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Age of Consent in Classical Islamic Law

Muslim Matters - 14 September, 2021 - 12:00

In the name of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), the Gracious, the Merciful

The age of consent to sexual relations is not firmly established in classical Islamic law like it is in many Muslim and non-Muslim countries today. The appropriate age of sexual relations was set in traditional pre-modern societies by either individual families or local custom, often linked to signs of physical puberty like menarche and pubic hair.1  The lack of consistency in this area of law is because societies throughout time and place widely vary in their circumstances, resources, concerns, and priorities.

There are many instances in history for which the age of consent and marriage is in apparent disagreement with modern norms and laws. The 12th century Decretum Gratiani, for instance, mandates consent at an undefined “age of discretion”2 and acknowledges that sexual relations and marriage might occur as early as seven years. 3 Some Christian sources state that Mary was to be given in marriage to the ninety year-old St. Joseph when she was only twelve or fourteen.4 As late as the mid-19th century, the United Kingdom’s Offences against the Person Act legally allowed sexual relations with twelve year-olds.5 Around the same time in the United States, each state determined its own criminal law with age of consent ranging from ten to twelve years of age. It is only at the beginning of the late 19th century, spurred on by the Industrial Revolution’s rapid economic growth and technological development, that attitudes shifted toward setting the age higher and higher. 6

Therefore, it should not be surprising that the development of classical Islamic law into centralized state systems followed a similar trajectory as other societies.

Why is this issue important today?

Sexual relations are religiously unlawful in Islam in the absence of a contract of marriage or concubinage. Concubinage disappeared when the Muslim world martialed Islamic legal arguments to abolish slavery, 7 so consent is now only relevant to marriage. The question of consent to marriage is important to the modern context from at least two perspectives:

First, there is an ongoing controversy in regards to the practice of child marriage in some places in the Muslim world. 8 Classical Islamic jurists generally allowed a marriage to be contracted with a child, but not consummated through sexual intercourse until the child gained puberty or was physically ready to do so. 9 While the classical law theoretically upheld the right of children to consent to their marriage upon reaching adulthood, external factors such as cultural and familial pressure can easily violate the spirit of these protections, if not the letter of the law itself. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) decreed that such a child must consent to the marriage before it can be consummated. 10 Therefore, forced marriages are out of the question altogether, but the question still remains of what norms related to younger marriages that Muslims are most appropriate for them to adopt locally at the state-level in each country.

Second, the age of consent is brought up in anti-Islam polemics to allegedly demonstrate the backwards and ‘evil’ nature of Islam. Modern norms, at least in the West, have placed a stigma on sexual relations between “adults” (usually 18 years and above) and “adolescents” (usually 17 years and below). Voluntary sexual intercourse with a post-pubescent minor who is younger than the legal age of consent is legally punished as “statutory rape.” Such boundaries are appropriate for highly developed modern societies, but the rule in most of the world throughout time was based on local customs for good reason. As such, polemicists will cite the rulings of some classical Islamic jurists who allowed, or appeared to allow, sexual relations with girls as young as nine, which they claim is evidence that Islam promotes child abuse or ‘grooming gangs.’ Attacks of this nature permeate the internet, anti-Islam literature, and some political discourse, despite being based entirely on misinformed historical anachronisms.

No consensus age in Islamic law

There is no consensus in Islamic law around the age of consent to marriage or sexual relations, for the same reasons there was no consensus in the West or elsewhere. The Hanafi jurist Zayn al-Dīn ibn Nujaym (d. 1563) writes:

[The scholars] differed as to the time when one could consummate with a young girl. It is said that it is not permissible to consummate with her as long as she has not reached puberty, it is said he may consummate with her when she reaches nine years, and it is said he may consummate with her if her body is large enough to handle intercourse, otherwise he may not. 11

