Early Marriage and Early Islam by amina wadud

Amina Wadud 2 I am Muslim, by choice, practice and vocation

This week, in the state where I am living, Kerala, India:

“…nine prominent Muslim (sic) organizations have decided to approach the Supreme Court to exclude Muslim women from the law prescribing a minimum marital age.  According to them, the present Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, which prescribes 18 as women’s legal age and 21 for men, violates Muslims’ fundamental right to practice their religion.”

Let me try to step back and formulate this in plain English.

India is a secular democratic nation-state, with a population of over 1 billion, a poverty rate at best estimated at 22%.  It ranks as the 55th worst country with regard to its maternal mortality rate with estimates as high as 450 per 100,000, and has an infant mortality rate of 44-55 per 1000. All the above factors have a direct corollary to child marriage: poverty, maternal mortality (think babies having babies), and thus, infant mortality is directly related to the national age of marriage.

Thus, one way to eradicate poverty, save mothers, and save infants is to prevent child marriage.  It is no wonder preventing child marriage is a leading strategy for development organizations, human rights organizations and even the World Bank.  In 2006, India passed the Child Marriage Act which states, “This legislation is armed with enabling provisions to prohibit child marriages, protect and provide relief to victims and enhance punishment for those who abet, promote and solemnize such marriages” (pg 1). 

Against the proven results: maternal mortality and infant mortality rates have declined since the inception of the Child Marriage Act, Muslim organizations in Kerala have decided to approach the Supreme Court to ask that Muslims be exempted as it “violates the fundamental right to practice their religion”!!!

While providing no evidence that child marriage is “fundamental” to our religion, the absence of which would “violate” our ability to practice—since there is no such evidence—let me at least attempt to objectively describe the process of history and culture as it might lead to such a misconception.

There is sufficient evidence that one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives was under 18 when they were married.  That was neither unusual nor disrespectful at the time and place where this took place.  My mother was under 18 when she and my father were married, and this was in the 20th century Democratic United States.  While I acknowledge that this did happen, I do not sanction it as a model for what should continue to happen.  What I will point to here is the kind of skewed logic that finds some advocates exerting that this must continue to happen.  We start with the evidence above, proving that child marriage is harmful, potentially fatal, and also provide the intra-Islamic methodology.

Let us start with the Prophetic example.

Muslims follow what is known as the Sunnah as one of our primary sources of law, ethics and behavior.  Sunnah best translates as “normative behavior of the Prophet Muhammad”, upon him be peace.  We say, “normative”, because the Prophet was also known for exceptional behavior in his spiritual practices, acts of worship, and social location.  These exceptions have no force upon the community and have never been encoded into the law as recommendations, requirements, or “fundamentals”.

For example, the Prophet married 9 times.  All but one of his wives was previously married, and considering the time in which they lived, they were quite old.  His first wife, Khadijah, with whom he was married at the time he received the call to prophethood, was 15 years his senior: he was 25, she was 40.  Their marriage lasted for over 25 years, until she died.  They (re)produced four daughters, his only surviving offspring.  It remained monogamous, despite the regularity of polygamy at that time.  Since this marriage was the longest for the Prophet, why is it not the standard by which we measure normative or Sunnah?

Furthermore, all of his wives, except one, were older women, previously married (either divorcees or widows).  Thus to seek precedent from the peculiar instance of the Prophet’s marriage to young Aishah is obviously skewed.  I also find it abhorrent, distorting the image of the Prophet, violating the name of Islam and simply dangerous.

But the logic does not end here.  Islamic law is often erroneously referred to as Shar’iah, a word which better relates to sacred path or divine essence.  It should refer to fiqh, which means interpretation or understanding of that essence, jurisprudence.  Historical evidence has confirmed that Islamic law has always allowed for differences of opinion (ikhtilaf) and has thus always been variant.  Even today, there are four major Sunni schools of law, and one major Shi’ah school. This speaks to its diversity and thus flexibility.  Nevertheless, there are certain constants.

