A’isha bint Abi-Bakr: A Legacy Partially Told

Tradition has it that once the Prophet Muhammad had intended to marry a beautiful tribal woman. A’isha along with Hafsa prepared the bride for her wedding night, combing her hair and reddening her hands with henna. A’isha was consumed with jealousy. Her beloved husband was about to marry another woman, whose beauty threatened her intimate and privileged connection with him. Thus, A’isha hatched a plan to sabotage the marriage. She advised the unknowing bride to proclaim, “I seek refuge with God from thee,” on her wedding night. This, A’isha explained, would win the Prophet’s favor.

When the Prophet approached his new bride to consummate the marriage, she quickly uttered this formula of refuge, but to her surprise, the Prophet turned away. He interpreted her words as request for divorce. The next morning she was quietly sent back to her tribe.

This anecdote captures more than just the domestic intrigues of the Prophet’s wives. It demonstrates the relevance of A’isha, Mother of the Believers, for all ages. A’isha, although a woman of unparalleled piety, was not above the jealous vagaries of the human heart. Neither was she submissive to the customs of her time like polygamy which she often struggled to accept. Of all her co-wives, A’isha is arguably the most fascinating to the modern mind for she fails to fit the popular Western caricature of the docile Muslim wife. Her various interests spanned the domestic, social, political, and religious realms. She was a wife, mother, friend, teacher, politician, and military leader.

This portrait of A’isha’s complex and colorful nature, however, is strikingly different from the one consistently painted by contemporary Islamic piety. Today A’isha is known only in relation to the great men in her life—her father, Abu Bakr, and her husband, the Prophet Muhammad. In a recent online video Shaykh Omar Suleiman attempts to deliver a 14-minute account of A’isha’s life. Unsurprisingly, he ends A’isha’s saga with the iconic story of the Prophet’s head in her lap, breathing his last. Though A’isha outlived the Prophet by 46 years—indeed she lived more than half of her life without her husband—Suleiman makes no mention of her activities during this time. We only know she was a wellspring of hadith, transmitting over 2,210 narrations. So what else did A’isha do besides narrate hadith?

The Prophet is reported to have said, “Draw a part of your religion from little al-humayra.Al-humayra or “the radiant one” was the Prophet’s pet name for A’isha, given to her because of her fair skin. The Prophet never specified which segment of A’isha’s life was worth learning. That said, selectively remembering her life to omit her human frailties does little al-humayra a grave disservice.

After the Prophet’s death and her father’s two years later, A’isha saw to the financial affairs of her family. She narrated hadith and disputed other companions on their narrations. Her contribution as a source of prophetic knowledge was so great that the 14th century scholar, Imam Zarkashi, decided to devote an entire book to her hadith criticism. His book, aptly titled Collection of A’isha’s Corrections to the Statements of the Companions, explored the points on which she disagreed with religious scholars of her time.

A’isha was witty and articulate and used these talents to further her goals. She was an outspoken social critic: when she observed the third caliph of Islam, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, appointing corrupt family members to public office, she took to the streets, brandishing the Prophet’s sandal and reproaching ‘Uthman for his misconduct so soon after the Prophet’s death. Her move was politically astute and awakened a beleaguered population to rebellion. A’isha bypassed the sedition by going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. ‘Uthman is known to have said of her before his death, “And Qais set the country afire against me, and then, when it was ablaze, he ran away.”

A’isha would go on to challenge the fourth caliph’s claim to power in the infamous Battle of the Camel. Here she played a central role not only as political agitator but also as shrewd military leader soliciting political alliances in her cause against ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. She rode her camel in the thick of battle screaming customary war cries and inspiring her men to acts of bravery. At last A’isha’s camel was shot down; she had lost the war. ‘Ali gallantly strove to help her from her mount and offer her reprieve.

Some of these stories are buried under heaps of Sunni shame. To disinter them, to hold them up to the light for reflection and even closure, is to stir the pot of controversy. But A’isha, best beloved of the Prophet, demands we look at her whole life, from her mundane jealousies to her political engagements. Her tale is one of imperfections and strength of character—a tale perhaps we can all relate to. Most importantly, her tale is one of profound piety and love for God and His Prophet. Indeed A’isha spent the remainder of her days teaching the men and women of Islam the Prophet’s sunnah.

On her deathbed, fearful as anyone might be of their impending fate, she mournfully wished she had been, “a grass, a leaf, a tree, a stone, a clump of mud…not a thing remembered.” Unfortunately for A’isha, this was at least one request God would not grant. Her memory is firmly anchored in popular Muslim imagination. Even as politics blot out specific scenes of her life, her complete legacy persists intact for those who dare to submerge themselves in her sea of stories.

