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Date: 07 Jul 2000
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O wives of the prophet, ye are not like any ordinary women." THE KORAN - THE CHAPTER OF THE CLANS
She was playing on her swing when her mother called her. Noticing her dirty face, her mother took a little water and wiped the grime away. The swing had left her breathless, so the two of them paused for a few minutes at the door of the house until she recovered. Inside, her father and his friends were waiting. Her mother placed her in the lap of one of them, then everyone else rose and left the room. Aisha was nine years old, and that day, in her parents' house, she consummated her marriage to the prophet Muhammad, who was then over fifty. Ten years later, he died in her arms. Today, if you ask Sunni Muslims about Aisha, they will tell you she was the great love of Muhammad's later life, a formidable teacher of Islam, a heroine in battle. But ask Shiites, and they will describe a jealous schemer who destroyed the prophet's domestic peace, plotted against his daughter Fatima, spied on the household and fomented a tragic factional bloodletting that left the Muslim nation permanently divided. Aisha-Arabic for "life"-is one of the most popular girls' names in the Sunni Muslim world. But among Shiites it is a term of exasperation and abuse. When a Shiite girl misbehaves, her mother is likely to upbraid her with a shout of "You Aisha!" Aisha went to live with Muhammad in the year 622 by the Christian calendar-the first year of Hegira by Muslim reckoning. Thirteen hundred and sixty-six years later, an interviewer for "Hello Good Morning" a live, national radio show in Iran, stopped a woman on a Tehran street and asked her who she thought was the best woman's role model. The woman answered Oshin, the heroine of a Japanese-made TV soap opera who had overcome all kinds of adversity by flouting Japan's staid traditions. The interviewer asked the woman why she hadn't named one of the prophet's wives or daughters as her role model. The woman replied that those women belonged to a far-off era that wasn't as relevant to her modern life. Ayatollah Khomeini, listening to the radio, was furious, and demanded that the show's producers be flogged. He relented when an investigation proved that the producers hadn't acted maliciously. For once I found myself more or less agreeing with Khomeini. The lives of the prophet's wives and daughters were extremely relevant to modern Islamic women. Most of the Koran's revelations on women came to Muhammad directly following events in his own household. Like modern Muslim women, his wives had to cope with the jealousies of a polygamous household, the traumas of war, the hardships of poverty and the issues of seclusion and hijab. To me, the hadith's intimate vignettes of life in the apartments around Muhammad's mosque were better than any modern soap opera. I couldn't get enough of these stories of intrigue, argument and romance. Aisha, undoubtedly, was the star, but the seven or eight wives in the supporting cast made for lively subplots. When Muhammad's first wife Khadija died in 619, the fortynine-year-old prophet was heartbroken. The Muslim community, especially the women who cooked and cared for him, believed a new wife might soothe his grief. A few months after Khadija's death, Muhammad's aunt, Khawla, suggested to her nephew that he marry again. "Whom shall I marry, 0 Khawla?" asked Muhammad. "You women are best knowing in these matters." Khawla answered that, if he wanted a virgin, he should take Aisha, the beautiful child of his best friend, Abu Bake. If he wanted a nonvirgin, there was the widow Sawda, a matronly older woman who had been an early convert to Islam and a devoted follower. "Go," said Muhammad, "bespeak them both for me." He married Sawda and Aisha in quick succession. But since Aisha was then only six, the marriage wasn't consummated, and she remained with her family. No one told the little girl of her change in status. But when her mother suddenly began restricting her play, Aisha later recalled, "It fell into my heart that I was married." By the time she went to live with Muhammad, the Muslims had fled persecution in Mecca and set up an exile community in the town of Medina. Muhammad lived in the mosque they constructed there-a humble structure of gray mudbricks roofed with the branches of date trees. Aisha and Sawda had a room each. When Aisha moved in, she brought her toys with her. Sometimes Muhammad would find her playing with them. "What are these?" he would ask. "Solomon's horses " or "My girl dolls," she would answer. If her child playmates ran away, intimidated, when he approached, he would gently call them back and sometimes join in their games. Muhammad, according to many detailed physical descriptions, was a handsome man, of medium height with wavy black hair, a full beard, thick-lashed dark eyes and a radiant smile that revealed a gap between his front teeth. He was meticulous about his grooming, perfuming his beard and brushing his teeth at least five times a day. His only unattractive features were a tendency to bloodshot eyes and a protruding vein in his temple that is said to have become more pronounced when he became angry. In the year or two after Aisha moved in, Muhammad married three more women, all war widows: Hafsah, the twenty-year-old daughter of his close friend Omar; an older woman, Zeinab, whose generosity had earned her the name "Mother of the Poor," and who died just eight months later; and Umm Salamah, a famous beauty whose arrival caused Aisha the first pangs of the jealousy that would blight the rest of her life. When Aisha learned about the marriage to Umm Salamah, "I was exceedingly sad," she said, "having heard much of her beauty." She called on the new wife and found her lltwice as beautiful and graceful as she was reputed to be."
