In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
One of the more disturbing and outrageous accusations against Islam is the claim that the Prophet was lustful towards young women, in particular by his marriage to Aisha bint Abi Bakr. When the evidence is presented in context, we find that the allegation is baseless.
Scholars disagree concerning the age of Aisha when she married the Prophet, the earliest estimate being that she was nine-years old. This means that the marriage contract was ratified after Aisha reached puberty, which was considered adulthood in ancient Arab society. A marriage between an older man and a younger woman was customary and socially appropriate in that era, considering that such marriages were an important means of survival in a harsh desert environment and that people had much lower life expectancy than they have today.
Colin Turner of the University of Durham Middle East Studies department explains the context of the Prophet’s marriage:
A marriage between an older man and a young girl was customary among the Bedouins, as it still is in many societies across the world today. It was not unheard of in Muhammad’s time for boys and girls to be promised to each other in marriage almost as soon as they were born, particularly if the union was of direct political significance to the families concerned. However, such marriages were almost certainly not consummated until both parties had entered adulthood, which Arabs in the 7th century tended to reach at an earlier age than Westerners today. It is highly unlikely that Muhammad would have taken Aisha into his bed until she was at least in her early teens, which was wholly in keeping with the customs of the day, and in context not in the least improper.
Source: Turner, Colin. Islam: the basics, Routledge 2006, p. 34-35.
Likewise, Karen Armstrong writes:
There was no impropriety in Muhammad’s betrothal to Aisha. Marriages conducted in absentia to seal an alliance were often contracted at this time between adults and minors who were even younger than Aisha. This practice continued in Europe well into the early modern period. There was no question of consummating the marriage until Aisha reached puberty, when she would be married off like any other girl.
Source: Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: a prophet for our time, Harper Collins 2006, p. 105.
Christian tradition records a similar marriage between the much older Joseph to the young Virgin Mary. The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
A year after his wife’s death, as the priests announced through Judea that they wished to find in the tribe of Juda a respectable man to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age. Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went up to Jerusalem among the candidates.
Source: Knight, Kevin. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent, 1995.
Christians cannot possibly use the Prophet’s marriage to condemn Islam, for if they do so then they would have to condemn Saint Joseph, the husband of Virgin Mary. This they can never do.
Furthermore, marriage in Islam is not simply about sex. Marriage is a spiritual agreement based upon “love and mercy” (30:21). Ratifying a marriage contract does not necessitate sex. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Prophet had sex with Aisha before puberty. The Prophet prohibited the Muslims from discussing their bedroom secrets.
Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ مِنْ أَشَرِّ النَّاسِ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ مَنْزِلَةً يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ الرَّجُلَ يُفْضِي إِلَى امْرَأَتِهِ وَتُفْضِي إِلَيْهِ ثُمَّ يَنْشُرُ سِرَّهَا
Verily, the most evil of people in front of Allah on the Day of Resurrection is a man who is intimate with his wife and then spreads her secrets.
Source: Sahih Muslim 1437, Grade: Sahih
In light of this, it cannot be said that there is any evidence at all that the Prophet committed pedophilia.
It is well-known that the Prophet’s marriage to Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, was contracted for the furtherance of his spiritual mission. She was a scholar and one of his principle disciples. She is the top narrator of the Prophet’s traditions among women and she transmitted more of his traditions than most of the male narrators. The male companions of the Prophet would go to her seeking her spiritual and religious advice.
Abu Musa reported:
مَا أَشْكَلَ عَلَيْنَا أَصْحَابَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ حَدِيثٌ قَطُّ فَسَأَلْنَا عَائِشَةَ إِلَّا وَجَدْنَا عِنْدَهَا مِنْهُ عِلْمًا
We never had a problem occur to us, the companions of the Messenger of Allah, except that we would ask Aisha and find with her some knowledge concerning it.
Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 3883, Grade: Sahih
Masruq reported: He was asked, “Was Aisha knowledgeable of the obligations?” Masruq said:
وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَقَدْ رَأَيْتُ مَشْيَخَةَ أَصْحَابِ مُحَمَّدٍ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ الْأَكَابِرَ يَسْأَلُونَهَا عَنْ الْفَرَائِضِ
By the one in whose hand is my soul, I saw the learned elders among the companions of Muhammad ask her about the obligations.
Source: Musnaf Ibn Abi Shayba 30387, Grade: Hasan
Neither can it be said that the Prophet ever abused her or harmed her. As Aisha herself says:
مَا ضَرَبَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ خَادِمًا لَهُ وَلَا امْرَأَةً وَلَا ضَرَبَ بِيَدِهِ شَيْئًا
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, never struck anything with his hand, neither a woman nor a servant, unless he was fighting in the path of Allah.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2328, Grade: Sahih
It might now be argued that because the Prophet is the best example of character in Muslim theology, therefore, Muslims should copy him in the most literal sense by marrying a nine year-old girl. The answer to this is that the Quran does not prescribe the legal age of marriage, because the customs (‘urf) of a people change over time and place. One of the five principles of the school of Ash-Shafi’ee states:
Customs are a basis of judgment.
Source: al-Ashbāh wal-Naẓāʼir 7-8
In fact, there is evidence that the Prophet generally encouraged men and women to be of the same age when they get married.
Buraida reported: Abu Bakr and Umar offered a marriage proposal to the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
She is too young.
Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 3221, Grade: Sahih
Then Ali, who was the same age as Fatimah, proposed to her and the Prophet married her to him.
Al-Qari comments on this tradition, saying:
الْمُرَادُ أَنَّهَا صَغِيرَةٌ بِالنِّسْبَةِ إِلَيْهِمَا لِكِبَرِ سِنِّهِمَا وَزَوَّجَهَا مِنْ عَلِيٍّ لِمُنَاسَبَةِ سِنِّهِ لَهَا
The meaning could be that she was too young to be suitable for the older age of Abu Bakr and Umar, so the Prophet married her to Ali who was of suitable age.
Source: Mirqāt al-Mafātīḥ 6104
Hence, Muslims are free to modify worldly customs in accordance with Islamic ethics and the changing situation of developed societies. In this regard, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
أَنْتُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِأَمْرِ دُنْيَاكُمْ
You are more knowledgeable about the affairs of your world.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2363, Grade: Sahih
For a number of reasons owing to the circumstances of modern life, Muslims have in practice imposed a legal age limit upon the marriageable age. The vast majority of Muslim countries have set the marriageable age between sixteen and eighteen years.
In sum, the Prophet’s marriage to Aisha was appropriate considering the circumstances of life in ancient Arabia. Their marriage was not based upon lust or abuse, but rather upon their shared spiritual mission to deliver the teachings of Islam to humanity.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.