'A'isha 614–678

views updated


'A'isha, who was born in Mecca, was the beautiful and beloved third wife of the Prophet Muhammad and the daughter of Abu Bakr (reigned 632–634), the first caliph of Islam and one of Muhammad's closest companions. The conflicting representations of 'A'isha in medieval Islamic sources have occupied the imagination of Muslims and especially feminist Islamic scholars in the contemporary period.

Apart from her youth—her marriage was consummated in 623 or 624—and elevated position among the Prophet's wives, 'A'isha was pivotal to an incremental demarcation of gender relations in the fledgling Islamic community of Medina. Shortly after her marriage revelations stipulating the veiling and segregation of the Prophet's wives were received. Other verses stipulated that Muhammad's wives were not to remarry after and labeled them "mothers of the believers." Veiling and seclusion soon emerged as standard practice for Muslim women in general. However, the elevated status and separate legal obligations of the Prophet's wives did not prevent Muslim scholars from appropriating them as exemplars to be emulated by the rest of the community's female believers.


Controversy always accompanied the narrative of 'A'isha's life. In 627, returning with the Prophet from an expedition, she accidentally was separated from the caravan at the last station before Medina. She was found eventually and escorted back to Medina by a young man, a situation that provided grounds for rumors and innuendo. She was vindicated by a revelation, sura 24:11, exonerating her and rebuking those who slandered her. Some of the references to her in medieval mystical literature describe the unbreakable bond of love and affection between the Prophet and 'A'isha and the sublimating impact of that love on her, for example, in a moving anecdote in Book I of Rumi's Mathnawi.

Widowed at age eighteen and childless, 'A'isha devoted her influence and energy to the political cause of her father and his allies. According to medieval accounts, 'A'isha masterminded an alliance with several of the Prophet's best known companions in opposition to 'Ali's ascension to the caliphate in 656. 'Ali bin Abu Talib (reigned 656–651), Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was the first male convert to Islam, the fourth caliph, and the first imam of the Shi'is. Known as the fitna, the failed uprising against 'Ali was condemned almost universally by Muslims across the centuries and is firmly entrenched in 'A'isha's historical legacy. Her participation and leadership are marked in the title of the battle, which is known as the Day of the Camel because 'A'isha sat in her litter atop a camel and observed the progress of the war at first hand. That battle marked the genesis of the first permanent split between Sunnis and Shi'is in Muhammad's community, a rift that has defined Muslim politics and theology for the last fourteen hundred years.


The role of 'A'isha in fostering strife and division was a favorite theme of Muslim political theorists, especially those who wrote treatises on governance. The main result of the Day of the Camel was to caution rulers against proximity and consultation with women. A frequently invoked anecdote is in the Siyar al-muluk [The conduct of kings] of Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), which celebrated the vizier Saljuq. Nizam al-Mulk invokes her name to remark on the lack of religiosity of the Shi'is in their willingness to curse 'A'isha for her role in the Battle of the Camel. In a longer anecdote Nizam al-Mulk relates how Muhammad was sick and had to find a substitute to lead the communal prayers. 'A'isha favored 'Umar (the second caliph, reigned 634–644), and the Prophet wanted her father, Abu Bakr. She insisted several times, and with his head lying in her breast, he turned and asked one of the men present to ensure that Abu Bakr was called upon, following the adage that the advice given by women should be reversed because the exact opposite of their suggestions is invariably the right choice. The controversial legacy of 'A'isha is complicated further by her almost universally recognized authority as an important transmitter of the deeds and dicta of the Prophet. Retiring to Mecca after 'Ali's victory, 'A'isha is said to have related more than a thousand traditions from the Prophet, although only about three hundred survive in the canonical hadith collections of scholars Muslim (d. 875) and Bukhari (d. 870). 'A'isha's recollections, if not her advice, remained trustworthy.

'A'isha's role as the nemesis of Fatima (d. 633), Muhammad's daughter and the only one of his offspring to outlive her parents, adds another dimension. 'A'isha's physical attributes and recollection in detail of the consummation of her marriage as recorded in the medieval sources and the revelation of a Qur'anic verse condemning slander and gossip that was occasioned by accusations of adultery brought against her conjure a notion of womanhood that, although reminiscent of the popular medieval wiles of women literature, is fraught with playfulness, manipulation, conspiracy, and eagerness to wield influence beyond the confines of the home; this stands in direct contrast with the ideals of piety and probity associated with religious demeanor and ethos.

After the succession dispute that followed the death of Muhammad, with one side advocating for her husband and the other championing the cause of her father, the antithetical representations of Fatima and 'A'isha have come to define Islamic rhetorical language on women. The allegorical association of those two women with Eve and Mary, respectively, were not lost on Muslim thinkers. The insistence of the medieval Sunni exegetes on perhaps exaggerating the centrality of 'A'isha to the growing body of prophetic lore, for example, should be read in juxtaposition to accusations of laxity and adultery raised with equal intensity by Shi'i scholars. The religiosity of 'A'isha is crafted along the lines of her special relationship with Muhammad as his favorite wife, the only one in whose presence the Prophet received revelation and prayed and in whose arms he died. This is meaningful only when contrasted with Fatima's piety, which is centered on chastity, austerity, filial loyalty, fidelity, and exemplary motherhood. 'A'isha, who was legitimated through hadith (a play on tradition), the cornerstone of Muhammad's sunna (practice) as transmitted by his trusted companions, is the paradigmatic Sunni foil to the emblems of prophetic legacy in Shi'i Islam, which is expressed through the primordial connection of Fatima to Muhammad's progeny: her children, the imams.

These complicated, nuanced, and multivalent representations show that the casting of women in a negative light and their use as symbols of temptation against the dictates of reason and prudence is as old as literary records of human civilization. Those representations were spread among so many different cultures and across such long stretches of history that they have become practically bereft of any analytical value for the explanation of historical and social developments, among which the unequal status of women is a common denominator.


In the second half of the twentieth century, with the Islamization of political discourse across the Muslim world, the activism associated with 'A'isha's political undertakings was taken by some Islamic feminists as validating a certain rereading of the Qur'an. Their endeavors have been undermined by their failure to provide a context for their readings of the qur'anic text. 'A'isha's political activism is not lauded in the primary sources and certainly is never read to imply women's empowerment.

The controversies surrounding the historical persona of 'A'isha were revived in the 1980s, when a Sunni Anglo-Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie, became the target of Muslim anger after publishing a fictional account of the Prophet's life, The Satanic Verses, in which he dealt extensively with the travesties of Muhammad's spouse, belittling the source of revelation that had exonerated the historical 'A'isha many centuries earlier. It was the Shi'i leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, who declared Rushdie an apostate because of his novel and rendered permissible the shedding of his blood.

see also Islam.


Ahmed, Leila. 1992. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ibn Sa'd, Muhammad. 1997. The Women of Medina, trans. 'A'isha Bewley. London: Ta-Ha.

Morsy, Magali. 1989. Les femmes du Prophète. Paris: Mercure de France.

Spellberg, D. A. 1994. Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha bint Abi Bakr. New York: Columbia University Press.

Yavari, Neguin. 2004. "Polysemous Texts and Reductionist Readings: Women and Heresy in the Siyar al-muluk," In Views from the Edge: Essays in Honor of Richard W. Bulliet, ed. Neguin Yavari, Lawrence G. Potter, and Jean-Marie Ran Oppenheim. New York: Columbia University Press.

                                              Neguin Yavari

About this article

'A'isha 614–678

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


'A'isha 614–678