The Messenger of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) faced a lot of criticism right from the time he started preaching this religion. However, one of the most disheartening and baseless criticisms made against him is the accusation that he was a pedophile. Does this criticism hold any truth?
The accusations of pedophilia stems from the hadith that says Aisha (RA), the youngest wife of the Prophet, was six years old when she “married” (was betrothed to) him —and the Prophet (PBUH) was in his fifties at the time.
Narrated Aisha (RA): “The Prophet (PBUH) married her when she was six years old and He consummated the marriage when she was nine years old.” (Ṣaḥîḥ Al-Bukhârî, 5134)
However, the marriage was consummated only when Aisha (RA) was nine years of age. The former is like today’s engagement ceremonies which is just a contract or agreement. But the latter is the one which can be called marriage in today’s world. So, the question here is whether Aisha (RA) was a “child” when she was nine years old.
Naturally most people today consider a nine year old as a child, and straight away start criticizing the Prophet (PBUH). However, this kind of response is due to Presentism, an anachronistic misinterpretation of history based on present day circumstances not existing in the past. We misjudge when we assume that the ways in which our ancestors viewed childhood and marriage are the same as the contemporary Western ideas imposed upon them. In fact, they are completely diverse and quite different from each other.
We mistakenly think that children’s circumstances and capabilities have remained static throughout history. But this is not true. During the time of our ancestors, it was very hard to make ends meet. War and poverty were widespread everywhere. Health infrastructure was rarely ever present. As a result of all these factors life expectancy was as low as 35 years. Children (as we call them now) usually helped parents with their work and got married as soon as possible, since teenage years and schools are concepts of recent times.
Neil Postman, a former professor at New York University, wrote the 1994 book The Disappearance of Childhood. In it, he argues that childhood was one of the greatest inventions of the Renaissance just like any other social structure. So due to the high mortality rate and a life without much purpose apart from earning something to fill their stomachs, it made sense to begin procreating as early as possible. In more affluent families, marrying young also guaranteed the acquisition of wealth and securing the future of the family inheritance. Likewise political allies took advantage of early marriage to establish alliances between warring factions, an expedient alternative to war.
Bio Archaeologist Mary Lewis warned us against Presentism while discussing the subject of childhood in the past,
“No matter what period we are examining, childhood is more than a biological age, but a series of social and cultural events and experiences that make up a child’s life. The time at which these transitions take place varies from one culture to another, and has a bearing on the level of interaction children have with their environment, their exposure to disease and trauma, and their contribution to the economic status of their family and society. The Western view of childhood where children do not commit violence and are asexual, has been challenged by studies of children that show them learning to use weapons or being depicted in sexual poses. What is clear is that we cannot simply transpose a view of childhood onto the past.” (Mary Lewis, The Bioarchaelology of Children: Perspectives from Biological ad Forensic Anthropology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 4)
Our ancestors’ views on who can be called a child were not governed by chronological age, but rather by other signs of development and competence. But Presentism ultimately negates the past and undermines any and all reasonable moral judgements. In most societies and in most time periods, childhood ended and adulthood began at puberty. Puberty takes place when our bodies are capable of producing children. The body’s capacity to have children holds immense significance for all human beings and that reality is the distinct marker of adulthood. So, the universally acceptable age of marriage is postpubescent, no matter what the biological age. Here it is to be noted that Aisha (RA) consummated her marriage after the age of puberty. Aisha (RA) herself said,
“If a girl were to reach puberty at the age of nine, then she is a woman.” (Sunan Al-Tirmidhî, 2/409)
Imam Shafi’î (RA), the leader of the Shafi’î school of jurisprudence, once said,
“I saw in Sana’a a grandmother who was a girl at the age of 21 years. Her daughter reached the age of puberty at the age of nine and gave birth at the age of ten. The daughter of that girl also reached puberty at the age of nine and gave birth at the age of ten.” (Sunan al-Kubra, Bayhaqi, 2/1513)
There are also claims that Aisha (RA) was actually in her teens when she married the Prophet, which are based on some narrations and mathematical calculations of her age according to these accounts. The problem with these claims is the fact that they do not provide enough strong evidence to discard two explicit ahadith in Bukhari and Muslim. But rather they represent attempts to legitimize our own insecurities. While we believe all other ahadith reported in Bukhari and Muslim to be perfect, why not do the same in the ahadith regarding Aisha (RA)’s age?
To simply answer the question of whether the marriage of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) to Aisha (RA) was a “child marriage,” just consider the fact that his contemporary enemies who made all kind of accusations against him never even once criticized his marriage to Aisha (RA). So, if the marriage cannot be considered a “child marriage,” why is such an accusation even made?
Modern Western critics, including orientalists, use this accusation because the easiest way to demonize a faith is by appealing to the protective instincts of parents everywhere through misrepresenting the age of the youngest wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on the day of her marriage. Also, portraying Aisha (RA) as a child is meant to portray the Messenger (PBUH) in a certain light. A light that attempts to fit Aisha (RA) into a larger narrative of Muslim women as “weak, submissive and oppressed” and Muslim men as “oppressive, abusive and unjust.” A narrative that is both malicious and dishonest. But Islamic history tells another story about Aisha (RA): She was one of the strongest Muslim women in Islamic history; she narrated around 2210 hadiths, becoming one of the biggest contributors of Hadith. She was also given the title of Umm Al-Mu’minîn, “Mother of the Believers,” a very high position in Islam.
In order to illustrate the unfairness of making such false accusations and criticism against the Prophet (PBUH), let us look at child marriage in today’s Western World (the so-called pioneers of social advancements). This will give us a clear understanding of their double standards and hypocrisy.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated that roughly 57,800 minors (individuals under 18) were legally married in the US. Of those marriages 55% were between an underage girl and an adult man. California currently considers child marriage permissible as long as the child’s parents agree. And there are many more instances.
Finally, it is to be kept in mind that nothing which is said here is to support child marriage today. Certainly, our perception of childhood today is different from that of the past. It is to be noted that if Islam had allowed for the abuse of children, or if Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) were a pedophile, he would not have needed to wait three full years after his so-called marriage to Aisha (RA) when she was six years old. However, he did not consummate the marriage until Aisha (RA) had reached nine years of age.
- Understanding Aisha’s Age: An Interdisciplinary Approach by Asadullah Ali with Jonathan A.C. Brown Understanding Aisha’s Age: An Interdisciplinary Approach | Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research
- The Woman Behind the Number: The Irrelevance of the Age of Aisha (RA) by Nuriddeen Knight (The Woman Behind the Number: The Irrelevance of the Age of ‘Aisha (ra) | Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research)
- The Age of Aisha: Rejecting Historical Revisionism and Modernist Presumptions by Faraz Malik (The Age of Aisha (ra): Rejecting Historical Revisionism and Modernist Presumptions | Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research)