Several cases of child marriage in recent years have brought the issue of children’s rights in Islam to the forefront. Of significance is the case of an 8-year-old Saudi bride, which surfaced on the international stage in February 2009. The girl’s father gave her in marriage last year to a 47-year-old man to repay a debt. Her mother opposed the marriage and appealed to local courts to grant her daughter a divorce.
Judge Habib al-Habib said the girl’s mother was not her lawful guardian due to her separation from the girl’s father, and the appeal was rejected. After international outrage and pressure on Saudi officials, the girl was granted a divorce.
Since the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, sharia courts have been the primary instrument of law and punishment. The courts’ ideological underpinning is a literal interpretation of religious texts inspired by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, an 18th century religious scholar who called for returning to a more puritan understanding of Islamic law. Many laws referenced in Saudi legal cases are based on classical works that do not take current context into consideration. Critics, including many Saudi lawyers, have called for an overhaul of the judicial process, how judges are appointed and laws derived and referenced.
The Qur’an grants women full legal autonomy, the right to choose or refuse marriage proposals and pursue divorce. It abolished all notions of inheriting women as property. Rather, Islamic text treats marriage as a co-equal partnership – a social, legal and moral contract built upon the mutual equality of both parties. Marriage is a contract that can only be agreed upon by adults.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and God’s blessings upon him) encouraged women to choose whom they marry. A number of Islamic legal scholars, such as Ibn Baz Al-Uthaymin, clearly state that consent is a prerequisite to a lawful marriage. Force of any sort is in complete opposition to the institution of marriage in an Islamic framework. Moreover, the Qur’an emphasizes the importance of marriage as a source of tranquility, a point that legal scholars such as Khaled Abou El Fadl argue “weighs the balance in favor of full autonomy for children in choosing their spouses.”
The Qur’an also affirms a woman’s right to divorce. Multiple verses in chapter two (Al-Baqara) relay the legal framework of marriage and allow for a woman to marry whomever she pleases after a certain period passes after her divorce or the death of her husband.
Islam encourages freedom of choice and enforcement of mutual benefit in marital relations. Compulsory marriage is a violation of a woman or girl’s right to free choice and just and equal treatment between the sexes. Also, the Prophetic tradition and Islamic principle of human dignity emphasize freedom of choice and the importance of will power; a young girl who has not achieved mental and physical maturity can hardly make sound decisions for herself regarding marriage.
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.
Al-Tabari states that Aisha was seven when she married the Prophet. The first revelation of Islam was in 610 CE. Al-Tabari says all of Abu Bakr’s children (including Aisha) were born before the message of Islam. Al-Tabari also said Aisha began living with the Prophet as his wife in 624 CE, meaning she would have been at least 14, rendering Al-Tabari an unreliable source on Aisha’s marriage age.
Also, according to a number of sources, Aisha’s older sister Asma died at the age of 100 in 73 or 74 AH (695 or 696 CE), making her 27 or 28 at the time of hijra (migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE). Sources indicate that Aisha was 10 years younger than Asma, putting Aisha’s age at 17 or 18 at the time of her legal marriage to the Prophet, and consummation at 19 or 20. Though some clerics would adamantly reject this view, several historical accounts from Prophet Muhammad’s life lead us to believe that the view that Aisha was seven when she was married is an indication that historical facts were manipulated to support dismal and oppressive cultural norms.
This is an edited version of a paper put out by the Muslim Public Affairs Council titled Abusing Women, Abusing Islam.