One constant, which I have already briefly demonstrated is the use of divine sources: the prophetic Sunnah, and most importantly the Qur’an, or revelation.  These are also variants because as divine sources they can only come into force of law via HUMAN interpretation.  The formulas for arriving at and then advocating divergent interpretive methodologies have proliferated and remain variant.  Thus no one school has a monopoly on meaning.  Every Muslim in every circumstance has the moral obligation to advocate a different opinion and to be supported by the very principle of ikhtilaf.  All one has to do is to show their logic, bring their evidence and they must be allowed their own good conscience.

Despite this flexibility and diversity there are still certain principles against which no law can be deemed “Islamic”.  The number one principle is “justice”.  Ibn al-Jayziyyah has stated, “the objective (or maqasid) of Shari’ah is justice”. Should anyone be able to show that justice cannot be met, then the law must be reformed.  In the case above, the overwhelming evidence shows that child marriages are harmful, even fatal, thus cannot be “Islamic”.

Finally, it is the purview of the nation-state to guarantee equality for all of its citizens.  Should India allow herself to be persuaded by the skewed logic of these advocates, then it is the fault of India and not Islam that girl children will continue to lose their rights to becoming fully participating citizens and might even be led to their early death.

Clearly, I have more than can fit in one blog on this topic but for further information visit www.musawah.org a global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family.  It states, “equality, non-discrimination, justice and dignity is the basis of all human relations”.  Child marriage violates these principles and is outside of Islam.

 amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe. 

Categories: Activism, Childbirth, Children, Gender, General, Justice, Politics, Rape

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32 replies

  1. well said sister Amina.May The Almighty bless you for educating us.


  2. This echoes what is going on in Nigeria with the Islamic Lobby and constitution revoking minimal age. Worrying. Thanks for bringing this to the women’s movement’s attention.


  3. It’s a question generally of the age of consent. But even in the USA, there are 30 states that define that age as a mere 16, which to me is far too young, considering the complete disruption of the girl’s life if a pregnancy occurs, and the fact that a 16 year old is then required to take on the obligations and financial strain of responsible parenting. It’s not just about sex, but what that means for the girl in terms of pregnancy (as you say, babies having babies). The revelation that needs to be brought to this is that there is no such thing as justice without compassion.


    • It’s true that 16 is too young to get married no matter which part of the globe we’re in. Again, It’s much beyond sex and babies when it comes to India. Indian girls at the age of 16 (in a common scenario) are too immature to step into something called an Indian marriage. I said Indian marriage because (I am a Keralite myself) marriage in India does not mean just getting a spouse. Along with it comes innumerable responsibilities, family restrictions and a lot of other ties which expect the girl to be a total super women and take up responsibility on the next day and act like one mid aged woman (I am talking about common scenario). It’s not just a transfer of “protection” from father to spouse but you’re turning to a Bahu (daughter in law), sister in law and all bla blas, with some society defined rules and responsibilities (need not be defined by religion). It’s a total change for a girl in 16… who is still a pampered queen, in Indian scenario, for her parents.

      The saddest part of these weird controversy is that Kerala is the ONLY state in India where muslim girls are getting proper education (comparatively) and one of the most uplifted muslim women society of India, at least they know their rights.. Most other parts of India, you see education and right are restricted into city living, high class people while in Kerala it has spread across the society and girls are having more opportunities. Unfortunately, some with vested interest wants them to go backward in the society, again!!


      • Completely with you here. I’m from Kerala too and I agree that Muslim women here are among the most educated and aware of their rights in the whole of India. The clerics advocating this change in marriageable age are probably feeling threatened by this upliftment of women, akin to the Taliban feeling scared of Malala. I’m glad there was an uproar and enough opposition to this proposal from people of all religions. Thank you for featuring it here as well.


  4. ‘Consent” is a male invented legal term designed to prevent men from getting jailed for raping under age women. It is a misnomer if there ever was one. All well and good to point out the horrors of India, but really, there is child trafficking in the US, forced marriages in the US, compulsory heterosexuality is epidemic WORLDWIDE. The Catholic church will not allow abortion to save a mother’s life, and on it goes. Secular states are under attack by religious fundamentalist men, Islamic, Christian you name it.

