Screaming Across the Desert Sands

A'isha bint Abu Bakr al-Siddiq

The best of you are those who are best to their wives.
 - Tirmidhi


By any objective standard, adjudged by any completely disinterested scholar or researcher, the birth of Islam is infinitely richer in color, character, action, and adventure than that of Christianity. 

In fiery contrast to Christianity’s laconic beginnings (spun from the homilies of a pacifistic protégé of 1st Century CE mystic John the Baptist) Islam’s rise is alive with intrigues: assassinations, seductions, skirmishes and wars, kidnappings, political alliances with foreign powers, and the human passions. 

The story of Islam, for those open-minded enough to explore it as a purely historical narrative, is as riveting as anything found in the classic collection of fantasy tales, The 1,001 Nights (sometimes called The Arabian Nights).  And, much like The 1,001 Nights, Islam has its Scheherazade (the beautiful and cunning heroine who tells the Arabian stories). 

Islam’s Scheherazade, however, is a bit different from her fictional counterpart.  Scheherazade’s adventures were relegated to story-telling and being the concubine of a self-absorbed, sociopathic, misogynistic sultan.  She was an intelligent, educated, sexually aware young woman.  In direct contrast to the knowing Scheherazade, one of the most influential people to take center stage in Islam’s early history was not a woman at the time of her introduction to the story.Capture of Ayesha by AliCredit: F. Fikentsher, 19th century; public domain Instead, this heroine was only a 6-year-old girl.  What matured into the warrior woman of early Islam, A’isha, started her life as the spoiled child of a wealthy business man in ancient Mecca.

Muhammad’s Boss
In the culture of the Middle East, in what is now Saudi Arabia, historically the people were divided along familial lines of kinship and political alliances.  Tribes worshipped their own gods andMinaretCredit: stock image fetishes peculiar to the tribe. 

What many may find surprising today is that in this more primitive culture of superstition and mysticism was also a refined sense of commerce and cerebral pursuits.  Female infanticide was practiced if too many baby girls were born – the usual method of death was burial alive. However, for grown women (who survived to adulthood) their places in the early society before Islam (certainly still restrictive by Western standards) were actually less stifling in the old Arab world than today. 

In the old Arab cultures, women were very visible, and their contributions were significant.  Women with trade skills engaged in open commerce as men did.  They did not have to go about sheathed head-to-toe in restrictive and symbolically oppressive body coverings. They were not cloistered in the prison of a harem.  They were not denied education, they freely engaged in commercial transactions, and they successfully owned and operated their own businesses.  Women were treated about as close to equals of men as they would ever be again in that part of the world.

Trades, in limited cases sometimes divided along gender lines, were mostly open to both sexes.  Women with excellent artisan skills or cottage industries were allowed publicly to engage in commerce, interacting with men as social equals.  Many of these entrepreneurs became very successful, respected in their lines of work, and wealthy.  One such noble woman was a carpet seller named Khadija bint Khuwaylid (the syllable “bint” merely means “daughter of”). 

Khadija had been born into the merchant class of Arabian society in about 555 AD.  Her mother died in about 575 AD; her father died in 585 AD, whereupon Khadija inherited her father’s business interests and successfully preserved the family’s fortunes. Her business grew and her caravans were among the largest traversing the trade routes in the Middle East.

Khadija had been married and widowed by the time of her father’s death.  Despite her eligibility as a desirable potential wife, Khadija remained single, refusing to remarry.  The 30-year-old mogul had no time for another marriage. She had three girls in her household: Zaynab, Ruqayyah, and Umm Kulthum.  The parentage of these three remains in dispute to this day – it is believed by many that only Umm Kulthum was the product of Khadija’s first marriage, and the other two girls were adopted nieces (of her sister, Halah, upon Halah’s death).  It is equally likely that all three were of a union between her and her first husband.

As was typical of many merchants of her day, Khadija had agents (brokers) working on her behalf (she personally did not travel with her trade caravans).  These people were authorized to haggle, make shipments, accept payments, and conduct business remotely on her behalf.  In 595 CE she needed an agent for a transaction in Syria. 

Muhammad (interpret)Credit: stock imageA particular young tradesman had been brought to her attention, recommended by a member of her merchant class tribe. As it turned out, this man was a distant relative of Khadija’s deceased mother, so she took a chance upon the recommendation and hired him.   This tradesman had traveled to Syria and had engaged in commerce with other merchants shuttling goods between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean’s east coast.  His life up to the time of meeting Khadija was not one spent in luxury or ease. Although his clan was a noble one, it had little but its good name and was in a state of fiscal decline.  His father had died six months before he was born (circa 570 CE), and his mother, Amina, died when he was six.  He was raised by a grandfather; after the paterfamilias’ death in 578 CE, the 8-year-old boy was taken in by an uncle and other extended family.  He learned his trade skills in Mecca, a great financial center of the old Arab World and a crossroads of culture for Egypt, Persia, and other lands.  This young man’s name was Muhammad ibn Abdullah (“ibn” means “son of”).

