Islamic spokesmen in the West routinely insist that child marriage has no basis in Islam, and that Muhammad’s child bride, Aisha, was not actually a child when he married her. In reality, child marriage has abundant attestation in Islamic tradition and law.
“Islam has no age barrier in marriage and Muslims have no apology for those who refuse to accept this” — Ishaq Akintola, professor of Islamic Eschatology and Director of Muslim Rights Concern, Nigeria
“There is no minimum marriage age for either men or women in Islamic law. The law in many countries permits girls to marry only from the age of 18. This is arbitrary legislation, not Islamic law.” — Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-‘Ubeidi, Iraqi expert on Islamic law
There is no minimum age for marriage and that girls can be married “even if they are in the cradle.” — Dr. Salih bin Fawzan, prominent cleric and member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council
“Islam does not forbid marriage of young children.” — Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology
Hadiths that Muslims consider authentic record that Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, was six when Muhammad wedded her and nine when he consummated the marriage:
“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)” (Bukhari 7.62.88).
Another tradition has Aisha herself recount the scene:
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 all right, 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. (Bukhari 5.58.234).
Muhammad was at this time fifty-four years old.
Marrying young girls was not all that unusual for its time, but because in Islam Muhammad is the supreme example of conduct (cf. Qur’an 33:21), he is considered exemplary in this unto today. And so in April 2011, the Bangladesh Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini declared that those trying to pass a law banning child marriage in that country were putting Muhammad in a bad light: “Banning child marriage will cause challenging the marriage of the holy prophet of Islam, [putting] the moral character of the prophet into controversy and challenge.” He added a threat: “Islam permits child marriage and it will not be tolerated if any ruler will ever try to touch this issue in the name of giving more rights to women.” The Mufti said that 200,000 jihadists were ready to sacrifice their lives for any law restricting child marriage.
Likewise the influential website Islamonline.com in December 2010 justified child marriage by invoking not only Muhammad’s example, but the Qur’an as well:
The Noble Qur’an has also mentioned the waiting period [i.e. for a divorced wife to remarry] for the wife who has not yet menstruated, saying: “And those who no longer expect menstruation among your women, if you doubt, then their period is three months, and [also for] those who have not menstruated” [Qur’an 65:4]. Since this is not negated later, we can take from this verse that it is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a prepubescent girl. The Qur’an is not like the books of jurisprudence which mention what the implications of things are, even if they are prohibited. It is true that the prophet entered into a marriage contract with A’isha when she was six years old, however he did not have sex with her until she was nine years old, according to al-Bukhari.
Other countries make Muhammad’s example the basis of their laws regarding the legal marriageable age for girls. Article 1041 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that girls can be engaged before the age of nine, and married at nine: “Marriage before puberty (nine full lunar years for girls) is prohibited. Marriage contracted before reaching puberty with the permission of the guardian is valid provided that the interests of the ward are duly observed.”
According to Amir Taheri in The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution (pp. 90-91), Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini himself married a ten-year-old girl when he was twenty-eight. Khomeini called marriage to a prepubescent girl “a divine blessing,” and advised the faithful to give their own daughters away accordingly: “Do your best to ensure that your daughters do not see their first blood in your house.” When he took power in Iran, he lowered the legal marriageable age of girls to nine, in accord with Muhammad’s example.
December 15, 2017 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—When the man who raped Saira asked for her hand in marriage, she was disgusted but unsurprised.
She was just 16. Her rapist expected she would keep her mouth shut if they were married, she figured. He wouldn’t be the first Malaysian to protect himself that way from prosecution.
But Saira would not comply. The Muslim schoolgirl took her case to court, and her attacker was sentenced to eight years in jail.
“There might be pressures from the outside, but this is where you have to be strong,” says Saira, not her real name, about resisting the unlikely marriage proposal. Today, she’s a confident 19-year-old, working at a full-time job.
If underage marriage were outlawed, say girls’ rights activists, there would be no risk that teen rape victims could be silenced by forced loyalty to their new husbands.
But as conservative strands of Islamic opinion gain influence in multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia, child advocates are finding it an uphill battle to make marriage a matter for adults only.
Courts, but not necessarily justice
Lobbyists pressuring the government to criminalize child marriage “were getting quite a lot of momentum” at one stage, says Tham Hui Ying, vice president of Malaysia’s Association of Women Lawyers. “But suddenly it became a hot button issue. It’s religious,” so politicians are “not going to push to outright ban child marriage,” she says.
Malaysia operates a dual legal system. Civil law sets the minimum age of marriage at 18. But under Islamic law, which applies to the Muslim majority on family and morality issues, girls may marry as young as 12 with approval from a Sharia court.
Underage marriage cuts across ethnic and religious lines. About 1,000 Muslim teens get married every year, according to government figures. Fewer than half that number of underage non-Muslims wed, needing the consent of their state’s Chief Minister.
Nobody knows how many rapists avoid jail through marriage; rapes and out-of-court settlements often go unreported. But two court cases have galvanized efforts to outlaw child marriage altogether.
In 2013, a Sharia court in the eastern state of Sabah granted a 40-year-old restaurant manager permission to marry a 12-year-old girl he had raped. A civil court dropped the rape case when the man later said he was going to marry his victim….
“Muslim conservatism is permeating our society right now,” says Shareena Sheriff, a program manager at Sisters in Islam, a women’s group urging law reform on child marriage. And that is making child marriage a religious issue rather than a rights issue….
Not all Muslims support child marriage. The influential National Fatwa Council has declared the practice harmful, for example.
But the rise of a more austere form of Islam is strengthening religious arguments that defend child marriage, analysts say. And when the ruling party is courting the conservative Muslim vote ahead of elections expected in 2018, the government has little appetite to promote anti-child marriage legislation….