Islamic laws related to human-human interaction (as opposed to human-divine interaction) tend to be governed by social custom rather than explicit statutes from divine revelation. 12Juristic and moral reasoning on the basis of general principles are often the determining factor in judging social customs to be right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. This flexible legal device was derived from the statement of the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) well-known companion ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd (d. 653), “Whatever the Muslims view as good is good to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), and whatever they view as evil is evil to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).” 13

That is, a society of Muslims has been delegated some authority to regulate their own social customs. For this reason, it is a valid opinion in Islamic law for a fixed age of consent to be set, or for it to be set by natural signs like puberty or physical development. Today, the majority of Muslim countries have opted to set the age of consent between fourteen and eighteen, although Bahrain is an outlier with a minimum age of twenty-one. 14

Operative principle: no harm or returning harm

Regardless of one’s opinion on the age of consent, all classical jurists accepted in principle the illegality of causing harm to another person without a legitimate reason.15 The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) had issued a decree, “Do not cause harm or return harm.” 16 The jurists explicitly applied this principle to sexual relationships. Yaḥyá ibn Sharaf al-Nawawī (d. 1277), representing the Shafi’i school, states this as a necessary condition when discussing the rights of wives to living and maintenance, “If it is possible to have intercourse with her without harming her, he may do that. If it is not possible for him to have intercourse with her except by harming her, he does not have permission to have intercourse with her.” 17 There is no valid interpretation of Islamic law, in any school of thought, that allows children to be abused in any way, sexually or otherwise. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “He is not one of us who is not merciful to our young.” 18

Looking ahead

Islam was revealed to be relevant to all peoples in every time and place. The twin legal principles of permitting social customs in general, restricted by the imperative not to cause harm, allow some flexibility for Muslim societies to place appropriate boundaries to sexual relations as they continue to develop. It is not a coherent Islamic legal argument to claim that because the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) married his youngest wife Aisha at age nine, that it is permissible or beneficial for Muslims to do so while they live in greatly different social circumstances. There are other considerations in the divine law that cannot be ignored. The issue of child marriage leading to abuse is of dire importance for Muslims to address and through consultation achieve some stable legal parameters appropriate to each region’s context.

At the same time, it is ignorant or disingenuous for anti-Islam polemicists to cite historical facts and classical juristic rulings out of context to vilify Islam and Muslims today. Many of these polemicists attempt to draw a straight line between these facts and the criminal behavior of some Muslims today, though no such direct connection exists in reality. The gross stereotypes born of this misinformation contribute to the ‘othering’ of Islam and Muslims, as well as unfair demands for collective responsibility or even hate crimes. 19 A wider contextual analysis of classical texts, as attempted in this article, in tandem with appreciating modern realities should demonstrate that any proposed connection between classical Islam and contemporary criminality is simply tenuous at best.

Success comes from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), and Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows best.

