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As promised, not about Islam (2)

By Maryam Uwais

Where Islam does not give a specific injunction in respect of an issue, as for instance, on which side of the road to drive (as an example of ‘mubah’) and the State proceeds to decree that driving on the right is the law in that society, the Muslim is bound to obey the regulation since it is enacted to prevent chaos and disorder.

He cannot argue that because his religion is silent on which side of the road one should drive, the State cannot prohibit driving on the left side of the road. So also with marrying young girls, whose mental and physical development renders them vulnerable and obviously ill prepared for marriage.

Early marriage has many hazards, including the high incidence of VVF, a distressing ailment that is sadly and unnecessarily predominant in many of our hospitals, especially amongst young girls. Moreover, experience has shown that despite promises by men to their prospective wives that they will be permitted to pursue an education after marriage, the young bride would inevitably need to drop out of school to nurse her babies and run her home.

Indeed, lagging so far behind in respect of girl child education and bearing in mind the various urgent needs in our immediate environment, girl child education is not just a luxury, but has become compulsory (fard). Our girls must be encouraged to achieve some measure of education and level of maturity, before venturing into marriage. Nurturing a home and babies are no mean task, so lumbering a young, immature girl with such onerous responsibilities at a tender age can be quite traumatic, if not cruel.

The girl child lacks the capacity to give informed consent to a marriage, and even though it is an accepted practice (following the Maliki School of Thought) for the father or guardian to give her away to whomsoever he considers suitable without recourse to her, the Prophet is known to have said that the marriage of a girl conducted without her consent could be repudiated.

Consequently, forced marriage (ijbar) is rejected by all the other schools of Islamic legal thought such as the Shafi’, Hanafi, Hanbali, and including some of the Maliki scholars of Shari’a.

Surely, it is abundantly clear today that the harms of early marriage are greater than its benefits to the girls (and parents) concerned. The poverty in our midst, the harm, trauma and the many deprivations (including of education, health and childhood experiences) that ensue to the girl child as a result of early marriage can therefore be considered disadvantageous enough as to warrant the enactment of a law, especially by the State that claims it is guided by the principles of the Shari’a, if that State sufficiently appreciates its responsibility to protect the vulnerable within its boundaries and enhance living standards.

My understanding of the principles, therefore, is that a law that seeks to regulate what is merely permissible (and not an injunction) is definitely not against the tenets of Islam, otherwise even Saudi Arabia may not be on the verge of enacting such a law on the minimum age for marriage.

The Child Rights Act, currently operative in the FCT, cannot therefore be automatically said to be against the Shari’a and our Senator, claiming piety and knowledge, should be in a position to know that, if he is widely traveled and exposed to emerging developments around the Muslim world.

This principle in the development of the Shari’a has been the foundation upon which countries with Muslim majorities all over the world have proceeded to peg a minimum age for marriage for the girl child (generally between 15 and 20 years) within their jurisdictions.

From Indonesia, to Malaysia, to Egypt, Yemen, Senegal, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Algeria, Pakistan, Gambia and Tunisia, laws have been enacted to protect the girl child, thereby enabling her pursue  an education and attain some measure of maturity, before embarking on marriage.

These countries have elaborate provisions on the validity of such marriages if conducted, the rights of the girl child in those circumstances, liability for those who conduct them, dissolution issues, even mandating, where exceptions are allowed, that prior court permission must be obtained This is indeed why Egypt is very strict about enforcing the law against the marriage of minors, the objectives being that of preventing harm and enjoining the good in the society, as commanded by Allah.

Senator Yerima is meant to be a role model and a leader, being a former Governor and current lawmaker in the Senate. In Islam, leaders have an additional responsibility to remain a good example for members of the society. Once you attain public office, you cannot continue to insist that your actions (and indeed, inaction) should not be subject to public scrutiny.

The Senator would do well to read up the history of the life that our Prophet lived, the times of the Caliphates and how the Caliphs went the extra mile to ensure they lived lives worth emulating, subjecting themselves willingly to criticism, humbling themselves to answer questions about sundry issues, including demands on the sources of sudden affluence even from the most lowly, knowing themselves to be servants of the people.

They were accountable to Allah and their people, compassionate towards the disadvantaged and responsive to the needs of their society. They lived exemplary lives, and were well above board.

Under the Shari’a, Muslims acknowledge that divorce remains the most disliked act that is permitted by Allah. So there are strict regulations for divorce in the Qur’an, and arbiters from both sides must be summoned to attempt an amicable resolution where a dispute arises between married couples. Regretfully, men began abusing the privilege granted them to unilaterally invoke divorce (to be utilized only in irreconcilable cases and in 3 separate stages) and things began to deteriorate even during the time of the Prophet.

