A'ishah bint Abi Bakr (c. 613–678)

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A'ishah bint Abi Bakr (c. 613–678)

Third and favorite wife of Muhammad, Prophet of Islam, whose prominence in early Islamic history is testimony to the high position held by women in Arabian society, before the suffocating atmosphere that began to prevail in the Middle East led to their seclusion from public life. Name variations: Aisha or Ayesha; also known as Umm al-Mu'minin ("Mother of Believers"). Born A'ishah bint Abu Bakr (daughter of Abu Bakr) at Mecca (Makka) around 613 or 614 ce; died at Madinah on July 8, 678; daughter of a prominent family of the city; married Muhammad, in 623 or 624.

Betrothed to her relative, Jubair ibn Mutimi; taken by her father on the flight of Muhammad and his followers to Madinah (622); married to Muhammad (623 or 624); suspected of unfaithfulness and accused by Muhammad's son-in-law, ‵Ali, but exonerated (627); death of Muhammad (632); reign of her father, Abu Bakr, as caliph "successor" (632–634); protested assassination of Caliph ‵Uthman, moved from Madinah to Mecca (June 656); joined forces with Talhah and al-Zubayr against the new caliph, ‵Ali; together they seized Basrah, Iraq (autumn, 656); Battle of the Camel (December 636), Talhah and al-Zubayr killed, ‵Ali victorious, A'ishah captured, retired to Madinah.

A'ishah bint Abi Bakr was the third and favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of the Islamic Faith. Her life can only be understood against the backdrop of the momentous period in Middle Eastern history in which she lived. Although the heartland of the Arabian peninsula is a vast desert, the so-called "Empty Quarter," the provinces of Hijaz and Yemen—the southcentral and southwestern parts of the western Red Sea coastal region—are fertile and were the sites of a flourishing civilization, which in the Hijaz was centered at the trading and religious center of Mecca (Makka). The site of the fall of a great meteorite, which thereafter was kept in a large cubical temple called the Ka‵aba, surrounded by the temples of the pre-Islamic Arab deities, Mecca was not only a flourishing commercial hub but had long been the center of a great annual pilgrimage to its numerous shrines.

It was in this curious, out-of-the-way city, far removed from the great centers of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds, that Muhammad was born around 570 ce, a member of a poor branch of the Kuraysh (or Quraysh), one of the great clans of the city. Orphaned while still a small child, he was raised first by his grandfather and then by his uncle, Abu Talib. At an early age, he became a camel driver and, while still a youth, went traveling with the great caravans linking the Hijaz with Yemen and with the Byzantine provinces of Egypt and Syria. Eventually, although he was illiterate, Muhammad became the business manager of a rich widow named Khadijah , 15 years his senior, who was also his third cousin once removed. Muhammad found favor with his employer and in a short time they were married. He was 25; she was 40. Six children were born to this marriage but only three daughters, Umm Kulthum, Ruqaiyah (or Ruqayyah) and Fatimah , survived, and only the last left descendants. All of the many families claiming descent from the Prophet today trace this descent through Fatimah.

At the age of 40, Muhammad underwent a religious experience, the exact nature of which is a matter of faith alone but the sincerity of which has never been seriously doubted. He began claiming to be receiving revelations from God through the agency of the angel Jabril (Gabriel). The essential integrity of Muhammad's character is attested to by the fact that his wife and his uncle, Abu Talib, the two people who probably knew him best, were his first converts. An examination of the principle doctrines of Islam or the Muslim Faith, by both of which terms Muhammad's religion is known, reveal little that is original, his chief influences being Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Nevertheless, his revelations took on a unique form embodied in an anthology known as the Qur'an (Koran, meaning the recitation). Soon Muhammad was preaching an uncompromising monotheism to his fellow Meccans based on islam (submission) to the one true God. This God he called Allah from Arabic al-lah (the God), as opposed to the idols of Mecca, which he denounced as false.

