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Dr. David Liepert Headshot

Rejecting the Myth of Sanctioned Child Marriage in Islam

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MUSLIM CHILD BRIDE
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Name one thing Muslims and Christians share? Their level effort pointing fingers elsewhere whenever pedophilia comes up. Catholic priests are an obvious and easy target, but when my 16-year-old daughter raised $26,000 in her high school to combat North America's growing child-sex-slavery trade, her grandmother complained that she wasn't doing enough about misogyny and abuse in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. Although she wasn't very clear how Marley would get there. My pen on the other hand? We'll see.

Another similarity? Neither Muslims nor Christians blame Christianity for the problem, but the same can't be said for Islam. You've got to give pedophiles their props though. Most sane people consider them something beyond abhorrent, and yet on this issue they have convinced even Christian leaders to climb into bed with them, and with some Sunni and Shiite scholars to boot. And it's time to pull the sheets back and see what's really going on for the sake of women and children everywhere.

There are really only three reasons to insist -- as so many do -- that Aisha was only 9 years old when Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) married her: Either you are such a crazy Islamophile that you are willing to go to your grave insisting Muhammad could do whatever he wanted, or you are such a crazy Islamophobe that you want to insist he did, or you are such a weirdly religious sex-crazed pervert that you hope accusing him makes it OK for you to do it too.

There is absolutely no other reason to either make or repeat that disgusting claim. Aisha was married in 622 C.E., and although her exact birthday is unknown, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari recorded that it happened before Islam was revealed in 610. The earliest surviving biography of Muhammad, Abu Muhammad 'Abd al-Malik bin Hisham's recension of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah -- The Life of the Messenger of God records that Aisha accepted Islam shortly after it was revealed -- 12 years before her marriage -- and there is no way she could have done so as an infant or toddler.

Furthermore, it is a matter of incontrovertible historical record that Aisha was involved in the Battles of Badr in 624 and Uhud in 625, in neither of which was anyone under the age of 15 allowed.

Finally, Imam Wali-ud-Din Muhammad ibn Abdullah Al-Khatib, dead for more than 700 years, recorded in the biographical section of Miskat al-Masabih that Asma, her elder sister of 10 years, died at the age of 100, 72 years after Aisha's wedding. This makes Aisha's age at the time of her marriage at least 14, and at the time of her marriage's consummation almost 20.

Although those dates make it obvious that Aisha's child-marriage couldn't have taken place, according to Arab tribal traditions of the time it could have, and apparently it can still happen in Arabia today. A case that recently raged through the international press and Saudi courts -- of an 8-year-old girl who had been married by her father to a 47 year-old "friend" to settle Dad's debts -- shows how little things there have changed. However, that's despite Islam, not because of it.

Prior to Muhammad in Arabia, it is common knowledge that females were considered property, and that female infants were often discarded like refuse when born. However, one of Islam's primary revelations was that men and women had equal status before God, with different though equal rights and obligations. Another was God's condemnation of Arab female sacrifice, proclaiming that girl-children were just as valuable as boy-children to God and to humankind.

Obviously, those ignorant tribal prejudices and practices persist. However the most important reason Aisha's child-marriage couldn't have happened is this: Muhammad couldn't do anything any more than any other Muslim can. Muhammad was the finest example of true Islamic living there could ever be, and having marital relations with a woman of less than the "age of majority" -- an age that varies from culture to culture but presupposes the ability to become pregnant, have children and make decisions for those children as an adult -- was, is and always will be completely contrary to the example set by our Prophet, and the message of Islam's Holy Quran.

The Quran is clear that a divorced woman cannot marry another man until she completes a period of waiting to confirm she isn't already pregnant, and such an impediment would be unnecessary were pregnancy not possible. However, the roots of Islamic pedophilia lie in exactly what the verse (At-Talaq -- "The Divorce" 65:4) about that waiting period says. Yousuf Ali's English translation is a pretty good approximation:

Waalla-ee ya-isna mina almaheedi min nisa-ikum ini irtabtum fa'iddatuhunna thalathatu ashhurin waalla-ee lam yahidna waolatu al-ahmali ajaluhunna an yada'ana hamlahunna waman yattaqi Allaha yaj'al lahu min amrihi yusran.