In Islam, women are to be treated with dignity and respect and not discarded or changed like garments, for the feeblest of reasons, when it suits men’s fancies. The circumstances of the divorce of the Senators earlier girl child appear to be hasty and controversial. If, indeed, our Senator is so religiously inclined, perhaps he would have emulated our Prophet in the manner in which is known to have lived in kindness and respect with his wives, retaining them into their old age and caring for them until the very end. Perhaps, just perhaps, if he truly wanted to behave like our Prophet, he may not have divorced a girl at 17, rendering her a divorcee and a single mother.

Surely the Senator knows that a law enacted to regulate what is merely permissible is not against the Shari’a and should be complied with, even because he did not conduct the marriage in Egypt, but chose to bring his child bride, with about 30 members of her family to Abuja, for the purpose. In Egypt (ironically, a predominantly Muslim country) the Senators latest marriage event could earn him a jail sentence, since laws are strictly enforced in that jurisdiction. Indeed, the location of the wedding in Abuja rather than in Cairo suggests that he has greater fear/respect for the laws of another country than he does for his own, despite the fact that the Child Rights Act was enacted by the same National Assembly to which he was elected into, 3 years back.

The Senator suggests that the Child Rights law contravenes his religion, thus his disdain for it. Under the Shari’a, respect for the laws of your land and constituted authority, where they do not infringe on your religious injunctions (like prohibiting prayer), is an imperative. As far as my understanding goes, the Child Rights Law does not infringe on a religious injunction. Indeed, I am bewildered that the Senator can suggest he has the liberty to unilaterally determine what law he should comply with, especially in view of the import of accountability and respect for the laws of our land, by others who may want to follow his example.  Why is he in our Senate, as a lawmaker?

Dedicating a colossal sum of $100,000 as dowry, in the face of the screaming needs even in his own constituency, contravenes the admonition of our Prophet for moderation in all activities. The Senator ignores the danger that others may follow his example and cruelly bring to an end the education, aspiration and hope for so many more of our young girls in our communities. His defiant defence of this child marriage seems appropriate only to whip up self serving sentiments, to becloud issues in a country where ignorance might prevail and the finer details and workings of the Shari’a can be easily misunderstood, misconceived and misrepresented.

But it is not entirely the Senator’s fault. Most regrettably, there seems to be a paralysis of intellect amongst the competent in our environment. Our scholars and jurists need to rise to the responsibilities of addressing the challenges of today in a manner that unequivocally condemns abuse, exploitation and the select and self-serving interpretations that are often attributed to Islam.

They need to peg a suitable minimum age for marriage in the northern States, if only to enable our girls go to school, learn various trades and professions, to prepare them as they grow and develop, for coping with motherhood, marriage and the exigencies of today’s world and the hereafter.

In today’s context, we cannot sacrifice education (a ‘fard ain’) for what is merely considered permissible (‘mubah’).
Our scholars need to redress the injustices that derive from an inordinate and rigid obsession with the past, especially where such reliance only serves the cause of injustice and continues to perpetrate harm, exploitation and disorder in today’s context.  Our own Ulama must be willing and able to exert themselves in the search for knowledge and for pronouncing just and contextual rulings in the public interest. That is the way of the Shari’a; the manner in which the law has progressed over the years, adjusting to changing times and contexts, always focused on substantial justice and the larger interest within the spirit and letter of the Qur’an and the hadith, with issues being knowledgeably challenged, debated, developed and informed by the efforts of our brilliant thinkers and intellectuals.

Islam is not a legalistic religion with numerous laws that vitiate the requirement for morality, ethics and equity. Allah commands that humans observe ‘ihsan’ (excellence in goodness), command the ma’ruf (right) and forbid the munkar (reprehensible). In all of this, the implicit assumption is that we intuitively possess a sense of right and wrong. Community standards and culture cannot be a substitute for ethics, compassion and virtue, and as Muslims, we have a duty to speak out against selfish and convenient distortions to our faith. This responsibility becomes weightier where the powerless and the more vulnerable are at the receiving end. We must remain true to our conscience and spurn attempts at subjecting us to intimidation and blackmail. Marrying a child of 13 when there is a law against it, after divorcing another girl of 17 (after 3 years of marriage, with one child), arbitrarily defying the laws of the land, plus paying a dowry of $100,000 is not about and within my comprehension of the ambits of Islam.

I vehemently disagree with the Senator from Zamfara State and I object intensely to his allusion to my compassionate, fair, balanced and benevolent religion as the basis for his unlawful, inexcusable and unjustifiable behavior.


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