Home / All / Prophet’s Marriage to ‘Āyisha, A Hadith that Become a Reason for Islamophobia

Prophet’s Marriage to ‘Āyisha, A Hadith that Become a Reason for Islamophobia

In late September of 2022, I passed the final exam (viva/defence) for my PhD at Oxford University, pending minor corrections. The subject of my thesis was the famous and controversial hadith about the Islamic prophet Muḥammad’s marriage to his wife ʿĀʾišah bt. ʾabī Bakr at a young age: according to the dominant version of the hadith, she was six or seven at the time of her marital engagement, and nine at the time of her marital consummation.[1] For example, the following is recorded in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Buḵārī, the most authoritative collection within the Sunnī Hadith canon:

Muḥammad b. Yūsuf related to us: “Sufyān related to us, from Hišām, from his father, from ʿĀʾišah, that the Prophet married her when she was a girl of six years, and she was taken to him when she was a girl of nine, and she lived with him nine [years].”[2]

I subjected this hadith to successive textual-critical, form-critical, geographical, and historical-critical analyses, leading to the discovery of strong indications that all versions of the hadith originated in Iraq in the middle of the 8th Century CE. In other words, based upon my findings, the proposition that Muḥammad’s marriage to ʿĀʾišah was consummated when the latter was nine cannot be verified as a genuine historical memory from the early 7th Century CE.

When people learn about my thesis topic, they often ask me how I came to study this hadith, or else, what I think the ramifications of my results will be. Thus, what follows is a summary of how I encountered this hadith; why I chose to study it; what I think of the hadith’s social impact hitherto; and how I envisage the effect of my findings forthwith. By contrast, the details of my research—my arguments, evidence, and conclusions—will be enumerated elsewhere.

I first encountered the hadith of ʿĀʾišah’s marital age as a teenage New Atheist and Islamophobe. Like many New Atheists and Islamophobes, I saw myself as a champion for “Western civilisation”, “Enlightenment values”, “Science”, “Reason”, and similar empty slogans, and regarded religion in general (as a New Atheist) and Islam in particular (as an Islamophobe) to be the cause of most of the world’s social and political ills. That being the case, nothing could be nobler than to criticise religion in general and Islam in particular, for doing so (somehow) made the world a better place.

In reality, of course, New Atheists and especially Islamophobes are motivated by insecurity, resentment, and xenophobia, and I was no exception: the aforementioned lofty rhetoric and grand pronouncements merely served as rationalisations for a superiority complex, delusions of grandeur, and, above all, lashing out against various scapegoats. For Islamophobes, the target is Muslims (and often “Leftist collaborators” as well), but such resentment could just as easily be directed against any other minority or out-group (relative to any given society), with similarly-flimsy pretexts. Indeed, the old anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, and anti-Italian xenophobia that flourished in the United States of America for several centuries was rationalised almost identically to the current wave of Islamophobia: the targets change from one generation to the next, but the pretexts remain more or less the same.[3]

In the course of my early Islamophobic investigations and polemics, I quickly identified the greatest ideological vulnerability for Muslims (at least in English-speaking spaces): Muḥammad’s marriage to his wife ʿĀʾišah at a young age. Over the course of half a decade of Islamophobic activism, I returned to this issue again and again: of all the stock assertions and material in the Islamophobe’s repertoire, nothing is more effective at harassing, distressing, and browbeating Muslims than the hadith of ʿĀʾišah’s marital age.[4]

Naturally, Islamophobes will assert (as indeed did I) that the Muslim ( Sunni Muslims) acceptance of the authenticity of this hadith causes child marriage amongst Muslims—a grave social ill. Therefore, by criticising Muslims for accepting this hadith, Islamophobes claim that they are (somehow) making the world a better place.

This is false on two counts. Firstly, in my experience at least, most Islamophobes are simply lying or deluding themselves: when a Muslim does reject the hadith in question, Islamophobes will usually gleefully point out that the hadith is canonical (at least for Sunnī Muslims), such that the Muslim must accept it. If the goal of the Islamophobe was really to eradicate child marriage, then this makes no sense—why are they taunting their Muslim interlocutor, or indeed, arguing in such a way as to move their Muslim interlocutor towards accepting a hadith that validates child marriage? If, however, the true intention or impulse of the Islamophobe is simply to lash out at Muslims, then this makes perfect sense: no matter what position Muslims take, Islamophobes will always find some pretext to attack them. This is true for most bigots (including racists, xenophobes, and homophobes), in my experience: their cited rationales invariably turn out to be pretexts, and their real motivation is simply a deep, seething resentment, hatred, or discomfort towards their given target group.

Secondly, the claim that the acceptance of the marital-age hadith causes Muslims to engage in child marriage is clearly unsound. Putting aside more ludicrous (essentialist or supernatural) versions of the claim,[5] the charitable interpretation thereof is something like this: [Sunnī] Muslims accept as reliable this hadith depicting the Prophet marrying a child; [Sunnī] Muslims believe that the Prophet is an exemplar; therefore, [Sunnī] Muslims believe that it is acceptable to marry children; therefore, [Sunnī] Muslims marry children. Even conceptually, there is an obvious problem here: it is the Muslim interpretation of the hadith that is going to determine whether and how Muslims act thereon, not the hadith (or the mere acceptance of the hadith) itself. Therefore, the actual cause of Muslim child marriage motivated by this hadith (to the extent that it even occurs) is going to have to be whatever is modulating Muslim interpretations of the hadith, not the hadith (or the mere acceptance of the hadith) itself. After all, something other than the hadith is going to have to explain whether the text is interpreted as figurative or literal; and if the latter, then whether it was a special case for the Prophet or his time or a general standard for all people and all times; and if the latter, then whether ʿĀʾišah was indeed a child at the time.

