Recently I came across a post on twitter that was relatively popular in a small corner of anti-islamic social media. The post was expressing a common and understandable concern than many modern westerners have. That is, what’s the deal with the prophet (pbuh) of Islam, a figure that muslims all over the world consider to be a perfect example of a human being, marrying a girl at such a young age? Admittedly, the post in question (below), was not worded in a way that suggests he genuinely wanted to ask the question. It comes across more rhetorically, and the comments that followed certainly echoed this impression.
Now I must first make something very clear, as I know from experience that many people are quick to jump to conclusions and hurl accusations at people who try to discuss this in any detail other than an with an outright dismissal of it. I have no issue with the current age limits set in the UK, and have no intention of having it reduced to a lower age. I have a daughter, and would not be comfortable with having her marry a man at such a young age. This subject does still make me extremely uncomfortable (it always has done), and peoples instinctive opinions on this particular subject were probably one of the major road blocks to my becoming a muslim for many years prior to my accepting Islam. It is a subject difficult for any western born non-muslim to get ones head around. So please, save yourself the time and don’t bother telling me I’m in favour of promoting pedophilia, or child marriages. I am not, and I have no such intentions. I just recognise the complexity and nuance of the discussion at hand and wish to present this to you with this article. So having outlined this, let us continue.
First of all, in response to the first tweet I displayed at the top, I posted an exert from a book of English Law. It was published in 1893, which is the late 19th century! Over 1200 years after the life of the prophet (pbuh). And in this book, it outlines that even at this late point in history, it was still encoded into British law that a girl could be given in marriage at the age of 7. This inevitably raised some questions and accusations, so let us cover them.
I will begin by exploring the view from social conditions. It is important to understand that this first part should not be considered as moral justifications, this is something I will cover in the second part.
Part 1: Social conditions
The world has changed a great deal over the past century
Since then, many things have changed that have contributed to a shift in public opinion. The introduction of long term and free public education, massive increases in the average life expectancy and reductions in infant mortality rates, the rise of the conception of the teenager, ideas of freedom have developed, feminism has arisen, massive technological advancements etc. All of these thing have changed the world we live in today a great deal. Whether this is for the better or the worse, Allah (swt) knows best, but these changes have had a massive impact on the way we see the world, and ourselves in it. This is not something that can be contested.
Life expectancy has increased dramatically
Prior to all of these changes, people, on average, were not expected to live very long. In the UK alone, and only 200 years ago, life expectancy was nearly half of what it is today.
So people weren’t expected to live very long, and so did not enjoy the freedom to postpone getting engaged like the youth of today. Many people in the current time consider waiting until their 30/40’s feasible because they have no sense of urgency. They don’t have the fear of a constant threat of an impending end looming over their heads. Death seems to be something in the distant future, and this was not something people of the past were blessed with. And as you would imagine, it shaped how they saw the world. Asadullah also expands on this a little further in his own essay:
The average life expectancy of women was between 34.5-37.5 years if they managed to live past infancy. Due to high rates of infant mortality, women had to endure 5 to 7 full-term pregnancies just to keep the population stable. Couple this with high maternal mortality during childbirth—due to iron deficiency resulting from a combination of continuous pregnancies and poor diet—and you have an extremely fragile situation. Given these high mortality rates, it made sense to begin procreating as early as possible.Asadullah – “understanding-aishas-age-an-interdisciplinary-approach” – link here
Education has greatly developed
We put our youth through a comprehensive education system until they turn 16, and this simply wasn’t available to the people of the past; both in Europe and the Middle East (or any where in the world for that matter), until recently. It wasn’t feasible, and for what they had available to them at the time, would have only complicated matter for the society, leaving a lot of work undone. Today, we think that marriage would interfere with education, as well as child birth, and so it makes sense that since this has become implemented to the degree which it has done, that anything that would effect this education negatively would be looked at differently than it was prior to the implementation of free public education.