Muhammad tried to keep to the Koran's instruction that a man must treat all his wives equally. His practice was to see each of them, every afternoon, in a brief private meeting, but to have his dinner and spend the night with one at a time, in strict rotation. Aisha found the arrangement unsatisfying. "Tell me," she asked him one day, "if you were to come upon two camels, the one already pastured and the other not, which would you feed?" Muhammad answered that of course it would be the one not pastured. "I am not like the rest of your wives," Aisha replied. "Every one of them has been married before, except me." Occasionally, if Muhammad wanted to spend time with a wife out of her turn, he would ask permission of the wife whose "day" it was. He soon learned better than to ask Aisha to give up her day. "For my part," she said, "I always refused him" and insisted on her scheduled visit. Sensitive to the young girl's needs and, perhaps, to the prophet's desires, the aging Sawda permanently relinquished her "day" to Aisha. But soon the arrival of several more wives spread the prophet's attentions even thinner. Muslims argue that the many marriages of Muhammad's last ten years reflected the fast expansion of Islam, and his need to build alliances with diverse clans. At other times, they say, his choices reflected compassion for needy widows. Since women will always outnumber men in societies at war, they argue, surely it is better that women share a husband than have no man in their lives at all. Muhammad, they say, was setting an example by taking widows into his care. Non-Muslims, particularly Islam's hostile critics, have taken a different view. Muhammad, they say, was a sensualist, whose increasing power and prestige gave him means to indulge his lusts after the death of the first wife who had been his patron. These critics seem to overlook the austerity of the prophet's household. The mudbrick rooms of the mosque were hardly the quarters of a sensualist. Even as the Muslim community became rich on the spoils of military victories, Muhammad continued to live simply and to insist that his wives do the same. The poverty that he enforced in his own household became the source of much bickering between Muhammad and his wives.
Yet the devout view, of Muhammad as husband cum social worker for needy widows, isn't entirely convincing either. At least one hadith indicates that Muhammad knew polygamy was damaging for women. When his son-in-law Ali considered taking a second wife, the prophet expressed concern for the feelings of his daughter Fatima. "What harms her harms me," he told Ali, who abandoned the idea of a further marriage. (Shiites, who venerate Ali and Fatima, discount this hadith. They argue that Muhammad would never have criticized a practice that the Koran had declared lawful.) Not all Muhammad's wives were pathetic cases or politically expedient matches. The beautiful Umm Salamah certainly wasn't needy. She had loved her first husband and, reluctant to remarry, had rejected a slew of eligible suitors when Muhammad began his dogged pursuit. She turned the prophet down at least three times. "I am a woman of an exceedingly jealous disposition, and you, 0 Messenger of God, acquire many women," she said, as one excuse for rejecting his suit. Muhammad replied: "I shall pray God to uproot jealousy from your heart." Despite his attempts at fairness, the whole community seems to have become aware that Aisha was his favorite wife. Muslims who wanted to send him a gift of food began timing their presents for the days they knew he would be spending in Aisha's apartment. Since Muhammad lived so humbly, these gifts often provided his household's only luxuries. Umm Salamah, for one, bitterly resented the preference shown to Aisha. "I see that the rest of us are as nothing," she said when yet another basket of goodies arrived on Aisha's day. Enraged, she flounced off to complain to Fatima, Muhammad's daughter. Muhammad's marriage to a child just a year or two younger than herself must have been difficult for Fatima in the wake of her mother's death. Her own marriage, to Muhammad's nephew Ali, was arranged soon after Aisha moved in. Whether it had its seeds in unrecorded childhood squabbles, or in the rivalry between Fatima's husband Ali and Aisha's father Abu Bake for the role of Muhammad's chief lieutenant, a bitter enmity developed between Aisha and Fatima. Eventually it expressed itself in the Shiite-Sunni schism that was to sunder Islam. The temperaments of the two young women could hardly have been more different. Fatima was self-effacing and shy; Aisha was quick-witted and outspoken. In any case, Umm Salamah knew where to look for an ally against Aisha. Fatima promised Umm Salamah to speak to