In the Name of God, the Subtle, the Loving
Usually, nothing coming out of Saudi Arabia surprises me. Yet, this story shocked me to the core. According to a report by CNN, a Saudi judge recently refused to anul the marriage of an 8 year old girl to a 47 year old man. The annulment petition was brought by the girl’s mother, and the judge dismissed it because, she “is not the legal guardian of the girl,” according ot the mother’s lawyer Abdullah al-Jutaili.
The girl’s father arranged the marriage in order to settle his debts with the man. But – let us all breathe a sigh of relief here – the judge asked for a pledge from the husband that he would not consummate the marriage until after she reached puberty. After she reaches puberty, the judge ruled, the girl will have the right to request a divorce. Until then, it seems, she is property of a man almost 6 times her age.
Christoph Wilcke, a Saudi Arabia researcher with Human Rights Watch, told CNN: “We’ve been hearing about these types of cases once every four or five months because the Saudi public is now able to express this kind of anger, especially so when girls are traded off to older men.” Zuhair al-Harithi, spokesman for the Saudi-government run Human Rights Commission, also said: “The Human Rights Commission opposes child marriages in Saudi Arabia. Child marriages violate international agreements that have been signed by Saudi Arabia and should not be allowed.”
Thankfully, the child has been able to divorce her husband and end this nightmare.
Yet, I think child marriages should be opposed because they are not appropriate at all. I am the father of an 8 year old daughter, and to do such a thing would never cross my mind in a million years. Now, some may retort: “Well, your Prophet did it with A’isha!”
Not so fast: there is a difference of opinion as to the age of A’isha (r) when she married the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Even so, at that time, it was not uncommon for girls of 9-15 to be considered adults and enter into marriage. Furthermore, not one of the Prophet’s bitterest enemies made an issue of his marriage to A’isha, which means that it was not considered to be out of the ordinary at that time. Moreover, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it is suggested that the Virgin Mary was around 12 years of age when she gave birth to Christ (pbuh).
Times, however, have changed. In our time and culture, to marry an 8 year old girl to a 47 year old man is repugnant, and I am confident that the overwhelming majority of Muslims across the world would agree with me.
The fact that this man had to marry his baby daughter to a 47-year old man to pay off debts is problematic in and of itself. This is almost as if the girl was property and not a human being. And it is not clear from the story whether the father did this willingly or was pressed to give up his daughter by the man. The 47-year old creditor should have been charitable and either forgive his debt or grant the debtor forbearance, rather than taking his 8-year old daughter as “payment.” This smacks of the days of old, before Islam graced the Arabian peninsula. Islam calls on creditors to be charitable to their debtors who cannot pay. Taking a young girl from her father as payment for a debt is, it seems to me, the ultimate form of “riba,” or usury.
More importantly, however, is the issue of the marriage of the 8-year old to the 47 year old in the first place. This should never be allowed to occur, and I believe Islam says so. Marriage in Islam – unlike Catholicism, for example – is not a sacrament; it is a legal contract between a man and a woman. With this contract, the man and woman enjoy certain benefits and are bound by certain legal requirements. If the marriage does not work out, it is legally broken by divorce and settled between the parties. As in any contractual arrangement, both parties to the contract must be legally competent to enter into such an arrangement. Few would argue that the 8 year old girl in this case is legally competent to enter into a contract of marriage.
Some may counter that the contract is actually between the girl’s guardian and the man. That is true, but the woman in question must agree to be married to the man in question. When I got married, the cleric refused to conduct the ceremony until he asked my wife specifically whether she agreed to marry me. Did anyone ask the girl whether she wanted to be married? Would she understand – at the tender age of 8 – what it even means to get married? Think about your own 8 year old daughters, sisters, nieces, cousins, etc: would they understand what it means to get married?
Marriage is an important religious tradition in Islam, and the Prophet (pbuh) did encourage us to get married, but it is, at its essence, a legal agreement, and as such, both parties must be legally competent to enter into such an agreement.
Say the girl was 12 and had already passed puberty, does that make her legally competent? Say she was 15 years old: does that make her legally competent? Could she buy a home on her own? Could she buy a car on her own? Could she even get a credit card? Could she even get a job? The answers to these questions are most probably “no,” because she is not legally competent to do those things, even though she may have passed puberty. So, how could she be married off to a man that could just as well be her father?
Passing puberty is when one is religiously accountable for their deeds, as understood by most in Islam. But, that does not mean that pubertal teens are legally competent to enter into contractual agreements. In the United States, the age of legal competence is 18 (although it can be argued that even 18-year olds may not be mature enough). Something similar should be instituted for marriage in the Muslim world, as appropriate for each culture, so that such abuses are avoided. There should be re-evaulation of what marriage is, and who is competent enough to enter into such a life-changing agreement.
Marriage is a wonderful thing, and I would not have been what I am today without having married my wife. Yet, when misused and miscontrued, it can be an instrument of terror and anguish. It is high time for a new paradigm when it comes to marriage, so that no more 8 year old girls get married to 47 year old men anywhere else in the world: whether it be Muslims or otherwise. Marriage is a legal contract, and as such, it must be entered into by two legally competent parties. Otherwise, you can get ugly messes such as this.