Such of your women as have passed the age of monthly courses, for them the prescribed period, if ye have any doubts, is three months, and for those who have no courses (it is the same): for those who carry (life within their wombs), their period is until they deliver their burdens: and for those who fear Allah, He will make their path easy.

Now, I've discussed the verse with progressive Islamic scholars and learned that "Lam Yahidna" negates menstruation in the past tense and the jussive mode and means "did not menstruate," with the expectation that the woman should be menstruating, since that natural cycle is part of her normal state.

Then again, I know that there are Islamic scholars from Arabia and Pakistan -- another place with long traditions of both child-marriage and misogyny -- and Islamophobes from around the world who interpret it as if it says "has not menstruated yet," with the jussive mode implying the girl is impatient to begin, ensuring that it seems to perpetuate the pre-Islamic practice of having sex with pre-pubescent girls.

Between those two incredibly divergent positions, how does one choose?

When Muslims face difficult questions, we have the Sunnah, an Arabic word meaning "the acts of Muhammad," to guide us, and that's why Aisha's age is such an issue. But the thing is, whether Aisha was still a child when her marriage was consummated has never been a question: all scholars agree that occurred after Aisha's menarche. Islamophobes inevitably claim otherwise, but they do so based on a completely fictitious interpretation of events.

And that means the problem that we should be addressing is the root one, that of men devaluing and disenfranchising girls and women: Husbands and fathers treating girls as property and forcing them to marry against their will.

And in that, the condemnation of the Quran and Sunnah are very clear: The Quran states a woman's consent is essential, and the Sunnah confirms that both Aisha's betrothal and consummation occurred with Aisha's enthusiastic agreement. In fact, some even imply she went against the initial wishes of her Dad!

Those guides unequivocally confirm that men and woman have equal status before God, equal though different rights when wed, and that a woman cannot be given in marriage without her express approval. Absent that, the Sunnah also records that Muhammad dissolved marriages on the woman's testimony alone. That is what Muslims should be proclaiming, rather than the purported right of Muslim men to marry underage brides.

The cause of the confusion is simple. Imam Bukhari, compiler of the famous Hadith collection (Hadith in this context meaning stories about Muhammad) Sahih Bukhari included one recalling that Aisha said she was 6 when betrothed and 9 when she was wed. However, Bukhari included another recording that Aisha was a young girl and remembered when Surah Al-Qamar was revealed -- 9 years before her wedding -- as well. Obviously, both Hadiths can't be true, and that's the problem with relying too much on Hadiths, and too little on the Quran and common sense.

Even if you believe -- as I do -- that the Quran is a divinely protected book, the same cannot be said about all Hadiths. In fact, there is even an Ayah in the Quran that warns about the dangers of thinking otherwise. Luqman 31:6 cautions:

Wamina alnnasi man yashtaree lahwa alhadithi liyudilla aaan sabeeli Allahi bighayri aailmin wayattakhithaha huzuwan ola-ika lahum aaathabun muheenun.

But there are, among men, those who purchase idle Hadiths, without knowledge (or meaning), to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah and throw ridicule (on the Path): for such there will be a Humiliating Penalty.

While there are Muslim scholars who claim that Luqman 6 is actually a warning about musical performers like Madonna, there are others who respond that unless those performers are Muslim nothing they do throws ridicule on any path but their own. And personally, I think the Ayah is instead a frank and literal warning about the dangers of trafficking in false and idle Hadiths, just like it says.

I also can't think of a better set of examples of what it's talking about than the damage that's been done by confusion over Aisha's age of consummation.

I have read a great deal of speculation about why Hadiths that make Aisha seem immature might be wrong. Most of them came out of what is now Iraq, through one specific source named Hisham ibn Urwah. And it's worth noting that his student Muslim -- who collated the Hadiths of Sahih Muslim -- specifically chose not to include any from his respected teacher after Hisham went to Iraq. Some say it's because Hisham's memory became spotty, others say it was because Iraq was a political hotbed of "anti-Aisha" feeling and some evil men fabricated Hadiths in Hisham's name.

