Dr. Shauna Huffaker
November 10, 2011
Word Count: 2273
Aisha Bint Abi Bakr is arguably the most controversial historical Islamic female figures. Her life conducted much scandal and disagreement within the Islamic community, however, it also allowed the believers to more clearly define themselves amongst one another. In Denise A. Spellberg's Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr, the opposing forces of Sunni and Shi'i give shape to the life of Aisha. Spellberg illustrates defining moments in Aisha’s life regarding her role as both wife and widow as projected through those who wrote them down. Her place in Islamic history affected the development of the community, yet varies depending on the intention of the transmitter. Through the path of her life Aisha’s actions have a direct affect on the Islam, although it is through interpretations and historical memory that Aisha’s legacy takes form.
Aisha Bint Abi Bakr was the daughter of Abu Bakr, known as the most beloved companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Abu Bakr and Aisha’s mother were both muhajirun, those who took part in the Hijra with Muhammad, securing them as the elite group of Muslims in early Islamic society. His daughter’s marriage to the Prophet “suggests a new basis for communal relationships forged in faith rather than blood,” as had been the case in pre-Islamic tribal law. In marrying the Prophet, Aisha assumed the title as one of the “mothers of the believers,” and was promised a place with Muhammad and his other wives in paradise. The importance of marital ties would assist in defining the authority of later leaders of the Islamic empire. Shi’i Muslims rejected the first four caliphs in favour of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin. They believed Ali’s rightful successors to be his descendants, providing an example of the pre-Islamic tribal customs of blood relationships over ones of faith. Sunni Muslims favour the Islamic tradition of marital ties to be of importance. The first five caliphs had all been related to Muhammad through marriage. Through Aisha’s claim to importance within the Islamic community, we are shown the developing ties that would hold the new religion together. Following the new Islamic tradition, Aisha’s genealogy and marital ties made her an impossible female figure to ignore.
Aisha’s relationship to her Abu Bakr defined them as complimentary forces. Regarded as Muhammad’s most beloved person, and most beloved man, they were able to profit from one another. Abu Bakr was widely respected, even by Shi’ites, for his devotion to the Prophet and his profound asceticism while acting as the first caliph. His place in Islamic society helped to establish Aisha’s place as well. Of the many names Aisha gained throughout her lifetime, attributed to her father was al-siddiqa bint al-siddiq, “the truthful woman, daughter of the truthful man.” Aisha’s prestige as the most beloved wife of Muhammad “also promoted her father Abu Bakr's remembrance as the first legitimate political successor to the Prophet." However, the importance of the duo threatened that of Ali and his wife and daughter of the Prophet, Fatima. To legitimize Shi’i belief in Ali as the true successor to Muhammad, followed by his descendants, there must be no one more respected than Ali and Fatima. It is on this basis that Shi’ites had no choice but to reject all things positive about the life of Aisha.
It is in regard to this rejection of Aisha by Shi’ism, that her closeness to the Prophet and divine intervention are questioned. Aisha had claimed herself to be the most beloved of all of the thirteen wives of Muhammad. In her biography written by Ibn S’ad more than one hundred and fifty years after her death, Aisha supposedly provides nineteen arguments to prove why she is the most beloved. Among these are her closeness to the Prophet, her uniqueness as his only virgin wife, and her experience of divine intervention. Aisha’s claim as the only wife of Muhammad to have been in the presence of the Angel Gabriel, included his role “in the arrangement of ‘A’isha’s marriage [which was] no less significant than the intervention of the divine in the defence of her marital reputation.” Gabriel’s message to Muhammad that Aisha would be his wife and later the message of her vindication by Allah would set her apart from the other wives of the Prophet. As well as these encounters, Aisha is also acts as witness “to testify to the angel's presence in order to confirm the Prophet's military action and validate its divine inspiration" when he fought a Medinian clan of Jews. Aisha’s religious importance, though ignored by Shi’ites, drew her closer to her husband and established her as a prominent Islamic figure.
