IT WAS NOT JUST ANY NECKLACE, THOUGH IT WOULD HAVE BEEN easy enough to think so, for it was really no more than a string of beads. They may have been agates, or coral, or even simple seashells—Aisha never did say, and one can almost see her waving her hand dismissively, as though such detail were irrelevant. Perhaps she was right, and it’s enough to know that it was the kind of necklace a young girl would wear, and treasure more than if it had been made of diamonds because it had been Muhammad’s gift to her on her wedding day.
Its loss and the ensuing scandal would be known as the Affair of the Necklace, the kind of folksy title that speaks of oral history, which is how all history began before the age of the printing press and mass literacy. The People of the Cloak, the Episode of Pen and Paper, the Battle of the Camel, the Secret Letter, the Night of Shrieking—all these and more would be the building blocks of early Islamic history. This is history told as story, which of course it always is, but rarely in such vivid and intimate detail.
For the first hundred years of Islam, these stories lived not on the page but on the tongues of those who told them and in the ears and hearts of those who heard them and remembered them to tell again, the details gathering impact as the years unfolded. This was the raw material of the early Islamic historians, who would travel throughout the Middle East to gather these memories, taking great care to record the source of each one by detailing the chain of communication. The isnad, they called it—the provenance of each memory—given up front by prefacing each speaker’s account in the manner of “I was told this by C, who was told it by B, who was told it by A, who was there when it happened.”
This was the method used by Ibn Ishaq in his biography of Muhammad; by Abu Jafar al-Tabari in his magisterial history of early Islam, which comes to thirty-nine volumes in English translation; by Ibn Saad in his sometimes deliciously gossipy collections of anecdotes; and by al-Baladhuri in his “Lineage of the Nobles.” It is an extraordinarily open process, one that allows direct insight into how history is communicated and established, and is deeply respectful of the fact that, Rashomon style, if there were six people there, they would have six similar but subtly different accounts.
Al-Tabari was Sunni, but his vast history is acknowledged as authoritative by Sunni and Shia alike. Its length and detail are part and parcel of his method. He visits the same events again and again, almost obsessively, as different people tell their versions, and the differing versions overlap and diverge in what now seems astonishingly postmodern fashion. Al-Tabari understood that human truth is always flawed—that realities are multiple and that everyone has some degree of bias. The closest one might come to objectivity would be in the aggregate, which is why he so often concludes a disputed episode with that time-honored phrase “Only God knows for sure.”
Reading these voices from the seventh century, you feel as though you are sitting in the middle of a vast desert grapevine, a dense network of intimate knowledge defying the limitations of space and time. As they relate what they saw and what they heard, what this one said and how that one replied, their language is sometimes shocking in its pithiness— not at all what one expects from conventional history. It has the smack of vitality, of real people living in earthshaking times, and it is true to the culture, one in which the language of curse was as rich and developed as the language of blessing. Indeed, both curse and blessing figure prominently in what is to come.
The necklace was lost just one day’s journey outside Medina, toward the end of one of Muhammad’s campaigns to unite Arabia’s tribes under the banner of Islam. These were full-scale expeditions lasting weeks and even months at a time, and he usually took at least one of his wives along with him. None was more eager to go than Aisha.
For a spirited city teenager, this was pure excitement. If Medina was not yet a city in the way we now think of the word—it was more of an agglomeration of tribal villages, each one clustered around a fortified manor house—it was urban enough for the nomadic past to have become a matter of nostalgia. Long poems celebrated the purity of the desert, softening its harshness with the idea of a spiritual nobility lost in the relative ease of settled life.
For Aisha, then, these expeditions were romance. There was the thrill of riding out of the ribbon of green that was Medina, up into the jagged starkness of the mountains that rose like a forbidding no-go zone between Medina and the vast deserts of central and northern Arabia. The Hijaz, they called it—the “barrier”—and beyond it stretched more than seven hundred miles of arid steppe until the land suddenly dipped into the lush river basin of the place they knew as al-Iraq, from the Persian word for lowlands.
This was Aisha’s chance to discover the fabled purity of the desert, and she must have savored every detail of it, admiring the way the scouts who led them knew where every spring was, hidden deep between clefts of rock, every place where a well had been sunk, every dip in the landscape that held the sudden winter rains to create pools that would vanish within a few days. They needed no compasses, no maps; the land was in their heads. They were master travelers.
