Mehdi Hasan’s phoney apologetics

Picture of Mehdi Hasan, a light-skinned Asian man, wearing a suit with a black jacket, white shirt and cream tie.British Muslims should stand up and say it: there is nothing Islamic about child marriage (at the New Statesman and also the Huffington Post)

Mehdi Hasan argues that it is British Muslims’ responsibility to stand up and say that “child marriage” is against Islam because “child, or underage, marriage is very much a part of British society” and it is usually Muslims doing it. The evidence consists of the fact that some spies looking to make a TV programme contacted 56 imams around the UK and that “imams at 18 of those 56 mosques – or one in three – agreed to do so”, in one case despite being told explicitly that the girl did not want to get married. He makes a number of spurious claims about Islamic scholarship and its positions on these issues, which is foolish because both Muslims and hostile non-Muslims know that they have no basis to them, while they reinforce the politics of suspicion, i.e., demanding condemnation for things most Muslims in the UK are not doing.

To begin with, I hope everyone agrees that an imam agreeing to marry a woman or girl off against her known will is to be condemned. It’s also foolish for any imam to agree to conduct a religious marriage for a girl who is underage according to the law, because the marriage could not be legally consummated in this country, would not be legally recognised, and would cause problems for everyone involved. Marriage is not meant to be clandestine; it is meant to be a public occasion with multiple witnesses and a feast. Last, any imam with a brain should know that someone phoning up to arrange an illicit marriage to a 14-year-old girl is probably a spy.

However, the fact remains that it is perfectly lawful in Islam for anyone who has reached puberty to be married, even if they have not reached some arbitrary age. The norm in most Muslim countries throughout history was for girls in particular to be married in their teens, and it certainly was not normal (except in very particular circumstances, such as when it was not possible because of war) for them to wait until their 20s. Mehdi claims that “frustratingly, many Muslim scholars and seminaries still cling to the view that adulthood, and the age of sexual consent, rests only on biological puberty: that is, 12 to 15 for boys and nine to 15 for girls”. That is, in fact, all it does rest on, as a glance at any basic book of Islamic law will confirm.

He then cites Usama Hasan, a person of some fame but absolutely no authority, as saying, “there was a rival view in Islamic jurisprudence, even in ancient and medieval times: that emotional and intellectual maturity was also required, and was reached between the ages of 15 and 21”. There is a big difference between the legal minimums and what is ideal, and the law allows that a father might be a better judge of whether his daughter is mature enough to be married, whether at 14 or 21, than a committee of strangers, especially strangers from a completely different cultural background. Usama Hasan further claims that this view “has been adopted by most civil codes of Muslim-majority countries for purposes of marriage”; in reality, the age-of-consent and minimum marriage age laws which exist in many Muslim countries are mostly colonial legacies, often maintained by the anti-religious élites who ruled after the colonial powers left. In some countries (like Pakistan), the laws are widely ignored by the population.

He then rehashes a familiar debate about the age of A’isha, the wife of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) whose marriage was consummated when she was nine years old, a fact confirmed by A’isha herself and by other contemporary evidence. There is quite a comprehensive essay on this still available on some websites which notes that this raised no eyebrows at the time (other than the notion that her father was such good friends with the Prophet that it was almost incestuous for him to marry his friend’s daughter), and that the age of marriage in Semitic societies was puberty. The evidence of hadeeth in Islam is considered to be of higher quality than books of history, particularly when it is in the most authentic collections with a full chain of narration and particularly when it comes from one of the parties to the marriage.

He also claims that a well-regarded imam, Shaikh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti, “tells [him] that the vast majority of classical scholars throughout Muslim history agreed on a minimum marriage age of 18 – two years older, incidentally, than secular Britain’s current age of consent”. This is an extremely dubious claim, because if it were true then it would appear in at least one of the many basic texts of Islamic law — quite a number have been translated into English, and I have not seen this in any of them.