Khadija enjoyed a good reputation as a seller of quality carpets; her new employee Muhammad quickly ingratiated himself to her.  He was well-regarded in his business dealings, and he was addressed by several honorifics among his uncle’s and Khadija’s clients such as “al-Amin” (“faithful, trustworthy”) and “al-Sadiq” (“truthful”).

The independence among Arab women of Khadija’s time was not uncommon, and she was sufficiently powerful to make her own marital match when she felt the time was right.  The man she selected as her husband, among the many Arab suitors who continually courted her, was her employee, Muhammad.  Though 15 years her junior, the 40-year-old Khadija sent her sister to Muhammad to ask him to marry her in 595.  He consented, and he continued to work for her, though sharing more equitably in her wealth and status.

Their lives were satisfactory in the manner of the day. This historic couple’s relationship unto itself is fascinating.  The older-woman/younger-man dynamic, the employer/employee relationship – all were skewed in Khadija’s favor.  She had assumed her dead husband’s assets as well as her dead father’s interests; she was wealthy and respected.  Muhammad was exceedingly devoted to her and, although polygamy was an accepted practice, he kept to her as his one and only wife until her death. 

Muhammad’s Madness
Each tribe or occupational group, such as the merchant class, adhered to the worship of specific pagan gods and idols.

The most politically and financially powerful of all the Meccan Arab tribes was the merchant class.  It was they who controlled the revered Ka’ba, a roughly cubical temple.  It is constructed of local granite, and it is roughly oriented along its east-west axis coincident with the Sun’s positions during the Summer and Winter Solstices.  Its north-south axis specifically centers on the star Canopus as viewed at its southern exposure.  The Ka’ba housed an amazing 360 idol statues of tribal patron deities, icons of the preferred gods of Arab culture. Ka'ba & The Black StoneCredit: public domain & wiki commonsInserted into the wall as a cornerstone at the southeastern corner of this strange structure is a revered pagan object, The Black Stone.  The Black Stone was affixed to the Ka’ba’s exterior in 605 CE.  The stone itself was worshipped as a symbol of the totemic godheads housed within the Ka’ba, and it was also the touchstone of Meccan daily ritual life.  The Black Stone is just that – an amorphous hunk of dark basalt, natural glass, agate, obsidian, or possibly a chunk of meteorite.  What it is will probably never be known for sure because it is off-limits to scientific inquiry.  The stone had been broken up and defaced many times in attempts to destroy it centuries ago; currently, its several fragments are mortared together, pinned with silver, and surrounded by a silver cowl reminiscent of a horse collar.  Although it can be accessed it is closely watched; since only Muslims may enter Mecca these days and approach the Ka’ba, it is unlikely that an impartial non-Muslim researcher will ever get the chance to test it for its composition or origins.

Muhammad was an introspective and meditative man.  His wife Khadija practiced no form of religion, though the Arabs were polytheists.  Muhammad was also a sensitive and caring man (as is evidenced by his monogamy at a time when he could have been with several other women), wholeheartedly devoted to Khadija (an adoration and reverence he carried with him for the rest of his life).

He also loved the daughters Khadija brought to the marriage, and he referred to them as “his” daughters, accepting responsibility and parenting for them. Early in their marriage Khadija gave birth to a male child, Qasim (ca 603-604 CE), fathered by Muhammad.  The boy died, however, before his second birthday in 605 CE.  Later, Khadija gave birth to a baby girl they named Fatimah (either in 605 CE or 615 CE – sources differ).  Muhammad doted upon his baby daughter.  Another son, Abd-Allah, was born but died in childhood by 615 CE.

Muhammad’s clan belonged to the same group who controlled the Ka’ba, and he practiced his religion as he was raised.  Though illiterate (unable to even sign his name to documents, he used a drawn crescent moon as his “mark”) he was nonetheless well-versed in the traditions of Judaism (a large Jewish community lived in Medina to the north) as well as being familiar with Christianity (and Christians freely moved among these early pagan Arabs unmolested).  For a month annually he retired to the Cave of Hira near Mecca for long periods of meditation and contemplation.  Muhammad’s life of meditative leisure could not have been possible without Khadija’s wealth and indulgence; it is not recorded what she thought of her younger husband’s extended absences, but she tolerated his forays into isolation. Cave of hira (where Muhammad received revelation from Gabriel)Credit: image from 1307 CE; wiki commonsMuhammad was given to “fits” (epilepsy), his brain overly stimulated, flooded by a neuro-electrical storm that left him fatigued and sometimes addled.  His condition also made him an enigma to the superstitious Arabs.  In 610 AD (at the age of 40) while on one of his sojourns into the wilderness, Muhammad had a vision.  The archangel Gabriel allegedly appeared to Muhammad in a cave.  Gabriel then relayed revelatory and occult information to Muhammad to then impart unto the masses.  The key elements of the revelations from Gabriel were simply that there was only one god, not a supreme god over all others but only one god named “al-Lah”.  Furthermore, it was ordained that humanity should willingly submit to the will of al-Lah.  The name “Islam”, meaning “surrender”, was coined for the new theology Muhammad had dreamed. Adherents to the new way were called Muslims.