Greater freedoms and opportunities
There was also not much availability for individuals to enjoy the many freedoms that the people of today are able to enjoy. There wasn’t many things to do in leisure, but there was lots that needed to be done to survive. Families would often work a great deal all the time to ensure that everything that needed to be done, was done. The average man would often work long and hard hours trying to provide an income, and the women of the house didn’t have access to washing machines, dish washers, gas heated stoves, ready made meals, hoovers, etc etc. All of the things we have today that really make household jobs much quicker and easier than they were in the past (washing clothes for example, involved doing each item of clothing by hand with a bucket of water). This quite obviously left very little time for leisure. People who would be considered teenagers today, did not have the liberty of sitting around playing on their phones or browsing on social media. As soon as they were able to contribute to the struggles and ease the burdens of their community, they were expected to; and the more people there were in a family, the more hands that would be available in the long run to receive more burdens. This would be a short term sacrifice (as caring for children requires work itself), but would bring with it a long term benefit.
Ease in numbers
The emphasis on producing more people in the community would have been much stronger then than it is now. We for the most part have an inverse view on population, and tend to think we are overpopulated and so need to have less children. Back then, the opposite was true. The communities which had an emphasis on getting married younger and having more children were much more likely to succeed than neighbouring communities. Those who didn’t adhere to such things were often outnumbered and subsumed by those who did, and so it makes sense that this would increase the likeliness of such behaviours being normalised in a society, and that such a ruling would have led to the overall success of a society.
So our society is different today…
It seems very strange to want to impose how we see the world today – with all the ease we have, the high life expectancy, the low infant mortality rate, the high levels of education and technology and so on – onto a world which had no such luxuries. I think its clear we think the way we do today about such matters because of the conditions we live in and are afforded. But it seems to me unjust to expect a world that had no such luxuries to have felt the same way about such issues, whether that was in early 19th century Britain, or 7th century Arabia. Had they felt like we do, they would not have had the success they did. Also, they would have still been replaced by other civilisations who did practise such things any way, and we would still be having the same conversation today but with regards to different historical peoples.
Part 2: The Moral Question
Ok so I’ve spoke about the conditions which would make such practises likely, so let us now approach the moral question, and whether or not such practises could ever be considered ethical.
Did the Prophet (pbuh) not know that sensibilities would change?
The first objection I want to go through is this: If the prophet (pbuh), is giving us a way of life that was to be perfect for all people, in all places, at all times, surely he would have known that such things would have been considered wrong at some point in the future? What we believe is wrong now, should have in reality always have been wrong. He was a prophet of God and therefore must have known with time this behaviour was not going to be acceptable.
In response to this, first of all, I would like to point out that this could be said of anything. If a society started to make permissible lgbt, adultery, zina, drugs, alcohol, gambling and interest, why didn’t the prophet (pbuh) of God know this would have become acceptable over time and just have it made permissible? Or if a society begins to see stay at home mothers, religion, praying, marriage, eating meat etc, as wrong, if he was the prophet of God why didn’t he forbid all of these things because future generations would have an issue with it? This is fallacious reasoning. Just because a society might see something as permissible or impermissible in the future, it does not follow that such a decision is necessarily good for the society, or that certain conditions would not call for such behaviours to be acceptable (as noted in part 1).
How have we determined the right age?
Secondly, there appears to be a misunderstanding of how the sharia works in this regard. Modern Western law works in such a way that it picks a particular age which it deems acceptable (in the UK it’s 16 in most cases, 18 in others), and this is one the only deciding factor as to whether or not someone is considered mature enough to engage in marriage. Very few other factors are taken into consideration (there are exceptions made for people with disabilities, or teachers and people under 18). It is then assumed as a result of this, that if the prophet consummated marriage with Aisha (RA) at 9, then that means the legal age of consent of marriage in Islam is 9 and that it would always be set to this number throughout time; regardless of any other factors. This simply isn’t true. The sharia does not work by picking an arbitrary age and applying it to everyone. The individual in question must have hit puberty, be mentally mature according to the standards of the time, and there must be the consent of the parents, to name but a few of the conditions.
