the Legal Affairs Committee of the Majles (the Iranian parliament) has told the
press that they regard the law that prohibits girls below the age of 10 from
being married off as ‘un-Islamic and illegal.’
Reports indicate that
in Iran, more than 75 female children under age 10 were recently forced to
marry much older men. It is indeed very strange how child marriage can be
deemed Islamic in any sense of the word. How can it be un-Islamic not to
permit child marriage at the immature age of eight?
This is probably more
cultural than religious. After all, any law bears footprints of culture and cannot completely get rid
of cultural influences. While Islamic laws are very progressive, cultures in
Islamic countries are still feudal or semi-feudal.Also, there has been debate among the ulema, as pointed out by the spokesperson for the Majles,
about the age of puberty. Many ulema think that girls attain the age of
puberty by or before age 10 while others think by the age of 15. But for most
10 is the age of puberty.
This has happened in
Iran, where women’s participation in the revolution was so genuine and
enthusiastic that they voluntarily took to wearing the chador as a symbol of their Islamic identity
and a New York Times correspondent — seeing a sea of women in black chadors in
1979 — wondered how daughters of those mothers who had cast off their veils
could take to the chador again. He
perhaps did not realise that these
daughters were wearing the chador as a symbol of their Islamic identity
and to show solidarity with the leaders of the Islamic revolution.
experience right from the beginning was not very pleasant and their
expectations of liberation were not fulfilled. Gradually, the Islamic regime
began to tighten its grip over women’s liberty, especially after the death of
Imam Khomeini, who was a great visionary and believed in using persuasion
rather than coercion. The revolutionary leadership began to quarrel for power
in the post-Khomeini period and unfortunately the conservatives won.
And in the Islamic
world whenever conservatives win, the first to be affected are Muslim women.
Recently in Libya, when Qadhafi was defeated and his opponents — conservative
Muslims — won, one of their first declarations was to legalise polygamy, as if their revolution was all
In Iran too women came to be under increasing
control of the conservative clergy. A few years ago a woman, who was married
with children, was accused of adultery and was sentenced to death by stoning,
though human rights activists maintained that adultery charges were not proved.
And there was no punishment for her alleged adulterous partner.
Coming back to child
marriage, there is nothing Islamic about it; if anything it is un-Islamic. It
is well-known that marriage is a contract in Islam and the Quran calls it a
‘strong covenant’ (mithaqanghaliza) (4:21). It does not require a lot of
argument to conclude that such a covenant cannot be entered into by children of
the age of eight, that too a strong contract. A child does not even understand
what a covenant is.
It is also well-known
that both parties, i.e. husband and wife, can
stipulate conditions, without fulfilling which the marriage will not be valid.
Can a child stipulate conditions? Marriage is a lifelong partnership and a
child cannot be expected to have the experience or intellectual ability to
choose his or her life partner. Thus child marriage can in no case be Quranic
What is, then, the
origin of child marriage in Islam? It is simply cultural and was not uncommon
among the Arabs. The jurists can hardly escape the influence of their culture
and cultural ethos. Though the Quran did not permit it, they allowed it because
it was widely prevalent around them. They also tried to find justification for
it in the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) Sunnah. Most Muslims believe that
the Holy Prophet married Hazrat Ayesha when she was simply seven years of age
and consummated the marriage when she was nine.
Firstly, this hadith
appears about 300 years after the passing of the Prophet and in-depth research
by many scholars clearly shows that Hazrat Ayesha’s age at the time of marriage
was not less than 17 or 18 and at the time of consummation of marriage about 19
or 20. I have seen this research and there are very good reasons to believe it.
Since marriage is a
contract in Islam, Imam Abu Hanifa, while allowing child marriage for
sociological rather than religious or Quranic reasons, also had to make a
provision for what is called option of puberty (khiyar al-bulugh) i.e. the
girl, on achieving puberty or the age of proper understanding, could accept or
reject the marriage and her guardian (usually father) also cannot force her to
accept the marriage if she is unwilling. Imam Abu Hanifa had to make this
provision because he knew the guardian is not an absolute authority to give the
child away in marriage.
prevail over culture and not culture over religion. That is why most Islamic
countries have now prescribed 18 as the age of marriage and have made child
marriage illegal. Thus the Iranian clergy would be better advised not to
legalise child marriage. I am sure the women organisations of Iran would surely
resist this measure on part of the government, if at all it takes this
regressive step defying the Quranic concept of marriage as a strong covenant.