From her vantage point in her howdah—a canopied cane platform built out from the camel’s saddle—Aisha saw the vast herds of the camel and horse breeders in the northern steppes; the date palm oases of Khaybar and Fadak nestled like elongated emeralds in winding valleys; the gold and silver mines that produced much of the wealth of the Hijaz; the Beduin warriors of remote tribes, fiercely romantic to a city girl. She watched and listened to the drawn-out negotiations with those tribes that resisted acknowledging Muhammad and Islam, hoping for a peaceful outcome even as some other part of her may have hoped the talks would break down so that the only choice left was the sword and the world devolved into action, men’s voices grown hoarse with yelling and the air charged with the clang of steel and the acrid tang of blood.
It was on these expeditions that she learned her repertoire of battle cries, spurring on the men from the rear. The women of seventh-century Arabia were no shrinking violets, and least of all Aisha, known for her sharp tongue and her wit. She learned to curse the enemy, to praise her own side’s virility, to urge the men on to new feats of valor as she would do years later in the thick of battle, even as men were dying all around her. She knew her invective was unnerving, all the more powerful—eerie, almost—for coming in the high, shrill, piercing voice she was known for, unmistakably hers. But both her tongue and her wit would almost fail her now.
It had still been dark when they began to break camp to start the final leg of the journey home, using the cool early hours of the day to advantage. In the chilly predawn half-light, Aisha made her way a hundred yards or so beyond the encampment to relieve herself behind a spindly bush of broom, as women still do when they’re out in the wild, looking for a modicum of privacy. She got back to her camel just as the caravan was preparing to move off, and had already settled into the howdah when she put her fingers to her throat and her heart skipped a beat—that sudden sense of something missing, of absence where there should have been presence. Her necklace, her gift from Muhammad, was gone.
She realized instantly what must have happened. The string had snagged on a branch and snapped without her noticing, scattering the beads onto the ground. But if she was quick about it, there was still time to retrieve them. Without a word to anyone, she slipped down from the howdah and retraced her steps.
Even for someone so determined, though, finding the beads took longer than she’d foreseen. In the early half-light, every broom bush looked the same, and when she finally found the right one and knelt down, she had to sift through the piles of dead needles beneath the bush to find each bead. Yet find them she did, one by one, and returned triumphantly to the camp with the beads tied securely into a knot in the hem of her smock, only to discover that the camp was no longer there. The whole expedition had moved on, and she was suddenly alone in the desert.
How it had happened was understandable. Her maid, an Ethiopian slave girl, had seen her climbing into the howdah, but nobody had seen her slip out again. They had all assumed she was inside and that since the canopy was drawn, she did not want to be disturbed, so they had left without her. What was not quite as understandable to most people was what happened next, or rather, what did not happen next.
Aisha did not run after the caravan, even though the well-trodden route was clear enough. She did not even walk after it, though it could not have been far ahead. Camels laden with equipment and supplies do not move fast. It would have been easy to catch up on foot, especially in the early morning before the sun has gained heat, when the chill of the desert night still hangs in the air, crisp and refreshing—a matter of an hour or so at the most.
Instead, in her own words, “I wrapped myself in my smock and then lay down where I was, knowing that when I was missed they would come back for me.”
It was inconceivable to Aisha that her absence would not be noted, unthinkable that the caravan would not halt and a detachment be sent back to find her. As the Prophet’s wife she assumed a position of privilege. To expect her to catch up on foot was to expect her to behave like a normal teenage girl, and if there was one thing she would insist on all her life, it was her exceptionality.
There was the age at which she had married Muhammad, to start with. She had been a mere child, she later maintained: six years old when she was betrothed to him and nine years old when the marriage was celebrated and consummated. And though this was unlikely, few disputed her claim in her lifetime. Indeed, few people cared to dispute with her at all. As one of the most powerful Caliphs would say many years later, “There was never any subject I wished closed that she would not open, or that I wished open that she would not close.”
But if Aisha was indeed married so young, others would certainly have remarked on it at the time. In fact most reports have her aged nine when she was betrothed and twelve when she was actually married, since custom dictated that girls not marry until puberty. But then again, to have been married at the customary age would have made Aisha normal, and that was the one thing she was always determined not to be.