You need only to look at modern youth to see that maturity ages are increasing to higher numbers. Due to the luxuries we are afforded, you essentially have fully grown adult humans, with the maturity comparable to a child. They are still completely dependent on their parents, incapable of any responsibility, and spend all of their time engaging in unproductive activities and ‘enjoying life’; something that was only afforded to children in times long gone. By Islamic standards, many modern western adults would not be considered fit for marriage, and here lies an issue. It is not unreasonable to make the claim that even in the time of the prophet (pbuh), that there could be an individual at the age of 16, who was not mentally or physically prepared, nor had they hit puberty, and so would have been considered according to the sharia, unfit for consummation.
The current objections in perspective – and time travel…
I will now take a slightly different approach, and rather than look to the past, I will look to the present time and then the future. People who object to what has been mentioned thus far, obviously think it is just to impose the moral norms of a particular society in a particular era, to a place far away in both space and time. Well if this is just, then I ask you, would it be fair for Korean’s (whose legal age limit is 20 years old) to look upon the European’s and angrily proclaim us to be a society of pedophiles because men in our society can legally marry 16 year old? Something which, according to their own norms is completely illegal! Would anyone consider this a legitimate claim?
I take this one step further. Let us imagine for a moment, that in the far future (lets say over 1400 years from now) the average age expectancy due to technological advancements increases to such a degree (lets say 200 years old), and that conditions are such that the society deems the legal age limit for marriage and consent to be 30 years of age, would it be fair for them to look back in time at historical documents and accuse Korean’s in the 21st century of pedophilia because they allowed relations between men of 50+ to engage in relations with a 21 year old female? Would it be fair for our future descendants to look back at us today, and completely disregard our social conditions, and the fact that we didn’t have the luxury of living to 200 years, or have the medical and technological advancements that they have which gives them the luxury of waiting for 30 years for intimate relations? Now keep in mind this example doesn’t require an appeal to accept the sharia, but simply gets the individual who looks more than a dozen centuries into the past, at a world which is categorically and distinctively different from the world the critic resides in, to imagine our future generations doing the same to us; and to really reflect on whether we would agree with them, and accept their moral superiority, or whether we would incline to such arguments that have been given in this essay, and others such as provided by Asadullah. Remember, in the past, life expectancy was so short, and infant mortality rates so high, that it would be absurd not to take any of these factors into consideration.
The rationale behind maximizing fertility was really something no one could argue against considering the likelihood of young women not living long enough to see their first child reach maturity. When looking into history, we tend to forget many of these notable challenges of our ancestors’ lives and take our own advantages for granted. If you knew that you probably wouldn’t live beyond your 30s, most of your children would die in infancy, and the only education you would receive would be for one of a handful of jobs consisting of hard labor, wouldn’t your plans for life change dramatically?Asadullah – “understanding-aishas-age-an-interdisciplinary-approach” – link here
Isn’t this all just relativism?
No, it is not. Relativism is the belief that there is no absolute. But simply because you understand that there are certain conditions that lead to different outcomes, this does not mean you hold that there isn’t an absolute, or that what is right or wrong is based on the whims of the individual.
I will be writing a separate essay on this soon insha’Allah, and will post the link here when it is done, and also on my twitter account (@YusufPonders).
And so to finish here, I implore you, the reader, to be careful in your considerations to past generations, or civilisations that deal with similar issues in their society even today. Its easy to sit from our positions of luxury and privilege here in the west, and to fanatically and dogmatically wave our unjustified moralistic fingers at a people we have never met, and a world we have never known.
This essay was a relatively short one, but if you wish to read a more in depth analysis of this subject matter, I implore you to read the article I have referenced in this essay a couple of times, which you can access via this link.
Jazak’Allah khayr for your time, and assalaamu alaikum.