The question of the union of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to ‘Ā’isha at a young age requires a preliminary philosophical analysis of morality. It is from this particular lens that popular detractors uphold a narrative in which the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was uniquely depraved in his insistence on marrying and consummating ‘Ā’isha (his third wife) at the age of 9. This essay is an attempt to expose the fallacious reasoning employed by such popular detractors and to demonstrate the philosophical double standards of the proponents of their views. In the first part of this essay, we will investigate the philosophical frameworks utilised and evaluate their use as ultimate barometers of truth. Secondly, we will evaluate how orientalist detractors judge the sexual age of consent in any given society and analyse whether or not such commentators are fallaciously anachronistic in their historical reasoning. Moreover, a comparative analysis will be made between Islam and other religions with respect to sexual age for consent. The concept of adolescence in determining adulthood will also be briefly examined, together with the role of principles of Islamic jurisprudence (Usūl al-Fiqh) in the issue of harm and its relevance to the validity of marriage and the age of consent. Lastly, we will consider the recorded statements of ‘Ā’isha herself in relation to this union. To be clear, what is not advocated in this essay is a legal reconsideration of the age of consent in the UK or any other country in the world. Rather, this essay aims to question the fallacious reasoning used by detractors insistent on questioning the morality of this divinely sanctioned union.
One of earliest known sources containing criticism against the marriage of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to ‘Ā’isha is Mohammad and the Rise of Islam, written by the British Orientalist David Margoliouth (d. 1940) and published in 1905. Margoliouth labels the marriage an ‘ill-assorted union … for as such we must characterise the marriage of a man of fifty-three to a child of nine’. It is significant to note that the union of the Prophet (PBUH) to ‘Ā’isha was one that was categorically accepted in 7th Century Arabia – a claim that could be extended to many other parts of the world, as we will shortly observe. Virtually no criticism of this union can be found even from the most ardent detractors of the time, such as the Prophet’s (PBUH) paternal uncle and fervent disparager of Islam, Abu Lahab, who was also the namesake of a scathing chapter in the Qur’ān.
Furthermore, Ibn Sa’d (d. 230 AH) narrates in his al-Tabaqāt that ‘Ā’isha was previously engaged to one of the nobles of the Quraysh prior to her engagement with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Extending this line of reasoning, we can note that even in the following generations after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), there are no known historical sources that make mention of this union in a negative light, neither from adherents of other religions nor from self-proclaimed Islamic reformists. Even from the earliest Orientalist accounts, criticism was not generally directed at this issue. For example, the main studies in the 18th Century conducted on Islam and Muslims were silent on this issue being one of depravity and immorality. Examples include Simon Ockley (d. 1720) in History of the Saracens, Humphrey Prideaux (d. 1724) in The True Nature of Imposture, and Edward Gibbon (d. 1794) in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ironically, Prideaux justifies the age in which the marriage was consummated using a psychological reasoning that he extends to other countries and climates. Moreover, studies conducted in the 19th Century contain no criticism against this issue. These works include Muslim Studies by Ignác Goldziher (d. 1921), The Genuine Islam by George Bernard Shaw (d. 1950), and On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle (d. 1881). These examples demonstrate that the argument against this specific marriage is relatively new, one not previously coined by even the most ardent detractors to the Prophet (PBUH), from his time until the beginning of the 20th Century.