In the wake of his “revelations”, Muhammad returned to Mecca and declared himself a prophet.  He further stated that he was the last in a long line of prophets that included Abraham, Moses, and the Jew, Jesus. He was threatened by the dominant merchant tribes as a subversive.  He was, after all, calling for a radical change in their lives and their livelihoods – the Ka’ba was a primary target of Muhammad’s ire as a symbol for the heresy of believing in multiple gods.  Muhammad’s new religion was very practical (only having five simple requirements to properly practice and be accepted, needing no fixed place for worship, nor having a bloated hierarchy of clergy).  It attracted many followers quickly (and even today, Islam is the fastest growing of the world’s major religions).

His wife Khadija was Muhammad’s first convert, not a difficult task as she had no religious preference.  A close  friend of Muhammad’s, a wealthy and influential cloth merchant named Abu Bakr became Islam’s first influential Believer outside Muhammad’s family.

Abu Bakr (573 CE - 634 CE) had been on a business trip in Yemen when Muhammad had his vision of a new way.  Upon his return he learned of Muhammad’s declaration of his own prophethood, and though skeptical at first, he soon embraced Islam.

This was a powerful ally for Muhammad; Abu Bakr’s wealth and influence were welcome resources.  A ten-year-old cousin of Muhammad’s named Ali ibn Abi Talib (who would be his future son-in-law after marrying Fatimah), and Zaid (a boy Muhammad had adopted as his son) along with the enthusiastic convert Abu Bakr were instrumental in gaining converts with their zeal. Islam’s appeal to the masses, as the movement grew, was simply that anyone could belong as long as they followed the revelatory teachings.  Thus, Islam was able to cross tribal and class lines, a first step toward unifying a very fractious people, the Arabs (at the time, nomadic and continually warring with each other).

Khadija had squandered much of her fortune in aiding persecuted slaves who had converted to Islam, supporting her husband, and in providing financial support for the umma. After 24 years of marriage disaster struck Muhammad’s household when his beloved Khadija died at age 64 in 619 CE.  The loss of this woman for him meant many things, not the least of which was his creature comforts.   But he also exalted her – after she died he placed her in the rank of what he then called The Four Perfect Women: Miriam (the sister of Moses); Mary of Nazareth (the mother of Jesus); Fatimah (his favorite daughter).  Khadija, to Muhammad, was venerable in this way.

To ease his household woes, having his three daughters to tend, he married a widow named Sawdah bint Zam‘a the same year Khadija died.  Sawdah had great skill as a leather worker, and her saddlebags and leather riding tack were prized.  Her efforts helped finance the household, and she also acted as a mother for her three stepdaughters.  This was strictly a marriage of convenience for both parties, but Muhammad apparently cared enough for her to ensure her creature comforts were met, and he treated her kindly.

Muhammad’s Baby Bride
Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s closest friend and ally in Islam) continued his financial and moral support of both Muhammad and Islam. He was described as a man with fair skin, thin, emaciated, with a sparse beard, a slightly hunched frame, sunken eyes and protruding forehead, and “the bases of his fingers were hairless” (the relevance of this last condition is unknown, but probably admits to some lack of masculinity or heroic prowess).

His place in Meccan society as a young man was of the nobility – he was literate and fond of poetry.  He attended and participated in poetical symposia. His memory was nearly perfect, retaining convoluted and lengthy genealogies of the Arab tribes.  He also kept an oral tradition of the stories of the Arab people and of their political history.

Abu Bakr was a true zealot. His wife, Alia, refused to convert to Islam; he divorced her. His other wives converted.  All of his children but one (a recalcitrant son) accepted Islam; Abu Bakr broke all familial ties to this wayward boy.

Abu lived in a polygamous household – his second sister-wife, an arresting woman named Um Ruman with a flame-red crown of hair, had given birth to a baby girl in 612 CE, just two years after Muhammad’s revelations.  This girl was named “A’isha” (“Life”), and unlike the normally dark-haired, dark-eyed Arabs, she had murky green eyes and red hair.  This hair color caused her to be perceived as special or otherwise extraordinarily blessed.  [It is unclear if A’isha’s hair was a bright, carroty red, or more of a deep auburn or simply had reddish highlights – all that is ever written is that it was “red”.  There are no contemporary images of her, so specifics are unknown.]  In a household of many children, A’isha was a stand-out – she was mischievous, rambunctious, and independent.  Her father let her run amok; only her mother spent much time trying to tame the little firebrand.

Muhammad, as a close friend of Abu Bakr, watched A’isha from birth.  At the time she was born the Arab community felt there were too many girls born recently, and Abu Bakr had to be discouraged from burying the new arrival alive as was customary.  Muhammad’s rhetorical query at the time: “Are not girls also the creation of al-Lah?”

Child with KoranA’isha grew up thinking of Muhammad as a kindly uncle, an old man who brought her sweets occasionally and was not too grown up to play with her with her dolls or her play wooden sword.  However, the familiarity between the two took an interesting turn when Abu Bakr offered her up to Muhammad as a wife.  His reasoning was simple: Muhammad’s young cousin, Ali (age 19), was planning to marry Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah (age 14), soon.  Abu felt he could secure his place as the one and only First Companion to the Prophet (over Ali) as the father-in-law to Muhammad, despite the fact this “father-in-law” was three years younger than the groom!

