"A life and a legacy are not always the same." Therein lies the crux of D.A. Spellberg's book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past. The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr. The book focuses on the legacy of the third and (some believe) the favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Spellberg's study intends to find the intent of the authors are that created 'A'isha's historical persona, and how it was expanded to fit debates about a variety of subjects in the medieval ummah.
Overall, the book is actually a study of the political arguments, thinking, and reactions of the Muslim male medieval scholars who wrote about 'A'isha and shaped her history. The author argues that 'A'isha's historical persona has been used as a vehicle for males to express values to the medieval ummah. However, Spellberg uses the creation of 'A'isha's historical persona as a vehicle to show the correlation between 'A'isha as a historical figure, and the use of her persona for sociopolitical purposes.
Spellberg's argument is arranged primarily around three main issues: the accusation of adultery, the role 'A'isha played in the political conflict over the caliphate, and how 'A'isha is also seen as an exemplary woman. According to Sura 24 of the Qur'an, sex outside of marriage is regarded as a sin. The punishment for someone who is married and is unfaithful was typically stoning, but it was hard to get convicted because the accuser needed to have four independent witnesses. However, some scholars have suggested that it is more of a punishment to be accused than for doing it because you are still seen as in defiance of the society’s mores. The latter is exactly what happened to 'A'isha, her reputation was tarnished even if it couldn’t be proven.
On the topic of the adultery accusation, Spellberg speaks of male honor and female shame and 'A'isha’s divine exoneration. Spellberg also likens what most Muslims call the hadith al-ifk (the account of the lie) to the story of Susannah and the Christian Apocrypha in the Bible, comparing the two women’s powerlessness against male accusers. Spellberg thoroughly covers the earliest written sources of information about the accusation, the reasons for the accusation, and the Shi'I, Sunni, medieval Western, and modern Islamic interpretations of it.
However, there isn’t much background provided about the treatment of adulterers in general. The review of the book in the International Journal of Middle East Studies says “ For the reader who is not familiar with, or perhaps very interested in, a detailed analysis of the function of the hadith… this book may offer too much.” The hadith cited are relevant, but are a bit excessive. As far as the statement about readers who are not familiar is concerned, I find it to be a bit of an exaggeration. There is a very detailed glossary in the book, as well as an index and an extensive page for sources.
Even so, without prior knowledge about the hadith, Qur'an, or Muslim society during that time, it is difficult to compare 'A'isha to others who were accused, and/or initially assess how much trouble she was in. She brings in anthropological sources and studies of honor and shame and analyzes the Shi’ite writers’ use of the accusation to negatively affect Sunni political powers, but doesn't completely tie them in to the cultures whose texts she tries to describe in that part of the book.
Perhaps the most important application political application of 'A'isha's historical persona came about due to her involvement in the Battle of the Camel. Spellberg makes the important connection between 'A'isha's involvement in the battle between 'Ali and Mu'awiya over the caliphate, and the application of her persona in later political arguments about whether women should be active in government. The connection between the two is important because of the difference between the Sunni and Shi'i interpretation of the event.
Spellberg stresses that Shi'ite authors present the battle as a deliberate act of defiance against Islamic women's roles and Qur'anic rules about what is proper for the wives of the Prophet, and that Sunni's defend her because they believe she was repentant and coerced into the situation. It is then apparent neither side of the debate would have presented accurate information because of the extreme bias. Spellberg makes this point and then goes on to say that 'A'isha's persona has been used to define women's roles in politics for the ummah. Spellberg does a very clear job of explaining 'A'isha's possible motives and also cites hadith and sources about the fitna.
The author also proposes that 'A'isha was "transformed into a Sunni symbol of their collective identity and honor" mostly because they were more concerned with maintaining that their understanding of history was authentic, rather concerning themselves with 'A'isha as an actual person. (p94) Spellberg stresses again in this topic that 'A'isha was at times just a cultural object that was tossed around by men who used her for their own sociopolitical agendas.
"Like Joan of Arc, 'A'isha is not an icon of traditional womanhood... Although 'A'isha seems to speak to us through chains of oral transmission, her illiteracy prevents us from hearing her voice in her own terms. . .Every interpretation of her life is bound to reflect one's position towards contending individuals and ideologies in the history of religion." (From Mary Ann Tetreault - The Middle East Journal)
'A'isha's role is still ambiguous in the book, due mostly to the fact that there is no one objective history of her. She is used for several different applications in arguments made by the author and when the author cites arguments made by others.
Throughout the book, 'A'isha is referred to as either a strong willed heroine or a victim of male domination. Besides the viewpoints of the Sunni and Shiite, 'A'isha herself had the strong will to take part in the battle of the camel, and it is uncertain whether she realized how the battle would be used against her. After the battle she became inactive in politics, thus fueling further debate when her situation was later applied to women in general.
