Child marriage in Islam – following the Sunna of Mohammed

Another week, another interesting figure pops up in the news with controversial comments about Islam. This time it is Malaysian Member of Parliament (and former sharia court judge) Datuk Shabudin Yahaya. There was an initial kerfuffle regarding some remarks he made about rape – he later argued the media quoted these out of context to make him look like he was approving of rape in particular circumstances, which he did not mean. Yet, he did say that rapists can marry their victims and thinks this is a viable option.

However, he also said (bold emphasis mine):

They (girls) reach puberty at the age of nine or 12. And at that time, their body is already akin to them being 18 years old. So physically and spiritually, it is not a barrier for the girl to marry.

Furthermore (bold emphasis mine):

Shabudin explained…that during the parliamentary debate on the Child Sexual Crime Bill, he was rejecting suggestions by opposition MP Teo Nie Ching to bar those below the age of 16 from getting married. He said he rejected the motion to ban child marriages as it was contrary to provisions in Sharia law….

It takes a certain kind of person to ignore the obvious physical and psychological differences between females of the ages of nine and 18. Moreover, it’s extremely interesting that a former sharia court judge should reject the notion to ban child marriages since it would be “contrary to provisions in Sharia law.”

Is child marriage consistent with Islam and the sharia, or not?

Child marriage is mentioned throughout Islam’s canonical sources. The Koran, Hadith and the sharia, show child marriage is permitted and something Mohammed engaged in.

The Koran takes child marriage for granted when Allah discusses how divorce is to occur – the context of Sura 65, Verse 4 shows that wives can include prepubescent girls (bold emphasis mine):

In the case of those of your wives who are past the age of menstruation, if you have any doubt, their ´idda should be three months, and that also applies to those who have not yet menstruated. The time for women who are pregnant is when they give birth. Whoever has taqwa of Allah — He will make matters easy for him.

(Sura 65, Verse 4 – translation by Aisha Bewley)

This idea is reiterated in ‘Umdat al-Salik (‘The Reliance of the Traveller’), a highly respected classical manual of Islamic law compiled in the 14th century by Ahmad Ibn Naqib Al-Misri. In 1991, ‘Umdat al-Salik was certified and endorsed by the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most important learning institution within Sunni Islam. Books M and N of ‘Umdat al-Salik deal with marriage and divorce respectively – again, child marriage is taken for granted and shows it can occur (bold emphasis mine):

A guardian may not marry his prepubescent daughter to someone for less than the amount typically received as marriage payment by similar brides, nor marry his prepubescent son to a female who is given more than the amount typically received. If he does either of these, the amount stipulated is void and the amount typically received is paid instead.

(‘Umdat al-Salik, M8.2)

This ruling states that a guardian cannot marry their prepubescent daughter or son under particular circumstances. However, if circumstances are favourable, then presumably it can proceed.

And from Book N (bold emphasis mine):

A waiting period is obligatory for a woman divorced after intercourse, whether the husband and wife are prepubescent, have reached puberty, or one has and the other has not.

(‘Umdat al-Salik, N9.2)

Hence, as with the Koran (Sura 65, Verse 4) this ruling shows how divorce should occur: there must be a waiting period to determine whether the woman has been impregnated should sexual intercourse have taken place during marriage. The ruling stipulates this applies with regards to individuals who may or may not be prepubescent.

Datuk Shabudin Yahaya mentions the age of nine with regards to girls and puberty. This age is no coincidence when it comes to the example of Mohammed.

One of Mohammed’s favourite wives was Aisha – she was the daughter of Abu Bakr, one of Mohammed’s senior companions (and later, the first of the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’ after Mohammed’s death in 632). After the death of Mohammed’s first wife – Khadijah – Mohammed convinced Abu Bakr to betroth Aisha to him, notwithstanding Abu Bakr’s reluctance. As contained in the Hadith of al-Bukhari:

Narrated by ‘Ursa: The Prophet asked Abu Bakr for ‘Aisha’s hand in marriage. Abu Bakr said “But I am your brother.” The Prophet said, “You are my brother in Allah’s religion and His Book, but she (Aisha) is lawful for me to marry.”

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 18)

Furthermore, Mohammed had dreamt about Aisha twice and thus interpreted this as a sign that she must be married to him:

Narrated by ‘Aisha: Allah’s Apostle said to me, “You were shown to me twice (in my dream) before I married you. I saw an angel carrying you in a silken piece of cloth, and I said to him, ‘Uncover (her),’ and behold, it was you. I said (to myself), ‘If this is from Allah, then it must happen.’ Then you were shown to me, the angel carrying you in a silken piece of cloth, and I said (to him), ‘Uncover (her), and behold, it was you. I said (to myself), ‘If this is from Allah, then it must happen.’”

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 87, Number 140)

In addition, according to the following hadith, Aisha was underage and prepubescent when Mohammed married her (bold emphasis mine):

‘Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) reported that Allah’s Apostle (May peace be upon him) married her when she was seven years old, and he was taken to his house as a bride when she was nine, and her dolls were with her; and when he (the Holy Prophet) died she was eighteen years old.

(Sahih Muslim, Book 008, Number 3311)

‘Aisha reported that she used to play with dolls in the presence of Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) and when her playmates came to her they left (the house) because they felt shy of Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him), whereas Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) sent them to her.