A’isha was six years old when this arrangement was made – Abu Bakr considered marrying his household into that of the Prophet of God a major coup.  Muhammad, no doubt, recognized the societal, political, and power advantage of being aligned with Abu’s noble house. Thus, in 619 CE (the same year Muhammad married the widow Sawdah bint Zam‘a), the six-year-old A’isha was surprised by a betrothal to her 49-year-old “uncle”, the Prophet Muhammad.

Many anti-Islamic bigots use Muhammad’s marriage to the girl A’isha as a rationale for their hatred of Islam.  To their tiny minds (and this particular attack usually comes from “Christian” fundamentalists) Muhammad was a pedophile, a child molester.  What only historians or the inquisitive would learn is that Muhammad agonized over the decision to marry this girl, and he did not make it lightly. [He felt the same shame Edgar Allan Poe did when marrying his 13-year-old child bride, Virginia].

Muhammad, even by the more barbaric social norms of the day, knew he could not be perceived as a cruel, lecherous old man, involving himself with such a young girl publicly.  To allay any sense of impropriety, Muhammad left A’isha in the care of Abu Bakr for the next three years.  This meant, however, that she lived in a state of “purdah”, a virtual recluse, confined to Abu Bakr’s houses and compound, never going out in public and not to be looked upon by any man other than her husband or her male relatives (this cloistering was coming into vogue at the time).

Purdah (interpret)
A’isha’s Place
The ruling tribes of Mecca, however, were increasingly threatened by Muhammad’s brand of monotheism.  It undermined the authority of their gods by assuming this new al-Lah was somehow more powerful.  These tribes, led by several more mercenary influential Arabs, persecuted the growing Muslim faction in Mecca. Muhammad’s belonging to the Banu Hashim clan protected him from bodily harm (the tribe was too well-respected for an all-out assault on his person – a vendetta would have resulted). Mostly, he was ridiculed and insulted publicly.Mecca-Medina, Saudi Peninsula (detail map)Credit: American People's Encyclopedia map, 1963

Most of his followers, however, did not enjoy the strong protection of his family’s connections.  As the persecutions became more violent, Muhammad urged many of his followers to seek refuge in Abyssinia (Ethiopia today) in 615. This group of exiles lived under the protection of a Christian emperor.  Muhammad and many others sought refuge in nearby Ta’if, but they were stoned by the people there and driven out.  The disheartened group returned to Mecca.  On July 16, 622 CE, unable to withstand the daily assaults on the umma (the collective name for the group of Muslim Believers) and yet another assassination attempt on his life, Muhammad packed up his household; he and Khadija and the remaining Meccan Muslims fled to Medina.

This exodus marks the beginning of the Islamic Calendar and is called the Hijra.  Muhammad and the remains of the Meccan umma settled in with the agrarian Jews and other recently converted Muslims of Medina (about 200 miles north of Mecca).

Mecca was a financial center, bustling with culture and refinement.  In contrast, Medina was a nasty backwater, fly filled and with nothing more than mud-brick huts for shelter.  Mecca’s climate had been arid; Medina was damp and cloying, and the health of many of the immigrants was affected early.  Most of them fell sick upon setting up house in the village.  Abu Bakr suffered from a fever for several days after first setting foot in the pestilent place.

Muhammad occupied a compound with Sawdah, his elderly wife.  A’isha’s maturation meant she was released from her purdah in her father’s house, and was ensconced in Muhammad’s compound.  She was 9 years old.  Muhammad continued to treat her as a child, playing games with her.  Soon enough A’isha had her first menstruation (about age 11).  By tradition, this was the time when a man might morally engage in sexual activity with a woman.   A’isha, however, was far from womanly in her thinking and maturity, and Muhammad waited (until she was 15) before consummating his marriage to this girl. 

A’isha’s immaturity expressed itself in many ways, but early in their marriage Muhammad made it abundantly clear we would hear no aspersions about his adored, dead wife Khadija.  He had mentioned Khadija in her presence; the bratty A’isha snorted that Khadija had been nothing but an “old lady” and “al-Lah replaced her with a better one for you”.  Muhammad gently but firmly corrected her: “Indeed, al-Lah did not grant me better than her; she accepted me when people rejected me, she believed in me when people doubted me, she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me, and al-Lah granted me children only through her.”  After that, A’isha learned to never sully or disparage Khadija’s name in his presence again.

After taking up residence in exile in Medina among the Arab Jews, Muhammad settled into a routine of skirmishing, attended by the occasional revelation from al-Lah.  He taught A’isha  how to use a sword so that she could defend herself if necessary.  A’isha enjoyed the sword play and longed for the days when she could go with her husband and his Muslim warriors in battle against the assaults of the Meccan polytheists. Small armies continually trekked from Mecca across the desert sands to try to wipe out Muhammad and his believers from the face of Arab society.  The umma’s warring actions at the time were purely defensive – it was only much later that the violence associated with the forced spread of Islam in the Middle East came into play.

