Continuing from the previous part (https://answeringislamblog.wordpress.com/2019/11/16/was-aisha-really-only-nine-pt-2/).
15. Very young marriage was normal in pre-Islamic Arabia.
It is argued:
The marriage happened 1400 ago, not today. At that time, their marriage was not considered unusual …and the proof is that the enemies of Muslims at that time did not criticize this marriage. They attacked prophet Mohammad on many issues, yet they didn’t criticize his marriage to Aisha.
The argument seems to be that because the marriage was culturally normal, there was nothing morally wrong with it.
Actually we do not know whether this marriage was culturally normal or not. We do not know much about the pre-Islamic Arabs because they left no written records.
It is true that there have been many cultures where it was normal for marriages to be arranged at a very young age and consummated immediately after puberty. However, there have not been many cultures where it was normal for a marriage to be consummated before puberty. People who believe that pre-Islamic Arabia was the exception to this norm should produce evidence to support their case.
These two issues should not be conflated. The first issue is that Aïsha was legally married before she was mentally mature enough to give informed consent. Further, her father forgot to tell her that she was married, so she had no opportunity to consent anyway. While no woman should be married without her own consent, whether she is six, sixteen, thirty-six or sixty, it was indeed “culturally normal” in most of the world.
Nevertheless, although this unethical practice of marrying infants was commonplace in Muhammad’s culture, it was certainly not universal. The Jews believed that a girl could not be validly married until she was mentally old enough to consent and she expressed her willingness. Muhammad claimed to be a prophet in the line of the Jews, so he should have had the same moral understanding as the Jews in Medina.
Even some Muslims in the generation after Muhammad felt uncomfortable about child-marriage, for they disputed whether a little girl was able to give informed consent to such a contract. They concluded that the debate about child-marriage only applied to children under nine, for:
The Prophet married a nine-year-old. Aisha said: “If she reaches the age of nine years, she is a woman.”
If the scholars needed to debate a minimum age, and if Aïsha needed to spell it out for them, then it was not a universally accepted cultural norm.
Therefore there were some people even in seventh-century Arabia who felt uneasy about child-marriage; but they were probably a minority. If pre-natal betrothals were legal, that suggests that the average Arab did not find anything wrong with marrying off children. Far from being ahead of his times, Muhammad held views on child-marriage that appear to have been average and mainstream for his culture. If we are to judge Muhammad by the standards of his own culture, the fact that he contracted marriage with a child is not too surprising.
The second issue, quite separate from Aïsha’s infant betrothal, is the fact that her marriage was consummated before she had reached puberty.
That was almost certainly abnormal. Most cultures throughout history have understood that a girl should not be touched before puberty. This is not a “cultural” norm based on the need to complete a certain type of education or to achieve a certain level of life-experience. It is a biological norm based on evolution. The idea of waiting until puberty is found in nearly all cultures.
The Jews in Medina most certainly understood this. It is assumed in the Bible that puberty is the minimum age of consent, and it is spelled out in the Talmud that a bride must have passed menarche in addition to being at least twelve and a half years old and of sound mind.
Unlike the informed consent issue, which simply reveals that Muhammad was a product of his culture, his willingness to consummate his marriage with Aïsha betrays that he was different from his own culture. He rejected the moral norms of his wisest contemporaries and abused a little girl for no better reason than that Abu Bakr had made it easy for him to do so. He demonstrated for once and for all that he had no timeless, universal moral insight to offer the world – in short, that he was not a prophet.
If the pagan Arabs had considered child-marriage wrong, Muhammad’s enemies would have criticised him for doing it.
Interestingly, of the many criticisms of Muhammad made at the time by his opponents, none focused on Aisha’s age at marriage. According to this perspective, Aisha may have been young, but she was not younger than was the norm at the time.
It would be difficult to prove that Muhammad’s enemies never criticised his marriage to Aïsha. We don’t know what people said behind closed doors; and we don’t know what they said that was of no interest to Muslim historians. Muhammad tended to assassinate his critics, so most people were afraid to say what they really thought of his behaviour. Those who did speak out focused on their really big complaint, which was that Muhammad killed people.
Even if it is true that early Arabia was such an ignorant, immoral and unmonitored culture that many girls were married off before puberty and nobody cared: so what? All that would prove would be that seventh-century Arabs did not understand children’s rights. It would not prove that their culture was morally correct.
Nothing is morally right just because it is culturally acceptable. For example, sixth-century Arabs buried unwanted babies in the sand (although the public opinion began to turn against this practice shortly before Muhammad’s time). Muhammad did not condone child-killing on the grounds that it was part of his culture; he joined the modern moralists who condemned it as murder.
Muhammad claimed that Allah had sent him to tidy up the “evil” things that were wrong with pre-Islamic culture. If child-marriage really had been part of Arabian culture, then it should have been Muhammad’s job to stop it, not to perpetrate it.