1    Paula S Fass, Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society (New York, N.Y: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), 45. Available from Gale eBooks.2    John T. Noonan and Augustine Thompson, Marriage Canons from the Decretum of Gratian and the Decretals, Sext, Clementines and Extravagantes (n.p., 1993), C. 30 q. 2. http://legalhistorysources.com/Canon%20Law/MARRIAGELAW.htm3    Ibid., Decretals of Gregory IX, book four, C. 3.4    Charles G. Herbermann, “St. Joseph,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia: an International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (Knights of Columbus Catholic Truth Committee, 1913). https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08504a.htm5    Matthew Waites, The Age of Consent: Young People, Sexuality, and Citizenship (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 63.6    Stephen Robertson, “Age of Consent Laws,” in Children and Youth in History, Item #230. https://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/2307    William G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 19.8    See for example: Kasjim Salenda, “Abuse of Islamic Law and Child Marriage in South-Sulawesi Indonesia,” Al-Jami’ah: Journal of Islamic Studies. 54.1 (2016): 95-121.9    ‘Alī ibn Khalaf ibn Baṭṭāl, Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (al-Riyāḍ: Maktabat al-Rushd Nāshirūn, 2003), 7:127. Ibn Baṭṭāl (d. 1057) writes, “The scholars agreed that it is permissible for fathers to marry off their young daughters even if they are in the cradle, except it is not permissible for their husbands to consummate the marriage with them until they are prepared to safely have intercourse.”10    Muḥammad ibn Ismāʻīl al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (Bayrūt: Dār Ṭawq al-Najjāh, 2002), 9:21 #6946. The ḥadīth is recorded under the chapter heading, “The forced marriage is not permissible.” See also: https://sunnah.com/bukhari:694611    Zayn al-Dīn ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Nujaym, Al-Baḥr al-Rā’iq: Sharḥ Kanz al-Daqā’iq (Bayrūt: Dār al-Kitāb al-Islāmī, 1970), 3:128.12    Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymīyah, Majmū’ al-Fatāwà (al-Madīnah al-Munawwarah: Majmaʻ al-Malik Fahd li-Ṭibāʻat al-Muṣḥaf al-Sharīf, 1995), 29:17. Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) askes, “As long as social customs are not affirmed to be prohibited, how can they be judged to be forbidden? … The default principle of customs is permission, such that none are disallowed but what is forbidden.” 13    Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad al-Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (Bayrūt: Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 2001), 6:84 #3600. The chain of authorities is considered “fair” by Shu’ayb al-Arnā’ūṭ.14    

“Age Of Consent By Country 2021,” World Population Review. Accessed June 14, 2021.

https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/age-of-consent-by-country

15     Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, Al-Ashbāh wal-Naẓāʼir fī Qawā’id wa Furūʻ Fiqh al-Shāfiīyah (Bayrūt: Dar al-Kutub al-’Ilmiyah, 1990), 1:7-8.16    Ibn Mājah, Sunan Ibn Mājah (Bayrūt: Dār Iḥyā’ al-Turāth al-’Arabī, 1975), 2:784 #2340.17    Yaḥyá ibn Sharaf al-Nawawī and Taqī al-Dīn Subkī, Al-Majmū’ Sharḥ al-Muhadhab ([Bayrūt]: Dār al-Fikr, 1991), 16:409.18    Muḥammad ibn ʻĪsá al-Tirmidhī, Sunan al-Tirmidhī (Bayrūt: Dār al-Ġarb al-Islāmī, 1998), 3:386 #192119    Ella Cockbain and Waqas Tufail, “Failing victims, fuelling hate: challenging the harms of the ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ narrative,” Race & Class. 61.3 (2020):3-32. doi:10.1177/0306396819895727

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Suicide Prevention for Muslim Communities

Muslim Matters - 10 September, 2021 - 17:25

By Rania Awaad, MD, Taimur Kouser, BA, Osama El-Gabalawy, MD, & Belal Zia, MA

Trigger Warning: This article discusses suicide, which some might find disturbing. If you or someone you know is having serious thoughts of suicide, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

“Whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity” [Qur’an 5:32]

Suicide is clearly forbidden in Islam, but that does not mean that Muslims do not have suicidal thoughts or do not die by suicide. Suicide is a complex phenomenon. Several factors relate to a person’s risk for suicide, including biological factors like genetic traits that increase a person’s susceptibility to mental health problems, psychological factors like feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, social factors like the type and quality of relationships that a person has with others, and spiritual factors like a person’s ethical or moral beliefs. Muslims, just like all other people, are influenced by these various biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors. For Muslims living in some Western countries, there may be additional and unique factors that also lead to the development of suicide risk such as Islamophobia, discrimination, and marginalization. In fact, our recent study in JAMA Psychiatry showed that U.S. Muslims were twice as likely to report attempting suicide sometime in their lives as compared to other faith and non-faith groups. However, suicide is 100% preventable. That is precisely why we believe this article on suicide prevention in Muslim communities is of utmost importance.

