Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number? Child Marriage and Maturity

Years ago, when television was still a part of my life, I was watching a Seinfeld episode in which the character George saw an attractive, shapely young woman and subsequently made a comment to Jerry urging him to look at her body. Jerry in response told George that the girl was fifteen years old, and he playfully scolded his friend for goggling at “children.” George stared at his friend in amazement, then at the girl, then back at his friend. He couldn’t believe it. She was only fifteen years old? Impossible

…But why is it so impossible? It isn’t unheard of for girls to reach puberty even before the age of ten, and by the age of fifteen, it is well known that most girls cannot be distinguished from the average twenty-year-old woman in terms of physical shape and appearance. Why then do we continually refer to young women as “girls” or “children” even after it is apparent otherwise? Despite the obvious dishonesty involved in such inaccurate labeling, a host of psychological and religious repercussions are suffered as a result.

As a high school teacher—of juniors and seniors ranging from ages sixteen to nineteen—I cannot recount how many times I’ve interrupted my students mid-sentence as they defended something they’d done by saying “I’m still a child…” and I’d say, “You’re not a child to Allah.”

And if you’re not a child to Allah, then you’re not a child.

I’d often remind them that if any one of them were to die tomorrow—or even today—they’d answer for their deeds just like I would (as would any other “adult”), for they were all well past puberty. And I didn’t need a copy of their birth records to determine that.

Children do not even have “deeds” because the angels do not begin recording for them until adulthood, which is marked by puberty—not by a two-digit numerical figure counted from a four-digit year printed on a “birth certificate.”

And certainly, Allah is not going to excuse “children” for their transgressions simply because the sins occurred before they turned eighteen—the age of “adulthood” arbitrarily decided by the United States of America.

That’s not how the Day of Judgment works.

That’s not even how the life of this world works.

Atheist (Ill-)Logic

“Your prophet was a pedophile,” the atheist mocked me and the other Muslims present in the room.

It was the classic tactic of one without an argument of his or her own: With nothing in the religious authenticity of Islam to refute, they were left to fight Islam with the defeatist’s lone weapon—defaming the prophet’s character.

I winced. No matter how much I’d hear the word from the mouths of those Allah had not guided to spiritual maturity, I still couldn’t get used to it. Each time I heard it, it sounded so blasphemous, so profane.

“And be patient over what they say and leave them with a gracious avoidance…” (Muzammil, 73:10).

These words of Qur’anic wisdom gave me calm and allowed me to gather my thoughts.

Inside, I reminded myself that I could not blame them. Had Allah not guided me, I would have seen things through their eyes. After all, the marriage of a nine-year-old to a grown man, even if to a prophet and contracted more than 1400 years ago, was not an easy concept to digest. To the modern mind, it was so difficult in fact, that countless Muslims frantically covered the truth, apologized for it, or flat out fabricated an age culturally palatable to Westerners who found disgust in the marriage of our Mother Ayesha to Prophet Muhammad, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam.

…I decided to respond to the atheists by tackling the meaning of pedophile.

I asked them what it meant.

“Someone sexually attracted to children” was the response.

Right, I thought. “And how do you define child?” I asked.

Before they could respond, I clarified, “Now, make sure your definition is culturally sensitive and one that all people would agree with, no matter where they live in the world.” I then reminded them, “As you yourselves said earlier about the existence of God, scientific proof is the only proof you’ll accept. So it’s the only one I’ll accept for your definition of a child.”

They thought for a moment.

“A person who hasn’t reached the age of puberty,” one of them said finally.

Right, I thought again. “And are you aware that there exist women who reach puberty by the age of nine?”

A pause.

“But that’s not common,” they said.

“I agree,” I said. “But are you aware that it does happen?”

“Yes” was the grudging reply.

“And are you aware that the marriage of our Prophet, peace be upon him, was actually contracted when Ayesha was six, not nine?”

I paused, knowing this fact would only embolden them in attacking the Prophet’s character, but I went on. “And did you know that when the marriage happened, the Prophet himself expressed concern that she was so young, knowing he couldn’t live with her yet?

“If he was, as you say, a pedophile,” I continued, “then what on earth was he waiting for in those three years before they lived together?”

They didn’t know what to say.

“But it’s not just about being in puberty,” one woman retorted, exasperated. “It’s about being mature. No nine-year-old is mature enough for marriage.”

Most aren’t,” I agreed. Before I could say more, she went on.

“I mean, there are many people I know who are way past puberty,” she said, “and they’re still not mature enough for marriage.”

“That’s true,” I said.

And then, in anger, the woman said the one sentence that would prove her own argument senseless and the Muslims correct: “I’m over forty years old,” she vented, “and I still don’t consider myself mature.”

There was thoughtful silence.

“So…” I said, smiling triumphantly, “you’re husband’s a pedophile?”

Inconsistent Definitions of Childhood

At the time of my debate with the atheists, I hadn’t yet learned that in U.S. history itself, the age of sexual consent in marriage had once been ten years old and that the age had moved around as the country sought to settle on a concrete definition for this obscure concept of “maturity.”

And today, the issue still isn’t settled.

Although legally the age of eighteen is viewed as adulthood to Westerners, it is well-known that the age of readiness for marriage—and of physical maturity and reproductive abilities (in men and women)—happen well before this age. This is why, with parental consent, it is perfectly legal in the United States of America for “children” to marry before they’re “adults.”

Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number?

I remember myself as a college student—during the years that popular music was still a part of my life—bobbing my head to the words of the late singer Aaliyah as she sang, “Age ain’t nothin’ but a number…”   I too remember the debates with peers about whether or not a teenager under the age of eighteen should be allowed to get married.

Had this issue of childhood and adulthood been as definitive as modernists would like us to believe, there would have been no debate at all. Yet, still, atheists and other non-Muslims continue to fling the degrading term pedophile at the last of God’s prophets. And more troubling is the fact that many Muslims still run for cover when the topic of Ayesha’s marriage to the Prophet, sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam, is broached.

At such moments, I ponder the circumstance of people—and there are many such in the world—who have no knowledge or “proof” of when they were born. I myself met such a person in college. Meeting such people makes me ponder the ridiculousness of arguments about readiness for marriage that center primarily around age…

No, I don’t believe the refrain of Aaliyah’s popular song. Age certainly is much more than a number, and readiness for marriage does have at least some relation to that numerical value.

But age simply is not and cannot be the primary determinant of adulthood, maturity, or readiness for matrimony. As the atheist woman said, there are those well-past the age of puberty who are not even remotely ready for marriage—or perhaps life even.

But there do exist those who are much younger than the legal “adult” yet have surpassed in intellect and maturity even the most celebrated adults of our time.

Yes, they are rare, no doubt.

But they do exist.

…As did our Mother Ayesha, whose early maturity and intelligence should make Muslims stand proud as we celebrate her remarkable legacy, a legacy that should inspire prayer that our own daughters mirror her example—not necessarily in marrying so early.

But in being remarkably mature while so young.

 

 

 

 

This post was first published via muslimahsource.org in 2010

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