her father about his favoritism. Muhammad's reply must have stung. "Dear little daughter, don't you love who I love?" he asked her. "Yes, surely," she replied. When she continued to put her case, Muhammad cut her off. "Aisha," he said, "is your father's best beloved." This brought Ali into the argument, chiding Muhammad for slighting his daughter by saying he loved Aisha best. The bitterness of the argument must have lingered, because soon afterward Muhammad ordered the door sealed between his wives' apartments and the apartment of Ali and Fatima. (Shiites deny this exchange ever took place: in their version, Muhammad extolled Fatima as "a human houri," or near-divine being.) Aisha tried to undermine her complaining rivals with childish pranks. One day she noticed that Muhammad had lingered longer than usual on his evening visit with one of her rivals, enjoying a drink made with honey, his favorite delicacy. Aisha gathered some of the other wives together and concocted a practical joke. As he stopped by each woman's apartment, all of them pretended to be offended by his breath. Muhammad, fastidious about his person, was worried and confused. "All I ate was honey!" he exclaimed. The women muttered that the bees who made the honey must have fed on the nectar of a foul-smelling plant. Afterward, Muhammad refused honey when it was offered to him, until the more mature Sawda counselled Aisha that the joke had gone far enough, and that the poor prophet was depriving himself of one of his few pleasures. Once Aisha and her co-conspirators actually thwarted one of the prophet's attempts to add another wife to his growing harem. Aisha was distraught when Asma, the beautiful daughter of a prince, arrived with an elaborate escort for her marriage to Muhammad. Aisha and Hafsa, pretending to be helpful, volunteered to assist the young woman dress for her wedding. As they fussed around her, they shared /Iconfidences" about the prophet's likes and dislikes. He would be inflamed with passion, they advised, if she pretended unwillingness. When it came time to consummate the marriage, they advised her to back away from the prophet's embrace and say, "I take refuge with Allah from thee." The prophet, appalled at the thought of inflicting himself on an unwilling woman, immediately told Asma not to worry, that he would call for her escort and see her safely home. Asma went, devastated, and complaining bitterly that she had been the victim of deceit. The multiple marriages fed such petty rivalries and added to the growing feud between Ali and Abu Bake that was to threaten Islam's political future. They also began to shape the rules of the emerging faith. Muhammad's increasing number of divine revelations on women seemed more and more influenced by the need to achieve tranquillity in his own household. Aisha, for one, wasn't afraid to point out the coincidence. "It seems to me," she said tartly, "your Lord makes haste to satisfy your desires." One such coincidence was the revelation that adopted children weren't to be considered as blood kin. This followed Muhammad's glimpse of the partially unclad Zeinab, wife of Zaid, the freed slave whom Muhammad had adopted and raised as a son. The community had been shocked by Zaid's divorce and Muhammad's intention to marry Zeinab, which flouted the ban on a father's marriage to the wife of a son. Muhammad was with Aisha when he had the revelation saying that it was a mistake by Muslims to consider adoption as creating the same ties as blood kin. From that point, the Koran says, Muslims were to proclaim the true parentage of any children they raised. God, the revelation disclosed, had arranged Muhammad's marriage with Zeinab to disclose to Muslims the error of their previous beliefs. When Zeinab moved into the mosque, she was able to taunt Aisha by claiming that her marriage to the prophet had been arranged by God. The revelation on the seclusion of the prophet's wives came on Zeinab's wedding night. Sensitive to the ill feelings that the match had inspired, Muhammad had invited many guests to his wedding feast. Three of them lingered long after the meal, engrossed in conversation and seemingly oblivious to the prophet's impatience to be alone with his new bride. As Zeinab sat quietly in a corner, waiting for the guests to leave, Muhammad strode out of the room and wandered the mosque courtyard. He dropped in on Aisha, who politely inquired how he liked his new companion. Muhammad confided that he hadn't yet had a chance to enjoy her company, and wandered off to look in on each of his wives before returning to the room of the wedding feast. To his intense annoyance, the guests were still there. Irritable, he went back to Aisha's room and sat with her until finally someone