Barbara Stowasser

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.