The different opinions
Sahih al-Bukhari collected a statement that states that the Prophet married Aisha when she was 6 years old and he consummated his marriage when she was 9 years old. This is the most widely accepted source and strongest opinion on the matter.
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi summaries this position in the following talk:
There are two other opinions of her age which put her at either 15 or 19 years old. These ages are based on historical accounts and relate to tracing back her age based on known events in Islamic history. These opinions however are dismissed by advocates of the dominate position as they place Sahih Al Bukhari at the highest level of authenticity. They also believe that those that claim Aisha was 15 or 19 are concealing the truth, influenced by the west and/or trying to make the religion compatible with the modern world. Regardless of what their intentions are, they do have evidence to back it up.
Based on the strongest opinion, scholars have permitted marriage of a prepubescent girl prior to attaining the age of menstruation which they say is permissible "following the example of the Prophet (ﷺ)". Some scholars even go as far to say that there is no minimum age to marry a girl. In this case, a girl is not ready to undertake sexual intercourse, however a number of classical scholars permit a man to derive physical pleasure from her (other than intercourse) and only engage in intercourse when she reaches the age of puberty.
I understand that Muslims reading this might be troubled by this and such a feeling is only natural. Some Muslims who claim to be staunch supporters of the Quran and Sunna of our Prophet might even say that feeling troubled by this is due to our weak faith or our lack of knowledge.
Regardless of what they say, I personally don’t follow this opinion nor do I believe that Aisha RA was 6 when she married the Prophet or 9 when he consummated marriage.
Taking all biases aside such as cultural influences, personal feelings etc we need to examine the real evidences.
What does the Quran say ?
Allah, Most high, says:
وَابْتَلُوا الْيَتَامَىٰ حَتَّىٰ إِذَا بَلَغُوا النِّكَاحَ فَإِنْ آنَسْتُم مِّنْهُمْ رُشْدًا فَادْفَعُوا إِلَيْهِمْ أَمْوَالَهُمْ
And test the orphans until they reach the marriageable age. Then if you perceive in them sound judgment (rushd), release their property to them… [Surat Al Nisa 4:6]
The Ayah states that the caretaker of the orphan is to test the orphan as they reach the age of marriage. So there is a point reached when they are able to undertake marriage. This indicates that they are physically and mentally ready for marriage. Scholars have given physical signs for this such as reaching the age of 15, pubic hair growth, experiencing a wet dream and menstruation for woman.
The ayah continues to explain that the attribute of rushd (capacity to make sound judgment) needs to be verified. The caretaker gives some wealth to the orphan to determine how they undergo their financial dealings. Once the attribute of rushd is verified their inheritance is released to them.
The question then comes to mind. How could Aisha at the age of 6 have the ability to receive Mahr ( a bridal gift) and commit and consent to a lifelong marriage if she had not reached the age of marriage nor attained the attribute of rushd ( which is to be tested after reaching the age of marriage) ?
What does the Prophet (ﷺ) say ?
In an authentic hadith collected by Abu Dawud, The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
مُرُوا أَوْلاَدَكُمْ بِالصَّلاَةِ وَهُمْ أَبْنَاءُ سَبْعِ سِنِينَ وَاضْرِبُوهُمْ عَلَيْهَا وَهُمْ أَبْنَاءُ عَشْرِ سِنِينَ وَفَرِّقُوا بَيْنَهُمْ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ
"Command your children to pray when they become seven years old, and discipline them for it when they become ten years old; and separate their beds."
Children are to be separated at the age of 10, Scholars say that this occurs prior to becoming sexually aware of the opposite sex.
How could Aisha RA marry at 6, which is one year before she is supposed to start praying and 4 years before a child starts to become sexually aware!
One needs to note that Aisha is not infallible and that the hadith in Al Bukhari was transmitted in a time and place when dates and calendars where not in use. There is a possibility that an error occurred in recalling the events as a child or through the transmission. We also have historical evidence that puts her age significantly higher. More importantly is the evidence I have mentioned above from both the Quran and Sunna.
Many Muslims present the narration in Al Bukhari as a fact from the greatest exemplar that ever lived, however critics have every right to question the age presented in the hadith. Justification is given by saying this was the norm back in history.
Was the hadith in Al Bukhari supposed to reach us in the first place? What benefit does this hadith actually have? This hadith unfortunately has been used throughout history to justify child marriage and has given non-Muslims a reason to reject the Prophet (ﷺ) as a true Prophet.
I do believe that scholars should revisit the hadith in Al Bukhari and determine how it stands alongside the Quran and authentic ahadith. They should also be brave enough to mention the classical opinions which allow a husband to derive sexual pleasure with a young prepubescent girl and engage in intercourse with her ( if she is physically able). They should also understand that criticising such practices is not attacking the Sunna of the Prophet (ﷺ) but actually defending the Quran and the Prophet of Allah (ﷺ) .
As a final remark, I want to mention that the opinion that I have presented is a classical opinion promoted by early Jurists like Uthman Al-Batti and the Qadi of Kufa Ibn Shubrumah.
Wa Allahu A’lam
13 Shawwal, 1442 AH , 25th May 2021