Featured, Usul

Why are you agitated about the Age of Aisha?

Dr Jonathan Brown, an associate professor of Islamic Civilization discusses in this video the controversy surrounding the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ marriage to the mother of believers Aisha (May Allah be pleased with her). This honourable marriage is being used nowadays by the enemies of Islam to attack the character of the greatest human being and master of the prophets Muhammad ﷺ. Dr Brown also discusses the idea of universal moral codes and the ever-changing western value system of ‘human rights’.

Dr Brown in his book Misquoting Muhammad gives some background to the origins of this attack:

Although recent research has shown that medical reforms in mid-nineteenth-century Egypt had identified child marriage as a health concern, it was modern Western opprobrium that brought the problematic precedent of the Prophet’s marriage with Aisha to the fore. The Prophet’s sexuality and married life had been a lurid magnet for criticism even during his own lifetime, and it has remained the most consistent theme in Christian/Western polemics against Islam ever since. His marriage to Aisha did feature in these polemics from the early Islamic period, but what exposed him as a ‘sex fiend’ (scortum), in the words of a seventeenth century Italian priest, was not Aisha’s age but the Prophet’s supposed uncontrollable desire for her. He had seen her in a dream, it was said, and become physically infatuated with her (see Appendix I). Yet I have found no instance of anyone criticizing the Prophet’s marriage due to Aisha’s age or accusing him of paedophilia until the early twentieth century. Even in the nineteenth century, British, German and French orientalists mostly passed over the matter in silence. Others assumed a Montesquieu-like sense of climatic determinism. In the 1830s the British ethnographer and lexicographer E. W. Lane prefaced his observation that Egyptian women married as young as ten (only a few remained single by age sixteen) with the remark that they ‘tend to arrive at puberty much earlier than the natives of colder climates.’ The first condemnatory note comes in Mohammad and the Rise of Islam (1905) by the British orientalist David Margoliouth. He calls Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha an ‘ill-assorted union… for as such we must characterise the marriage of a man of fifty-three to a child of nine.’

The lack of Christian and Western vituperation against Aisha’s age prior to 1905 is not surprising. And Margoliouth’s pioneering disapproval was very English. Even as late as the nineteenth century, societies in which the vast majority of the population worked the land in small agricultural communities (peasant’ societies) were generally characterized by marriage ages that we would consider extremely young Whether in India, China or Eastern Europe, in the pre-industrial period (and in many areas, even today) marriage age for women tended to be in the mid-teens, immediately after puberty. Shah Wall Allah married at fourteen, and when a scholar in fifteenth-century Damascus raised eyebrows by becoming a father at eleven it was because folk at the time were impressed, not outraged. In some US states, such as Georgia, the legal age of consent for women was as low as ten well into the twentieth century. In all these areas, this was probably due to the need for as many hands as possible to work the fields, hence a premium on high birth rates, as well as a relatively short life expectancy and a need to start families early.

Britain was a bizarre exception even in the medieval period. The ‘Wife of Bath’ in the Canterbury Tales may have married at the ‘Twelf yeer of age,’ but Britain and, to a lesser extent, most of northwest Europe differed from the pre-modern pattern of early marriage. Marriage age tended to be later, in the mid-twenties. In England, available data suggest that this was the case as far back as the fourteenth century.

Britain’s unusual marriage pattern was reflected in its law. It is not surprising that English common law was the first to establish statutory rape laws and ages of consent for marriage in Europe. As early as the Statute of Westminster in 1275, sex with an underage girl (meaning under either twelve or fourteen, it is unclear which) regardless of consent was criminalized. In 1576 the age was reduced to ten.

Law was an imperial export. The mission to rescue ‘native’ women from their backward cultures was a prominent theme in British portrayals of the empire’s colonial activities. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Britain moved to bring marriage customs in India into line with her imperial values, and a series of laws introduced age restrictions for Hindu and Muslim girls marrying. Yet Egypt’s experience with modernization and British rule was often counter intuitive when it came to gender. When the British occupied Egypt in 1882, the High Commissioner, Lord Cromer, was eager to trim the country’s budget and recoup Egyptian debt. He defunded many of the modernizing reforms instituted just decades earlier by the ruling dynasty of Mehmet Ali. Cromer, for example, withdrew support for training women doctors and midwives, a flagship of Egypt’s indigenous, pre-colonial medical reforms. This new class of state-trained midwives had actually started bringing the health concerns of child marriage to light. Yet Cromer professed himself shocked by Islam’s apparently barbaric and unamendable treatment of women (ironically, he was a founding member of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage back in England).