A Distinct Progression
Criticism of the marriage between the Prophet (PBUH) and ‘Ā’isha has since matured into the denunciation that the Prophet (PBUH) was a paedophile. This accusation is used particularly by far-right groups and the most fervent critics of Islam. Paedophilia is defined as sexual perversion in which children (usually before reaching the age of puberty) are a preferred sexual object. This accusation is inaccurately levied against the Prophet (PBUH) for many reasons. Firstly, the marriage to Ā’isha was consummated upon her reaching pubertal maturity. This occurred 3 years after the initial marriage ceremony was completed, as Ā’isha herself explicitly mentions in numerous narrations. Secondly, the fact the Prophet (PBUH) waited 3 years before consummating the marriage shows a level of self-restraint not found in paedophiles, who generally exhibit uncontrollable sexual urges and impulses. This was further corroborated by Ā’isha herself, who reports that the Prophet (PBUH) was in complete control of his desires unlike anybody else. If this allegation of paedophilia was accurate, then it must be asked why the Prophet (PBUH) did not continue to marry more prepubescent girls. All historical sources detailing biographical accounts of the life of the Prophet (PBUH) show quite the opposite: without exception, all marriages of the Prophet (PBUH) after that to Ā’isha were to widows, many of whom were middle-aged. This marks an even more drawn-out, misleading attempt to criticise the moral standing of the Prophet (PBUH). In doing so, this accusation implicitly associates the label of ‘paedophile’ with the multitude of philosophical frameworks, societies and legislations that permitted similar unions, as we will shortly discuss.
Morality can be determined in one of two main ways: either through a philosophy that does not claim objectivity, or through a philosophy that does. An example of the former is democracy. Many proponents of democracy acknowledge its limitations. Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst kind of government except for all of the others we try from time to time.” Note that Churchill was careful not to say that democracy is the only true type of government, but instead refers to it as being the best of a bad bunch. Churchill, though, is not the only democrat to acknowledge the limitations of democracy. Ancient philosophers (such as Plato and Socrates) as well as enlightenment philosophers (such as Alexis De Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill) all acknowledge the limitations of democracy. These include the recognition of the ignorance of the masses, or the exploitative nature of democracy against minorities. The latter is a type of philosophy that attempts to construct ultimate, objective truths. Examples of this include Kantianism and consequentialism. Despite attempting to appeal to universal objective truths, these philosophies have proposed mechanisms that are subjective at best. In other words, since the objectivity of these mechanisms cannot be proven, the results produced are also not considered objective. If the instrument of measurement is uncertain, the object of measurement will also be uncertain. If we take our inquiry to an even more sceptical moral consideration, we may consider the view advanced and developed by the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century BC. Herodotus posits that establishing or identifying morals is intrinsic to one’s culture or society, and that each society holds that their customs are best; preferring one culture over another is something unattainable. This concept was popularised and gained traction in the era of postmodernism, which views moral relativism as a suspect construction of post-enlightenment thought. Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) was a major proponent of this particular philosophical thought, arguing that moral facts are subjective and grounded in ‘perspective’ that do not necessarily mirror reality. Richard Rorty highlights that this view, held by Nietzsche and other proponents of postmodernism such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, expresses that no actual criterion exists of morality, only a socially constructed one.
Outside the confines of academia, it is up to the reader to ponder how one establishes a moral compass. Although we openly profess independent thought, are our thoughts influenced by popularist philosophical narratives? One could claim that ethical relativists have no substantive premise to disparage or raise moral objections to a particular group, culture or individual. Applying this to our case study, a question could be asked of a moral relativist or absolutist: to what extent are their moral objections based on moral principles ascertained without a shadow of philosophical doubt? The obvious answer to this question leads us to acknowledge the philosophical double standards applied by the recent detractors of Islam. Such detractors forge criticism by creating a pseudo-philosophical case using popular aesthetic judgements cloaked in the garb of certain ethical theories.
A Glimpse into History
From a historical perspective, documented marriage pre-dates Christianity and other major world religions by thousands of years. Observing the constitution of marriage and its governing laws throughout history gives us an insight into the moral code and inclination of people at a given time and culture. Margaret Wade Labarge, Professor of History, notes that before the 1900s, “It needs to be remembered that many medieval widows were not old. Important heiresses were often married between the ages of 5 and 10 and might find themselves widowed while still in their teens.”
Similarly, Professors Stephen Smallbone and Richard Wortley state that prior to the 1900s, it was the norm that girls were married young:
“In Medieval and early modern European societies, the age of marriage remained low, with documented cases of brides as young as seven years, although marriages were typically not consummated until the girl reached puberty (Bullough 2004). Shakespeare’s Juliet was just 13, and there is no hint in the play that this was considered to be exceptional.”