A’isha often accompanied Muhammad onto the field of battle, but as a child her role was not that of warrior woman but of water bearer and wound tender.  The Muslim women in general, however, if able-bodied and strong, did not hesitate to fight hand-to-hand; many of them earned great respect for their prowess on the battle field (one particularly ferocious famous Islāmic warrior woman was named Umm ’Umara, described in battle while flailing and hacking enemies down with her sword as “fearsome and snarling and covered in dirt and blood”).

During the eight years before the final Muslim victory in Mecca, Muhammad took more wives.  A’isha had wanted to be the number one wife in the harem (even over Sawdah, who really cared little for the position) but each new wife he brought in threatened her power in the household.  Muhammad reached the four-wife limit his own “law” allowed him.  A’isha pointed out that he was breaking religious law when he contracted to take a fifth wife (another widow, but this one highly regarded as sexually desirable and beautiful and connected to a powerful Bedouin family).  The jealous girl watched as Muhammad flopped down in a seizure, typical of his revelatory convulsions; when he “came to” he reported to A’isha that al-Lah had revealed to him it was alright for the Prophet to have more wives than the four prescribed (he ultimately had nine wives and three concubines).

Each woman had her own brick hut of unfired, dried mud, roughly 15’ x 12’. The roofs were palm thatch.  Each hut had its own small back yard.  Muhammad took turns conjugally visiting his wives, and it was understood that the time with each was to be solely dedicated to that woman.  A’isha, who had yet to have sex with her husband (and he did not deflower her until she was 15 years old), often played pranks on him and whatever wife he was promised to for the night, creating distractions enough to exasperate him. A'isha (interpret)Credit: stock imageUnfortunately, the needs of Islam’s enemies to harm the umma in any way led to the oppressive practice of covering a woman’s body head-to-toe. Since the harem of any household generally went to market together, the women of a given household were easily recognized.  Because of that recognition, many enemies of Islam took those opportunities to brutalize the women, insulting them, assaulting them, or kidnapping them (since the husbands were inaccessible, hurting a wife was the next best thing).

Some of Muhammad’s advisers recommended the covering of the women’s body’s, not so much as a paean to extreme modesty, but as a disguise.  He was against this practice from the start; A’isha was particularly vocal in her detestation of the clothing requirements.  Eventually, he caved in to the pressure of his associates, and his harem was likewise cloaked.  This tradition (born of a need for personal security for wives of Islāmic men) unfortunately was subverted into the oppression of the chador, the covering of the female body beyond reason.

Islam, meanwhile, spread rapidly, but it was not embraced everywhere.  The powerful polytheists of Mecca still persecuted all Believers who fell in their path.  Muhammad’s belief in the “rightness” of Islam fomented a conversion zeal.  He naïvely sent a contingent of Muslims to Constantinople to invite the Byzantine Emperor and his kingdom to join the fold of Islam.  The Catholic emperor and his court literally laughed the Islāmic emissary and his party out of town. 

Muhammad was illiterate; his revelations and teachings were recorded by his followers, at least those with enough literacy to understand and document what he said.  These disconnected writings (after Muhammad’s death) were codified and canonized into the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam.  In the meantime, however, teachings propagated rapidly by word of mouth.  He preached many social reforms among the Believers.  One of them concerned polygamy.  He had but one wife, the adored Khadija, when he set forth a stricture that no man in Islam may have more than four wives.  Other prohibitions included food restrictions; though himself largely keeping to a vegetarian diet, Muhammad allowed the regular regimen of meats as prescribed in Jewish kosher guidelines.  Alcohol and other mind-altering substances (such as hashish) were prohibited. 

He continued reciting his revelations as they occurred.  Many people noted his seizures from which he would emerge with yet another revelation or message. Muhammad claimed, “Sometimes it is (revealed) like the ringing of a bell.” [An auditory hallucination.]  A’isha once said, “I saw the Prophet being inspired Divinely on a very cold day and noticed the sweat dropping from his forehead (as the Inspiration was over).” [Such seizures certainly would have been perceived by the ignorant Arabs as evidence of the supernatural origin of Muhammad’s religious mutterings.]

Muhammad’s Last Stand
In 630 CE, after eight years of fighting, Muhammad led 10,000 Muslims to Mecca.  With very few casualties, Muhammad and his Muslim army took control of Mecca.  He was surprisingly benevolent toward his vanquished enemies – he declared a general amnesty for past offences (holding a grudge, nonetheless, against ten men and women who had satirized and ridiculed him in songs and verses). Upon certain pain of death, almost all Meccans converted to Islam.  Muhammad finally seized the Ka’ba, and ordered all of its warehoused idols destroyed.

The triumphant Muhammad returned to Medina and his domestic life.  By this time, most of the Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam.  The fractious tribes had been unified into a single Muslim body politic. In early 632 CE, he and many Muslims traveled to Mecca for the prescribed Islāmic pilgrimage, the first time this journey was made in a unified Islāmic world. 

