You cannot get into any discussion about hadith with anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, without eventually encountering the widely quoted, and incessantly justified hadith which claims that A’isha [ra] was betrothed (engaged) to the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] at the age of 6, and later married to him at the age of 9.
It is reported from A’isha that she said: The Prophet entered into marriage with me when I was a girl of six … and at the time [of joining his household] I was a girl of nine years of age. (Bukhari 58:234)
Because this hadith is found in the Sahih Bukhari collection, Muslims have managed to accept it as pure fact, without any real investigation, and have even gone as far as dancing around it so much, that they have essentially found ways to rationalize and justify its truth.
The explanation that I remember hearing when I was younger went something like this:
A’isha [ra] was an exceptionally intelligent, young woman, with an excellent, precise memory, and could be raised to absorb the teachings of the prophet, in order to convey that knowledge to a wider audience, even after he passed away.
Now, although I listened to my teachers and believed the explanation – after all, it mostly makes sense, and we know that the Prophet [pbuh] doesn’t act out of his own whims or desires (Qur’an 53:2-3) – the hadith still never sat well with me.
And if it hasn’t sat well with you either, I’m here to tell you that there is a good reason for that – this widely-quoted hadith is just simply not true! It can’t be true! Not if we look at the cold, hard facts. In an online discussion/debate with another Muslim, I happened upon some very interesting information with regards to this hadith. After further research, I also came across this article which continues the discussion and lays this unholy myth to rest, once and for all.
What Are the Facts?
If we look at the undisputed, well-documented historical facts, we can immediately deduce that A’isha was NOT a child when she married the Prophet [pbuh]. She was actually 16 at the time of her betrothal (engagement) to the Prophet, and 19 when she married and moved in with him.
A chronological documentation of major events in A’isha’s life is as follows:
- A’isha was born before Islam was revealed in 610, and accepted Islam shortly after it was revealed.
- The Hijra occurred in 622
- A’isha’s older sister (of 10 years), Asmaa, was 27 at the time of Hijra, making A’isha 17 at the time of Hijra.
- A’isha was betrothed to the Prophet two years after the death of Khadijah, or a year before the Hijrah.
- A’isha moved in with the Prophet a year or two after the Hijrah, or two to four years after her betrothal. (Various reports are unclear, but all agree as to the general time frame.)
- A’isha was involved in the battles of Badr (624) and Uhud (625), in neither of which was anyone under the age of 15 allowed.
- A’isha was widowed in 633
- A’isha died in 672 at the age of 67. (We know that her older sister, Asmaa, died at the age of 100 in the year 695, which means she was 77 at the time of A’isha’s death.)
So again, based on the timeline above, we can conclude that A’isha was 16 at the time of her engagement to the Prophet [pbuh], and 19 when she married and moved in with him.
So Where Did This Come From?
The real questions now are, where did this hadith come from and why has it become so widely accepted? Here are some more uncontested facts:
- All of the reports that say that A’isha was 6 at the time of her engagement, and 9 at the time of her marriage, come from Iraq.
- Most of these reports come from Asmaa’s grandson, Hisham bin ‘Urwa (born in 683).
- None of the reports come from Mecca or Medina, where Hisham bin ‘Urwa spent the first 70 years of his life.
- Hisham spent the last 15 years of his life in Iraq, where all of the reports come from.
- It is reported that as he became older, Hisham’s memory suffered quite badly.
When we look at this information, we learn some very interesting facts. Hisham bin ‘Urwa (who was born after A’isha died) spent the majority of his life in Madina, and yet no one else from Madina ever confirmed his reports about A’isha’s age at the time of her marriage.
One of Hisham’s most well known students was Malik ibn Anas, and even he objected on the narratives of Hisham which were reported by the people of Iraq.
So essentially what we’re dealing with here is a false hadith which was misreported by an elderly man with a bad memory. That’s understandable, but that brings us to the next question: Why wasn’t this hadith checked, double-checked, and triple-checked? Especially since it is included in Sahih Bukhari, the most widely accepted hadith collection!