But none of the speculation matters. The only thing you need to realize is that both the tales Bukhari included can't both be true. That fact, put together with the Quran's warning, means that Hadiths can't be as authoritative to Muslims as the Holy Quran and the Sunnah are.

I've been told otherwise by many good Muslims, and I know there are even places in the world where you can spark a riot by saying otherwise, but I think that's part of what Luqman warns us about. I love Hadiths for the illuminating light they can shine on the interpretation of a difficult passage, or on my own attempts navigating a difficult juncture in my life, but I've also participated in Islamic dinner events that have fallen apart discussing the Hadith condemning Muslims who smell their food before they eat it.

Now, the role, authority and validity of individual Hadiths is not an issue that is going to be put to rest by someone like me; there is an entire scholarly science devoted to it. And personally, I think that debate and discussion, both between scholars and "grass-roots" Muslims, is useful and instructive whether the Hadiths being discussed are actually "true" or not, as long as that discussion is respectful of both our religion of Islam and our fellow participants.

But while we're on the subject of how Muslims settle Islamic controversies, there's an important question that begs asking. I actually understand the Islamophobic focus on false and embarrassing Islamic interpretations: they're just trying to score points the best way they know how, with tools we Muslims have given them. But all these facts I've shared are just common knowledge that's easily verifiable and my conclusions little more than simple common sense.

If Muslim scholars are so concerned that Muslim practices follow Islam's revelation and Muhammad's memory, and if they truly want to defend Islam and our Prophet, then what have they been doing for the last thousand years?

No question men (and women) can be pigs when it comes to sex and gender issues -- when I'm asked to explain why we can't eat pork I generally explain the problem might be cannibalism -- but religion is supposed to help us combat those dark urges not pander to them.

And while we're on the subject of marriage, the Quran doesn't condone wife-beating either. In pre-Islamic Arabia, men did not need permission to beat their wives. And although the Arabic root Dzaraba does mean "beat" it also means "heal." Dzaraba denotes action for a higher purpose, such as "striking (or minting) a coin," or "striking out on a new path." Coupled with the Quran's warning to husbands that God is watching everything we do, and a reminder that we must serve our marriage rather than ourselves, particularly after proclaiming married men to be tasked as providers and protectors rather than rulers all in the same passage, in Muhammad's day Islam actually took that permission away, despite misogynist Muslim and Islamophobic claims to the contrary.

With all the suffering in Somalia, so much of it caused by misapplied and misinterpreted misreadings of Islam, why are Somalia's scholars focusing on sexualizing hand-holding?

How is it that Saudi Arabia still allows child marriage when they've known Aisha's real age all along (the biographies I reference are written in Arabic, for Heaven's sake!), or that Pakistan's rape laws cleave to British colonial precedent?

In Pakistan, a woman can be punished for being raped if the rapist denies her claims. But when Muhammad was faced with a woman who told him she'd been raped, he had the man in question executed on the testimony of the woman, whom he pronounced blameless, alone.

The simple truth is that all our Muslim scholars since Islam began have been human, limited by the human ability to pander, avoid conflict by bowing to popular opinion, or make mistakes. And when scholars fail their sacred trust, to transmit Islam with fidelity, they lose their right to any authority, Islamic or otherwise, and frankly, it's up to the rest of us to do a better job of keeping them honest.

Because if any of us care about things like "truth" and "fidelity" as much as so many of us claim, "Too busy to check the facts out for myself" just doesn't seem like much of an excuse.

What's my bottom line? The age Aisha attained before she married the Prophet is one issue we have to put to rest -- for the sake of children everywhere. There is absolutely no question that Aisha was an adult when she consummated her marriage with Muhammad of her own free will, and she lived out her life in the earliest days of Islam the un-harassed and proudly participatory equal of everyone, just like every other man, woman or child under God.

That is our Muslim legacy that we should be striving to live up to, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply crazy, one way or another.

Around the Web

Islam and children - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Child Brides in Ivory Coast - washingtonpost.com

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Saudis 'to regulate' child brides

Child marriage - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Child Brides in Saudi Arabia? - City of Brass

Another Dead Child-Bride - NYTimes.com