Aisha’s marriage: a Sufi perspective

Aisha's age of betrothal and then marriage, understood as the descent of Divine Law and Light into our Feminine existence. Imbalance and prematurity lead to a tragedy we all share.

Narrated ‘Ursa: The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with ‘Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years. (Sahih Bukhari Volume 7, Book 62, Number 88)

The Tailor: The Judaic tradition sets 12 as the legal age for a marriage. Aisha was married at 6 and consummated at 9. There is an argument that the former law and the latter instance are not child abuse, because our notion of childhood is cultural and historically situated. People grew up faster and died earlier in those days. Closer to home, in medieval Europe, it was quite common for peasants at least to get hitched around 14. To survive. There was less information to aquire and more disease going around. Alhumdulilah, in the contemporary West at least, we have an extended childhood these days (in some cases, running into the 20s and 30s!). Alhumdulilah, because childhood is close to paradise. But this extended childhood is more or less the result of factors like the industrial revolution, advances in medicine, colonial oppression etc. I hope that one day an extended childhood will be the norm, globally.

Let’s assume this is the case. So these particularly young ages did not raise any eyebrows in those days. But if it is the case, what is the significance of detailing these ages in holy narratives?

To understand the True, universal meaning of these ages of consent (and the particular significance of Aisha’s age), transcending our quite natural English cultural distaste at both the Dutch of today (who have set their age of consent in line with Judaic tradition) and the Arabs of the 7th century, the we need to enter into marriage ourselves and consent to be 9. It is fair to say that, without such a comprehension, a modern day literal reading will be very much spiritually adrift. So we had better learn to read, particularly to read this narration!

Brother: I love Aisha as a Mother of the Believers and favoured by Prophecy. Furthermore, Prophecy is given specific privileges that are not granted to the rest of Islam — for instance, number of wives. My love for Prophecy and for his wives is enough. I am not interested in his private life — this would be a violation of adab, in fact!

The Tailor: Regarding personal life, having been brought up a Sunni, the Prophet’s personal life has always been of great interest to me: everything from his marital problems (he had a few) down to his use of a toothbrush and love of sweets has theomorphic value for me. The narrations accepted by the Sunnis provide all kinds of microscopically personal details of Prophetic “personal” life. For example,

Narrated Sulaiman bin Aasar:
I asked ‘Aisha about the clothes soiled with semen. She replied, “I used to wash it off the clothes of Allah’s apostle and he would go for the prayer while water spots were still visible.” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 1, Book 4, Number 231)

(As a Tailor I could give you a tafsir of this rather peculiar narration, but let’s defer it.)
There must be a significant spiritual reason for these very intimate views: they not simply gossip — you love and honour Prophecy, so you did not request this information. Yet it is provided for you. For a significant reason.

In particular, the age of Aisha is theomorphically significant. It is both a reason why Prophecy ends its time on this earth in her arms, and also the source of her mistimed, premature participation in the Battle of the Camel.

Brother: How is bringing up the fitna going to help? You will only end up focusing on things the things that divide us, when as an entire ummah, we need unity!

The Tailor: As my background is Sunni, of course I also love Aisha as a mother of the believers. I also love Imam Ali and his wife, daughter of Prophecy and the direct descendants of Prophecy. I have come to accept the majority of orthodox narrations from both Sunni and Shia perspectives — as equally valid.

This means I accept Imam Ali’s grievances with his predecessor Caliphs — which are surprisingly clear and consistent in both the hadith literature of the Sunnis and the Shia Najh al Balagha. The key perspective from Imam Ali is found in his Roar of the Camel sermon, where he enunciates this grievance while speaking as the Real itself.

On the other hand, I accept the Prophet’s word — that Aisha is the best woman of her generation, just as Mary was to hers. And the importance of her father Abu Bakr as a preceeding caliph: comprehension of his regency post-Prophecy is also key to our spiritual development as Muslims. Her elevation is indisputable. Aisha saw Gabriel directly on several occasions, thanks to her proximity and intimacy with Prophecy, though did not recognize him until after the fact. Her narrations provide the foundation for much of our law and way.

I love both sides of the fitnah equally, just as I love both sides, left and right, of the Body of Prophecy.

But I cannot deny that his house — this Body of Prophecy — was split and shattered against itself after his death. As Muslims we generally prefer to sidestep talk of that catastrophe, quite sensibly, because that divided family is our family. Just as we try our best not to raise previous family disputes at Christmas or Thanksgiving get togethers. It’s just bad manners and inevitably leads to trouble.

