Was Aisha really only Nine? Pt. 1

The following is taken from David Wood’s blog and can be accessed here: http://www.answeringmuslims.com/2019/11/was-aisha-really-only-nine.html.
Introduction
Sometimes you will read that there is debate over Aïsha’s age and that she may have been much older than nine when she married Muhammad.[1] Some of these claims are very strongly worded.
Recent researches have established beyond doubt that the age of ‘A’ishah (rta) at the time of the consummation her marriage with the Prophet (sws) was around nineteen or twenty. The Ahadith which report her age to be eight or nine years at the time of marriage are absolutely baseless.[2]
People can “debate” what they like; but this is not an issue among scholars. Aïsha’s age on her wedding day is one of the best-attested facts of Muhammad’s life. All the early traditions state that she was nine,[3] except for Ibn Hisham, who says she was “nine or ten.”[4] This suggests that Ibn Hisham was not sure and so wrote an approximation. Aïsha herself was completely sure. To be precise, she was nine years and three months, plus or minus five weeks.
Muhammad Ali’s Theory
The idea that Aïsha must have been significantly older – at least nubile and perhaps as old as 23 – was first introduced in 1923 by the Ahmadiya writer Muhammad Ali.[5] He seems to have been motivated by an intense embarrassment over the implication that Muhammad was a paedophile, which was not acceptable to him personally and which he knew would not be acceptable to Westerners.
Ali was unwilling to recognise that that his own morals were better than his Prophet’s, so he set out to rewrite history. He was not a scholar, and nearly every statement in his section on “The Prophet’s Marriages” is incorrect. He was apparently unaware that research must begin with a review of the literature, for he ignored the huge body of traditions that agree that Aïsha was married at nine. These traditions are supposed to be sound. If we make an arbitrary decision that they cannot be trusted, there is no reason why the traditions that Ali cited should be any more reliable than the ones he rejected.
However, by using only his favourite sources and ignoring the rest, he raked out three arguments for Aïsha’s being older.
1. Aïsha was engaged to someone else before she married Muhammad.
Argument
If Aïsha was old enough to be engaged, she must have been nearly grown up and much older than six.[6]
A later writer has pointed out that she was engaged to Jubayr as early as 616, so she must have been by that date “a young lady, quite prepared for marriage.”[7]
Answer
The sad truth is that betrothals were often arranged over cradles – not only in mediaeval Arabia but throughout human history. The pre-Islamic Arabs took this principle to an extreme, for they sometimes married off hypothetical daughters who had not yet been born.[8] So if Aïsha was engaged to Jubayr in 616, this does not prove that she was any particular age at that date. Indeed, it is not by itself proof that she had even been born.
2. Aïsha was close to Fatima’s age.
Argument
According to Ibn Hajar, Muhammad’s daughter Fatima:
was born at the time the Ka’bah was rebuilt, when the Prophet (pbuh) was 35 years old … she (Fatimah) was five years older that Ayesha (ra).[9]
The Kaaba was rebuilt in 605, so Aïsha must have been born in 610.[10] That would make her 13 at the time of her marriage-consummation in 623.
Answer
Something like this can be found in Ibn Hajar, but the “quote” is a deliberate misrepresentation. What is the meaning of the ellipsis? Which words were omitted? Ali did not mention that Ibn Hajar was quoting two separate traditions about Fatima. This is what Ibn Hajar actually wrote.
There has been a difference of opinion concerning Fatima’s year of birth. [Waqidi says] Fatima was born at the time the Kaaba was rebuilt, when the Prophet was 35 years old. [Abdalbarr says] Fatima was born when the Prophet was 41, shortly before the Prophet received revelation, a year or more. And she was 5 years older than Aisha.[11]
Waqidi’s tradition says that Fatima was born in 605 but it does not mention Aïsha. Abdalbarr’s tradition says that Fatima was born in 609 and that she was 5 years older than Aïsha, which places Aïsha’s birth in its accepted date of 614.[12]
In other words, Aïsha’s birthdate is not disputed, but Fatima’s is. To calculate Aïsha’s age from Waqidi’s version of Fatima’s age and then Abdalbarr’s version of the age-difference, knowing that they disagree about Fatima’s age, makes no sense at all.
