“Muslim scholars are caught in their own predicament. Most are willing to concede that historical timelines suggest Aisha could not have been aged nine when she became Muhammad’s bride. However, if they were to admit this flaw in the Hadith books, they would be opening a pandoras box. How many more laws of sharia, based on the hadith, are lies and need to be discarded?”
March 19, 2010
Essay by Tarek Fatah
The allegation that the Prophet Muhammad married Aisha in the year 624AD when she was only a nine-year old girl, is not new.
However, the fact this controversy has surfaced on rightwing blogs, is something that has caught a lot of Muslims by surprise. It was sparked by a lecture in Toronto where the former Muslim, Syrian-American Wafa Sultan claimed, “As a married man, Mohammed raped Aisha when she was nine; he was fifty-four.”
Wafa Sultan’s depiction of Prophet Muhammad as a child rapist seems to be a manifestation of her hatred of Muslims in general. She has no evidence of any rape having taken place nor does she have a record of Aisha’s age. However, what she does possess is a rage against her former faith that she expresses with wild abandon.
In her book, A God who Hates, Wafa Sultan writes:
“Shouting has become their [Muslims’] hallmark and the main characteristic they use when they engage in conversation with someone whom they don’t agree with. Without it they have no sense of their own worth or existence; without it they have no sense eve of being alive. … On top of shouting their way through a conversation, they have acquired the habit of shrieking, and they take pleasure in hearing their own shrieks. They believe that the louder they shriek, the more they prove they are right. Their conversation consists of shouting, their talk is a screech, and he who shouts loudest and screeches longest is, they believe, the strongest. They fabricate disagreements so as to give themselves an opportunity to shout. They seek contradiction so that they can scream. … Islam canonized the Muslims’ desert nature, and from that moment on they were unable to acquire new ways of communicating with others.”
Just as Muslim anti-Semites denigrate Jews by claiming the ‘yahood’ have an incorrigible evil nature (fitra), Wafa Sultan too applies a similar diagnosis to describe the supposed unethical nature of the Muslim. She writes:
“The first moral question a person learns is the difference between the concepts of “yes” and “no”—in other words, the ability to decide what to accept and what to reject. … A Muslim lives his whole life and dies without ever having learned this lesson. Islamic culture has no clear concept of “yes” and “no.” The two opposites are confused in a way that makes Muslims’ behaviour incomprehensible to others who interact with them.”
After her Toronto speech, I protested her hateful language in an op-ed for the National Post. I was not alone in finding fault with Wafa Sultan’s logic or language. The Canadian Jewish Congress national president, Mark Freiman reacting to Sultan’s speech at the synagogue, told an Islamic conference in Toronto:
“…it is ironic that it was in a Jewish synagogue a short while ago that an ex-Muslim made the sweeping allegation that Islam as a faith was intrinsically incapable of political moderation or respecting the norms of secular society. The Jewish speakers at the event spoke up against this suggestion, but it is also appropriate tonight that I add my name and that of the Canadian Jewish Congress to the rejection of such irresponsible charges.”
Both Prof. Daniel Pipes and Avi Benlolo of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre too spoke against the main premise of Wafa Sultan’s speech.
However, my critique of Wafa Sultan upset a lot of people. Dozens of rightwing anti-Muslim blogs were up in arms, calling me a wolf in sheep’s clothing and accusing me of defending child rape. It was if the floodgates of hate had been opened. The Jewish Internet Defence Force, reacting to my article, said:
“In reality, Islam is like a deadly, contagious disease. Once it invades the mind of its victim, it is capable of transforming him to a helpless pawn that has no choice but to execute what he is directed to do. Of the reported 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, millions are already trapped in the terminal stages of this affliction, while millions of others are rapidly joining them. The people enslaved with the extreme cases of Islamic mental disease are highly infectious. They actively work to transmit the disease to others, while they themselves engage in horrific acts of mayhem and violence to demonstrate their unconditional obedience to the dictates of the Islamic cult.”
I also earned the ire of Dr. Andrew Bostom, author of The Legacy of Jihad. Writing in Pajamas Media, Dr. Bostom took umbrage at my objection to Wafa Sultan’s anti-Islam speech inside a synagogue. Accusing me of Silencing the Jews, he claimed I was a bully, hateful and disingenuous. In an email message to me, Dr. Bostom suggested I was, “a despicable taqiyya-mongering pile of excrement.”
Another ex-Muslim, the author Ali Sina wrote on his website:
“Tarek Fatah proves my point that there is no such thing as moderate Muslim … Every “moderate” Muslim is a potential terrorist. The belief in Islam is like a tank of gasoline. It looks innocuous, until it meets the fire. For a “moderate” Muslim to become a murderous jihadist, all it takes is a spark of faith.”
Farzana Hassan, author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today, who has faced her fair share of death threats at the hands of Islamists, on learning about this controversy, asked the rhetorical question. “Should a moderate Muslim simply become a lackey who accepts every insult hurled their way?” She wrote:
“Moderate Muslims, reserve the right to defend any unwarranted criticism of either the founder of Islam or the faith. This is not to suggest that a great deal of the criticism is not justified. It is. Moderate Muslims, without hesitation, and at great risk to our lives, unequivocally condemn all atrocities committed in the name of Islam. We continuously work toward eliminating gender inequalities among Muslims including child marriages. Nonetheless, the charge against Mohammad as a child molester, however, is unjustified for the following reason: His relationship with Aisha was a loving relationship between two consenting adults. It is more than likely that Aisha was closer to being nineteen than nine at the time of marriage. This claim is supported by historical data that puts Aisha at least 15 at the time, though it is likely she was older.”
It is not just Islam-haters who have a stake in reaffirming the myth that Muhammad had a child bride. The fact is that throughout Islamic history, many a caliph and mulla has committed pedophilia and then justified the act by invoking the supposed tradition of Muhammad in consummating a marriage with a nine-year old girl. Even today in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Muslim girls have been given away by their fathers, brothers or uncles to middle-aged men with no sense of guilt or shame, since they are told their very own beloved Prophet had sanctioned child marriage.
It does not help that instead of denouncing child marriages, Islamists and the orthodox clergy of Islam continue to defend the practise as Islamically permissible, legal and honourable. The fact that a four-year old girl walks into Yemeni court asking for a divorce from her aging husband does not awaken these supposedly holy men to the crime being committed in the name of Islam. These men undoubtedly commit statutory rape when they force themselves onto these children.
This begs the question: How do people like Wafa Sultan or the Islamists claim to know for a fact that the age of Aisha was nine when her marriage to Muhammad was consummated? There are no birth records from the time and there is not a single piece of physical paper that can be traced back to seventh century Arabia that mentions the age of Aisha.
In the absence of hard evidence, we have two choices:
- We rely on medieval hearsay and gossip that has unfortunately seeped into Islamic literature, the Hadith and Sharia law, or;
- We calculate the age of Aisha based on actual agreed upon indisputable chronology of events.
While the Islamists and Wafa Sultan rely on medieval gossip, I have chosen to make a rational estimate of Aisha’s age based on acknowledged historical timelines.
Most medieval Islamic history books were written 200-300 years after the advent of Islam and it is true that all of them state emphatically that Aisha was only nine when she became Muhammad’s bride.
However, all of them rely on, and quote, one single individual as the source of this information. His name was Hishām ibn Urwah, a prominent narrator of sayings of the Prophet (the Hadith), who died in the year 756AD. He was Aisha’s great-grand nephew, who first suggested that his great-grand aunt was only nine-years old on the day of her wedding, 125 years after the said event. Prior to his utterance– a century after the fact–there is no mention or reference to the age of Aisha.
Hisham bin Urwah lived and taught in Medina for 70 years, yet no one else—not even his famous pupil Malik ibn Anas—-reported Aisha’s age. It is no coincidence that the growth of harems of the Abbasid caliphs mushroomed to hundreds of wives and concubines—many young girls—at the time the sharia law based on bin Urwah’s report, legalized child marriage.
Instead of relying on the words of bin Urwah as so many Islam-haters and Islamists do, I suggest we look at a few facts that prove that Aisha’s age on the day of her wedding could not have been lower than 14 years of age.
The historian al-Tabari informs us in his treatise on Islamic history that the father of Aisha, Abu Bakr had four children and all them were born before the year 610AD, the year of the advent of Islam. If, as is generally accepted, Aisha became Muhammad’s bride in the year 624AD, then she had to be at least 14 years of age, if not older on the day of her wedding.
Other calculations based on historical events place Aisha as old as 20 when she was became a bride. Ibn Hisham, the historian, reports that Aisha accepted Islam quite some time before Umar (the second caliph). This means she must have been at least a young girl in the year 610. Assuming she was five years old when Abu Bakr and his family converted to islam, the information puts the age of Aisha at 20 or more at the time of her marriage with Muhammad was consummated in 624AD.
Furthermore, most Islamic historians agree that Asma, the elder sister of Aisha, was ten years older than her. It is also reported that Asma died in 683AD at the ripe age of 100. If this is true, then Asma would have been 31 years old at the time of Aisha’s wedding with Muhammad in 624 and the bride would have been 21.
Of course, these facts do not suit either the critics of Islam or the Mullahs who sanction child marriage. Had the medieval caliphs or their court appointed clerics in the 8th century accepted these timelines, it would have taken away their right to fill their harems with young girls of their choice.
My critics may argue that I am juggling the dates to validate my thesis. But where is the evidence that suggests my timeline of historical events is wrong? If the critics of Islam argue that there needs to be a reformation in Islam, then why would we not err on the side of an argument that could end child marriages in the Muslim world?
In the absence of any documentary evidence that Aisha was nine years old when she became Muhammad’s bride, why cling to to the gossip of one man, ibn Urwah, who served the courts of the caliphs? After all these were the very rulers who trampled over Islamic doctrine by instituting monarchies and building empires on the backs of slaves.
This introspection is not to influence someone like Wafa Sultan, but to redeem our own selves. As far as Sultan is concerned, she makes little secret of the fact that she considers the world’s one and half billion Muslims as people suffering from a disease that she wants to treat. Such is her contempt for Muslims, as a physician, Sultan told a Jewish fundraiser in LA, “I have 1.3 billion patients.”
Her remarks were so offensive that one of the attendees, Rabbi Stephen Stein later wrote in the LA Times, he had to walk out of the fund raiser. Not only does she consider all 1.3 billion Muslims as suffering from a disease that needs treatment, her disdain for Muslims crosses all thresholds of rational discussion. Demonstrating her contempt for Muslims, she rails in her book:
“God placed donkeys and mules at Muslims’ disposal, while the West gave them mastery over new forms of transportation …”
So deep is her hatred of her heritage, she suggests we Muslims were a primitive peoples before the arrival of the Europeans and Americans. She writes:
“Before oil was discovered in the Gulf states, Muslims lived in primitive existence. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, the modern world descended upon their campsites, disfigured their world with palaces, high-rises, cars, and technology, and threatened the unchanging silence of their environment. …When people make an overnight transition from the Stone Age to the age of the airplane and the Internet, it is inevitable that they should undergo some kind of internal struggle in the process, and find themselves subject to depression and other psychological ills, specially when they continue to cling desperately to the teachings and social structure of their former environment. Muslims ran before they had learned to crawl, and tried to climb a ladder they had not even reached.”
Zeroing in on her own Arab community, Sultan claims:
“When an Arab revokes his agreement he justifies himself by insisting that he had never agreed in the first place, as he had not said yes, but had merely smiled and nodded his head. This ambiguity means that Muslims’ relationship with others are capricious and uncertain, and this has made it hard for people to trust them. People who cannot differentiate between yes and no and can express neither unambiguously have a confused notion of concepts in general.”
I have lived in the Arab world and among Arabs for a decade. I admit, there is much they can be criticized for. However, not even the Arabs’ worst enemy would accuse them of being uncultured or inhospitable. On the contrary, one could argue the hospitality of the Arab is their saving grace. Their poetry, their language and their generosity has charmed the likes of Moshe Dayan and Amos Oz. Yet, so blinded is Wafa Sultan with her hatred of the Arab, she told the Toronto Jewish Tribune that it was only when she came to the USA that she learned to say “Thank you” or “excuse me.” The Jewish Tribune quoted her as saying:
“I practised medicine for nine years in Syria. Believe it or not, I learned how to say thank you [only] when I came to America. For the first time. Because you have to thank Allah and Mohammed, nobody else. I learned how to say please, how to say excuse me.”
Perhaps I as a Pakistani-Canadian could teach Wafa Sultan how to say, “Shukran” (Thank you) or “Min Fadlaq” (please) or maybe her hatred of the Arab has caused her to be deaf to these words, since they are the two most oft-repeated words one hears in an Arab capital or village. However, if her loathing for the Arab is couched in cultural disdain, her contempt for the non-Arab Muslim is blatant. She does not consider non-Arab Muslims to be true muslims. In her eyes, if the Arab is an inferior being, the Pakistani is worse, not even worthy of the Islam she hates.
Mehnaz M. Afridi is Professor of Judaism and Islam at the Antioch University in Los Angeles. The Pakistani-American academic recounts a talk at a Jewish Temple where she shared the head table with Wafa Sultan.
She told me, “I had the inopportune moment to present at a Jewish Temple in Los Angeles with Wafa Al-Sultan. We were asked to show similarities between Judaism and Islam, and I did. I was the first presenter, she was second and gave a talk on how awful Islam was and how I was not a real Muslim because I am South Asian [of Pakistani descent]. Her beef with Indo-Pakistani Muslims was that we have ‘mangled’ the Islamic message to make it appear more positive.”
In her book, Wafa Sultan dismisses non-Arab Muslims, claiming, “a Christian born and brought up in Jordan is more Islamic in his behaviour and way of thinking than a Pakistani Muslim.”
At the 2006 LA fundraiser where rabbi Stein staged a walkout, he recalls Wafa Sultan’s racist attitude towards non-Arab Muslims. He writes:
“Then this provocative voice said something odd: ‘Only Arab Muslims can read the Koran properly because you have to speak Arabic to know what it means — you cannot translate it.’ Any translation is, by definition, interpretation, and Arabic is no more difficult to accurately translate than Hebrew. In fact, the Hebrew of the Bible poses many more formidable translation problems than Arabic. Are Christians and Jews who cannot read it ill-equipped to live by its meanings?”
The Hollywood screenwriter and television producer Kamran Pasha (of Sleeper Cell fame) who has authored a brilliant fictional novel about the life of Aisha, Mother of the Believers, told me that in his research for the book, he had concluded that Aisha was at least in her early teens when she became Muhammad’s bride. However, he chose to confront the critics head on. In the author’s note to his fascinating novel, Pasha writes:
“In my novel, I have chosen to directly face the controversy over Aisha’s age by using the most contentious account, that she was nine at the time she consummated her wedding. The reason I have done this is to show that it is foolish to project modern values on another time and world. In a desert environment where life expectancy was extremely low, early marriage was not a social issue—it was a matter of survival.”
As critics of Islam pummel the Muslim community with insults and mockery, our reaction merely makes their point. We burn books, threaten cartoonists or make a laughing spectacle of ourselves for the rest of the world. We simply refuse to indulge in retrospection and reflection. We refuse to discard the ossified books of the Hadith that justify so much that is wrong in the Islamic world and which contribute to so much shame and embarrassment.
Muslim scholars are caught in their own predicament. Most are willing to concede that historical timelines suggest Aisha could not have been aged nine when she became Muhammad’s bride. However, if they were to admit this flaw in the Hadith books, they would be opening a pandoras box. How many more laws of sharia, based on the hadith, are lies and need to be discarded? In the academia too, few Muslim scholars wish to be ostracized by the well-funded mosque establishment of North America—the only likely place that could host a reformation in Islam.
Too much is at stake for the Islamic establishment to admit that Prophet Muhammad was not the husband of a child bride. They would rather see their leader mocked then to admit to the fallibility of the Hadith literature. Until that happens, Islam-haters will continue to have a field day.
For the rest of us Muslims—moderate, liberal, secular or progressive, call it what you may—the challenge is simple: We need to detach ourselves from the man-made laws and traditions of the medieval world and step into the 21st century, like the rest of humanity, as believers in the strict separation of religion and state and universal human rights where all men and women are equal, irrespective of relgion or race.
If we don’t, then we better be prepared to be be mocked with derision as stragglers in a caravan who are slowing down the progress of all humanity.