The debate continues: A response to a rebuttal to a response

The Muslim Public Affairs Council said I misrepresented their argument in my critique of their article on child brides featured on Altmuslimah. I noticed that their rationale for demanding an Islamic prohibition on child marriages is the exact same rationale used by Muslim scholars who advocate for child marriages: that a young girl does not have the mental maturity to make such an important decision. Muslim scholars who advocate for child marriages would then assert that since the young girl lacks mental maturity, the decision for her marriage is given to her father.
The issue of her consent is disregarded; despite the fact that sahih hadiths exist that demand her consent for marriage. Imam Malik, when discussing the marrying off of virgin daughters without their consent, said in his Muwatta: “That is what is done among us about the marriage of virgins.”

Of course I do not agree with such a legal opinion in today’s context. As I argued in my original essay, I believe that these ideas were based on property rights theories that existed at such a time, and that flew in the face of sahih hadiths that demanded the consent of virgin daughters for marriage before being married.

MPAC misunderstands the point of my essay. It claims (twice) that I was arguing that since child marriages exist in many parts of the Islamic world, that makes it somehow acceptable. I never claimed this. What I claimed was that there seems to be a great deal of acceptance for forced child marriages in the Sunni legal tradition. Therefore, since this majority view is prevalent in the Sunni legal sources, it will be a great deal more difficult to reform than if we simply ignore these sources of Islamic law. We must confront these legal realities head on, not ignore them. If we ignore them, then we are deceiving ourselves and making a claim devoid of substance.

Also, MPAC misunderstands the point of my quoting the hadiths from Bukhari. The reason I highlighted those hadiths was not to argue that Aisha’s age was in fact six years old at the time of her marriage. The reason I brought up the hadiths was to show that what MPAC originally stated was disingenuous. MPAC stated in its original article that “the staunchest support for child marriages comes from the widely held belief that Prophet Muhammad’s marriage contract to Aisha was drafted when she was seven and consummated when she was nine.”

This is not a belief held without primary textual support from the most authentic and famous hadith collection in Sunni Islam. The reason I cited these hadiths was to show that we are dealing with an issue that has a great deal of textual and legal support in our religious tradition. But MPAC ignores these very clear hadiths that state Aisha was six years old when she was married, or simply tries to dismiss them as if they have no weight of their own. This is not a wise tactic in my opinion.

I understand MPAC’s purpose in using Imam al-Tabari to refute the claim that Aisha was six years old when she was married to the Prophet (peace and prayers be upon him). But it seems more like a mathematical game of addition and subtraction when placed in front of the very clear hadiths of Bukhari. To the average Muslim then, MPAC’s argument is going to look weak when standing alongside the vaunted hadith collection of Bukhari. Especially when Bukhari cites no less than three hadiths (one of which was narrated by Aisha herself) clearly stating that Aisha was six years old when she married the Prophet.

Also, MPAC states no less than twice that the Qur’an clearly says: “A woman must consent to be married.” I know of no verse in the Qur’an that says such a thing. I hope MPAC can provide the relevant verse of the Qur’an that supports its claim. All I know are the hadiths that say a virgin cannot be married until her permission is sought.

I fully support MPAC’s effort to condemn injustices within our Muslim community. What I am not in support of is its method in achieving this objective. I feel it is a better strategy to deal honestly and critically with the sources of our tradition that speak to this issue than to simply try to downplay them or ignore them, as MPAC has done. I am sure this is not done intentionally. I find it to be problematic to tackle this issue head on if we dismiss sources that are highly esteemed within our religious tradition without trying to contextualize them in favor of using elaborate and technical arguments that probably do not carry the same weight. We will not win many arguments this way.

My purpose in all this is to show that if someone or some group, such as MPAC, is going to fight to end child marriages in the Muslim world, then they must discuss and explain the sources in our legal tradition that lend support for forced child marriages. Otherwise they will never be able to defeat those who support such practices because they are avoiding the core of the problem.
Omer Subhani is a Muslim American residing in South Florida. He currently attends the University of Miami School of Law.

3 Comments

  • Saadia says:

    At least understanding that these hadith exist, even if some may start to become skeptical, makes it easier to debate and understand why people carry on this tradition. This was the opinion of Richard Bulliet who is a professor of either MidEast or Islamic Civilization at Columbia University.

    Where I take issue is when the hadith are cited more often than the Quran, which is actually the primary source. And in the Quran it clearly says that women can’t be married without their consent, while not specifying that it is only for women who are of a certain age. I can’t find this verse at this moment, but I’m 100% sure it exists.

    Also, this article needs explanation of what “sahih” and “muwatta” mean.

  • Saadia says:

    I can’t find that verse, but here’s another interesting one:

    (32:33) And as for those who are unable to marry, (note 44) let them live in continence until God grants them sufficiency out of His bounty.

    Muhammad Asad explains in note 44:

    “because of poverty, or because they cannot find a suitable mate, or for any other personal reason.”

  • Saadia says:

    “Of course I do not agree with such a legal opinion in today’s context. As I argued in my original essay, I believe that these ideas were based on property rights theories that existed at such a time…”

    “Modern” and “traditional”…you stated the original intent of what I meant (years ago.)

    Just to clarify, this is not related to Quranic verses that are sometimes more general and believed to be timeless.

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