Amjid Rashid explains how popular orientalist discourse in the West has cemented the false perception that Aisha bint Abu Bakr (RA) was a voiceless and subservient girl who got married too young.
The general discourse and discussion that surrounds Aisha bint Abu Bakr (RA) in contemporary western discourse be it academic or otherwise rests on the age in which she married the Prophet (peace be upon him). It is an uncomfortable subject generally for Muslims to discuss primarily because Muslims are unaware as to the actual established position of Asia’s age.
There have been a number of responses on this topic. One of these centres on the idea of fluid global social norms as opposed to fixed and established social norms of societies around the world, thereby removing the significance of age altogether. While another centres on the idea that her age itself is actually disputed and that she was actually much older than the “controversial” age itself.
My intention in this piece is not to explore the above arguments in any way, nor is it to reduce the significance of what these arguments try to explore. What is intended here is to address a more fundamental issue – one which questions contemporary western discourse and its fixation on Asia’s age of marriage, as though her life’s only significance is her age.
Jane Eyre and the Madwoman in the Attic
Much like oriental and colonial discourse reduced the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre to one without a voice, a character sat in an almost innate and inherent madness and insanity. A type of exotic otherly-villain that only existed in order to create a narrative and plot so Rochester and Jane Eyre could eventually fall in love. The issue here is that Bertha Mason’s sole role in the novel is to serve as a subservient plot point in order to complete a story with an additional twist. She is not only devoid of a voice, she is simply a two-dimensional character, and in essence does not exist other than to set fire to the house due to her insanity.
It is only through post-colonial discourse (through works such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Gayatri Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak), and their literary base of narratives such as Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea, where we are allowed to think about the subaltern and we actually meet the character. It is here where we begin to understand her as a person rather than simply through her sanity or lack thereof.
It is precisely this issue that we can see here when it comes to Aisha (RA). Her contributions to Islam are unheard of particularly in popular western discourse despite secularism supposedly championing the rights of women. And in spite of secular ideals being at the forefront of women’s rights and allowing feminist discourse to develop, it still seems very ignorant of the contributions that female companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) – particularly Aisha – made. It is as though she has no voice, no story except as a victim who married at a very young age. It is as though western discourse seeks to limit her depth in order to serve the wider purposes of colonial and oriental discourse. So Aisha (RA) becomes a type of subservient plot point in order to further denigrate and demonise Islam and its adherents.
Age then is only highlighted when it drives that particular plot and narrative. It is insignificant that the Prophet’s first marriage was to Khadija (RA), a woman around fifteen years His (peace be upon him) senior, as this would drive holes into that narrative and that popular discourse that is sought to serve. It is insignificant that Aisha was amongst the senior companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), whom related much of the hadith literature that forms as the cannon and basis for us to understand Islam.
Western popular discourse wants to “rescue Islam” from its barbarity, its lack and inability to become “civilised” like the West has. It seeks to impose an enlightenment period much like Christendom underwent. Yet it forgets that that enlightenment period was actually driven by Islamic legacy prior to the period of the Renaissance.
What Islam actually needs is freedom from the yoke of imperialist and colonial discourse, and to be allowed to drive its own history, to create its own narratives and discourse. This freedom has to be a complete freedom so Islamic societies do not seek to impose a revivalist mentality that is based on a response to something else. It has to be based on self-determination, and a complete self-determined voice. Just like western discourse needs to allow Aisha (RA) her own independent voice rather than dictate her discourse and right to self-determination.
Amjid Rashid is a teacher of English Language and Literature, and an Islamic theology student at JKN Institute in Bradford. He has a BA (hons) and an MA in English from The Open University.