Did the Prophet Muhammad have sex with animals?

Mohammed and his six year old wife Aisha

A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice on a statement made during a training event at the Freedom Educational Institute once again brought up a topic that is one of the classic contents of contemporary criticism of Islam. In the incriminated testimony in the context of a seminar on the (alleged) topic "Basics of Islam" in 2009, the presenter stated, according to the documents available, that the tradition about the marriage of the over-50-year-old founder of Islam to a six-year-old was said to be " Pedophilia "and Mohammed" likes to have a little something with children.

The speaker was sentenced to a fine (480 euros) and reimbursement of the costs of the proceedings because of these statements in 2011 for degrading religious teachings. After an application to renew the criminal proceedings was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2013, the person concerned brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights, citing the right to freedom of expression. This now confirmed the Austrian judgment in October 2018, which provoked corresponding reactions against an allegedly "Islamized" European human rights court on various platforms.


Pedophilia is a pathological condition that marks a fundamental tendency or sexual preference for children. Indeed, there can be no question of this in a sober and even very critical examination of the biography of Muhammad. His first wife, Khadija, with whom he was obviously very closely connected and who was one of the most important caregivers of his time in Mecca, was around 15 years older than him. Only after her death, which precedes the so-called "hijra" (emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622), does he marry again. Incidentally, it is not clear how many wives he had in total, but the information in Ibn Ishaq's biography is mostly followed, which assumes a total of 13 marriages, of which two were divorced before the marriage was consummated. None of these traditional marriages show any particular preference for children. In view of the historical and biographical findings, the description of Muhammad as pathologically "pedophile" is simply nonsense.

A fifty-something marries a six-year-old

But there is one detail of Muhammad's marriage story that needs to be considered more closely in this context: his marriage to the Aisha, who is often (at least in the Sunni tradition) referred to as the "favorite woman". There is a very clear tradition about her: She was the daughter of Abu Bakr, an early convert to Islam, who will then also follow Mohammed in the leadership of the community as the first caliph (according to Sunni tradition). Aisha was one of the first children to be born into a family who converted to Islam. According to the detailed information of Islamic tradition, Mohammed married Aisha when she was six years old and "consumed the marriage" (that is to say, he had sexual intercourse with her) when Aisha was between nine and ten. In some traditions, which Aisha entered into the tradition of hadith as direct statements, there is the addition: "and I was still playing with dolls". The detailed presentation and the exact information on the age of marriage and "legal age" are striking, which suggests that this was a fixed part of the tradition. And possibly an indication that all of this caused quite a stir.

There is now a vast amount of literature on the subject. An important line of argument in this context comes down to classifying this marriage in a larger socio-cultural context. A fundamental principle applies in the ancient world, but also far beyond that into the early modern era: a marriage can then be consummated as soon as sexual maturity has been reached - in some cases it can be entered into much earlier. Indeed, in large parts of the world and for centuries, this leads to astonishingly low marriage ages, if these were formally set at all. Up until the early modern period, marriages of young girls were common, for example (but by no means exclusively) in the aristocratic milieu. And this is partly a legacy that religions carry to this day. The minimum age for marriage in the Catholic Church is 14 years for girls to this day - even if church law makes it clear that the laws of the countries must be followed and many Catholic Bishops' Conferences have explicitly set higher marriage ages for their countries.

Many of Mohammed's marriages are also traditionally regarded as more or less alliances of convenience, i.e. wives were offered to him, especially during his time in Medina as the new strong man on the Arabian Peninsula, and the marriages sealed various alliances and contractual relationships. They also put the families of the various women in a special position from which they could subsequently benefit on many levels. As far as the inner-Islamic debate is concerned, it is striking that there is so much detail about marriage and its execution. But there was no criticism of the age of the Aisha.

Mohammed's marriages and various problem reports

Another detail of his biography testifies that Mohammed's marriages did trigger debates: his marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh, who was actually married to Mohammed's adopted son Zayd and divorced her husband in order to marry Mohammed. In view of the special position of an adoptive son, who is formally equal to the son, this marriage triggered very heated discussions: Was the father chasing his son's wife? Even the Koran contains instructions or a kind of heavenly legitimacy (in Sura 33:37), which makes Zayd one of only two named persons in the Koran. The actual no-go, the marriage of the wife of an adopted son, became a divinely legitimized act by redefining the character of an adoption.

There is nothing of the kind to report in connection with Aisha and age was not a stumbling block. Rather, she became one of the central figures of Islamic tradition, especially in the Sunni tradition, where more than 2000 individual traditions about Muhammad are traced back to her in the form of a hadith, many of them also relating to central theological topics. She was also considered to be extremely educated and well-versed, which is why she became an important reference person in the period immediately after the death of Muhammad and in the early formation phase of Islam. Her honorary title in the Sunni tradition, "Mother of the Believers", is eloquent evidence of this high position.