came to tell him that the boorish guests had left. Anas ibn Malik, a companion who had witnessed the whole scene, accompanied Muhammad back to the nuptial chamber. Muhammad had one foot in the room when he let fall a curtain between himself and Anas, and, as he did so, began reciting in the voice he used for revelations: "O ye who believe! Enter not the dwellings of the prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless permission be granted you. But if ye are invited, enter, and, when your meal is ended, then disperse. Linger not for conversation. Lo! that would cause annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy of asking you to go; but Allah is not shy of the truth. And when you ask his wives for anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain (hijab). That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts." These words now are inscribed in the Koran as the word of God. Obviously, such a verse is read very differently by a believing Muslim and a non-believing outsider. To a nonbeliever, it is hard to envision God troubling to micro-manage matters of etiquette, like some kind of heavenly Miss Manners. To Muslims, though, there is nothing very extraordinary in God dealing with a situation that obviously left his prophet uncomfortable and unsure of how to act. In these latter years of Muhammad's life, with the community expanding rapidly, many new issues, large and small, had to be resolved. The Medina revelations are almost always far less poetic and more specific than the elegant reflections of the earlier verses revealed in Mecca. Often they came in direct response to new dilemmas facing the community. What is so puzzling is why the revelation of seclusion, so clearly packaged here with instructions that apply only to the prophet, should ever have come to be seen as a rule that should apply to all Muslim women. In Muhammad's lifetime the rule almost certainly was limited to his wives. It completely changed their lives. Muhammad had authorized Aisha, in his absence, to give religious advice, telling Muslims to "take half your religion from this woman." But after the revelation of seclusion, she no longer mingled freely with the visitors to the mosque. Some wives, like Sawda, famed for her fine leather-craft, had worked to contribute to the household's budget. The wives had even gone into battle alongside Muhammad, tucking up their robes and carrying water, or caring for the injured. Even Fatima had attended the battlefield, once cauterizing a bleeding head wound of her father's by applying ashes, a folk remedy that signified her skill as a nurse. After the seclusion, Muhammad took one or two wives on campaign only as his sexual partners, drawing lots among them for the privilege. It was after one such battle that Aisha found herself facing the biggest trial of her married life. As camp broke before dawn, Aisha walked off into the desert to urinate before the march. Returning to camp, she realized she'd dropped an agate necklace and retraced her steps looking for it. By the time she found it the men had led off the camel carrying her curtained litter, believing her to be already inside. She sat patiently on the sand, waiting for someone to miss her. A few hours later, a young soldier named Safwan found her waiting alone and carried her back to the city on his camel. Her arrival with this young and handsome man created a scandal. Ali, Fatima's husband, took the opportunity to feed Muhammad's growing doubts of Aisha's virtue. As the scandal mounted, Aisha left her apartment at the mosque and returned in disgrace to her parents, who seemed just as ready to accuse her as everyone else. The gossip raged for over a month. Finally Muhammad had a revelation clearing her name. "Good tidings, 0 Aisha!" he cried out. "God most high has exonerated you." "Rise and come to Muhammad," her parents urged. "I shall neither come to him nor thank him," said the strong-minded young woman. "Nor will I thank both of you who listened to the slander and did not deny it. I shall rise to give thanks to God alone." What became known as "the affair of the slander" made its way into the Koran. Why, God asks the believers, when they heard the allegations about Aisha, "did not the believing men and believing women form in their minds a good opinion and say, 'This is a lie manifest'? Why have they not brought four witnesses regarding it?" Since then, Islamic law has required four witnesses to sustain a charge of adultery: "The whore, and the whore-master, shall ye scourge with an hundred stripes. . . . But as to those who accuse women of reputation of whoredom, and produce not four witnesses of the fact, scourge them with fourscore stripes, and receive not their testimony forever."