Sir John Comyns (d. 1740) highlights that, according to Scottish law prior to the 1900s:
“[A] woman cannot contrahere sponsalia before her age of seven years. 1 Rol. 343. I. 20. But by common law, persons may marry at any age. Co. Lit. 33. A. And upon such marriage the wife shall be endowed, if the attain the age of nine years, of what whatsoever age her husband be; but not before the age of nine years. Co. L. 33. A.”
With respect to post-Enlightenment France, Paula Fass notes that the “age of consent laws rose from as low as ten to between thirteen (France 1863) and sixteen (England and Wales 1885).” Susan Ross points out the history of consent in the British Empire:
“According to British common law during the colonial period, the age of consent was seven. Today we are astounded that girls of this age were assumed to know enough about sex (or about sin) to make such a decision competently.”
Edward Wood explains how Baron Thomas de Berkeley (d. 1321) was initially due to wed a girl of 7 years old, with consummation of the marriage due to occur 4 years later:
“Thomas, Lord Berkeley, was contracted to Margaret, daughter of Gerald Warren, Lord Lisle, in the forty-first year of Edward III; and by reason of her tender age – she was then only about seven years old.”
English common law allowed individuals to enter a contract of marriage at the age of puberty. This was generally seen as 14 for males and 12 for females. Thus, marriage with females below the age of 16 was accepted in accordance with English law. This was also practised by the British monarchy itself. For example, Lady Margaret Beaufort (d. 1509), the mother of King Henry VII and paternal grandmother of King Henry VIII of England, married John De La Pole (d. 1492) at the age of 7. Similarly, Ann de Mowbray (d. 1481), Duchess of York and Duchess of Norfolk, married when she was 6 years old.
In reference to America, Professor of Sociology Anthony Cortese notes that a 50-year-old man engaging in intimacy with a child under United States law was legal until the mid-1960s:
“In 1962, the American Law Institute recommended that the legal age of consent to sex – that is, the age below which sex is defined as statutory rape – be dropped in every state to age 10 (Katchadourian and Lund 1972: 439). In fact, until the mid-1960s, the legal age of consent in Delaware was 7 (Kling, 1965: 216). So a 50 year old man could legally have sexual intercourse with a 7 year old girl.”
This is echoed by Maureen Dabbagh who serves as a Virginia Supreme Court Family Mediator: “[In] the nineteenth century, the minimum age of consent for sexual intercourse in most American states was 10 years. In Delaware it was only 7 years.” Furthermore, Professors Smallbone and Wortley mention that “Bullough reports the case in 1689 of a nine-year-old bride in Virginia.”
Arthur Siccan presents a historical snapshot of England, Europe and the Western Hemisphere in general:
“Traditionally, across the globe, the age of consent for sexual union was a matter for the family to decide, or a tribal custom. In most cases, this coincided with signs of puberty, menstruation for a woman and pubic hair for a man.
Sir Edward Coke in 17th century England made it clear that the marriage of girls under 12 was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband’s estate was 9. The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. For example, Mary Hathaway of Virginia was only 9 when she was married to William Williams.
Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons initially set the age of consent at 10-12 years and then raised it to between 13 and 16 years in the second half of the 19th century. Historically, the English common law set the age of consent to range from 10-12. In the United States, by the 1880s, most states set the age of consent at 10-12, and in one state, Delaware, the age of consent was only 7. Social and resulting legal attitudes toward the appropriate age of consent have drifted upwards in modern times. For example, while ages from 10 to 13 were typically acceptable in Western countries during the mid-19th century, the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century were marked by changing.”
