Aisha… Islam’s most controversial woman

Saturday 22 January 202211:00 am
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السيدة عائشة... أكثر نساء المسلمين إثارة للجدل

Wife of Prophet Muhammad Aisha bint Abu Bakr is considered to be one of the most controversial Islamic figures, be it in accounts and narrations of her, in hadiths attributed to the Prophet, or in historic events mentioned in Islamic books.

The controversy spans across various incidents, from the story of her getting married while still a child, her participation in the war against Ali bin Abi Talib atop the back of her camel, to the Ifk (Adultery) that shook society at the time and divided the Companions of the Prophet between those who believed the accusations and those who denied them, which accusations had a great impact on Muslims later on.

The marriage of Aisha

According to the accounts in historiy books, Prophet Muhammad, after the death of his first wife Khadija bint Khuwaylid and two years before Hijrah, entrusted Khawlah bint Hakim to arrange Aisha bint Abu Bakr for him. Sources differ on her exact age at that time, but some say she was probably six years old at the time of her betrothal, and was nine years old at the time her marriage was consummated during the second year of Hijrah, immediately following the Battle of Badr.

On the authority of Hisham ibn Urwah, via his father, from Aisha that “the Prophet PBUH married her when she was a girl of six years. He consummated his marriage with her when she was a girl of nine and she stayed with him for nine [years].” This hadith was narrated by Sahih al-Bukhari (5133) and Muslim (1422).

It was narrated by Ibn Majah (1632), and authenticated by al-Albani: “It was narrated that Aisha said: “The Prophet married me in Shawwal, and he consummated the marriage with me in Shawwal, and which of his wives find more favor with him than me?”

The Prophet died in the month of Rabi’ al-Awwal in the year 11 A.H. Aisha was said to be about 18 years old at the time. She lived until the age of 65 years and died in 58 A.H. (678), and she did not marry after him.

Aisha is the only virgin wife of the Prophet, and would boast of this in front of the rest of his wives. But the most important thing is that she was the closest one to him, and it was said he chose to die in her bed. Al-Hakim mentions in al-Mustadrak, “One-fourth of the rule of Shariah was narrated on the authority of Aisha.” Abu Musa al-Ash’ari said: “Whenever a hadith was unclear to us (the companions of the Prophet) we asked Aisha about it, we always gained knowledge about that hadith from her”, according to Jami’ al-Tirmidhi.

Hadith on compiling the Qur’an

A number of hadiths attributed to Aisha call into question the accuracy of how the Qur’an was compiled in its final form - that is, the one we have now. If believed, this is no small matter, especially if we believe the contents of the hadith about her great knowledge and how it matches that of the Prophet’s Companions.

An example of this is the hadith that Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti mentioned in his book “Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Quran (The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Quran)”: Ibn Abi Maryam related to us from Ibn Luhai‘a from Abu’l-Aswad from ‘Urwa b. az-Zubair from ‘A’isha who said: ‘Surat al-Ahzab (xxxiii) used to be recited during the lifetime of the Prophet with two hundred verses, but when ‘Uthman transcribed the manuscripts of the Qur'an (masaahif) he was unable to procure [all of the verses] except those [verses] that now exist.” This hadith, if true, means that “Uthman’s delegation” (delegation of 12 people in charge of compiling the Quran) didn’t collect the entire Quran, but rather only the parts it had been able to find.

Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, is considered one of the most controversial Islamic figures, be it in accounts and narrations of her, in hadiths attributed to the Prophet, or in historic events mentioned in books on Islam