How Could This Happen & What Do We Do About It?
According to this article, the compilers of hadith didn’t apply the same stringent tests to hadiths which dealt with historical matters, as they did with those that dealt with the rulings and laws of Islam. Why? Because the historical matters were just that – historical and academic in nature. They don’t really affect the way Muslims live their lives in accordance with Islam. The hadiths that dealt with the fundamental teachings, on the other hand, do indeed affect the way Muslims live their lives and in deciding what is halal and haram. So finding reports, like the one about A’isha’s age at marriage, in the hadith does not necessarily make them true, even if they’re found in Sahih Bukhari or Sahih Muslim!
So what do we do now? The one semblance of hope in the reliability of hadith that many of us hold onto, is that reports found in Bukhari and Muslim are the go-to hadiths. The ones you can quote with very little doubt. And if that’s no longer true, where does that leave us? Do we negate, undermine, and completely reject the hadiths in Bukhari and Muslim? And if we do that, do we just reject ALL hadiths while we’re at it?
Of course not! To do so would go against the commands of Allah in the Qur’an, when he continuously orders us to obey the messenger (5:92), (4:59), (4:13), (33:71), (4:64). We are supposed to obey all of Allah’s messengers, of course, but Allah (glorified and exalted be He) also makes it very clear that we are to specifically follow Prophet Muhammad [pbuh]:
Say: “If ye do love Allah, Follow me: Allah will love you and forgive you your sins: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an 3:31)
How Do We Decipher the Hadith?
Our prophet’s sunnah is very important. It, along with the Qur’an, are our only pieces of guidance in this world. But unlike the Qur’an, the hadith of course can be flawed, since it relies on word-of-mouth and memory.
Based on what we’ve learned above, we have to be very careful when deciding which hadiths are undisputed fact, and which should be taken with a grain of salt, so to speak. How do we decipher the hadith and decide which is which?
If a hadith is purely historical in nature, conveying a story, with no actual rulings or laws to be applied to one’s life, it should be taken just as a report of a possible event that may or may not have happened, and that’s it.
If a hadith clearly provides a ruling or a law to be applied to one’s life and the way he or she lives his or her life in accordance with Islam teachings, it should be approached with caution still, and all attempts should be made to verify it with multiple sources, to be sure that it is indeed factual.
Heed Allah’s Warning About False Hadiths!
Although Hisham ibn ‘Urwa was not malicious in his intentions when falsely reporting the hadiths about A’isha’s age at the time of her marriage, it’s not difficult to believe that over the centuries, others may have intentionally made false reports, and passed them off as hadiths, in order to undermine the message. Allah (glorified and exalted be He) warns us about these indviduals in the following verse:
وَمِنَ ٱلنَّاسِ مَن يَشۡتَرِى لَهۡوَ ٱلۡحَدِيثِ لِيُضِلَّ عَن سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ بِغَيۡرِ عِلۡمٍ۬ وَيَتَّخِذَهَا هُزُوًاۚ أُوْلَـٰٓٮِٕكَ لَهُمۡ عَذَابٌ۬ مُّهِينٌ۬
But there are, among men those who purchase idle tales, without knowledge (or meaning), to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah and throw ridicule (on the Path): for such there will be a humiliating Penalty.
The Arabic word for ‘idle tales’ in the verse above, is actually ‘hadith,’ as shown in the green text! So we must heed His warning and take precautions when deciding what is fact, and what is falsehood.
We ask Allah (glorified and exalted be He) to continue to guide us on the straight path. May He helps do all that pleases Him, and avoid all that displeases Him. We ask Allah [set] to help us properly follow His commandments and the sunnah of the prophet Muhammad [pbuh].
“Our Lord! condemn us not if we forget or fall into error; our Lord! Lay not on us a burden like that which Thou didst lay on those before us; Our Lord! lay not on us a burden greater than we have strength to bear. Blot out our sins and grant us forgiveness. Have mercy on us. Thou art our Protector; help us against those who stand against faith.” (Qur’an 2:286)