The Orientalist scholar W Montgomery Watt wrote of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam: "Of all the world's great men, none has been so much maligned."
His quote seems all the more poignant in light of the Islamophobic film Innocence of Muslims, which has sparked riots from Yemen to Libya and which, among other slanders, depicts Muhammad as a paedophile. This claim is a recurring one among critics of Islam, so it deserves close scrutiny.
Critics allege that Aisha was just six years old when she was betrothed to Muhammad, himself in his 50s, and only nine when the marriage was consummated. They base this on a saying attributed to Aisha herself, and the debate on this issue is further complicated by the fact that some Muslims believe this to be a historically accurate account. Those who accept this saying argue that, because the Qur'an states that marriage is void unless entered into by consenting adults, Aisha must have begun puberty early.
They point out that, in seventh-century Arabia, adulthood was defined as the onset of puberty. (This much is true, and was also the case in Europe: five centuries after Muhammad's marriage to Aisha, 33-year-old King John of England married 12-year-old Isabella of Angouleme.) According to this perspective, Aisha may have been young, but she was not younger than the norm at the time. Other Muslims doubt the very idea that Aisha was six at the time of marriage, referring to historians who have questioned the reliability of Aisha's age as given in the saying. She had already been engaged to someone else before she married Muhammad, suggesting she had already been mature enough by the standards of her society to consider marriage for a while. It seems difficult to reconcile this with her being six.
In addition, some modern Muslim scholars have more recently cast doubt on the veracity of the saying, or Hadith. In Islam, the Hadith literature is considered secondary to the Qur'an. Hadiths were transmitted over time through a rigorous but not infallible methodology. Based on all known accounts, estimates of her age at marriage range from nine to 19.
Because of this, it is impossible to know how old Aisha was. What we do know is what the Qur'an says about marriage: that it is valid only between consenting adults, and that a woman has the right to choose her own spouse. As the living embodiment of Islam, Muhammad's actions reflect the Qur'an's teachings on marriage.
Sadly, in many countries the motivation for the marriage of young girls is economic. In others, motivations are political. The fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia have both sought to use the saying as a justification for lowering the legal age of marriage tells us much about the patriarchal and oppressive nature of those regimes, and nothing about Muhammad, or the essential nature of Islam.
In seventh-century Arabia (as in some parts of the world today), marriage typically served a social and political function – a way of uniting tribes, resolving feuds, caring for widows and orphans, and generally strengthening bonds in a highly unstable political environment. Of the women Muhammad married, the majority were widows. To consider the marriages of the prophet outside of these calculations is profoundly ahistorical.
What the records are clear on is that Muhammad and Aisha had a loving and egalitarian relationship, which set the standard for reciprocity, tenderness and respect enjoined by the Qur'an. Insights into their relationship, such as the fact they liked to drink out of the same cup or race one another, are indicative of a deep connection that belies any misrepresentation of their relationship.
To paint Aisha as a victim is completely at odds with her persona. During a controversial battle in Muslim history, she emerged riding a camel to lead the troops. She was known for her assertive temperament. Muhammad established her authority by telling Muslims to consult her in his absence. After his death, she went on to be one of the most prolific and distinguished scholars of her time.
Those who manipulate her story to justify the abuse of young girls and those who manipulate it in order to depict Islam as a religion that legitimises such abuse have more in common than they think. Both demonstrate a disregard for what we know about the times in which Muhammad lived, and for the affirmation of female autonomy that her story embodies. – © Guardian News & Media 2012