15 Jun The Koran and Child Marriage
Today a report appeared in The Australian, a national daily newspaper, which discussed forced marriages in our nation. There were many good points made in this article, which was entitled It is the young flesh they want. [This article was later amended – see below: my updated paragraphs are in blue.]
However the article reported, as if it were true, a completely false and easily disprovable statement about the Koran.
The offending paragraph was:
“It is critical that the whole community is educated,” says Jennifer Burn of Anti-Slavery Australia. “The Koran does not support child marriage and the Grand Mufti of Australia says that consent is vital. But there are over 60 different traditions within the Muslim community, with different interpretations of the religious scriptures. We need the religious leaders to take the message into the communities, because they will listen to their leaders rather than us.”
[Since The Australian appeared, I contacted Associate Professor Burn, and she reported to me that she had been misquoted. She has successfully requested the Australian to correct the quotation to: “It is critical that initiatives to address child marriage and forced marriage are developed in consultation with communities and with community leaders,” This is the version which is published on the Australian’s website as of 21 June 2014.]
It is true that the Koran does not refer specifically to child marriage. However in discussing divorce it does refer to conditions applying for a female who has not yet menstruated, i.e. for a pre-pubescent girl. The reference is found in Sura 65:4 in a list of regulations concerning the waiting period (the Iddah or Iddat) for divorced women before they can remarry. The verse deals systematically with different cases of women who for some reason are not having regular periods. It reads:
“And of those of your women who have given up hope of menstruating, if you doubt, their (waiting) period is three months, as well as those who do not menstruate. And those who are pregnant, their period is until they deliver their burdens.” (Sura 65:4)
It might be thought that this verse is ambiguous in relation to young girls. However it is quite clear. It systematically covers the three main cases where a female is not menstruating: the old, the young, and those who are pregnant.
Ibn Kathir’s highly respected commentary on the Koran has this to say about this passage (see here).
Allah the Exalted clarifies the waiting period of the woman in menopause. And that is the one whose menstruation has stopped due to her older age. Her ‘Iddah [waiting period before marriage] is three months instead of the three monthly cycles for those who menstruate, which is based upon the Ayah in (Surat) Al-Baqarah. [see 2:228] The same for the young, who have not reached the years of menstruation. Their ‘Iddah is three months like those in menopause.
The reference to ‘Surat Al-Baqarah’ is to Chapter 2 verse 228 of the Koran, which states that divorced women must wait through three menstrual periods before remarrying. Ibn Kathir also refers to two hadiths or traditions of Muhammad that Sura 65:4 was revealed when someone asked Muhammad about the young, the old and the pregnant, because their waiting period could not be determined from the principle of three menstrual periods, given in Sura 2: 228.
Furthermore, Islam is not just based upon the Koran. It is also based upon the example and teaching of Muhammad, and here there is very clear support for what today we would call ‘underage’ marriages, because Muhammad married Aisha when she was six and consumated this marriage when she was reported to have been nine years old (that is nine lunar years, which means she was aged somewhere between 8 years, nine months and 9 years, nine months). The revered Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of sayings of Muhammad, includes a chapter with this heading:
Giving one’s young children in marriage (is permissible) by virtue of the Statement of Allah ‘… and for those who have no courses (i.e. they are still immature) (65:4). And the ‘Iddat for the girl before puberty is three months (in the above Verse).
This chapter consists of the following hadith:
64. Narrated ‘Ā’isha 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).
Collections of hadiths are arranged for legal purposes. The heading of each chapter indicates the relevance of the hadiths it contains for jurisprudence. In this case, referencing Sura 65:4, a hadith about the marriage of Aisha is taken as evidence that it is permissible for a father to marry off his young daughters, specifically if she has not yet reached puberty.
I have written in Quadrant (here) about the rule in Islamic law that a father or a grandfather is considered to be a wali mujbir, or ‘forcing guardian’, who has the right to marry a virgin daughter without her permission.
What Anne Barrowclough of the Australian seemed to be trying to do with the offending paragraph (now amended) was entirely laudable. She seems to be allowing for the possibility that Muslim communities could be persuaded, on the basis of Islam’s religious teachings, to reject forced marriages of female children. However to do so she reported as factual a statement that this practice is not supported by the Koran, which is quite false. [This paragraph was updated 24 June 2014.]
Is it praiseworthy to make a false statement about a religion’s teachings in order to incite its followers to behave well? Whatever the answer to this question may be, this strategy is bound to fail, because anyone who is better informed about the religion will simply reject advice based upon ignorance.
A strategy which acknowledges the authorities in Islam for a practice, and then mounts a case against the practice, is far more likely to have enduring success than one based upon wishful thinking or misleading information.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.