    Men have reproductive sex with women and girls, and women take on ALL THE RISK of possible death in childbirth. Think of that, in both developing and so-called developed countries. So if you are a man having reproductive sex with a woman, and she probably doesn’t even want that kind of sex to begin with, you are putting her at risk for death. And what would happen if the MAN who impregnated the woman who then died in childbirth, what if that MAN was sent to jail for murder? WOW, women would change the law, you’d have to build more jails to hold men accountable worldwide. See what they’d do then.


  5. Amina Wadud is trying cultural imperialism. It is bound to fail. Change has to come from within the Muslim ummah, not from an American lady who believes in the superiority of America. However, even in America, pre-teens do get married with parental consent [for example in Texas]

    Kaukab Siddique, PhD


    • Kaukab, it is sad to see that instead of addressing Amina Wadud’s argument, which is thoughtful, complex and seeks to protect the weakest members of society – young girls, you’d rather dismiss her entire endeavour based on her nationality? Your comment displays a shocking lack of regard for the young girls that stand to be harmed by such a ruling. Oh, and the whole “things are bad in the West too” argument is old and entirely irrelevant. Where is your moral voice speaking up for either the young girls in India or America?


    • Amina Wadud is an Imam. She is and speaks for change from within. If you reject her ability to speak for justice then you are rejecting the voice of Muslim women which you have no right to do. Hers is one voice of many and they are growing with each injustice that is hurled against us and the next generation of Muslim girls and women. And though misogyny and crimes against women and girls do not discriminate by faith or ethnicity, that doesn’t mean we simply turn a blind eye to one group simply because they are far away or because we are afraid to air the dirty laundry of fellow Muslims who are committing wrong doing. How narrow minded and without compassion are the naysayer Muslims filled with apathy and elitism who do nothing while fellow Muslim activists speak out to insist on change..


    • Didn’t she say she’s a malyali? From Kerala?


  6. Justice is such an important concept in Islam—yet most of us Muslims have little idea of its purpose, scope and application in life. Perhaps a lot of this stems from a lack of education about Islam and Islamic history.
    When we fail to understand the ethico-moral principles that underlie the concept of justice then “justice” becomes a set of arbitrary rules to be followed blindly. This is a danger in both secular as well as religious “Justice” systems.
    Also. these days—many Islamic concepts are broken up instead of understanding them wholistically. Justice tempered with compassion and mercy is a practice that begins in the home with our relationship with our Parents and extends out from there in our relations with our near and dear family, to our other relations and friends, to neighbors colleagues and acquaintances, to the greater community and to our nations……..it is built on two very simple ideas—1) to provide benefit and 2) refrain from harm.


  7. Furthermore “justice” itself is not static. Justice for women a thousand years ago was protection. Today, justice means equality and reciprocity.


    • Justice is not static—I agree—-a static set of rules/laws distort the concept of Justice…..because justice is a lived concept—it is experienced not an abstract theory.

      Justice = protection….I agree. Protection (of rights and liberty) is an inherent requirement of justice pertaining to those who do not have the leverage/strength to protect it themselves. These would include women in patriarchal societies, minorities within a majority, LGBT within heterosexual society, the handicapped within a non handicapped majority….etc. Justice would require that those who have the leverage/strength have the responsibility to refrain from oppression and provide the protection of rights/liberty to those who do not have.

      But….the struggle for the pursuit of Justice is also a responsibility of those who do not have it—the means of attaining equality and reciprocity must rest with all peoples in a society.

      A problem comes about when the purpose of “protection” becomes distorted. For example if protection is understood as –“protection FROM harm” rather than protection OF rights and liberty—then it can open the gates to oppression. However, if all of us as individuals take primary responsibility to REFRAIN from harm—then “protection from harm” of the less privileged may become less of a concern….and the primary task of the protection of rights and liberties of the less privileged can come to the forefront.

      The wholistic concept of Justice can be more easily understood if individuals practice it at a micro level—within their relationships—then the interconnections (Unity) of all other concepts such as responsibility balanced with rights, privileges balanced with equality, reciprocity balanced with compassion and charity—become clear……..and can be implemented at a macro level…………and perhaps this brings us back to the theme of Tawheed (Unity)— To use our intellect and reason to understand wholistic Justice brings us closer to Tawheed whereas if we blindly follow it only as set rules and laws without connection to principles, ethics/morality, lived experiences, we can distort justice and thereby fall into injustice and oppression………..


