She's been called quick-witted, tart-tongued, daring, headstrong, assertive—take your pick. Just about everywhere you look in the historical accounts of early Islam, there's Aisha, front and center—even leading an army ten-thousand strong into battle. In this short video, Lesley Hazleton, a writer and psychologist, gives us a glimpse into the extraordinary life of a woman whose brilliance, courage, and leadership continue to inspire us today.
Who Is Aisha?
She's been called quick-witted, tart-tongued, daring, headstrong, assertive -- take your pick. So it should come as no surprise that Aisha's life was riddled with controversy.
Defying all expectations of a seventh-century Arabian woman, she refused to be relegated to the background. She insisted on being heard. In fact she was impossible to ignore. Just about everywhere you look in the historical accounts of early Islam, there's Aisha, front and center -- even leading an army ten-thousand strong into battle.
She was the youngest of the wives Muhammad married after the death of his first wife Khadija. That had been a loving, monogamous marriage lasting 24 years, but the multiple later marriages were essentially political. As was the custom of the time for any leader, anywhere, they were means of consolidating alliances -- in Aisha's case with her father, Abu-Bakr, who would be the first caliph -- or successor -- to Muhammad.
So just how young was she when she married Muhammad? She'd later claim she was only nine. And while other sources say she was betrothed at nine, and not actually married until 12, few people cared to openly contradict Aisha.
Besides, being married at nine would make her unique, and she was proud of her uniqueness: not just the youngest, or the most spirited, or the only virgin among those late-life wives, since all the others were either widowed or divorced. Most insistently, Aisha was the favorite -- the only one who could tease Muhammad and get away with it. Except for once.
Jealous of his devotion to the memory of his beloved Khadija, Aisha asked how he could prefer, in her words, "that toothless old woman whom God has replaced with a better one." It was the kind of question only a teenager would dare ask -- and a much older woman regret.
How ironic is it, then, that the outspoken Aisha should serve as the excuse for one of the most misogynistic interpretations of the Quran, one that would force women into silence?
It happened after she was falsely accused of adultery -- rumors flying in the gossip grapevine of Mecca and Medina almost as rapidly as they do today on the Internet. She was declared innocent by a Quranic revelation, which demanded that any such accusation be backed up by four eye-witnesses, who of course did not exist.
So far so good, perhaps. But much later, extremist scholars would twist this horribly, insisting that in the lack of four witnesses -- a practical impossibility -- any woman who testified to having been raped was by default admitting to adultery, and thus to be punished.
If Aisha could have foreseen this, she'd have been furious. She'd have been outraged. And she'd have been anything but silent.
This is the woman who led an army against the fourth caliph, Ali, in what would be known as the Battle of the Camel -- the camel hers, right in the center of the action. And even in defeat, she'd remain undaunted, uttering not so much as a whimper when she was shot in the shoulder with an arrow -- or when the arrow was pulled out.
But perhaps the ultimate irony was the fact that though Aisha never had children, she'd be honored with the title of Mother. Muhammad's death would leave her a young widow, and she'd remain both childless and a widow, since the Quran mandated that the surviving wives were not to marry again -- a mandate intended to guard against undue influence.
Instead, said the Quran, the widows were to be known as The Mothers of the Faithful. And as the youngest and the longest-lived, Aisha would become not only the most prominent, but also the one with the most detailed memory.
Her memories would make her the leading source of hadith -- the reports of Muhammad's practice and sayings that most Muslims regard as second in importance only to the Quran itself, and which help guide Islamic ethics to this day.
It seems to me that Aisha's life is so full of irony precisely because she could not be pigeon-holed, could not be cast in a stereotypically 'feminine' role. So while I may not know if I'd have liked her, I do know that as a feminist I have to admire her -- this fearless seventh-century woman who I suspect would be utterly at home in the twenty-first.