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ʿĀʿishah

By:
Ghazala Anwar
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

ʿĀʿishah

ʿĀʿishah (lit., “the one who lives”) al-Ṣiddīq (the true friend), daughter of Muḥammad's closest companion Abū Bakr, is central to Muslim salvation history. At the age of six she was engaged to the fifty-year old Muḥammad and in AH 1/623 CE, at the age of nine, she became one of his wives. In AH 5/627 CE, at the age of fourteen she was accused of adultery and then absolved of the charge by divine revelation. (Qurʿān 24:23, a general verse on the subject of accusing innocent women, is understood to refer to her). In AH 11/632 CE, at the age of eighteen, she was widowed when Muḥammad died in her lap; he was buried in her chamber. She was the only wife of Muḥammad who was a virgin at the time of marriage and this, along with her beauty and intelligence, was part of her sensual appeal to him. She was also the only wife in whose company, while sharing the same blanket, the Prophet received revelation. She was the most beloved wife with the exception of Khadījah, the Prophetʿs first wife during whose lifetime he did not marry another woman. As a widow of the Prophet, the young, beautiful, and childless ʿĀʿishah, umm al-muʿminīn (mother of the faithful), was forbidden to remarry (Qurʿān 33:53). Based on her status through birth and marriage, she continued to play a leading role in the life of the community, which was torn apart over the issue of rightful succession after the Prophet. In AH 36/656 CE her opposition to ʿAlī, the fourth caliph, led to the first civil war. (For the men who shaped her narrative, her action set a negative precedent that justifies denying women access to public life and leadership.) After withdrawing from political life, ʿĀʿishah devoted herself to the education of the community, since her proximity to the Prophet and her presence while he performed ritual acts gave her a religious knowledge that the community needed. ʿĀʿishah died in AH 58/678 CE at the age of sixty-six, having survived the Prophet by forty-eight years. Two-thirds of the Sunnī ḥadīth are reported on the authority of ʿĀʿishah.

In Shīʿī sources, ʿĀʿishah is cast as a negative figure who opposed the first Shīʿī Imam ʿAlī and was a rival for the Prophetʿs affection for Fāṭimah, his daughter (by Khadījah) and ʿAlī's wife. For Sunnī Muslims of all persuasions, the ḥabībah (beloved) ʿĀ’ishah retains her appeal. While the traditionalists continue to present her as a role model for Muslim women, others, in their efforts to promote gender equity, continue to reflect on and re-imagine the narrative of ʿĀʿishah. For example, some raise her age at marriage from nine to between fourteen and nineteen years. And some, instead of condemning her political involvement, seek lessons from the legacy of ʿĀʿishah to promote autonomy in their own lives. See also ABū BAKR; CAMEL, BATTLE OF THE; and MUHAMMAD subentry on LIFE OF THE PROPHET.

Bibliography

  • Ahmed, Leila. “Women and the Advent of Islam.”Signs11, no. 4. (Summer 1986), pp. 665–691. Ahmed names ʿĀʿishah, rather than Khadījah, the first woman of Islam. She contrasts the differences in their lives as an illustration of how the advent of Islam circumscribed the freedom and rights of women. She takes a critical feminist approach to early Islamic history, while treating the medieval sources as historical rather than literary sources.
  • Elsadda, Hoda. “Discourses on Women's Biographies and Cultural Identity: Twentieth Century Representations of the Life of ‘A ’isha Bint Abi Bakr.”Feminist Studies27, no. 1. (Spring 2001), pp. 37–64. The article discusses six modern biographies of ʿĀʿishah with the aim of demonstrating how construction of biographies is used to create representations of cultural identity and disseminate political ideology.
  • Spellberg, Denise A.Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of Aisha bint Abi Bakr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Spellberg presents a strong case that the persona of ʿĀʿishah be seen as a creation of medieval men to serve their sociopolitical and sectarian purposes.
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