Haram Month #3 – Child marriage in the Islamic world

Another story I had heard this week was that of an imam in Denmark who urged the Danish government to accept child marriages among its refugee population, following an announcement from the country’s Integration Minister, Inger Støjberg, that child brides would be separated from their adult spouses. We in the West would undoubtedly think that this man is supporting perverse behaviors and norms. After all, we rightfully believe that it is abnormal, even wrong, to marry a child, let alone presumably to consummate that marriage. But apparently, if this imam is to be believed, child marriage is a regular thing for the refugee community. It’s worth noting that in Syria, the legal age of consent is actually 17 for girls and 18 for boys, but it seems that religious leaders can authorize exceptions, which suggests to me that child marriage for religious reasons is permissible in Syria.

And Syria is not exactly alone. In Pakistan, child marriage is perfectly legal. In fact, there was legislation to be introduced in Pakistan that would raise the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18 and ban child marriages, but it was struck down in January by the Council of Islamic Ideology (now there’s a name that should raise some red flags) on the grounds that it was “anti-Islamic” and that they could not pass any legislation that was “against the teachings of the Holy Quran or Sunnah” – just so you know, Sunnah refers to a record of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, synonymous with the hadith, and alongside the Quran they are among the primary sources of Islamic law and teachings. The Council of Islamic Ideology also considers Pakistan’s current minimum age for marriage to already be in violation of Islamic law, as they believe that a girl is eligible for marriage as soon as she shows signs of puberty.

In Saudi Arabia, child marriage is apparently widespread and, unlike in Pakistan, there is no legal minimum age in place for marriage. Also, the country’s Grand Mufti, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Shaikh, declared in 2014 that there is nothing wrong with girls under the age of 15 getting married. Keep in mind that when we’re talking about a Grand Mufti, we’re talking about the highest-ranking official of religious law in Islamic countries (or at least countries where Sunni is the dominant form of Islam), so this guy is basically the highest authority on religious law in Saudi Arabia, and he’s appointed by the king of Saudi Arabia himself. That’s basically all we need to know about Saudi Arabia at this point.

There is no legal minimum age for marriage in Yemen either, and 52% of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 18. There have been attempts to impose a minimum age, and the opposition towards it seems to come from both Muslim activists and members of the Yemeni government, both citing religious belief – namely the belief that a girl is eligible for marriage as soon as she reaches puberty, and the example of Muhammad marrying a 6-year-old girl named Aisha and consummating the marriage when she was 9. Bangladesh, which despite being supposedly a secular nation still endorses Islam as the state religion, has some of the highest child marriage rates in the world, with 65% of girls being married before the age of 18 and 29% being married before the age of 15. The country with the highest rate of child marriage in the world is Niger, with 75% of girls being married before the age of 18, and according to UNICEF 36% of girls are married before the age of 15, which is also the country’s legal minimum age, and Niger is a country where almost the entire population practices the Islamic faith.

I’ve searched for religious justifications within Islam for this practice and, apparently, the general belief in Islam and sharia law is that age doesn’t matter, and the prerequisite to marriage is when a child reaches puberty. The average age when a girl reaches puberty is 11 years old, and for boys the average age is 12 years old. To me this still means that you can justify marrying someone under the age of 15 under Sharia law. Then there’s the fact that in places like Saudi Arabia it’s possible for people as young as 8 to get married to a much older man. You also have the fact that the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, is said to have married Aisha at eh age of 6 and consummated that marriage at the age of 9, which is recorded in the hadiths:

A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported: ‘Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) married me when I was six years old, and I was admitted to his house at the age of nine.’ She further said: ‘We went to Medina and I had an attack of fever for a month, and my hair had come down to the earlobes. Umm Ruman (my mother) came to me and I was at that time on a swing along with my playmates. She called me loudly and I went to her and I did not know what she had wanted of me. She took hold of my hand and took me to the door, and I was saying: Ha, ha (as if I was gasping), until the agitation of my heart was over. She took me to a house, where had gathered the women of the Ansar. They all blessed me and wished me good luck and said: May you have share in good. She (my mother) entrusted me to them. They washed my head and embellished me and nothing frightened me. Allah’s Messenger (, may peace be upon him) came there in the morning, and I was entrusted to him.’” – Book 008, Number 3309

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.'” – Volume 7, Book 62, Number 18

The Prophet and I used to take a bath from a single pot while we were Junub. During the menses, he used to order me to put on an Izar (dress worn below the waist) and used to fondle me. While in Itikaf, he used to bring his head near me and I would wash it while I used to be in my periods (menses).” – Bukhari Volume 1 Book 6, Number 298

Remember that the hadiths/Sunnahs are generally treated alongside the Quran in terms in importance as they form the basis of Islamic teachings and law. And let’s not forget that if you put a congregation of ordinary Muslims (or at least ordinary Sunni Muslims, Sunni, by the way, is also the largest denomination of Islam in the world), they’ll agree that whatever is based on what is written in of the Quran and the hadiths or Sunnahs, because it is literally the word of Allah and his messenger, is to be applied in the world. So when the hadiths say that Muhammad married a 6-year-old girl and slept with her when she was 9, I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar relationship is considered legitimate in Islamic communities, or if part of Islamic law is based around or justified by that premise. UNICEF even recognizes that in countries where child marriage is rampant (not all of which are Islamic or Muslim-majority countries, by the way), one of the reasons is that it is treated as a social norm, and I don’t doubt that this may have something to do with religion. Which is why you not only have Islamic countries where child marriage is widespread or even entirely legal and not only an imam in Denmark petitioning to allow child marriages, but also Germany recognizing the marriage between a 14-year old girl and to her 20-year old cousin based on Islamic law rather than German law, as well as forced underage marriages in the UK in communities that operate under sharia law and where clerics openly mock British law.

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