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By Jason Michael
IT WAS SHOCKING to discover yesterday that a prominent Scottish activist had described the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, as ‘a pervert’ and a ‘greedy bastard.’ In October 2018 the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg determined, in the E.S. vs Austria case, that the conviction of an Austrian woman (‘E.S.’) for describing the Prophet Muhammad as a ‘paedophile’ did not violate her freedom of speech, in effect establishing that her offence was an Islamophobic racist hate crime under European law. Given the transfer of the European acquis into UK law after Brexit, this ruling has informed law in Scotland. This is to say that it is an offence in Scotland to describe the man Muslim’s believe to be the recipient of the Qur’an from God as a child molester or a paedophile.
Mrs E.S. held two seminars in October and November 2009 at which she discussed the marriage of Muhammad to Aisha, the daughter of Umm Ruman and Abu Bakr of Mecca (two of Muhammad’s most trusted companions). Scholars are not in agreement, but it is believed Aisha was between six and nine years old at the time of her marriage to the Prophet Muhammad. Among other things, E.S. stated that Muhammad ‘liked to do it with children’ and ‘… a fifty-six year old man and a six year old? … What do we call it, if it is not paedophilia?’
On 19 November 2019, Marion Millar, currently on trial in Scotland for allegedly making homophobic and transphobic comments and for threatening behaviour, published the following on her Twitter account:
‘… mohammad did not eat Aisha he sexually abused her at age 9 or 10, also all Muslim men are permitted 4 wives, Mohammad had 9 at 1 time, he is not only a pervert but a greedy bastard as well.’
Now, perhaps some reading this will see a clear cut example of the Austrian legal system and the ECHR giving undue protection to a religion. After all, the default age of consent set by the European Union is sixteen. It is sixteen in Scotland. On the surface, then, this may look open-and-shut; this is an example of an adult having sex with a minor. It is difficult today to separate this from the neo-orientalist anxiety surrounding child brides, and so it is at least understandable why some people arrive at the conclusion that this was paedophilia. It is certainly a ‘fact’ deployed by proselytising Christians and by far-right groups to taunt Muslims.
But can this event — the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad and Aisha — be explained? Is it possible to answer this highly offensive question? Can we redeem Muhammad and Islam from the accusation of paedophilia? Actually, yes we can. The Prophet Muhammad was not a paedophile, and in this article we shall explain exactly why this is the case.
Ms Millar is ‘a woman who speaks both Urdu and Arabic and [who] has spent many years focused on religious studies’ so she will have little trouble following this article. As she will be well aware, the tradition of the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad and Aisha comes from the Hadith Sahih Bukhari and is worth quoting here for the purposes of this discussion:
حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ يُوسُفَ، حَدَّثَنَا اللَّيْثُ، عَنْ يَزِيدَ، عَنْ عِرَاكٍ، عَنْ عُرْوَةَ، أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم خَطَبَ عَائِشَةَ إِلَى أَبِي بَكْرٍ فَقَالَ لَهُ أَبُو بَكْرٍ إِنَّمَا أَنَا أَخُوكَ، فَقَالَ “ أَنْتَ أَخِي فِي دِينِ اللَّهِ وَكِتَابِهِ وَهْىَ لِي حَلاَلٌ ”
The Prophet asked Abu Bakr for `Aisha’s hand in marriage. Abu Bakr said, ‘But I am your brother.’ The Prophet said, ‘You are my brother in Allah’s religion and His Book, but she (Aisha) is lawful for me to marry.’
Sahih Bukhari 7:62:18 (Hadith)
To put this in context, it is important to state that this marriage was contracted in the first half of the seventh century (c. 620 CE) — that is, give or take a few years, some 1,400 years ago. It happened in an Arab Bedouin culture in the western part of the Arabian peninsula. This is an entirely different time and place to the time and place in which we are having this discussion. Immediately, then, we are faced with the serious historical problem of anachronism; imposing modern mores on the past. Still, this is not exactly a moral argument. If sex with a minor is to be thought of as universally wrong, then we must provide a better answer than simply that it happened in another place a long time ago.
Prof Colin Turner of the University of Durham’s Middle East Studies department and the author of Islam: The Basics (Routledge, 2006), adds more context to the story:
A marriage between an older man and a young girl was customary among the Bedouins, as it still is in many societies across the world today. It was not unheard of in Muhammad’s time for boys and girls to be promised to each other in marriage almost as soon as they were born, particularly if the union was of direct political significance to the families concerned. However, such marriages were almost certainly not consummated until both parties had entered adulthood, which Arabs in the 7th century tended to reach at an earlier age than Westerners today. It is highly unlikely that Muhammad would have taken Aisha into his bed until she was at least in her early teens, which was wholly in keeping with the customs of the day, and in context not in the least improper.
Essentially, this is much the same as the tradition of the marriage (or betrothal) of St Joseph and Mary of Nazareth (the mother of Jesus) in the Christian Gospels. Life expectancy was significantly shorter than it is today and the demands of survival in a desert environment would have necessitated marriage and procreation at an earlier age. The age of sexual maturity, then, would have been lower than we might be comfortable with now; typically around the age of twelve or thirteen — certainly in the early teens. We must also factor in the important distinction between betrothal and marriage (and the sexual consummation of the union). In Arab, Bedouin, and Palestinian culture — especially for reasons of inheritance and tribal politics — it was not uncommon for girls to be betrothed to marry a boy or a man of her parents’ choosing shortly after she was born. But this was not a sexual union. The marriage would not be consummated until she had reached the age of sexual maturity — when she started to menstruate.
Karen Armstrong makes an important point in Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (Harper Collins, 2006) about this custom and how it was also practiced in Europe well past the Middle Ages:
There was no impropriety in Muhammad’s betrothal to Aisha. Marriages conducted in absentia to seal an alliance were often contracted at this time between adults and minors who were even younger than Aisha. This practice continued in Europe well into the early modern period. There was no question of consummating the marriage until Aisha reached puberty, when she would be married off like any other girl.
It must be concluded, then, that, given the traditionalism and conservatism of Islamic culture, tradition, and custom, it is unlikely in the extreme the Prophet Muhammad would have had sexual intercourse with Aisha before it was deemed appropriate by the culture in which he lived. To have done otherwise would have been scandalous — even by the standards of the time — and, as this was a literate culture, would have been recorded and transmitted to us. But it wasn’t. What we have, in this case, is the reading into history of modern standards and this is being done for political and religious reasons. Sure, the Prophet Muhammad was betrothed to a child — a child very possibly as young as six, but this marriage would not have been finalised until she was of a marriageable age as determined by the society in which she lived.
The Prophet Muhammad, therefore, was no more a paedophile than any other man entering a regular marriage anywhere in the Near East and Europe at the time — and, in fact, for most of human history. So this is a distortion of history — an abuse of history — and is being done either wilfully or through ignorance. Accusing the Prophet Muhammad of child abuse or paedophilia has become a standard practice of the racist and Islamophobic far-right and to a great extend this perverted version of Islamic history has spread throughout western society as a consequence. As someone focused on religious studies with an interest in Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, this is something Marion Millar should know. But now that we know better, perhaps we can lay this one to rest.
Who Is Aisha? | Lesley Hazleton