What makes the matter more confusing is that this hadith corresponds to a hadith narrated by Abdullah bin al-Imam Ahmad in “Zawa’id al-Musnad”, Abd al-Razzaq in his al-Musannaf (the Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq), Ibn Hibban in his Sahih (Sahih Ibn Hibban), al-Hakim al-Nishapuri in “Al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn”, al-Bayhaqi in “Sunan al-Kabir”, and Ibn Hazm in “al-Muhalla”, via ‘Aasim ibn Bahdalah, from Zirr, who said: “Ubayy ibn Ka‘b said to me: How long is Surat al-Ahzaab when you read it? Or how much do you count [its verses to be]? I said to him: Seventy-three verses. Ubayy said: Only this much? Verily there was a time when it was a long as Surat al-Baqarah, and we read in it: ‘{The old man and the old woman, if they commit zina [adultery], then stone them both as a punishment from Allah, and Allah is Mighty, and all Wise}’.” It is well known that Ubayy ibn Ka’b was one of the four that the Prophet recommended that the Quran be taken from them, in a hadith reported by al-Bukhari: “Learn the recitation of the Qur'an from (any of these) four persons. Abdullah bin Mas’ud, Salim (the freed slave of Abu Hudhaifa), Ubai bin Ka’b, and Mu’adh bin Jabal.”

Another hadith by Aisha in the same context is about the stoning verse. It was narrated by Ibn Maajah (1/625), al-Daraqutni (4/179), Abu Ya’la in his Musnad (8/64), al-Tabarani in his al-Mu’jam al-Awsat (8/12), and Ibn Qutaybah in “Ta’wīl Mukhtalif al-Hadīth”, and Ibn Hazm cited it in “al-Muhalla” (236/236): Narrated to us by Abu Salamah Yahya bin Khalaf, told by Abd al-Ala via Muhammad ibn Ishaq, from Abdullah bin Abi Bakr via Amrah, from Aisha and Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Qasim, on the authority of his father, it was narrated that Aisha said: “The Verse of stoning and of breastfeeding an adult ten times was revealed, and it was in a paper with me under my bed. When the Messenger of Allah, may God bless him and grant him peace, died, we were preoccupied with his death, and a tame sheep came in and ate it.”

There are hadiths attributed to Aisha that claim that the Prophet used to forget verses and remember them haphazardly. We read in Sahih al-Bukhari (4750/4751): Rabee bin Yahya told us: Zaidah told us: Hisham told us, on behalf of Urwah, from Aisha, who said: “The Prophet heard a man reciting the Quran in the mosque and said, ‘May Allah bestow His mercy on him, as he has reminded me of such-and-such verses of such a surah.’ Muhammad ibn Ubayd bin Maimon told us: Issa told us, via Hisham: “You dropped them from surah such-and-such.”

There are many other examples in which Aisha spoke about the grammatical errors within the Quran.

Hadiths of revelation

Among the interesting hadiths narrated by Aisha are the ones where she spoke of revelation. One hadith states: “It was narrated from Aisha: that al-Harith bin Hisham asked Allah’s Messenger: O Messenger of Allah, how does the revelation come to you? The Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: ‘Sometimes it comes to me like the ringing of a bell, which is the hardest of all, then before it passes I have grasped what is said. And sometimes the angel comes to me in the form of a man and speaks to me, and I grasp what he says’... Aisha said: Verily I saw the Prophet being inspired divinely on a very cold day and noticed the sweat dripping from his forehead (as the Inspiration was over). (Bukhari)”.

This hadith denies, or at least does not prove, the existence of a direct relationship between the Prophet, the recipient of revelation, and the angel Gabriel, the bearer of the revelation. There are other hadiths that say that the Prophet only met Gabriel twice, and this is the approach used by Western scholars to question the revelation itself.

It was narrated that Aisha said: “The verse of stoning and of breastfeeding an adult ten times was revealed, and it was on a paper with me under my bed. When the Prophet died, we were preoccupied with his death, and a tame sheep came and ate it”

The second hadith was narrated by al-Bukhari (4788) and it was narrated from Aisha: “I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah's Messenger and I used to say, ‘Can a lady give herself (to a man)?’ But when Allah revealed: ‘You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives), and you may receive any of them whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside (temporarily)' (33.51) I said (to the Prophet), ‘I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires’.” This hadith was also narrated by Muslim (1464), and was authenticated by al-Albani, and in it we see that Aisha is questioning the authenticity of the revelation.

