Mistake or Mischief? Dedering and a report on the Prophet’s marriage with ‘Aisha

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Waqar Akbar Cheema

Muslim scholars commenting on Orientalists’ contribution to the study of Islam acknowledge that they edited and published and thus introduced scores of classical works of Muslim scholarship that had been out of broad reach for centuries.

No doubt Orientalists did make a significant contribution on this account, and its significance outweighs any discrepancies borne of natural limitations for being outsiders to the tradition. In some instances, however, biased readings have also affected the quality of intellectual labour put in.

A Swedish Arabist, Sven Dedering (d. 1986), published Abu Nua’im al-Asbahani’s (d. 430/1038) Akhbar Asbahan based on a single manuscript. In his edition, a report of ‘Aisha (RA) reads:

فاستحث النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أبوي بالبناء

The Prophet – ﷺ – then urged my parents for consummating the marriage.[1]

This reading goes against a report in earlier and well-known work, Muhammad b. Sa’d al-Baghdadi’s (d. 230/845) Tabaqat al-Kubra, which says Abu Bakr (rA) had to remind the Prophet (ﷺ) of his marriage and bid him take his wife along.[2]

Ordinarily, the above reading could pass unnoticed being in an obscure work; however, it contradicts the reading of the same report in another work of the same author; Tibb al-Nabawi, which goes as:

فاستحث النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أبواي بالبنا

The Prophet – ﷺ – was then urged by my parents for consummating the marriage.[3]

When I noted this anomaly, I became sceptical and sought to cross-check the manuscript Dedering had used. Luckily, I could locate it through the Library of the University of Leiden website and placed an order for a digital copy of the relevant pages/folios (Ar. Call No. 568, folio 108b). When I received it, it confirmed my hunch that wording in the Orientalist’s edition was at odds with the manuscript he had used. However, the manuscript had it exactly as in other work of the author.

Report as in the Manuscript used by Dedering

What’s more, the manuscript has a clear ص over the ‘ا’ in أبواي that the Orientalist had omitted, whereby the copyist was assuring that it was not a mistake.

Report as in the Edition produced by Dedering

Mark the contrast; was it the Prophet (ﷺ) or ‘Aisha’s (rA) parents who bid and pushed for the consummation? Of course, it does not matter to Muslims, but given the controversy, Orientalists have made around this marriage during the past century, it appears more of mischief than a mistake.[4]

References:

[1] Al-Asbahani, Abu Nu‘aim, Dhikr Akhbar Isbahan, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1934) Vol.1, 192

[2] Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat al-Kubra, (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyah, 1990) Vol.8, 50; Al-Tabari, Ibn Jarir, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, Vol.11, 601-602 translated in Tasseron-Landau, Ella, The History of al-Tabari: Volume XXXIX – Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) 172-173

[3] Al-Asbahani, Abu Nu‘aim, Al-Tibb al-Nabawi, Ed. Mustafa Khezr Dönmez (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2006) Vol.2, 732 No. 82

[4] For a detailed treatment of contentions around the Prophet’s (ﷺ) marriage with ‘Aisha see our article; Prophet Muhammad’s Marriage with Nine-Year-Old Aisha: A Review of Contentions

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