3. Aïsha remembered when chapter 54 of the Quraan was first recited.
Argument
Chapter 54 was recited no later than 615, and Aïsha narrated that she was then a girl (jariya). So Aïsha must have been born no later than 610.[13] Later writers have added that a jariya is not a baby but “a young woman around adolescence or older”.[14] This would make Aïsha a teenager in 615, placing her well into her twenties in 623.
Answer 1
In fact there are very few parts of the Quraan that can be precisely dated. Sometimes the Quraan contains direct references to identifiable current affairs, but not often. More usually, historians rely on traditions that relate, “On occasion X, Allah sent down chapter Y.”[15] If we know the date of X (we don’t always) then we can infer the date of Y.
An important clue to the date of chapter 54 is that Aïsha remembered people talking about it.[16] Since Aïsha’s birthdate is known precisely, that means we can use it to work out a much vaguer event, such as when chapter 54 was written. The scholarly consensus from this and other similar clues is that chapter 54 was not written in 615 but in the year 617-618, when Aïsha would have been about four.[17]
Answer 2
As for the word jariya, the Arabs used it to mean a “little girl” who was old enough to walk.[18] If Aïsha was four, nobody would have called her a baby (sibya), a woman (amra’a) or a lady (sayyida). She was certainly a jariya.
Modern Apologetics
Modern bloggers and journalists still use Ali’s arguments in attempts to prove that “Aïsha was older”. They often bolster his case with an array of additional arguments, none of which is accepted by serious scholars. This mass of historical revision dates only from the late twentieth century, for it is not a longstanding or mainstream “controversy”.
4. Hisham ibn Urwa is an unreliable source.
The major narrator about Aïsha’s age is her grand-nephew Hisham. There are two main arguments against trusting Hisham.
Argument 1
A single narrator is not sufficient proof. There ought to be several narrators for an important event, otherwise it cannot be accepted.[19]
Answer 1
First, it is not a valid historical method to decide that “one narrator is not enough”. Yes, it is always preferable to have two independent witnesses; but there are many historical “facts” for which we have only one source. If that narrator was in a position to know the facts, and if he had no reason to mislead his audience, and if nothing is known that contradicts his narrative – then we would normally take the word of that one narrator.
Answer 2
More importantly, this is not true. Hisham is not the only narrator. Here are some versions of the tradition that did not pass through Hisham.
We were told by Abd ibn Humayd, who was told by Abdalrazzaq, who was told by Muammar, from Zuhri, from Urwa, from Aïsha, that the Prophet married her when she was seven, and she entered his house when she was nine, and she played with her toys; and he died when she was eighteen.[20]
Habib, the servant of Urwa, said: “… Aïsha was born at the beginning of the fourth year of prophethood, and she married the Messenger of Allah in the tenth year, in Shawwal, when she was six.”[21]
We were told by Yahya ibn Yahya (who said Ishaq told him), and by Ishaq ibn Ibrahim, by Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shayba and by Abu Kurayb, who were told by Abu Muaawiyah, from Al-Aamash, from Ibrahim, from Al-Aswad, from Aïsha, that she married Allah’s Messenger when she was six and entered his house when she was nine, and he died when she was eighteen years old.[22]
We were told by Ahmad ibn Saad ibn Hakam ibn Abi Maryam, who was told by his uncle, who was told by Yahya ibn Ayyub, who was told by Imara ibn Ghazan, from Muhammad ibn Ibrahim, from Abu Salama ibn Abdalrahman, from Aïsha, who said: “Allah’s Messenger married me when I was six years old and I entered his house when I was nine.”[23]
We were told by Qutayba, who was told by Aabthar, who was told by Mutarraf, from Abu Ubayda, from Aïsha, who said: “Allah’s Messenger married me when I was nine years old, and I lived with him for nine years.”[24]
It is said that at least eleven narrators reported from Aïsha and told the story of her wedding at age nine. There were additional narrators who learned the information from someone other than Aïsha.[25] To discredit the “Aïsha was nine” tradition, it would be necessary to discredit every single one of these narrators. Many of them are such important narrators that this would amount to discrediting the whole body of Islamic traditions – leaving us with no information about the life of Muhammad, not even a certainty that he existed.