As she reminded everyone who would listen through to the end of her life—an enviably long one compared to the other main figures in this story since she would outlive them all—she was not only Muhammad’s youngest wife but also the purest, the only one who had been neither a divorcée nor a widow but a virgin at marriage. And most important of all, she was Muhammad’s favorite.
Humayra—“my little redhead”—he called her, though she was almost certainly not a natural redhead. If she had been, it would have led to much comment in dark-haired Arabia; indeed she herself, never shy with words, would have said a lot more about it. But a double measure of henna would have made her hair glow dark red, as was of course the purpose. It emphasized her difference.
She had been the first of the nine wives Muhammad had married after the death of Khadija—offered by her father, Muhammad’s close friend and longtime supporter Abu Bakr, as a means of distracting the Prophet in the depth of his mourning. It was easy to see why. Bold and irrepressible, she would bring him back to life. By her own account, at least, she would tease and taunt him and not only get away with it but be loved for it. Muhammad seemed to have granted her license for girlish mischief, as though he were a fond father indulging a spoiled daughter, entranced by her sassiness and charm.
Charming she must have been, and sassy she definitely was. Sometimes, though, the charm wears thin, at least to the modern ear. The stories Aisha later told of her marriage were intended to show her influence and spiritedness, but there is often a definite edge to them, a sense of a young woman not to be crossed or denied, of someone who could all too easily switch from spirited to mean-spirited.
There was the time Muhammad spent too long for Aisha’s liking with another wife, who had made a “honeyed drink” for him—a kind of Arabian syllabub, probably, made with egg whites and goat’s milk beaten thick with honey, for which Muhammad had a particular weakness. When he finally came to her chamber and told her why he had been delayed, she made a face and, knowing that he was particular about bad breath, wrinkled her nose in distaste. “The bees that made that honey must have been eating wormwood,” she insisted, and was rewarded when the next time Muhammad was offered a honeyed drink, he refused it.
Other times she went further, as when Muhammad arranged to seal an alliance with a major Christian tribe newly converted to Islam by marrying its leader’s daughter, a girl renowned for her beauty. When the bride-to-be arrived in Medina, Aisha volunteered to help prepare her for the wedding and, under the guise of sisterly advice, advised her that Muhammad would think all the more highly of her if on the wedding night, she resisted him by saying, “I take refuge with God from thee.” The new bride had no idea that this was the Islamic phrase used to annul a marriage. All she knew was that the moment she said it, Muhammad left, and the next day she was bundled unceremoniously back to her own people.
Aisha, in short, was used to having things her own way, so when she was left behind in the desert, she saw no reason to expect anything different. If there was the slightest murmur of panic at the back of her mind as the sun rose higher overhead and she took shelter under a scraggly acacia tree, as the shadow of the tree grew shorter and still nobody came, she would never have acknowledged it, not even to herself. Of course she would be missed. Of course someone would be sent for her. The last thing anyone would expect was that she, the favorite wife of the Prophet, run after a pack of camels like some Beduin shepherd girl. That would be just too demeaning.
Someone did come, though not a special contingent deputized to search for her, as she had expected. In fact the expedition sent nobody at all, since they never realized she was missing, not even after they had reached Medina. In the hubbub of arrival—the hundreds of camels being unloaded and stabled, the throng of warriors being greeted by wives and kinsmen—her absence went unnoticed. Her maid assumed she’d slipped down from the howdah and gone perhaps to see her mother. Muhammad himself would have been far too busy to think of her. Everyone simply assumed she was someplace else.
So it was Aisha’s good fortune, or perhaps her misfortune, that a certain young Medinan warrior had been delayed and was riding alone through the heat of the day to catch up with the main expeditionary force when he saw her lying under that acacia tree.
His name was Safwan, and in what Aisha would swear was an act of chivalry as pure as the desert itself, he recognized her immediately, dismounted, helped her up onto his camel, then led the animal on foot the whole twenty miles to Medina. That was how everyone in the oasis witnessed the arrival of the Prophet’s wife just before nightfall, hours behind the main body of the expedition, sitting tall and proud on a camel led by a good-looking young warrior.