Nevertheless, I suppose psychologists would accept that previous family trauma should eventually be addressed head on and not repressed. Repression or denial will lead to pathology at some point. And while this is not perhaps an important issue for us elites, we can see this pathology manifesting itself in Iraq right now, for example.

I believe that Prophecy understood this fitnah as an inevitability: and that the fitnah and its eventual resolution (which is still yet to come globally, though can come to us personally at different moments and levels of granularity) are part of the Prophetic unfolding. I had an interesting experience in salat recently, where this self-awareness of the fragility of the Prophetic household/body — in relation to Prophecy itself — was quite acute. Beautiful and tragic: beauty through revelation, household conflict leading to (often atemporal or pre-emptive) symbolic resolution appear to be God’s mould for Prophecy, from Adam to Jacob, from Abraham to the Seal.

The opportunity is there for all of us, as a macrocosmic ummah and as molar/microcosmic ummah: to resolve this fitnah. To reunite, face-to-face, the Shariah of premature bride of Logic (Deen descended into the Feminine via 9 phases) with the Immanent Imam. A transcendent understanding of the Divine Presiding with the Immanent Gift of Breath. Face-to-face, not back-to-back. The Sufi enclosed by the Salafi and the Salafi encloses the Sufi. At least trying this — then the Prophetic Function — complete — not partial — shifts into a final, new phase.

I’d go so far as to say that, from a certain perspective, Islam is in fact not a complete religion unless we confront and relieve ourselves of the unconscious trauma of the Catastrophe.

Brother : Meaning what exactly? That everyone needs to come up with the same conclusions and view?

The Tailor : Not exactly, no. Continuing with the familial metaphor, I mean something like recognizing the trauma, albeit from within the perspective of our own journey, enunciated according our own individual books of deeds. I suppose at some point there is a coincidence of roles — or rather, a turning of face-to-face — but not an agreement (because agreement would be static and I am still talking about life here, which is by definition dynamic) — more like kissing I suppose. Kissing is not agreement, but it is a confrontation between parties, face-to-face, in Love. The diamond dialectic, through which we can locate the heart between the arms.

Perhaps we are not globally ready to overcome this. Maybe another few centuries? But for us elites … maybe the time is now?

Brother: Okay, go on then. You are going to talk about the Battle of the Camel and how it is relevant to our spiritual journey now, right?

The Tailor:
Right. And Aisha’s age is key to this understanding.

Yes, we are talking about the battle of the Camel — but also the tensions that lead up to it — particularly relations between the previous Caliphs and Ali that surface explicitly with the death of Prophecy — and are expounded upon in Ali’s sermons, but also revealed quite clearly in the Sunni hadiths as well.

You are correct that I am basically saying — we should find ourselves — locate the tendencies of our psyche — within the story and utilize it to find balance and perfection today, within (and once that impossible task is complete or at least underway, without).

This would mean of course that we would have to recognize the theomorphic “flaw” in Aisha, while understanding that Prophecy loved her, Prophecy passes into the next world in her arms, and that it is therefore through her archetype that we also must journey, because the divisions that follow do have a glorious culmination.

I could summarize things by saying that her “flaw” is that she is a “premature” emergence of Light into the Feminine. For me, Aisha is Shariah, basically. The wife as Medina, the wife as Law, the wife as the Deen, the wife that establishes the rule of the city state. She is betrothed as 6 years. This is how long it takes for Divine Law to descend to the Feminine (to us): Law must pass downwards through the binary logic of jihadic differentiated space (2 years, one for matyrdom and one for victory — (4:74)) and, because Law is to guide us, it takes another year to pass through the foundation of righteousness. Or rather, these three components are present inside her, but extend downwards, taking a year each. And then each of these three functions, in turn, becomes inscribed, spoken, revealed, transmitted, communicated to our textual reality as a veiled Wife. Another 3 years. So six in total.

She then is married to Prophetic becoming at 9. The additional 3 years are necessary for marriage to take place: Prophecy passes downwards to the jihadic differentiated space (2 years again) and through the foundation of righteousness (which now becomes the conduit through which the Masculine Prophecy faces the Feminine of Aisha the wife).

This is a “premature” — mistimed — Feminine because it is pure Divine Shariah encoded as a wife within our differentiated space. It would be mature had there been a further three years to allow … well, let’s call it Love (in the sense understood by the Sufis) … to also descend into our Feminine reality in a similar fashion.