Aisha’s religious authority was further demonstrated through her contribution to hadiths. Spellberg describes Aisha’s role as “unchallenged among Sunni Muslims as a source of Hadith, [her] reputation for the transmission of tradition forms a critical dimension of her achieved religious prestige within the medieval record.” Aisha’s respect as a transmitter of hadith al-sanaba, sayings of the Prophet’s companions, relies largely as her acceptance of Aisha as the favourite wife of the Prophet. However, Aisha’s memories were rejected by Shi’ites who “perceived ‘A’isha as an object of censure, a negative example for the faith who would never be defined as a reputable source for the transmission of their past.” To Sunni Muslims Aisha held great importance in Islamic law through her closeness to her husband. After Muhammad’s death Umar and Uthman consulted Aisha in political affairs due to her knowledge of the life of the Prophet. This dramatic contrast in the reliance of Aisha’s memories display once again the importance of the Sunni and Shi’i narrative.
Through understanding the perceptions of Aisha’s religious authority, one can further understand the outcomes of the hadith al-ifk, the account of the lie. Aisha had been accused of laying with a man who rescued her when left behind by Muhammad’s caravan. As Spellberg explains, “as the Prophet’s wife, ‘A’isha embodied his honor and the accusation against her chastity threatened to undermine both the Prophet’s male honor and the prestige of his religious mission.” Therefore, the accusation was less of an attack of Aisha and more of an attack on Muhammad and the Islamic community by his enemies. Aisha provides an example of women, who at the time were “perceived as flawed and prone to err.” Women were expected to maintain honour and avoid causing shame to their families. The passive ideal nature of women left them virtually unprotected against the slander of others. Aisha demonstrates her lack of ability when even she, the beloved wife of the Prophet, is unable to save herself. Spellberg argues that it is only though divine vindication by Allah that Aisha is able to regain her prestige and her husband’s honour. This vindication, and written about in Quaranic verses, is regarded by Shi’ites to be about Maryam the Copt. Maryam the Copt had been a concubine of Muhammad and had been slandered by Aisha, thus Shi’ites claimed that the vindication served to prove Maryam’s innocence against Aisha. To defend Aisha and follow the Quran as closely as possible, it was only logical for Sunnis to support Aisha’s vindication by Allah. Aisha, shown here as a Muslim woman, faces the hardships of her gender and provide for us an insight into Islamic past as interpreted by Shi’i and Sunni sources.
As demonstrated by Aisha, Muslim women had less control over their own fate than men. Regardless of their defence, Muslim men still held greater power and thus greater authority than Muslim women within their community. While Aisha had been greatly respected in regard to her importance to the hadith, she enjoyed status quite different than that of the traditional Muslim woman. Spellberg explains that “in the development of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr’s medieval legacy as a source of hadith, ‘A’isha represented both an example for women and an exception to them.” Similar to Aisha, Muslim women could transfer hadiths. They were often the transmitters of hadiths amongst their families in groups of other women, however, there was no further scholarship available to them as they were not allowed to become scribes or scholars. While Aisha displayed great power within early Muslim community, she is also accepted as an exception to the life of typical Muslim women.
Though Aisha was constrained by her gender’s limitations, she attempted to find justification to go beyond those limitations seen in her role of the Battle of the Camel. The yawm al-jamal, the Day of the Camel, took place 646 in Basra, following the murder of the third caliph, Uthman. Aisha and her two male companions led an army to fight Ali in the first Islamic civil war. Spellberg explains the significance of the event, saying “men followed her, a woman, into battle together with two other male companions of the Prophet, a phenomenon that suggests not just her prestige, but her power.” Aisha was defeated and her male companions were killed. Aisha faced shame and ridicule by the Muslim community for her political actions. Spellberg explains that Aisha “seems to have tested the boundaries of political participation during this crucial period of transition for the Muslim community.” It is in the historical memory of Shi’i and Sunni scholars that Aisha is either defended or slandered for the interests of the two beliefs. The outcomes of the yawm al-jamal were perceived quite differently and therefore had lasting effects on the state of Muslim women to follow Aisha’s legacy.
