53-year-old Muhammad’s marriage to 9-year-old Aisha has been the subject of much debate, both inside Islam and in the West. This is one former-Muslim, feminist atheist’s take on the Aisha problem in Islam. For it is a huge problem.
The accepted version of the Aisha story states that Muhammad dreamt about being offered a gift in the shape of a covered bundle, which when he uncovered it, turned out to be the baby Aisha, who was the daughter of his best friend, Abu Bakr. He took this to mean he was meant to marry Aisha, and accordingly negotiated an engagement with her when she was six years old, apparently with some resistance by his best friend who initially found the alliance a little incestuous (as close friends in Arab cultures consider each other brothers). The deal was that Aisha would marry Muhammad, move in with him and he would be allowed to consummate the marriage when Aisha reached menarche. This happened when she was 9. There are hadiths that describe Aisha’s journey (in her own words) to her husband’s home, who was almost half a century older than her, and her emotional distance from the events that were taking place, which she obviously didn’t have much understanding of. It is also quite clear from reading Aisha’s narratives that she was a child playing with dolls at the time of the marriage.
Pedophilia is a common charge against Muhammad, but Muhammad was not a pedophile — and although I recognize that he could still possibly have behaved like one in one instance in a lifetime, he did not do so in Aisha’s case. If Aisha had NOT developed secondary sexual characteristics when Muhammad “consummated his marriage” with her, he would be guilty of that aberrant behavior. Yes, she was unusually young. But she was inescapably pubescent and the word ‘pedophile’ is simply inaccurate. Also, his relationship with her lasted into her adulthood and was evidently the most sexual as compared with the rest of his wives. He was moved by her youth — but not by her childishness. The problem does not lie in Muhammad’s sexuality and what forms it took, although a moral case can certainly be made on that basis alone.
The moral crime really lies in Muhammad’s role as a setter of precedent. With Aisha’s early initiation into sex and marriage, he set the precedent for all future followers in all ages that the onset of menstruation marks sexual readiness in girls: this is a medically, socially and psychologically harmful position to hold. That’s Muhammad’s moral crime, of which he was of course completely unaware, not being the prophet of God. And that’s what Muslims have to face and refute: a prophet of god setting a harmful precedent.
There was a more immediate moral crime in his marriage to Aisha, and that was the harm caused to Aisha herself. This is trickier territory, but I will take my cue from a highly sensitive rendition of the internal life of a modern-day Aisha: Lolita.
She was a ‘nymphet,’ as I suspect Aisha was — girls who are early on not so much aware of their sexuality, but have hit puberty and almost unconsciously adopt certain womanly traits as they move towards becoming women. They hold a certain sexual attraction for say, ephebophiles, who are far more common than pedophiles and whose sexuality is also more fluid between pubescent children and adult women.
But the moral crime in Lolita is not early sexualization of her by an adult man, as she was already experimenting sexually and was very sexually self-aware. The moral crime was the adult act of inhibiting her sexuality to be restricted ONLY to him, preventing her from even socializing because of jealous fears, which is startlingly similar to how Muhammad treated his wives who were forbidden to remarry after his death and for whom Muhammad devised special rules of interaction with non-related men. Essentially, Lolita was a child; emotionally, she wasn’t ready for a full-fledged ‘relationship’ with an adult with all the power imbalance of such an arrangement. She was robbed of a normal childhood.
Much the same can be said for Aisha: she was robbed of a childhood. She was initiated without consent into a cult, both of polygamy and of Islam, and made to bear the burden of that for the rest of her life — she couldn’t have a sexual relationship after Muhammad’s death (when Aisha was only 18) and so for most of her long life, she was deprived of that which had formed the cornerstone of her most formative years, sex, as by all accounts Muhammad had an intensely sexual relationship with his favorite and youngest wife. That’s a moral crime. And for what? Posthumous jealousy.
I feel morally appalled by what Muhammad did to Aisha and cannot accept such an imperfect man could be a prophet of God. At the same time, I cannot help but acknowledge that my being (subjectively) morally outraged at it has not very much relevance in a debate about religion and ethics. Still, the fact that people of ordinary morality are immediately shocked by the act of an alleged prophet of God, speaks volumes.
The Muslims who try to excuse Muhammad’s act, and the non-Muslims who are ‘understanding’ of his weakness, allege that this was a common thing in that era, hence couldn’t be “immoral” as morality is a social construct that changes with time and place. I agree with that last assertion but the gall of Muslims using moral relativism is astounding: People who believe in an eternal religion suddenly abandon absolute morality when it suits them.
I’ll be the first to admit that in matters of sex and sexuality, the lines are arbitrary; the morality is fuzzy. But fuzzy morality is OUR prerogative, as infidels. Not the Muslims’.
For extremely well-researched and concrete Islamic refutations of those who’d rather deny the evidence of the ahadith than admit that Aisha was a child when Muhammad took her to his bed, see here.