, and that she joined the Holy Prophet as his wife three years later at the age of nine. We quote below from two such reports in Bukhari.
“It is reported from Aisha that she said: The Prophet entered into marriage with me when I was a girl of six … and at the time [of joining his household] I was a girl of nine years of age.”
“Khadija died three years before the Prophet departed to Medina. He stayed [alone] for two years or so. He married Aisha when she was a girl of six years of age, and he consummated that marriage when she was nine years old.” 
As to the authenticity of these reports, it may be noted that the compilers of the books of Hadith did not apply the same stringent tests when accepting reports relating to historical matters as they did before accepting reports relating to the practical teachings and laws of Islam. The reason is that the former type of report was regarded as merely of academic interest while the latter type of report had a direct bearing on the practical duties of a Muslim and on what was allowed to them and what was prohibited. Thus the occurrence of reports such as the above about the marriage of Aisha in books of Hadith, even in Bukhari, is not necessarily a proof of their credibility.
Determination of the true age of Aisha
It appears that Maulana Muhammad Ali was the first Islamic scholar directly to challenge the notion that Aisha was aged six and nine, respectively, at the time of her nikah and consummation of marriage. This he did in, at least, the following writings: his English booklet Prophet of Islam, his larger English book Muhammad, the Prophet, and in the footnotes in his voluminous Urdu translation and commentary of Sahih Bukhari entitled Fadl-ul-Bari, these three writings being published in the 1920s and 1930s. In the booklet Prophet of Islam, which was later incorporated in 1948 as the first chapter of his book Living Thoughts of the Prophet Muhammad, he writes in a lengthy footnote as follows:
“A great misconception prevails as to the age at which Aisha was taken in marriage by the Prophet. Ibn Sa‘d has stated in the Tabaqat that when Abu Bakr [father of Aisha] was approached on behalf of the Holy Prophet, he replied that the girl had already been betrothed to Jubair, and that he would have to settle the matter first with him. This shows that Aisha must have been approaching majority at the time. Again, the Isaba, speaking of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, says that she was born five years before the Call and was about five years older than Aisha. This shows that Aisha must have been about ten years at the time of her betrothal to the Prophet, and not six years as she is generally supposed to be. This is further borne out by the fact that Aisha herself is reported to have stated that when the chapter [of the Holy Quran] entitled The Moon, the fifty-fourth chapter, was revealed, she was a girl playing about and remembered certain verses then revealed. Now the fifty-fourth chapter was undoubtedly revealed before the sixth year of the Call. All these considerations point to but one conclusion, viz., that Aisha could not have been less than ten years of age at the time of her nikah, which was virtually only a betrothal. And there is one report in the Tabaqat that Aisha was nine years of age at the time of nikah. Again it is a fact admitted on all hands that the nikah of Aisha took place in the tenth year of the Call in the month of Shawwal, while there is also preponderance of evidence as to the consummation of her marriage taking place in the second year of Hijra in the same month, which shows that full five years had elapsed between the nikah and the consummation. Hence there is not the least doubt that Aisha was at least nine or ten years of age at the time of betrothal, and fourteen or fifteen years at the time of marriage.”  (Bolding is mine.)
To facilitate understanding dates of these events, please note that it was in the tenth year of the Call, i.e. the tenth year after the Holy Prophet Muhammad received his calling from God to his mission of prophethood, that his wife Khadija passed away, and the approach was made to Abu Bakr for the hand of his daughter Aisha. The hijra or emigration of the Holy Prophet to Madina took place three years later, and Aisha came to the household of the Holy Prophet in the second year after hijra. So if Aisha was born in the year of the Call, she would be ten years old at the time of the nikah and fifteen years old at the time of the consummation of the marriage.
Research subsequent to the time of Maulana Muhammad Ali has shown that she was older than this. An excellent short work presenting such evidence is the Urdu pamphlet Rukhsati kai waqt Sayyida Aisha Siddiqa ki umar (‘The age of Lady Aisha at the time of the start of her married life’) by Abu Tahir Irfani.[4a] Points 1 to 3 below have been brought to light in this pamphlet.
