David Wood, Tuesday, October 29, 2013
For the Western mind, one of the most disturbing facts about Islam is that its founder had a sexual relationship with a nine-year-old girl. Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha has even led some critics to refer to him as a “pedophile.” This is, of course, extremely upsetting to Muslims, who view their prophet as the ideal servant of God and as the greatest example of what a man should strive to be (see Qur’an 33:21). Nevertheless, Muhammad’s relationship with a young girl presents a problem for Muslims, especially for those who want to share their faith with others.
Some Muslims are so embarrassed by their prophet’s marriage to a prepubescent girl that they are attempting to rewrite history, claiming that, contrary to all available sources, Aisha must have been much older than history demands. Other Muslims appeal to moral relativism, suggesting that, while sex with young girls may be wrong today, it wasn’t wrong in seventh-century Arabia. Still other Muslims try to offer morally sufficient reasons for their prophet to marry Aisha (i.e., some good state of affairs that could only be attained through Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha).
Since pedophilia is one of the most serious charges that can be leveled against a person, the term “pedophile” should not be used lightly. With that said, let us carefully examine Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha, recalling the Western principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty.
FIRST MUSLIM DEFENSE: Aisha was older than nine when Muhammad first had sex with her.
Faced with the arguments of Western critics, Muslim apologists sometimes creatively piece together information from various accounts in an attempt to deny that Aisha was as young as critics often claim. Maulana Muhammad Ali writes:
The popular misconception as to Aishah’s age may be removed here. . . . Isabah, speaking of the Holy Prophet’s daughter Fatimah, says that she was about five years older than Aishah. It is a well-established fact that Fatimah was born when the Ka’bah was being rebuilt, i.e., five years before the Call. Aishah was therefore born in the year of the Call or a little before it, and she could not have been less than ten years at the time of her marriage with the Holy Prophet in the tenth year of the Call. . . . And as the period between her marriage and its consummation was not less than five years, because the consummation took place in the second year of the Flight, it follows that she could not have been less than fifteen at that time. The popular account that she was six years at marriage and nine years at the time of consummation is decidedly not correct because it supposes the period between the marriage and its consummation to be only three years, and this is historically wrong. (Ali, pp. 183-184)
RESPONSE: The historical evidence for Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was still a child is too strong to be ignored.
Notice that Ali hasn’t offered a single quotation from any Muslim source claiming that Aisha was a teenager when Muhammad first had sex with her. Why not? Because there are no such sources. The problem with Ali’s selective and carefully edited defense (other than the complete lack of references) is that it ignores the numerous accounts we possess which record Aisha’s age when her marriage was consummated. Many of these accounts are from Aisha herself. Indeed, the evidence for Muhammad’s marriage to the young Aisha is as strong as the evidence for just about any other fact in Islam. We have copious traditions from Islam’s most trusted historical sources reporting Muhammad’s marriage proposal when Aisha was six or seven years old, as well as his consummation of that marriage when she was nine:
Sahih al-Bukhari 3896—Narrated Hisham’s father: Khadija died three years before the Prophet departed to Al-Madina. He stayed there for two years or so and then he wrote the marriage (wedding) contract with Aishah when she was a girl of six years of age, and he consummated that marriage when she was nine years old.
Sahih al-Bukhari 5158—Narrated Urwa: The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death).
Sahih Muslim 3310—Aisha reported: Allah’s Apostle married me when I was six years old, and I was admitted to his house when I was nine years old.
Sahih Muslim 3311—Aisha reported that Allah’s Apostle married her when she was seven years old, and she was taken to his house as a bride when she was nine, and her dolls were with her; and when he (the Holy Prophet) died she was eighteen years old.
Sunan Abu Dawud 2116—Aishah said: The Apostle of Allah married me when I was seven years old. (The narrator Sulaiman said: Or six years.) He had intercourse with me when I was nine years old.
This is just a sample of the early Muslim traditions reporting Muhammad’s marriage to the young Aisha, but it is sufficient to show that she certainly wasn’t fifteen years old at the time of the consummation, as some Muslims claim.
(For a fuller treatment of the early evidence regarding Muhammad’s marriage to the young Aisha, click here.)
