The Global Reach of 'A'isha bint Abi Bakr's Life, from the Medieval Islamic World to Early Modern North America

By Denise Spellberg
Submitted to Session P5331 (Early Women's Voices, 2018 Annual Meeting
North America;
13th-18th Centuries;
"The Global Reach of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr’s Life, from the Medieval Islamic World to Early Modern North America"
Knowledge about Islam defied geographical boundaries in the early modern British Atlantic world of the 17th and 18th centuries. Middle Eastern history was also gendered as it crossed the Atlantic to North America during this era. This paper documents the global reach of pivotal biographical information about the Prophet’s wife, ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr, a 7th-century female Muslim exemplar. The transatlantic transmission of significant aspects of her biography provides, for the first time, the opportunity to analyze what early Americans knew about Islam and Muslim women, as well as when and how they initially learned about the subject. The paper traces how Arabic sources, newly translated into English in 17th-century England, became central to depictions of ‘A’isha’s life over the next century when they arrived in America. The analysis focuses on two key events: the accusation of adultery lodged against ‘A’isha and her political role in the first civil war after her husband’s death.

The paper documents how the slander against ‘A’isha’s chastity featured in the two earliest English translations of the Qur’an by Alexander Ross and George Sale. Both men explicitly mention ‘A’isha by name in relation to her Qur’anic vindication in the verses 24: 11-20. While Ross’s 1649 translation contains the earliest transatlantic reference to ‘A’isha, it is also the briefest; its main importance lies in its reappearance as the basis for the first American edition of the Qur’an, reproduced in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1806. ‘Aisha’s name appears in it.

In contrast, Sale’s translation of 1734, the first from Arabic to English, contains a remarkably accurate, detailed account of the slander, based on Arabic sources, from hadith to tafsir. Inexplicably, Sale’s translation also contains a major error concerning ‘A’isha and the charge of adultery, one not noted in Ziad Elmarsafy’s Enlightenment Qur’an (2009), which charts the impact of this translation in Europe. This analysis thus focuses on ‘A’isha’s significant yet flawed representation in Sale’s Qur’an in America.

In addition, this paper explores ‘A’isha’s central role in the first civil war, which Sale documents in his separate 1739 narrative of Islamic history, grounded in Arabic sources. Simon Ockley’s earlier 1708 "History of the Saracens" also details ‘A’isha’s political role. Both 18th-century narratives underscore ‘A’isha’s status as a powerful Muslim woman, central to the earliest gendered Islamic histories in America.