Aisha was the youngest daughter of Abu Bekr, himself the chief advisor, the first disciple, and best friend of Muhammad — the Messenger of God. It was customary in those days, and still is today in Arabia, for a man of property and substance to have many wives. In offering his daughter to Muhammad, Abu Bekr was trying to solidify his ties with that great man, hoping an issue would spring forth to carry on the name of both Muhammad and Aisha. The Qoran allows a man to have up to four wives. Exceptions are made for exceptional men. All told, Muhammad had more than a dozen wives of different ages and of every type.
One wife, for example, Miriyam, was given to the Prophet by a prince of Egypt. She bore him a son whom they named Abrahim, but he died as an infant. In fact all of the sons sired by Muhammad died in their youth. He was rich with daughters. And wives. Aisha was his youngest wife, a mere prepubescent child, not yet a teenager, and his favorite. The time is the early 600s AD The former caravan merchant — his enemies liked to deride him as the camel driver — had founded a new religion called Islam. In Arabic, Islam means “submission. ” Submission to Allah.
Muhammad destroyed the pagan gods of the Bedouins, and taught his countrymen to worship one God. In Arabic, Allah means “the God. ” Muhammad single-handedly raised the Arabs to the religious level of the Jews and Christians, who similarly worshipped one God. After his death, Islam spread far and wide and was in its time the preserver of the highest culture, arts, and sciences in the civilized world. Are we not right in assuming that the God who spoke to Muhammad was the same as our God? Surely so. Muhammad was an imposing man. He was a mystic who went into trances, as did all the prophets in the Bible.
When he came out of those trances, he would utter the most beautiful poetry anyone in Arabia had ever heard. The poetry, which is recorded in the Moslem Holy Book, The Qoran, was all the more astounding in that Muhammad was not a literary man. He was the “unlettered prophet,” and some say that he neither knew how to read nor write. While this is doubtful, it is certain that he did not know how to write poetry. He was not a Reciter, as they called poets in Arabia who made a living reciting their poems in the houses of noblemen, much as Homer did among the ancient Greeks.
Muhammad must have been touched by divine inspiration to produce the exquisite phrases of The Qoran. He also was an active man skilled in leadership, business, politics, and even warfare. It is not difficult to see why men gave up their lives for him. He was charismatic in appearance as well. This is how he is described by one of his biographers: “Slightly above middle size, his figure, though spare, was handsome and commanding; the chest broad and open; the bones and framework large, and the joints well-knit together. His neck was broad and finely molded.
His head, unusually large, gave space for a broad and noble brow. The hair, thick, jet black and slightly curling, fell down over his ears. The eyebrows were arched and joined. His countenance was thin but ruddy. His large eyes, intensely black and piercing, received additional luster from long, dark eyelashes. The nose was high and slightly aquiline, but fine, and at the end attenuated. The teeth were set apart. A long, black, thick beard, reaching to the breast, added manliness and presence. His expression was pensive and contemplative. His faced beamed with intelligence. ”
Although his recitations were recorded by his secretaries in The Qoran, most of the personal details of his life were recorded by his friends in their reminiscences and journals. We owe to Aisha some of the most crucial details of how the Messenger of God lived and prayed. It was she who told us about the first vision that came to Muhammad during his customary retreat of fasting and contemplation in a cave in the hills. There appeared unto him the vision of the Archangel Gabriel who ordered Muhammad to recite. Muhammad was most frightened. What shall I recite? he asked. I don’t know how to recite.
I am not a man of letters. The archangel Gabriel was unmoved. “Recite,” he commanded. A shaken Muhammad went home, disbelieving in what he had heard. It could have been a dream, that’s all. But his first wife, Khadija, encouraged him to believe in his visions. Thereafter, Muhammad was called the Messenger of God, or the Prophet, or the Apostle. This encounter with the archangel was memorialized in the Qoran in the following passage: “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate Recite: In the name of thy Lord who created created Man of a blood-clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the Pen, aught Man that he knew not. ” Khadija, who was older than Muhammad and very rich, later died and left Muhammad all her wealth. No other woman ever competed for Muhammad’s devotion as she did. But she died before him, and a man must have sons as heirs. And so Muhammad later married many others. The account of this first vision comes to us not from Khadija, then, but by Aisha, who wrote: “Solitude became dear to him and he would go to a cave on Mount Hira to engage in meditation there for a number of nights before returning to his family. Then he would go home for a short time to procure for another stay….