Monotheism was a religious concept whose time had come in Arabia. By this period, virtually the entire Mediterranean world, including most of the Middle East save Persia, had become Christian, and even Persia boasted a substantial native church; some of the northernmost Arab peoples had become Christian, and at least one Arab tribe had embraced Judaism. Muhammad's teachings were ill-received in Mecca, however, where a considerable number of the population made its living from the annual pilgrimage. Opposition to his preaching steadily increased until it reached dangerous proportions. Thus, Muhammad, a handful of his followers, his wife and children, and his chief companion Abu Bakr and his family, including the child A'ishah, were forced to flee northwards to the city of Yathrib. There, his movement had already made converts. Since there was no economic basis for the continued support of paganism in the city as there was in Mecca, Muhammad and his companions were warmly received by the local population. Thereafter, Yathrib would become the second most sacred city of Islam after Mecca and would be known by the honorific al-madinah (the city), while the year of the hijrah (flight, 632 ce) would become the first year of the Muslim calendar.

At Yathrib/Madinah, Muhammad was soon able to assemble an army of believers, which rode from victory to victory (Badr, Uhud, etc.) until Mecca itself was obliged to accept Islamic rule (629). In return for the city's peaceful submission, Muhammad allowed the Meccans to retain the Ka ‵aba and the annual pilgrimage to it but insisted that the pagan temples be closed and the worship of idols abandoned. All of Arabia was soon under Islamic rule and, by the time of the Prophet's death in 632, Muslim armies were poised to attack the Byzantine and Persian empires. The death of Muhammad caused a brief crisis in the Islamic community. It was clear that while he could not be replaced in his unique role as Prophet of God, it was necessary that he be replaced in his capacity as head of the community. Thus the institution of the caliphate (successorship) was established. The first caliph (successor) was Muhammad's devoted friend and colleague Abu Bakr, the father of A'ishah, the third of the Prophet's 12 wives.

Despite the differences in their ages, there is no question that Muhammad had been deeply devoted to Khadijah and, although both pre-Islamic law and his own teachings permitted polygamy, Muhammad took no other wife while she remained alive. When Muhammad was around 49, however, Khadijah died in 619 ce, and he began to choose and to accumulate wives with great zest. It is often thought that Muhammad encouraged his followers to take four wives. Actually, Muhammad limited his followers to no more than four wives in contrast to the pagan religion of Arabia that had permitted an unlimited number. Muhammad further decreed that his followers must treat all their wives equally, a task seemingly so impossible that it became almost a discouragement to polygamy if not a practical prohibition.

A'ishah bint Abi Bakr (which means A'ishah, the daughter of Abu Bakr), came from one of the most distinguished families of Mecca. Her father was the Prophet's closest companion; her mother, Umm Ruman , was a woman of the Kinana tribe. As an infant A'ishah was, following Arab custom, sent to a family of the Makhzumite tribe for nursing. She was a small child when Khadijah died and was already betrothed to a relative, a wealthy pagan of Mecca, Jubayr ibn Mutimi. We are told that the suggestion that the Prophet remarry came on the initiative of Khawla bint Maz ‵un , his maternal aunt, who seems to have tended to his household affairs after Khadijah's demise. It was she who suggested as a suitable spouse either the six-yearold A'ishah or the 30-year-old Sawdah bint Zama , a Muslim widow. After some deliberation, Muhammad decided to marry both, taking Sawdah as his second wife and A'ishah as his third. There was a complication in the fact that A'ishah had already been betrothed, but everyone concerned agreed to set this previous arrangement aside so that the Prophet might marry the bride of his choice.

A'ishah was no more than ten at the time of her wedding, and tradition has it that she brought her dolls and other toys to her husband's home, which consisted of a number of rooms set up as living quarters adjoining the newly constructed mosque in Madinah. Bright and vivacious, A'ishah was dearly loved by Muhammad, who occasionally played with her and waited until she was suitably mature before consummating the marriage. While there seems little doubt that the marriage to Sawdah was governed by the need to find a mate to replace Khadijah, the marriage to A'ishah was dictated at least in part by the fact that her father, Abu Bakr, was important to Muhammad in the spread of his movement. This fact, coupled with A'ishah's undoubted beauty, wit, and charm, led her to become not only his favorite wife but also, despite her youth, the chief wife in his growing menage. A'ishah was devoted to her husband, sensitive to his moods, and never lost the first place in his heart.

Umm Ruman

Mother of A'ishah bint Abi Bakr ; wife of Abu Bakr who had at least three other wives. Thus, A'ishah, besides her full brother ‵Abd al-Rahman, had a half-brother Muhammad by her father's wife Asma , a half-sister Umm Kulthum by his wife Habibah , and another half-sister Asma by his wife Quitailah .