Note that this is not to deny her righteousness, nor her elevation with respect to Prophecy. And her prematurity, her “pure” legal aspect is essential, in fact, to Prophecy after the hijrah and establishment of the city.

But once Prophecy departs (actually Prophecy never departs, but let’s call it occultation or withdrawal of light), Aisha’s role in the Battle of the Camel is also premature and mistimed, because pure Shariah now exists, situated, veiled from the Light of the Husband, back-to-back, in impetuous tragedy, against the Heart of the Imam.

Now, with respect to our situation, this kind of thing happens all the time, on the Islamic path — at least to me. Perhaps those of you who have been practicing particular brands Sufism since day one, this might not apply. But in my experience of “mainstream” Islamic practice, I know there have been key moments in my life when I have been a premature bride, maintaining a divine Shariah but, helpless and tragic when the light has departed, finding myself in direct opposition to the Imam Mubeen of my heart. Where I have become judicial but incomplete, without the light, momentarily opposed to breathing.

But the paradox is, Aisha and Fatima the wife of the Imam must come together, Law and Heart to be reconciled, for there to be the Light’s (visible) return to us.

Aisha herself comprehended heartbreakingly her own situation in this regard, just as those of us who have been betrothed at 6 and then lost the light comprehend:

‘A’isha reported that (one day) there sat together eleven women making an explicit promise amongst themselves that they would conceal nothing about their spouses.

The first one said: My husband is a sort of the meat of a lean camel placed at the top of a hill, which it is difficult to climb up, nor (the meat) is good enough that one finds in oneself the urge to take it away (from the top of that mountain).

The second one said: My husband (is so bad) that I am afraid I would not be able to describe his faults-both visible and invisible completely.

The third one said: My husband is a long-statured fellow (i. e. he lacks intelligence). If I give vent to my feelings about him, he would divorce me, and if I keep quiet I would be made to live in a state of suspense (neither completely abandoned by him nor entertained as wife).

The fourth one said: My husband is like the night of Tihama (the night of Hijaz and Mecca), neither too cold nor hot, neither there is any fear of him nor grief.

The fifth one said: My husband is (like) a leopard as he enters the house, and behaves like a lion when he gets out, and he does not ask about that which he leaves in the house.

The sixth one said: So far as my husband is concerned, he eats so much that nothing is left back and when he drinks he drinks that no drop is left behind. And when he lies down he wraps his body and does not touch me so that he may know my grief.

The seventh one said: My husband is heavy in spirit, having no brightness in him, impotent, suffering from all kinds of conceivable diseases, heaving such rough manners that he may break my head or wound my body, or may do both.

The eighth one said: My husband is as sweet as the sweet-smelling plant, and as soft as the softness of the hare.

The ninth one said: My husband is the master of a lofty building, long-statured, having heaps of ashes (at his door) and his house is near the meeting place and the inn.

The tenth one said: My husband is Malik, and how fine Malik is, much above appreciation and praise (of mine). He has many folds of his camel, more in number than the pastures for them. When they (the
camels) hear the sound of music they become sure that they are going to be slaughtered.

The eleventh one said: My husband is Abu Zara’. How fine Abu Zara’ is! He has suspended in my ears heavy ornaments and (fed me liberally) that my sinews and bones are covered with fat. So he made me happy. He
found me among the shepherds living in the side of the mountain, and he made me the owner of the horses, camels and lands and heaps of grain and he finds no fault with me. I sleep and get up in the morning (at my own sweet will) and drink to my heart’s content. The mother of Abu Zara’, how fine is the mother of Abu Zara’! Her bundles are heavily packed (or receptacles in her house are filled to the brim) and the house quite spacious. So far as the son of Abu Zara’ is concerned, his bed is as soft as a green palm-stick drawn forth from its bark, or like a sword drawn forth from its scabbard, and whom just an arm of a lamb is enough to satiate. So far as the daughter of Abu
Zara’ is concerned, how fine is the daughter of Abu Zara’, obedient to her father, obedient to her mother, wearing sufficient flesh and a source of jealousy for her co-wife. As for the slave-girl of Abu Zara’, how fine is she; she does not disclose our affairs to others (outside the four walls of the house). She does not remove our wheat, or provision, or take it forth, or squander it, but she preserves it faithfully (as a sacred trust). And she does not let the house fill with rubbish.

One day Abu Zara’ went out (of his house) when the milk was churned in the vessels, that he met a woman, having two children like leopards playing with her pomegranates (breasts) under her vest.