She must surely have sensed that something was wrong as people stared in a kind of stunned astonishment. Must have noticed how they hung back, with nobody rushing up to say, “Thanks be to God that you’re safe.” Must have seen how they looked sideways at each other and muttered as she passed. No matter how upright she sat on Safwan’s camel, how high she held her head or how disdainful her glare, she must have heard the tongues start to wag as children ran ahead, spreading the word, and must have known what that word was.
The sight was too much to resist. The Prophet’s youngest wife traveling alone with a virile young warrior, parading through the series of villages strung along the valley of Medina? Word of it ran through the oasis in a matter of hours. A necklace indeed, people clucked. What could one expect of a childless teenager married to a man in his late fifties? Alone the whole day in the desert with a young warrior? Why had she simply lain down and waited when she could have caught up with the expedition on foot? Had it been a prearranged tryst? Had the Prophet been deceived by his spirited favorite?
Whether anyone actually believed such a thing was beside the point. In the seventh century as today, scandal is its own reward, especially when it has a sexual aspect. But more important, this one fed into the existing political landscape of the oasis. What Aisha and Safwan may or may not have done in the desert was not really the issue. This was about Muhammad’s reputation, his political standing.
Any slur on Aisha was a slur on her whole family, but especially on the two men closest to her: the man who had given her in marriage and the man who had taken her. Her father, Abu Bakr, had been Muhammad’s sole companion on that night flight from Mecca for the shelter of Medina, and that distinction had helped make him one of the leading figures among the former Meccans who had made Medina the new power center of Arabia. The Emigrants, they were called, and right there in the name was the fact that the Medinans still thought of them as foreign, as Meccans. They were respected, certainly, but not quite accepted. They still had that whiff of outsiders who had come in and somehow taken over, as though the Medinans themselves had not invited them. So it was the native Medinans, the ones known as the Helpers, who were especially delighted by this new development. In the politics of seventh-century Medina, as anywhere in the world today, the appearance of impropriety was as bad as impropriety itself.
Even among the Emigrants, though, there were those who thought the Abu Bakr household needed to be taken down a peg, and especially the young girl who so evidently thought herself better than anyone aside from the Prophet himself. Among the women in particular, Aisha was resented. Muhammad’s daughters, let alone his other wives, were weary of her grandstanding. For the first time, the young girl so insistent on standing out, on being exceptional, found herself standing out too much.
There is no doubt that Aisha was innocent of the charges against her. She may have been young and headstrong, but she also had a highly developed sense of politics. To risk her whole standing, let alone her father’s, for a passing dalliance? That was out of the question. The favorite wife of the Prophet consorting with a mere warrior, and one who wasn’t even from one of the best families? She would never dream of it. Safwan had behaved as she had expected him to behave, the white knight to her maiden in distress. To imply anything beyond that was the most scurrilous slander. How could anyone even think such a thing?
Certainly Muhammad did not. If anything, he must have felt guilty about having left his young favorite alone in the desert, so at first he dismissed the rumors, convinced that they would die down soon enough. But in this he seriously misread the mood of the oasis.
Overnight, the poets got busy. They were the gossip columnists, the op-ed writers, the bloggers, the entertainers of the time, and the poems they wrote now were not lyrical odes, but the other great form of traditional Arabic poetry: satires. Laced with puns and double entendres, they were irresistibly repeatable, building up momentum the more they spread. The barbed rhyming couplets acted like lances, verbal attacks all the more powerful in a society where alliances were made on a promise and a handshake, and men were literally taken at their word.
Soon the whole oasis was caught up in a fervor of sneering insinuation. At the wells, in the walled vegetable gardens, in the date orchards, in the inns and the markets and the stables, even in the mosque itself, up and down the eight-mile length of the Medina valley, people reveled, as people always have and always will, in the delicious details, real or imagined, of scandal.
Try as he might, Muhammad could no longer ignore the matter. That Aisha was innocent was not the point; she had to be seen as innocent. He was well aware that his power and leadership were not beyond dispute in Medina, while to the south Mecca still remained in opposition to him and, even after two major battles, would not submit for another five years. The scurrilous satirical poems had already reached that merchant city, where they were received with outright glee.
