Script: Summary of Ch. 8 of “Sexual Ethics” – The Prophet Muhammad, His Beloved Aisha, and Modern Muslim Sensibilities

Script of the latest video on What the Patriarchy?! Video here and the script is below.

Hello, salaam, and welcome to my channel, What the Patriarchy, where we’re working to dismantle the patriarchy one Islamic feminist issue at a time! I’m Dr. Shehnaz Haqqani. Thank you for being here.

Today, we continue our summary of Dr. Kecia Ali’s book Sexual Ethics & Islam, now at chapter 8, which is called The Prophet Muhammad, his beloved Aisha, and Modern Muslim Sensibilities. The chapter’s sections are: apologetics and polemics, searching for solace, conclusion, and coda.  

You see, according to a hadith, Aisha was six years old when the Prophet married her and nine when the marriage was consummated. So Muslims are faced with the challenge of having to reconcile this incident with their discomfort. It’s “tricky,” to quote the author, for Muslims to simultaneously believe that Muhammad is a role model for Muslims for all times but also believe that today’s men cannot marry 9 year olds. And so Muslims have responded to this dilemma in various ways, including by insisting that she was actually in her teens when the consummation occurred.

This chapter highlights what Aisha’s marriage reveals about Muslims’ own anxieties around gender, marriage, and sexual ethics. So the dif things that Muslims highlight from this episode in Muhammad’s life, tells us what is important or unimportant to Muslims at any given time that they are expressing opinions on this very controversial marriage, something we’re embarrassed by, something we’re proud of, something we’re neutral toward, and so on, etc.

You see, one of the biggest obstacles to efforts to increase the minimum age for marriage in many Muslims’ minds is Aisha’s marriage. And so that’s why this topic matters. What we say about this marriage, how old we believe she was when she and Muhammad married, has actual, practical, legal consequences. Sometimes violent if you believe that this episode in Muhammad’s life means we must support child marriage, that it’s sunnah to marry that young.

A lot of issues here because we have to think about what Muhammad’s action here means, re his marriage to Aisha depending on how old she was. Can we do it just because he did? Can we say he was wrong to do so if she was a child? If he was right to do it, then why can we NOT do it today?

Again, Muslims have responded to the issue very differently at different times in history. Some Muslim groups completely deny that she was 9 at the time of marriage, like Ahmadi Muslims or Qur’an-only Muslims; some Muslims find hadiths generally to be an unreliable source of Islam and therefore this hadith is no problem because it never happened. Others believe this specific hadith is fake or unreliable but not necessarily the entire hadith tradition. For some, just the narrator of this hadith is unreliable. For others, the hadith is not reliable because it contradicts other reports in which Aisha’s age or date of birth is mentioned based on accounts telling us when a particular event occurred. The argument in this latter case goes that a report might she say she was x many years old when thing y happened, and so we do the math and it turns out, she can’t possibly have been 6 at the time of her marriage.

Some Muslims even claim there are reports in which her age ranges from 9 to 24 at the time of consummation.

And of course there’s also a very special kind of Muslims amongst us who think her being a child at the time of marriage was a special thing, her having been Muhammad’s only virgin wife was a mark of distinction. Ok, ew. Virginity at the time of marriage was historically a mark of honor for women, #becausepatriarchy. And too many people even today still think a woman is worthless if she is not a virgin at the time of her marriage, even today!

Some Muslims even try to validate the hadith and Aisha’s age as six at the time of marriage by claiming that the marriage was divinely approved, because, did you know, the angel Jibreel presented the Prophet Muhammad with an image of Aisha telling him that she will be his wife. Or Muhammad married her because it served some political purpose. Or she NEEDED to be young so she could live a long life after Muhammad’s death and serve as an authority on Muhammad’s actions. Funny story, tho: turns out, you don’t have to be little to be an authority on hadiths – did you know that the person with the most hadiths in the Sunni tradition is Abu Hurairah, who knew the Prophet for like what 5 years max and was actually quite unreliable? And terribly misogynistic.