Suddenly in the month of Ramadhan, a vision came to him. Unexpectedly the Truth came to him and said, ‘O Muhammad, thou art the Messenger of God. He had been standing in the cave, but he fell to his knees. ” It was Aisha who told us the particulars about Muhammad’s famous Night Journey to the Seventh Heaven. It is said that one night Muhammad mounted a fleet steed, Buraq, and rode from Medina to Jerusalem. Once he got there, on the Mount of the Rock — where Abraham is said to have offered his son Isaac in sacrifice to the Lord God, Yahweh — Muhammad ascended to Heaven and talked to the great prophets mentioned in the Old and New Testaments.
They must have had a delightful time of it, chatting about religion. Moses and Jesus were there, not at odds over the different religions that had been founded in their names, nor in the least bit discomfited by each other’s good company. When Muhammad descended from the Seventh Heaven, he returned to Medina on the back of the sturdy Buraq. The next morning, when Muhammad told his followers of his Night Journey, most of them praised the Messenger of God all the more for such a marvelous revelation. This is the only passage in the Qoran which describes a miracle, by the way.
The accounts of Jesus, in contrast, describe a host of miracles; Muhammad’s life was full of metaphysics and practical matters, all couched in soaring poetry, but no miracles. The Night Journey was scoffed at by some. How could anyone, even the Prophet, ride to Jerusalem in just one night? It takes a caravan at least a month to reach Jerusalem. No one had observed a horse leaving his stall at night, and no horses were in sweat. Aisha put the scoffers in their place. Her explanation is so simple and loving: “The Apostle’s body remained where it was in our chamber, but God removed his spirit by night. ”
We have no incontrovertible evidence as to the exact age of Aisha when she was betrothed to Muhammad, but by all accounts she was between 10 to 12 years old. For the first two years of their marriage, she lived at home with her parents. Then she went to live with the Apostle. Their marriage was consummated about the time Aisha was 14 years old. Muhammad was in his early fifties. As all the other of his 12 to 16 wives, Aisha occupied her own chamber in a courtyard ringed by several other rooms, each set apart from the other. Muhammad would visit each of his wives at night as so moved by his desire or whim.
He was a serial monogamist, therefore, one wife at a time. We might call him a modernist in this regard who was in step with the fashion of our day in even so fashionable a country as the United States of America. The only difference being that Muhammad was married to his wives all at one time, while in America custom dictates that husbands first be divorced and their wives driven off from the house before going on to the next consort. And sometimes, maybe most of the time, Muhammad would remain in his own quarters and sleep alone.
It is taxing on a man, even if he be the Messenger of God, to drain himself on so many women without occasional repose. The honor of being his favorite wife goes to Aisha. The reasons for it could not be owing to her skills in the art of love. The was a mere child. Nor could her favoritism be due to the profundity of her thoughts or the depth of her conversation. What does a child know of heaven or hell? Nevertheless, Muhammad went to her chamber more than any other. It is said that Aisha, unlike all the others wives and on account of her extreme youth no doubt, had no fear of the Prophet.
She would sit on his lap and tug his beard. Aisha dared to speak her naive mind with complete candor and sincerity. For this reason, Aisha lightened Muhammad’s heart — he who was preoccupied at every turn with high affairs of state and religion. She made him laugh. Muhammad himself in the recorded accounts of his life by those who knew him would comment that Aisha was God’s gift of gladness to an aging man. We might take the example of Muhammad and Aisha as a lesson. What is the essential attraction between man and woman that holds them together in love?
It cannot be mere like-mindedness. History is replete with accounts of like-minded couples who nonetheless fell out of favor with each other. Love cannot be explained by beauty or age (difference in age in Muhammad’s case) or social position or intelligence or any such ephemeral reasons. Is the secret love so simple that we cannot readily see it, save Aisha? Could it be that the secret of coexistence inheres in the ability of two parties to make each other laugh? Laughter springs from a sense of irony. And irony alone can soften the blows of outrageous fortune.
There is but one incident when the blissful relations between Muhammad and Aisha were threatened. And it was a severe test indeed. Arab custom makes is unlawful for a married woman to associate in any manner with another man except for her husband and father. Even the most innocuous meetings, wherein a married woman and a man not her husband merely talk to one another, is prohibited. The Arabs apparently are of such lusty nature that it is automatically assumed that if man and woman are together but for a moment, a sexual encounter is sure to result. The custom persists to this very day and is institutionalized in the Qoran itself.
In some backward areas of the world, in rural Pakistan for example, if a married woman is seen so much as conversing with another man not her husband, the woman’s father or her brother or her husband have the right to slay both of them. It has happened, and the murderers are not punished but set free. It came to pass that Aisha was on a caravan. During the journey home, she slept late and did not notice that the caravan had decamped without her. She waited at the oasis for help to arrive, which was sure to come after the people in the caravan discovered her absence.
While she was thus waiting, a young man appeared and offered to wait with her so as to give her his protection. When the search party from the caravan arrived, they found the two together talking. Aisha was taken to her camel and the young man was driven off and told to hide for his life. Rumors about the incident began to circulate as soon as the caravan reached Medina. People called for a disposition of the matter by Muhammad, upholder of the Faith. While there were no witnesses to the affair, and none could say, what actually happened save Aisha herself, the moral code demanded that a ruling be forthcoming and a punishment.
Muhammad’s other wives cackled at the rumors. They all resented Aisha’s popularity with the Prophet and were jealous of her influence over him. Even one so august as the Messenger of God had to go through the formal adjudication of this case. In hindsight, it is clear that he was not about to cast off Aisha, proving once again that he was a man of unusual understanding and prescience. Before her father and mother, Muhammad called upon Aisha to confess herself if she had done wrong, for God accepted the repentance of sinners.
In a flood of tears, the young girl insisted she had nothing to confess. Suddenly, Muhammad rolled his eyes and wobbled of foot. These were the unmistakable signs, as they had come to be recognized, that the Prophet was about to have a revelation from God. The roomful of people made way. Muhammad lay down and was covered with a cloak. A leather cushion was placed under his head. During the trance — it is not recorded how long it was, but it must have been appropriately long, long enough to receive a message from God — Muhammad sweat profusely.
At last, he woke up from the trance and made the announcement which was to seal Aisha’s fate. Aisha herself wrote his words. Muhammad mopped the sweat running down his face and said, “Good news, Aisha! God has sent down word that you are innocent. ” He then gave orders for the three men, who were chiefly responsible for circulating the scandal, each to be flogged with eighty lashes, one of them being the Apostle’s chief poet, Hassan ibn Thabit. Muhammad died of pneumonia in Mecca, where he had moved from Medina and reclaimed the city which held the House of God, holder of the Kaaba stone.
This is where Moslems of all nations are enjoined to go at least once in their lives in pilgrimage to fast and perambulate the rude enclosure that houses the Kaaba stone — an ancient iron meteorite which fell to earth near a well in Mecca. On his death bed, Muhammad was attended at his side by Aisha alone. She was the only one in his presence when he died. She had bore him no sons. The holy see of Islam fell into the hands of others, one of them being Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, husband of Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter from his very first marriage.
It bedevils me to no end when I consider that Muhammad left no male heirs, though he certainly had more opportunities to do so than anyone in history save perhaps the Sultans of Turkey. What ever could have possessed Allah to deny his Messenger a male heir? It would have been a small favor for God to accomplish. Whenever I try to get inside God’s mind, of course, I founder in my own paltry ignorance. As the Qoran says, and here God speaks in the first person: “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate By the night enshrouding and the day in splendor and That which created the male and the female, urely your striving is to diverse ends. As for him who gives and is god fearing and confirms the reward most fair, We shall surely ease him to the Easing. But as for him who is a miser, and self-sufficient, and cries lies to the reward most fair, We shall surely ease him to the Hardship: his wealth shall not avail him when he perishes. Surely upon Us rests the guidance, and to Us belong the Last and the First. ” So I say I am a Mussulman in spirit. My attitude is one of submission, not to any man but to Allah. I submit to the power of a Higher Being, though his ways I understand not.
I am reminded to rejoice even in suffering. I submit to His will and accept the things that life throws before me, good and bad alike. This is the essential message of all religions. We see it in the life of Moses, when God forbids him from crossing the River Jordan, thereby to enter the Land of Milk and Honey. We see it in the life of Jesus, who dies on the cross thinking that his Father has forsaken him. We see it in Muhammad in his lack of a son who outlives his father. We see it in small ways in our own lives. Should we not then take solace from the story of Aisha? Should we not imitate God and laugh?