In the two years following his controversial marriage to Zeinab, Muhammad acquired five new women, including two Jews and a Coptic Christian. (There is a difference of opinion about whether he married all three of these women or simply kept one or two of them as concubines.) Mary, the Christian, became the focus of the harem's intense jealousy when she bore Muhammad a son. (The boy died in infancy.) Aisha, who hadn't been able to conceive, was particularly heartbroken. At one point she had complained to Muhammad about her lack of a kunya, or mother designation, since all the other widows had the kunyas of sons they'd borne to their previous husbands. Like the present-day Palestinian, Rehab, Aisha felt the lack of distinction keenly. Muhammad told her to call herself Umm Abdullah, after the son of her sister, to whom she was very close. Aisha must have perceived Mary and her son as dangerous rivals for Muhammad's attention. Certainly an uproar followed the discovery of Muhammad having intercourse with Mary in Hafsa's room on Aisha's "day." The fallout from that upset, coupled with nagging from the women about the grinding poverty of their lives, caused Muhammad to withdraw from the harem and keep to himself for almost a month. The community worried that he might divorce all his wives, throwing into turmoil the alliances he'd so carefully crafted. Finally he returned from his retreat and offered each of his wives a divinely inspired ultimatum: they could divorce him and have a rich settlement of worldly goods, or they could stay with him, on God's terms, which included never marrying again after his death. In return, they would be known forever as Mothers of the Believers, and reap a rich reward in heaven. All the women chose to stay. It would be wrong to portray Muhammad's domestic life as nothing but jealousy and scandal. The hadith also record moments of great tenderness in the little rooms around the mosque. One day, as Aisha and Muhammad sat together companionably, she at her spinning, he mending a sandal, Aisha suddenly became aware that he was gazing at her with a radiant expression on his face. Suddenly, he rose and kissed her on the forehead. "Oh, Aisha," he said, "may Allah reward you well. I am not the source of joy to you that you are to me./t Another hadith recounts an incident when several of Muhammad's wives were arguing with him over household finances. While the argument was in progress, Omar, Muhammad's stern lieutenant and the father of Hafsa, entered the room. The women, fearful of Omar's violent temper, immediately fell silent and hurried away. Omar yelled after the women that it was shameful that they should be more respectful of him than of the prophet of God. One replied, from a safe distance, that the prophet of God was known to be much gentler to women than his overbearing friend. When Muhammad became ill and was dying, he at first kept to his habit of fairness among wives, moving his sick-bed from one room to another depending on whose turn it was to have his company. But one day he began asking whose room he was to go to the next day, and the day after, and the day after that. The wives perceived that he was trying to calculate how long it would be until he was with his beloved Aisha. All decided to give up their turns to allow him to spend his last weeks with Aisha. He died in her arms and was buried in her room.
She was just nineteen years old. A lonely future stretched before her: childless, and banned from remarriage. All she had left was influence. Because she had spent so much time at Muhammad's side, she became a leading religious authority. Originally, 2,210 hadith were attributed to her: ninth-century scholars, dismissing the word of a mere woman, threw out all but 174. On Muhammad's death, Aisha became a wealthy woman. She inherited nothing from Muhammad, who left all his own property to charity. But the community paid her for the use of part of her room -where she continued to live-as the prophets tomb. The sum, 200,000 dirhams, was so vast that five camels were needed to transport it. The payment may have been extra generous because Muhammad's successor, or caliph, turned out to be Aisha's father, Abu Bake.