Mohammed was a son of his time and by his time must his actions be justified. Agreed. This fact, as we said at the very outset, might and would make us excuse and justify an ordinary man, the story of whose life is being told relatively to his times; and were Mohammedans consistent in taking this line, there would be the less to be said … Well, it may have been good enough for Arabia in the Seventh Century. But we were talking, we thought, of humanity for all time?
16. Aïsha suffered no harm from being a child-bride.
The argument seems to be that since Aïsha never suffered any adverse consequences, there was obviously nothing immoral about her child-marriage.
when a child is abused he suffers terrible physiological consequences … [Aïsha] lived the rest of her life in loyalty to him and honoring his name as the beloved one who was a cause of her joy and pride in this life and the life hereafter. Were there any women happier than her in marriage as her with him? Surely not.
The assessment that Aïsha had a very happy marriage is inaccurate. Although she loved Muhammad and was proud of her status as the Prophet’s wife, it is clear that many aspects of their marriage made her unhappy.
Our problem is that we don’t have enough information to make direct cause-and-effect links. It is difficult to assess how much of her unhappiness was due to her marrying too young, how much to her husband’s infidelity and how much to the general problem of living in a brutal culture where there was little respect for anyone’s rights.
Was there “harm” done to Aïsha? Yes, beyond question. It is obvious that she sometimes dealt with the multiple difficulties presented by her life-situation by being equally disrespectful to people around her. However, we are in no position to gauge the extent to which her character flaws were directly caused by sexual abuse or by some other form of abuse as opposed to being ordinary human faults. We do not know how far her capacity for psychological intimacy was damaged, because we do not have enough information about her closest relationships. We do not know whether she grew up with an unhealthy sexuality, because her adult life was celibate. We do not even know how far her good traits can be attributed to the positive aspects of her childhood and how far to a personal determination to overcome difficulties.
It is possible that Aïsha did in fact suffer “terrible consequences” due to her abused childhood. Perhaps, if her childhood had been more normal, she would have chosen to forgive Ali early, and hence she would never have fought the Battle of the Camel. We just don’t have enough information to determine what drove her motivations.
Even if – for the sake of argument – we could demonstrate that Aïsha never suffered any harm from being married too young: so what? That is like saying: “I didn’t suffer any harm when the burglar stole my laptop. It was an old laptop that I was about to throw out, and now my insurance company has paid for a new one.” The lack of actual “harm” does not alter the principle that the burglar was wrong to steal.
Similarly, nothing can alter the principle that a fifty-two-year-old man should have known better than to engage sexually with a nine-year-old.
17. People who criticise this marriage are people with a problem.
Some modern writers make emotive suggestions that people who criticise Muhammad for marrying a child are almost as bad as people who use his example as an excuse for practising child-marriage today.
Those who manipulate [Aïsha’s] story to justify the abuse of young girls, and those who manipulate it in order to depict Islam as a religion that legitimises such abuse have more in common than they think. Both demonstrate a disregard for what we know about the times in which Muhammad lived, and for the affirmation of female autonomy which her story illustrates.
These arguments are simply emotional appeals lacking in logical content. They try to discredit people who criticise Muhammad by discussing the critics’ flaws instead of Muhammad’s.
These writers are usually Westernised Muslims who want to present Muhammad as a good person yet at the same time want everyone to behave better than he did. While they agree that some of Muhammad’s behaviour is “not suitable for today,” they don’t allow anyone to criticise Muhammad for setting an unsuitable example. Hence, they allege, people who blame a modern atrocity on Muhammad’s example are almost as bad as people who commit the atrocity. Critics who make a direct connection – that some people behave badly because they are copying Muhammad – must be motivated by hatred.
But common sense shows that there is no moral equivalence between people who commit child-marriage and people who complain about child-marriage. One group cares about children and wants to save little girls from lives of sexual abuse and domestic drudgery. The other group rejects the concept of children’s rights in order to use little girls as sex objects and domestic slaves. As long as the second group uses the excuse, “Muhammad set the example,” the first group must reply, “Muhammad was wrong to set that example.”
Was Muhammad a Paedophile?
Critics of Islam often include the charge that Muhammad’s marriage to a child made him a “paedophile”. This is an emotive word that of course provokes strong protests from Muslims.
If the question is “Was Muhammad mentally ill?” or “Did Muhammad have anti-social personality disorder?” the answer is that we don’t know. We don’t have enough information to make a formal psychiatric diagnosis about a person who lived so long ago.
If the question is “Would a modern law-court convict Muhammad of child molestation?” then of course the answer is yes. It would also convict Abu Bakr for facilitating and perhaps Umm Ruman and Asma for failing to protect. But this is beside the point, for Muhammad lived in a society were his actions were not recognised as criminal. If he had lived in our society, knowing that child molestation could be punished, he might well have behaved differently – we don’t know.