Among Muslims, just like members of other communities, there are people who have died by suicide and many others who struggle with thoughts of suicide. As a result, it is critical for Muslim communities to spring to action and implement measures to prevent suicides before they happen. Suicide prevention refers to the actions that individuals and communities can take to help prevent suicide. Suicide prevention is a long-term process, and it relies on communities prioritizing the discussion of mental health and seeking treatment when a person is in need. Although many suicide prevention strategies call for more mental health education, awareness events, and even the formation of community crisis response teams, there are impactful steps that each individual can take to combat mental health stigma and help prevent suicide in their own communities too.

The Qur’an and Hadith emphasize the sacredness that Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has bestowed upon each human life, as well as the mandate of preventing its loss. Indeed, the Qur’an says “And do not kill the soul which Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has made sacred” [Qur’an, 17:33] and that “whoever kills a person, it is as though they killed the whole of humankind; and whoever saves (a life), it is as though they saved the whole of humankind” [Qur’an, 5:32]. These verses underscore Islam’s forbiddance of suicide and highlight the sacredness of the human soul.  These verses also serve as a call-to-action to prevent suicide based on the same value that Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has placed on each human soul.

The Qur’an and Hadith also emphasize the reality and nature of trials in this world. For instance, the Qur’an says “We will test you with some fear, and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and crops—but give good news to those who patiently endure. Upon these are blessings and mercy from their Lord. These are the guided ones.” [Qur’an  2:155-157]. Hardship and difficulty are realities of this life that we are encouraged to face using the tools prescribed to us by Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), including patient perseverance (sabr), gratitude (shukr), and the support of our communities. The teachings in Islam convey a duty for suicide prevention that we all bear. In fact, fulfilling this responsibility to the best of our abilities is not only a responsibility that individuals can fulfill, but one that they should fulfill. In short, suicide prevention is a fard kifaya– a communal obligation on us all.

Here is a list of 6 Do’s and Do Nots for all Muslims to follow when building a suicide prevention program in their community:

  1. DO hold regular community social events and check in on others

One notable Hadith reads, “None of you will believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself,” and another reads “No two people love each other for the sake of Allah, behind their backs, but that the most beloved of them to Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has the strongest love for their companion” [Bukhari & Muslim; al-Mu’jam al-Awsaṭ 5424]. These Hadith underscore the importance of strong, interconnected, and empathic communities- the types of communities that are also essential for combating suicide. Community gatherings, especially those that are welcoming to all people, are great places for people to socialize, meet others, and work on addressing risk factors for suicide including loneliness and social isolation. Community gatherings help to promote belonging, which can go a long way in terms of reducing suicide risk. When at community programs, dinner parties, at the masjid, or at other public gatherings, try to make an effort to include others in your conversations or activities, especially those at the margins of the community. Invite people into your social group, listen to them, speak kindly, and if you are concerned about them, make sure to check in to see how they are really feeling.

  1. DO confront mental health stigma

Another notable Hadith reads, “Whoever relieves a Muslim of a burden from the burdens of the world, Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will relieve them of a burden from the burdens on the Day of Judgement. And whoever helps ease a difficulty in this world, Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will grant him ease from a difficulty in this world and in the Hereafter. And whoever covers (the faults of) a Muslim, Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will cover (their faults) for them in this world and the Hereafter. And Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is engaged in helping the worshipper as long as the worshipper is engaged in helping their brother” [Jami` at-Tirmidhi 1930, Book 27, Hadith 36]. Mental health stigma refers to the process of devaluing people with mental health problems, and it has real consequences for how mental health challenges are addressed in a community. Talking about mental health problems is still taboo in many Muslim communities. This means that people must endure the burden of a mental health challenge, and also endure the extra burden of doing so alone. People with mental health problems are often devalued and are considered weak, uninteresting, or even sinful by others in the community. People who face mental health stigma can have difficulties finding a job, a spouse, adequate housing, and belonging in a community. When people are unwilling to even talk about mental health, the stigma grows, making people who need help feel afraid to reach out because of fears that they will be labelled as crazy, weak, or bad Muslims.

