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This is a column about Muslims and child marriage. I hesitated before writing it. When I pointed out the prevalence of anti-Semitism and homophobia within British Muslim communities earlier this year, I was accused by some of my co-religionists of “selling out”, of “fuelling Islamophobia”.
I understand their annoyance. Why give the racists and bigots of the Islamophobic far right yet another stick with which to beat us?
The problem is that this particular stick is already in their hands. Child, or underage, marriage is very much a part of British society. And the inconvenient truth is that it is Muslims – not Christians, Jews or Hindus – who are responsible for much of it. There is no point pretending otherwise. Nor is it morally tenable to stand idly by as young girls in the UK are forced into marriages before they are physically or psychologically ready, against their will and against the law.
First, a bit of background. The legal age for marriage in Britain is 16. Yet, back in October, I watched ITV’s “Exposure” documentary, Forced To Marry, in which two undercover reporters, posing as the mother and brother of a 14-year-old Muslim girl, called 56 mosques across Britain to ask whether they would perform the girl’s marriage. Shamefully, imams at 18 of those 56 mosques – or one in three – agreed to do so.
The imam of a mosque in Manchester was secretly recorded as saying that performing such a marriage would “not be a problem”. An imam in Birmingham, despite being told that the girl didn’t want to get married, could be heard saying: “She’s 14. By sharia, grace of God, she’s legal to get married. Obviously Islam has made it easy for us . . . We’re doing it because it’s OK through Islam.”
Let’s be clear: two-thirds of the imams refused to perform such marriages, with many making it clear they “found the request abhorrent”. But here’s the issue: a third of them didn’t. A third of those imams hid behind their – my! – religion: “We’re doing it because it’s OK through Islam.” Frustratingly, many Muslim scholars and seminaries still cling to the view that adulthood, and the age of sexual consent, rests only on biological puberty: that is, 12 to 15 for boys and nine to 15 for girls.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As is often the case, there is no single, immutable “Islamic” view. As Usama Hasan, a reform-minded British Muslim scholar and former imam, argues: “There was a rival view in Islamic jurisprudence, even in ancient and medieval times: that emotional and intellectual maturity was also required, and was reached between the ages of 15 and 21.” The latter view, he tells me, “has been adopted by most civil codes of Muslim-majority countries for purposes of marriage”.
The Quran does not contain a specific legal age of marriage, but it does make clear that men and women must be both physically mature and of sound judgement in order to get married. It is also worth clarifying that Prophet Muhammad did not, as is often claimed, marry a child bride named Aisha. Yes, I’ll concede that there is a saying in Sahih Bukhari, one of the six canonical Hadith collections of Sunni Islam, attributed to Aisha herself, which suggests she was six years old when she was married to Muhammad and nine when the marriage was consummated. Nevertheless, there are plenty of Muslim historians who dispute this particular Hadith and argue Aisha was in reality aged somewhere between 15 and 21.
This isn’t a case of “liberal” Muslims v “conservative” Muslims, either. Even the much-maligned Muslim Council of Britain has said it is “strongly opposed to [underage marriage] on the basis that it is illegal under the law of the land where we are living and even under sharia it is highly debatable”.
Indeed it is. Afifi al-Akiti, an Oxford-based theologian trained in traditional Islamic madrasas across south Asia and North Africa, tells me that the vast majority of classical scholars throughout Muslim history agreed on a minimum marriage age of 18 – two years older, incidentally, than secular Britain’s current age of consent.
So, how to explain the view of a third of the imams contacted by ITV? The influence of Saudi Arabia, and its decades-long export of a reactionary, retrograde brand of Islam, cannot be ignored. The damage that has been done to a nascent British Islam by pre-modern, Saudi-inspired, literalist dogma is incalculable. Consider this: in 2011, when the Saudi ministry of justice announced it might prohibit marriages involving girls under the age of 14, Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan, one of the country’s most senior clerics, issued a fatwa to allow fathers to arrange marriages for their daughters “even if they are in the cradle”. To call such a mindset outdated or medieval would be a gross understatement. It’s an endorsement of paedophilia, plain and simple.
It is also an apt reminder of why most countries, including most Muslim-majority countries, have minimum ages for marriage codified in law: to deter adults from exploiting children and to protect the most innocent members of our society.
“We have a moral duty to obey the law of the land,” says al-Akiti. For adult men to try to marry young girls is illegal and immoral. But British Muslims have a special responsibility: to make the case that there is nothing Islamic about underage marriage, either.
Will this column be used by EDL-types to further their pernicious, anti-Muslim agendas? Maybe it will be, but I can’t stay quiet. I’m the father of two young girls. When I hear of forced, underage marriages being carried out in the heart of major British cities, I think of my own daughters. And I feel sick.
This is 2013. Not 613. Or 1813. Child marriage is a form of child abuse. It must be stopped.
Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted