April 17, 2024

Professor Justin Jones Visits MIHE

2023-2024 MIHE Public Lecture Series: 17 April 2024

Professor Justin Jones, Associate Professor in the Study of Religion, University of Oxford

The Age of Maturity: Rethinking debates about child marriage in Islam

The staff, students and friends of Markfield Institute were delighted to welcome Professor Justin Jones from Oxford University, who delivered an excellent lecture on the conceptualisation of age in relation to child marriage and its attendant debates.

Professor Jones explored the concept of a child and how age has historically been culturally determined, highlighting that the age of childhood/adulthood is not a universal category. While puberty may occur earlier, intellectual maturity (rushd) may arise at a later age. In contemporary British culture a person is legally adult once they reach the age of eighteen. However, whether an eighteen year old has attained an intellectually mature adult mind-set, or physical development, are other variables to consider, alongside questions seeking to determine ‘what constitutes maturity?’. Within ongoing debates there is contemplation as to how rushd can be reintegrated into Islamic ethics.

Set in a global context, child marriage is not singularly ‘an Islamic issue’. The problem can be found among a range of cultural and religious groups. Within predominantly Islamic majority countries such as Gambia, Niger, Mali, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Professor Jones discussed how religion is not the predominating feature driving child marriage. He noted current socio-economic factors that increase the prevalence of child marriage which include high inflation, Covid-19, violent conflict and displacement, and the floods of 2022.

Many predominantly Muslim states have minimum legal ages for marriage such as eighteen in Turkey and Tunisia, which are supported by religious bodies. Al-Azhar, Egypt (2019) signed a fatwa against child and forced marriage. Marriage, it maintains, must be conducted with consent. Countries such as Saudi Arabia adopted legislation prohibiting child marriage although legal loopholes prevail. Discussion in the 20th and 21st centuries focused on the role of the state to impose limits on shari’ah law, which has seen opposition from some quarters including certain religious scholars who view such factors as the overreach of man-made laws over the sovereignty of God.

In terms of religious texts, among the Bukhari collection of hadith there is a particular tradition (5134) that is disputed. This regards the age at which the Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) was considered to have married Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her). The hadith states that Aisha was married at the age of six while the union was said to have been consummated at nine years of age. Professor Jones detailed contentions regarding the reliability of this isnad (chain of transmission) that has been questioned under the line of narration from Hisham Ibn Urwa. A PhD thesis written by Joshua Little widely commented on the question of Hisham’s reliability. Values which stem from a more modern age advocate a later age of marriage for Aisha although some elements of traditional opinion are not prepared to contest the validity of a constituent of Bukhari’s collection of hadith. Salah al-Din al-Idlibi suggests a later age for Aisha’s marriage on the basis of later origins and difficulties within the isnad. When comparing the ages of Aisha to her older sister, Asma, it is estimated that Aisha’s marriage took place at the age of nineteen. Some Deobandi scholars support this argument in India and Pakistan also accept such historical criticism of this hadith, as was explored by Professor Jones. Professor Jones continued that event if such an early age of marriage was to be accepted in a historical context, many Muslim scholars still reject its broader applicability for contemporary society.

In the contemporary world, legislators, society and the community become involved in the interpretation of shariah. Here, issues arise over who has the right to speak on an issue and who retains the authority to contend an argument’s premise. Such friction leads to further determination over who exerts influence over Muslim minds with regard to these issues. For example, TikTok modelling sees freelance preachers targeting a different generational audience. For wider discussion on marital ethics in Islam is to look beyond Islamic law. For UNICEF, the best way to eradicate the practice of child marriage may be to apply the legal tools of the state, to clearly define the issue and look to family care and familial values as a means to effectively erode this practice.

Following this thoughtful reflection, Professor Jones spent some time addressing the many pertinent questions which arose from the audience in regard to his informative presentation.