The age of 'A’ishah, daughter of Abu Bakr, when she married the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is something that has only recently become controversial. The traditional account is that the marriage was consummated when she was nine years old, which naturally appears strange, if not uncomfortable, to many in a modern, western context. Hence, some recent Muslims (of varying levels of intellectuality, motivations and scholarly qualifications) have re-visited the sources. They have discovered some evidence in the classical historical texts, and reinterpreted the traditionally adduced narrations, to suggest that 'A’ishah may actually have been older (with various ages suggested). My aim, in this brief piece, is not to analyze the arguments for and against a young marriage age for 'A’ishah, but rather to contextualize the entire discussion with a bird’s-eye view that remains intact regardless of which view (if either) an individual chooses to commit to.
The first (and most) important point to note is, as indicated above, is that the controversy is a relatively recent one. The Prophet’s own contemporaries took no issue with the Prophet’s marriage to 'A’ishah; it was not problematic in their eyes. This includes both his disbeliever antagonists and his believing followers. Certainly, his antagonists were ever eager to discredit him, and the Qur’an itself records details of this. They accused him of being a sorceror, a madman or a soothsayer. They objected to his marriage to Zaynab, remonstrating that (according to pre-Islamic Arab culture) a man may not marry the divorcee of his adopted son just as he may not marry the divorcee of his biological son. Yet they did not attempt to discredit him on the basis of his marrying a girl too young for him. Neither in the Qur’an nor in any historical source is there any mention of such an objection having been raised, despite the fact that these sources do mention numerous other strategies used by the Prophet’s opponents.
So, if the Prophet’s contemporaries did not object to 'A’ishah’s age of marriage, then we conclude with certainty that her age was within the norm. Logically, this in turn implies one of two things: either it was acceptable, in 7th century Arab culture, for older men to marry younger girls (even as young as 9), or the reason for their non-objection was that `A’ishah was in fact older. Once again, my aim here is not to prove one or the other, but to put the whole issue in perspective. The age of 'A’ishah is not a central tenet of Muslim faith, nor should it eclipse the core message and teachings of Islam. Muslims contemplating the issue of 'A’ishah’s age might find it beneficial to recall that, ‘Part of the excellence of a person’s Islam is his/her leaving aside what does not pertain to him/her.'
Non-Muslims would serve themselves better by contemplating the Prophet’s teachings of monotheism and righteousness, and the Book he presented as God’s revelation, rather than dwelling on what is, at most, a socio-culturally historical oddity.
The general character of the Prophet, and his marital history, speak clearly against the notion that he was other than upright. His first marriage, at age 25, was to a widowed woman (Khadijah) who was 15 years his senior, and he remained in a happy and solid monogamous marriage to her for a quarter-century (twenty-five years), the marriage ending only with Khadijah’s death, aged 65. If we are extrapolating general lessons from the Prophet’s life, then his marriage to Khadijah is far more relevant for paradigmatic value. It was only subsequent to that, and often under specific circumstances (as others have discussed) that he married other women, and all of them (other than 'A’ishah) were either widows or divorcees. Some historical sources even record that one of the strategies his antagonists tried, to dissuade him from his preaching, was to offer him whatever wealth or wives he desired, but he refused this initiative.
Hence, without necessarily putting the two possibilities (regarding 'A’ishah’s age) on equal footing, and without stifling those who wish to delve deeper into the scholarly (and sometimes non-scholarly) arguments on either side, it is sufficient for the Muslim to defer the issue to God, saying, “I believe whichever of the two is the truth before God.” There are many more useful and pressing issues for us to occupy ourselves with.
The modern option of upgrading 'A’ishah’s age might offer a more immediate appeal, and an ‘easy’ and convenient solution, for which little further explanation or reasoning would be necessary. Indeed, in the absence of birth certificates, records of ages prior to the modern era can be expected to have some margin of error. However, it is worthwhile to look at the issue in a larger perspective, and to avoid viewing the veritable tapestry of human culture, across space and time, through the colored lenses of modern, western culture. A slight familiarity with anthropology is sufficient to convince one that there has been, and still is, remarkable variety in human cultural practices and norms. The Catholic Encyclopedia observes about the Virgin Mary (peace be upon her) that,
“It is possible that Mary gave birth to her Son when she was about thirteen or fourteen years of age.”
In Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was only thirteen, yet her mother tells her that “ladies of esteem” younger than her are already mothers. According to the “Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society,” both Christian Canon law and European civil law considered seven years as the age of consent, but judges in medieval England would approve marriages based on mutual consent at ages even lower than 7. As recently as the nineteenth century, ages of consent of 13 to 14 were common in Western countries. Now, we are responsible for acting in accordance with our conscience, and our own societal norms may well factor into this, but it may be a bit presumptuous to pass judgment on people of the past and future, and those of other cultures. People in the future may well look on some of our mores as bizarre.
The bottom line, is: God knows best about all the details of things. And, it remains well-established that Islam’s central message is one of monotheism, decency and morality. It is to this that our energies can be more profitably devoted.