Amid uproar, child marriage debate moves to historical ‘error’ over Aisha’s age

Muslims in Malaysia are allowed to get married below the shariah-sanctioned age of 16 with special permission from the shariah court. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: An age-old debate over the marriage age of one of the wives of Prophet Muhammad has been renewed in Malaysia, after the parents of a 11-year-old girl in Kelantan defended their action of giving their daughter’s hand in marriage to a man three times older.

Vocal rights lawyer Siti Kasim says a root cause of Muslim child marriages in Malaysia is their acceptance of a claim that Prophet Muhammad had married one of his wives at a young age, despite Islamic scholars questioning the veracity of the hadith on which the claim is based.

“Protecting children must be the ultimate aim for our government and no religious edicts or beliefs must come into play.

“I will continue to assert that our new government must start a new narrative in expounding the true teachings of Islam,” Siti wrote on her Facebook, amid public outrage following 11-year-old Masaryu Mat Rashid’s marriage to a 41-year-old rubber tapper in Kelantan.

Lawyer Siti Kasim and activist Farouk Musa criticise Muslims who say child marriage is allowed in Islam.

Parents of the girl, who are Thai citizens living in Gua Musang, have defended the marriage, in the face of condemnation from child rights activists as well as government leaders.

Putrajaya said it was forming a special task force on the issue of child marriages, with civil society activists urging the new government to urgently amend the laws to ensure the legal age for marriage is set at 18.

The current legal age for marriage under civil law is 18, while shariah courts are empowered to allow Muslim marriages at 16 or younger.

Khadija and Aisha’s correct age

Siti’s statement renews a debate among Muslim scholars and historians over the correct age of Aisha, as well as that of his first wife, Khadija.

It was said Khadija was 40 when the Prophet married her at the age of 24. She later gave birth to seven children. But major chroniclers of the life of the Prophet have challenged this notion, with some saying Khadija was only 28 when they married.

A similar debate continues over the age of Aisha. Some traditional scholars have accepted the claim that she was only six years of age when the Prophet married her. Other hadiths, or sayings attributed to the Prophet which form the basis of Islamic teachings, said Aisha was nine years old.

Prominent Muslim activist Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, agreeing with Siti Kasim, said the excuse given by defenders of child marriages was nothing but to justify their own sexual desire.

“No modern moral standard could justify this blatant act of lust,” he told FMT. “This religion that is claimed to elevate the status of women is definitely a religion that is against any exploitation of the poor and the weak and of course helpless women and underaged girls.”

Farouk, who heads the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) challenged the argument by some Muslims that Islam does not prohibit the marriage of underage girls.

He said Islamic precepts and laws must be practised based on maqasid shariah, the principle of taking into account higher objectives for society’s common good.

“If people argue that the Sunnah did not prohibit marrying an underage girl, then the Sunnah also did not prohibit us from taking up slaves.

“But the higher intention of this religion or the maqasid is about the freedom of human beings from the bondage of slavery and elevating the status and protecting the women.

“Obviously marrying an underage girl goes against this maqasid,” said Farouk.

‘I’m just 11 and you’re 41, but I’ll wait for you’