By Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad
We need to understand the cultural-religious issues first to clear the misperception that child marriage is supposedly sanctioned by Islam.
ISLAM has always been an obvious easy target of misperception, misunderstanding. In a never-ending challenge against it, another opportunity for Islamophobes around the globe to maim the religion lurks wide open yet again when the issue of child marriage resurfaced recently.
They claim that child marriage is sanctioned, and thus common in the teachings of Islam. The practice takes place every day in the Muslim world to innocent girls as young as six, making it shockingly widespread.
Moreover, statistics of cases – though questionable – of different Muslim countries proving the prevalent rampage are cited.
Quoting a report by the United Nations, the Islamophobes reveal that “one out nine girls in developing countries will be married by age 15, and an estimated 14.2 million girls a year will become child brides by 2020, if nothing changes”. Are Muslim men to be entirely blamed for their seemingly lack of restraint?
The reality is that child marriage happens all over the world, regardless of religions or civilisations. But it appears that Islam suffers by far the most severe beatings compared to other faiths and cultures.
For the sake of argumentation, why does such a phenomenon befall the Muslim community? The answer is perhaps more cultural than religious. Culture, more than anything else, may have the upper hand.
Because many of these communities are found in countries deprived of progress and cultural practices are steep, hence, culture plays a huge role in their lives more than religion. Any law, be it sacred or profane, is indispensable of culture, and cannot completely escape from cultural influences, good or evil.
It is true that Islam has spread to countless nations, bringing along with it the progressive law (Syariah), but often times, people and cultures in these places are still feudal, semi-feudal or even tribal in character.
We may infer that child marriage perhaps originated from this feudalistic or tribal life of certain people before the society embraced Islam.
Thus, it is simply cultural in nature as the practice was not only common to the Arabs, for example, but to other races as well.
This tribal custom plays a role, for instance, in the belief that a young bride can be moulded into a good filial obedient wife and give birth to more offspring.
With the coming of Islam, these people had the “perfect” justifica-tion to legitimise their “lifestyle”. To a certain extent, even religious leaders could not avoid from being influenced by their culture and cultural inclinations.
There is hardly anything Islamic about child marriage. One may argue that the practice is even unislamic as it runs counter to the true spirit of Islam. Marriage is a contract and the Quran in Surah al-Nisa’, 4:21 prescribes the institution as a “strong solemn covenant” (mithaqan ghaliza).
Underage girls, say at the age of nine, cannot enter into such a covenant as it is too strong a contract. A minor has neither the ability nor capacity to understand what a covenant means and implies.
In addition, in any given family life, both husband and wife may and can stipulate conditions. If either party fails to keep good their agreements, the marriage may collapse. In this sense, a child cannot stipulate conditions.
Marriage is a partnership for life. We cannot expect a child to have the necessary experience or intellectual acumen to rightly choose her breadwinner. Thus, from this perspective, child marriages can neither be considered Quranic nor Islamic.
The perceived dominant practice of child marriage in Muslim regions, or even the non-Muslim territories for that matter, may also be linked to economic reasons, and nothing strictly religious.
We have heard of cases whereby young girls were married off to ol-der spouses in an understanding between two men to wed each other’s sisters to escape paying expensive dowry (mahr); to settle personal and family debts; and the inability of poor families to reject certain interesting amount of monies offered for their daughters.
Therefore, gripping poverty and other pressing economic factors hinder effective initiatives being taken to reduce let alone eliminate child marriages.
While the Islamophobes attempt to ridicule the so-called child marriage in Islam by referring to the hadith of Prophet Muhammad tying the knot with Aishah purportedly at the age of seven and consummated the marriage when she was nine, the conservative Islamists, on the other hand, are using the same tradition to justify their stand in allowing the same.
Both camps are, in fact, mistaken. One argues that the hadith appears much later after the demise of the Prophet. In-depth studies by reliable scholars clearly expose the fact that Aishah was not less than 17 years old at the time of the marriage, and consummated it at about 20. So, Aishah was not below the age of puberty when consenting to the marriage.
In Islam, this is the true position of a girl achieving puberty or the age of proper understanding when it comes to marriage. The religion basically prescribes that a child ceases to be a minor upon her first menstruation, regardless of age.
Once approached with a marriage proposal, she has the option to accept or reject it. Her consent is a necessary prerequisite for a valid marital contract. Her guardian enjoys no liberty to force her to accept any proposal if she is unwilling.
It means that in a pre-arranged marriage, it may be annulled if the girl so wishes.
Imam Abu Hanifah holds that the guardian does not have an absolute authority to give away the child in marriage. In fact, all Sunni schools of thought are unanimous that forced marriages are strictly forbidden. The reason being Islamic marriages are primarily contracts between two consenting parties referred to as mithaq.
The preceding discussion attempts to explain that, as aptly put by al-Azhar al-Sharif, the highest religious body in the Sunni world: “Marriage in Islam is regulated by certain rules, namely, children must reach puberty and maturity so that they can get married.” Here, no specific age limit has been fixed by Islam.
If there is any problem with the marriage, it is not because of Islam per se, but we must examine other surrounding factors as well. Religion should prevail over culture and not vice versa. Most of the times, domestic violence and abuse cannot be associated with or attributed to religion.
This explains why most Muslim lands now have statutorily prescribed 18 as the age of marriage for bridegroom and 16 for his counterpart.
In our case, for example, the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act 1984 states that should the age go lower than the minimum limit, a written permission must be obtained from the Syariah Court in certain circumstances.http://thestar.com.my/columnists/story.asp?col=ikimviews&file=/2013/6/4/columnists/ikimviews/13190363&sec=IKIM%20Views