He divorced me (Umm Zara’) and married that woman (whom Abu Zara’) met on the way. I (Umm Zara’) later on married another person, a chief, who was an expert rider, and a fine archer: he bestowed upon me many gifts and gave me one pair of every kind of animal and said: Umm Zara’, make use of everything (you need) and send forth to your parents (but the fact) is that even if I combine all the gifts that he bestowed upon me, they stand no comparison to the least gift of Abu Zara’.

‘A’isha reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said to me: I am for you as Abu Zara’ was for Umm Zara’.

But she of nine years is with her Husband in paradise, though, like Umm Zara, she is transmuted into the 12th Feminine. May we dwell there too, though sufficient shelter is given for us by the Merciful agency of these texts.


6 thoughts on “Aisha’s marriage: a Sufi perspective

  1. Your very interesting and – as always – intriguing post prompted two distinct observations, which I’ll put in separate message.

    First on the Prophet’s marriage with ‘Aisha.

    If one contrasts this marriage with the Prophet’s first marriage with Khadijah, something quite interesting emerges. The marriage with Khadijah is strikingly ‘modern’ in many respects: it was monogamous, she was older, she was independently wealthy and a businesswoman, it was a match between equals, as much based on a deep empathic friendship as on romantic love. They were ‘soul mates’ – to use the New-agey phrase. And of course Khadijah was the mother of Fatima, who – like Mary to Christians – embodied and represents the sacred feminine in Islam.

    Yet in many ways the marriage with ‘Aisha – the child bride – exemplifies the typical pattern of Muslim marriage throughout the history of Islam. This is an arranged marriage in which a six year old child – who could have no real understanding of what it involved became a kind of property interest. There is a huge inequality of age, experience, status. ‘Aisha lives in purdah, having to share her husband with other wives: she has no occupation, no independent means, and – significantly – bears no children. She is jealous, vindictive and politics unwisely, and the Prophet has to defend her against scandal. “Beware the dogs of Haw’ab” is something he would never have had to say to Khadijah.

    It seems to me that many aspects of the sunna reflect the needs of humanity at different stages of evolution, and thus can’t be reconciled. His marriage with Khadijah modelled a form of relationship that wouldn’t really be possible to humanity for nearly a millennium and a half after his death. Whilst his marriage with ‘Aisha – the model of ‘Muslim marriage’ – represented a way of managing the huge imbalances that existed, and continued to exist, between men and women.

    One of the huge issues that I see contemporary Islam ‘in denial of’ is that the ‘marriage to ‘Aisha’ has passed its sell-by-date. ‘The West’ – onto which so much of the ‘shadow’ of Islam is projected – has made ‘the marriage to Khadijah’ a reality (and the ‘marriage to ‘Aisha is now only a kind of throwback for ageing rock stars and creepy lotharios).

    It is clearly something very hard to accept that there are aspects of the sunna – and indeed of the shari’a – that were intended to be jetisoned once humanity passed a certain stage.

  2. The other thing that struck me in this piece was about fitnah.

    Much depends here, I sense, on whether one sees the Prophetic Message as a call to Truth or the Truth itself. If the latter, then it is indeed a catastrophe: the Truth is revealed, but the community to which it is brought is divided against itself, and thus unable to bring about the victory of that Truth. That’s pretty much the attitude I see in Muslims today.

    But if one sees the Prophetic Message merely as a call to Truth, then it seems reasonable that there will be some dynamic connected with it that prevents people from taking it to be the Truth, and which spurs them on to seek Truth. That dynamic is fitnah.

    One can see something similar in the experience of falling in love. If that love was the state of perfect harmony and bliss it promises to be, it would indeed be a tragedy that it be so thwarted and challenged. But ‘the course of true love never does run smooth’, and the star-crossed lovers are the basis of every love story. “Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love and live happily ever after” isn’t much of a story. But, more significantly, it is not true to life either. In love there is always pain and separation, in direct proportion to the intensity of that love. Humanity is not allowed to find satisfaction and complacency in love, but – instead – love is the means by which they are stirred up, and churned up, to seek that of which the love for another is merely a taste, a token, a symbol.

    From this perspective, the Ummah had to be split, broken, its early leaders divided and sucked into an unseemly power struggle – the thing that seemed perfect had to be broken, so that there would be tension, abrasion, grief and the destruction of faith in human beings. Allah is the great destroyer, breaking all humanity’s attempts to create idols – however sublime the materials from which those idols are made. There is no Power or Glory except in God.

    1. Peace James,

      Thanks for both comments!