He preached to the masses at the foot of Mount Arafat (east of Mecca). The message was extremely modern in its scope (but, unfortunately, much of its equanimity has been abandoned).  Muslims were urged not to return to the earlier traditions of idolatry.  He expressed that all people were equal, that no Arab was greater than a non-Arab, and no white person was greater than any person of color except by the quality of their piety and good deeds.  He vacated all tribal blood feuds and disputes

One of his most enlightened commentaries concerned women in Islāmic society.  While far from promoting true equality, Muhammad did encourage his male followers:

“Be good to women; for they are powerless captives (awan) in your households. You took them in God’s trust, and legitimated your sexual relations with the Word of God, so come to your senses people, and hear my words . . .”

Strangely, he also preached a husband was entitled to discipline his wives but that such discipline should be exacted with kindness.

Muhammad then worshipped at the Ka’ba, and returned home to Medina.  Within a few months of his return from what would become known as “The Farewell Pilgrimage” the 62-year-old prophet took ill.  He was feverish and delirious and suffered for several days with head pain and weakness.  He recovered, then relapsed.  With the permission of the whole harem he requested that he be placed in A’isha’s hut to weather his illness.  She tended him to the best of her ability, but the 19-year-old girl could not do much. 

Though desiring to lead Friday services, Muhammad sent for Abu Bakr to lead the prayers instead.  His last public act, shaky and wearing a bandage or poultice around his head, was to attend those services in the makeshift mosque near his compound (a tree stump served as a slightly raised speaking platform).  After Abu Bakr’s sermon, Muhammad heard disputes, talked to the gathered throng, then retired, drained, to A’isha’s hut.

On Monday, June 8, 632, he died (though not certain, his symptoms are indicative of pleurisy as a cause of death).  He was with A’isha in her hut at the time.  He ordered A’isha to bring his sword (bequeathed to him by his father in his will).  The sword was bejeweled and finely crafted – Muhammad had named it al-Ma’thur (“The Legacy”).  He turned the sword over to her.  He then allegedly directed her to dispose of his worldly possessions: seven coins.  [Six months later, his aggrieved daughter Fatimah also died, roughly at the age of 27.]

What Muhammad really left behind was a succession crisis in Islam that was the source for a bloody schism that exists to this day, a crisis that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands to date.

Abu Bakr’s Accession
Upon his death in A’isha’s hut, the umma was in an immediate state of chaos.  Although the attacks from Mecca had been crushed and the country unified more or less under one religion there was no clear leader of Islam when Muhammad breathed his last.

He had no genetic male heirs.  He had an adopted son named Zaid (a former slave), dead by then.  His son-in-law, Ali, in fact, was the second convert to Islam after Muhammad’s wife Khadija.   Unlike Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s son-in-law was a blood relative (a distant cousin); therefore, Ali was connected by a familial tie Abu Bakr did not have.  Abu Bakr, however, had been the most influential and critically important of the early converts (tradition holds that he was the first convert outside Muhammad’s family – Muslim scholars, however, maintain that there were perhaps as many as forty men and ten women who had converted before Abu Bakr).

Regardless of competing claims, Abu Bakr was easily one of the single most important influences on the acceptance and spread of Islam in its earliest years after Muhammad’s revelations.  He was devout to the point of fanaticism, and while extremists are to be shunned under any circumstances, Abu’s enthusiasm and influence as a rich merchant is what fomented the rapid growth of the new religion.

Abu Bakr’s weapon for securing the first Islāmic caliphate was a mighty one: his daughter A’isha had been married to the Prophet himself.  Ali, however, was merely married to the Prophet’s daughter, Fatimah (and sired grandsons for Muhammad with her).  This argument favored Abu Bakr – his daughter shared a conjugal bond with Muhammad.  That bond, and the privilege of the marital connection, superseded any other claims.

A’isha personally did not care for Ali, nor he for her.  A “revelation” of Muhammad’s some time before he died prohibited any of his wives or concubines from ever marrying again after his death.  Thus, the harem was at the mercy of whatever protector showed himself – Ali, likely, would have turned all of Muhammad’s women out or (apathetically) allowed them to live in Muhammad’s compound with little to sustain them. 

On Muhammad’s last day in the mosque he had specifically requested that Abu Bakr lead the prayers, a very public snubbing of his son-in-law Ali, and an implicit message that Muhammad had “selected” Abu Bakr as his successor to lead Islam when he died. A’isha knew her father would provide for Muhammad’s widows, including herself.

A’isha immediately took the political offensive on behalf of her father’s succession.  She was the hatun (“Great Lady”)  regarded as the primary wife in the harem, and Muhammad, despite his chiding of her occasionally, held her in favored status among all his wives and concubines.  She was very powerful at the time of his death – the fact that he died in her hut meant much.  It was decided by Ali to forego a public burial in the local cemetery as the issue of succession would clearly favor Abu Bakr (who would, by default, lead the service, thus securing his claim as successor).  Instead, Ali and another follower buried Muhammad quietly in the dirt floor of A’isha’s hut, placing her bed over the grave. A'isha's house & graves (floor plan)Credit: islamiclandmarks.comHer position in Islam was secured beyond doubt.  She had been the favored wife; her husband’s body lay beneath her bed, not anywhere else.  Her father was the natural choice for leadership. [This succession crisis would almost certainly have been averted had Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, still been alive.  His deference to (and adoration of) her, as well as her esteemed place within the umma, would have almost certainly assured her claim as his successor.  Muhammad had no restrictions on women’s participation in the mosque, and their input was expected and welcomed.  The segregation and exclusion of women in the temples came much later.  With Khadija as his likely successor history would have been written very differently.]

