Islamic Studies `A'isha
by
Mary Thurkill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0005

Introduction

ʿA’isha is the youngest wife of the prophet Muhammad—his only virginal bride and, according to most traditions, his favorite (second perhaps only to Khadija). In many Hadith accounts, Muhammad was unusually sensitive to her moods and even died in her arms. ʿA’isha was also daughter of the Prophet’s close companion and first caliph, Abu Bakr. Muhammad’s marriage to ʿA’isha bound the two families together and, for Sunni Muslims, provides further evidence that Muhammad intended Abu Bakr as his successor. ʿA’isha is remembered especially for three things. First, she is one of the primary transmitters of Hadith relating to the Prophet’s behaviors and teachings. Second, she is associated with a sexual scandal—members of the community accused ʿA’isha of adultery, which serves as an occasion for Qur’anic revelation. Third, for many Muslim scholars, ʿA’isha’s participation in politics after Muhammad’s death provides an example of why women should not be engaged in public or political activities. Her presence at the Battle of the Camel in Basra (656 CE) is particularly criticized. Generally Sunnis hold ʿA’isha dear as the Prophet’s beloved wife, while Shiʿite Muslims generally scorn her and instead recognize the prophet’s daughter Fatima as the central female figure in Muhammad’s life. Important for both traditions, however, is that more Hadith describing the prophet’s teachings and actions relate back to ʿA’isha than to any other woman.

General Overviews

The premier scholar of ʿA’isha’s historical legacy, especially in Sunni Islam, is Denise A. Spellberg. Spellberg 1994 deftly places ʿA’isha in her historical and cultural context and then demonstrates how Sunni historians and scholars later used ʿA’isha as a symbol for their community, especially in identifying themselves against Shiʿites. Spellberg has several articles that also explore this theme, including Spellberg 1990. More recent works, such as Rogerson 2007 and Thurlkill 2008, attempt a similar task, namely, explaining how Sunni scholars crafted ʿA’isha’s legacy within a larger rhetoric concerned for sectarian identity.

  • Rogerson, Barnaby. The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad: Islam’s First Century and the Origins of the Sunni-Shia Schism. New York: Overlook, 2007.

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    While Rogerson discusses ʿA’isha as a primary symbol for Sunni identity, he does not give the detail and historical framework that is found in Spellberg 1994.

  • Spellberg, Denise A. “The Politics of Praise: Depictions of Khadija, Fatima, and ʿA’isha in Ninth-Century Muslim Sources.” Literature East and West 26 (1990): 130–148.

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    Focuses on how Sunni Muslims used Khadija and ʿA’isha as symbols of their community against their Shiʿite counterparts, who linked themselves with Fatima.

  • Spellberg, Denise A. Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ʿA’isha bint Abi Bakr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

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    This is the best overview of ʿA’isha’s life and legacy within Sunni Islam.

  • Thurlkill, Mary F. Chosen among Women: Mary and Fatima in Medieval Christianity and Shiʿite Islam. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

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    This book, especially chapter 4, places ʿA’isha in contrast to Fatima, her Shiʿite counterpart.

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