      Regarding your first comment: you have clearly studied the primary sources relating to Khadija’s and Aisha’s characters and your summary is reasonable.

      But your observation brings up a common (and perfectly valid) objection to the Prophetic trajectory: that he begins with mystical revelations of peace and love in Mecca and ends with revelations of law, warfare and punishment in Medina. I heard one apostate put like this: “Muhammed did have a Divine encounter, but did not have the ability or spiritual station to comprehend this, and so was corrupted into sometimes negative, culturally and historically specific behaviour”. The monogamous equal relationship with his first wife and polygamous, unequal relationships with the later wives could be seen as an aspect of that trajectory. From democratic mystical tawhid to tyrannical, transcendental father-figure law, so to speak.

      I would imagine this is not exactly your position on Prophecy itself, due to your training. But I can see you are not exactly a fan of that trajectory 🙂

      As a Muslim, I would like to see the hijrah as indeed one of a movement from the loving waters of the south to the fiery space of logical judgement in the north. The movement from monogamy to polygamy and, in particular, Khadija to Aisha, is very much part of this.

      However, I don’t see this in a negative sense: I view it as a form of physical completion and perfection. First Prophecy is crowned by love, then by judgement. (Just as Abraham was first crowned by Love and then, when being taken to the brink of judgement alongside his son in sacrifice, crowned by Judgement. The one crown over the other completes his Prophetic perception.)

      Regarding your second comment, I think you basically have it: the split in the ummah is necessary for dynamic unfolding of Truth (just like the fall from the garden was necessary). I think Prophecy understood this — so, unlike a certain form of populist Shiism — I don’t view him as being helplessly manipulated or deceived by particular political opportunists. Rather like Jacob in the Quran, he simply orders his family to pass through different gates.

      May the family will be reunited face-to-face, the body of Prophecy completed globally, some marvelous time hence!

  3. James, that is an interesting observation on Muhammad’s marriage. Do you mind if I duplicate it elsewhere with a link back to here?

    In getting acquainted with the Shariah, I think it has already provided the tools for flexibility, for example – there is the dictum that legal interpretation of laws which ignores the change of time, place or circumstances brings about hardship and impossibilities to people.

    Nevertheless, there seem to be that resistance to the aspect of change/good sense. “A coercive element”. In the documentary “A Jihad for Love”, a lady related she was married off somewhat early at twelve years of age and their physician telling her family her body was not fully developed yet for pregnancy. No one listened, she experienced very hard constant tummy pain throughout.

    “But if one sees the Prophetic Message merely as a call to Truth, then it seems reasonable that there will be some dynamic connected with it that prevents people from taking it to be the Truth, and which spurs them on to seek Truth. That dynamic is fitnah.”

    The poet Iqbal I think would agree, he mentioned, “In Islam prophecy reaches its perfection in discovering the need of its own abolition. This involves the keen perception that life cannot for ever be kept in leading strings; that, in order to achieve full self-consciousness, man must finally be thrown back on his own resources.”

  4. Musa, your last comments raise some very interesting questions, as always. But here is a thought. One way to look at the mystical journey is to see it as an emulation of this Prophetic ‘trajectory’. But I would suggest that it makes more sense to see it as an emulation of this trajectory backwards – from ‘Law’ to ‘Revelation’. If the nature of Prophecy is the externalisation of the internal – the formulation of principles of law and social governance from the inspirations of revelation – the nature of the Mystic Way is surely the reverse?

    1. Peace James,

      Ah yes, of course the reverse is important. I am sure it is significant that the Prophet Muhammed’s journey follows the Prophet Abraham’s korban — from Love to Logic/Law. Significant in that I would agree, in contrast, the journey for us mystical seekers must be from Logic to Love. But Prophecy at that Abrahamic station (the 7th level of the Mi’raj) appears to have the characteristic of going “down” into “Egypt”: an aquatic ability to dip into the Fire of Law and yet remain unscorched, so to speak (Genesis 12:10, and with Jacob the same in Acts 7:15).

      But the reverse journey is encountered by the Son: it has been said that, as the Son was a fully grown man by the time of the sacrifice, and therefore a party to the acceptance of it, Ismail/Issac begins within Logic/Law and is on the reverse (or contra-variant) trajectory into Love (through substitution with the goat). Father and Son swap crowns — or rather, crown each other in korban.

      I’m sure that somehow the seeker lies in korban in relation to that Prophetic station: hence our co-variant trajectories and their interrelationship … No?

      Love and Light,


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