Supporters of Ali’s blood claim (today known as Shi’a or Shi’ites), however, agitated early for his consideration as leader.  A’isha heard none of this; publicly the teenager made it abundantly clear that her husband had wanted Abu Bakr to succeed him. 

A’isha’s Widowhood
She supported every method of maneuvering to insure her father was selected as the heir to Muhammad’s Islāmic power, even claiming Muhammad had said, “It does not behoove a people who have Abu Bakr among them to have anybody other than him as their imam.”

Abu Bakr assumed the role of First Caliph on June 8, 632 CE, late on the same day Muhammad died, and supporters of his claim as the heir to Muhammad’s legacy are today known as Sunni Muslims.  Abu’s accession represented the culmination of almost 23 years of loyalty to Islam and Muhammad, fighting for the cause, and sacrificing much in the process.  Abu (in at least 30 known incidents) had fought beside Muhammad in many of Islam’s early defensive campaigns. [Most important among these include the Battle of Uhud, the Invasion of Banu Qurayza, Battle of Khaybar, the Conquest of Mecca, the Battle of Hunayn, and the Siege of Ta’if.  Of interest within these skirmishes is the Battle of the Trench (so named because, for defense, the besieged Muslims threw up a tremendous earthwork, a ditch with a rampart facing the onslaught, unheard of at the time).  He also financed the Battle of Tabuk giving up most of his wealth to provision that expedition.]

A’isha, meanwhile, as her father assumed the caliphate over all Islam, went about her business in the harem.  She was now widowed (as were the other legitimate wives). Because of her intimacy with Muhammad, and her genuine embracing of Islam, she had absorbed much religious knowledge.  She memorized all the sayings and scriptures that would later form the Qur’an.  She also aided in documenting and preserving the details of Islam’s rise, and included the private and public life of Muhammad as part of the canon when she narrated, over the rest of her life, over two thousand hadith (sayings and traditions). Her scholarship was sought and respected.

Muhammad was considered the last of all prophets; Abu Bakr’s position as First Caliph was purely political and liturgical.  He did not presume to present new revelations from al-Lah – only Muhammad had that gift.  Abu, instead, focused on spreading Islam and quashing dissent in the ranks of the umma. He also had to repulse Ali’s continued discontent about not being Muhammad’s chosen successor.

His caliphate lasted only 27 months before he died of an illness on August 23, 634 CE.  During his reign he launched invasions of the two most powerful empires of the time (the Sassanid Empire and the Byzantine Empire), a remarkable achievement in its own right. These forays set the stage for a conquest within a few decades that led to one of the largest empires in history.

A’isha again was embroiled in a succession war – her loathing of Ali had increased and she aggressively lobbied for another close friend of both Muhammad’s and Abu Bakr’s to become Second Caliph.  This man was a fierce warrior named Umar ibn al-Khattab (father of A’isha’s sister-wife, Hafsah).  He had been sent by a rival faction to assassinate Muhammad in Mecca years before.  Instead, he came away a convert to Islam.   With Umar safely carrying on the traditions and reform policies of Abu Bakr, A’isha spent her time mostly in religious scholarship and teaching. She was consulted by the umma because of her extensive understanding of the Qur’an, Islāmic jurisprudence, Islāmic teachings, and its traditions. She had learned caring for the poor and sick from one of Muhammad’s later wives (a woman who died before Muhammad), and A’isha embraced her role as an educator.  She also took in orphaned children, seeing to their material needs, and raising them in the religion of Islam.  Islamic scholars and took custody of children – some orphans – to raise them in Islam.

Antique KoranCredit: newmuslims.infoHer scholastic leanings meant she, along with Hafsah and Umm Salamah (two of Muhammad’s other widows) memorized the Qur’an.  A’isha and Hafsah both had their own complete scripts of texts written after Muhammad died.  Although the oppressive veiling and seclusion of women had taken root in Islam, she spent much energy trying to revitalize the older Arab tradition of including women in leadership and commercially important roles.

She was a valued adviser to the first three caliphs: her father, Umar, and Uthman (another early convert and warrior). By this time in Islam women were not part of public life as they once were.  Despite that, A’isha was a respected public speaker, helping men and women alike to understand Muhammad’s teachings and practices. 

Uthman’s reign as Third Caliph proved to be disappointing to A’isha (though she had staunchly supported his accession over the hated Ali).  Uthman’s policies and interpretations of Islam did not marry closely to what she believed Muhammad had preached.  Thus, Uthman lost the full political and moral support of this fiery young woman.

Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr (A’isha’s half-brother) was given governorship over Islam in Egypt.  One of his subjects was a man vehemently opposed to Uthman named Muhammad ibn Abi Hudhaifah.  Through a very convoluted network of malcontents, this man created a situation that resulted in Uthman’s household being cut off from food and water.  He also fomented discontent in the umma itself by  circulating a forged letter (purportedly from A’isha) in which she called for Uthman’s death.  