But, while A'ishah may have been Muhammad's favorite wife, she was by no means his last. Not long after their marriage in 623 or 624, the Prophet wedded: 4) Hafsah (625); 5) Umm Salamah (626); 6) Zaynab bint Jahsh (627); 7) Juwairiyah (627); 8) ‵Raihanah bint Zaid (c. 628); 9) Safiyah (c. 628); 10) Maryam (Mary) the Egyptian (629); 11) Ramlah ; and 12) Maimunah bint al-Harith (629). Of these wives A'ishah, Zaynab, and Umm Salamah were his favorites; Sawdah, Safiyah, and Hafsah, however, were distinguished for being partisans of A'ishah. Curiously, although Muhammad had no difficulty siring children by the middle-aged Khadijah, he had no children by any of his other wives.

Contrary to common belief, women held a more open position in Arabian society in the early days of Islam than is generally associated with the Islamic world. Indeed, much of the subjection, seclusion, and shrouding of women in the Middle East was alien to pre-Islamic Arabia, and was much more the result of the impact of Syrian and Iranian influence on the Arabs after the Arab conquests of their lands than the other way around. One hears of pre-Islamic Arabian poetesses and of women—including A'ishah's own niece, the beautiful, spirited and vivacious younger A'ishah bint Talhah —who went about in the presence of men with their faces unveiled. The harem does not appear to have been a native Arabian institution and was apparently a borrowing from Persia as was the institution of the eunuchs used to guard the harems. Nevertheless, there is no question that Muhammad's attitude towards the position of women was based to no small extent upon his experience with the elaborate household that he established after Khadijah's death, and it is in connection with Muhammad's increasing number of wives that we find him turning his attention to the question of the relations between men and women in the Islamic faith.

Within three years of his marriage to Zaynab, for example, he issued a number of directives regarding the conduct of the proper Muslim woman and spelling out in some detail the position and proper behavior expected of his own wives, stating, in particular, that none of them was to remarry after his death. Some of these stipulations were no doubt due to his own personal experiences. Others, however, were certainly issued in response to what Muhammad perceived to be the laxness in such matters that prevailed in Arabia in his time. In the Qur'an, chap. 24:31–32, men and women among believers are both enjoined to "cast down their gaze," i.e. not look lustfully upon one another. In 33:53, "The Curtain," Muhammad proffers a revelation in which he specifies that no guest of the Prophet may outstay his welcome and that if any one of them wishes to address the Prophet's wives, he must do so with the wives hidden behind a curtain. In 33:59, women are required to "let down their mantles over them," i.e. cover their heads with their cloaks, lest they be subject to improper and disrespectful attentions. Muhammad was especially concerned with what became known as the munafiqun (hypocrites), who were supposedly believers but who resented the privilege and status of the Muhajirun (fleers or refugees), i.e. those who had accompanied Muhammad on his flight from Mecca to Madinah. It is in connection with these hypocrites that the most famous incident in the life of the young A'ishah took place.

Wives of Muhammad

Khadijah . See separate entry.

A'ishah bint Abi Bakr.

Sawdah bint Zama. A 30-year-old Muslim widow; married Muhammad around 621 ce.

Hafsah. Name variations: Hafsa. Daughter of ‵Umar ibn al-Khattab (who would succeed Muhammad as caliph ‵Umar [634–644]); widow who had lost her husband at the Battle of Badr; married Muhammad in 625.

Umm Salamah. Name variations: Hind bint Abi ‵mayyah. Sixth cousin of Muhammad; married Abu Salamah (who died of wounds suffered earlier at the battle of Uhud); married Muhammad in 626; children: (first marriage) several.

Zaynab bint Jahsh . See separate entry.

Juwairiyah. An Arabian woman taken captive at the campaign against the tribe of the Banu ‵l-Mustalik; married Muhammad in 627 ce.

‵Raihanah bint Zaid. Widow of Jewish origin; married Muhammad around 628 ce.

Safiyah. Widow of Jewish origin; married Muhammad around 628 ce.

