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Suzy Ashraf


The revelation received by the prophet Muhammad had become a turning point in the life of Arabia. As the old ways became rejected, there was a great demand for establishing a new system of values and behaviour. The Quran, being essentially a spiritual message, did not provide minute regulations on the everyday matters.

One of the expressions of this great change became the use of the word "sunna". Before Islam, it meant the tradition, custom of the tribe or the whole Arabian society. In the Prophets lifetime, when the new Muslim community has emerged, they formed the "sunna" of their own society. This new sunna was guided personally by the Prophet, as he was the ultimate judge in all matters. The Muslims watched him closely as the God-inspired example and wanted to copy all his actions:

"All his actions served them as ideal; every word which he uttered was a law to them, while his moral choices, so different from those of their age, yet so immediate in their impartial wisdom, provided them with a system of personal and social virtue which they tried to follow as faithfully as they could. When he chose a golden ring for himself, his friends put one also; and when he put it off, gave it away, and wore a silver one instead,they also emulated his example." (Siddiqi, p.3)

With the Prophet's death this guidance was withdrawn, so in order to transmit their sunna to the future generations, Muslims began writing down all they remembered of the words and actions of the Prophet, putting the incidents they recorded in the form of the short stories named "hadith".

When the first collections of hadith were written down, a separation between legal and historical material became clear. History has been preserved in the books of "maghazi", the stories of the Prophet's warfare, which have some similarity in subject with the pre-Islamic epics of the tribes. The hadith proper usually deal with Law and ritual, but they too contain a lot of historical material, "it serves as an astonishingly voluminous source of data for the history of pre-Islamic Arabia and of early Islam." (Siddiqi, p.1). Their social attitudes and material culture are woven into the narratives, there is hardly a hadith which does not depict a fragment of life from those times.

One example has already been mentioned: the ring the Prophet used to wear. We learn that the men wore jewellery, such as rings, and both silver and gold were in common use among them. If we speculate, we may assume that the jewellery was more widespread among the Meccans, who were better connected with other countries, and therefore acquired more luxurious habits. The Medinese, however, took up to wearing rings only after the Prophet's example.

There are many hadith which give a great deal of information about the social relationships of that time, from the smallest, like the one about the Prophet's unsuccessful intercession for Barira's husband (Bukhari, No 1879) to the longest, like the one studied in this essay, or the one about the ten women describing their husbands (Bukhari, N0 1859)

Of all the hadith containing such details, the most informative one is a long hadith relating an incident with 'Aisha which became reflected in the Quran. The hadith provides an explanation of the Quran, but for some reason it is placed in the Book of Witnesses, in the chapter "The women's attesting the honourable record of each other". The story is very original; it is so rich in minute details, that this alone can dispel all doubts about the authenticity of this hadith.

The narrative tells that on one of the Prophet's journeys 'Aisha was accidentally left behind at the encampment. A young man found her and brought her back to the Prophet. On their return to Medina, 'Aisha fell ill. While she was ill, a scandal broke out: some evil tongues revealed their suspicion on the account of her relationship to the man with who she had to ride alone for quite a long time. On her recovery she learnt what was pronounced behind her back and fell ill again. At the same time the Prophet was unable to decide, whether to believe the allegations and divorce 'Aisha, punish as liars those who spread the rumours. In his attempts to establish the truth, he began to ask his companions and wives about 'Aisha's conduct, and no-one witnessed any unseemly conduct from her. Finally, the first verses of Sura an-Nur were revealed:

"And those who accuse honourable women but bring not four witnesses, scourge them (with) eighty stripes and never (afterward) accept their testimony - They indeed are evildoers -

Save those who afterward repent and make amends. (For such) lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." (24:4-5) "Lo! they who spread the slander are a gang among you. Deem it not a bad thing for you; nay, it is good for you. Unto every man of them (will be paid) that which he has earned of the sin; and as for him among them who had the greater share therein, his will be an awful doom.

Why did not the believers, men and women, when ye heard it, think good of their own folk, and say: It is a manifest untruth?

