Iqra! I read. And I keep on reading.
A blushing bride with reddish cheeks standing in the middle of the desert – this was among the first images I had of Aisya RA, the Prophet SAW’s beloved wife. Ever since I was a little girl, her story has remained a fixture in my imagination. An ideal woman and mother of Al-Mukminin are the terms of respect she was granted in historical narratives with books and songs about her being churned endlessly by both male and female writers all over the world.
Naturally, I was curious. As a young Malay Muslim girl attending a religious boarding school in Kajang, I was treated to an array of stories about pious Muslim women and was pleased to encounter the intelligent and witty Aisha RA who was responsible for transmitting religious knowledge during and after the Prophet SAW’s time. My discovery of her – specifically, narratives about her – has lasted for decades and can be surmised in three stages;
- I was a child when I first heard about the innocent and pure Aisya RA.
- I was a teenager when I first heard about the devoted Aisya RA.
- Finally, I am an adult learning about the outspoken and political Aisya RA.
Each of the stages somewhat speaks to me of my experience as a Muslim woman in the 21st century. My readings on Aisya remain as relevant as ever for there is so much to unpack and still many lessons to be learnt. In her, I see roles that women continue to play in society hundreds of years later, confined yet liberated in their positions as daughters, wives, mothers and most importantly, themselves.
The First Narrative – Of Purity and Innocence
The first words of the Malay song Aishah by Yasin are ‘gadis, riang ceria’ (girl, happy-go-lucky), denoting Aisya as a young lady who brings joy to those around her. She smiles (‘tersenyum manis’) and she laughs (‘tertawa’). The silk of Bahrain veils her as she begins her life as the beloved wife of a great man. It is no secret that within her is jealousy, a mark of love (‘tanda kasih’) towards her husband. She lives her whole life by his resting place (‘tempat kekasihmu bersemadi’), loyal to his memory. One pictures her in her abode, orbiting her beloved, a reliable presence for the rest of the Muslims.
As a young girl not yet twelve, the song fascinated me to no end. Very early on, we were taught stories of the Prophet SAW and his wives who symbolise model womanhood in Islam, embodying aspirational traits that would clear our path towards Paradise. Aisya, uniquely, had the image of a girl, pure as she was intended for her husband, running around basking in the glory of her childhood. She was a beloved daughter who became a beloved wife. Joy was what she provided to those around her, particularly her immediate family. As I grew up, I was struck by the realisation of how Aisya remains the innocent girl with the reddish cheeks (‘humaira’) throughout my childhood and adolescence. I, too, wanted nothing else but to be a good daughter, spirited and energetic yet bright and dutiful. I, too, wanted to be loved and appreciated. I, too, wanted to be untainted, shielded and protected.
The Second Narrative – Contradictions
Then, I became a teenager and was introduced to an expanded version of her. I did not know what compelled me to read more. As a university student in Shah Alam, I desperately searched for her biographies and very few were available. My search led me to an Islamic bookstore in Kompleks PKNS where I purchased ‘Aisya ra; the Greatest Woman in Islam by Sulaiman an-Nadawi, a Pakistani historian, translated from Urdu to Indonesian. The book exposed me to a detailed version of her history albeit from a male gaze.
The book did not neglect to mention her profound intelligence in transmitting religious knowledge. She was deemed incomparable (‘tidak tertandingi’) and no one could equal her ability to comprehend and conclude issues of concern. Nonetheless, there exists a narrative pattern that I could not possibly ignore. Similar to the song previously mentioned, Aisya RA continued to be described as winsome (‘manja), supposedly justified by the author’s argument that it is of female nature(‘lumrah’) to be spoiled (‘suka manja’) and moody (‘pemarah’). Love (or notions of it) is argued to be a female habit, and so is forgiveness. In her outspokenness against her husband, her winsome ways were considered to be a sign of marital closeness. She had always been obedient (‘taat’) and as the book contended, it is a wife’s utmost duty to obey the husband’s wishes.
Despite the repetitive reminders of her winsome ways, aspects of her political activities could not be suppressed. Unfortunately, leadership was framed as something women should not aspire to. The author argued that ruling (‘pemerintahan’) is not aligned to a woman’s nature (‘fitrah’). Hence, the burden of being a leader should not be placed upon these gentle (‘lembut’) and weak (‘lemah’) beings. Such is the framework that was applied to discuss Aisya RA’s political participation, especially during the aftermath of the Prophet SAW’s passing. She was said to have been deeply regretful for her participation in the Battle of the Camel and wept for her mistake which causes the loss of many lives, ignoring the fact that men-led wars before and after Aisya RA’s command also resulted in similar repercussions, some more severe than others.