The only real discrepancy is that while most traditions state that Aïsha was legally married when she was six, a few say she was seven.[26] This could mean that Aïsha was not completely sure of the date of the contract (after all, she was not present when it happened). Perhaps there was some legal hitch, due to the need to break off Aïsha’s first engagement and then to collect witnesses on a day when everyone was in town. It could be that what was first informally contracted in May 620 (when Aïsha was six) was not absolutely finalised until, say, November, when she had turned seven (lunar) years old. But there is no uncertainty about the date of consummation, which is always said to be at age nine.
Argument 2
Hisham’s memory became unreliable when he was elderly (when he narrated about Aïsha’s age). Malik ibn Anas talked about people who criticised the elderly Hisham.[27] Therefore no evidence from Hisham can be used.
Answer 3
This point is trying to fool the reader into assuming that if Hisham can be discredited, therefore all narratives about Aïsha’s age are unreliable. This is illogical. On the contrary, the fact that Hisham agrees with so many other narrators on this point strongly suggests that, whatever mistakes he might have made elsewhere, this particular narration is accurate.
Answer 4
In any case, the remarks about the elderly Hisham’s memory are misleading. Malik only wrote about the criticisms of Hisham’s memory to explain why he disagreed with the critics; in fact Malik reported over a hundred traditions from Hisham, so he must have trusted him by and large. Hisham was never accused of dishonestly inventing details to replace what he had forgotten or even of being confused. He just lost the perfect recall of his youth.[28] Ibn Saad’s summary is that Hisham “was reliable and firm, with a lot of narrations, and he was an authority.”[29]
Hisham’s memory lapses do not affect the traditions that still exist. What has come down to history is what he still remembered – not what he had forgotten!
5. Tabari says that Aisha was born before 610.
Argument
The Persian historian Tabari reports that Aïsha was born before 610, which would make her at least 14 when she was married in 623.[30] This is how Blankinship translates Tabari’s words.
In the Jahiliyyah, Abu Bakr married [Qutaylah]. She bore him Abdallah and Asma. He also married in the Jahiliyyah [Umm Ruman]. She bore him Abd al-Rahman and A’ishah. All of these four of his children were born in al-Jahiliyyah from his two wives whom we have named.[31]
This certainly suggests that Aïsha was born before the end of 610. Blankinship comments on his own translation:
This statement appears to contradict the alleged age of ‘A’ishah of nine years at the time of the consummation of her marriage to the Prophet in Shawwal 1 (April–May 623), for which see al-Baladhuri, Ansab, I, 409-11; Ibn Hajar, Isabah, IV, 359-60. Even if she was born at the end of the Jahiliyyah period, in 609 C.E., she would have been at least thirteen solar years old by the year 1/622-623.[32]
Answer
It is surprising that Blankinship wrote such a footnote, for he ought to have seen that the Arabic text is ambiguous. An equally valid way of translating Tabari’s last sentence would be:
All of these four of his children were born from his two abovenamed wives from al-Jahiliyyah.[33]
That is, Abu Bakr married the two wives in the Jahiliya, but no statement is being made about when any of the children were born. Note that Tabari goes on to emphasise that Abu Bakr married two further wives after Islam.
Therefore this passage is too ambiguous to be used as a case for Aïsha’s earlier birth-date because it does not assert that the four children were also born before Islam. If this were the only tradition we had about Aïsha’s age, we would have to conclude that we did not know whether she was born before or after Islam.
However, Blankinship’s interpretation contradicts such a huge body of evidence that Aïsha was not born until 613 or 614 that it emerges as the less likely meaning of the sentence.
6. Aïsha and her sister Asma.
Argument
Many historians say that Aïsha was 10 years younger than her sister Asma. Asma died in 73 AH aged 100 (i.e. in 692 AD aged 97 solar years) so she must have been born in 595 AD. That gives Aïsha a birth-year of 605, making her 18 when she was married in 623.[34]
Answer
The “many historians” who say that Asma was 10 years older than Aïsha are not independent witnesses; they are all quoting a single tradition from Abdalrahman ibn Abi’l-Zinaad.[35]
For example, Dhahabi’s dictionary of biography includes an entry on Asma. He begins with information that was not disputed, such as the names of her parents and a list of people who learned narrations from her. He includes this statement.
She was 13 to 19 years older than Aïsha.[36]
He continues with information for which he cites his sources, including:
Abdalrahman ibn Abi’l-Zinaad said she was 10 years older than Aisha.[37]
Obviously this is different from what he wrote earlier. It is significant that the first statement is the one in the “undisputed” section, while the second is added as an isolated variant; it implies that Dhahabi preferred the first and mainstream tradition.
So who was Ibn Abi’l-Zinaad, the man whose arithmetic disagrees with everyone else’s? He was the son of a servant of a wife of Caliph Uthman. He was born in the year 718-719, so he never met anyone who had known Muhammad. The historian Ibn Saad says that many of his narrations were weak.[38] Later generations did not consider him a great authority: he was described as “disturbed” in his narrations and “not a proof for scholars.”[39] The fact that some historians quoted him does not prove that they agreed with him. It only proves that they knew what he had said.
The fact that an unreliable narrator heard or calculated that the age difference was 10 years (a suspiciously round number) does not prove that everyone who disagreed with him was wrong. If there is a discrepancy, it is necessary to ask who is more likely to be accurate. Many sound narrations tell us Aïsha’s age. Only one doubtful narrator mentions the age-difference. Besides, common sense indicates that the report of a person’s age is more likely to be accurate than the report of an age-difference.
If the age-difference between Asma and Aïsha is uncertain, then the alleged age-difference cannot be used to calculate Aïsha’s age. Even if the age-difference were certain, this would not prove that Aïsha had misreported her age. It might be that the less famous Asma was the one whose age was wrongly reported.
How old was Asma? The only narrator who reports her age as 100 is her grandson Hisham, the same Hisham whose memory was supposed to be “unreliable” concerning Aïsha![40] If his multiple narrations about Aïsha are untrustworthy, then his single narration about Asma cannot be trusted either. Asma’s age is far less established than Aïsha’s.
The truth is, the daughter of Abu Bakr should have known her age, and there is no reason to doubt that Hisham reliably reported what he heard. But what did he hear? Elderly people did tend to round up their ages, especially in a context where the exact age did not matter. Perhaps Hisham heard Asma saying something like, “Never in all my hundred years have I seen …” Nobody would accuse her of “lying” if she had really been only 95 or even 90.
Further, if Asma had literally lived to be 97 solar years, she would have been 49 when her son Urwa was born in 644,[41] which is possible but improbable.
The traditional view is that Asma was born in 595 and that she was 19 years older than Aïsha. This could be correct. But perhaps she was born as late as 601, making her only 13 years older than Aïsha (close enough to the unreliable “10”), a plausible 43 when she gave birth to Urwa, and a venerable 91 (or 94 lunar, close enough to the round 100) when she died in 692.
In summary, we know Aïsha’s date of birth, but we not quite so certain of Asma’s. However, the really doubtful information is the claim of a “10-year age difference”. This is completely unreliable and it does not help us calculate the age of either sister.

2 thoughts on “Was Aisha really only Nine? Pt. 1

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