When we recognize that mental health problems exist and are common, we can help to challenge the stigma. Moreover, we can fulfill the encouragement of Allahsubḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to ease the burden of others. When people are willing to talk about mental health, then others will often feel more empowered to reach out for help or even admit that they need it in the first place. Combating mental health stigma is important for suicide prevention because it creates a path for people to find support when they need it. Mental illnesses are treatable, and normalizing conversations around mental illness allows those who are struggling to share, gain support, and seek help. Confronting stigma can be as easy as asking others how they are doing, creating a space where people are invited to share their struggles, or clearly identifying sources of support in your own community. This last point is especially important—by proactively identifying where to seek mental health treatment, it will be easier to reach out when you need it. Find mental health professionals around you who you can reach out to, or where you can refer your friends and family, in times of need.

  1. DO know the signs of suicide and seek Gatekeeper training

When a person is thinking of killing themselves, they may show several warning signs like withdrawing from their usual social circles or talking about not wanting to be a burden to others. Understanding the warning signs for suicide can help individuals recognize when someone in their community is considering killing themselves and can help ensure that the individual receives the support that they need. Proactively learning the warning signs of suicide is a way for the community to build its capacity to help people who are thinking of harming themselves in some way.

If possible, and especially if you are in a leadership or authority position (e.g., Imam, community leader, youth director, teacher, professor, parent, etc.), sign up for a Gatekeeper training program. Gatekeeper training programs are specially designed to help people learn the warning signs for suicide and intervene, when necessary, until professional help can arrive. The Suicide Prevention Resource Centre (SPRC) has compiled a list of available Gatekeeper training programs for different community groups. Additionally, Maristan.org has partnered with the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab to create a custom-tailored Muslim Community Suicide Response training. Communities in which people are trained to recognize suicide risk and respond appropriately are best equipped to prevent a suicide from happening.

  1. DO NOT look to one stakeholder to address mental health problems

As mentioned previously, suicide prevention is a fard kifaya—a communal obligation— and we each have a role to play. Suicide prevention requires long-term community commitment to mental health promotion. Because communities are made up of diverse stakeholders (such as Muslim religious leaders, youth directors, mental health professionals, social workers, families, individuals, and more), suicide prevention cannot be something that only one stakeholder addresses. For example, mental health professionals have clinical training in how to address mental health concerns, but their training is most helpful after a person comes in for treatment. Others, such as local Imams, may not have professional mental health training, but can leverage their knowledge of the Deen and general counseling skills to promote wellness and direct people to professional treatment-seeking. Similarly, community members occupy powerful roles in promoting mental health treatment. Parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members and friends are usually the first points of contact when a person is struggling with mental health challenges. Lending a listening ear when it is needed and directing a loved one to appropriate support & resources—including mental health professionals—is a powerful way to reduce mental health challenges throughout the community. Mental health challenges are common, and they can happen to anyone. We all have a part to play in establishing mental health and wellness as a priority in our communities.

  1. DO NOT try to do everything yourself

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says, “So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know” [Qur’an, 16:43].

Although everyone in the community plays a role in suicide prevention by adopting behaviors that promote better mental health and by creating different types of support systems for each other, it is important to recognize your limits. Mental health professionals like psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists are equipped to treat people who are having thoughts of killing themselves, whether that is during a crisis or not. Community members and leaders can, and should, play an active role in promoting mental health awareness, but within the limits of their capabilities. This does not mean that you should abandon a person who is at risk for suicide. Rather, individuals who are not trained in suicide intervention should make sure that a person with the appropriate mental health training can provide care for someone at risk for suicide, as soon as possible. This includes calling emergency responders right away if you are aware of someone planning suicide or attempting to take their own life. It is important to err on the side of caution — seek help if you are unsure what your next step should be.