This is not theoretical: the most frequent response by Muslims that I have encountered to this hadith by far is that ʿĀʾišah was not a child in any meaningful sense, being pubescent or otherwise physically mature already at a young age.[6] Indeed, to my surprise, this is not merely a modern concoction by Muslim apologists: the notion that ʿĀʾišah was pubescent or physically developed is actually the more common interpretation of the hadith that I have encountered in classical Islamic scholarship. For example:

  • According to the Persian historian and jurist Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), “ʿĀʾišah was—on the day that he married her—a prepubescent girl (ṣaḡīrah), unfit for sexual intercourse (lā taṣluḥu li-l-jimāʿ).”[7] The implication here is that ʿĀʾišah’s marital consummation was postponed until she reached puberty, at age nine, as Jonathan Brown has also noted.[8]
  • According to the Baghdadi Hadith scholar and jurist ʾAḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241/855), a marriage cannot be arranged for a girl who has not attained puberty (lam takun balaḡat) by anyone other than her father; however, when such a girl reaches the age of nine, she can now delegate authority and must be consulted on such matters—all on the basis of the ʿĀʾišah hadith.[9] Likewise, a husband should not provide marital maintenance (nafaqah) for a prepubescent girl (ṣaḡīrah), since his marriage to her cannot yet be consummated; however, when she reaches the age of nine, the marriage can be consummated and maintenance henceforth becomes obligatory—again, all on the basis of the ʿĀʾišah hadith.[10] Ibn Ḥanbal thus seems to imply that ʿĀʾišah attained puberty at age nine and that this was the precondition for her marital consummation, since he repeatedly associates this hadith with the notion that age nine marks the onset of menarche, puberty, and suitability for marital consummation, as Kecia Ali has also noted.[11]
  • According to ʿĀʾišah herself (or rather, a later tradent placing words in her mouth), in a variant of the famous hadith of “the slander” (al-ʾifk) recorded by the Hadith scholar Sulaymān b. ʾAḥmad al-Ṭabarānī (d. 360/971): “The Messenger of God (s.) married me when I was [still so young that I would play in] the rain in Makkah, and what I had was not what men desire (wa-mā ʿindī mā yarḡabu fī-hi al-rijāl)—when I was six years old.”[12] By implication, ʿĀʾišah had what men desired (i.e., a physically-developed body) by the time that the marriage was consummated, at age nine.

This is made explicit in the Ḥanafī tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, with a succession of Ḥanafī masters in Transoxiana affirming that ʿĀʾišah attained puberty at age nine, and that this served as the catalyst for her belated marital consummation with the Prophet:

  • According to Muḥammad b. ʾAḥmad al-Saraḵsī (d. 483/1090): “It is obvious that he consummated the marriage with her after [she had attained] puberty (al-ẓāhir ʾanna-hu baná bi-hā baʿda al-bulūḡ).”[13]
  • This is repeated by Burhān al-Dīn Maḥmūd b. ʾAḥmad (d. 616/1219): “It is obvious that he consummated the marriage with her after [she had attained] puberty (al-ẓāhir ʾanna-hu baná bi-hā baʿda al-bulūḡ).”[14]
  • Finally, according to Tāj al-Šarīʿah Maḥmūd b. Ṣadr (d. 673/1274-1275): “As was transmitted from ʿĀʾišah, she reached puberty (balaḡat) at the beginning (raʾs) of nine years, and it is transmitted that the Prophet consummated marriage with her when nine years came upon her. And it is known that the marital consummation of the Messenger of God could only be for [the purposes of] reproduction and procreation (maʿlūm ʾanna al-bināʾ min rasūl allāh lā yakūnu ʾillā li-l-tawālud wa-al-tanāsul), which do not come into effect except after puberty (wa-lā yataḥaqqaqāni ʾillā baʿda al-bulūḡ); thus, her puberty was known by that (fa-ʿulima bi-ḏālika bulūḡu-hā).”[15]

Of course, there are some exceptions:

  • According to the Hijazo-Egyptian jurist Muḥammad b. ʾIdrīs al-Šāfiʿī (d. 204/820): “two conditions (al-ḥālān), which are that there was marital engagement (al-nikāḥ) and marital consummation (al-duḵūl) with the two of them, were [in effect] when ʿĀʾišah was [still] a minor (ṣaḡīrah).”[16]
  • According to the Khurasani Hadith scholar Muḥammad b. ʾIsmāʿīl al-Buḵārī (d. 256/870), the ʿĀʾišah hadith exemplifies the following topic: “The father’s marrying off his prepubescent girls (ʾinkāḥ al-rajul walada-hu al-ṣiḡār) [is permitted] according to His (the Sublime)’s statement, “and those who have not menstruated” (wa-allāʾī lam taḥiḍna) [Q. 65:4]; He set their post-marital waiting period (ʿiddah) at three months, [in the case of marriages that are consummated] before puberty (qabla al-bulūḡ).”[17]

However, al-Šāfiʿī and al-Buḵārī appear to be in the minority on this issue, at least in the classical legal scholarship that I surveyed: the more common view is that ʿĀʾišah, at the event of her marital consummation in the hadith under consideration, was no longer a child.