In the attempt to paint Aisya RA as the most exemplary of women, the author relegated her image into the background, noting the necessity for her (and women) to be veiled (‘harus bersembunyi di balik jilbab’) before praising her profound influence in guiding the ummah socially and spiritually. The contradictions are stark and ever-present. Male expectations on how Muslim women should behave reverberated throughout the pages, leaving me a confused reader. How am I to achieve my full potential from behind the scene? Is a public role or a public life something inappropriate for me to desire? Am I destined to be a nurturer yet hidden away from certain spheres? Am I to fulfil my obligations yet admit my supposedly fitrah-based female weaknesses? The answer I was looking for could not be found in societal murmurings around me, echoing what was being said in the book. People have said many things, among them that it is not possible to have a female Chief Minister, a woman’s place is in the kitchen notwithstanding her intellect and her destiny is to be a wife and a mother. What was a young Muslim woman to do but internalise these contradictory messages and hope for the best?
The Third Narrative – Self-actualisation
Thankfully, my journey in discovering and re-discovering Aisya RA did not end there. I encountered her again in The Veil and the Male Elite by Fatima Mernissi. This version of Aisya RA, though, was complex and historically contextualised. More importantly, the book shed a light on
Aisya RA’s political self that is stark and apparent, portraying her as an effective intellectual during the Prophet SAW’s lifetime and an active leader after his passing.
During the Prophet SAW’s lifetime, Aisya RA was always mentioned as one who was most important to him. Due to her intelligence and sharp wit, she was sought after for her abilities, aside from her connection with her husband. Most importantly, she corrected those whom she deemed wrong, Abu Hurayra being one of them. Similar to the Prophet SAW’s other wives, she had no qualms expressing her public role and her outspokenness was appreciated. Domestic and public lives were of equal importance and she viewed a woman’s place to be highly instrumental in both.
She ‘took command’ of the Muslims who rebelled and justified her action in going against Ali due to his failure in ‘not having brought the murderers of Uthman, the assassinated third caliph, to justice’. Her military campaign was widespread – she was involved in ‘negotiation, and persuasion through individual interviews and speeches in the mosques, pressing the crowds to support her’. Unlike the biography by an-Nadawi, her regret over her political activity was not emphasised, which contradicted the previous image I had of her.
In Mernissi’s book, I was exposed to the genius of Aisya RA who fearlessly spoke up whenever she found it necessary and took action against societal expectations. Her identity was beyond that of her role as the Prophet SAW’s beloved ‘humaira’ – she was a self-actualised figure who compelled her supporters and repulsed her detractors, existing within the ever-changing imagination of those who know of her. This is a version that challenges the narratives in my head, opening my eyes to the ruptures found in previous texts. What has been unsaid about her is as valuable as what has been said about her. Such understanding rings true to the lives of many individuals whose autonomy and agency might have ruffled some feathers in the establishment.
Three differing narratives of Aisya RA are more than enough reason for me to re-evaluate my perception of the respected female figure in Islam. I started as a curious Muslim child and find myself continuously looking for clarity in my adulthood. Emulation is encouraged in my religious tradition. However, it should not be based on a one-dimensional reading of any kind. What I have now understood is that narratives are moulded by the author’s gaze which in turn can be influenced by his or her values and inclinations. Always, symbols and meanings are attached to Aisha RA’s life story. She can be perceived as outspoken and bold in one text, regretful in the next. Each seems to carry with it its ideology and messages that may complement or be in conflict with one another.
Reconciliation is never easy. Yet, it is reflective of the life a Muslim woman has to lead. I know now that I will never be an ideal one. Contradictions have placed me in a difficult spot, one I may never escape from. However, I have also learnt that a woman’s life can be many different things and interpreted in many different ways. Whether or not it is a case of misrepresentation or truth’s rigidity, I am unsure. Moving forward, I have chosen to continue my journey in discovering and re-discovering knowledge, unpacking my thoughts and examining the facets of my historical imagination. At least, in the pursuit of educating myself, I am emulating a value that was monumental in the life of the Muslim female figure I admire the most, Aisya RA.
An-Nadawi, S. (2007) ‘Aisya ra; the greatest woman in Islam. Jakarta: Qisthi Press.
Mernissi, F. (1999). The veil and the male elite: A feminist interpretation of women’s rights in Islam. Perseus Books.