Maryam the Egyptian. Name variations: Mary the Egyptian. Christian slave sent to Muhammad by the Byzantine governor of Egypt, and who may have been one of Muhammad's chief sources for Christianity his knowledge of which betrays a superficial acquaintance of the faith as it was practiced in Egypt; married Muhammad in 629 ce.

Ramlah. Name variations: Umm Habibah. Daughter of Abu Sufyan, a distant cousin of Muhammad; married Muhammad in 629 ce.

Maimunah bint al-Harith. Sister-in-law of Muhammad's uncle Abbas; widowed; married Muhammad in 629.

On the return to Madinah from Muhammad's expedition against the Banu ‵l-Mustalik tribe there occurred "the affair of the slander," an event around which the Prophet ultimately built a large portion of chapter 24 of the Qur'an, wherein he emphasizes the seriousness and vicious nature of gossip and slander. When the caravan departed from one of its encampments, A'ishah stayed behind to search for a valuable necklace. Since the litter atop her camel was heavily shrouded and A'ishah was yet quite small, no one noticed she was missing until the army reached the next camping place. Returning to the site of the original encampment and finding the caravan gone, A'ishah sat down to await the arrival of whoever would be sent out to find her. Falling asleep, she was discovered the following morning by Safwan ibn al-Mu‵attal al-Sulami, a young Muhajin (fleer), who had been left behind specifically to retrieve anything that might have been accidentally forgotten. Placing A'ishah on his camel, he led it by his own hand back to the caravan. Upon their arrival the following morning, however, certain enemies took it on themselves to accuse A'ishah of unfaithfulness, their leader being the chief Meccan hypocrite ‵Abdullah ibn Ubai. A serious scandal ensued with Muhammad temporarily sending A'ishah back to her family, while his son-in-law ‵Ali, husband of his third daughter, Fatimah, publicly accused her of adultery and urged Muhammad to divorce her. Infuriated, Muhammad questioned his associates and his other wives for their opinions on the truth of the accusations and afterwards claimed a revelation from God attesting to the innocence of his favorite. Then, while leaving ‵Abdullah to "the punishment of God," he imposed penalties upon ‵Abdullah's associates, who were, however, allowed to repent. This incident is referred to obliquely in chapter 24:11–16 in the following words:

  • 11. Those who proffered the lie are a clique among the rest of you: don't think that it is unfortunate for you [that this incident happened]; on the contrary, it is good for you [to see the consequences of sin]: to everyone among them [will come the penalty] of the sin that he has earned, and to him who took it on himself to be the leader among them, his penalty will be [especially] severe.
  • 12. [But] why did not the believers—men and women—when they heard of this affair—put the best construction on it in their own minds and say, "this charge is an obvious lie?"
  • 13. Why didn't they bring four witnesses to prove it? When they failed to do so they [stood] in the sight of God as liars!
  • 14. If it weren't for the grace and mercy of God on you in this world and in the next, a heavy penalty would have overtaken you that you rushed glibly into this affair.
  • 15. Look, you received it on your tongues, and spoke about things of which you knew nothing about; and you thought it would be a light matter, whereas it was very serious in the eyes of God.
  • 16. And when you heard of it, why didn't you say "it is not right for us to talk about this: Glory to God! this is a very serious slander!"

To Muslims, the revelation in 24:11–16 remains the Deity's testimony to the innocence of A'ishah. To non-believers who seek a more worldly explanation for the text, it has seemed that Muhammad valued his relationship to Abu Bakr too greatly to allow it to be jeopardized by an accusation that by its nature could neither be proved nor disproved. In any case, A'ishah never forgave ‵Ali for his attack upon her and would take revenge in years to come.

If I say I am innocent—and Allah most high knows that I am—you will not believe me. But if I confess to anything—and Allah most high knows that I am innocent—you will surely believe me. There remains nothing for me to do but say nothing…. Patience is becoming and Allah's help implored.

—A'ishah, quoting The Holy Qur'an (12.18) in her defense

A'ishah bint Talhah

Niece of A'ishah bint Abi Bakr. Daughter of Umm Kulthum (half-sister of A'ishah bint Abi Bakr) and Talhah; sister of Zakariya; married ‵Abd Allah.

