ʿĀʾishah bint Ab

views updated


ʿĀʾISHAH BINT ABĪ BAKR (d. ah 59/678 ce), child bride of the prophet Muammad and daughter of the first Islamic caliph, Abū Bakr. ʿAʾishah was born in Mecca several years before the community's emigration from Mecca to Medina in ah 1/622 ce. She was the second in the series of women whom Muammad married after the death of his first wife, Khadījah. Although the marriage was doubtless constructed to strengthen the alliance between the Prophet and his early supporter, Abū Bakr, ʿAʾishah soon became a favorite of her husband. Tales of his delight in her abound. In childhood, she spread her toys before him, and it was in her quarters that he chose to die and requested that his body be buried.

Before and after Muammad's death in 632, ʿAʾishah was involved, either deliberately or inadvertently, in actions of political consequence. The first was a result of youthful thoughtlessness that precipitated a crisis of honor in the Prophet's house. ʿAʾishah had accompanied her husband on his campaign against the Banū al-Mualiq in 628, when she was about fifteen years of age. During one of the stops on the return journey to Medina she went in search of a misplaced necklace and so lost herself in this quest that she failed to notice the caravan's departure. Eventually she was found by the caravan's young rear-guard scout, afwān ibn al-Muʿaal. The scandal occasioned by her return journey alone with this male escort was eagerly fed by Muammad's rivals and enemies. Even among the Prophet's supporters, there were those, such as his son-in-law, ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, who urged him to divorce her. (Traditional historians date the cause of ʿAʾishah's resistance against ʿAlī's eventual caliphate to this intervention.) A Qurʾanic revelation (24:1120) finally exonerated ʿAʾishah and set the legal bounds for any charge of adultery: henceforth, those unable to produce four witnesses to such a charge would themselves be punished. (Both Sunnī and Shīʿī commentators trace the occasion of this revelation to the episode involving ʿAʾishah.)

In the years following the Prophet's death her political activism was, at times, pronounced. Left a childless widow before she was twenty, ʿAʾishah was prevented from making another marital alliance by a Qurʾanic injunction against the remarriage of Muammad's wives (33:53). However, both as a widow of the Prophet and as a daughter of his first successor, the caliph Abū Bakr, ʿAʾishah was a woman of considerable prominence in the early Muslim community. She used this prominence to further the growing opposition to the third caliph, ʿUthmān. ʿAʾishah's role in the events that culminated in his assassination is debated. In an effort to exculpate her of any direct role, many historians stress her absence from Medina at the time of the caliph's death. When ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, for whom her enmity was long-standing, assumed the caliphate, ʿAʾishah joined two of the Prophet's early supporters, alah and al-Zubayr, in armed opposition to him. Ostensibly to avenge the murder of ʿUthmān, they gathered forces in Basra (southern Iraq) and met ʿAlī in battle in December 656. ʿAlī defeated his opponents, but ʿAʾishah's camel-drawn litter, around which intense fighting raged, was immortalized in the name by which historians came to refer to this event, the Battle of the Camel.

In the two decades that passed from the time of this engagement until her death, ʿAʾishah lived in relative obscurity in Medina, only occasionally emerging into the light of history. Her memory remains alive in the Muslim community in the many anecdotes about her and in the hundreds of adīths for which she was a transmitter.


ʿAʾishah is one of the few women in Muslim history to have earned a full-scale biography. This gracefully written work, by the University of Chicago scholar Nabia Abbott, is entitled Aishah, the Beloved of Mohammed (Chicago, 1942). While based on extended research in the traditional sources, the book reads like a good historical novel. For a condensed and more prosaic treatment of the events of her life, see W. Montgomery Watt's article "ʿAʾishah bint Abī Bakr," in the new edition of The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1960). Watt's two volumes on the life of the Prophet, Muhammad at Mecca (London, 1953) and Muhammad at Medina (London, 1956), also carry passing references to ʿAʾishah. For an account of the Battle of the Camel that emphasizes the role of ʿAʾishah, see Laura Veccia Vaglieri's "al-Djamal" in the new edition of The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1960).

Jane Dammen McAuliffe (1987)