In addition to traditions concerning Aisha’s age, various ahadith also provide details about how the relationship began and progressed:
Sahih al-Bukhari 3895—Narrated Aishah that the Prophet said to her, “You have been shown to me twice in my dream. I saw you pictured on a piece of silk and someone said (to me), ‘This is your wife.’ When I uncovered the picture, I saw that it was yours. I said, ‘If this is from Allah it will be accomplished.’”
After having this dream about Aisha (who couldn’t have been more than six years old at the time), Muhammad proceeded to ask her father Abu Bakr for her hand in marriage. Abu Bakr understandably objected at first, but Muhammad was able to persuade him to consent.
Sahih al-Bukhari 5081—Narrated Urwa: The Prophet asked Abu Bakr for Aishah’s hand in marriage. Abu Bakr said, “But I am your brother.” The Prophet said, “You are my brother in Allah’s religion and His Book, but she (Aishah) is lawful for me to marry.”
The marriage contract was subsequently written. However, Aisha became extremely ill, so she wasn’t taken to his house for consummation until three years later:
Sahih al-Bukhari 3894—Narrated Aishah: My marriage (wedding) contract with the Prophet was written when I was a girl of six (years). We came to Al-Madina and we dismounted at the place of Bani Al-Harith bin Khazraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on, my hair grew (again) and my mother, Umm Ruman, came to me while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends. She called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house. I was breathless then, and when my breathing became normal, she took some water and rubbed my face and head with it. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah’s Blessing and good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Messenger came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age.
Once Aisha was a part of Muhammad’s household, she became his favorite wife, even after he had married several other women. Indeed, Muhammad’s other wives had to plead with him for equal treatment (to no avail):
Sahih al-Bukhari 2581—Narrated Urwa that Aishah said: “The wives of Allah’s Messenger were in two groups.” Urwa added: One group consisted of Aishah, Hafsa, Safiyya and Sauda; and the other group consisted of Umm Salama and the other wives of Allah’s Messenger. The Muslims knew that Allah’s Messenger loved Aishah, so if any of them had a gift and wished to give to Allah’s Messenger, he would delay it till Allah’s Messenger had come to Aishah’s home and then he would send his gift to Allah’s Messenger in her home. The group of Umm Salama discussed the matter together and decided that Umm Salama should request Allah’s Messenger to tell the people to send their gifts to him in whatever wife’s house he was. Umm Salama told Allah’s Messenger of what they had said, but he did not reply. Then they (those wives) asked Umm Salama about it. She said, “He did not say anything to me.” They asked her to talk to him again. She talked to him again when she met him on her day, but he gave no reply. When they asked her, she replied that he had given no reply. They said to her, “Talk to him till he gives you a reply.” When it was her turn, she talked to him again. He then said to her, “Do not hurt me regarding Aishah, as the Divine Revelations do not come to me on any of the beds except that of Aishah.”
Thus, Aisha held a place of special favor among Muhammad’s wives, which caused a great deal of tension among the women. Since it may be taken as historically certain that Aisha was very young when her marriage to Muhammad was consummated, critics sometimes charge that Muhammad’s preference for Aisha reveals his preference for young girls. We find some amount of support for this view in Sahih al-Bukhari:
Sahih al-Bukhari 2967—Narrated Jabir bin Abdullah: . . . When I took the permission of Allah’s Messenger, he asked me whether I had married a virgin or a matron and I replied that I had married a matron. He said, “Why hadn’t you married a virgin who would have played with you, and you would have played with her?” I replied, “O Allah’s Messenger! My father died (or was martyred) and I have some young sisters, so I felt it not proper that I should marry a young girl like them who would neither teach them manners nor serve them.”
Sahih al-Bukhari 6130—Narrated Aishah: I used to play with the dolls in the presence of the Prophet, and my girl friends also used to play with me. When Allah’s Messenger used to enter (my dwelling place), they used to hide themselves, but the Prophet would call them to join and play with me. (The playing with the dolls and similar images is forbidden, but it was allowed for Aishah at that time, as she was a little girl, not yet reached the age of puberty.)