The difficulty of maintaining harmony among Muhammad's increasing number of wives was obvious almost from the beginning of his burgeoning household. Muhammad undertook to provide each with gifts of equal value, to assign each one her allotted day and night with him, and to cast lots to determine which among them would be taken along on his annual pilgrimage or current military expedition. Despite his best efforts, after the Prophet's marriage to the Makhzumite Umm Salamah, his wives separated into two factions, each representing the earliest political parties in the Islamic movement. A'ishah and Hafsah were the partisans of both Abu Bakr and ‵Umar, and they held the upper hand. Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter, supported the cause of her husband ‵Ali. Finally, Umm Salamah and Ramlah represented the aristocracy of Mecca, which, having finally accepted Islam, now hoped to regain the position of privilege they had held in pagan times. As for Zaynab, she had taken A'ishah's part at the time of "the affair of the scandal," and A'ishah held her in high regard.

As Muhammad entered his final illness and realized that he was dying, he requested that his wives permit him to retire to the quarters of A'ishah and that she alone be allowed to attend him. This wish was respected and when Muhammad died in her arms on June 8, 632 ce, he was buried in the floor of her room. A'ishah was thus left a widow without children at the age of no more than 18. Respecting the Prophet's command, she never remarried, and there is no suggestion that she was ever suspected of taking a lover, though she by no means lived in anything approaching real seclusion. In the decades that followed, she busied herself arranging family marriages and receiving guests of every description. Highly intelligent, she kept herself well-informed of what was going on in her world, taking an active part in public affairs for a considerable time.

A small woman with a strong voice and a strong personality, A'ishah was a presence, and we are told that her words were taken seriously. Though she could be jealous, and prided herself perhaps too much on having been the Prophet's only virgin bride, A'ishah appears to have been a warm, generous, and kind-hearted woman who inspired great devotion in those who knew her. In regard to her relatives, A'ishah was most attentive, and, though her relations with them were not without disagreements and quarrels, she was ever ready to defend her family against outside harm.

She looked after her youngest half-brother Muhammad (b. 632) after her father's death when the child was but two, and refused to allow her younger half-sister Umm Kulthum to marry the caliph ‵Umar because of his notorious severity to his wives. Instead, A'ishah gave her to her own first cousin Talhah; they became the parents of her half-niece and namesake: the vivacious younger A'ishah. It was A'ishah who arranged for her namesake to marry her first husband, her own nephew ‵Abd Allah, and the bride's first cousin; when this marriage soured, she first took the younger A'ishah into her home and then effected a reconciliation. Her other half-sister Asma was married to al-Zubayr ibn al-‵Awwam, whom she later supported against her cousin ‵Ali in the struggle for control of the caliphate. Their son, ‵Abd Allah, was her favorite nephew. After Talhah's death following the Battle of the Camel, A'ishah took his widow, her half-sister Umm-Kulthum, under her protection and watched over the rearing of their son, Zakariya. Childless herself, she was, by all accounts, a doting aunt.

The death of Muhammad left his surviving wives with the status of widows of the Prophet, but the title by which they each came to be known, especially A'ishah, was "mother of believers." Although all of Muhammad's widows, over half a dozen of them, shared this title, A'ishah's personal stature was no doubt increased by the fact that it was her father, Abu Bakr, the Prophet's closest colleague, who succeeded him as caliph or head of the community of believers. Although Abu Bakr only ruled for two years before his own death (634), this was sufficient time for A'ishah's special status to become established, especially as she remained on good terms with the succeeding caliph, ‵Umar (634–644), father of Muhammad's fourth wife, Hafsah, and his very distant cousin. In the register of ‵Umar, dividing the net revenues of the state among the various believers, A'ishah was accorded the first rank and given a pension of no less than 12,000 dihrems. So close was she to ‵Umar that after his assassination at the hand of a Persian slave, he, like Abu Bakr, was laid to rest next to the Prophet, beneath the floor of A'ishah's former chamber.

