Is it true that Muhammad married a child bride by the name of Ayesha when he was 53 and she was 9 years old?
If so, how do Muslims justify this from their “exemplary” Prophet?
The well-established, but not altogether agreed upon, tradition of Lady Ayesha’s age at the time of marrying Prophet Muhammad comes from a hadith in one of the most authentic collections – Sahih al-Bukhari in which Ayesha, herself, states: “The Messenger of God married me when I was six, and consummated the marriage with me when I was nine.”
Of all the criticism that Islam has endured since it appeared on the scene as a new religion fourteen centuries ago, the marriage of Muhammad to Ayesha was not one of them until fairly recently. Muslim apologists, those who defend the Islamic tradition, would argue that a reason for the absence of such criticism is that marriage and age are so historically and culturally contextual. So, for example, it means something very different to be 9 years old in a society in which life expectancy is short as opposed to long life expectancies in the modern West. In reality, the idea of young girls marrying and even conceiving was quite common in the medieval period. In Christianity, for example, it is commonly accepted that Lady Mary was between 12-14 years of age when she was married to Joseph and when she conceived Jesus of virgin birth. So, the Prophet’s marriage to Ayesha was nothing out of the ordinary for the time in which this marriage took place. Insisting on 21st century (Western) ideas on morality and marriage, which evolved in their own right, for a very different time and place is an ahistorical approach.
Furthermore, the argument goes, there was a great wisdom in the Prophet marrying Ayesha at such a young age. By every historical account, Ayesha grew up to be a very intelligent woman with a sharp memory and was quite bold in asserting herself during and after the Prophet’s life as a scholar, opinionated community leader and diplomat (far from anything you would expect from a supposedly oppressed child bride). According to the same hadith collection, Ayesha was only 18 years old when the Prophet died. She knew the Prophet inside-out, sharing an intimate space and home with him for 9 years and being at his side during major events. As such, Ayesha’s recollection of the Prophet’s Way (sunnah) was considered to be among the most reliable. Much of the authenticated hadith collection in Sunni Islam comes from the narratives of Ayesha, including some of the most intimate affairs of home life. In Sunni Islam it is often said that “one-third of the Shari’ah [sacred law] comes from Ayesha.” After the Prophet’s passing, Ayesha was considered one of the most important early scholars of the developing Islamic tradition until her death four decades later.
Another Muslim response to this question comes from the revisionists – those who engage in the scholarship of critical historical analysis, including aspects of the Prophet’s life [seerah], with other – perhaps lesser known – traditions or new findings. The argument of the revisionists is that despite the authentic hadith, there are other hadith from Ayesha herself in which she recollects an incident from the Prophet’s life which would indicate that she was, in fact, significantly older than 9 years old. In addition, reliable historians in the tradition from the earliest period record Ayesha as being 10 years younger than her sister, Lady Asma, who is recorded as being 28 years of age at the time of the epic migration from Mecca to Medina (hijra) which would make Ayesha around 15 at the time of her marriage and around 19 at the time her marriage was consummated.
In any case, it important to know that when Muslims look to the sunnah they have the example of the Prophet marrying women who were significantly older than himself and widowed as well. And, when it comes to the sacred law (Shari’ah) not everything the Prophet did is taken as precedence for doing. Rather, those who interpret the sacred law [fuqaha] and its application for every age and place have long ago established that culture and custom [urf] has significant weight. As such, many Muslim countries of, at least on paper, banned childmarriages not in defiance of the sunnah or shari’ah, but rather in accordance with its principles and maxims.
The Truth About Muhammad and Aisha (An Article in the Guardian)