A Turning Point
An important question remains unanswered: when and why did the age of consent (and thereafter the age of marriage) change in law? The historical turning point could be said to be the Age of Marriage Act 1929 in the United Kingdom, enacted in response to a campaign by the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. The Act raised the minimum age to 16 for both sexes, which remains to this day, as per the Age of Marriage Bill. It is important to recognise that this Act was put in place by a liberal government who had a development plan in the post-WWI period that included educational reform. The interesting point to note here is that the age of consent (which is naturally associated with the age of adulthood) was a historical development initiated by both the economic needs and social pressures after WWI. This is especially the case considering the traction feminist groups had been able to build up, especially by the end of the 20th century and, even more significantly, after universal suffrage Acts were passed. In addition, the events of the Industrial Revolution (which saw a rise in child mortality) was still fresh in the historical memory of the populace. For example, 57% of the working-class children of Manchester died before their fifth birthday  and hence a sense of remorse and regret permeated society. Notwithstanding, perhaps one of the most influential exposures in recent times was carried out by the Pall Mall Gazette, an evening newspaper in London. In 1885, the newspaper published “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” an investigation that alleged that a number of white, virgin girls had become “white slaves” forced into sex slavery. These factors arguably provoked and pushed British legislators to raise the age of consent. It also moved campaigners in the U.S., such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to push for similar legislation from governments, which would not be led by resistance from the populace.
The Mind of a Child?
From a physiological perspective, the notion of ‘adolescence’ throughout history was based on pubertal maturation. This very concept of adolescence is both a mystery and a challenge. What defines adolescence? Is it limited to a set number of biological indicators, or does it encompass social transitions and responsibilities such as marriage and parenthood? What role does neurodevelopmental change play in the determination of adolescence? Many psychologists have reported that in addition to the inextricable link between these factors, the psychological development of a person is itself dependent on environmental influences that differ between cultures and societies. Perhaps the most important influences on psychological development include the social values, norms, and the changing roles, responsibilities, relationships, and expectations of this period of life. The concept of marriage age universally changed during the 20th century in Britain and the U.S. This was due to the colonial power of the British Empire before WWII and the hegemonic power of the U.S. after this period (and specifically after the Cold War). Notions of adulthood, as understood by the English-speaking white person, would quickly spread to the rest of the world. This is generally the trend, although in India (a British colony), the age of consent was adjusted before Britain had formally adjusted its own age of consent.
A rather facetious remark made by Margoliouth was that ‘Ā’isha was “snatched away from her toys”. This quip was linked with the ample evidence from the Hadith literature suggesting that ‘Ā’isha played with ‘toys’ for some time after her marriage to the Prophet (PBUH). However, is the keeping and subsequent usage of dolls and the like inextricably linked to one’s psychological maturity? If so, recent studies show an increase in the number of white, conservative, Christian women who actively collect handmade dolls of newborn babies. Additionally, research conducted by the market research company NPD Group shows an increase in the purchase of toys by adults, by almost two-thirds in recent times and over 20% in the last year alone. Is the psychological maturity of these women now in question? Are any of their marital relations untenable and called into dispute?
Appendix 1 details the age of consent in approximately 80 countries from 1880 to 2007. In light of the aforementioned legislations and data, it becomes evident that the main problem that detractors of the Prophet’s (PBUH) marriage to ‘Ā’isha have fallen into is the attempt to anachronistically superimpose an arbitrary, subjective, 20th century legalistic definition of immorality on a 7th century Arabian society in which marriages of this sort was something completely accepted. The accusation of paedophilia is unsubstantiated from all of the perspectives discussed above.
Amidst the World Religions
An additional question to pose when morally examining the union of the Prophet (PBUH) to ‘Ā’isha concerns the moral and ethical perspective of such unions amongst other world religions. For example, marriage to very young (at times pre-pubescent) girls was something legally accepted in ancient Israel. John Peter Stehelin (d. 1753) cites Rabbi Solomon Itzhaki (d. 1105) in highlighting that Rebecca was three years old when she married Isaac:
“Rabbi Solomon in his comment on Genesis, says that Rebecca, when she was married to Isaac, was but three Years of Age. His words run thus, ‘When Abraham was come from Mount Moria, he received the joyful News of Rebecca. Isaac was at that Time Thirty seven years old; and then did Sarah die. The time, from birth of Isaac to the death of Sarah, was Thirty seven Years, And Sarah was Ninety Years old when Isaac was born; and One Hundred and Twenty Seven Years old when she died: As it is said in Gen 23:1 . Sarah was one hundred and twenty-seven years old. Behold, the Age of Isaac was Thirty Seven Years, at the Time of the Birth of Rebecca. And when he had waited for her three Years, till she was fit for marriage, he took her to wife.
