Understanding Aisha’s Age: An Interdisciplinary Approach
Published: October 2, 2018 • Updated: October 20, 2020
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
For more on this topic, see More Than Just a Number: Perspectives on the Age of Aisha (RA)
Parties to the present Convention shall take legislative action to specify a minimum age for marriage. No marriage shall be legally entered into by any person under this age, except where a competent authority has granted a dispensation as to age, for serious reasons, in the interest of the intending spouses.
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A Narrow View of Time
Narrated by Aisha: The Prophet ﷺ married me when I was six years old and consummated our marriage when I was nine years old. Then I remained with him for nine years (i.e., until his death).
Aisha’s Lived Experience
Most men would have married sufficiently late that we would no longer consider them to have been children, yet many women (particularly in Babylonia) married so young that today we would consider them to have been girls, not women. The goal of maximizing fertility in particular must have lowered the age at first marriage and the price of this goal is the early, we might say premature, end of girlhood. For many girls, adolescence was not a time for fun, education, experimentation or professional training, rather it was a time when one was already expected to assume the full responsibilities of a mature woman, as wife and mother.
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 our view of childhood directly onto the past.
Much of the tension in the investigation of age in the past arises from the assumption that we can link “biological” to “social” age…distinctions between the categories, particularly “child” cf. “adult,” are the product of the current limitations of osteological methods for age estimation in adults, and that using biological developmental standards for ageing results in the construction of artificial divisions of social and mental development between these categories…Also, in contrast to modern Western society where social age is closely linked to chronological age, in many “traditional” societies, stages of maturation are acknowledged in defining age...These stages take into account not only the chronological age but also the skills, personality and capacities of the individual.
Narrated Aisha (ra): I had seen my parents following Islam since I attained the age of reason [i.e., puberty]. Not a day passed, but the Prophet ﷺ visited us, both in the mornings and evenings.
For the first time in our evolutionary history, biological puberty in females significantly precedes, rather than being matched to, the age of successful functioning as an adult. This mismatch between the age of biological and psychosocial maturation constitutes a fundamental issue for modern society. Our social structures have been developed in the expectation of longer childhood, prolonged education and training, and later reproductive competence. This emerging mismatch creates fundamental pressures on contemporary adolescents and on how they live in society.
Narrated Aisha (ra): I used to play with dolls in the presence of the Prophet ﷺ, and my girlfriends also used to play with me. When Allah's Apostle ﷺ used to enter (my dwelling place) they used to hide themselves, but the Prophet ﷺ would call them to join and play with me. [The playing with the dolls and similar images is forbidden, but it was allowed for Aisha (ra) at that time, as she was a little girl, not yet reached the age of puberty].
I [Ibn Hajar] say: To say with certainty, [that she was not yet at the age of puberty] is questionable, though it might possibly be so. This, because A’isha (ra) was a 14-year-old girl at the time of the Battle of Khaybar—either exactly 14 years old, or having just passed her 14th year, or approaching it. As for her age at the time of the Battle of Tabook, she had by then definitely reached the age of puberty. Therefore, the strongest view is that of those who said: “It was in Khaybar” [i.e., when she was not yet at the age of puberty], and made reconciliation [between the apparent contradictory rulings of the permissibility of dolls in particular and the prohibition of images in general]...
Highly valued toys and childhood objects can be curated well into adulthood and passed on to subsequent generations of children; therefore, artefacts found in the archaeological record may not adequately reflect the full range of material culture used and cherished by the users.
An Exemplar in a Changing World
Divine Law, Marriage, and Maturity
Test orphans until they reach marriageable age; then, if you find they have sound judgment, hand over their property to them. Do not consume it hastily before they come of age: if the guardian is well off he should abstain from the orphan’s property, and if he is poor he should use only what is fair. When you give them their property, call witnesses in; but God takes full account of everything you do. (Al-Qur’an, 4:6)
In other words, the Qur’an sets an age limit for marriage. But what exactly is that limit? The text remains ambiguous with regard to a specific number, but Muslim scholars, particularly in the field of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), already understood what was implied. For example, when we examine the commentary of the 14th-century Syrian exegete and jurist Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), we find that he elaborated on the consensus surrounding the nature of ‘marriageable age’ as not referring to a specific number, but a physical development—the age of puberty.
