A rebuttal on child brides

Omer Subhani seems to largely miss the point of the Muslim Public Affairs Council piece on child marriages, which was posted last week here on Altmuslimah. Especially considering that both MPAC and Mr. Subhani staunchly oppose the horrendous practice, it would be immensely more productive if we could channel that agreement to defeat injustices in our communities. Our intent with this report is to shine a light on the issue as one that we must all confront head-on.
Subhani completely misrepresents a central part of our analysis when he states:

Muslim scholars of the classical period are largely of the opinion that virgin girls who had not yet reached puberty (or maturity) could be married off without their consent. Even MPAC seems to agree: “A young girl who has not achieved mental and physical maturity can hardly make sound decisions for herself regarding marriage.”

The Qur’an states that a woman must consent to be married. It is precisely because a young girl does not have the maturity to make sound decisions that child marriages should be unequivocally forbidden by Islamic jurisprudence. This is the central argument of this case study, and Subhani uses it to support the exact opposite conclusion. The Qur’an is clear about the fact that a woman must consent to being married. There is no getting around that.

Subhani critiques two arguments: that the Wahhabis aren’t the only school of Islamic thought to sanction child marriages, and that the fact that it exists in many places today demonstrates its Islamic credentials.

He’s right on the point that the heads of at least two other schools of thought, Imam Shafi and Imam Maliki, also issued legal opinions allowing child marriage. The case we examined revolved around a young girl who was given away in marriage to an older man by her father in Saudi Arabia. Because it took place in a Wahhabi legal context, we focused solely on that particular school of thought and its rulings on the issue.

The other two schools of thought provide similar explanations. However, classical scholars are hardly unanimous on this issue – a point that underscores the need for continued debate on its practice. There are scholars who also suggest that female circumcision is plausible in Islam; an opinion that many others reject, which is why we must take a critical look at the laws and have legal scholars re-examine them within an Islamic framework.

Subhani’s argument that Aisha was six years old when she was married to Prophet Muhammad relies exclusively on Bukhari. He fails completely to recognize that there are large inconsistencies in the hadith on Aisha’s age that warrant close consideration. We explain this in our original article.

The Qur’an calls on us to promote justice even if against our own selves or those we love (Al Nisa: 135). This is precisely why we must elevate the voices of reform – such as Dr. Tariq Ramadan – who call for a re-evaluation of jurisprudence and a halt to such practices.

Subhani also argues that because child marriages exist in great numbers, they are somehow justifiable. This is precisely the line of thinking that perpetuates this outdated tribal practice. After all, the Qur’an states that, “God does not change the condition of a people unless they change that which is within themselves.” (Al Ra’d:11)

We invite Mr. Subhani to join our effort to unequivocally condemn injustices within our own community so that we may all take them on together.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council is a national American Muslim advocacy and public policy organization headquartered in Los Angeles and with offices in Washington DC.


  • Saadia says:

    There are scholars who look into this stuff but it doesn’t take away from their efforts to say that some things are common sense.

  • Anas Coburn says:

    I was very happy to see Mr. Subhani’s response to the MPAC article.

    MPAC’s condemnation of the practice of child marriage is commendable, but writing pieces that discount the extent to which such practice is both historically grounded and legally supported within Sunni jurisprudence renders the MPAC piece rather too close to the kind public relations ‘spin’ that is abhorrent to me.

    It is fine to take a position against child marriage, and to argue in support of one’s position. But as a community, we are better served by articles that acknowledge the complexity of the issue and grapple authentically with this complexity. Subhani is right on target when he notes:

    “However, MPAC???s attempt to dismiss or downplay these well-known narrations only adds to the perception that Muslims are unwilling to evaluate their legal history with an honest approach and are attempting to hide evidence that their religion is backward and barbaric.

    Certainly, MPAC is tackling a very difficult subject and they must be commended for pointing out the immense amount of freedoms and rights that Islam provides to women. However, their article fails to grasp the widespread acceptance in the Sunni legal tradition of allowing a father to marry off his daughter who has yet to reach puberty.”

    MPAC’s rebuttal does not address this key critique of Subhani’s.

    Their call at the end of their rebuttal for Subhani to join them in unequivocally condemning the practice simply demonstrates that they are more concerned with political correctness than they are with engaging difficult issues we Muslims face and moving beyond rhetoric to authentically engage with Islamic tradition and practice.

    Articles and rebuttals such as MPACs may keep them popular with their donor base and in the circles of non-Muslim movers and shakers, but do little to advance the substance of the discussion on issues too important to be left to spin doctors. The nuanced approach Mr Subhani takes is far preferable.

    I join with Mr. Subhani in applauding MPAC’s effort to tackle a difficult subject. I invite MPAC to unequivocally abandon public statements that oversimplify important issues and leave Muslims open to charges that even prominent institutions such as MPAC refuse to authentically engage Muslim legal history and hide the evidence that doesn’t support their thesis.

  • muqarnas says:

    Beautifully said, Anas.  I agree with you 110%.

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