In contrast, she is viewed critically in the Shiite tradition because in the succession struggles of the first decades after the death of Muhammad she was an opponent of the group around Ali and Fatima, the "favorite daughter" of Mohammed, who succeeded Mohammed with the "people of the house" (ahl al-bayt) wanted to connect (i.e. in a direct connection to the family of Mohammed). These struggles for succession and the debate about the legitimacy of the claims formed the basis for the emergence of the Shiite tendency in Islam, which, however, was not formalized until centuries later. There is much criticism of Aisha among the Shiites, including her active participation in the so-called "camel battle" 656, which she led against Ali in retaliation for the murder of the third caliph, Uthman, and her allegedly pathological jealousy (especially towards the deceased Khadija ) and other details of her biography, such as an alleged cheating that went down in Muhammad's biography as the "collar affair". However, her allegedly early marriage age was not the subject of criticism here either.

Criticism of this did not arise until the 20th century and was primarily formulated in the western context, which now developed different guidelines regarding marriage and the concept of a "child". This is why the criticism of Aisha's early marriage was not part of the classic repertoire of early Christian criticism of Islam, but the episode already quoted about the marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh, which served as evidence of the ruthless lust of Muhammad, did. The Aisha's early age at marriage only played a role much later, but is now a standard argument in criticism of Islam.

Could Aisha be older?

Western criticism of Aisha also provoked reactions from Muslim theologians. There have been numerous attempts to raise the age of the Aisha with complex arguments and thus to make them older. This often leads to lengthy detailed investigations into the difficult chronology of the early days of Islam and the biography of Muhammad, all of which, however, can never answer one question: Why there is such a detailed and relatively clear tradition on this subject. An argument that comes up more often in this context is, by the way, that Aisha herself had retrospectively lowered her age in order to strengthen her own position within the family of Mohammed. Above all, one moment must be taken into account that constitutes an important background for this whole topic. It is the eminently high esteem, not to say fetishization, of a "good" that no longer has the status it has elsewhere in western modernity and in this country: virginity. The younger a girl is, the greater the likelihood that she is (still) a virgin. With such a young girl, it can be safely assumed. Overall, however, these recalculations are not very convincing, especially since they clearly represent a reaction to a specific Western criticism that was intended to be countered.

And now?

What should one do with this tradition? The fact that such a young girl was married by an older man can, as described above, be placed in the cultural context of the time, even though it evidently seemed unusual even to many at the time, which explains the extensive tradition. It is also important to note that despite all the exemplary nature of Muhammad, the Islamic legal tradition does not blindly follow his example. In the various schools of law in Islam, for example, the earliest possible age of marriage is based on the onset of puberty, which affects both the external signs of puberty (bulugh) relates (nocturnal ejaculation in boys, onset of menstruation in girls) as well as the achievement of intellectual adulthood (rushd) in order to be able to enter into a marriage with the necessary mutual consent. And this consensus of both spouses is ideally an essential basis for a marriage in an Islamic context. What is important, however, is that on the practical level, marrying too early is not made possible because the necessary adult status (rushd) is not achieved, quite apart from the fact that the husband has to pay for his wife. Marriage to minors is therefore prohibited in most Islamic dominated countries, and the minimum age at marriage is 16 to 18 years for girls and 18 for boys.

The patriarchal divide

The problematic factor here, however, is the clear patriarchal gradient of the Islamic tradition (as in most of the great religious traditions): Although the consensus in principle of both spouses is an official prerequisite for marriage, a man, usually the father, is usually the substitute for the marriage Woman formed the alliance, which is also represented and emphasized by all schools of law. The arranged marriage of a young girl before reaching puberty is also legitimate, which can only be problematized by the girl if this marriage was not initiated by her father. This also opens the door to the highly problematic phenomenon of child marriage. Although this is not allowed by both sides in the state of intellectually mature adulthood due to the above-mentioned basic consent to a marriage, this is practiced with the approval of religious authorities and legitimized with reference to the detail of the biography of Muhammad discussed here.

It should be noted that child marriages are not a specific phenomenon in some Islamic countries. It can also be found, for example, among the Yazidis in Iraq, among the Christian Roma (there are even special statutory exceptions for child marriages in Romania) and in India among Hindus. Mostly it has to do with extremely cramped socio-economic conditions, a lack of education and stuck traditions. In Islam there is of course a possible additional legitimation based on the specific biographical information. However, these can be contextualized and classified historically. But if someone invokes it today to marry off children, then he is probably living in the wrong time. (Franz Winter, 6.2.2019)

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