Some narrations say that Aisha was mentioned saying this in the story of the Prophet’s marriage to Zainab bint Jahsh, when a verse was revealed: “{Then when Zaid had dissolved (his marriage) with her, with the necessary (formality), We joined her in marriage to thee: in order that (in future) there may be no difficulty to the Believers in (the matter of) marriage with the wives of their adopted sons, when the latter have dissolved with the necessary (formality) (their marriage) with them}”.

The Ifk and the battle of the camel

Many problematic hadiths have been relayed from Aisha, and they revolve around the Prophet’s relationship with his wives, including what al-Bukhari reported on Aisha saying: “I used to put scent on Allah’s Messenger and he used to go round his wives, and in the morning he assumed the iḥrām, and the fragrance of scent was still coming out from his body”, a hadith from which some concluded that the Prophet would sometimes visit all of his wives in a single night.

However, the hadiths attributed to her on Ali bin Abi Talib are a clear indication and reference to the great disagreement that existed between them. Al-Bukhari narrated from Ubaydullah bin Abdullah bin ‘Utbah that Aisha said: “When the health of Allah’s Messenger deteriorated and his condition became serious, he asked the permission of all his wives to allow him to be nursed (treated) in my house, and they allowed him. He came out, supported by two men and his legs were dragging on the ground between Abbas and another man.” Ubaydullah said, “I told Ibn Abbas what Aisha had narrated and he said, ‘Do you know who was the (second) man whose name Aisha did not mention?’ I said, ‘No.’ Ibn Abbas said, ‘He was Ali Ibn Abi Talib’.”

The question that is being asked here is: Why did Aisha intentionally leave his name out, especially when he was so well known?

The enmity between Aisha and Ali goes back to the famous  Ifk. As the story goes (as mentioned in the prophetic biography), Aisha accompanied the Prophet in one of his conquests, and when he finished the conquest, on the way back, the army stopped to rest, so she went down from her camel’s howdah (carriage bed) to relieve herself. On her way back, her necklace broke and she stopped to gather it. When she returned, she found that they had left, having mounted her howdah on the back of the camel, thinking that she was in it without noticing any difference in weight. And so the caravan accidentally departed without her, and she slept at the camp. Safwan ibn al-Muta’ttal al-Sulami found her, and carried her on the back of his camel until they caught up with the army. Rumors that they had committed adultery spread, mainly by Abdullah bin Ubayy bin Salool, and the people were divided between those who believed and those who did not.

What concerns us in this story is that this left the Prophet perplexed and could not make up his mind on the matter, so he consulted Ali Ibn Abi Talib and Usama ibn Zayd about divorcing her. Usama said: “Patience, O Messenger of God, we know nothing of them but good”. Ali said: “Women are plentiful, and you can easily change one for another. Ask the slave girl, for she will tell you the truth.” The Prophet remained undecided until the revelation of verse (11) from Surat al-Nur: {Verily those who brought forth the slander are a group among you. Consider it not a bad thing for you. Nay, it is good for you. Unto every man among them will be paid that which he had earned of the sin, and as for him among them who had the greater share therein, his will be a great torment}, clearing Aisha’s name and bringing an end to the controversy. What is striking here is that she did not forget the stance that Ali took.

And when discord took place and Othman bin Affan was killed, Aisha was in Mecca for Umrah, and on her way back she heard of the bay’a (pledge of allegiance) to Ali to become the caliph of the Muslims. She then hurried back to Mecca and joined the army that led the two men who had been promised heaven: Talha bin Obaidullah and al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwam against Ali’s army. They met in the Battle of the Camel that took place in Basra in the year 36 AH. It was narrated that when Aisha saw the victory of Ali’s soldiers, she rode the camel and drove it into the middle of the army until they stopped fighting. It was said that thousands of Muslims were killed in that battle location.

These are just some examples that demonstrate the problematic character of Aisha bint Abi Bakr, in addition to her narrations and positions that still remain a point of contention to this day.

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