Regardless, the hadith (or the mere acceptance thereof) cannot explain why some Muslims (past or present) have engaged in child marriage: something else is going to have to explain why some Muslims interpret the hadith as a sanction for child marriage, and others (probably most) do not. In other words, the Islamophobic thesis is simply false: the hadith of ʿĀʾišah’s marital age (or the Muslim acceptance of the hadith) does not in fact explain why some Muslims (past or present) have married children. (Neither does the Quran, for that matter.) In no meaningful sense does the hadith, or the acceptance thereof, cause child marriage. The fundamental point being made here is no different from that expressed by Dimitri Gutas in his short but excellent article “Islam and Science”: Islam no more explains the occurrence of child marriage in Muslim contexts than it does the flourishing—or, for that matter, stagnation—of science across Muslim history.[18] A related point was also made by Nadia El-Cheikh in her article “Describing the Other to Get at the Self”, in which she pointed out the common fallacy of inferring “the historical reality of women’s lives, their behavior and status, and the actual perception of their role” on the basis of prescriptive texts and scriptural ideals (i.e., on the basis of the Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, etc.).[19] The same considerations apply to homosexuality and homoeroticism, which are vehemently condemned in Hadith and Fiqh and yet openly flourished far and wide in pre-modern Muslim societies.[20]

Naturally, in a desperate attempt to retain the claim for polemical purposes, some Islamophobes will retreat into the realm of tautology: without the marital-age hadith, there could be no instances of Muslims being motivated by the marital-age hadith to marry children. How profound: without cars, there could be no crimes involving cars; without the character of Harry Potter, there could have been no popular book series about Harry Potter; without Shakespeare, there could be no plays authored by Shakespeare; and so on. The point is, such tautologies tell us nothing about what has happened or what will happen, nor what outcomes are probable or predictable from the existence of the thing in question—in this case, the marital-age hadith (or the Muslim acceptance thereof).

Another common retreat of this kind is to vaguely appeal to the fact that the acceptance of the marital-age hadith exists somewhere in the causal chain of events that has led some Muslims to marry children, so in that sense, it is causal. In the same trivial sense, oxygen causes Muslims to marry children, as did the Big Bang. Since this view would commit one to equally blaming practically infinite factors for child marriage, the singling out of a single factor for censure (i.e., the marital-age hadith) would seem completely arbitrary and gratuitous.

Clearly, neither of these trivialising reformulations or ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses are what Islamophobes actually mean when they say that the marital-age hadith causes child marriage: what they really mean—consciously or otherwise—is that it predicts or drastically raises the probability of child marriage occurring. It is this more substantive sense of causation that thus falls afoul of the interpretation problem outlined above—the mere existence or acceptance of the hadith clearly does not generate such a probability or prediction one way or the other.

As it happens, there is actual research on the causes of child marriage, so there is no need for speculation on the matter. “Child marriage occurs in every region of the world, and is practiced across cultures, religions, and ethnicities,” according to the International Women’s Health Coalition.[21] High rates of child marriage do not even correlate with Muslim countries that implement Islamic law, let alone Muslims in general, as Rachel Vogelstein (the director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations) observed.[22] According to a 2007 study by the International Center for Research on Women, “no one religious affiliation was associated with child marriage across countries,” such that “targeting a particular religion across countries is not an effective way to address early marriage.”[23] Instead (as Vogelstein put it), “what is constant across countries with high child marriage rates is not adherence to one particular faith, but rather factors such as poverty and limited education opportunities for girls.”[24] In short, Muslims qua Muslims are not more likely to engage in child marriage than the adherents of any other religion. So much for the conventional Islamophobe’s thesis.

Of course, this does not mean that some Muslims who happen to engage in or condone child marriage do not appeal to Islam or the marital-age hadith to rationalise their actions or position—that is only to be expected. But a rationalisation is not a cause, and the fact that some Muslims may appeal to this hadith is perfectly consistent with the counter-argument outlined above: the hadith (or the mere acceptance thereof) is still not explanatory. Deeper environmental factors (poverty, lack of female education, etc.) are still going to determine the broader social attitude towards child marriage, which will in turn predictably modulate how most people interpret their texts and traditions. In other words, whilst religious people are certainly motivated by their religious beliefs, the content of these beliefs and their position within an individual’s hierarchy of importance is going to be modulated by factors beyond the abstract pronouncements of scripture, and even these very pronouncements themselves will be interpreted in light of such factors—thus, the eternal variation in religious interpretation and implementation, and the usual lack of correspondence between the literal or apparent prescriptions of scripture, on the one hand, and religious history, on the other.

Of course, engaging with Islamophobic arguments is a mistake if the goal is to change hearts and minds, since such animosity towards Muslims arises from something deeper and arational (i.e., insecurity, resentment, and xenophobia): refuting popular Islamophobic claims does little to change the attitudes and dispositions of Islamophobes, when said claims are mere pretexts or rationalisations. To put it simply, most Islamophobes are immune to facts and logic…

But perhaps not all such refutations are wasted: they worked on me, towards the end of my undergraduate degree in 2014, at which point I confronted and repudiated Islamophobia. Even New Atheism was rendered irrelevant and misguided at best. In the first case: the amount of suffering and death inflicted by people even nominally motivated by religious causes pales into nothingness alongside, for example, the unfathomable carnage resulting from the profit- and security-driven invasions, bombings, drone strikes, death squads, coups, client dictatorships, sanctions, economic monopolisation, and destruction of local industries inflicted globally, year after year, by the USA, the UK, and other secular countries.[25] In the second case, if child marriage is really caused by poverty and lack of female access to education and is merely rationalised or expressed religiously, for example, then one ought to focus on eradicating poverty and improving female access to education, rather than wasting time attacking a non-decisive factor like religion. (In this respect, my personal deconversion foreshadowed the demise of New Atheism as a popular movement more broadly, which seems to have fizzled into irrelevancy following the 2016 American presidential elections.)