Although there is a tradition that A'ishah influenced Muhammad in his later years and her father as well, this seems unlikely in view of her extreme youth at the time. As the years passed, however, and she grew into a mature and sophisticated woman close to the seat of power, A'ishah became increasingly drawn into the politics of the nascent Muslim state. Her relations with ‵Uthman (644–656), the third caliph (third cousin of the Prophet, once removed, and husband of two of his daughters by Khadijah, Umm Kulthum, and Ruqaiyah), were cool. As opposition grew against his rule, A'ishah took a part in it although she did not actually support his rival, her old foe, ‵Ali; when ‵Uthman was murdered (June 656 ce), she publicly protested the crime. Immediately thereafter, for reasons that are not clear but which may have had to do with organizing opposition to ‵Ali, A'ishah, now a formidable woman of 43, journeyed to Mecca (657) ostensibly to take part in the annual pilgrimage but undoubtedly, given what was to follow, with more worldly concerns in mind.

Four months after the assassination of ‵Uthman, having been joined by his opponents and rivals, her brothers-in-law Talhah and al-Zubayr, A'ishah left Mecca for Basrah, Iraq, with a force of 1,000 men of the Kuraysh clan seeking revenge. ‵Ali, setting out from Madinah to Kufa in Iraq, went out to meet his opposition and, in December, the opposing armies clashed in the celebrated Battle of the Camel (much of the fiercest fighting took place around the prize camel ‵Askar [warrior], bearing A'ishah's litter). ‵Ali triumphed in the battle, and although the rebel forces rallied around A'ishah, she was captured after the slaughter of her corps of 70 bodyguards; her camel was killed beneath her. Talhah and al-Zubayr were both killed shortly after their defeat, but ‵Ali wisely chose to treat A'ishah with the respect due her position as the Prophets' widow and allowed her to return in state to Mecca under the care of her brother, Muhammad, who had been a partisan of ‵Ali. For her part, A'ishah found it politic to be conciliatory and agreed to retire to Madinah, where she lived in peace and circumspection for the rest of her days.

The experience of defeat and the executions of Talhah and al-Zubayr appear to have sobered A'ishah in regard to the perils of partisanship, and she took no further part in public affairs. The expedition against ‵Ali had been ill-conceived and was further weakened by the absence of many associates of the Prophet as well as by the rivalry between Talhah and al-Zubayr. In later years, ‵Ali's supporters maintained that A'ishah had been duped by Talhah and al-Zubayr and that she had had no role in the murder of ‵Uthman or in the causes of the civil war that ensued. Other contemporaries of the event were not so generous, and there is considerable evidence that, rightly or wrongly, A'ishah was held by many, including some of those close to the Prophet, to have been implicated in the plot to murder ‵Uthman.

Despite the controversy surrounding her role in the death of Caliph ‵Uthman and the events that followed it, most Muslims accepted the general opinion that she was innocent of any crime. In her last years, A'ishah became an increasingly revered figure in the Islamic world, one of the last links with the Prophet and a font of knowledge concerning his views and practices. Pilgrims of every social, economic, and political rank came to consult her at her home in Madinah and, though she no longer concerned herself with political affairs, distinguished men still sought her advice. She appears to have accepted these visits with good will, receiving the humble along with the mighty with equal graciousness. She continued to receive her generous pension and was undoubtedly able to offer at will the lavish hospitality dictated by Arab custom. In time, her niece, the younger A'ishah, came to compete with Sukainah , granddaughter of ‵Ali, for the leading social position in the easy-going and light-hearted society of the Meccan aristocracy. Both were rich and known as patrons of art and literature. Eventually, both were married to Mus'ab ibn al-Zubayr. A'ishah also arranged for the marriage of her brother ‵Abd al-Rahman's daughter, Hafsah, to Mundhir, another son of al-Zubayr and her sister Asma. Apart from her concerns with these family activities, there are some indications that A'ishah, like many aristocratic Arabian women, was involved in some real-estate transactions, and she is said to have been in some way involved in the slave trade. We know, however, that she often freed slaves as well, an act of virtue highly recommended in the Qur'an. As the years passed, she seems to have increasingly rued her participation in the campaign against ‵Ali and regretted that she had not followed the Qur'anic injunction that women remain in their homes.