A marriage could be contracted before either party was ready for sexual intercourse, but a marriage could not be consummated until both bride and groom were physically mature. Such maturity was not equated with puberty (the marker of legal majority), but rather could be reached before its onset. For a girl, readiness for sexual intercourse was signaled in large part by her appearance, by whether or not she had become an "object of desire," "fleshy" (samrna), or "buxom" (dakhmap), physical attributes that signified that she could now "endure intercourse.” Until such time, the marriage, although legally contracted, clearly lacked an essential element.
If you are in doubt, the period of waiting will be three months for those women who have ceased menstruation and for those who have not [yet] menstruated; the waiting period of those who are pregnant will be until they deliver their burden: God makes things easy for those who are mindful of Him. (Al-Qur’an, 65:4)
And similarly those who have attained puberty (balaghat) by age, but have not menstruated, based on the end of the verse [“And those who have not menstruated” (65:4)], meaning those who have reached puberty by age, but not by menstruation; [those who have attained puberty] by reaching the age of 15 years according to the opinion of both (Abu Yusuf and Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani) or 17 years according to the opinion of Abu Hanifah and Malik, but have not yet menstruated; when they divorce they observe a waiting period based on months as well.
1 David Mcclendon and Aleksandra Sandstrom, “Child marriage is rare in the U.S., though this varies by state,” Pew Research Center, November 1, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/01/child-marriage-is-rare-in-the-u-s-though-this-varies-by-state/
2 Jill Tucker, “Effort to bar child marriage in California runs into opposition,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 7, 2017, https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Effort-to-bar-juvenile-marriages-in-California-11268497.php
3 Marie Doezema, “France, Where Age of Consent Is Up for Debate,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/frances-existential-crisis-over-sexual-harassment-laws/550700/
4 “Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Accessed November 15, 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/MinimumAgeForMarriage.aspx
5 “Child marriage is a violation of human rights, but is all too common,” UNICEF Data, March 2018, https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/child-marriage/#
6 “German police uncover Darknet child pornography website with 90,000 users,” Independent, July 6, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/germany-child-pornography-website-90000-users-darknet-frankfurt-a7827146.html
7 Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 67, #69.
8 This position is relatively new and has only been proposed in the past few decades. It is a rather tenuous position to take, one which primarily relies on speculations about the age of Aisha according to obscure historical accounts and other hadiths.
9 David H. Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1970), pp. 135-140.
10Alberto Brandolini, Twitter Post, Jan 10, 2013, 11:29 pm, https://twitter.com/ziobrando/status/289635060758507521
11 Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, “World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.241.,” United Nations, 2015, https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/publications/files/key_findings_wpp_2015.pdf
12 Even when we take into account the high rates of infant mortality in ancient Rome, we still find that most adults did not live very long. Unfortunately, studies which purport that the average life expectancy of ancient people’s is similar to ours today often neglect to mention archeological evidence of a high proportion of Roman citizens’ gravestones and burial sites showing many died from disease, famine, war, labor, and natural disasters—circumstances which the contemporary world is far more prepared to handle. Likewise, to point to written records of famous historical figures living well into their 70s and beyond does nothing to support this point. It’s certainly the case that some people lived just as long as most people do today, but they were the exception and not representative of the broader population. Therefore, to suggest that ancient people had similar life expectancies to our own is simply wrong.
13 Patrick Browne, “Why the average ancient Roman worker was dead by 30,” The Local, May 27, 2016, https://www.thelocal.it/20160527/groundbreaking-study-reveals-brutal-realities-of-life-in-ancient-rome For full study: Andrea Piccioli et. al., Bones: Orthopaedic Pathologies in Roman Imperial Age (New York: Springer, 2015).
14 Kyle Harper, “Marriage and Family” in The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, Ed. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 685.
15 Nathan Pilkington, “Growing Up Roman: Infant Mortality and Reproductive Development,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 44:1 (2013), p. 6.
16 Daniel Nettle, "Flexibility in reproductive timing in human females: Integrating ultimate and proximate explanations," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366:1563 (2011), pp. 357-58.
17 Lisa A. Alberici and Mary Harlow, “Age and Innocence: Female Transitions to Adulthood in Late Antiquity,” Hesperia Supplements, 41 (2007), p. 195.