1. The famous classical historian of Islam, Ibn Jarir Tabari, wrote in his ‘History’:
“In the time before Islam, Abu Bakr married two women. The first was Fatila daughter of Abdul Uzza, from whom Abdullah and Asma were born. Then he married Umm Ruman, from whom Abdur Rahman and Aisha were born. These four were born before Islam.” 
Being born before Islam means being born before the Call.
2. The compiler of the famous Hadith collection Mishkat al-Masabih, Imam Wali-ud-Din Muhammad ibn Abdullah Al-Khatib, who died 700 years ago, has also written brief biographical notes on the narrators of Hadith reports. He writes under Asma, the older daughter of Abu Bakr:
“She was the sister of Aisha Siddiqa, wife of the Holy Prophet, and was ten years older than her. … In 73 A.H. … Asma died at the age of one hundred years.” 
(Go here to see an image of the full entry in Urdu.)
This would make Asma 28 years of age in 1 A.H., the year of the Hijra, thus making Aisha 18 years old in 1 A.H. So Aisha would be 19 years old at the time of the consummation of her marriage, and 14 or 15 years old at the time of her nikah. It would place her year of birth at four or five years before the Call.
3. The same statement is made by the famous classical commentator of the Holy Quran, Ibn Kathir, in his book Al-bidayya wal-nihaya:
“Asma died in 73 A.H. at the age of one hundred years. She was ten years older than her sister Aisha.” 
Apart from these three evidences, which are presented in the Urdu pamphlet referred to above, we also note that the birth of Aisha being a little before the Call is consistent with the opening words of a statement by her which is recorded four times in Bukhari. Those words are as follows:
“Ever since I can remember (or understand things) my parents were following the religion of Islam.” 
This is tantamount to saying that she was born sometime before her parents accepted Islam but she can only remember them practising Islam. No doubt she and her parents knew well whether she was born before or after they accepted Islam, as their acceptance of Islam was such a landmark event in their life which took place just after the Holy Prophet received his mission from God. If she had been born after they accepted Islam it would make no sense for her to say that she always remembered them as following Islam. Only if she was born beforethey accepted Islam, would it make sense for her to say that she can only remember them being Muslims, as she was too young to remember things before their conversion. This is consistent with her being born before the Call, and being perhaps four or five years old at the time of the Call, which was also almost the time when her parents accepted Islam.
Two further evidences cited by Maulana Muhammad Ali
In the footnotes of his Urdu translation and commentary of Sahih Bukhari, entitled Fadl-ul-Bari, Maulana Muhammad Ali had pointed out reports of two events which show that Aisha could not have been born later than the year of the Call. These are as follows.
1. The above mentioned statement by Aisha in Bukhari, about her earliest memory of her parents being that they were followers of Islam, begins with the following words in its version in Bukhari’s Kitab-ul-Kafalat. We quote this from the English translation of Bukhari by M. Muhsin Khan:
“Since I reached the age when I could remember things, I have seen my parents worshipping according to the right faith of Islam. Not a single day passed but Allah’s Apostle visited us both in the morning and in the evening. When the Muslims were persecuted, Abu Bakr set out for Ethiopia as an emigrant.” 
Commenting on this report, Maulana Muhammad Ali writes:
“This report sheds some light on the question of the age of Aisha. … The mention of the persecution of Muslims along with the emigration to Ethiopia clearly shows that this refers to the fifth or the sixth year of the Call. … At that time Aisha was of an age to discern things, and so her birth could not have been later than the first year of the Call.” 
Again, this would make her more than fourteen at the time of the consummation of her marriage.
2. There is a report in Sahih Bukhari as follows:
“On the day (of the battle) of Uhud when (some) people retreated and left the Prophet, I saw Aisha daughter of Abu Bakr and Umm Sulaim, with their robes tucked up so that the bangles around their ankles were visible hurrying with their water skins (in another narration it is said, ‘carrying the water skins on their backs’). Then they would pour the water in the mouths of the people, and return to fill the water skins again and came back again to pour water in the mouths of the people.” 
Maulana Muhammad Ali writes in a footnote under this report:
“It should also be noted that Aisha joined the Holy Prophet’s household only one year before the battle of Uhud. According to the common view she would be only ten years of age at this time, which is certainly not a suitable age for the work she did on this occasion. This also shows that she was not so young at this time.” 