Muhammad's death caused the boil-over of the long-simmering power struggle between Ali and Abu Bake. Fatima, who had lived very quietly, raising four children, burst briefly into public life to fight for Alios right to be caliph. By that time all her sisters had died childless, leaving her and her sons and daughters as Muhammad's only descendants. She argued powerfully that Ali had been Muhammad's choice. It was she who proclaimed that her father's command had been that the leadership of Islam should remain with his blood relatives. The Shiat Ali, or Partisans of Ali, rallied to support her. But she failed to convince the majority of the community. While Ali was prepared to mend the rift by accepting Abu Bakr's leadership, Fatima held out with the courageous stubbornness that continues to characterize modern Shiites. Convinced that her father's will had been flouted, she refused to offer allegiance to Abu Bake. Perhaps as a result of the stress of that losing struggle, she fell ill and died just six months after her father.
Not everyone mourned the passing of Islam's prophet. In the southern Arabian region of Hadramaut, six women decorated their hands with henna, as if for a wedding, and took to the streets beating tambourines in joyful celebration of Muhammad's death. Soon, about twenty others joined the merry gathering. When word of the celebration reached Abu Bake, he sent out the cavalry to deal with "the whores of Hadramaut." When his warriors arrived, the men of the settlement came to their women's defense but were defeated. As punishment, the women had their henna-painted, tambourine-playing hands severed at the wrists.
Who knows what motivated the women to make their rousing and reckless celebration? To them, at least, it must have seemed that Muhammad's new religion had made their lives more burdensome, less free. And much worse was coming. Repression of women was about to be legislated into the religion on a large scale by Abu Bakr's successor as caliph, the violent misogynist Omar.
That Aisha supported Omar's bid for leadership shows the depth of her loathing for Fatima's husband, Ali. Her opinion of Omar was not high. Knowing his cruelty to the women of his household, she had cleverly helped foil a match between him and her sister. Omar cracked down on women in ways that he must have known flouted Muhammad's traditions. He made stoning the official punishment for adultery and pressed to extend the seclusion of women beyond the prophet's wives. He tried to prevent women from praying in the mosque, and when that failed, he ordered separate prayer leaders for men and women. He also prevented women from making the Hajj, a ban that was lifted only in the last year of his life. On Omar's death, Aisha supported Othman as his successor. When Othman was murdered by members of a rebellious faction, Ali, who had had to wait twenty-four long years since Muhammad's death, finally got his chance to lead. When he became the Muslims' fourth caliph, Aisha's well-known enmity soon made her a lightning rod for dissidents. She spoke out stridently against Ali's failure to punish Othman's killers. As opposition to Ali's rule mounted, Aisha made a brave and reckless move that might have changed forever the balance of power between Muslim men and women. She led the dissidents into battle against Ali in a red pavilion set atop a camel. Riding ahead of her troops, she loudly exhorted them to fight bravely. Ali, realizing the effect this was having on his men's morale, ordered her camel cut down under her. He then routed her forces. Hundreds of her partisans were killed, including her dearest friends and relatives. The defeat proved disastrous for Muslim women. Her opponents were able to argue that the first battle of Muslim against Muslim would never have happened if Aisha had kept out of public life as God had commanded. After the battle, one of Muhammad's freed slaves reported a hadith that has been particularly damaging to Muslim women. The man said he had been saved from joining Aisha's army by recalling Muhammad's remark on the news that the Persians had appointed a princess as ruler: "No people who place a woman over their affairs will prosper." Whether or not the former slave's convenient recollection was genuine, that hadith has been used against every Muslim woman who has achieved political influence. In Pakistan it was frequently cited by opponents of Benazir Bhutto. After the rout, Aisha finally made her peace with Ali. She retreated from politics but remained an eminent religious authority. Most accounts describe her in later life as a sad and self-effacing woman whose one wish was to be forgotten by history.
It is said that she wept whenever she recited the Koranic verses: "O wives of the prophet . . . remain in your houses."
Date: 22 Jul 2006
Remote Name: 220.127.116.11
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