A senior Saudi cleric said the Prophet Mohammed's marriage to a nine-year-old girl some 14 centuries ago cannot be used to justify child marriages today, a Saudi newspaper reported Thursday.
The comments by Sheikh Abdullah al-Manie, a member of the Council of Senior Ulema (scholars), followed the marriage of a 11-year-old girl to a man 68 years her senior.
Manie told Okaz newspaper that circumstances are different today from when Islam's Prophet Mohammed married young Aisha.
Aisha's marriage "cannot be equated with child marriages today because the conditions and circumstances are not the same," Manie said.
The sheikh spoke as the case of a girl in the city of Buraidah, in al-Qasim province, marrying a man estimated to be 80 years old, sparked new criticism of Saudi Arabia not having a law banning child marriages.
Against her will
According to a report last week in Al-Riyadh newspaper, the girl was given in marriage by her father against both her and her mother's wishes. The newspaper reported that the marriage was sealed by a dowry payment and had been consummated.
The father, who took 85,000 riyals (more than $22,000) in dowry, defended his decision to marry off his 11-year-old daughter even though his wife vehemently objected.
"I don't care about her age," he told the paper. "Her health and her body build make her fit for marriage. I also don't care what her mother thinks."
The father added that marriage at such an early age has been a custom in the Saudi society for a very long time and that he saw no reason why it should be a problem now.
"This is a very old custom and there is nothing wrong with it whether religiously or socially."
Saudi Arabia's legal system is based on Islamic Shariah law, which is defined by the Quran and other Islamic texts. Judges are all Islamic scholars and, instead of adhering to a modern written body of laws, base their decisions on their own interpretations of these texts.
I don't care about her age
Father of underage girl
The case of Aisha, known to Muslims as "The Mother of Believers," is often used by Saudi judges and clerics to justify child marriages.
The government's Human Rights Commission said it was following the Buraidah case, which is currently being weighed by a local court.
"The mother of the Buraidah girl asked for our help, requesting that we become involved to help her daughter in getting a divorce," commission head Bandar al-Aiban told AFP.
"The case is now in the hands of the legal authority, and I do not want to say anything before they make their decision, but I hope they will reach a decision very soon," he said.
The groom has expressed his surprise at how the media has leveled harsh criticism against him and his family for marrying the girl.
"It is very simple. We didn’t do anything wrong. It is a valid contract that meets all the conditions for marriage? What's the point of all this fuss?"
The groom has three other wives, all much younger, and they all have kids.
As for the bride, it is reported she repeatedly called for help and burst into tears.
"Save me. I don't want him," she cried.
The mother of the Buraidah girl asked for our help, requesting that we become involved to help her daughter in getting a divorce
Commission head Bandar al-Aiban