Muhammad had been placed in a double bind. If he divorced Aisha, he would by implication be acknowledging that he had been deceived. If he took her back, he risked being seen as a doting old man bamboozled by a mere slip of a girl. Either way, it would erode not only his own authority as the leader of Medina but the authority of Islam itself. Incredible as it seemed, the future of the new faith seemed to hang on a teenage girl’s reputation.
In the meantime, he banished Aisha from her chamber on the eastern wall of the mosque courtyard and sent her home to Abu Bakr. There she was kept indoors, away from prying eyes and ears, while word was put out that she had returned to her father’s house to recuperate from a sudden illness. Not that the rumormongers were buying it. Illness, indeed, they said knowingly; she was hiding her face in shame, as well she might.
For the first time in her life, nothing Aisha could say—and as one early historian put it, “she said plenty”—could make any difference. She tried high indignation, wounded pride, fury against the slander, but none of it seemed to have any effect. Years later, still haunted by the episode, she even maintained that Safwan was known to be impotent—that “he never touched women”—an unassailable statement since by then Safwan was long dead, killed in battle, and so could not defend his virility.
A teenage girl under a cloud, Aisha finally did what any teenage girl would do. She cried. And if there was a touch of hyperbole to her account of those tears, that was understandable under the circumstances. As she put it later, “I could not stop crying until I thought the weeping would burst my liver.”
You could say it was just chance that the loss of a necklace should create such trouble. You could point to it, as conservative Muslim clerics still do, as an example of what happens when women refuse to stay home and instead take an active part in public life. You could counter that this is just the same old sexist trick of blaming the woman in the story. Or you could argue that it was inevitable that trouble begin with Aisha, given her personality and, above all, given her resentment of Muhammad’s first wife.
The wealthy merchant widow Muhammad had married when she was forty and he twenty-five, Khadija was the woman to whom he had been faithful, in a monogamous marriage, until the day she died. It had been in her arms that he had sought shelter and comfort from the awe and terror of revelation, her voice that had reassured him and confirmed the awesome validity of his mission. No matter how many more times he married, he would never find that quality of love again.
How could a teenage girl possibly compete against the hallowed memory of a dead woman? But then who but a teenage girl would even dream of trying?
“I wasn’t jealous of any of the Prophet’s wives except for Khadija, even though I came after her death,” she said many years later. And though this was clearly untrue—whenever there was so much as a mention of another wife’s beauty, Aisha bristled—Khadija was certainly the focus of her jealousy. Muhammad’s first wife was the one woman who, precisely because she was dead, was unassailable. He had made this perfectly clear, for in all of Aisha’s teasing of him, the one time she went too far—the one time Muhammad rebuked her—was when she dared turn that sharp tongue of hers on Khadija.
It took the form of a question designed, it seemed, to taunt Muhammad with her own attractiveness. It was the kind of question only a teenager could ask and only an older woman could regret as she related the incident many years later. In language unmistakably hers—nobody else would have dared be so startlingly direct—the young Aisha had asked Muhammad how he could possibly remain so devoted to the memory of “that toothless old woman whom God has replaced with a better.”
You can see how she intended this as a flirtatious tease, blithely unaware of the effect of her words. But the fact remains that they were said with the casual disregard of the young and vivacious for the old and dead, the cruel derision of a teenager. And if Aisha thought for a moment she could gain precedence over Khadija in such a way, Muhammad’s response stopped her in her tracks.
“Indeed no, God has not replaced her with a better,” he said. And then, driving the point home: “God granted me her children while withholding those of other women.”
There it was: Not only was Khadija the only one beyond all criticism, but the Prophet himself held Aisha’s childlessness against her. A virgin bride she may have been, but in a society where women gained status through motherhood, mother she was not and would never be.
Is that where her determination began, or had it been there all along? For determination was what it would take for Aisha to remake herself as she did. This childless teenager would establish herself after the Prophet’s death as the leader of the Mothers of the Faithful, the term by which his widows were known. She would be the one who spoke for them all, who would transform herself into the Mother of the Faithful, a power behind the throne whose approval was sought by every ruler and whose influence was underestimated by none. Mother of none, she would become—at least as she saw it—the mother of all Muslims.
Daring, headstrong, outspoken even when it reflected badly on herself, Aisha stands squarely at the center of this story, able to run verbal rings around every man in it. Every man, that is, but one, and that was the man to whom Muhammad now turned for advice in the Affair of the Necklace.