18 M.K. Hopkins, “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage,” Population Studies, 18:3 (1965), p. 313.
19 Vern L. Bullough, “Age of Consent,” Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 16:2-3 (2005), pp. 29-30.
20 John T. Fitzgerald, “Orphans In Mediterranean Antiquity and Early Christianity,” Acta Theologica, Suppl. 23 (2016), p. 33.
21 Prior to the advent of Islam, Arab culture was based primarily on the oral transmission of information. It wasn’t until the early Islamic conquests and the resulting subsuming of external societies (e.g., Persian and Roman) that Muslims adopted writing as a standard medium of communication.
22 Amram Tropper, “Children and Childhood in Light of the Demographics of the Jewish Family in Late Antiquity,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, 37:3 (2006), p. 332.
23 Mary Lewis, The Bioarchaeology of Children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 4.
24 Siân Halcrow and Nancy Tayles, “The Bioarchaeological Investigation of Childhood and Social Age: Problems and Prospects,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 15:2 (2008), p. 203.
25 Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 8, #465.
26 Sahih al-Bukhari 3894 and Sahih Muslim 1422a.
27 The fact that she reached puberty by age nine is further confirmed in other hadith, such as in Sunan Abi Dawud 4933.
29Sandra K. Cesario and Lisa A. Hughes, “Precocious Puberty: A Comprehensive Review of Literature,” Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing 36:3 (2007), pp. 263-274.
30 Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson, “Evolution, Development and Timing of Puberty,” Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, 17:1 (2006), p. 10.
31 Sahih al-Bukhari 6130 with commentary from Fath al-Bari, Vol. 13, p. 143.
32 Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, vol.13 (n.d.), p. 143.
33 “The prohibition of pictorial and figural representations is confirmed from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ from many sources. It is likely that what is accepted in the narration of Abu Salamah from Aisha (ra) preceded the expedition of Khaybar and that was before the forbiddance of images and representations, then their forbiddance was after that.” – Ahmad Ibn Husayn Bayhaqi, Al-Sunan Al-Kubra, V. 10, Ed. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Qadr Ata (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah, 2003), p. 371.
34 Laurie Wilkie, "Not Merely Child's Play: Creating a Historical Archaeology of Children and Childhood," in Children and Material Culture, Ed. Joanna Sofaer Derevenski (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 102.
35 Azhar Wan Ahmad, Public Interests (Al-Masalih al-Mursalah) in Islamic Jurisprudence: An Analysis of the Concept in the Shafi’i School (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 2003), pp. 27-28.
36 Ibid, pp. 5-6.
37 Mohammad Kamali, Principles of Islamic jurisprudence (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Texts Society, 1991), p. 45.
38 Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim — commenting on Al-Qur’an 4:6.
39 “The jurists who insist on guardianship in marriage seem to consider it to be a duty rather than a right of the guardian, or at least a synthesis of both. While the guardian has the right to conclude a marriage on his ward’s behalf and to give consent or object to her unwise choice, it is his duty to exercise this right in her best interests and he is enjoined to take her wishes into consideration.”– Quoted in Mahdi Zahraa, “The Legal capacity of women in Islamic law,” Arab Law Quarterly, 11:3 (1996), p. 260.
40 Lynn Welchman, Beyond the Code: Muslim Family Law and the Shari‘ Judiciary in the Palestinian West Bank (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000), pp. 108-109.
41 Judith Tucker, “Muftis and Matrimony: Islamic Law and Gender in Ottoman Syria and Palestine,” Islamic Law and Society, 1:3 (1994), p. 271.
42 The idea that the majority of our ancestors suffered from a mental disorder that made them attracted to children is a ludicrous notion unsubstantiated by any academic research.
43 This inference is made in conjunction with verse 33:49 in the Qur’an which stipulates that an unconsummated marriage does not require a waiting period in the case of divorce.
44 Imam ibn al-Humam, Fath al-Qadir, Vol. 4 (n.d.), p. 280.
45 Al-Shatibi, Muwafaqat, vol. 3/3, pp. 14-15.
46 Yossef Rapoport, “Royal Justice and Religious Law: Siyasah and Shari’ah under the Mamluks,” Mamluk Studies Review, 16 (2012), pp. 89–92.