Nevertheless, it must be noted that, if Muhammad had truly been obsessed with young girls, he could have taken many others as his wives. Muhammad eventually held complete power in Medina and later in Mecca, yet he didn’t build himself a harem of young girls. Since there isn’t enough evidence to support the charge that Muhammad had a perverted obsession with prepubescent girls, critics should be careful when making such a claim.
To sum up, the evidence makes it abundantly clear (1) that Muhammad had sexual intercourse with Aisha when she was very young, (2) that this relationship was pursued by Muhammad after he had dreamed about her, and (3) that she was his favorite wife. With so much historical data concerning the age of Aisha, it should be obvious that Muslims who deny her young age do so out of embarrassment.
SECOND MUSLIM DEFENSE: Morality is relative to one’s culture.
Another method of defending Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha is the Muslim appeal to moral relativism. According to this view, since different cultures have different standards of morality, it is wrong to criticize the standards of others based on one’s own ethical system. Consider the following responses by Maqsood Jafri and Abdur Rahman Squires:
The Arabs practiced polygamy. In the wake of custom the Prophet Muhammad married some ladies. Hazrat Khadijah was fifteen years older [than] him at the time of marriage. Most of them were his age sake. In his fifties he married Hazrat Aiysha, the daughter of Hazrat Abu Bakr when she was just bloomed to youth. Hinting this marriage some of the orientalists charge Prophet Muhammad as a “pedophile”. It was not only the Prophet Muhammad who had married a young girl [but] even the father of Hazrat Aiysha, Hazrat Abu Bakr had also married a young girl in his sixties. It was . . . part of the prevalent Arab culture and custom. Hence not to be taken seriously. (Source)
The large majority of Islamic jurists say that the earliest time which a marriage can be consummated is at the onset of sexual maturity (bulugh), meaning puberty. Since this was the norm of all Semitic cultures and it still is the norm of many cultures today—it is certainly not something that Islam invented. (Source)
Thus, since the practice of marrying young girls was “part of the prevalent Arab culture and custom,” it is “not to be taken seriously” as a criticism of Islam.
RESPONSE: Islam is utterly inconsistent with moral relativism.
This defense is truly amazing, for, when defending Muhammad’s moral perfection, Muslims often maintain that Muhammad condemned the Arab culture for its immorality. Abul A’la Mawdudi describes Muhammad’s moral stance as follows:
After spending his life in such chaste, pure and civilized manner, there comes a revolution in [Muhammad’s] being. He wearies of the darkness and ignorance, corruption, immorality, idolatry, and disorder which surround him on all sides. . . . He wants to get hold of that power with which he might bring about the downfall of the corrupt and disorderly world and lay the foundations of a new and better one. . . . He wanted to change the whole structure of society which had been handed down to them from time immemorial. (Mawdudi, pp. 53, 56)
Muslims are quick to point out immorality around the world, especially in the West. It seems, then, that they are presenting a very inconsistent message. When confronted with an immoral practice in another culture, Muslims cry out in one accord, “We condemn these practices, for they are against the eternal, perfect, and unalterable Law of God!” Yet, whenever the moral character of Muhammad is being scrutinized, Muslims suddenly say, “Don’t judge Muhammad! You should remember that he was from a different culture! Marrying young girls was common in Arabia, and it still is, thanks to Muhammad’s precedent. Different people have different moral standards, so no one should worry about Muhammad’s sexual relationship with a nine-year-old girl.”
This convenient switch from moral absolutism to moral relativism is logically unacceptable. If it is wrong to judge the practices of another culture, then both Muhammad and the Qur’an were wrong for condemning immoral practices in Arabia. But if condemning immoral practices is acceptable, then Muslim apologists need a better response to criticisms of Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha.
We should also note that, because Muhammad is described as the ideal pattern of conduct in the Qur’an (33:21), Muhammad’s actions, according to Islam, can never be wrong. In other words, if Muhammad is the pattern of conduct that Muslims are supposed to follow, and Muhammad had sex with a nine-year-old girl, then marriage to young girls can’t even be wrong in our day, since Muhammad is still the pattern of conduct for Muslims. This is precisely why the practice of marrying child-brides continues in the Muslim world. Islamic clerics recognize that the practice can’t be condemned without thereby condemning Muhammad.
