Last night, I had the honor of breaking my fast with a leading contemporary muhaddith, the Syrian scholar Salah al-Din al-Idlibi. At the time, I did not know his stature as a modern scholar of hadith, but left the evening truly impressed with his demeanor, impressive command of the sources and the objective tone to which he answered the numerous questions which were directed to him by his dinner companions. One of them was a recent convert who had a host of obscure questions related to theology and hadith, all of which he handled with extreme adeptness. One of the questions we discussed was the age of al-Sayyida Khadija when she married the Prophet (S). In a manner that I can only describe as iconoclastic, he explained why he thought it was extremely implausible that she was 40 when the Prophet (S) married her. He pointed out this report was based on a poorly-documented report (da’if), and that there were other reports that put her age in the much more plausible range of the mid-20’s which would have made her about the same age as the Prophet (S) at the time of their marriage. He justified his view based on the implausibility of a woman bearing six children, born separately, after the age of 40. This discussion offered me the opportunity to raise the problem of age generally for the first generation of Muslims, especially since the Arabs before Islam did not have a regular calendar, and the question of Aisha’s age. I mentioned that there was a hadith in Sahih Muslim which stated that she participated in the Battle of Uhud by tending to the wounded and bringing water to the soldiers. I said it seemed implausible that a girl of 10 could be doing these things, especially since we know that the Prophet (S) prohibited ‘Abdallah b. ‘Umar from participating in that battle, even though he was a teenager at the time. In any case, he mentioned to me that he had written a short essay on the question of ‘Aisha’s age and that he would send it to me in due course.
When I woke up this morning, I found that he had sent me, as promised, the short essay he had written on the issue. In it he concludes that based on all available historical reports, ‘Aisha was fourteen at the time her marriage was contracted to the Prophet (S) and that she did not begin her married life until she was eighteen. He concludes that the narration in Bukhari and Muslim in which she reports that her marriage was contracted at the age of six and the she entered the Prophet’s (S) house at 9 is in all probability a mistake (wahm) in transmission, perhaps from Aisha herself if she reported it in her old age. I found the analysis very considered and persuasive. For those interested, here is a link to the essay, which I reproduce with his gracious permission.