  1. DO NOT put anyone on the spot or invade their privacy

Some of us may know people in our communities who have dealt with significant mental health challenges. While it is important to realize that people who have dealt with mental health challenges have unique perspectives to offer the community about mental illness or even thoughts of self-harm, it is imperative that these individuals are not singled out for suicide prevention programs. First, it is unfair to exclusively put the burden of mental health awareness on those who have struggled with their own mental health—prevention needs to be a community effort supported by all. Second, it is unacceptable to infringe on a person’s privacy—no one should be coerced into sharing their personal stories in public settings. Third, and perhaps most importantly, detailed discussions about personal motives and feelings toward self-harm and suicide are not appropriate for a community space. These types of discussion, though well-intentioned, can have the unintended consequence of transmitting self-harming behaviors, suicide ideation, and suicide attempts to other members of the community. Remember the goal is never to normalize self-harm or suicide, but to normalize the acts of sharing, reaching out for help, and supporting those who are struggling without judgement.

Conclusion

Suicide is preventable and mental health problems are treatable. Communities and individual community members have an important responsibility to make an active commitment to suicide prevention in their own communities. Successful long-term suicide prevention has much to do with individual capacity building and actively combating mental health stigma. When promoting mental health becomes an important and foundational part of a community’s environment, people are more likely to feel supported and will be more likely to have access to professional help when they need it. A kind word to a stranger or checking in on a friend who is struggling can have profound impact. Above all, remember that the Qur’an tells us, “Whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity” [5:32]. Working together to prevent suicide, we can all fulfill our joint Islamic responsibility of saving lives.

If you are interested in furthering your knowledge on suicide response in the Muslim community, the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab has developed a robust, evidence-based and Islamically-grounded suicide prevention, intervention, and post-vention manual and training. It provides in-depth, step-by-step guidance for Muslim community and religious leaders that was developed in collaboration with Muslim leaders and suicide experts. The Stanford MMHIP Lab in collaboration with Maristan.org has developed a training and certification program for Muslims across the world to learn how to effectively prevent, intervene, and respond to suicides in their own communities. To learn more please follow us on social media @stanfordmmhip and @maristan_org and be sure to join the mailing list to receive downloadable resources such as khutbahs, speaking guides and training opportunities.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of self-harm, please call 911 or one of the following hotlines:

 

 

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Celebrity imams and dodgy marriages

Indigo Jo Blogs - 5 September, 2021 - 20:05
The logo of the organisation FACE (Facing Abuse in Community Environments), consisting of a red and light blue square, with a profile of a face dividing the two parts.The logo for FACE, which produced the report on Fatih Seferagic

In the last week or so, two Muslim celebrities, one a social media celebrity with a spot on a mosque board and the other a well-known Qur’an reciter who could draw crowds and was booked for Eid gatherings around the world, including the UK, were exposed for abusive behaviour. The first, one Osama Eisa who used the social media handle ‘PartyTillFajr’, courted a woman in his local community, lied to her about why his parents would not be at their wedding, induced her to run up thousands of dollars of debts on her credit cards and refused for months to make their marriage official. To deny him more than his fifteen minutes of infamy, the Qur’an reciter Fatih Seferagic, was then the subject of a report published mid-week detailing some eighteen separate accusations of sexual assault (including one that resulted in a sexually transmitted infection that led to the woman developing cancer), physical assaults, misappropriation of funds (e.g. taking money for tuition that he did not deliver, and borrowing a large amount of money and refusing to pay it back) and professional misconduct while employed as a teacher. Despite the report detailing so many separate accusations, Seferagic has not been charged with any crime and is free to travel around the world even if his bookings in the West have dried up somewhat as a result of public outcry; currently, he is touring Togo in west Africa.

Predictably, some people have accused the organisation behind the report of having it in for imams and Muslim men in general. I’d like to address one particular claim made in an article on so-called “imam hunters”, published on the Muslim Skeptic website. The article is extremely long, laden with derogatory terms popular in online misogynist communities, and mostly concentrates on exposing the directors of FACE, the Dallas-based group that published the Seferagic report, of having a pro-gay stance and does not really address the truth of the accusations, but the claims are in the first few paragraphs.