THIRD MUSLIM DEFENSE: Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha was part of God’s plan.
Muslim apologists have developed another answer to Muhammad’s critics, namely, that Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha was part of God’s divine plan (i.e., God had an important reason for it). Consider two such responses by Abdul Hamid Siddiqi and Abdur Rahman Squires:
It should be borne in mind that, like all acts of the Holy Prophet, even this marriage had a Divine purpose behind it. Hazrat Aisha was a precocious girl and was developing both in mind and body with rapidity peculiar to such rare personalities. She was admitted to the house of the Holy Prophet just at the threshold of her puberty, the most impressionable and formative period of her life. It was the Holy Prophet who nurtured her sensibilities and directed the growth of her faculties to the most fruitful channel and thus she was made to play an eminent role in the history of Islam. Moreover, she was the only virgin lady to enter the House of the Holy Prophet and was thus very competent to share the feelings of other ladies of younger age who had numerous questions to ask from the Holy Prophet with regard to sexual ethics and morality. These ladies felt shy of asking them through the elderly wives of the Holy Prophet out of modesty. They could speak out their minds comparatively more freely to Aisha who was more or less of their own age group. (Siddiqi, Note on Sahih Muslim 1860)
Puberty is a biological sign which shows that a woman is capable of bearing children. Can anyone logically deny this? Part of the wisdom behind the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aishah just after she reached puberty is to firmly establish this as a point of Islamic Law, even though it was already a cultural norm in all Semitic societies (including the one Jesus grew up in). (Source)
Here Muslim apologists argue that Muhammad married Aisha for a divine purpose. Young girls who had questions about sex needed someone to talk to, and who better for this task than the young wife of the Prophet? Further, Muhammad wanted to establish puberty as an appropriate age for marriage, so he decided to demonstrate this rule by marrying Aisha.
RESPONSE: Muslims have failed to offer a sufficient reason for God to ordain the marriage.
There are numerous problems with this line of defense. First, such a response could be used to justify nearly any behavior. Consider a husband on trial for beating his wife. When he takes the stand, he explains, “Your Honor, many women are victims of spousal abuse, and they need someone to talk to. Out of the kindness of my heart, I decided to beat my wife, so that she would be able to comfort other women whose husbands beat them.” This explanation would never be accepted (except, perhaps, in countries under Islamic rule, where Qur’an 4:34 guarantees a husband’s right to beat his wife). Besides, if Muhammad had simply outlawed sex with children instead of becoming a willing participant, little girls wouldn’t have to worry about sex, and they wouldn’t need to question Aisha.
Second, it isn’t necessary for a lawgiver to institute laws by performing actions that create a precedent. In other words, Muhammad didn’t need to marry a young girl in order establish a law about marrying girls who had reached puberty. Muhammad, as Islam’s lawgiver, could have simply issued a decree. For instance, Muhammad allowed husbands to beat their wives. Was it necessary for Muhammad to beat his wives in order to establish this as a law? Certainly not (even though he did beat Aisha in Sahih Muslim 2127). Similarly, when an American lawmaker says that killing someone in self-defense is acceptable, no one argues that the lawmaker must go out and kill someone in self-defense for his law to stand. Hence, the argument that Muhammad needed to marry a young girl to establish puberty as the appropriate age for marriage completely fails.
Third, the Muslim claim that Aisha was a “precocious child” strains the evidence. As we have seen, Aisha herself reports that, when she was taken to Muhammad’s house, she was playing on a swing with her friends. She was also still playing with dolls. Based on the evidence, Aisha sounds like a normal little girl, not like a young adult. Moreover, Muhammad didn’t marry her because she was precocious; he married her because he was dreaming about her.
