Saturday, May 2, 2009

Custom-made Religion and 'Child Brides': What is Prophetic tradition (Sunna) and what is not?

Last month the saga of the Saudi father ('father' used here in a very loose sense) who married his 8 year old daughter to one of his acquaintances as a 'dept-repayment' was on the Arabic and international media. The mother, who opposed the marriage filed to annul the marriage before a local court but her request was denied and the 'legality' of the transaction was upheld. The judge said he tried to convince the husband to divorce the girl, but the husband refused.

The outrage in Arabic and international circles led the prince of Qaseem, the province in which the shameful transaction has taken place, to intervene by assigning a new judge to the case. But rather than make a judgment on the illegality of such marriage, the judge conducted intense negotiations leading to out-of-court settlement that involved financial compensation for the husband. Not surprisingly, the father will not face any penalty (You can find details here and here).

Such idiocy in Qaseem, a province considered to be the heartland of Saudi Islamic fundamentalism, is protected under Saudi law. Actually, Saudi legal system does not have a problem with an 8 year old girl marrying a 50 year old man as a payment for her daddy's dept. That same legal system is not troubled either by marrying 9 year old boys. For them Islam said it is OK to do that. Regulating that is, for many, un-Islamic.

According to newspapers, the senior clerics of Saudi Shura Council may consider setting a minimum age for marriage - a revolutionary concept by Saudi legal standards. Unfortunately that is by no means certain. And moreover, it will require re-programming segments of the population to un-think that marrying little girls (or boys) is the normal Islamic practice (for example see here for an interesting discussion - Sorry, but that article is in Arabic only).

My concern with weird behaviors like those practiced in Saudi society (for example child brides, not allowing elections, and banning women from driving) is that behavior of Saudi society tends to masquerade as the proper Islamic practice. Sadly, Saudi 'norms' make it very difficult for level-headed Muslims to fight such anomalous practices in other Muslim societies. The Saudi kingdom has, geographically peaking, the Islamic Holy places. But that does not make the social norm of Saudi society Holy.

Custom-made Islam - specifically tailored to suit the desires of whoever is in power in many backward Muslim societies - is a common practice. In the name of Islam we see things that range from closing girl schools in Afghanistan and attacking Shia in Pakistan to atrocities against civilians and foreigners in Algeria.

Custom-made Islam is used to support independence in southern Philippines yet to resist independence or separation movements in southern Yemen. It is used to revolt against American forces in Iraq but to promote acceptance of their presence in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It is used to topple Pakistani government, while making people submit obediently to Saudi and other oppressive Arab governments.

Part of the problem is the greed for control and power that is made easy using a religious facade in traditionally religious societies (see my previous posting on Alternative Islam, for example), but that is not the whole problem. Frequently it is the desire to 'find religion' in practices that are not of religious nature. Age of marriage seems to be one of those situations.

The root of the problem of marriage age usually goes back to the little we know in Islamic history about how young Aisha, the Prophet's wife, was when the Prophet married her. I will not get into the details and the controversies about it because, truly, it is irrelevant to my discussion of the issue.

What is relevant is how practices by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, were considered a prophetic tradition or Sunna (i.e., Prophet's acts to be adopted as part of the religion). Age of marriage was never an issue in the Quran. There was no hints to it, no allusions to it, nothing about it - nothing at all.

And regardless of what the Prophet did (which is not even established with certainty) when he married Aisha, it was not anything that raised the ire of people around him, people who endangered their lives and social status by following him, and who believed in him as a result of what they have known about him as a role model and an example for morality.

That is to say, whatever he did by marrying Aisha was seen as normal and followed a contemporary societal norm and was not viewed as a violation of that norm. And just because the Prophet followed prevalent social norms, that alone does not make them Religion.

He used camels and horses for transportation. He did not sleep on beds, and he did eat the prevalent foods (except what was clearly prohibited in the Quran such as pork and alcohol) . He socialized with his companions in the way that was befitting a decent civilized person by their standards. There was no running water in his time and no indoor pluming in his hime. And as for bathrooms; bathrooms were in the open outdoors. He was not opposed to the medical practices of his time, nor to the lack of organized school system.

He delivered the message he received from God and he prohibited the practices that appeared to contradict God's message. Then, he accepted the rest of life - in my mind without making a religious ruling about it. He was explicit about what God wants, and equally explicit delivering God's prohibitions and we should follow those. As for the rest of worldly life tools and norms, it is up to us to decide what suits our times, as long as we are not obvious violating the message of Islam.