If, as shown in the previous section above, Aisha was nineteen at the time of the consummation of her marriage, then she would be twenty years old at the time of the battle of Uhud. It may be added that on the earlier occasion of the battle of Badr when some Muslim youths tried, out of eagerness, to go along with the Muslim army to the field of battle, the Holy Prophet Muhammad sent them back on account of their young age (allowing only one such youngster, Umair ibn Abi Waqqas, to accompany his older brother the famous Companion Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas). It seems, therefore, highly unlikely that if Aisha was ten years old the Holy Prophet would have allowed her to accompany the army to the field of battle.
We conclude from all the evidence cited above that Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) was nineteen years old when she joined the Holy Prophet as his wife in the year 2 A.H., the nikah or betrothal having taken place five years previously.
The Bible on marriage of young girls with much older men
As it is Christian evangelists and other believers in the Bible who have been bitterly reviling the Holy Prophet Muhammad on account of his marriage with Aisha, we put to them the practices of the great patriarchs and prophets that are recorded in the Bible itself in this connection. The main accusations regarding the marriage of Aisha are that she was too young in age while the Holy Prophet was a much older man, being fifty years of age, and that consent to marriage was either not obtained from her or she was not capable of giving it.
In the book of Genesis in the Bible it is recorded about Abraham:
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. … So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.” (Genesis, chapter 16, verses 1–4, and 15–16, New International Version. Bolding is mine.)
Firstly, it is evident that as Abraham (who then had the name Abram) was 86 years old, Hagar must have been some fifty years younger than him, and probably even younger, to bear a child. Secondly, the Bible speaks of Sarai giving her maidservant Hagar to Abraham. So Hagar’s consent was not obtained but rather she was commanded by Sarai to go and become Abraham’s wife.
The first book of Kings in the Bible begins as follows:
“When King David was old and well advanced in years, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his servants said to him, ‘Let us look for a young virgin to attend the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.’ Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful girl and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The girl was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no intimate relations with her.” (1 Kings, chapter 1, verses 1–4, New International Version. Bolding is mine.)
So there seems nothing wrong, according to the Bible, in procuring a young virgin, again apparently without her consent, whose duties include lying with the elderly king in bed. The intention was certainly for sexual enjoyment, otherwise there was no necessity of looking for a young, beautiful virgin. A much older woman, perhaps a widow, could have performed all these duties, including lying with the king to keep him warm.
Mary and Joseph
The most famous marriage in Christianity is no doubt that of Mary, Jesus’ mother, with Joseph. While the following details are not in the canonical Gospels in the Bible, it appears from other early Christian writings (known as apocryphal writings) that Mary was twelve years old when the temple elders decided to find a husband for her. They selected the husband by drawing lots, and Joseph whom they chose was an elderly man, being according to some accounts ninety years old. The husband was selected and Mary was handed over to him, and she played no part in his selection.
These accounts are summed up in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 edition, which is available online, as follows:
“It will not be without interest to recall here, unreliable though they are, the lengthy stories concerning St. Joseph’s marriage contained in the apocryphal writings. When forty years of age, Joseph married a woman called Melcha or Escha by some, Salome by others; they lived forty-nine years together and had six children … A year after his wife’s death, as the priests announced through Judea that they wished to find in the tribe of Juda a respectable man to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age, Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went up to Jerusalem among the candidates; a miracle manifested the choice God had made of Joseph …”  (Bolding is mine.)
Although these apocryphal accounts are not now accepted by many Christians, and the Catholic Encyclopedia says that they “are void of authority”, yet it also speaks of their influence as follows:
“they nevertheless acquired in the course of ages some popularity; in them some ecclesiastical writers sought the answer to the well-known difficulty arising from the mention in the Gospel of the Lord’s brothers; from them also popular credulity has, contrary to all probability, as well as to the tradition witnessed by old works of art, retained the belief that St. Joseph was an old man at the time of marriage with the Mother of God.”
However, these accounts are accepted by the Eastern churches. The website of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy has an article on this subject entitled An Elderly Joseph which agrees with the presentation in the apocryphal writings “of Joseph as an elderly man, a widower with adult children”. It concludes:
“The Christian East’s picture of Joseph as a courageous, faithful, God-centred elderly widower rings true.” 
