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‘A’isha bint AbuBakr: Significant Person in Islam Depth Study

The first post of 2015 is a bit longer than normal. In 2014 I presented at the Macquarie University Studies of Religion Teachers Conference. Below is a copy of the document I published in the course materials. I teach ‘A’isha as a depth study for a number of reasons: she is a fascinating study in the contrast between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, a look into feminism in Islam and the way Islam developed during the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs.

The Significant Person or Idea

There are a plethora of options available for the section on a Significant Person or Idea. Some of the more commonly studied are Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, A’isha bint AbuBakar, Sufism, Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, Al-Ghazali and Sayyid Qutb. For classes interested in more of a philosophic approach, Sufism is an excellent option, however it can be difficult for some students who do not think as critically. Rabi’a al-Adawiyya and Al-Ghazali both relate to Sufism and should be covered when looking at that topic. Sayyid Qutb is an interesting option as he relates to the Muslim Brotherhood and can be linked into what is happening in Egypt at the moment. Students who are more interested in the role of women in Islam may consider Khadijah, Fatima or A’isha.

Focus on ‘A’isha bint AbuBakar

‘A’isha bint AbuBakar (also AbuBakr or Abi Bakr or variations) is probably best known as the juvenile wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Students can be overly concerned with the idea of a marriage at the age of approximately nine years old so it is important to focus on the belief by most Muslims that this was a cultural norm at the time and that Muhammad had the practice of making strategic marriages following Khadijah’s death. For those not shying away from controversy, the article by Myriam Francois-Cerrah for The Guardian is an interesting stimulus for discussion. She argues that the Qur’an instructs that marriage take place between consenting adults (that is, those who have reached puberty) and therefore ‘A’isha must have been older than usually stated.

The syllabus asks the student to both explain how they have contributed to Islam and the impact they had. There a number of themes to look at when considering ‘A’isha.

‘A’isha as a feminist icon

‘A’isha’s involvement in the political development of Islam can be seen as evidence of the ability of women in to engage in Islamic society. However, opponents of her view this same behaviour as representative of ‘what not to do’. Sunni Muslims believe ‘A’isha to be Muhammad’s favourite wife and an example of behaviour of women, however Shi’a Islam look at the teaching in the Qur’an that all wives should be treated equally as a sign that she was not his favourite and was also not behaving as a woman should:

“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].” – Sura 4:3

Feminist commentators, such as Mernissi, describe her as “dynamic, influential and enterprising” and point to her being involved in politics, education and religion. El Saddawi holds ‘A’isha and other early Muslim women up as pioneers: “Early Muslim women preceded the women of the world in resisting a religious system based on male domination.” (p. 195). Afshar regards her as “an effective politician and a remarkable warrior.” (p. 126). Students can quite easily argue that her role in Islamic history makes her a bastion of power and independence to some while simultaneously being an example of the dangers of women achieving autonomy for others.

‘A’isha as an example of female Muslim behaviour

‘A’isha was so much respected by the umma that she was given the title Umm al-Umma (Mother of the Islamic Community). Muhammad is supposed to have treated her as his favourite, even dying in her arms and being buried in her bedroom. A hadith attributed to ‘A’isha demonstrates his devotion to his third wife:

“When the Prophet became seriously ill and his disease became aggravated he asked for permission from his wives to be nursed in my house and he was allowed.” – al-Bukhari 11:634

She was considered to be a well-spoken representative of Islam while maintaining her role as an appropriately situated wife. It is reported that ‘A’isha and Muhammad lived the lives of strict Muslims, with very simple accommodation and often subsisting on an extremely meagre diet.

‘A’isha as a proponent of education and collector of hadith

‘A’isha believed in education for all people. She learnt about Islam directly from the Prophet Muhammad and was passionate about disseminating it. She was the eyewitnesses to a number of revelations and understood the circumstances in which they occurred. She is reported to have been ” skilled in medicine, poetry, mathematics, and speaking”. She was particularly important in helping women to gain education and can still be seen as a leader in this area.

Many Muslims, particularly Sunni Muslims, view ‘A’isha as an invaluable contributor to Islamic jurisprudence. Not only was she a principal witness to Muhammad’s sunna in his later years, she questioned the legitimacy of existing hadith following his death and critiqued how to use the hadith to make legal decisions. Over 2000 sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are believed to have been reiterated by ‘A’isha. They range from examples of how to act as a Muslim to a description of the Ka’ba as having two doors (which offers modern readers an indication of the practice of pre-Islamic religion in Arabia).

‘A’isha as an influence on Qur’anic verse

In addition to the hadith, it is accepted that three of her experiences resulted in revelations. The first is the famous Scandal of the Slander which dealt with an event where she became separated from the main group and returned with a single man. She was accused of adultery but Muhammad received a revelation which resulted in any further charge of adultery requiring four witnesses. The second revelation occurred after ‘A’isha lost a necklace and the subsequent search caused the group to have no water to perform wudu when prayer was required. Instead, Muslims are now able to use fine dust or sand when water is not available. At-tayammum (dry ablution) is discussed in the following sura.

“But if you are ill or on a journey, or one of you comes from a nature call, or you have been in contact with women, and you find no water then take for yourself clean sand or earth, and rub with it your face and hands. God does not wish to place you in difficulty, but to make you clean, and complete His favour to you, that you may be grateful.” – Sura 5:6

Finally, Sura 33:59  is reported to have been in response to the wives of Muhammad, including ‘A’isha, being insulted by visitors. The revelation below resulted in the wives of Muhammad at the time wearing the hijab.

” O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” – Sura 33:59

‘A’isha as a catalyst for the creation of Sunni and Shi’a

‘A’isha is also an excellent choice for discussing differences between Shi’a and Sunni Islam and differences in interpretation of a Significant Person. She is seen by many Muslims (both Sunni and Shi’a) as working against ‘Ali. A hadith reports that she was present when Muhammad instructed Abu Bakr to follow him, however Shi’a Muslims dispute this.

“The mother of the believers: Allah’s Apostle in his illness said, “Tell Abu Bakr to lead the people in prayer.” I said to him, “If Abu Bakr stands in your place, the people would not hear him owing to his (excessive) weeping. So please order ‘Umar to lead the prayer.” – al-Bukhari, 11:647.

Shi’a Islam strongly disagrees with her treatment of ‘Ali. ‘A’isha’s father led the umma after Muhammad died and was followed by ‘Umar and then ‘Uthman. After ‘Uthman was killed ‘A’isha believed that ‘Ali to had been involved, even though he was now Caliph. She raised an army and went to battle with him near Basra. This is known as the Battle of the Camel and was a significant loss to ‘A’isha as she was taken captive before being returned to Medina.

“If you two [wives] repent to Allah , [it is best], for your hearts have deviated. But if you cooperate against him – then indeed Allah is his protector, and Gabriel and the righteous of the believers and the angels, moreover, are [his] assistants. Perhaps his Lord, if he divorced you [all], would substitute for him wives better than you – submitting [to Allah ], believing, devoutly obedient, repentant, worshipping, and traveling – [ones] previously married and virgins.” – Sura 66:4-5.

Although the Qur’an does not name the two wives, Shi’a Muslims can take this to mean ‘A’isha and Hafsa.

Sources relating to ‘A’isha

Below are a few sources relating to ‘A’isha. Reading all of the sura in Bukhari alone that is attributed to her would be incredibly time consuming but worth the effort. All books on Islam mention ‘A’isha, however many of the recent arguments centre on her as a feminist icon and how conservative Islam has misused her memory to instruct women. The websites, twitter accounts and books mentioned offer a variety of ways to interact with Islam and a number of different perspectives.

Hadith and Sura about ‘A’isha

‘God’s apostle said and she quotes, “If any of you feels drowsy while praying he should go to bed till his slumber is over because in praying while drowsy one does not know whether one is asking for forgiveness or for a bad thing for oneself.”‘ – al-Bukhari 41:161

‘Narrated Aisha: “It is not good that you people have made us (women) equal to dogs and donkeys. ” – al-Bukhari 9:498.

‘Narrated Aisha: “The Prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six (years). We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Bani-al-Harith bin Khazraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on my hair grew (again) and my mother, Um 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 Allright, 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 a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Apostle 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.” – al-Bukhari 58:234

‘Indeed, those who came with falsehood are a group among you…Why, when you heard it, did not the believing men and believing women think good of one another and say, “This is an obvious falsehood”? Why did they [who slandered] not produce for it four witnesses? And when they do not produce the witnesses, then it is they, in the sight of Allah , who are the liars…Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread [or publicized] among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allah knows and you do not know.” – Sura 24:11-19 (The Scandal of the Slander)

Sources on ‘A’isha

‘I have not known of any woman who was accused of falsifying hadith. To this we add, that from the time of ‘A’isha, the mother of believers…the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad were not kept or related by anyone as they were kept in the hearts of women and related by them.’

Al-Hafez al-Zahabi (c. 1347) in Living Religion Fourth Edition.

“Prophet Muhammad was more emancipated with respect to women than most men of his time, and even most Muslim men nowadays. He gave his women the right to stand up to him, rebuke him, or tell him where he had gone wrong… Despite her young age ‘Aisha was a living example of how women stood firm on many issues in those days. She was well known for her strong will, versatile and incisive logic, and eloquence. She wielded a powerful intelligence which sometimes was even a match for the inspired and gifted Prophet of Allah. She had no hesitation in opposing or contradicting him, he whose word was all powerful among the Muslims. Not only did ‘Aisha stand up to the Prophet sometimes, but was wont to do the same thing with other men. She expressed her thoughts with a forthright and cutting logic.”

el Saadawi, Nawal. ‘Women and Islam.’ In Women’s Studies International Forum, 5. no. 2 (1982): 193-206.

 “‘Urwa Ibn El- Zuheir, [said] ‘I have not seen any one who is more knowledgeable in theology, in medicine and in poetry than ‘Aisha’.”

Afifi, 1921 in el Saadawi.

  “ ‘A’isha was the mother of believers (an honorary title given to all the wives of the Prophet), supported by Talha and Zubair (two companions of the Prophet) and the Omayyads…and championed by many Muslims. How was it that she did not win [the Battle of the Camel]?…To begin with, ‘Ali had a stronger army, whereas she was weakened when the Omayyads withdrew their support and further suffered from disunity among her followers. In addition, her adversaries used as a weapon against her the fact that she was a woman stepping outside the confines of her home.” –  on Zahia Qadura’s biography ‘A’isha Um al-Mu’miniyn (1947).

Elsadda, Hoda. ‘Discourses on Women’s Biographies and Cultural Identity: Twentieth-Century Representations of the Life of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr’. Feminist Studies 27, no. 1 (Spring2001 2001): 37.

Francois-Cerrah, Myriam. The truth about Muhammad and Aisha. The Guardian, 2012. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/sep/17/muhammad-aisha-truth&gt;

 ‘’A’isha was the most knowledgeable Muslim and had the best opinion in public affairs.’

Manjarrez Walker, Ashley and Michael A. Sells. ‘The Wiles of Women and Performative Intertextuality: ‘A’isha, the Hadith of the Slander and the Sura of Yusuf.’ In Journal of Arabic Literature 30, no. 1 (1999): 55-77.

 ‘A’isha was “dynamic, influential, and enterprising member of the community, and fully involved in Muslim public affairs.”

Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society. London: Al Saqi, 1985.

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