A'ishah bint Abi Bakr died at Madinah on July 13, 678, at about the age of 64, having survived her illustrious husband by 46 years, a revered and honored link with the very origins of the Islamic Faith. The cause of her death is not known, but she had time to make the most careful arrangements for her own funeral, specifying in particular that she was not to be buried with the Prophet, but rather in the cemetery of Baqi with his other wives. A curious pall seems to hang over the descriptions of the death of A'ishah, the sources avoiding any suggestion that she died in glory or filled with the expectation of the world to come or of a reunion with Muhammad. A'ishah herself was extremely careful to avoid anything that might be called self-righteousness. That she sincerely felt herself unworthy of celebration is one of the most compelling aspects of her character, though how much of this self-abnegation was due to the guilt she felt over her participation in the campaign against ‵Ali can never be known. Her funeral, however, was attended by a great throng of people with her nephews and grandnephews as the chief mourners, and among Muslims it was early considered an act of merit to visit the site of her grave. Even today, it is still visited annually by the thousands of pilgrims passing through Madinah to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage that remains after 13 centuries at the very core of Islamic practice.

That A'ishah was an extraordinary woman of remarkable intelligence seems certain. Although she never learned to write, she was able to read and tradition has it, probably with some exaggeration, that she had memorized the Qur'an itself. She was especially familiar with poetry, of which the Arabs were inordinately fond, and often regaled her visitors with quotations from classical Arabian verse. She had a good knowledge of Arab history and genealogy, so important to a tribal society, and she is reputed to have had some learning in astronomy and even in medicine. Over the centuries, her intellectual gifts were increasingly exaggerated until there were those who claimed that she was the most learned woman of all time. Later tradition also credited her with an extraordinary asceticism but, though she doubtless lived a simple and modest life, she certainly lived comfortably, entertained freely, and maintained a rich and varied social life. Altogether, however, the Muslim memory of A'ishah is that of a woman who was both a sage and a saint and there must undoubtedly have been a large kernel of truth at the core of both of these traditions. Among Muhammad's wives, only Khadijah holds a higher place in Islamic regard, and it was the apparent slander of both of them in the novel The Satanic Verses that brought down the wrath of the Iranian mullahs, whose chief, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, passed a death sentence upon the author, Salman Rushdie. Not all Muslims, however, hold A'ishah in such unqualified high regard. The sect known as the Kharajites (seceders) reproached her after her death for having gone to war against ‵Ali and cursed her in their public prayers.

The prophet's wives are among the sources for the hadith or traditions concerning the Prophet's acts, practices and sayings that serve to supplement the Qur'an. The latter is a small book, shorter than the New Testament, and does not attempt to cover every aspect of Muslim life. Thus, the consensus of the Believers (ijma), the use of analogies (qiyas), and the traditions concerning the Prophet (hadith) serve to supplement the Qur'an and, taken together, are the four sources upon which has been erected the Islamic law code (shari'yah). The hadith or traditions, to be acceptable, must be capable of being traced back, mouth-to-mouth, to a firsthand witness of the Prophet's words or deeds in a given circumstance. Thus, for example, we may be told that so-and-so, had it from such-a-one, who had it from someone else, who heard it from yet another person, who was told by Abu Bakr that the Prophet said or did such-and-such in regard to the issue at hand. In this connection, some 2,210 hadith have been traced back to A'ishah (1,210 taken by her directly from Muhammad himself, the rest supposedly received by her at second hand from his close associates). And, even though the greatest Islamic specialists in hadith accepted only 174 of the traditions accredited to Muhammad, himself, and between 54 and 68 of the rest attributed to A'ishah, she still remains a source, however modest, for Islamic life and practice. In Arab countries, her name is one of the most common still given to daughters, and she is the most renowned Muslim woman in the non-Muslim world.

In the Islamic world, in which women have been traditionally subordinate to men and where feminist movements have a difficult task earning legitimacy or even being taken seriously, the high position of the women of the Prophet's family—his first wife Khadijah, his daughter Fatimah, his widow A'ishah, and her niece the younger A'ishah—serve as powerful role models for Muslim women who would increase their sphere of action in the modern Islamic world and as arguments justifying their attempts to do so.


Abbot, Nadia. Aishah the Beloved of Mohammed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

The Holy Qur'an. English translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Washington: American International Printing, 1946 (Cambridge, 1967).

Spellberg, D.A. Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‵A‵isha Bint Abi Bakr. NY: Columbia University Press, 1994.

suggested reading:

Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present. NY: Macmillan, 10th ed., 1970.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, author of a book and several articles relevant to late Roman, Middle Eastern, and Byzantine history