Oh my personal favorite – and this isn’t pointed out in the book: Since she’s the only virgin wife Muhammad had, Muslim men needed to know that they too could marry virgin wives. Because apparently they wouldn’t marry a virgin unless Muhammad did? … What the hell!

And apparently, if you’re Muslim and reject the view that Aisha would’ve been 9 at the time of consummation, then some Muslims accuse you of having been fooled by western feminist agendas regarding women’s liberation because, as one misogynist preacher says, if Aisha herself didn’t have an issue with it, why do you? #omg #pleaseRead!

Basically, this issue troubles contemporary Muslims and they’ve responded to it in all kinds of ways, including accepting it unequivocally and mocking those who do think the hadith is probably fake, and those who reject it unequivocally, and those in between.

So it’s just today we’re concerned with this issue as an ethical issue, it’s just today we have strong negative reactions to it. Medieval Muslim scholars for sure had no issues with this hadith or with her being a child at the time of marriage. And quite frankly, btw, neither did western writers until just, what, the 20th century or so.

The conversation on Aisha’s age is exacerbated by the presence of Islamophobia and is often a part of discussion led by Muslims responding to “misconceptions” about Islam that non-Muslim in the West hold.

Oh, btw, this was a part of my research for my dissertation, and some really, really cool stuff was discovered by me. You should read my dissertation or the book based on it coming soon, inshaAllah.

Also, Muslims assume that consummation would have happened only after Aisha reached puberty, but Ali here tells us that there’s no evidence for that. We don’t know for sure that consummation happened necessarily after puberty.

The author reminds us that we must be careful not to judge the past using contemporary standards. BUT also that just because we can’t do that doesn’t mean we should withhold all judgment. E.g., just because it’s socially acceptable to do something in one time period doesn’t mean it’s good. Like slavery. And clearly, child marriage. And that if we become too consumed with challenging negative portrayals of Islam, then we end up excusing injustices that do occur. But Ali recognizes that this means we have to first define justice and injustice, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, like is something good because God says it is, like in Q. verse 30:21 in which God says that in Muhammad, we find a beautiful example? In which case, what happens when something considered good clashes with one’s own view of what’s good?

The coda to this chapter is really excellent, pointing out what the original chapter in the first edition was missing and then correcting it in the new edition. She points out for example that she didn’t realize at the time of writing the chapter how recent this debate of Aisha’s age is. Medieval Christian critics of Islam actually never had any issues with Aisha’s age as 9 OR with Muhammad’s multiple wives OR with Muslim women’s rights in general. Christian critics of Islam have defined the word oppression in different ways at different times. Only in the late 20th and the 21st centuries do we begin to see Aisha’s age emerging as a problem. For the author, age was not always intended to be taken literally, so, for example, when the reports tell us that Khadija was 40 at the time of her marriage to Muhammad while he was 25, it doesn’t necessarily mean she was indeed 40 but that she was a grown woman, an adult, mature and all. (Side note: The author believes that her age is probably not really 40 because it would be quite miraculous for her to give birth to 5, 6 children given her age.) Ironically, for European non-Muslim authors, Khadija’s age of 40, which they too took literally, meant she was not sexually appealing whatsoever, and so Muslims responded with, ahha but that just means that he wasn’t motivated by lustfulness!)

For the author, the answer to the question of how old Aisha was, is: we don’t know. We’ll never know. Ali states that it’s very possible that Aisha’s youth was exaggerated in the tradition to emphasize her claims of purity, which was viewed as one of her merits by Sunni sources.

And then finally, I love this point: we must be careful NOT to attribute child marriage to ahistorical, honor-bound, Islamic patriarchy when such a practice involves so many factors, like poverty and war.

That’s all for now! Thanks for watching. We’ll be back with ch. 9, which is the conclusion, of this book soon, inshaAllah.



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