Fourth, God couldn’t have been using Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha to establish puberty as the minimum age for marriage, since the Qur’an clearly allows marriage to prepubescent girls. According to Surah 2:228, if a Muslim man wants to divorce his wife, he should wait until she has gone through three monthly cycles (i.e., three periods) in order to make sure that she isn’t pregnant. But the question later arose: What about wives who do not have monthly cycles? How long should their husbands wait to divorce them? The Qur’an answers this question in Surah 65:4, where it gives divorce rules for (1) women who do not have monthly cycles because they are too old, (2) girls who do not have monthly cycles because they are too young, and (3) women and girls who do not have monthly cycles because they are pregnant. The verse declares that, if Muslim men want to divorce girls who haven’t yet reached puberty, they must wait three months (after having sex with them). The verse reads:
Qur’an 65:4 (Hilali-Khan)—And those of your women as have passed the age of monthly courses, for them the ‘Iddah (prescribed period), if you have doubts (about their periods), is three months, and for those who have no courses [(i.e. they are still immature) their ‘Iddah (prescribed period) is three months likewise, except in case of death]. And for those who are pregnant (whether they are divorced or their husbands are dead), their ‘Iddah (prescribed period) is until they deliver (their burdens), and whosoever fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him, He will make his matter easy for him.
In case there is confusion about the meaning of this verse, here are three classic Muslim commentaries on 65:4:
Tafsir Ibn Kathir—Allah the Exalted clarifies the waiting period of the woman in menopause. And that is the one whose menstruation has stopped due to her older age. Her `Iddah is three months instead of the three monthly cycles for those who menstruate, which is based upon the Ayah in (Surat) Al-Baqarah [see 2:228]. The same for the young, who have not reached the years of menstruation. Their `Iddah is three months like those in menopause.
Tafsir al-Jalalayn—And [as for] those of your women who (read allà’ï or allà’i in both instances) no longer expect to menstruate, if you have any doubts, about their waiting period, their prescribed [waiting] period shall be three months, and [also for] those who have not yet menstruated, because of their young age, their period shall [also] be three months.
Tafsir Ibn Abbas—(And for such of your women as despair of menstruation) because of old age, (if ye doubt) about their waiting period, (their period (of waiting) shall be three months) upon which another man asked: “O Messenger of Allah! What about the waiting period of those who do not have menstruation because they are too young?” (along with those who have it not) because of young age, their waiting period is three months.
Hence, unless Muslims expect us to believe that God wanted Muhammad to marry Aisha in order to refute the Qur’an, they must abandon this response. (I could also point out that, according to Muslim sources, Aisha hadn’t reached puberty by the time Muhammad consummated his marriage with her. Click here for sources proving that Aisha was still prepubescent when she was taken to Muhammad’s house.)
Fifth, Muslims search for reasons that would justify Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha because they are convinced that everything Muhammad did had a divine purpose behind it. When critics point out Muhammad’s numerous murders and assassinations, Muslims claim that these violent acts were fair and just. When critics note the extent of Muhammad’s polygamy, or his participation in the slave-trade, or his countless robberies (click here for references), Muslims provide answers based on the view that Muhammad was an outstanding moral example. Similarly, when Muslims are confronted with the evidence for Muhammad’s sexual encounters with Aisha, they assume that there must have been a reason for it. They then invent reasons for Muhammad’s behavior (i.e., the other little girls needed someone to talk to about sex), and they offer these reasons as a defense of Muhammad’s morality. However, non-Muslims do not share this confidence in Muhammad’s moral perfection. When non-Muslims hear about Muhammad’s violence, his greed, his polygamy, and his support of spousal abuse, we aren’t as quick to exonerate Muhammad as Muslims are. Because of this, Muslim justifications for Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha sound hollow when presented as a defense of his actions.
Finally, Muslim explanations for Muhammad’s behavior fail to take into account the dangers that accompany sex at a young age. Many Muslims assume that, as soon as a young girl gets her first period, she is suddenly ready to bear children. This “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed” mentality, aside from being disgusting, is completely false. A nine-year-old girl isn’t ready for sex or childbirth, even if she reaches menses earlier than other little girls. Children that young are still growing. When they become pregnant, their bodies divert nutritional resources to the developing fetus, depriving the growing girls of much-needed vitamins and minerals. Further, complications often result from adolescent pregnancies, because the bodies of the young girls simply aren’t ready to give birth.
(For a discussion of child-brides, click here.)