Why did they not produce four witnesses? Since they produce no witnesses, they verily are liars in the sight of Allah." (24:11-13)

The narrative of the hadith is filled with features of life. It starts with an example of one of the Prophet's ways of maintaining the impossible justice between the many wives. When deciding on who of them should accompany him in a travel, he drew lots, so that no offence could be due to his own choice. Then there is a description of return journey through the desert after a Prophet's ghazwa (military expedition). 'Aisha is there with him. Probably, the wives, at least of the leaders, normally accompanied their husbands in military expeditions, as well as in other less distant travel. But they did not travel together. It is quite clear that 'Aisha was on her own when she learnt that the Prophet ordered his army to proceed at night because they were in vicinity of Medina.

'Aisha notes that it was after the Quran ordered the Prophet's wives to veil themselves. But the only difference it made is that she remained inside while her litter (hawdaj) was brought down from the camel. She does not specify that the hawdaj was a closed litter - upper class Arabian women have always travelled behind the curtains, just as well as they had covered their faces long before Islam.

'Aisha was left behind while searching for her necklace of nail-shaped vertically strung pieces of onyx. Thus we now that onyx jewellery was worn and how the stones were shaped. Unless onyx is found in Hijaz, it gives information about the trade-roots. But the stone must have been expensive - otherwise 'Aisha would not have been so concerned about loosing the necklace.

On departure of the army the men who used to place her litter on the camel did not notice her absence, because they did not feel the difference in weight of the litter. 'Aisha explains that this was so because she was very light in weight, as they did not abuse food - did not eat much in those days, and were lean. But her weight would only be unnoticeable if the litter was significantly heavier than her, thus hawdaj had to be very heavy. To be heavy it had to be made of wood and/or leather.

An interesting detail of the composition of the army: a single fighter could ride far behind, which must be connected with the military technique they used. Such a lone rider, Safwan bin Mu'attal, found sleeping 'Aisha where she was left. There is a detailed description of his actions: he recites a Quranic verse to express his surprise, then he makes his camel kneel and puts his legs over the front legs of the camel to hold it down. This information provides an example of how common was knowledge and use of the verses from the Quran by ordinary Muslims during the Prophet's lifetime. Further actions relate how the camels were handled then, to enable comparison with today's ways of doing it.

'Aisha does not mention any conversation between them, as if she did not explain to him what had happened. If we assume that indeed they did not exchange a word, it could be a (pleasing to the defenders of complete separation between men and women) feature of the reserved behaviour by the Prophet's wives. But in other hadith (e.g.No 188 in Bukhari) there is plenty of evidence of lively conversations they normally had from behind the veil, and even though the situation of being alone with this man in the desert called for extra-reserved manners, it is more likely that in the light of later accusations 'Aisha would not mention any action which could inspire even a spark of suspicion.

On return to Medina 'Aisha fell ill and did not leave the house for one month. But when she felt better, she began returning to usual activities. At this time they still lived in the conditions of a desert camp, not even having lavatories within the settlement. They had to go outside the town into a field. 'Aisha says that women only used to go there at dark, which leaves the question about their arrangements during day time. She comments that later they did have lavatories near their houses, but there is no clue from what time: whether from before, it was ordinary arrangement in Mecca and other cities, or it was inspired by some outside influence later.

'Aisha did not go alone, she was accompanied by another woman, Umm Mistah. This could be because she was still unwell, but other reasons are possible too: being very young, she had an older woman with her, or her high social stature meant she had to be accompanied as she went out.

M. M. Khan's translation offers a delightful detail: 'Aisha's companion tripped over her long dress. (Not only modern women can never cope with the "decent" length skirts.) First of all it tells that women did wear very long garments; second, it is likely that they started wearing them rather recently, otherwise they would be more used to this length.

As she tripped, she, obviously, swore. She cursed Mistah, supposedly, her own son. It is the second example here of expressions used in particular situations. This hadith presents other distinct expressions: "Kaifa teekum?" used by the Prophet when enquiring about 'Aisha's condition during her illness; "Ya, hanta" used by Umm Mistah to address her.

In response to 'Aisha's surprise she enlightened her about the rumours, and that Mistah took part in spreading it. 'Aisha felt ill again, and asked the Prophet to go to her parents, because she wanted to verify the news of the accusations. Her mother confirmed what was said, but advised her to pay less attention to this. She comforted her with a piece of traditional wisdom: every brilliant woman loved by her husband would be slandered by other women out of envy. Women talk is a well known feature of traditional societies, but it is usually a result of unhappiness and powerlessness. Only when a happy marriage is rare does it arose great envy, and it is more rare when women have little say in the choice of a spouse. Islam did bring the means of improving the causes of this evil, but it had not worked, for the traditional societies are extremely resistant to change.

