Rock and roll pioneer and notorious wild man Jerry Lee Lewis has died, and from the looks of some of the coverage of his death, the only noteworthy thing he did was marry his 13-year-old cousin when he was 22. The Los Angeles Times asked: What happened to Jerry Lee Lewis’ 13-year-old bride? She’s been here the whole time.” Newsweek went with “Jerry Lee Lewis Ex Myra Said She Never Lost ’13-Year-Old-Child-Bride’ Title.” In the New York Post, we got “How Jerry Lee Lewis’ career was ruined when he married his 13-year-old cousin.” And it’s true: Jerry Lee Lewis’ career was ruined, or at least severely derailed, by this marriage in 1957. This is an intriguing lesson in cultural differences, for in some parts of the world, no one would have looked twice at Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage to a child. That’s because according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad, the prophet of Islam and “excellent example” for Muslims for all time, married a child himself.
Hadiths, that is, traditions of Muhammad’s words and deeds that are considered normative in Islamic law when judged authentic, record that Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, was six when Muhammad wedded her and nine when he consummated the marriage:
The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death) (Sahih Bukhari 7.62.88).
Another tradition has Aisha herself recount the scene:
The Prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six (years). We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Bani-al-Harith bin Khazraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on my hair grew (again) and my mother, Um Ruman, came to me while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends. She called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house. I was breathless then, and when my breathing became all right, she took some water and rubbed my face and head with it. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah’s Blessing and a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age. (Sahih Bukhari 5.58.234).
Muhammad was at this time fifty-four years old. Sahih Bukhari is generally considered the most reliable (that’s what Sahih means) of all hadith collections. That is why many Muslim clerics today affirm that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with child marriage. Turkey’s directorate of religious affairs (Diyanet) said in January 2018 that under Islamic law, girls as young as nine can marry. Ishaq Akintola, professor of Islamic Eschatology and Director of Muslim Rights Concern in Nigeria, has said: “Islam has no age barrier in marriage and Muslims have no apology for those who refuse to accept this.” Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-‘Ubeidi, Iraqi expert on Islamic law, states: “There is no minimum marriage age for either men or women in Islamic law. The law in many countries permits girls to marry only from the age of 18. This is arbitrary legislation, not Islamic law.” Dr. Salih bin Fawzan, a prominent cleric and member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council, says: “There is no minimum age for marriage and that girls can be married “even if they are in the cradle.” Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology adds: “Islam does not forbid marriage of young children.”
Shi’ites agree. According to Amir Taheri in The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution (pp. 90-91), Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini himself married a ten-year-old girl when he was twenty-eight. Khomeini called marriage to a prepubescent girl “a divine blessing,” and advised the faithful to give their own daughters away accordingly: “Do your best to ensure that your daughters do not see their first blood in your house.” When he took power in Iran, he lowered the legal marriageable age of girls to nine, in accord with Muhammad’s example.
Even more decisive for the acceptability of child marriage for Muslims is the Qur’an itself, which stipulates that the rules for divorcing women apply also to “those who do not yet menstruate” (65:4), indicating that the Muslim holy book regards both the marriage and divorce of prepubescent girls to be perfectly acceptable.
All this makes contemporary Islamic apologists in the West highly uncomfortable, for it renders their prophet and their religion vulnerable to charges that they allow for pedophilia and the sexual exploitation of children. Accordingly, they try various stratagems to give the impression that Islam does not actually allow for child marriage, although it is worth noting that these are universally deployed before non-Muslims, not to Muslims, thus giving the impression that their intention is more to deceive and foster complacency than to further reform efforts.
Among the most common of these stratagems is the claim that Islamic tradition actually teaches that Aisha was much older, but these always founder upon the reputation for reliability that Bukhari enjoys. If a different Islamic source contradicts Bukhari (and none actually do; the claims that Aisha is older are based not on outright statements to that effect, but highly tendentious and creative interpretation of various timelines), the presumption will always be that Bukhari is correct.
Recently, some Islamic apologists have resorted instead to disparaging the reliability of the Hadith as a whole, and thereby removing Aisha’s child marriage as a problem. On that score they’re on very firm ground. I demonstrate in Did Muhammad Exist? that the hadith in general date from two centuries after the time Muhammad is supposed to have lived, and that even in Islamic tradition, the overwhelming majority of them are considered inauthentic: of 600,000 hadith he collected, the imam Bukhari himself is said to have rejected 593,000 as fake. But to reject the hadith as a whole is exceedingly dangerous ground for the apologists to tread, as without this massive corpus, the Qur’an is, in the words of the renowned ex-Muslim scholar Ibn Warraq, “gnomic, allusive and elusive” in the extreme. Most of Islamic law and practice comes from the Hadith, and the Hadith also fills in the circumstances of various events (historical or not) that make sense of the Qur’an’s cryptic statements. Without the Hadith, the Qur’an is largely a collection of decontextualized fragments that often make little or no sense. Thus, like the farmer who rid his barn of mice by burning the barn down, the apologists who are hoping to solve the Aisha problem by rejecting the Hadith may end up doing nothing less than discrediting Islam as a whole.
And all of this is happening because of the increasing acceptance of the Western notion that child marriage harms girls emotionally and physically, an idea that torpedoed Jerry Lee Lewis’ once-meteoric career. It’s unlikely that, given his other vices, Jerry Lee would have been happier in Afghanistan, but at least there, no one would have looked askance at his marriage to young Myra. And if Jerry Lee, and Muhammad, had lived in our own insane age, they both could have shrugged off all objections with the Left’s catchall justification for pretty much any perversion the destructive heart of man has ever devised: “Love is love.”