Is it true that Islam allows the marriage of children?
All Praise be to Allah; and may His blessings be on His Messenger,
Before we embark on discussing this matter, it is important to note that many contemporary scholars allow the ruler to set a minimum age for marriage. Whether one agrees with that position or not, it is essential that it be mentioned in discussions of the matter with non-Muslims and skeptics. This will allow them to get beyond their cultural biases and look at the matter from a wider perspective. When you partake in such discussions, you are not representing your favorite personal positions only; you are speaking on behalf of Islam and Islamic scholarship.
The second point to be mentioned here is the fact that when the scholars spoke about the lack of a minimum age for marriage, they were not talking about the consummation of marriage. In fact, they agree that the husband will not be permitted to consummate the marriage with his bride, so long as she is not physically and mentally ready. In al-Mughni, Ibn Qudamah said that “her family should not permit him to consummate the marriage if she was not physically capable of intercourse, even if she was nine. He added that if they asked him to take her, he may refuse and he shall not be required to sustain her as a wife until she is physically mature.” The same has been echoed by the three other madhahib, which all indicated that the groom shall not be allowed to move in with the bride until she is physically capable of conjugal relations; something that should be left to the experts to determine.
The third point to mention is that this ruling does not only apply to girls. It applies to fathers marrying their daughters or sons at a young age, in certain cases, such as the presence of a suitor that the father fears may pass her (or him) up.
Conducting the marriage contract for those who were too young to approve it was permitted by the scholars for fathers only, (and according to al-Shafi’ee, grandfathers as well,) due to their compassion and protectiveness of their children. There is also a non-orthodox position that prevents even the fathers from marrying them. This position is attributed to Ibn Shubruma and al-Asamm. Because of the reasons mentioned in point 1, I would still bring this up in a debate.
To put this ruling in its proper context, we must remember that Islam doesn’t legislate for us, in the 21st century, in the West alone, but it legislates for the Bedouins in the desert and people in the middle of the forests of Africa, Asia, or Latin America; for the 21st century, and the seventh, and in between and beyond. Permitting a practice is not requiring it; it is to grant people more flexibility so that they may exercise logical discretion within their various norms and needs. In fact, the scholars, like ash-Shafi’ee, who indicated that marrying a young girl off by her father is permissible, still said that it was detested.
There are some mental axioms that humans agree upon, however, most of what is described as logical or common sense is in fact very variable and relative, and largely a product of the dominant surrounding culture. What sounds totally reasonable today may have sounded completely absurd in the near past, and vice versa. In all nations, people got married earlier than they do now. In Europe, during the time of Shakespeare, if a woman was single by 13 or 14, she was considered late for marriage, as reflected in his writings. The State of California in the United States increased the age that allows one to legally have sexual intercourse many times within only a 25 year time bracket. Until 1889 the legal age for sexual intercourse was 10 years old, then it became 14 years, then 16 years in 1897, then in 1913 it became 18 years. However, until today it is still 13 in the State of New Mexico and 14 in the States of Mississippi and Iowa. The recent extensive changes in the circumstances of the world have led to great changes in people’s customs and norms. It is unfair and unwise for the people of this era to judge human history based on their current standards and norms.
The biases of people concerning the appropriate age for a girl to have sex or get married leads to contradictions even in the same country. In the United States, for example, the marriage of a 14 year old girl can be legal in some of its states and a crime in others until 19. This means a groom may be considered a law-abiding citizen on one side of the border and a child rapist on the other side. This is not to criticize either side, but to point out the contradiction. In Islamic countries, historically, the suitability of a woman to consummate the marriage happened after she reached puberty and was able to have sexual intercourse without causing her harm and that differs from one woman to another. Setting a number, while it may sound necessary, according to many scholars in our times, was not historically practical or conducive to the welfare of women and societies. In fact, early marriage was the norm of the whole world until very recently. Neither the Torah nor the Gospel, in all of its versions, sets an age for marriage.
Modern medical sciences state that most women reach the age of puberty between of 12 and 14 years with an average of 12.75 years, but the spectrum differs widely from one girl to another and from one environment to another. In fact, doctors do not even consider puberty at age 7 or 8 as sickness. [Saenger, Paul. Overview of precocious puberty. In: UpToDate, Rose, BD (Ed), UpToDate, Waltham, MA, 2007.]
Finally, in the vast majority of Muslim countries today, there is a minimum age for marriage for both men and women. Even if there was not, most Muslims would have chosen to wait for their children to mature before marrying them. It is about being able to competently handle the responsibilities of marriage. The Messenger of Allah r said,
“من استطاع منكم الباءة فليتزوج”
“Let those of you who afford the requirements of marriage to get married.” [Agreed upon from Ibn Mas’ood]
An eighteen year old during the time of the Prophet r led armies, was dispatched as an ambassador, and ruled a city of the importance of Maccah; would you trust our eighteen-year-olds to do the same?
Allah knows best.