“The author makes it clear that despite the ease with which critics can extrapolate from the events of ‘A’isha’s life to justify restrictions on all women, this wife of the Prophet cannot be held solely responsible for either the gender or the political exclusion of women in Islam.” (International Journal of Middle East Studies)
The book itself is important because it acknowledges the differing views of scholars and critics, and the differing historical uses for the persona of 'A'isha. As simplistic as that may sound, some credence must lie in the fact that the author is a female and therefore the male perspective criticized by the author is not present. By being able to remove herself from the male conversation about 'A'isha, the author is able to take a new approach to the legacy and its creation. The author at times treats the book as a critique of the use of biographical material by scholars for their own purposes, but also approaches the subject in a way that attempts to find an actual history for the woman.
Common Western stereotypes of women and the treatment of women invariably come into play in the book. The general stereotypes of women in the Middle East are that they are oppressed and have few (if any) rights, that men dominate every sphere, that women are sexually segregated, and that women are hidden away because they are not trusted to be moral. The stereotypes work for and against the legacy of 'A'isha; she defied the stereotype, was applied to the stereotype, and was potentially brought down by it in her own life.
'A'isha did what none of the other wives of the Prophet had done, she went out of the house and expressed her political beliefs in public. If women were held back so severely during that time, it didn’t stop 'A'isha from trying to get what she wanted. However, the more conservative population’s outrage was what created the controversy, thus making 'A'isha a noted figure to begin with. After her failure at the Battle of the Camel, she was pretty much taken out of politics and her failure was a mark upon all women who would try to get into politics after her.
Overall, the accounts of 'A'isha’s life reveal more about the men in the society than 'A'isha herself or Muslim women. Case in point, the debate between the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims over who should be the most revered religious figure. The debate reveals more about their views about the sanctity of the woman in Islam than anything else. 'A'isha’s historical persona ends up unwittingly revealing very much about medieval Muslim society due to the debates and early writings that Spellberg cites.
'A'isha’s importance as a source of hadith cannot be understated, nor is it understated in the book. She was apparently known for her excellent memory, and yet the Muslims that did not like her may choose not to place any importance on her stories or quotes about what Muhammad said or did.
“Spellberg concentrates on .. when the Sunni – Shi’i schism in Islam became institutionalized through a process that included competitive recreations of the meaning of the Muslim past.” (Middle East Journal)
Whether Muslims chose to listen to 'A'isha or not is an indicator that retellings of the acts of 'A'isha may be skewed to a perspective that favors certain moral
s and religious views.
Spellberg’s approach to interpreting others’ accounts is unique because "Instead of employing the traditional chronological technique of the biographer… Spellberg uses 'A'isha as a lens through which to examine the place of women in Islamic societies." (The International Journal of Middle East Studies) Rather than being a flat out biography of the woman, Spellberg goes further to expand upon the fact that Muslim ideas don’t always follow the Qur’an; At times the interpretations of the teachings of the Qur’an are what provide the role models for women to follow. Therefore, the "most positive women of the Qur’an, by association, determined the most excellent women of Islam.”( p. 193).
Rather than just taking the stories of 'A'isha at face value, Spellberg uses hadith, the Qur’an and other writings to make an essential intertextual association. The association between the various sources is an attempt to paint a clearer picture of how 'A'isha’s legacy was created and why it was important. Overall, any source for Islamic gender related studies, whether it’s found in hadith, Qur’anic verses, biographical collections (tabaqat), or chronicles (ta'warikh), more than likely presents male perspectives about the sexes and the power struggle between males and females.
The religious sources are, therefore, important in interpreting the motives and beliefs of medieval males and gender definitions. Spellberg’s interpretation of the medieval Islamic male role in the making of women’s history is different than the approach taken by other authors in the past who may have chosen to just do a biography. While some historians would like to believe that there is a way to find an objective history, that may not be the case. However, by presenting the different interpretations of an event and the motives behind those interpretations, historians may be able to get closer to the actual history behind the Prophet’s third wife.
Because the author is a female, her interpretation takes into account that women have been trying to build a viable history from historical writings skewed by men. While Spellberg doesn’t take on a full feminist approach, the male interpretation of 'A'isha is looked at critically and from an obviously non-male viewpoint. The Middle East Journal explains that Spellberg believes “The image of 'A'isha that any of us holds… cannot be a “true” reflection of the woman herself. Her central importance requires the image to be part of our understanding of the meaning of Islam”.
While that statement initially seems to be a cop-out, putting 'A'isha into a larger historical and religious perspective is necessary to understand why she is seen as such a complex figure.
“Spellberg tells us that her elusive qualities rest in part on the relative richness of 'A'isha’s story… Because of her complexity, there are different ways to envision 'A'isha, any of which could lead us to admire or detest her” (Middle East Journal)
Spellberg’s implied statement that there is no way to know for sure can leave the reader wanting more, but is also entirely true in the context of the research
she has done. The book, then, doesn’t argue that there is one right way to view the life of 'A'isha, but rather takes into account how other people have viewed her and the importance placed on her, whether it was correct or not. By thoroughly interpreting the variety of applications of the stories of 'A'isha, the author
thoroughly proves that her life and legacy
are not always the same, but may be equally as important.
Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past. The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr.
Middle East Journal v49 p530-531
International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies v28 p255-256