  8. Amina, to me this is the core point you make: “While I acknowledge that this did happen, I do not sanction it as a model for what should continue to happen.” That relationship between past practice and contemporary actions is absolutely essential; to pretend that a simple replication is a necessary or sufficient (or even possible) response is dishonest and potentially devastating.


    • I know it’s been a year and a half since you added your comment to Amina’s wonderful article, but thank you again. I am struggling right now with the fact that many in the Muslim world hold the Prophet up to be the perfect example of humankind…the best human….and yet we know that he married A’isha and consummated the relationship with her when she was a child. She herself narrates her age as nine and describes playing with dolls at the time. It has really shaken my faith a lot. I’ve read the arguments that she was older based on her age at a battle…but my issue with that is we have numerous Sahih ahadith where she herself states she is nine. Ugh. At least know I can say “it doesn’t have to be a model.”


  9. I don’t understand or comprehend why ANY woman belonging to — yes, belonging to — a patriarchal religion, created as it was out of the murder of goddess religion, would try and reclaim, perpetuate or defend it.

    I also don’t see how amina can claim that a marriage to a girl under 18 in any time would be considered respectful.

    amina, you are still enslaved. i hope other women can help you find your way out. Unfortunately, I don’t think you will find them on this website. You all seem hopeless married or betrothed or enthralled to patriarchal religion.

    And when you are not free, I am not free, no little girl is free, not one woman is free.

    Free yourself, amina, you have the power!


    • Woosh. This reply is so sadly inaccurate. Goddess religion indeed. Allah is both God and Goddess – the One. The multiple idol worship of the pre-Islamic era was based on economic exploitation. It was not goddess religion – men routinely bury their female children alive in the dessert. That does not show worship of the Divine Feminine. Muhammed (pbuh) made protection, care and education of women a requirement of his followers. It is many moons since he walked this earth, and the millions of Muslims who inherited the religion are not necessarily any more aware of what he was or did than you are. We are disparate people – both the best and worst of humanity – struggling to find the right path for ourselves and communities.


      • What is specifically inaccurate? Please state. The evidence for the globality of goddess religious is not disputable simply because male academics and mentally enslaved women like you refuse to acknowledge it. Marija Gumbutas uncovered it in Europe. The mythic and literary traditions of the world corroborate it. Understand the matrist past. Understand the history of the goddess and the history of women. Long before Allah there were many many incarnations of goddess — Au Set, etc.

        You women are so enslaved to patriarchy — please wake up.


  10. Thanks for all your comments–which are so mutually contradictory it would take a whole dissertation to address. From: I am NOT Muslim enough because Allah, Lord of all the worlds, had my birth IN America–to–I am NOT free enough because I chose Islam–on my own terms and FREE will, as my way of life.

    I think I will let you all answer to each other LOL!

    I only want to add that this discussion is STILL going on and in this regard, Kecia’s comment about how to even experience, believe in and support sunnah other than blind repetition seems crucial.

    Some one even said, IF the prophet married a child then we MUST continue to do so!! as the ONLY way to show we believe, respect or follow the sunnah, It got me thinking (again). How do Muslims even drive cars, or get on elevators since the Prophet never did???

    Instead what we see is SELECTIVE justification.

    The questions then, are:

    HOW do we select?
    and WHO has the power to select?
    or by WHAT basis is selection made?


  11. It’s hard to understand where these people are coming from. I cannot imagine living in a society that not only condones child marriage but looks upon it as an essential right that men have over women. Very difficult indeed to imagine how they make moral sense of it in their own minds… or if they are pedophiles who are baseless and immoral.


  12. Why Feminism? Feminism because of Religion?(God is a Man?) Why Religion? Religion as justification for Patriarchy(Patriarchism) when women started asking questions. Why Patriarchy? Patriarchy is part of the endocrinological evolution of the species. It goes back a million?(millions?) years and was essential at the time when man was in danger of extinction. It has reached its sell by date and it has not only become superfluous but it has become dangerous for technological reasons because of nuclear fission and fusion and the inability of the species to get rid of nuclear waste coupled with the male’s endocrnological proneness to violence. Patriarchy must be diluted by matriarchy. It will help if we turn God into a female figure.


