Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) –
The Saudi archeologist Muhammad al-Maghthawi has published a photograph of an inscription in the vicinity of Medina that seems to be the first to mention the Prophet’s third wife, `A`isha. It seems to date from the first century of the Muslim era (A. H.), and is probably from the late 600s A.D. In fact, its diction is such that it may even date from a time when A’isha was still alive (she is said to have died in 674). It says,
“O God, forgive `Aṭā’ ibn Qays and ‘Āʾisha, the spouse of the Prophet.”
إكتشاف أول نقش إسلامي مبكر
يرد فيه ذكر لإحدى زوجات النبي ﷺ
كتب هذا النقش عطاء ابن قيس رضي الله عنه
ويدعوا فيه بالمغفرة له ولأم المؤمنين عائشة رضي الله عنها
زوج النبي ﷺ فيقول :
– اللهم اغفر لعطاء ابن قيس
ولعائشة زوج النبي pic.twitter.com/gfTgjUsFZa
— نوادر الآثار والنقوش🇸🇦 (@mohammed93athar) September 14, 2019
We do not have any securely dated early accounts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632. The first extended book on the subject dates from the 760s, by Muhammad ibn Ishaq, commissioned by the Abbasid rulers who came to power in 750. It was followed by works by Ibn Rashid, al-Waqidi, Ibn Sa`d and al-Biladhuri, which are even later. Most of these biographies appeal to oral narratives and scattered notes stemming from earlier decades, and they suffer from the folk process and oral fluidity.
I explore themes in the earliest era of Islam in my recent book:
The Qur’an permits up to four wives, assuming, it says, a man can treat them all equally. Muslim modernists have argued for monogamy on the grounds that it is impossible actually to treat them all equally, as the Qur’an remarks. The later sources suggest that in a society without a state, and in a small community with few support mechanisms, polygyny was a way of taking care of widows and unmarried women. From the Medina period (622-632), Muhammad’s followers were forbidden to marry pagans. There therefore were not many available mates, given how tiny the early community was. There are several possible reasons for which women also may have been over-represented in the early community. Typically there are 5% more women than men in a population (this is true of the contemporary US). Women may have converted to the new religion at greater rates than men, for all we know. Men were constrained with regard to conversion by social taboos because their livelihood was at risk from social boycotts, whereas women may often have been less vulnerable to this pressure. The early followers of Muhammad had to fight several defensive battles, in which dozens or hundreds of their men were killed.
The later Muslim biographical tradition attributes to Muhammad more than four wives, but there is nothing in the Qur’an to make us think he married more than four at any one time. Roman custom was monogamy, which Western Christianity inherited (it wasn’t Jewish law; Solomon is said to have had 700 wives and concubines). As a result, Christians through history have been appalled at Muhammad’s marriages, which they interpreted as lascivious. Somehow they don’t view Abraham or David through the same lens. All the accounts of Muhammad’s marriages are late and full of improbable details, and almost certainly reflect Abbasid politics and claims on authority for certain Muslim families rather than telling us about 622-632, the period in which the Prophet was said to contract further marriages after his first wife Khadija bint Khuwaylid, died in 619 or 620. The great scholar William Montgomery Watt debunked the lascivious interpretation of Muhammad’s marriages, pointing out that he was married to Khadija alone from the time of his marriage to her at age 25 until her death roughly two and a half decades later, according to the Abbasid sources. Rather, in Medina Muhammad became a kind of tribal chieftain in addition to being a prophet, and Arab tribal chieftains used marriages to make political alliances.
`A’isha was the daughter of Muhammad’s friend, the great merchant Abdallah ibn Abi Quhafah, c. 573 A.D. – 634 A.D, known as Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr was one of the first to embrace Muhammad’s new religion, around 610, and was only a little younger than Muhammad, being roughly a contemporary. Abu Bakr became Muhammad’s successor or vicar on the Prophet’s death in 632, rather as Peter was said to be the vicar of Christ. Abu Bakr died after only two years, in 634.
The later Abbasid sources make A`isha only a girl when she married Muhammad, but such details cannot be proved to be historical and we should be careful with them. Some authors may have fixed an early date for the marriage in order to underline the legitimacy of Abu Bakr’s succession. That is, the marriage could have occurred in the late 620s after Muhammad had acquired other ambitious fathers-in-law, but been backdated in the form of a child betrothal to 624 by Abu Bakr’s partisans. Ironically, some of today’s writers who are scathing in rejecting the validity of the Abbasid historiography of early Islam are at the same time eager to put exact dates and ages to A’isha from these suspect accounts. I think in both cases, they just don’t like Muhammad or Islam.
The standard Roman age of marriage was 12, which is also the age specified in the Jewish Talmud. If she was around that age, the marriage would have been unremarkable in that era. Those Muslim-haters who smear Muhammad on this issue should consider whether they also want to smear all Orthodox Jews (wouldn’t it be anti-Semitism to say their Talmud is pedophiliac and many of their marriages through the ages were, too?). Or shall we smear the entire Roman population for a millennium in the same way? The marriage age in many American states was 14 (the same as in Roman Catholic canon law) until very recently. I’m all for protecting teenagers from early marriage today, but as a historian I’m just wary of anachronistic puritan pronouncements. Human beings have had lots of arrangements about marriage through history and likely there were advantages and disadvantages to each in that particular historical and social context. Tibetans had a custom of brothers sharing a wife. Apparently it was hard on the wife.
In any case, Muhammad certainly married A’isha to cement his political alliance with Abu Bakr, a prominent merchant and powerful member of the Abu Taym clan of the Quraysh tribe, at a time when some Quraysh leaders in Mecca were determined to conquer nearby Medina–to which the early believers in Muhammad’s message had repaired in 622. The later sources suggest, however, that Muhammad had secret admirers among some clans in Mecca in the 620s, and in some ways the militant Quraysh pagans were undermined by the attractions of Muhammad’s message for their own constituents. The respected Abu Bakr, who fought beside the Prophet, was an asset in this propaganda war.
A’isha lived many decades after Muhammad’s 632 death, passing away in 674. She at times entered politics, most dramatically in 655-56, when she championed the cause of the murdered third commander of the faithful `Uthman, who was assassinated that year by disgruntled tribesmen. They then backed Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, as the new commander. When Ali did not move against the anti-`Uthman faction, A`isha joined a rebellion along with her brother-in-law al-Zubayr ibn `Awwam and Talha ibn `Ubaydallah.
As later chroniclers told the story, A’isha briefly emerged as a sort of Arab Muslim queen, commanding large numbers of troops at engagements such as the Battle of the Camel and sending them against Ali’s forces, conquering Basra. I don’t think she was either veiled or secluded.
The al-Zubayr faction was defeated, and Christian sources say Ali was assassinated at Najaf in Iraq not too long afterward in 658 (later Muslim sources put this event in 661). After Ali, Mu`awiya, a relative of `Uthman, came to power, establishing the Umayyad Empire that ruled until 750.
In her later years, A’isha held informal classes or a kind of salon at Medina in which she taught young people the story of the Prophet Muhammad as she heard it in her childhood and experienced it in her youth, and biographical snippets said to go back to her may be the earliest capsule biography of Muhammad. They are typically conveyed by her nephew `Urwa ibn al-Zubayr or one of his students. Some of these snippets have a ring of authenticity, though there are thousands of them and many seem to me folk tales of later generations falsely attributed to her.
Several early inscriptions mention al-Zubayr and his children and descendants, which is natural if the Zubayrids had the Hijaz as their power base.
But this is the first inscription known to mention A’isha herself.