That said, the collapse of my Islamophobia and New Atheism came soon after I was exposed to the basic facts of Western imperialism, which were already inducing introspection and doubt in my general worldview—in and of themselves, the aforementioned refutations would not have moved a highly motivated and hostile interlocutor, in my experience. Thus, the real value of such refutations, at least from my perspective, is to provide resources and ammunition to the victims and opponents of Islamophobia, or in other words, to stymie—rather than convert—Islamophobes.

Following my repudiation of Islamophobia and New Atheism towards the end of my undergrad, I was left in an odd position: with a general knowledge of Islamic history and a specialisation in Islamic Studies, but without the initial political or ideological motivation that had brought me there in the first place. However, along the way, I had acquired a deep fascination with early Islamic history and especially Hadith in and of themselves, and it was this interest that kept me on the same academic path, eventually culminating in an MPhil in Islamic Studies & History at the University of Oxford (2016-2018).

When it came time for me to choose a thesis topic for my MPhil in 2017, I solidified my preference for Hadith Studies (over Quranic Studies) and resolved to explore the origins and development of Hadith and the surrounding academic debates. To this end, I decided to focus my study on a single hadith, and although I considered several candidates therefor, the final choice was inevitable. I was inexorably drawn back to the hadith with which I was most familiar: the hadith of ʿĀʾišah’s marital age. In many ways, this hadith was the perfect candidate for my case study: (1) its enduring controversy makes it topical and inherently interesting; (2) its being an extremely widespread tradition with numerous versions and variants increases the attainability of precise conclusions regarding its transmission history, earlier forms, and ultimate origins; and (3) despite its infamy, the textual history of the hadith has never really been explored in any depth (in contrast to its sociological and legal significance), making it fresh ground. But beyond all of this, the prospect of going back and revisiting this hadith—which I had first encountered and utilised in a polemical or ideological context—and analysing it from an academic or historical-critical prospect was interesting and exciting.

In the course of my MPhil—and continuing into my DPhil—I collated every available version of the ʿĀʾišah hadith and subjected them to successive isnadcummatn, form-critical, geographical, and historical-critical analyses, which allowed me to reconstruct earlier redactions of the hadith, track their regional provenances, and identify the probable point of origin for the hadith as a whole. My initial appraisal pointed towards ʿUrwah b. al-Zubayr (d. 93-101/711-720) and his students, in the context of Zubayrid Madinah, as the hadith’s original formulators and disseminators, but I was soon persuaded by Yasmin Amin—on the basis of the geographical patterns of the relevant isnads and the silence of all early Madinan sources—that the hadith’s true provenance lay in Abbasid Iraq. Further study—above all, form criticism and a biographical-historical analysis—convinced me that the hadith’s original formulator and disseminator was actually Hišām b. ʿUrwah (d. 146-147/763-765), following his move from Madinah to Kufah in the middle of the 8th Century CE. The ʿĀʾišah hadith served as ammunition for proto-Sunnī sectaries against the Šīʿah who predominated in Kufah at that time: it bolstered her virginal status at marriage, which in turn constituted one of her most distinctive attributes vis-à-vis the Prophet’s other wives, which in turn justified the proto-Sunnī claim that she was the Prophet’s favourite wife—thus, Hišām’s motive. From Hišām this hadith spread—sometimes with altered matns and new isnads—to his contemporaries and students in 8th-Century Iraq, and thence to all corners of the Abbasid Caliphate, before ultimately being inherited and accepted by the proto-Sunnī Hadith critics and canonical collectors in the 9th Century CE. Again, however, the details of this research will be enumerated elsewhere.[26]

Many—above all, Sunnī Muslims who chafe against the ʿĀʾišah hadith and its controversy—will no doubt be pleased by this outcome, but others—above all, popular apologists (duʿāh), traditional scholars (ʿulamāʾ), and academics with personal faith commitments to Sunnī orthodoxy and its traditional Hadith system—will no doubt react with hostility. After all, my research calls into question not just a “sound” (ṣaḥīḥ) hadith in the Sunnī canon, but one that is “well-known and close to being massively-widespread (mašhūr wa-qarīb ʾilá al-tawātur)”.[27] This may be compounded by the possibility that Christian missionaries—grown bitter at the gleeful reliance of Muslim apologists upon Bart Ehrman, and desperate for an Islamic Studies analogue who can be deployed against the Quran and Hadith—will try to exploit the skeptical implications of my research. But this is the lot of all secular and critical scholars who work on religious history, regardless of the religion: the best one can do is to find the good-faith interlocutors amongst all of these invested parties (of which there are certainly many) and ignore the rest.

That said, the threat posed by my research to Sunnī orthodoxy is probably exaggerated, and its guardians have less to fear than might be expected. To begin with, adherents of the Ḥanafī and Mālikī legal schools can easily shrug off the implication that the traditional Hadith system was much less effective than is usually thought, since most of their doctrines actually derive from the pre-Hadith or para-Hadith regional traditions (e.g., ʿamal) of their home cities (Kufah and Madinah, respectively).[28] Certainly, the early Mālikī and Ḥanafī legal traditions were independent of—and in fact predated—the rise of the proto-Sunnī Hadith partisans (ʾaṣḥāb al-ḥadīṯ) and their system of Hadith criticism (naqd al-ḥadīṯ and al-jarḥ wa-al-taʿdīl), which formed the basis of traditional Sunnī Hadith scholarship.[29] Moreover, it is striking that the ʿĀʾišah hadith appears to be completely absent from the early Mālikī and Ḥanafī traditions, seemingly first appearing only in ʿAbd al-Wahhāb b. ʿAlī al-Qāḍī (d. 422/1031)’s al-Maʿūnah ʿalá Maḏhab ʿĀlim al-Madīnah,[30] in the first case, and ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn al-Suḡdī (d. 461/1068-1069)’s al-Nutaf fī al-Fatāwá,[31] in the second.

It is really the Šāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī legal schools, which are based squarely upon the traditional system of Hadith criticism, and whose founders clearly affirmed the reliability of the ʿĀʾišah hadith,[32] that would seem to be threatened by my research. Even then, however, the threat is not as great as it seems: for example, the recent Syrian Šāfiʿī muḥaddiṯ Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn b. ʾAḥmad al-ʾIdlibī easily argued that the ʿĀʾišah hadith, although deriving from ʿĀʾišah herself, represents an “error” (wahm) arising from her “forgetfulness” (nisyān) in old age, due to its conflicting with other “established historical evidence” (li-l-qarāʾin al-taʾrīḵiyyah al-ṯābitah).[33]

Moreover, even if it is conceded—as I argue—that Hišām and his contemporaries in Iraq were actually responsible for this hadith, an examination of Hadith-related prosopography (kutub al-rijāl) and the judgements of the Hadith critics recorded therein reveals that most of these traditionists were actually regarded by some to be partially, or in some contexts, unreliable. For example, the following is recorded concerning Hišām:

  • Yaḥyá b. Saʿīd al-Qaṭṭān (d. 198/813): “I saw Mālik b. ʾAnas during [my] sleep, so I asked him about Hišām b. ʿUrwah, whereupon he said: “As for that which he related when he was in our proximity [i.e., Madinah], he—i.e., it was as though he—declared it to be sound (yuṣaḥḥiḥu-hu), and that which he related after he departed from our proximity [i.e., to Iraq], it was as though he declared it to be weak (yuwahhinu-hu).””[34]
  • ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Ḵirāš (d. 283/896): “It reached me that Mālik was angry (naqama) at Hišām b. ʿUrwah [due to] the Hadith [that he transmitted] to the people of Iraq, which he would not accept (wa-kāna lā yarḍā-hu).”[35]
  • ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Ḵirāš (d. 283/896): “He [i.e., Hišām] came to Kufah three times. During [the first] visit, he would say therein, “My father related to me, saying: “I heard ʿĀʾišah…”” [He came] a second time, then he would say, “My father reported to me, from ʿĀʾišah…” He came a third time, then he would say, “[from] my father, from ʿĀʾišah…”, meaning that he had omitted intermediary tradents in his transmission (yursilu) from his father.”[36]
  • Yaʿqūb b. Šaybah (d. 262/875): “Hišām was reliable (ṯabt). There was nothing objectionable about him (lam yunkar ʿalay-hi) until after he went to Iraq, whereupon he transmitted widely (inbasaṭa fī al-riwāyah) and [in the process] omitted intermediary tradents in his transmission (ʾarsala) of things from his father. [He did this with Hadith] that he had heard from [people] other than his father (mimmā kāna samiʿa-hu min ḡayr ʾabī-hi) [and ascribed them directly] to his father (ʿan ʾabī-hi).”[37]
  • ʾAḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449): “Hišām b. ʿUrwah b. al-Zubayr b. al-ʿAwwām; a famous junior Follower. ʾAbū al-Ḥasan b. al-Qaṭṭān mentioned him in that regard [i.e., in the context of inaccurate transmission], which al-Ḏahabī denounced. Verily, the famous account about him [i.e., Hišām] is that he came to Iraq three times. During the first [visit], he related from his father then clarified [that it was] heard directly from him. During the second [visit], he related numerous [hadiths from his father], yet never clarified the transmission (lam yuṣarriḥ al-qiṣṣah), which necessitates that he related from him with that which he had not heard from him (wa-hiya taqtaḍī ʾanna-hu ḥaddaṯa ʿan-hu bi-mā lam yasmaʿ-hu min-hu). This is [a form of] deception (al-tadlīs).”[38]

Even Muḥammad b. ʾAḥmad al-Ḏahabī (d. 748/1348)’s defensive comments in response to this critical onslaught reveal a further criticism from the Hadith scholar ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Qaṭṭān al-Ḥimyarī (d. 628/1231):

Hišām b. ʿUrwah: one of the luminaries (ʾaḥad al-ʾaʿlām); a proof (ḥujjah); a leading scholar (ʾimām). However, in old age (lākin fī al-kibar), his memory diminished (tanāqaṣa ḥifẓu-hu), although he was never confused (lam yaḵtaliṭ ʾabadan), and it deserves no attention that ʾAbū al-Ḥasan b. al-Qaṭṭān said of him that he and Suhayl b. ʾabī Ṣāliḥ became confused (iḵtalaṭā) and changed (taḡayyarā). Yes, the man changed a little (taḡayyara qalīlan), and his memory was not the same as it was during [his] youth (lam yabqa ḥifẓu-hu ka-huwa fī ḥāl al-šabībah), so he forgot some of that which he had memorised (nasiya baʿḍ maḥfūẓi-hi), or erred (wahima)—so what? Is he immune from forgetfulness (ʾa-huwa maʿṣūm min al-nisyān)?![39]

Likewise, the defensive comment in the Musnad of ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Zubayr al-Ḥumaydī (d. 219-220/834-835), concerning the ʿĀʾišah hadith: “[this] was from among the reliable of [those hadiths] that he [i.e., Hišām] transmits (kāna min jayyid mā yarwī).”[40] Such a comment inadvertently reveals that there was suspicion towards this hadith or Hišām’s transmissions more generally.