Shi’i Muslims predictably used Aisha’s failure at yawm al-jamal to ridicule her and provide further evidence as to why she was not the most important figure in early Islam. Shi’ites gave many reasons they believed Aisha had acted against the Quran and the Prophet, though these ideas were rivalled by Sunnis. The question as to why Aisha had taken the army to Basra was questioned. Since she had no ties to Uthman so did not need to seek revenge, so Shi’ites claimed that Aisha had planned to kill Ali to clear the path for her companion, Talha ibn Ubayd Allah, as the future caliph. Her scheming ways also contradicted the Quran in the eyes of Shi’ites. The Quran had said that all of the widows of the Prophet must never leave their homes or take part in politics. A third assault on Aisha included her rejection of a sign of the Prophet to stop marching to Basra. Before Muhammad had died he predicted that one of his wives would hear the barking Dogs of al-Haw’ab and should interpret this as a sign to stop their actions. On the way to Basra, Shi’ites claim Aisha heard the dogs, yet refused to stop her mission and defied the wishes of her husband. The failure of Aisha and her rebellion against the ultimate authorities of Islam caused speculation of the roles of Muslim women. Following the slander of Aisha, Muslim women faced scorn for their role in politics. Nizam al Mulk wrote almost four hundred years after the death of Aisha about how leaders should rule, including the necessary removal of women from their influence. Aisha provided fuel for Nizam al-Mulk’s argument that when women take part in politics, as seen through history mentioned in the Quran, only negative things will happen. He claims that through Aisha’s influence on her husband and in her own political endeavours she exemplifies his claim to women’s misplacement in politics. Through Aisha’s participation in the Battle of the Camel, Shi’ites were able to present reason why women should not be permitted into the political sphere.
Sunni Muslims, though also ashamed of Aisha for her role in the first Islamic civil war, found ways to defend their female figure. Spellburg describes Aisha in the Muslim community following the fitna, the first civil war, as “praised as a wife and blamed as a widow.” Countering the arguments of Shi’ites, Sunnis justified Aisha’s travel to Basra to quell a fight against two tribes. She had been lied to by her male companions on her journey and told that she was not in al-Haw’ad when she heard the dogs barking. For these reasons, Sunnis place blame on the male companions for the fitna and “in Sunni historical record, ‘A’isha had been transformed from an active subject to a passive participant.” Though Aisha was defended by Sunni Muslims, she never again took part in political ventures, and Spellberg points out that her actions discouraged other Muslim women from acting as well. While both beliefs found shame in Aisha’s participation of the fitna, the affect on Muslim women was interpreted on quite different measures depending on Aisha’s presentation in Shi’i and Sunni record.
Aisha Bint Abi Bakr was an extraordinary woman whose role cannot be diminished within early Islamic history. In regards to controversial moments in the life of the favourite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Shi’i and Sunni record provide contrasting narratives. The impact of these scholars allow them through the written word to form a legacy of the life of Aisha. The forces of conflicting Sunni and Shi’i belief shape our lasting historical memory of Aisha’s life. It is through these records that we are allowed greater insight into the Islamic past through the life of Aisha. The forces that shape the legacy of Aisha Bint Abi Bakr in turn shaped the historical memory of Islamic past.
Spellberg, Denise A. Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of Aisha Bint Abi Bakr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
[ 1 ]. Denise A. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 33. [ 2 ]. Spellberg, 32.
[ 3 ]. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past, 33. [ 4 ]. Spellberg, 28.
[ 5 ]. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past, 54. [ 6 ]. Spellberg, 43.
[ 7 ]. Spellberg, 45.
[ 8 ]. Spellberg, 52.
[ 9 ]. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past, 52. [ 10 ]. Spellberg, 53.
[ 11 ]. Spellberg, 62.
[ 12 ]. Spellberg, 139.
[ 13 ]. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past, 75. [ 14 ]. Spellberg, 59.
[ 15 ]. Spellberg, 57.
[ 16 ]. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past, 108. [ 17 ]. Spellberg, 104.
[ 18 ]. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past, 132-133. [ 19 ]. Spellberg, 121-123.
[ 20 ]. Spellberg, 140.
[ 21 ]. Spellberg, 141-144.
[ 22 ]. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past, 110. [ 23 ]. Spellberg, 136.
[ 24 ]. Spellberg, 132.
[ 25 ]. Spellberg, 138.