Clarion Project runs a Facebook dialogue discussion group called Lets Talk About Islamism. That group has a a little over 5,000 members from around the world who engage in lively and spirited debate on issues relating to Islamism. The demography of the group is continually in flux as people come and go. Some very specific issues keep on returning.
These recurring arguments illustrate sticking points in the conversation about Islamism. There are very sharp divides in opinion and seemingly little willingness to see the other side and move forward. This is not because the people on either side are irrational or do not want resolution. It is because they have deeply held beliefs about the issue in question and see their position as the correct one.
I want to summarise those debates we keep getting stuck on. Broadening the conversation in this way may get us one step closer to resolving them. This debate is about Mohammed’s third wife, Aisha.
Note: To keep things interesting, I have used the names of historical figures whose actions played a role in relations between Islam and the West. Today’s fictional debate is between Rabia al-Adawiyya and Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Rabia al-Adawiyya was a 8th century Islamic saint and mystic. She lived a life of asceticism and piety and was greatly respected. Although she wrote no books, some poetry is attributed to her. She greatly influenced the development of Sufi Islam, particularly regarding divine love. Later Islamic feminists admire her.
Thomas Babington Macaulay was an early 19th century British historian and imperialist statesman. He oversaw the introduction of educational reforms in India during British rule, making English rather than Persian the official language. He later introduced a penal code. He was notorious for his strong view that Western culture was superior to Indian and Arabic culture, and that for Indians to be educated, they needed to be Westernized.
Rabia al-Adawiyya: Aisha was the third wife of the prophet. He loved her and treated her well and she loved him. Later on she was a successful power player in the Muslim community, even commanding an army at the battle of the Camel. Hardly the image of an abused and traumatized woman. Her marriage to him came at a time when women needed to get married a lot younger, both for economic and social reasons. People back then matured a lot faster than they do today. It’s ludicrous to hold up a modern standard of an appropriate age of marriage to that time, especially when you consider European aristocrats were marrying at a similar age hundreds of years after the time of Mohammed.
Thomas Babington Macaulay: Whichever way you slice it, the prophet of Islam married, and presumably had sex with, a nine year-old girl. If you want to say it was normal for his time, that’s OK. But don’t then turn around and say he was the perfect man and an example for all time, a man who never did anything wrong. There are genuine movements in the Muslim world today that marry nine-year olds on the basis of what the prophet did. If you want to say that the prophet was perfect, you’re essentially endorsing child rape.
Rabia al-Adawiyya: Wow, what an ugly thing to say about the prophet and a complete misreading of our tradition. Not all traditions agree that Aisha was nine when he consummated the marriage with her; some say she was 18 or 19. Others hold that even though she was nine, she had the physical and emotional maturity of a much older woman. She was his equal and played a pivotal role in spreading his teachings after his death. Regardless, most of the places that practice child marriage today do so for economic reasons and not because of religion. There is no reason to blame Islam for such an abhorrent practice.
Thomas Babington Macaulay: That is nonsensical. Your prophet married a child, and all of these arguments are just shoddy intellectual gymnastics. You’re starting from the conclusion that the prophet was perfect and working backwards to justify everything that he did.
Rabia al-Adawiyya: Why are you so fixated on taking the most hardline interpretation possible and insisting that all Muslims follow that standard? Islam is not a monolith. Who are you to tell Muslims how to interpret Islam? There is no reason to hold to an understanding that Aisha was nine as the only legitimate understanding. Nor does this quibble about her age necessitate throwing the whole religion out, which is a guiding source of morality for millions worldwide. Is it any more absurd than Christianity’s claim that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Or the Jewish understanding that Rebecca could have been three when she married Isaac?
Thomas Babington Macaulay: Don’t bring other religions into this. The Islamic sources themselves make these claims. If Mohammed was such a great guy, then why did he have sex with a nine-year old? I don’t see why this conversation has to be any more complicated than that one question, which you obviously can’t answer.