Nigeria: A 14-year-old girl admitted to putting rat poison in her husband's food a week after being forced to marry him. Photo: Wayne Parsons
Over the weekend, a 14-year-old Nigerian girl became the latest victim of child marriage in the Muslim world. Forced by her father to marry a 35-year-old man, the young girl sought escape by baking rat poison into his food, killing him and three of his friends.
According to this CBS report, 50 percent of girls in rural Nigeria are married before the age of 18. Not only is child marriage classified as a form of modern-day slavery by the UN, it is illegal in all Muslim countries bar Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And yet, it remains a common occurrence.
Last month Iraq announced it was considering draft legislation that could make it legal to marry girls as young as nine. The Jafaari Personal Status law would also force women to submit sex to their husbands on demand.l
Of course, child marriage is not peculiar to Islam. It remains painfully common in India and South Africa. Even Australia has more than 3000 underage teens in marriages or de facto relationships.
What makes child marriage so hard to eradicate in the Muslim world is that its supporters claim it is their divinely mandated right to marry young girls because they are following in the footsteps of the prophet.
There remains a widespread belief among Muslims and non-Muslims alike that Mohammed became betrothed to his youngest wife Aisha when she was six and consummated the marriage when she was just nine.
The controversy over Aisha's age comes from the Hadiths (stories about the prophet) compiled by Imam Bukhari in the 9th century, in which he writes:
“It is reported from Aisha that she said: The Prophet entered into marriage with me when I was a girl of six . . . and at the time [of joining his household] I was a girl of nine years of age.”
But – and the fate of so many child brides hinges on this "but" – what many non-Muslims don't know and what many Muslims ignore is that the authenticity of this Hadith has been thrown into doubt by subsequent Muslim scholars, simply because so much other evidence we have about Aisha contradicts this account.
For starters, Bukhari himself also includes a Hadith in which Aisha recalls being a young girl and remembering when a particular sura (Koranic verse) "Al-Qamar" was revealed. That sura came to Mohammed in 613, nine years before her wedding. As the Muslim writer and broadcaster Dr David Liepert writes: “Obviously, both Hadiths can't be true, and that's the problem with relying too much on Hadiths, and too little on the Koran and common sense.”
I'll get to the Koran in a moment, but first other historical evidence that casts doubt on Aisha's age include:
■ Mohammed and Aisha were married in 622. The earliest surviving biography of Mohammed, Ibn Ishaq's The Life of the Messenger of God, records that Aisha converted to Islam not long after it was revealed in 610, indicating Aisha was born several years before 610.
■ Aisha fought alongside Mohammed in the Battles of Badr in 624 and Uhud in 625. Islamic law forbade anyone under the age of 15 to take part, meaning she must have been at least 15 in 624.
■ Before being betrothed to Mohammed, Aisha had already being engaged to another man, extremely unlikely for a girl of six.
■ Finally, Asma, Aisha's older sister by 10 years, died at the age of 100, some 72 years after Aisha's wedding. This indicates Aisha was at least 18 by the time of the consummation of her marriage.
And what does the Koran itself have to say? While Aisha's age is not given, the Koran states she had reached the “age of majority”, meaning she was menstruating. Moreover, the Koran clearly states that marriage is only valid when entered into by consenting adults (an adult in those days being someone who had reached puberty), which may seem unremarkable to us today, but was nothing short of revolutionary for its time.
More than a thousand years before Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (considered to be the first feminist treatise) in 1792, which was roundly rejected and ridiculed by men, Mohammed declared women to be independent human beings, capable of deciding for themselves who they wish to marry and when, as well as giving them the right to a divorce, and to inherit property.
It may come as a surprise for those who seek to paint her as either a victim or a submissive wallflower, but not only did Aisha enter her marriage enthusiastically, she went on to become Mohammed's most politically active wife.
She is known for being the wife he turned to most for advice, the one who fought alongside him in battle, and she was the authority Mohammed told Muslims to consult in his absence.
For many centuries, the image Western Orientalist historians held of Mohammed was one of a philanderer and barbarian. Over time historians softened their view, leading W. Montgomery Watt to write: "Of all the world's great men, none has been so much maligned as Muhammad."
How ironic, that this issue of Aisha's tender age is kept alive both by those Muslims who use it as an excuse to subjugate women, and those non-Muslims who hate Islam. The insistence that Mohammed was a pedophile is an Orientalist interpretation that not only conveniently ignores the many cases of child marriage in the Bible, but seeks to undermine Islam altogether by demonising its prophet.
With so much distance between Aisha's time and ours, we cannot know for certain her exact age. But with considerable evidence casting doubt on her been a child of nine, it all comes back to the Koran. And nowhere does the Koran sanction child marriage.
Of course, what constituted adulthood in 7th century Arabia is not what we consider maturity today, but that's the nature of human progress, it changes -we hope- for the better. The more we cling to this notion of Mohammed as a barbarian and Aisha as a helpless victim, the more children today will suffer. Nothing perpetuates the cycle of poverty, domestic violence, and despair like child marriage.
With one of these child brides languishing in a Nigerian jail as we speak, what will it take to lay this issue to rest, once and for all?