Age of Marriage
It is rumored that the Prophet Muhammad married Aisha when she was only nine years old. Child marriage of this type is unthinkable in most societies today, but it is true that this practice existed in pre-Islamic Arabic. The chronological relevance of child marriage, however, does not imply that it was also accepted and practiced by early Muslims. The Qur’an’s commentary on ages of maturity, as well as meticulously kept historical records, firmly preclude this possibility. As the Qur’an’s teachings on social issues largely contradict the local pre-Islamic cultural practices, and claim they were revealed to guide humanity out from darkness and towards the light, it is worth considering that the verses themselves deny the likelihood of Aisha being married at such an early age.
According to the Qur’an, there are different qualifications a young person must meet before being considered ready for marriage. First, the Qur’an distinguishes between the age of puberty and the age of marriage. The age of puberty (al-ḥulm) is mentioned in Chapter 24 (al-Nur), verse 59, when describing when children should begin to ask permission to enter their parents’ bedroom:
وَإِذَا بَلَغَ ٱلۡأَطۡفَـٰلُ مِنكُمُ ٱلۡحُلُمَ فَلۡيَسۡتَـٔۡذِنُواْ ڪَمَا ٱسۡتَـٔۡذَنَ ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبۡلِهِمۡۚ كَذَٲلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ ٱللَّهُ لَڪُمۡ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦۗ وَٱللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ حَڪِيمٌ۬ (٥٩)
59. When the children among you reach puberty, they must ask permission, as those before them asked permission. Allah thus clarifies Its revelations for you. Allah is Knowledgeable and Wise.
The age of marriage, in contrast, is mentioned in Chapter 4 (al-Nisa), verse 6, as “al-nikāḥ”:
وَٱبۡتَلُواْ ٱلۡيَتَـٰمَىٰ حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا بَلَغُواْ ٱلنِّكَاحَ فَإِنۡ ءَانَسۡتُم مِّنۡہُمۡ رُشۡدً۬ا فَٱدۡفَعُوٓاْ إِلَيۡہِمۡ أَمۡوَٲلَهُمۡۖ وَلَا تَأۡكُلُوهَآ إِسۡرَافً۬ا وَبِدَارًا أَن يَكۡبَرُواْۚ وَمَن كَانَ غَنِيًّ۬ا فَلۡيَسۡتَعۡفِفۡۖ وَمَن كَانَ فَقِيرً۬ا فَلۡيَأۡكُلۡ بِٱلۡمَعۡرُوفِۚ فَإِذَا دَفَعۡتُمۡ إِلَيۡہِمۡ أَمۡوَٲلَهُمۡ فَأَشۡہِدُواْ عَلَيۡہِمۡۚ وَكَفَىٰ بِٱللَّهِ حَسِيبً۬ا (٦)
6. Test the orphans until they reach the age of marriage. If you find them to be mature enough, hand over their properties to them. And do not consume it extravagantly or hastily before they grow up. The rich shall not charge any wage, but the poor may charge fairly. When you hand over their properties to them, have it witnessed for them. Allah suffices as a Reckoner.
Based on this verse, the age of marriage is connected with emotional/mental maturity and ability to manage wealth. Historically, puberty signals only physiological changes for both men and women; people have not been mature enough to manage their personal wealth at this point. Scientifically speaking, mental maturity occurs closer to the age of twenty-two for females and twenty-six for males, as the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for a lot of our judgment and decision-making, does not fully mature until we reach our twenties. Puberty, of course, occurs long before this point, and so could not be considered an appropriate sole signal for allowing a child to establish his or her own household. After all, if children at the age of puberty still need parental guidance for how to behave in society, such as learning a basic rule of not barging in on their parents who are behind a closed door, then they are still in a learning phase of life and are not yet ready to exert their independence.
Chapter 6 (al-An’am), verse 152 also discusses the age of maturity with regard to orphans:
وَلَا تَقۡرَبُواْ مَالَ ٱلۡيَتِيمِ إِلَّا بِٱلَّتِى هِىَ أَحۡسَنُ حَتَّىٰ يَبۡلُغَ أَشُدَّهُ ۥۖ وَأَوۡفُواْ ٱلۡڪَيۡلَ وَٱلۡمِيزَانَ بِٱلۡقِسۡطِۖ لَا نُكَلِّفُ نَفۡسًا إِلَّا وُسۡعَهَاۖ وَإِذَا قُلۡتُمۡ فَٱعۡدِلُواْ وَلَوۡ ڪَانَ ذَا قُرۡبَىٰۖ وَبِعَهۡدِ ٱللَّهِ أَوۡفُواْۚ ذَٲلِڪُمۡ وَصَّٮٰكُم بِهِۦ لَعَلَّكُمۡ تَذَكَّرُونَ (١٥٢)
152. And do not come near the property of the orphan, except with the best intentions, until he reaches maturity. And give full weight and full measure, equitably. We do not burden any soul beyond its capacity. And when you speak, be fair, even if it concerns a close relative. And fulfill your covenant with Allah. All this It has enjoined upon you, so that you may take heed.
While this verse does not mention marriage explicitly, it is a reminder that a child should not be allowed to manage his or her own money until he reaches maturity in his life. If the child is not allowed to manage his or her own money yet, then considering verse 4:6 as described above, he cannot yet be ready for marriage. These two verses connect the readiness to accept the responsibility for managing wealth, income, and a household with the age of marriage, linking one with the other. So, if a child is not allowed to manage his or her own financial matters until he or she reaches a later stage of personal maturity, how could a young girl, barely pubescent, be entrusted with the responsibility of raising children and running her own household? So, there is no way that Muhammad would marry a girl who was unable to manage her wealth due to her extremely young age, when the Qur’an itself is teaching him that ability to manage her wealth is a condition for marriage.
With regards to Aisha, most scholars who claim she was married at age nine, base their opinions on weak hadith and in consideration of cultural ideologies that pre-existed the Qur’an’s revelation. After considering the relevant verses, we must only look at historical records to confirm that Aisha was in fact much older than nine years old when she married the Prophet. She was likely closer to the age of twenty. Aisha was born before revelation, and it was recorded that she accepted Islam, which means that at the time she became aware of Muhammad’s teachings, she would have likely been around the age of puberty, since an infant or a child would not have the full knowledge or social power to make such a huge personal decision about her faith. Aisha was married right after the hijra to Medina, and was also present in the Battle of Badr in 624 CE. It was recorded that no one under the age of 15 was allowed on the battlefield, so, even if she were only fifteen years old at the time, she would have had to have been married at around age thirteen, not nine. However, one more piece of historical evidence indicates she was, in fact, older than a child at the time of her marriage: Asma, Aisha’s older sister, was ten years older than her, and she died at the age of 100, in 692 CE. By simple mathematical reasoning, we can see that Aisha would have been ninety at the time of her sister’s death. If Asma died sixty-eight years after the Battle of Badr, then Aisha would have been twenty-two during the battle, or married around age twenty.
With these verses and historical facts in mind, the modern reader of the Qur’an must move past the common but inaccurate assumption that Aisha was married as a child. Putting this idea aside obliterates any “Islamic” tradition-based justification for child marriage in the present day, and brings society one step closer to the evolved state encouraged by the Qur’an.
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