While there is no real point in asking whether Muhammad was mentally ill or criminally liable, the question that we can ask is: “Do Muhammad’s actions with Aïsha meet the diagnostic criteria for paedophilia?” Definitions of behaviour are always changing, but the DSM-5 gives this definition of “paedophilic disorder”.
Over a period of at least 6 months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger).
For at least five years, the adult Muhammad was involved in sexual activity with a prepubescent child. Therefore his behaviour meets the definition of “paedophilic disorder”. The reason he stopped his paedophilia was not, of course, due to his ceasing his sexual activity but due to the child’s reaching puberty.
We can see that most objections to labelling Muhammad’s behaviour as a paedophilic do not stand up to this official definition.
“We cannot prove that Muhammad had sexual fantasies or urges involving children.” No, we cannot, but we don’t need to. The definition does not say “and behavior” but “or behavior”. So if his behaviour meets the criterion, that is sufficient for a verdict of paedophilic disorder, and we don’t need to know his thoughts.
“Muhammad’s primary sexual interest was in adult women; Aïsha was an exception.” Yes, Muhammad was attracted to females of every age under forty-five. But this is irrelevant. The definition does not require that a paedophile be attracted exclusively to children. In fact, it recognises these sub-types.
Exclusive Type (attracted only to children)
Muhammad’s paedophilic disorder was of the non-exclusive type; it did not cease to be paedophilic.
“Muhammad did not have sexual activity with numerous children, but only with Aïsha.” This is also irrelevant. The definition says “child or children”. Sexual activity only needs to be directed to one child to meet the definition of paedophilia.
However, see chapter 20 [of Unveiled – The Nineteen Wives of Muhammad] for the stories of two children even younger than Aïsha in whom Muhammad also showed sexual interest. Nor can we be absolutely certain that Muhammad’s “small” wife Mulayka (chapter 14) had reached menarche. We cannot prove that he had fantasies or urges about these children, or that his interest in any of them lasted as long as 6 months; but the dating (i.e., after Aïsha had reached puberty) is circumstantial evidence that he continued to be attracted to children even after Aïsha grew up.
Does Muhammad’s behaviour meet the formal definition of paedophilic disorder? Yes. According to the standards of his own culture, should he have known better? Yes. Is it appropriate to label Muhammad a “paedophile”? That depends on what you hope to achieve. There are some situations where it is better to steer clear of name-calling and anger-stirring because it will defeat your purpose. There are other situations that call for objective accuracy, even if that means using a clinical term like “paedophile”.
When people desperately insist that Aïsha could not have been a nine-year-old bride, we need to ask those people about their motives. Obviously they are not worried about Aïsha herself. She is dead, and it is too late to help her.
Do these apologists harbour some obscure hope that, if only they could convince the world that Aïsha was not a child-bride, then child-marriage among Muslims today would stop?
That will not work, for the weight of history is against them. There are several groups of people who are unlikely to give up their belief that Muhammad married a nine-year-old just because of a few cyberspace debates.
1. Muslims who know Islamic history. These people are not necessarily scholars, but they know what their traditions have always taught. They do not necessarily believe that child-marriage is acceptable for today, but they do tend to assume that it must have been all right for Muhamad.
2. Adult men who want to marry little girls. They do not necessarily care about the truth or about Islam (although some of them do), but they find it convenient to use Muhammad’s example as their justification.
3. People who hate Islam. Again, they do not necessarily care about the truth (although some of them do), but they will grab any excuse to prove that Muhammad was a very bad person.
4. People who care about children’s rights and, as a step towards stopping child-marriage, want an honest understanding of why it is happening. Some of these people also “hate” Islam (the philosophy), but only as a result of caring about human rights and not because they hate any group of people.
5. People who care about the truth, no matter what that might happen to be.
Trying to argue that “Muhammad did not marry a nine-year-old” is unhelpful because it is untrue. The weak and silly claim that “Aïsha was older than nine” might convince Westernised Muslims (the kind of people who would never support child-marriage anyway) and it might convince uninformed Westerners who want to believe the best of other cultures. But it will not convince anyone who knows Islamic history, with the result that it will not stop child-marriage in Islamic cultures.
Or is the history-rewriters’ true priority something quite different? Perhaps their real focus is not on Aïsha at all but on Muhammad. Perhaps they want to make him look like a hero, someone whose behaviour would be palatable and even inspiring to the West. That means they have to explain away any behaviour that the West would find unheroic, distasteful or despicable. Perhaps their true goal is to make Muhammad look good at any cost.
In that case, they should bear in mind that it is real children, this very day, who are paying that cost.
About the Author
Tara MacArthur is a pseudonym. If you ever meet a person whose real name is Tara MacArthur, she is not the author of this article.
More of Tara’s writings can be accessed online via http://www.answeringmuslims.com/2018/09/tara-is-free.html.
Continue to the final part of the response (https://answeringislamblog.wordpress.com/2019/11/16/was-aisha-really-only-nine-pt-4/).