The claim is that it is quite acceptable if an imam marries without publicising the marriage to his community. According to them, this is only abuse “according to feminism and #metoo garbage”. They quote FACE’s director Alia Salem as claiming that “it does not matter if it was 100% consensual, they made this decision of cognizant, sound mind, that does not remove the power dynamic at play”, which I accept is a dubious claim; the women involved are nearly always grown women and can refuse. The reason it’s problematic for imams to marry on the sly is that there are multiple hadith that attest to the importance if not the necessity of a marriage being public. One of them is from Tirmidhi, in which the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) says that “the difference between an unlawful and lawful marriage is the beating of drums and the raising of voices” (1088). In another well-authenticated hadith in Ibn Hibban, the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said “announce the marriage”. Some scholars deduced from this that a marriage with two witnesses was not valid until it was made public, though others said it was not invalid but still disapproved of.

Muslim Skeptic also claims:

As we see in this report, FACE considers it “abusive,” for example, when a powerful imam marries a community member who is younger than him. This is “abuse” only according to feminism and feminist legal standards. It is not “abuse” in Islam. But FACE is not concerned with Islamic standards. They are only concerned with feminist #metoo standards.

True, it’s not haraam and it’s not abuse for an imam to marry a younger woman. It’s been the norm throughout history. But normal men marry with the intention of growing old with their wives, not exchanging them for more young flesh as soon as they can; they work on a marriage and make it last. Some of these imams and touring public speakers have more marriages in their twenties than most people have in a lifetime; this demonstrates that they do not take marriage seriously or, worse, are doing so merely to fulfil sexual desires and make it look respectable. If an imam is continually marrying young women and then divorcing them a couple of years later, or if they go behind a young woman’s parents’ back to entice her into marriage without their blessing with the intention of exploiting her or getting her into debt or of concealing his past from her which they might be able to find out, this is abusive behaviour and it’s also deceitful. It’s not feminism or “me too” that requires the involvement of a young woman’s parents; it’s the Shari’ah.

It is clear from this article that the “Muslim Skeptic Team” (led by Daniel ‘Haqiqatjou’) do not realise that the rulings on unproven accusations of fornication or adultery (zina) in Islam is not the same as that on rape. When a woman approached the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) alleging she had been raped, he did not require her to produce four witnesses nor punish her for failing to do so. The reason is that zina is a matter of private morality and thus the proving of it has been made so difficult that, in practice, a couple would have to commit the act in public to be convicted. Rape and sexual abuse are matters of public safety and exposing it comes under the category of warning the community of evil. Sexual abuse often takes place in private spaces or at least secluded ones; if there are four witnesses, they are usually the perpetrators.

We shouldn’t be debating whether the devious marriage practices of some Muslim public speakers are haraam or not. An imam should not be indulging in behaviour that we might grudgingly accept is just about technically this side of the law if an ordinary Muslim did them. Their behaviour is meant to be excellent, exemplary. They are the face of Islam, especially to Muslims; they should be behaving according to the Sunnah, not the bare minimum within the Shari’ah. A man who cannot make a marriage last should not be accepted as a teacher or qari or anything else that makes him a representative of Islam and gives weight to any opinions he might express, or make people reluctant to criticise him or others harsh or emotional when people do; if he is, mosques and other Muslim organising bodies should stop giving him bookings. We need to have higher standards for those we look up to; they should be people we would be happy to have at the family dinner table on a regular basis, not celebrities we might admire from a distance for a natural talent, as having a beautiful voice is no substitute for a beautiful character.