Examples such as these can also be found for at least one tradent in most of the isnads supporting this hadith. In conjunction with arguments from silence concerning the regional provenance of most of the relevant tradents, the absence of this hadith from any early Madinan source, and other such factors, even an adherent of the traditional Sunnī Hadith system might conclude that ʿĀʾišah hadith is merely one of Hišām’s unreliable transmissions, etc. After all, the Hadith critics were heavily reliant on arguments from silence,[41] and one eminent Hadith scholar even made an argument from silence that closely matches the Schachtian variety that I employ.[42] In short, even within the framework of traditional Sunnī Hadith scholarship, an argument can be made that the ʿĀʾišah hadith is suspect.

Of course, far be it for me to tell religious people how to interpret their religions: Sunnī Muslims can—and certainly will—interpret their tradition and their hadiths any number of ways. Still, the above hypothetical illustrates how, at least in theory, my arguments and conclusions can be somewhat reconciled with—or need not overly conflict with—an orthodox Sunnī perspective, at least in this instance.

Much more can be said on the ʿĀʾišah hadith, its history, and its implications, but for now, this will suffice. To recapitulate my own history and experience therewith: I first encountered the ʿĀʾišah hadith in a polemical New Atheist and Islamophobic context, in which the hadith is blamed for the occurrence of child marriage. Following the collapse of my Islamophobia and New Atheism, I continued my studies in early Islamic history and especially Hadith, culminating in an MPhil and a DPhil at the University of Oxford. When it came time to choose a topic for my thesis, I decided to return to the ʿĀʾišah hadith, this time looking at it from an academic perspective. The skeptical results of my research will be welcomed by some and not by others—and although I do cast doubt on a canonical Sunnī hadith, there are still ways for my findings to be reconciled with an orthodox Sunnī perspective, such that conflict is not necessary.



[1] I.e., the version disseminated by Hišām b. ʿUrwah; see the references in Yūsuf b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Mizzī (ed. Baššār ʿAwwād Maʿrūf), Tahḏīb al-Kamāl fī ʾAsmāʾ al-Rijāl, vol. 11 (Beirut, Lebanon: Muʾassasat al-Risālah, 1992), pp. 473-474, # 16781; ibid., pp. 484-485, ## 16809-16810; ibid., p. 495, # 16855; ibid., p. 499, # 16871; ibid., p. 501, # 16881; ibid., p. 509, # 16910; ibid., p. 550, # 17066; ibid., p. 559, # 17106; ibid., p. 560, # 17113; ibid., p. 585, # 17203; ibid., p. 595, # 17249; ibid., p. 604, ## 17290-17291; Arent J. Wensinck, A Handbook of Early Muhammadan Tradition (Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1927), 13, col. 2; Baššār ʿAwwād Maʿrūf et al., al-Musnad al-Jāmiʿ, vol. 19 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Jīl, 1993), pp. 788-790, # 16692; Gautier H. A. Juynboll, Encyclopedia of Canonical Ḥadīth (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007), 75, col. 1.

[2] Muḥammad b. ʾIsmāʿīl al-Buḵārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, vol. 3 (Vaduz, Liechtenstein: Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, 2000), p. 1076, # 5188.

[3] In general, see Doug Saunders, The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? (New York, USA: Vintage Books, 2012). I would link Islamophobia to middle-class insecurity and resentment more broadly, of the kind described (albeit in the most extreme cases) in Daniel Guerin (trans. Frances Merr, Mason Merr, Dan Stewart, & Francoise Collet), Fascism and Big Business, 2nd English ed. (New York, USA: Pathfinder Press, 1973), ch. 2, and Elliott Leyton, Hunting Humans: The Rise of Modern Multiple Murderer (Toronto, Canada: McLelland and Stewart, 1986).

[4] It is quite telling that Yasir Qadhi’s go-to example of the doubts and controversies driving Western Muslims to leave Islam is this exact issue; see his speech on “Why are Muslims leaving Islam?” (29th of August, 2014, Detroit): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APVCAxF4C8Q.

[5] Namely, that Islam is some kind of Platonic entity that moves people to act, or that Satan is somehow involved.

[6] E.g., Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi, ‘Understanding Aisha’s Age: An Interdisciplinary Approach’, Yaqeen Institute (2nd/October/2018): https://yaqeeninstitute.org/asadullah/understanding-aishas-age-an-interdisciplinary-approach.

[7] Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (ed. Michael J. de Goeje and reviewed by Pieter de Jong), Annales quos scripsit Abu Djafar Mohammed ibn Djarir at-Tabari, Volume 4 (Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1890), p. 1767.

[8] Jonathan A. C. Brown, Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 78.

[9] ʿAbd Allāh b. ʾAḥmad b. Ḥanbal (ed. Zuhayr al-Šāwīš), Masāʾil al-ʾImām ʾAḥmad Riwāyat Ibnati-hi ʿAbd Allāh (Beirut, Lebanon: al-Maktab al-ʾIslāmiyy, 1981), p. 324, # 1194.

[10] Ibid., p. 325, # 1195.

[11] Kecia Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 208, n. 21.