Western nations, unfettered by blind allegiance to seventh-century Arab ethics, have long discerned the dangers posed by adolescent pregnancies. Muslim apologists often claim that marriage to young girls was common in biblical times. This may be correct, but it has nothing to do with God endorsing the practice. Whereas many Christian countries have recognized the potential harms brought on by pregnancies among adolescent girls and have raised the legal age for marriage, Muslim countries are often kept from such advancements specifically because of Muhammad. This is very interesting, for Muslims frequently claim that Muhammad was scientifically enlightened and that the Qur’an is a scientific masterpiece. In reality, Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha is causing health problems (and even death) for young girls across the Middle East and North Africa, and has been doing so for nearly fourteen centuries. The dangers have even been noted by the United Nations, which issued the following report in an attempt to curb Islamic child marriage:
Traditional cultural practices reflect values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods often spanning generations. Every social grouping in the world has specific traditional cultural practices and beliefs, some of which are beneficial to all members, while others are harmful to a specific group, such as women. These harmful traditional practices include female genital mutilation (FGM); forced feeding of women; early marriage; the various taboos or practices which prevent women from controlling their own fertility; nutritional taboos and traditional birth practices; son preference and its implications for the status of the girl child; female infanticide; early pregnancy; and dowry price. Despite their harmful nature and their violation of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not questioned and take on an aura of morality in the eyes of those practicing them.
Child marriage robs a girl of her childhood-time necessary to develop physically, emotionally and psychologically. In fact, early marriage inflicts great emotional stress as the young woman is removed from her parents’ home to that of her husband and in-laws. Her husband, who will invariably be many years her senior, will have little in common with a young teenager. It is with this strange man that she has to develop an intimate emotional and physical relationship. She is obliged to have intercourse, although physically she might not be fully developed.
Health complications that result from early marriage in the Middle East and North Africa, for example, include the risk of operative delivery, low weight and malnutrition resulting from frequent pregnancies and lactation in the period of life when the young mothers are themselves still growing.
Early pregnancy can have harmful consequences for both young mothers and their babies. According to UNICEF, no girl should become pregnant before the age of 18 because she is not yet physically ready to bear children. Babies of mothers younger than 18 tend to be born premature and have low body weight; such babies are more likely to die in the first year of life. The risk to the young mother’s own health is also greater. Poor health is common among indigent pregnant and lactating women.
In many parts of the developing world, especially in rural areas, girls marry shortly after puberty and are expected to start having children immediately. Although the situation has improved since the early 1980’s, in many areas the majority of girls under 20 years of age are already married and having children. Although many countries have raised the legal age for marriage, this has had little impact on traditional societies where marriage and child-bearing confer “status” on a woman.
An additional health risk to young mothers is obstructed labor, which occurs when the baby’s head is too big for the orifice of the mother. This provokes vesicovaginal fistulas, especially when an untrained traditional birth attendant forces the baby’s head out unduly. (Source)
Contrary to Muslim claims, a nine-year-old girl just isn’t ready for sexual intercourse or for its possible ramifications (i.e., pregnancy, giving birth, breast-feeding, and raising a child). It is unnecessarily dangerous, for a much safer relationship could be crafted if the marriage were to take place several years later, when the girl reaches her late teens. Muslims may respond here by arguing, “But Aisha never became pregnant, so none of this matters.” Yet it does matter. Every year, countless young girls, still playing with dolls, are taken to live with much older husbands. If these husbands were to be challenged, they wouldn’t respond by saying, “But it’s part of Arabic culture”; instead, they would reply, “It can’t be wrong, because Muhammad did it.” In other words, even if we grant the bizarre claim that Aisha was somehow ready for sex and marriage, most nine-year-old girls aren’t ready for sex and marriage. But the practice of marrying children continues to this day in many Muslim countries, largely because Muslims hold up Muhammad as their highest role model.
FOURTH MUSLIM DEFENSE: The average lifespan in Muhammad’s day was so low that people had to marry young.
Muslim debater Osama Abdallah argues that Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha was justified, because people in Muhammad’s day needed to marry early:
Life 1400 years ago was very rough in the too hot desert. From my personal knowledge, the average life span back then was 50 years. People used to die from all kinds of diseases. Both parents of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) for instance, died natural deaths before he even knew them. (Source)
On this view, since people could die at any time in the “hot desert,” they would get married at a very early age to make sure they had as many years together as possible.