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On imposing medical treatment without consent

Indigo Jo Blogs - 3 September, 2021 - 23:11
A young girl with light brown skin receiving an oral polio vaccine (a red liquid being poured into her mouth through a small vial). Two men hold her hand and support her head while a third holds her mouth open with one hand and administers the vaccine with the other.A girl receiving an oral polio vaccine in Egypt (source)

The other day the Muslim scholar and blogger Musa Furber published a brief article on his blog answering claims from some Muslims that Muslim authorities do not have the right to impose medical treatment on anyone (in this case, presumably, referring to Covid vaccines) without their consent. He quoted the Islamic Fiqh Academy in Jeddah as saying that the authorities can impose medical treatment in some circumstances, such as for the prevention of infectious diseases, as well as in emergency treatment where the patient’s life is at risk (this is, as far as I know, standard practice everywhere). He then quotes a well-known scholar called Wahbe al-Zuhayli as saying, in his book Al-Fiqh al-Islami wal-Adillatuhu (Islamic legal rulings and their evidences):

It is obligatory for persons when leaving it would lead to loss of his life, one of his limbs, or disability, or if the disease’s harm spreads to others, such as with infectious diseases.

The question has to be asked why someone would choose not to accept medical treatment when the alternative is incurring a permanent disability such as the loss of a limb or one’s sight. If the matter were simple, that the medication is proven to work and would avert that possibility and the side effects were tolerable, anyone of sound mind would accept it gladly. If people do not, it is not because they want to be blind or to lose a limb but because they have weighed up the pros and cons and want to avoid other serious adverse consequences. This may include, in the case of a pregnant woman, the loss of or harm to her baby. In other cases, the treatment may have an extremely onerous or painful recovery period and success might not be guaranteed; the patient might also have tried several times to cure the condition that threatens the impairment, but they have failed, and continual hospital treatment puts a greater restriction on their life than the impairment would. Children are particularly prone to having these sorts of onerous and dangerous, even traumatic, long-drawn-out treatments inflicted on them, sometimes for dubious benefit, because their consent is not required and parents are apt to think of their future rather than their present and may justify short-term suffering on the grounds of long-term benefit; the same is true for people with learning disabilities, and quacks offering cures to the desperate for conditions such as autism abound. Where what is being refused is life-saving treatment, the likely reason is that it is far from guaranteed to succeed or might only lengthen their life by a few months, leaving little time to actually have any enjoyment. Again, people do not refuse proven treatments even with severe short-term side effects.

While the role of vaccines in preventing or eliminating a number of major infectious diseases cannot be denied, a minority have suffered complications and some of these have been serious. When I was a child, there was a fear of complications from the whooping cough vaccine which led to many parents (including mine) refusing it for their children. Vaccine damage can lead to lifelong severe disability, which may result in the parents having to care for their child for their whole life or to them falling into institutional care; the complications may well mean a miserable life for the affected person (Lynn Gilderdale springs to mind). If the state is to be given the power to enforce vaccination, will they also pay for the upkeep of those who suffer damage, and in a dignified manner (which many institutions have not provided)?

In most countries, as far as I am aware, vaccines are encouraged rather than forced, although vaccination may be required for admission to school or for work in public-facing or health and care roles. Diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria and polio have been successfully eliminated without forcing adults to receive or to subject their child to receive vaccination: the prospect of a life free of disease and the fear of disease, of no more iron lungs or empty school desks, is enough to motivate most people to get vaccinated (and to contribute to research funding, as with the March of Dimes which helped fund the original polio vaccine). Even though today’s Covid vaccines are only of partial efficacy, most people accepted them when offered and shared the news with family and friends. It is true, however, that the fear of particular diseases has waned in the years since they were eliminated, or largely eliminated, by mass vaccinations, and people remember some of them as mild when they could be extremely serious or fatal. The only possible situation where the use of force might be necessary is where there are large-scale refusals influenced by misinformation, but even here, the community has been won over by education rather than force. Quite often, the community becomes mistrustful because of actual misconduct, as seen in Pakistan where an inadequate partial vaccine against hepatitis was given as part of an intelligence operation to find Osama bin Laden.

This points towards an old-fashioned attitude towards consent, one in which doctors are presumed to know everything and patients should not dare voice an opinion about their own condition. Doctors should not be empowered to impose treatments on anyone “for their own good” when their refusal might well be the result of an informed decision.

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