According to this Account, Rebecca was a very notable Girl at three years of age. But that a girl of three Years old is fit for marriage, is maintained very plainly in the Jewish writings; particularly, in Emek Hamelech, in the following passage, ‘our blessed sags, of blessed memory, say, that a female is not fit for marriage, ‘till she is arrived at the Age of three years and one day.”
This is further cited by numerous researchers, such as Jacob Neusner (d. 2016) in his editorial of A History of the Mishnaic Law of Purities,  Mark A. Ehrlich in his Encyclopedia of the Jewish diaspora, and Steven M. Lowenstein in The Jewish cultural tapestry.
Furthermore, many Christian scholars maintain that Joseph was 80-90 years old when he married Mary, who was 12-14 years old. Reverend Jeremiah Jones (d. 1724) opines this in his lengthy justification of the acceptance of the Infancy Protevangelion of James by Early Church Fathers as a truthful account of Mary and Joseph’s marriage. Moreover, Numbers 31: 17-18 cannot be ignored:
“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the female children that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
Reverend Wil Gafney, an Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible, comments on this verse:
“The ‘one woman, one man’ relationship of Eve and Adam becomes one man and two women in Genesis 4:19, one man and an untold number of prepubescent girl captives in Numbers 31:18 and in several other texts. It appears that God has left it to humanity to decide who are appropriate intimate partners and under what circumstances.”
With a cursory glance at other ancient world religions, we observe that this practice was similarly accepted both legally and religiously. In Hinduism, for example, Georg Buhler (d. 1898) notes that the Manu (a Hindu juristic and religious scripture) mentions that girls should be wed before reaching pubertal maturity. James Hastings (d. 1922) elucidates in his Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics that “later texts give 4 to 6 as the lower (age of marriage) and 8 as the upper limit. There is abundant evidence that these dates were not merely theoretical”. In Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh (the last of the ten saints) married a 12-year-old girl called Mata Sundari.
Are these practices now seen as repugnant or at odds with current day customs? Perhaps, more candidly, have Judeo-Christian and Hindu Scholars classified these specific texts as morally and socially decrepit?
An Usūlī Perspective
Considering this matter from a strictly Islamic perspective, what would stop (besides the law) a Muslim man or woman above the legal age in Britain from marrying and consummating a marriage with someone below the age of consent? The answer to this question depends on an Islamic Usūlī definition of ‘harm’ that is itself established through specialists from other sciences. We must first caveat this discussion with a preliminary discussion on harm. Harm may be easily categorised into two distinct subsections: that of the body, and the mind. However, does the psychological health of a person exist in a sociological vacuum or does it depend on their environment? What may be considered sociologically normal in one area may be psychologically detrimental in another. If pre-teen marriage was the normative sociological position for earlier societies, what evidence is there that this had a mass impact on the collective psychologies of people? Were societies steeped in such mass ignorance of what would otherwise be easily and empirically identifiable? Compared to most of the major ancient world religions, and most major ideologies, Islam has placed stringent restrictions on marriage to young people who would be otherwise harmed by it. From a Sunni Usūlī perspective, harm, or dharar, can be either physical, psychological, or monetary. These categories are determined by the cultural norms of a particular time. Since harm is dependent on time and place, and psychological harm of a 9 year-old today is different from that nearly 14 centuries ago, the Islamic ruling would therefore be different. It could be said that the union with pre-teens is forbidden, or harām, unless the legal landscape shifts back to pre-1929. This is in accordance with the important juristic legal maxim (qā’idah fiqhiyyah) of ‘harm is to be removed’ (al-Dharar yuzāl). The broad understanding of harm according to scholars today includes that of the physical and psychological nature (as mentioned by al-Munāwi). In fact, al-Shātibī (d. 790 AH) codifies this concept in his magnum opus al-Muwāfaqāt, in which he presents a detailed discussion on the Higher Objectives of the Shar’īah: “We have categorically, undeniably extrapolated from the Shar’īah that it has been placed for the benefit of mankind.” Muhammad Abu Zahrah (d. 1974) comments on these objectives:
“The defining principle (within the Shar’īah) is that any harm is to be warded off, as long as it can be avoided, as the safeguarding of man and preventing harm from befalling upon him, in any way whatsoever, is a firm, established principle in Islam.”
