The Muslim Public Affairs Council spoke out against the practice of child brides in the Muslim world in a December 9th article, “The case of an eight year-old Saudi bride,” published here. This is an area of jurisprudence that has caused contentious debate in both the Muslim and the Western worlds. Many Muslims argue that the issue of child brides is directly related to the life and practice of the Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace and prayers be upon him).
In Islamic tradition, the Prophet is reported to have married Aisha when she was six years old, and they consummated the marriage when she reached nine years of age. However, many western Muslims and Muslim reformers in the Islamic world have attempted to re-evaluate these traditions in light of modern sensibilities that denounce child brides as repugnant or unfit for modern values. The problem they face in their revision is that this issue is entrenched in Islamic tradition making it difficult to reform. MPAC’s attempt to explain away this phenomenon is more problematic because it fails to give adequate value to the traditions that approve of child brides. MPAC also attempts to play down how wide spread the acceptance of child brides is in the Sunni Islamic legal tradition.
As easy as it is to blame the problems of the Muslim world on the literalist interpretations of the Wahhabis, the fact remains that the Sunni legal tradition is not entirely in disagreement with the Wahhabis on this issue. In reality, there are many sources of Islamic law that allow a father to marry his daughter away without her consent. For example, in the Maliki school it is mentioned in the Matn ar-Risla of Ibn Abi Zayd al-Kairawani that “The father may give his virgin daughter in marriage without her permission, even though she is an adult. And if he desires he may ask her.”
In the Shafi’i school, it is also mentioned in ‘Umdat al-Salik of Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri that a father can marry his virgin daughter away without her consent: “Whenever the bride is a virgin, the father or father’s father may marry her to someone without her permission, though it is recommended to ask her permission if she has reached puberty.” These are both classical Islamic opinions mentioned in widely respected books of these two legal schools of thought. The Hanafi and Hanbali schools do not differ much from the other two on this issue. So clearly, the issue is not one limited to legal opinions emanating from the Wahhabi school.
However, these fiqh positions seem to contradict the hadith of the Prophet (may God’s peace and prayers be upon him) that say that a father must ask for the consent of his daughter when attempting to marry her off to an eligible suitor:
Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) as having said: A woman without a husband (or divorced or a widow) must not be married until she is consulted, and a virgin must not be married until her permission is sought. They asked the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him): How her (virgin’s) consent can be solicited? He (the Holy Prophet) said: That she keeps silence. Bukhari, Book 8, No. 3303.
‘A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported:
I asked Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) about a virgin whose marriage is solemnized by her guardian, whether it was necessary or not to consult her. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: Yes, she must be consulted. ‘A’isha reported: I told him that she feels shy, whereupon Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: Her silence implies her consent. Bukhari, Book 8, No. 3305.
Why did the scholars mentioned above pass rulings in contrast to these sahih hadith? It seems that the issue behind the Maliki and Shafi’i legal rulings is about the maturity of virgin brides in making decisions affecting their families. 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 hadith mentioned above seem to apply to virgin girls who had reached puberty and were considered mature enough to take part in the marriage decision-making process. Virgin girls who had not yet reached puberty could be married off without their consent.
Clearly, this issue of child brides is much more widespread than MPAC lets on. The Wahhabis unfortunately do not have a monopoly on issuing legal edicts allowing for fathers to marry their virgin daughters away. In fact, the life example of the Prophet lends support to the opinions of Muslim religious scholars on this issue. Imam al-Bukhari reported multiple hadith in his Sahih collection that document that Aisha was six years-old when she married the Prophet, and nine when the marriage was consummated, thus providing support to the cause of child brides. However, MPAC does not even mention these narrations, but gives them only a cursory acknowledgment:
“Perhaps 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. Islamic scholars worldwide have increasingly called for the re-evaluation of this narrative.”
This is not a “belief” held without support from Islamic sources. Bukhari’s hadith collection is the most sound and well-researched hadith collection to ever exist. There are multiple reports from Bukhari’s collection about this subject:
Narrated ‘Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his death). Bukhari, Book 62, No. 64.
Narrated ‘Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old. Hisham said: I have been informed that ‘Aisha remained with the Prophet for nine years (i.e. till his death).” Bukhari, Book 62, No. 65.
While these hadith may cause embarrassment to some, most Muslims with knowledge on this subject are familiar with these hadith. 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.
Of course, the issue of Aisha’s age at the time of her marriage has been explained by many Muslim commentators as a cultural practice of the Arabs at the time of the Prophet’s life, and not a legal precedent being championed by him. The hadith collections are replete with narrations that provide the criticisms coming from the enemies of the Prophet whenever he or his companions behaved in a way that went against the traditions of the Arabs at that time, such as when the Prophet married his cousin Zaynab bint Jahsh after she divorced Zayd, his formerly adopted son (even a verse from the Qur’an was revealed to resolve this issue).
If marrying a child bride were an aberration of cultural norms at the time of the Prophet, then the hadith collections would certainly have included narrations citing complaints from the Prophet’s enemies accusing him of breaching their cultural practices. Yet there are no examples of the Quraysh or anyone else accusing the Prophet of wrongdoing when he married Aisha at six years old. This goes to show the cultural acceptance of such an act at that time.
As for the opinions coming from the four Sunni legal schools that allow for a father to marry his virgin daughter away without her consent before reaching puberty, these are opinions made in a completely different era of social and legal norms. While such legal rulings could not be practiced in Western countries for the obvious fact that they would be illegal, the cultural norms within Muslim nations are beginning to move away from the acceptance of such practices, despite the legal heritage that permits such behavior by fathers. These legal positions are based off of cultural norms, not Islamic principles, which existed at those times where property law gave the virgin girl no rights of her own.
Despite this fact, and the reality that these pre-modern cultural norms are being practiced in some parts of the Muslim world today, there are strong scholarly Islamic justifications for preventing such marriages from taking place, primarily the hadith of the Prophet mentioned above which clearly insist that a virgin must be asked for her consent before being married. MPAC would have been better suited acknowledging the Islamic legal reality of this issue. However, their attempt to prove that forced marriages of young girls are against the principles taught by the Prophet is noble and should receive praise.
Omer Subhani is a Muslim American residing in South Florida. He currently attends the University of Miami School of Law.