He continues:

So, how to explain the view of a third of the imams contacted by ITV? The influence of Saudi Arabia, and its decades-long export of a reactionary, retrograde brand of Islam, cannot be ignored. The damage that has been done to a nascent British Islam by pre-modern, Saudi-inspired, literalist dogma is incalculable. Consider this: in 2011, when the Saudi ministry of justice announced it might prohibit marriages involving girls under the age of 14, Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan, one of the country’s most senior clerics, issued a fatwa to allow fathers to arrange marriages for their daughters “even if they are in the cradle”. To call such a mindset outdated or medieval would be a gross understatement. It’s an endorsement of paedophilia, plain and simple.

I have heard that at least one of the imams who agreed to the clandestine marriage was in fact a Barelvi, so was very unlikely to have been influenced by Saudi Arabia. Most Wahhabis in the West are converts, and for all the marriage-related problems in their community (such as men, including imams, repeatedly marrying and divorcing and having numerous children with different women, in some cases in different countries), underage marriage is not a major problem among them. I strongly suspect it is not that big a problem among Asians either; the problem is forced marriage, and more commonly, young people (particularly young women) not being able to marry whom they choose because their parents want them to marry someone from “back home”, from the right tribe or whatever, and resorting to violence when they resist. Wahhabis’ stance on these issues is no different to those of other traditional Muslim groups, and the fatwa from Salih al-Fawzaan was most likely in response to a query from someone in an Arab country, not a western one, and in any case refers to betrothal. It does not mean that the girl will go to live with her husband’s family while still a child. It does not endorse “paedophilia” at all and will not lead to paedophilic behaviour.

“We have a moral duty to obey the law of the land,” says al-Akiti. For adult men to try to marry young girls is illegal and immoral. But British Muslims have a special responsibility: to make the case that there is nothing Islamic about underage marriage, either.

It actually is not universally agreed that Muslims are religiously bound to obey secular law, as not only can laws be oppressive, have perverse reasons for being imposed and be inconsistently enforced, but in many countries the law is widely flouted by the local population — the behaviour of drivers in almost any Muslim country is a case in point, but even in the west, speeding is fairly common and has been reduced only by the widespread use of cameras. The age of consent law is widely flouted by young people, and the law even bans “sexual touching” when one party is under the age of consent. It is not expected that this will be enforced when both parties are below the age of consent or just above it, but the law remains available (to be used, for example, when a wealthy person wants to get a “pleb” away from his daughter). I asked a visiting scholar from the United States about this issue, and he told me that “you’re not aathim (sinful) by doing 35mph”. The sin is not the breach of the law itself but when it infringes others’ rights or endangers them, gets you into trouble or brings trouble on the Muslim community. In this context, the marriage of legally underage girls is certainly to be avoided, because it is a law that society takes seriously. The minimum age of 16 is not Islamically based, but it is not a ridiculously high age (18 certainly is) to require someone to be to get married; if the age is set much higher, for reasons of population control for example, it would not be a moral duty to respect it (even if it would be politically prudent, and even if justified by those imposing it on girls’ and women’s welfare grounds).

Hasan bleats that he has been accused of “selling out” and “fuelling Islamophobia”. This is exactly what he is doing: writing in a publication mostly read by non-Muslims (and getting paid for it), condemning Muslims (or, for that matter, any other minority religion) for something which is allowed in their religion but which the vast majority do not do. If he wanted to take this issue up with the community, he could have found a Muslim publication to write it in, but perhaps that’s less lucrative. He also plays the “real Muslim” card, telling his powerful friends that Islam is what he presents (based on some dubious fringe scholarly opinion), and not what Muslims actually believe and do — Yasmin Alibhai-Brown regularly plays the same trick. It’s a poor form of apologetics, the sort of dishonesty that gives da’wah a bad name — in particular, the name da’waganda, or material promoting Islam but giving false information about it to make it palatable to a (usually) western reader, when the truth is easily discoverable and the effort will be ridiculed (it hasn’t been on this occasion, primarily because the chief Muslim-haters are busily engaged in trashing the Iranian nuclear deal). The reasons for writing and publishing this piece now are really very flimsy; Muslims in the UK have really nothing to answer for in regard to this, and I am not about to condemn Muslims in Yemen or anywhere else to please him and his audience. He is just one more sell-out holding us up to ridicule for no good reason.

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