Aishah (Aisha) (Military Leaders)

(CA. 6 14-678)

Wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Daughter of Abu Bakr of Mecca, Aishah belonged to the Bani Tamim clan of the tribe of the Quraysh. Aishah is said to have accepted Islam when she was still young and followed her family to Ethiopia around 615, where some early Muslims immigrated seeking refuge from persecution. After returning to Mecca, Aishah was betrothed to Muhammad and is usually described as his favorite wife. After Muhammad’s death in 632, Aishah’s father, Abu Bakr, became the first caliph, an event that eventually divided the Muslim community because a small group of Muslims believed that Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali should have been chosen to lead. Abu Bakr’s reign proved short, and he was succeeded by Umar in 634 and Uthman in 644. In the meantime, Aishah lived in Medina and made several pilgrimages to Mecca. After Uthman was killed in 656, Aishah ventured into political struggle for power against Ali and raised a small army, which confronted Ali’s troops outside the city of Basra. Aishah personally directed her forces from the back of a camel, but the battle, known as the Battle of the Camel, ended in a crushing defeat for her. She was captured and sent to Medina under military escort, where she lived a retired life until she died in approximately 678. Aishah’s legacy was, and still is, hotly debated by the Sunni and Shia Muslim scholars. Two events in the early life of this woman, who was married at age nine and widowed at eighteen, became topics of interpretation and debate. The first was the accusation of adultery levied against her in 627 when she was fourteen years old. Although she was declared innocent by divine revelation, she has never been completely vindicated. Later scholars unfavorably compared her to Muhammad’s first wife Khadija ("the best of Muslim women") and his daughter Fatima ("pure"). She thus has served the aims of Muslim men who wanted to cultivate the idea that women are the ultimate source of temptation and to whom Aishah represented the force of female sexuality that had to be feared and restrained. The second and even more consequential event was the Battle of the Camel, which served as a proof for arguments against political rights for Muslim women because of concern that they could do only harm to the political and social order.

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