In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Child marriage is an important issue for Muslims in the modern period, as social customs have drastically changed over the last few hundred years. People in pre-modern societies sometimes thought of the practice as harmless, even beneficial in some contexts. But are child marriages encouraged by Islam?
Anti-Muslim writers point to a verse of the Quran to argue that Islam not only encourages child marriage, but also allows sex between adults and children. Even some wayward Muslims, eager to reject ‘Western’ social customs altogether, shamelessly advocate for child marriages despite compelling evidence that it harms children in the modern context.
Upon examination, we find that both of them, as is their peculiar habit, read into the verse what it does not say.
وَاللَّائِي يَئِسْنَ مِنَ الْمَحِيضِ مِن نِّسَائِكُمْ إِنِ ارْتَبْتُمْ فَعِدَّتُهُنَّ ثَلَاثَةُ أَشْهُرٍ وَاللَّائِي لَمْ يَحِضْنَ
Those who no longer expect menstruation among your women, if you doubt, then their waiting period is three months, and also for those who have not menstruated.
Surat al-Talaq 65:4
This verse refers to the waiting period until remarriage (‘iddah) for divorced “women,” who are by definition adults. It does not use the word for children or prepubescent girls. The verse merely delivers a practical rule for determining the waiting period for any divorced woman who, for whatever reason, does not menstruate.
A woman might not menstruate for several reasons, because she is too old to menstruate or has a physical disorder that prevents or delays ordinary menstrual cycles. As such, the verse covers all of these cases in a general sense.
Classical scholars also interpreted the verse to apply to a marriage to a child that has been contracted but not consummated. Such arranged marriages to young people were ordinary in the pre-modern world, so it is expected that jurists would have developed rules for them.
Ibn Battal writes:
أجمع العلماء على أنه يجوز للآباء تزويج الصغار من بناتهم وإن كن فى المهد إلا أنه لا يجوز لأزواجهن البناء بهن إلا إذا صلحن للوطء
The scholars agreed that it is permissible for fathers to marry off their young daughters even if they are in the cradle, except it is not permissible for their husbands to consummate the marriage with them until they are prepared to safely have intercourse.
Source: Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 7/172
That scholars allowed contracting a marriage to child did not mean they allowed sex with children. Physical maturity and safety were the prerequisites for lawful intercourse.
It is important to appreciate that the verse 65:4 does not prescribe child marriage, but rather expresses a general rule that might apply to such a situation if it occurred. Muslim scholars discouraged fathers and guardians from contracting child marriages unless it served a clear interest to all involved. It was an exception, not the rule.
وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ الشَّافِعِيَّ وَأَصْحَابَهُ قَالُوا وَيُسْتَحَبُّ أنْ لَا يُزَوِّجَ الْأَبُ وَالْجَدُّ الْبِكْرَ حَتَّى تَبْلُغَ وَيَسْتَأْذِنُهَا لِئَلَّا يُوقِعَهَا فِي أَسْرِ الزَّوْجِ وَهِيَ كَارِهَةٌ
Know that Al-Shafi’i and his companions encouraged a father or grandfather not to marry off a virgin girl until she reaches maturity and he obtains her consent, that she may not be trapped with a husband she dislikes.
Source: Sharḥ al-Nawawī ‘alá Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1422
Child marriages were not recommended by classical scholars even though the social customs of the time did not consider them unusual. They understood that one of the most essential purposes of marriage mentioned in the Quran is to engender love and tranquility between spouses, which cannot be obtained by coercion, force, or harm.
Moreover, it was recommended by the Prophet (ṣ) himself that candidates for marriage be of equal or suitable age.
Buraida reported: Abu Bakr and Umar, may Allah be pleased with them, offered a marriage proposal to the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
She is too young.
Source: Sunan al-Nasā’ī 3221, Grade: Sahih
Al-Qari provides an interpretation of this tradition, writing:
الْمُرَادُ أَنَّهَا صَغِيرَةٌ بِالنِّسْبَةِ إِلَيْهِمَا لِكِبَرِ سِنِّهِمَا وَزَوَّجَهَا مِنْ عَلِيٍّ لِمُنَاسَبَةِ سِنِّهِ لَهَا
The meaning is that she was too young to be suitable for the older age of Abu Bakr and Umar, so the Prophet married her to Ali, who was of suitable age.
Source: Mirqāt al-Mafātīḥ 6104
Since considering custom is a principle of Islamic law, social customs that are no longer conducive to the Islamic objectives of marriage should no longer be followed and, if necessary, outlawed altogether. For this reason, the vast majority of Muslim countries have imposed an age limit on marriage, usually at or around 18 years of age.
Careful study of modern child marriages has revealed startling statistics concerning the detrimental effects this practice has on young boys and girls. Different conditions warrant different rules in Islam, and what might have been appropriate for societies in the past is not necessarily appropriate today.
As Ibn al-Qayyim said:
فَإِنَّ الشَّرِيعَةَ مَبْنَاهَا وَأَسَاسُهَا عَلَى الْحِكَمِ وَمَصَالِحِ الْعِبَادِ فِي الْمَعَاشِ وَالْمَعَادِ وَهِيَ عَدْلٌ كُلُّهَا وَرَحْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا وَمَصَالِحُ كُلُّهَا وَحِكْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا فَكُلُّ مَسْأَلَةٍ خَرَجَتْ عَنْ الْعَدْلِ إلَى الْجَوْرِ وَعَنْ الرَّحْمَةِ إلَى ضِدِّهَا وَعَنْ الْمَصْلَحَةِ إلَى الْمَفْسَدَةِ وَعَنْ الْحِكْمَةِ إلَى الْبَعْثِ فَلَيْسَتْ مِنْ الشَّرِيعَةِ وَإِنْ أُدْخِلَتْ فِيهَا بِالتَّأْوِيلِ
Verily, the law is founded upon wisdom and welfare for people in this life and the Hereafter. In its entirety it is justice, mercy, benefit, and wisdom. Every matter which abandons justice for tyranny, mercy for cruelty, benefit for corruption, and wisdom for foolishness is not a part of the law, even if it was introduced therein by an interpretation.
Source: I’lām al-Muwaqqi’īn 3/11
Hence, any practice that causes verifiable harm to children is necessarily unlawful in Islam, even if previous societies considered the practice harmless in their particular situation.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.