[12] Sulaymān b. ʾAḥmad al-Ṭabarānī (ed. Ḥamdī ʿAbd al-Majīd al-Salafī), al-Muʿjam al-Kabīr, vol. 23 (Cairo, Egypt: Maktabat Ibn Taymiyyah, n. d.), pp. 118-120, # 153.

[13] Muḥammad b. ʾAḥmad al-Saraḵsī, al-Mabṣūt, vol. 3 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Maʿrifah, 1989), p. 149.

[14] Burhān al-Dīn Maḥmūd b. ʾAḥmad al-Buḵārī (ed. Naʿīm ʾAḥmad), al-Muḥīṭ al-Burhāniyy fī al-Fiqh al-Nuʿmāniyy, vol. 1 (Riyad, KSA: Maktabat al-Rušd, 2004), p. 395, # 833.

[15] Cited in Badr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʾAḥmad al-ʿAynī (ed. ʾAyman Ṣāliḥ Šaʿbān), al-Bināyah Šarḥ al-Hidāyah, vol. 11 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 2000), p. 111.

[16] Muḥammad b. ʾIdrīs al-Šāfiʿī (ed. Rifʿat Fawzī ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib), Kitāb al-ʾUmm, vol. 8 (Mansurah, Egypt: Dār al-Wafāʾ, 2001), p. 365, # 3224. Also see Ali, Marriage and Slavery, 208, n. 21.

[17] Buḵārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, III, p. 1076.

[18] Dimitri Gutas, “Islam and Science: A False Statement of the Problem”, Islam & Science, Volume 1, Number 2 (2003), 215-220.

[19] Nadia M. El-Cheikh, “Describing the Other to Get at the Self: Byzantine Women in Arabic Sources (8th-11th Centuries)”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Volume 40, Number 2 (1997), 239.

[20] Discussions thereof and examples thereof are practically endless, but for some general statements, see John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 194-195; Elyse Semerdjian, ‘Islam’, in Jeffrey S. Siker (ed.), Homosexuality and Religion: An Encyclopedia (Westport, USA: Greenwood Press, 2007), 131; Daniel Eisenberg, ‘Introduction,’ in David W. Foster (ed.), Spanish Writers on Gay and Lesbian Themes: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (Westport, USA: Greenwood Press, 1999), 4.

[21] ‘The Facts on Child Marriage’, International Women’s Health Coalition, available online: https://iwhc.org/resources/facts-child-marriage/.

[22] Rachel Vogelstein, ‘Child marriage and religion’, Council on Foreign Relations (2nd/January/2014): https://www.cfr.org/blog/child-marriage-and-religion-0 [accessible via the Wayback Machine]: “The prevalence of child marriage varies greatly even among countries that incorporate religious doctrine into their legal systems. Some Muslim-majority countries, for example, that integrate Sharia law, such as Libya and Algeria, have relatively low rates of child marriage. In other countries that practice Sharia law, such as Yemen, the practice is rampant.”

[23] Saranga Jain & Kathleen Kurz, ‘New Insights on Preventing Child Marriage: A Global Analysis of Factors and Programs’, International Center for Research on Women (April/2007), available online: http://lastradainternational.org/lsidocs/icrw_child_marriage_0607.pdf (page 25). Religion in general is a “factor” that is “associated” with child marriage overall (ibid., 21), but weakly: “The factors, in order of significance, were: (1) education of girls, (2) age gap, (3) region, (4) wealth, (5) religion, (6) education of the partner (secondary and higher) and (7) polygyny.” Of these, the first far outweighs the rest in significance (ibid., 22).

[24] Vogelstein, ‘Child marriage and religion’.

[25] In general, see the work of Noam Chomsky, e.g., Deterring Democracy (New York, USA: Verso Books, 1991), and On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (Pluto Press, 2017). And, of course, in many instances, the former (e.g., Islamic militancy) is actually an extension of the latter (i.e., Western imperialism); see Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (New York, USA: Metropolitan Books, 2005), and Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, new updated ed. (London, UK: Serpent’s Tail, 2018).

[26] Some of the basic arguments I employ can already be found in T. O. Shanavas, ‘The Myth of a Proverbial Wedding’, The Minaret: The Islamic Magazine, Volume 21, Number 3 (1999), 21-25. However, the article also makes several weak arguments and only deals with a fraction of the relevant evidence, and even some of the otherwise good ideas are marred by overgeneralisations, etc.

[27] Badr al-Dīn al-ʿAynī (ed. Šaʿbān), Bināyah, V, p. 90.

[28] See esp. Joseph F. Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1950), and Christopher Melchert, The Formation of the Sunni Schools of Law, 9th-10th Centuries C.E. (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 1997).

[29] See esp. Eerik Dickinson, The Development of Early Sunnite Ḥadīth Criticism: The Taqdima of Ibn Abī Ḥātim al-Rāzī (240/854-327/938) (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2001), e.g., 41-44, 57-58, 80-81, 91-92, 127-129. Cf. Scott C. Lucas, Constructive Critics, Ḥadīth Literature, and the Articulation of Sunnī Islam: The Legacy of the Generation of Ibn Saʿd, Ibn Maʿīn, and Ibn Ḥanbal (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill N.V., 2004), 119, 151 ff. But cf. in turn Christopher Melchert, ‘Lucas, Scott C. Constructive Critics, Ḥadīth Literature, and the Articulation of Sunnī Islam: The Legacy of the Generation of Ibn Saʿd, Ibn Maʿīn, and Ibn Ḥanbal’, Islamic Law and Society, Volume 13, Number 3 (2006), 412. More generally, see also Ignaz Goldziher (trans. Wolfgang Behn), The Ẓāhirīs: Their Doctrine and Their History: A Contribution to the History of Islamic Theology (Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1971), 20, n. 1; Melchert, Formation; id., ‘The Imāmīs between Rationalism and Traditionalism’, in Lynda Clarke (ed.), Shīʿite Heritage: Essays on Classical and Modern Traditions (Binghamton, USA: Global Publications, 2001), 274, n. 5; id., Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2006), 49-50.

[30] ʿAbd al-Wahhāb b. ʿAlī al-Baḡdādī (ed. Ḥamīš ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq), al-Maʿūnah ʿalá Maḏhab ʿĀlim al-Madīnah (Makkah, KSA: al-Maktabah al-Tijāriyyah, n. d.), p. 718.

[31] ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn al-Suḡdī (ed. Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Nāhī), al-Nutaf fī al-Fatāwá (Amman, Jordan: Dār al-Furqān, 1984), p. 113. Cf. Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Šaybānī (ed. Mehmet Boynukalın), al-ʾAṣl, vol. 10 (Doha, Qatar: Wizārat al-ʾAwqāf, 2012), p. 186, which is clearly a later interpolation, unmentioned by any other early Ḥanafī source; this conclusion is corroborated in general by Hocine Benkheira, ‘Un acte manqué peut-il invalider le jeûne? À propos de l’oubli et de cas semblables’, Mélanges de l’Institut dominicain d’études orientales, Number 34 (2019), 30. Cf. also Saraḵsī, Mabṣūt, III, p. 149, whose attribution of the use of the ʿĀʾišah hadith back to Muḥammad b. Muqātil al-Rāzī (d. 248/862-863), is completely uncorroborated by any earlier source and thus plausibly al-Saraḵsī’s own speculation or inference. If indeed the ʿĀʾišah hadith was truly used by early Ḥanafī figures such as al-Šaybānī and Ibn Muqātil, we would reasonably expect this use to be mentioned in the numerous Ḥanafī works predating al-Suḡdī and al-Saraḵsī.

[32] Indeed, they relied upon it in their fiqh; see Šāfiʿī (ed. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib), ʾUmm, VI, pp. 45-46, # 2210; ibid., p. 429, # 2462; ibid., VIII, p. 365, # 3224; ibid., X, p. 141, # 147; and ʿAbd Allāh (ed. Šāwīš), Masāʾil, pp. 324-325, ## 1194-1196; ʾIsḥāq b. Manṣūr al-Marwazī al-Kawsaj (ed. ʿAbd Allāh b. Muʿtaq al-Sahalī), Masāʾil al-ʾImām ʾAḥmad bn Ḥanbal wa-ʾIsḥāq bn Rāhwayh, vol. 4 (Madinah, KSA: al-Jāmiʿah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, 2004), p. 3648, # 2663. Also see Ali, Marriage and Slavery, 35-36, 76, 208 (n. 21), and Carolyn G. Baugh, Minor Marriage in Early Islamic Law (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2017), passim.

[33] Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn b. ʾAḥmad al-ʾIdlibī, ʿUmr al-Sayyidah ʿĀʾišah Yawm al-ʿAqd wa-Yawm al-Zawāj (first published online in 2013, then updated in 2014, then again in 2015), available online: http://shanfaraa.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Hadith-on-age-of-Aisha.pdf. For a summary of the history and context of this essay, and a translation as well, see Arnold Yasin Mol, ‘Aisha (ra): The Case for an Older Age in Sunni Hadith Scholarship’, Yaqeen (3rd/October/2018): https://app.yaqeen.io/arnold-yasin-mol/aisha-ra-the-case-for-an-older-age-in-sunni-hadith-scholarship.

[34] Cited in ʾAḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Tahḏīb al-Tahḏīb, vol. 11 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār Ṣādir, 1968), p. 50.

[35] Cited in Muḥammad b. ʾAḥmad al-Ḏahabī (ed. Šuʿayb al-ʾArnaʾūṭ et al.), Siyar ʾAʿlām al-Nubalāʾ, vol. 6, 2nd ed. (Beirut, Lebanon: Muʾassasat al-Risālah, 1982), p. 35.

[36] Cited in ibid.

[37] Cited in ibid., pp. 35, 46.

[38] ʾAḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Kitāb Ṭabaqāt al-Mudallisīn (Cairo, Egypt: al-Maṭbaʿah al-Ḥusayniyyah al-Miṣriyyah, 1904), p. 7.

[39] Muḥammad b. ʾAḥmad al-Ḏahabī (ed. ʿAlī Muḥammad al-Bijāwī), Mīzān al-Iʿtidāl fī Naqd al-Rijāl, vol. 4 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Maʿrifah, n. d.), p. 301.

[40] ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Zubayr al-Ḥumaydī (ed. Ḥusayn Salīm ʾAsad al-Dārānī), Musnad, vol. 1 (Damascus, Syria: Dār al-Saqā, 1996), p. 273, # 233.

[41] For example, see the constant appeals to tafarrud in the works of al-Ṭabarānī.

[42] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, in Muḥammad ʿAẓīm ʾÂbādī (ed. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Muḥammad ʿUṯmān), ʿAwn al-Maʿbūd: Šarḥ Sunan ʾAbī Dāwūd maʿa Šarḥ al-Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Madinah, KSA: al-Maktabah al-Salafiyyah, 1968), pp. 112-113. In conjunction with this, see Schacht, Origins, 140-141.


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