“All of the legalistic, juristic rulings are built upon achieving the benefits of the slaves (of Allah) and every established right is stipulated with avoiding any harm.”
Thus, it is not in the interests of Muslims to break the long hand of the law in Britain (or any other Western country) not only because of the harms/mafāsid that might accrue from this but also because of the general Islamic impermissibility of going against the law.
In Her Own Words
Implicit in the accusations against the union of the Prophet (PBUH) with Ā’isha is the inference that Ā’isha herself was displeased throughout and was subdued to forcefully accept the marriage. The assumption is that she lived a miserable life in this ‘forced’ union. Can this outrageous claim be historically substantiated? If any of the claims of the popular detractors had any truth behind them, it can be expected that some substantial evidence for these baseless allegations would surface after the passing of the Prophet (PBUH), at a time when Ā’isha would be free to speak without fear of repercussions. Moreover, Ā’isha was unique in the fact that she wielded considerable military might in the subsequent turmoil and friction that transpired between the Companions, having commanded an entire army at her will. Ā’isha ranks as one of the most knowledgeable of the Companions of the Prophet (PBUH) and is regarded as one of the most prolific narrators of aḥādīth, having narrated over 2210 hadiths. It is as al-‘Aynī, the renowned commentator on Saḥiḥ al-Bukhāri, remarks, “a quarter of the legalistic judicial rulings present in the Shar’īah is by way of Ā’isha.” Ā’isha was outspoken and was known for her brazenness and audacity in voicing her thoughts, however inconvenient and untimely they may seem. This was all whilst the Prophet (PBUH) was alive, let alone after his passing.
Ā’isha was married to the Prophet (PBUH) for 13 years and continued her scholarly undertakings until she passed away 45 years later. Numerous aḥādīth narrated by Ā’isha herself contend the outlandish remarks against the Prophet (PBUH) and provide incredible insight into a marriage adorned with the utmost respect, dignity, love, and affection. Ā’isha narrates: “The Prophet (PBUH) would pass to me a drinking vessel. I would then drink from it, whilst in a state of mensuration, then pass it back to him and he would drink from the same exact spot, searching for the place my lips touched.” She also narrates moments that the Prophet (PBUH) enjoyed with her, such as the instance in which the Ethiopians were playing in the mosque and, when she wished to observe them, the Prophet (PBUH) covered her with his cloak and stood there with her until she requested to leave. Ā’isha also narrates that the Prophet (PBUH) would often recline in her lap and recite the Qur῾ān. As a summary of the lofty benchmark in which she held the Prophet’s character, she described it by saying that “His character was the Qur῾ān.”
This article has demonstrated the fallacious and defective reasoning of those who accuse the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) of depravity and exploitation with respect to his marriage with Ā’isha. The article has illustrated the corrigibility (and even the axiomaticity) of the epistemology of Western tradition. The article has also shown that many Western countries legalised or accepted norms that are repugnant to current day Western morality. By looking at the position of opposing schools in philosophy and morality as presented in the ancient major world religions, it becomes obvious that detractors are anachronistic in their historical judgements. This constitutes a fallacy known as the ‘fallacy of presentism’. This article is not calling for a reconsideration of the age of consent as (from an Islamic Usūlī perspective) harm is reassessed depending on time, place and circumstance. However, the question remains: why should we pass certain moral judgements using moralities that have uncertain moral foundations?
Table 1. Age Limit in Age of Consent Laws in Selected Countries. Reproduced from Children and Youth in History, Item #24. [Online]. Available: http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/24 (Accessed September 21, 2018).
|England & Wales||13||16||16|
|New South Wales||12||16||16|
|District of Columbia||12||16||16|
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