RESPONSE: Muhammad was already more than fifty years old when he consummated his marriage to Aisha, so there was no need for him to marry such a young girl.
Abdallah’s claim might make sense if Muhammad had been nine or ten years old when he married Aisha. But the Prophet of Islam was already well advanced in years. He was far closer to death than most available women, so why not marry an adult instead of a child? At the very least, why not marry a fully developed twenty-year-old instead of a little girl playing on a swing? By marrying Aisha when she was so young, Muhammad was, in effect, condemning her to a life of widowhood, for the Qur’an barred Muslims from marrying Muhammad’s widows (33:53). Beyond all this, Abdallah’s argument ignores the facts. Muhammad didn’t marry Aisha because the average life span was fifty years old; instead, he married her because (1) he had been dreaming about her, and (2) he had the power to persuade Abu Bakr to give him his daughter in marriage.
FIFTH MUSLIM DEFENSE: Other people have done it too—even Christians!
Abdallah also employs an “everybody’s doing it, so it’s okay” defense:
Not only was it a custom in the Arab society to Engage/Marry a young girl, it was also common in the Jewish society. The case of Mary the mother of Jesus comes to mind. In non biblical sources she was between 11-14 years old when she conceived Jesus. Mary had already been “BETROTHED” to Joseph before conceiving Jesus. Joseph was a much older man. Therefore Mary was younger than 11-14 years of age when she was “BETROTHED” to Joseph. We Muslims would never call Joseph a Child Molester, nor would we refer to the “Holy Ghost” of the Bible, that “Impregnated” Mary as a “Rapist” or “Adulterer.” (Source)
RESPONSE: Besides committing the “tu quoque” fallacy, this defense misses the point of the criticism against Muhammad.
Tu quoque is a type of fallacy that attempts to ignore a criticism because of some hypocrisy found in the critic. For instance, suppose I’m a thief. One day, I catch someone stealing my car, and I say, “Stop, Thief!” If the person stealing my car turns to me and says, “But you’re a thief too, so it’s not wrong for me to steal,” he will be committing the tu quoque fallacy. (It’s not okay to steal just because other people steal.)
Muslims rely heavily on the tu quoque. When people criticize Islam for terrorism, it’s common to hear Muslims say, “But Americans are killing Arabs!” as if this were a meaningful response to the charge. Likewise, when someone says, “Look at all the people Muhammad killed,” Muslims respond by saying, “But people were killed in the Bible too.”
To say that Joseph married a young girl in the Bible does nothing to address the problem of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha. At best, such a defense would only show that Christians are being inconsistent. But in reality, the Muslim defense doesn’t even show this, since their comparison fails, for several reasons.
First, there is no real historical data reporting the age of Mary when she married Joseph. True, given the custom of the time, she was probably fairly young, perhaps as young as twelve or thirteen. But since we have no historical references to her age, we can’t rule out the possibility that Mary was twenty years old. The point here is this: people criticize Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha based on what we know (i.e., that Aisha was nine years old), whereas Muslims reply based on what we don’t know (i.e., the age of Mary).
Second, we must not forget that, biologically, thirteen-year-old girls are very different from nine-year-old girls. Nine-year-old girls typically haven’t reached menses. In a best-case scenario for Abdallah’s defense, a girl this young may have just entered the beginning stages of puberty (note: puberty is a process that lasts several years). A thirteen-year-old girl, on the other hand, may be coming to the end of puberty. Thus, even if we grant a young age for Mary, there would still be a world of difference between her and Aisha.
Third, Muslim apologists seem to miss the fact that Joseph is not the standard of morality in Christianity. When critics point to the age of Aisha, they are arguing something like this: “You’re trying to tell me that Muhammad was the greatest moral example of all time and that I should believe everything he says? I can’t believe that a person who would have sex with a little girl was the greatest man ever.” More simply, Muhammad is foundational to Islam. If there is a problem with Muhammad, there is a problem with Islam. If Muhammad was immoral, then it becomes difficult to take his teachings seriously. Thus, it makes no sense for a Muslim to say, “Well, Joseph married a young girl too.” Joseph isn’t foundational to Christianity. If an ancient text were found tomorrow, and this ancient text proved that Joseph was an axe-murderer, Christianity wouldn’t be affected at all, because Christians don’t consider him to be a prophet, or a bringer of revelation, or even an important figure in Christianity. Thus, if Muslims want to show that Christians are being inconsistent, they need to show that Jesus, or Peter, or Paul, or someone central to Christianity, did the things that Muhammad did. Fortunately, Jesus was sinless, and the apostles lived exemplary lives once they had committed themselves to Jesus.