Many Muslim societies have moved on and regulated marriage and other aspects of social life. Most of those societies do not claim that their choices for societal rules represent Islam. And that is good for Muslims and, above all, is good for Islam. The worst religion is that which casts people's own desires as God's commandments.
أَفَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَهَهُ هَوَاهُ وَأَضَلَّهُ اللَّهُ عَلَى عِلْمٍ وَخَتَمَ عَلَى سَمْعِهِ وَقَلْبِهِ وَجَعَلَ عَلَى بَصَرِهِ غِشَاوَةً فَمَن يَهْدِيهِ مِن بَعْدِ اللَّهِ أَفَلَا تَذَكَّرُونَ

"Hast thou ever considered [the kind of man] who makes his own desires his deity, and whom God has [thereupon] let go astray, knowing [that his mind is closed to all guidance] ...?" (Quran, chapter 45:23)
Very few of today's Muslims would forgo indoor pluming, traveling by plane or sleeping on beds as a way to follow the Prophet's foot steps. I can attribute not following the prophet on those issues to the belief that when the Prophet washed, traveled and slept in a different way, he was not legislating religion. Rather, he was adopting an acceptable social norm that did not violate Islam as he knew it.

Why then do hyper-religious Muslims think that wearing a particular kind of clothes, using fingers to eat, or a particular aroma of perfume is a religious matter (Sunna) while those same people sleep in beds, travel by plane, drive fancy cars and have marble-floored indoor bathrooms; while the prophet pbuh choose different way to sleep, to travel, and to use the bathroom?

And why would their even be fear of violating Islamic rules by setting an age limit to marriage in Saudi Arabia on in other fundamentalist Muslim circles?

I am not naive to think that deciding on marriage age limits is the biggest problem facing Islam today. But I think that the way we approach a solution to that issue as well as other 'fake' religious issues is a reflection of where the soul of Islamic thinking is heading. And that should be an issue of grave concern to all Muslims today.



  1. Excellent views on how people can take issues according to their own desires and and impose them on others as religious reponsibilities. I completely agree with your view points. The root coause of all this misunderstanding is our lack of knowledge , in history and in Quran and Sunnah. We apply our application of religion so far as to what suits our desires of power and control. May Allah help us wake up to truth as truth and most importantly stop imposing "custom made" rules on helpless individuals

  2. Thank you Khaled for sharing your thoughts. I have for a very long time noticed the mixing of culture and religion. It has mixed to a point where it is assumed that it is a religious practice when it really is not. I have never been to Saudi Arabia, but do not understand the environment, rules, and regulations imposed on the citizens there. This was horrifying to of an 8 year old child that is married to pay a debt that her family has incurred. It reminds me of when Arabs used to bury their daughters alive or when girls are sold because they are the "financial burden" on the household. When do we finally as an Islamic society educate and culturalize ourselves, differentiating religion from culture. It boggles my mind how in this day and age, information is available with a touch of a button, some societies still live in the dark ages.

  3. P.S. I highly doubt that the Prophet (pbuh) married young girls nor married them off to pay a debt or for monetary gain.

  4. An excellent post. In my high school Judaic classes, we often discussed archaic norms shown in Tanakh and how we can interpret them in the modern world. For example, Torah has several regulations for slavery. Today, discussing slavery regulations would seem absurd. But we can interpret the passages in enlightened ways for the modern world. I don't remember what book it was in, but somewhere in Tanakh it says that an owner must give a released slave some property. So today we interpret that people released from jail need some help returning to society through half-way houses, education, etc. It is also like severance payments for layed-off employees. Remind me of a Simpsons episode where Homer teaches workers in India the American sense of "entitlement and priviledge." If African Americans were given land and a mull when they got their freedom, many of the problems they faced right afterwards and today would have been avoided.

    We also discuss things in Tanakh that should not be brought to the modern age and how it was just the norm of the time, putting things in historical context.

    I think that when religions and Scripture have a figure that is considered perfect and should be emulated, it can easily cause followers many centuries later to follow archaic practices. In Tanakh, many of the "heroes" such as Abraham, Moses, and David, are often remembered by the general public as men of great character. But in class, we often study their flaws, and not just minor flaws.

    The well known "Sacrific of Isaac" episode is also usely percieved negatively by the general public who haven't studied it. We interpret it as the first time human sacrific was prohibited. It should be called "The Binding of Isaac".

    If you compare Torah with the Code of Hammurabi, it easily shows you how englightened Torah was at the time. If we put all Scripture in historical context, we can more easily see the enlightenment of it.

    There are many interpretations on each single word and passage in Scripture. The important thing students learn is that not one interpretation is authoritative over the other. That's how you get people to behave in certain ways because people just tell them, "because the Torah/Quran/Gospel says so." It is just an attempt by those in power to control the masses. A study on the history of ancient religions such as the Babylonians and Egyptian show how religion was created by the perception of the people of the world, and also how religion was used for the purpose of power for the few over the many.

  5. I don't think the US government uses religion for the purpose of power in Muslim countries, but it does support certain regimes to protect "interests" such as oil, war on terror, etc. I don't think that the US government does it to hurt the people in the region, they just fear a dangerous alternative, such as even more fundementally Islamic regimes. That's why we call some regimes "moderates". It's all relative. US officials sometimes advocate "human rights" for the people living under regimes the US government supports, but at the end of the day, respect for sovereignty and "interests" win out.