It seems, in this situation, however, the women's envy had no part in the slander, it is described as a men's affair.

One part of 'Aisha's domestic duties is evident from her servant's words. When asked by the Prophet about 'Aisha, she says that knows nothing bad about her, except that she is a very young girl, she sleeps over the dough, so the goats come and eat it. This is a rare piece of information in the hadith in general. Domestic duties are not very well described, so that one gets impression that for most of the time the Muslims of Medina were sitting together, around the Prophet or elsewhere. Even being an important lady, who had her own servant, 'Aisha still had to make the dough herself, so it is likely that she baked the bread herself too.

The further parts of this hadith reveal social relations within Medina, from the friendship/rivalry between the tribes of 'Aus and Khazraj, to the competition among the Prophet's wives. Calls by the tribe of 'Aus to kill the perpetrator of the rumours for injuring the honour of the Prophet's family, incited Khazraj to defend him as one of their tribe. The Prophet had to calm them down to prevent fighting. It is clear how their pre-Islamic hostility, which was one of their reasons to invite the Prophet to Medina as peace-maker, has been still alive later.

While 'Aisha was spending time crying in her parents' house, another woman came to demonstrate her solidarity. This woman shows an amazing example of sensitivity: understanding 'Aisha's grief, she joins in crying rather than speak and risk hurting her more by a wrong word.

After the whole matter was solved by the revelation, Abu Bakr decided to punish Mistah by withdrawing his material support Mistah used to receive for taking part in slandering 'Aisha. We do not know to what extent did Mistah's household depend on these handouts, but Abu Bakr did resume his help after further revelation calling to forgive the guilty ones in this affair. There is enough mentioning of Mistah in this hadith to suggest a complete picture of an arrangement: Mistah and his household are supported by Abu Bakr, 'Aisha's father. In return, Mistah's family provides small services for Abu Bakr. This is why 'Aisha was accompanied by Mistah's mother.

'Aisha does not conclude without a comment on her superior position as the Prophet's favourite in relation to other wives. Being a small girl among much older women, she seems to be especially anxious about her standing. Even though, as she claims, she was superior to others in youth and beauty, it is very likely that she was treated by them as a child, who should not be taken too seriously.

Here she mentions Zainab bint Jahsh as her competitor. (See Buhari, No 1158). However, despite their rivalry, Zainab still defends 'Aisha when asked about her behaviour. With rivalry present even among the Prophet's wives, we can only imagine the scale it took in other households, hence 'Aisha's surprise that Zainab did not use the situation to bring 'Aisha's ruin. It must have been common for the wives to go to any length to get another divorced; and fighting between co-wives was a usual pastime. In this relation it is important to note that a lot of it was caused by the husband's preference to one wife over another. Hence the example of justice the Prophet is eager to set, such as described in the beginning of this hadith: drawing lots to choose a wife to take on a journey.

Thus this single hadith provides plenty of information on the life in Medina in the time of the Prophet: their day-to-day activities, conditions of their life, their social interaction and economy.

The facilities were scarce: even a toilet was a long walk away. A lot of the people were unable to support themselves; like Mistah, they had to depend on others.

The traditional, pre-Islamic ways were still strong. This is why 'Aisha can be accused without evidence. The tribal rivalries were ready to be revived at a single spark. In the households with several wives they staged battles without rules. Women were ready to bring down by their only weapon - slander - any other, better or luckier than them.

But the evidence of changes brought by Islam is apparent too. People recited the Quran in their everyday speech. There was more reservation between men and women. The tribal dispute led to no bloodshed, and nobody was killed in retaliation for the accusations, damaging to two families' honour. The participants in the offence were actually forgiven afterwards.

If this much can be revealed by one story, what is the wealth of historical treasure hidden in the hadith literature as a whole!


In response to your surprise that I wanted to write an essay on a single hadith, I decided to treat it as challenge to prove that this particular hadith is informative enough for a whole essay.

It does include a lot of speculation, but our knowledge of that period is so scarce, that any historical account has to be based largely on speculation.


1.) Summarized Sahih Al-Bukhari, trans. M. M. Khan, Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 1994

2.) M. Z. Siddiqi, "Hadith Literature", The Islamic Texts Society, 1993

3.) The Meaning of the Glorious Quran, M. M. Pikthall.

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