  13. Asalaam alaikum Sr. Amina,

    I enjoy the clarity and logic of your argument. It is interesting that people don’t take the example of the prophet to heart by marrying widows and divorced women with children who need support. We all know they don’t generally do that.

    I do feel, however, that the age of marriage is related to the sophistication of the community and circumstances in that community. The age of 18 is an arbitrary number derived mostly by the fact that young people finish high school at that age and finishing high school was usually considered necessary to be educated enough for adulthood. In earlier history in the United States, earlier milestones were around based on a general consensus on when puberty occured in most people, because high school was not a necessity, and the practice of allowing people to marry earlier than the age prescribed in law was allowed with parental consent, because people understood that some young people matured earlier than others, or there might be a need in the family – say the early death of the father, the breadwinner, that might make an earlier marriage economically attractive to a family. Today, more and more, in technologically advanced societies, college is becoming a necessity for adulthood, so the age of marriage might need to be advanced to 22 or so. We have today a disconnect between the age of puberty and the age of finishing education to be ready for successful life in society in many places in the world. Muslims and others should consider this factor when considering marriageable age. In many parts of the world, sexual indiscression is caused when young people are not supported through the early years of their sexual maturation which preceed their educational maturation for functioning in society.

    The other issue I belive needs consideration is the habit in cultures all over the world where early marriage has been conducted. Generally, early marriage was not for sexual abuse of children but for political or social ends – to create a bond between the child and another, often another child. Consumation of the marriage was a future event, when the child became old enough. Kings married off their children to create alliances. Wealthy parents married off their children to protect them and the family fortune in an age where adults often died young. This saw the desire of the parent enforced on the child and protected the family name and the child from any future guardian. Actually in the difficult early years of Islam, the marriage of Muhammad to Aisha could be seen in the light of creating an alliance to consolidate a relationship with her father. Societies where this occurs generally consider the family to be more important than the individual, and people in those societies put aside their personal interests and chose careers and marry, and make many other choices, according to what their family feels is best for the family. None of these social decisions considered sex or physical attraction. They were based on economic and or politial considerations.

    A law in India about the lower limit for the age of marriage is just that, a human made law. It can be changed should future evidence demonstrate a need. It seems to be helping now for the improved health of women and their families, and this is something Muslims should be supporting. I really appreciate you speaking out against these Muslim groups who are arguing for a Muslim opt out from the law. We don’t need that special treatment they are fighting for.


  14. we have to consider the geographical, physical, socio cultural existence while we deal with the age of marriage. It will vary from place to place, state to state, nation to nation. it also differed on the basis of religion, caste, culture, social status. if somebody talks about Kerala state, there are various reason to fix marriage age… It is difficult to speak about whole india where people living in a different strata…


  15. Instead what we see is SELECTIVE justification.

    The questions then, are:

    HOW do we select?
    and WHO has the power to select?
    or by WHAT basis is selection made?

    This point is so rarely understood when the “authority of tradition” is invoked in a variety of contexts. Judith Plaskow made a similar point in regard to Judaism in The Coming of Lilith. She argued that all Jews selectively invoke tradition, but some of them do not recognize this fact! Once this fact is recognized questions of inclusiveness among the interpreters can be introduced.


  16. Forced arranged marriage should not be justified in any context. I have Orthodox Christian friends who have told me that the “marital act” never felt like anything other than rape. When children are involved, it is child rape, also known as pederasty–when the husband is an adult and the wife is a child.


  17. I think what she talked about early marriages is right. and being a Muslim I would say that Islam did not mention any specific age for marriage, Islam just says that when the girl reaches in a puberty or she is able to get understand what is right or bad.. she is ready for marriage..and our Holy Prophet Mhammad PBUH, also get married when his favorite wife Aisha rz was only some say 8 or 12 years old..



  1. Early Marriage and Early Islam - amina wadud

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