A’isha’s Wars
A’isha, still living in Medina, prepared for her annual pilgrimage to Mecca as this plot unfolded.  She denounced the fake letter calling for Uthman’s murder. She also reported she would not urge the killing of anyone. 

In Medina, Uthman learned that although A’isha still did not wholeheartedly support him she was likewise not coming with a death squad any time soon to kill him.  She made a stand in town; she denounced the plot against Uthman.  The people, however, still grumbled. Uthman, realizing the palliative effect she had on the Muslims of Medina, begged her not to leave for her pilgrimage to Mecca.  She shrugged him off and went anyway.

In her absence in 655 CE, conspirators broke into Uthman’s Medina home.  One of the rebel team was A’isha’s half-brother Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr.  The Third Caliph was murdered, and his wife (Nailah) made it known that of the group it was A’isha’s half-brother who had murdered her husband.  There were claims that Ali (the Prophet’s son-in-law, long overlooked for leadership) had been involved in the plot.  To add credence to this claim, Ali immediately seized power, making himself the Fourth Caliph.

A’isha, a mature woman of 33, received word of the assassination while en route to Mecca.  Though no strong supporter of Uthman, she violently opposed Ali as any kind of leader in Islam.  She mustered warriors in Mecca and began a raiding journey back toward Medina.  The cause was allegedly to avenge Uthman’s death; her real objective, though, was to remove Ali as Fourth Caliph and replace him with one of her political allies.

The ensuing battle, known in Islāmic history as the Battle of Bassorah (Battle of the Camel) was the first time in Islam’s 45-year history that Muslims fought against Muslims in a civil war.  It was a pattern established there in Medina that continues to this day in the Islāmic world, Sunni (representing Abu Bakr’s familial line through A’isha) versus Shi’a (those in favor of Ali’s claim as heir).

A’isha’s Camel
Approaching the battle site where her supporters planned to engage and oust Ali, A’isha rode her camel across the advancing line, giving speeches and rousing her troops to a fevered pitch. She had managed to find only 1,000 fighters; among them was Hafsah, another of The Prophet’s widows, and the only one to go with A’isha into this battle.

Aisha raced ahead of her troops with her ad hoc commander, a man named Kab ibn Sur. He was killed almost immediately by an arrow.  A’isha then assumed total command of the small army.

Unfortunately, her revered place in the world of Islam meant that many of her supporters rallied around her camel to protect her rather than charge ahead and fight.  This lead to many of them getting killed like so many sitting ducks, arrows peppering their bodies from Ali’s forces.  Shouting above the din, she tried to rally the people into a charge, but in the confusion Ali had given an order for someone to hamstring her camel.  This was done; the disabled animal could not retreat with her, and A’isha was captured by Ali.

A’isha was revered as one of “The Mothers of the Believers”.  Ali knew it was politic to release her unharmed – the entire city of Medina might have turned against him if he had her killed.  Instead, he released her from his custody, and along with her half-brother sent her back to Medina.  This narrow escape had an effect on this warrior woman – in effect, she hung up her sword, and refrained from any open defiance of Ali’s caliphate.  They managed an uneasy truce between each other, appearing civil and respectful when in one another’s presence.

A’isha’s End
Muslim women lost much autonomy after the Prophet Muhammad died.  They learned the truth that it was Muslim men, not Islam, that oppressed women, stripping them of their basic rights formerly enjoyed.

A’isha and other Muslim feminists of her day (though the term “feminist” would have been alien to these women the ideology was not) were strong and vocal advocates of returning Islam to its earlier state under Muhammad, a more utopian society of men and women striving together under the Islāmic yoke.  The first crude mosque was established near Muhammad’s house; prayer gatherings included Muslim men and women.  Muhammad had gone so far in his lifetime to appoint Muslim women as spiritual guides.  They prayed and fought alongside Muslim men.  They also served as unelected political leaders in the emerging theocracy. The umma, the men and women comprising the Believers, were blessed by him as a “single, undivided community”. 

A’isha was no different from other women of her day;  she had proven her mettle and worth to Islam on multiple occasions.  Muhammad allowed his wives free rein to squabble and resolve differences among themselves, and all of them at one time or another rebuked him in public over some peccadillo, a tongue-lashing he regarded with some amusement and without the rancor of feeling emasculated.

A’isha bint Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq died in 678 CE at the age of 65.  She had spent the balance of her life promoting Islam, recording Muhammad’s sayings.  Though probably little known outside the Muslim community, she, along with Khadija, were perhaps the two most influential women in Islam’s early years, and they are both truly great female icons in history regardless of time or setting. 

Khadija was not a warrior woman like A’isha, but she was a savvy business woman. A’isha and Khadija never met as equals, but it is likely that the two women – different sides of the same Islāmic feminine coin – would have been close allies and friends.   A’isha, as did her spiritual foremother Khadija, did not let her gender stifle her passions.  Even as Islam turned its back on its women, locking them away for several centuries of cloistering and abuses to follow, A’isha still spoke passionately of her husband’s vision publicly, the vision of Islam as a single, undivided community of Muslim men and Muslim women united.

The Queen of the Harem (detail, oil on canvas)Credit: Max Ferdinand Bredt (1868-1921)


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