We give below, as Appendix, a quotation from one of these apocryphal books, The Infancy Gospel of James, describing how Mary’s husband was selected.
While the Western Christian churches may not accept these accounts as authentic, the Eastern churches in Europe do accept that Mary was 12 years old and Joseph a widower 90 years old when they married. Moreover, there is nothing in the Gospels of the New Testament to contradict these accounts, and the Gospel stories are not at all inconsistent with these ages for Mary and Joseph.
. Tirmidhi, Abwab-ul-Manaqib, i.e. Chapters on Excellences, under ‘Virtues of Aisha’.
. Muslim Saints and Mystics, abridged English translation of Tadhkirat-ul-Auliya, by A.J. Arberry, p. 40.
. Bukhari, Book of Qualities of the Ansar, chapter: ‘The Holy Prophet’s marriage with Aisha, and his coming to Madina and the consummation of marriage with her’. For Muhsin Khan’s translation, see this link and go down to reports listed as Volume 5, Book 58, Number 234 and 236.
. Living Thoughts of the Prophet Muhammad, 1992 U.S.A. edition, p. 30, note 40.
[4a]. This Urdu pamphlet was published by the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha‘at Islam, Bombay, India. A partial English translation is available at this Lahore Ahmadiyya website.
. Tarikh Tabari, vol. 4, p. 50.
. Mishkat al-Masabih, Edition with Urdu translation published in Lahore, 1986, vol. 3, p. 300–301. (Go here to see an image of the full entry in Urdu.)
. Vol. 8, p. 346.
. Those four places in Sahih Bukhari are the following: Kitab-us-Salat, ch. ‘A mosque which is in the way but does not inconvenience people’; Kitab-ul-Kafalat, ch. ‘Abu Bakr under the protection of a non-Muslim in the time of the Holy Prophet and his pact with him’; Kitab Manaqib-ul-Ansar, ch. ‘Emigration of the Holy Prophet and his Companions to Madina’; and Kitab-ul-Adab, ch. ‘Should a person visit everyday, or morning and evening’.
. Muhsin Khan’s English translation of Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 37, Number 494. See this link.
. Fadl-ul-Bari, vol. 1, p. 501, footnote 1.
. Sahih Bukhari, Kitab-ul-Jihad wal-Siyar, Chapter: ‘Women in war and their fighting alongside men’. See this link in Muhsin Khan’s translation and go down to report listed as Volume 4, Book 52, Number 131.
. Fadl-ul-Bari, vol. 1, p. 651.
. In article St. Joseph, under letter J. Here is a link to this article in the online Catholic Encyclopedia.
. Here is a link to this article An Elderly Joseph.
Appendix: The Infancy Gospel of James, Chapter 8 verse 2 to Chapter 9 verse 11
“When she [Mary] turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, ‘Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?’ And they said to the high priest, ‘You have stood at the altar of the Lord. Go in and pray about her. And if the Lord God reveals anything to you, we will do it.’ And the priest went in taking the vestment with twelve bells into the holy of holies and prayed about her. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, ‘Zachariah, Zachariah, depart from here and gather the widowers of the people and let each one carry a staff. And the one whom the Lord God points out with a sign, she will be his wife.’ So the heralds went out to the whole surrounding area of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord rang out and all the men rushed in.
Throwing down his axe, Joseph went out to meet them. And after they had gathered together with their rods, they went to the high priest. After receiving everyone’s rod, the high priest went into the temple and prayed. When he was finished with the prayer, he took the rods and went out and gave them to each man, but there was no sign among them. Finally, Joseph took his rod. Suddenly, a dove came out of the rod and stood on Joseph’s head. And the high priest said, ‘Joseph! Joseph! You have been chosen by lot to take the virgin into your own keeping.’ And Joseph replied, saying, ‘I have sons and am old, while she is young. I will not be ridiculed among the children of Israel.’ And the high priest said, ‘Joseph, fear the Lord your God and remember what God did to Dathan and Abiron and Kore, how the earth split open and swallowed them because of their rebellion. Now fear God, Joseph, so that these things do not happen in your house.’ Fearing God, Joseph took her into his own possession.”
— Translation by Shelly Matthews, available at this link. For other translations of this gospel see this link.