(Sahih Muslim, Book 031, Number 5981)

Narrated by ‘Aisha: I used to play with the dolls in the presence of the Prophet, and my girl friends also used to play with me. When Allah’s Apostle used to enter (my dwelling place) they used to hide themselves, but the Prophet would call them to join and play with me. (The playing with the dolls and similar images is forbidden, but it was allowed for ‘Aisha at that time, as she was a little girl, not yet reached the age of puberty.)

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 151)

Furthermore, Mohammed had sexual relations with Aisha at this time when she was underage and prepubescent (bold emphasis mine):

Narrated by ‘Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his death).

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 64)

Narrated by ‘Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old. Hisham said: I have been informed that ‘Aisha remained with the Prophet for nine years (i.e. till his death).” What you know of the Quran (by heart)’.

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 65)

Narrated by ‘Ursa: The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with ‘Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death).

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 88)

In one hadith, Aisha herself recalls the moment when her marriage with Mohammed was consummated (bold emphasis mine):

Narrated by Aisha: The Prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six (years). We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Bani-al-Harith bin Khazraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on my hair grew (again) and my mother, Um Ruman, came to me while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends. She called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house. I was breathless then, and when my breathing became Allright, she took some water and rubbed my face and head with it. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah’s Blessing and a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age.

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 58, Number 234)

Hence, the hadith show Mohammed married Aisha when she was six/seven and consummated the marriage with her when she was nine.

The disturbing fact remains that many young Muslim girls today are held captive by Mohammed’s example from the 7th century – many Muslim men and Islamic clerics believe child marriage is permitted precisely because of the Sunna of Mohammed i.e. his example. Within Islamic ideology, Mohammed is revered as the exemplary Muslim: it is mentioned 91 times in the Koran that he is the perfect example to follow. Unfortunately, in this instance, the problem with imitating Mohammed’s 7th century behaviour in the 21st century means paedophilia is committed.

It goes without saying that not all Muslim men today marry an underage girl. However, that does not negate the fact that it is allowed within Islam because of Mohammed’s Sunna which stems directly from his marriage with Aisha. Hugh Fitzgerald explains that:

…child marriages in Islamic societies have been accepted because of Aisha’s example, though not everywhere is a child bride as young as nine been allowed. When the Ayatollah Khomeini was alive, he reduced the age at which a girl could be married to nine, but now it has been raised to 13, which is still quite young….child brides – around age 15 – are allowed in several Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. And….the most disturbing example of the effect of Aisha’s marriage, which is in Saudi Arabia, where the Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh announced in 2014 that there would be no minimum age for child brides, which is still the rule. There was even a case of an 8-year-old forced by a court to stay married to a man in his 50s. Muhammad’s marriage has thus had consequences for tens of millions of Muslim girls over 1400 years.

The legacy of Mohammed’s Sunna isn’t confined to the Islamic world; indeed, the problem of child marriage rears itself in countries such as Bangladesh, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iran but also in Islamic communities in the West e.g. Germany, Switzerland and Britain.

In 2008, Arab-American psychiatrist Wafa Sultan explained on Al-Hayat TV about the inferior treatment women are subjected to under Islam, referencing Mohammed’s various marriages:

When the Prophet Muhammad married the child ‘Aisha, this was not an act of honor toward her childhood. When Muhammad married Zaynab, the wife of his adopted son, after seeing her naked and desiring her, this was not an act of honor toward married women. When Muhammad married the Jewish woman Safiya, upon his return from a raid in which he killed her father, brother, and husband, this was not an act of honor toward her. The same goes for all his marriages. Accusing women of being “lacking in brains” is not an act of honor toward her.

…..I firmly believe that the Islamic faith was created to serve Muhammad, and to legitimize his desires and urges. As evidence, we have ‘Aisha’s words: “I see that your Lord hastens to satisfy your desires.” These words, which she said with innocence and spontaneity, embody the goal for which the Islamic faith was formed. Islam allowed men to marry infants in order to justify Muhammad’s marriage to ‘Aisha. Islam forbade adoption in order to justify Muhammad’s marriage to the wife of his adopted son – a thing forbidden by the pre-Islamic moral values of the Arabs. Islam permitted taking women captive and violating their honor in order to justify Muhammad’s marriage to Safiya, after killing her husband, her father, and her brother that same night. Can you imagine any woman on the face of this earth witnessing with her own eyes the killing of her husband, her father, and her brother, and accepting the religion of their killer on the spot, and sleeping with him?! Can the human mind possibly accept such a story?

Given her background as a psychiatrist, Sultan has worked with women who have experienced the trauma of child marriage:

I personally did not suffer, but I have witnessed many crimes against women perpetrated within my extended family and in the framework of my work. As a doctor, I have entered homes that have not seen the light of day, and I have witnessed many crimes against women, perpetrated under the influence of Islamic teachings. In my family – at the age of 12 at most, my sister’s daughter was forced to marry her cousin, who was over 40 years old. Her life with him was an intolerable hell on earth. When she felt there was no escape from this hell, she committed suicide. She set fire to herself, and within minutes she became ashes, leaving four children behind.

The sad reality is that child marriage is consistent with the Koran, Hadith and the sharia. It is in line with the Sunna of Mohammed. Hence, when Datuk Shabudin Yahaya said he rejected the motion to ban child marriages as this would be contrary to provisions in Sharia law, he was fully aware of what this meant: he did not want to rule against something that Mohammed did himself. With this understanding, the problem of child marriage within Islam will tragically continue for some time to come.