A'isha bint Abi Bakr married the Prophet Muhammad when she was nine years old -- too young to consent even had she been asked, which she was not. Her mother carried her into the bedroom, set her in his lap, said, "May you have a long and prosperous life together," then walked out again. Muhammad was 54.
Thusly begins the story of the girl who would become, among twelve wives and concubines, Muhammad's most beloved, as well as the most empowered and influential women in the history of Islam.
In a culture where most women were considered the chattels of men, A'isha rose to a position of honor as political advisor to Muhammad's successors, as the leading authority on the Islamic faith, and as a warrior who led troops in the first Islamic civil war. Nearly 1,400 years later, she remains the emblem of strength and courage for women around the world, non-Muslim as well as Muslim.
How did she achieve such glory in spite of her obstacles? By believing in herself, and by acting on her convictions.
A'isha was a survivor. She was a fighter. And she was a lover.
Jealous of Muhammad's affections, she competed with her sister-wives for his love -- and won. Yet she won the respect and esteem of the others in the harim, who ceded their time with Muhammad to her during his final weeks.
Threatened by Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, who encouraged Muhammad to divorce her, she confronted him openly. Later, she led troops against him in battle. She challenged Muhammad, too, while he lived, and the caliphs who came after him, with her sharp wit, her perceptive eye, her shrewd assessments of greed, nepotism, and fraud.
She was never a champion of women's rights, per se, but instead offered an example of how women can be, against all odds. Of how women should be.
The controversy over my novels about her made me to doubt myself at times. What had I done? A non-Muslim, I wrote about her because I found her story inspiring and wanted to share it with others, particularly women.
As I wrote, I felt her with me. Her sense of humor made me laugh aloud. Her tenacity kept me writing and rewriting through seven drafts. When I finished, I cried, feeling I had said good-bye to her. But A'isha wasn't finished with me yet.
Her determination carried me though Random House's canceling publication of my books in 2008 because of fears of terrorist attack. Her strength, courage, and love kept me sane during the media frenzy over a charge that my books were pornographic. Afterward, when it seemed the whole world was against me, I felt her inside me, lifting that sword and holding it high, confident and fearless. Today, divorced three times, raising a daughter alone, and writing fiction, essays, and articles exploring women's empowerment, I hear her voice every day, urging me onward and upward.
A'isha, it seems, has become a part of me. The best part.
Sherry Jones is the author of The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina historical novels about A'isha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and the forthcoming Four Sisters, All Queens, to be published in 2012. Read her blog on Red Room.