*For more detailed accounts on the life of A’isha including her romantic history with the Prophet and her camaraderie with her co-wives, see Nabia Abbott, Aisha: The Beloved of Mohammed. Also see Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam and Barbara Stowasser, Women in the Quran, Traditions, and Interpretation.

**I do not attach the honorifics sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam and radi allahu ‘anha/hu/hum for continuity in reading. I hope Muslim readers will say the appropriate titles of respect.

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3 comments

  1. a nice account of the non-so-popular stories about Lady Aisha. I would, however, disagree that some of these are untold because of ‘sunni shame’. I’ve always seen the exclusion of some controversial aspects as a point of adab, not embarrassment. Ahlussunnahh rarely speak in public about the disputations between the companions or events like the battle of jamal. Personally, I agree with that approach; those discussions are best left for the classroom for students who are mature enough to appreciate them.

    Though, I do agree that Lady Aisha’s contributions and fiqh opinions are often understated by male dominated clerics. for ex, I only recently learned how angry she got when hearing the hadith which mentions that the prayer is nullified by women passing across the one praying. Her criticism is exactly what came to my mind when I first read it, though our teacher never mentioned it at the time :p

  2. Hi Waleed! Thank for you comment. I’m well aware of that sentiment, however, I disagree that ‘adab’ is the driving motivation behind concealing these parts of Ai’sha’s life. More often than not, it’s Muslim apologetics. Scholars/daiya will avoid walking down the full path of Ai’sha’s biography bc they wish to present her as well as the other companions in a romanticized light. This probably comes from a later largely political development in Muslim history that sought to remember the Prophet (SWS) as a perfect human being, incapable of error. The ahadith and Quran itself, however, prove otherwise.

    Also, what gives scholars the right to perceive disputes between our predecessors as sinful? Shouldn’t we leave it up to God to decide who was in the right in the revolt against ‘Uthman or the Battle of the Camel? By omitting these stories as a point of adab, scholars effectively incriminate Ai’sha as sowing treachery in the land. In any case, discussing the full breadth and implication of these stories can allow us to learn from possible mistakes.This is something we clearly haven’t done as Muslim killing Muslim is a major trend in our contemporary age.

    I don’t think that leaving these stories for a more mature audience in a specific context is wise either. We should know our full history whether light or dark. I remember learning about Ai’sha in sunday school and never hearing about this thrilling and daring second part of her life. It wasn’t until I took an Islamic studies course in undergrad with a non-Muslim academic that I learned of these civil wars. I felt I had been lied to my whole life and I can guarantee that there are plenty of others who have been in my shoes.

    We need to ask where this notion of covering up historical stories for the sake of ‘adab’ came from? Perhaps a book on the intellectual history of ‘ismah would be a good starting point.

    1. wow..I can imagine it must have been heart breaking to hear the some of these stories from someone of another faith. As hard as it might have been, i don’t think you should feel as you’ve been lied to. I think our experiences have been different in this regard. alhmduillah, I studied all this from Muslim teachers but at a later stage…certainly not at sunday school.So it came as a shock, but I certainly didn’t feel like I had been lied to.

      I think this goes on to show we need to find a way of telling these stories to Muslim kids as they get older, as opposed to just skipping them. I think I’ve pretty much been exposed to all the ‘controversial’ stories and all from Muslim teachers and sources…so I wouldn’t say they get ‘covered up’; they just aren’t discussed in public settings and reserved for the classroom. And yes, you’re right, we shouldn’t pass judgment on the conflicts between the companions…I think most scholars also adopt this view.

      as for the ismah of the prophets, that’s a established point of sunni creed. I don’t know of its intellectual development, but pretty much all sunni creeds mention it has one of the necessary attributes of the Prophets and all ulama’ agree on it…i’d be wary of disregarding it (you can look it up commentaries any creeds like those of Imam Tahawi, Lakani’s and Sanusi’s). If by ‘error’, you mean what some call misjudgments between better of two permissible options, then that’s a separate issue. Sinlessness, however, is affirmed for the Prophets and scholars have explained the issues that are often raised such as Prophet Adam eating the forbidden fruit etc.

      Lastly, have you listened to Sh Hamza’s “Life of the Prophet Muhammd’ series? Its a 24-disc series and covers the entire seerah until the Prophets demise. He uses Martin Lings as the base text and its quite interesting to see how he’s correcting some aspects of Lings presentation to bring it inline with a stricter orthodox view…especially with regards to Lady Aisha. Sh Hamza doesn’t cover anything up but discusses it in light of the reverence sunni’s have; its prolly the most honest presentation I’ve come across. You should check it out..I think you’ll like it.

      anyhow, sorry for the long comment. to conclude, like any historical figure, the companions too will be presented in a different light by different people. Academics would surely argue our presentation is skewed because we revere the early generations too much. Perhaps they have a point. personally, i’d opt for a slightly skewed version of history than risk the impropriety that might accompany a ‘critical’ edition of it.

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