The Internet is filled with examples of Muslim responses of this sort. Muslim websites constantly note that young girls are married in various countries and that these young girls sometimes give birth. No one doubts this. The problem is that this has nothing to do with whether or not marriage to a nine-year-old girl is morally acceptable for a mighty prophet. The fact that Muslims are forced to resort to an “everyone’s doing it” defense shows that they have run out of responses.
ASSESSMENT: Two Interpretations of “Pedophile.”
Muhammad unquestionably had sex with Aisha when she was nine years old. Does this make him a pedophile? Our answer to this question will depend on our definition of “pedophile.” In common usage, as well as in some dictionaries and even certain medical dictionaries, a “pedophile” is defined as anyone who is attracted to a young girl or boy. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, for instance, defines “pedophilia” as “the act or fantasy on the part of an adult of engaging in sexual activity with a child or children” (Source). Since Muhammad had sex with a child, he been called a “pedophile” in this sense in numerous writings, sermons, and conversations.
The term “pedophile” has a more specific clinical use, however, where a “pedophile” is someone who has an exclusive or primary sexual interest in children. For example, The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders defines “pedophilia” as “a psychosexual disorder in which the fantasy or actual act of engaging in sexual activity with prepubertal children is the preferred or exclusive means of achieving sexual excitement and gratification” (Source). Because Muhammad was sexually attracted to women and girls of various ages (including Khadijah, who was 15 years his senior), he would not be a pedophile in this more specific sense.
Hence, given the ambiguity of the term, care should be used when applying it. Indeed, since the term is commonly understood in the narrower sense, critics of Islam may be better off not using it at all. (Needless to say, people who are interested in maintaining an ongoing discussion with Muslims should avoid emotionally charged terms whenever possible.)
Nevertheless, Muslims are too hasty in dismissing objections to Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha. When Muslims tell us to convert to Islam, we can’t simply ignore their prophet’s marriage to a nine-year-old girl. Muslims view Muhammad as the highest example of a moral life, but his marriage to Aisha conflicts with that view. If they want to put Muhammad forward as the pattern of conduct for all humanity, Muslims need to come to terms with the many questionable things he did, as well as the catastrophic impact of his actions.
There is, of course, a simple (but highly explicit) way to evaluate the importance of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha. We must begin by trying to get a mental picture of a morally perfect man. For Muslims, this will include all the things they have been taught about Muhammad. According to their picture, he is kind, generous, patient, humble, and trustworthy. He protects orphans and widows, endures persecution, helps the needy, and promotes justice. He prays faithfully, fasts regularly, and obeys God in everything. He is loyal to his friends and patient with his enemies. He never gives in when tempted with evil. Now we must picture this same man in a room with an innocent little girl. He takes away her doll, climbs on top of her, and forces his penis inside her. She doesn’t know what is happening because she is too young to know much about sex. Frightened and confused, she cries because of the pain and bleeds on her bed, but she tries to remain quiet out of respect for her new husband, who, in return, endangers her life.
If a person is able to keep the same vision of moral perfection throughout this description, he may have the faith necessary to be a Muslim. But if his vision of the perfect man is at odds with what Muhammad did on numerous occasions, he will need to look elsewhere for an ideal human being.
Ali, Maulana Muhammad. Muhammad the Prophet (St. Lambert: Payette and Sims, 1993).
Mawdudi, Abul A’la. Towards Understanding Islam (Islamic Circle of North America, 1986).
Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad Muhsin Khan, tr. (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 1997).
Sahih Muslim, Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, tr. (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 2000).
Sunan Abu Dawud, Ahmad Hasan, tr. (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 2000).