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History of the Age of Consent

How do you believe in a pedophile to be a prophet? How can you follow a child rapist and a womanizer, He married ‘Āʾishah when he was 54 and she was 9, are you that crazy?! You Muslims encourage child abuse and Islam is a religion that teaches pedophilia.” [A fellow non-Muslim, 2010]
In this post, I shall tackle an extremely spicy issue; I shall shed some light on the age of consent in history as an introductory to my response to the above accusation in the next post. I shall start by stating some historical and cultural facts.

  1. From an article discussing the Age of consent historically, it gathered information from many acknowledged sources like the “Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society”, “Children and Youth in History – Age of Consent Laws” by Stephen Robertson, University of Sydney-Australia, and “The Age of Marriage in Ancient Rome” by Lelis, Arnold , Percy, William A. , & Verstraete, Beert C., we read the following:

In Ancient Rome, it was very common for girls to marry and have children shortly after the onset of puberty. In the 12th century A.D. “Gratian”: the influential founder of Canon law in medieval Europe, accepted age of puberty for marriage to be between 12 and 14 but acknowledged consent to be meaningful if the children were older than 7 (i.e. Gratian’s sources were the Roman law, the Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers, papal decretals, the acts of church councils and synods). There were authorities that said that consent could take place earlier. Marriage would then be valid as long as neither of the two parties annulled the marital agreement before reaching puberty, or if they had already consummated the marriage. It should be noted that Judges honored marriages based on mutual consent at ages younger than 7, in spite of what Gratian had said, there are recorded marriages of 2 and 3 years old. The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. For example, Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams. Sir Edward Coke (England, 17th century) made it clear that: “the marriage of girls under 12 was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband’s estate was 9 even though her husband be only four years old.” The French Napoleonic Code established an age of consent of 11 years in 1791, which was raised to 13 in 1863. Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons, initially set the age of consent at 10–12 years and then raised it to between 13 and 16 years in the second half of the 19th century. Historically, the English common law set the age of consent to range from 10 to 12. In the United States, by the 1880s, most states set the age of consent at 10-12, and in one state, Delaware, the age of consent was only 7. A New York Times article states that it was still aged 7 in Delaware in 1895. [End of adaptation from the article].

One famous example is Alexios II Komnenos (1169-1183 AD) who married Agnes of France. William II, Archbishop of Tyre, witnessed the wedding and reported that Agnes was eight on her arrival at Constantinople, while Alexios was thirteen. Though according to most 12th century views, she was three years too young for marriage, but the pope authorized the marriage and approved to it.

  1. According to Jewish traditions, adulthood is reached at the age of 12 (the age of the Bar-Mitzvah). Jewish boys, for example, are expected to demonstrate preparation for adulthood by learning the Torah and other Jewish practices in the Talmud. The Christian Bible and the Jewish scriptures have no age requirement for adulthood or marrying, which includes engaging in sexual activity. The age of consent for sexual relations in the Vatican up till the moment of writing this is 12, the age when many girls achieve menses, and are thus reproductive and physically capable of marriage and childbirth. If you check the catholic encyclopedia, you will find a marriage taking place between Mother Marry at the age of 12 and Saint Joseph the carpenter when he was between 80 and 90. So, historically girls were allowed to get married, not based on their age, but by determining that they are physically capable to reproduce. [Note: this article is 7 years old, the Vatican modified the age of consent in its laws in July 2013 to 18]
  2. Back in time, adulthood was primarily determined by the parents when noticing the characteristics of puberty on their son or daughter. Historically, the onset of puberty meant the beginning of adulthood. The average age of puberty varied from one place to another, and from one culture to another, but in all cultures it meant that the child was to be treated as an adult “biologically.” This age was considered an order to start working by doing the light jobs of that day, like serving the elders, farming, grazing cattle and pasturing sheep, and it was also an allowance to get married.
  3. In modern ages, a new kind of adulthood evolved, it is what we call “Social adulthood”. This term is a legal term specified by governments in determining the age at which children are no longer considered minors, but are recognized and treated by the law as adults.
  4. According to modern medical studies, puberty for girls generally begins around 10 years of age, and 12 years of age for boys. These are just average round figures. Medical books tell us that puberty is divided into several stages, the first of which is “Gonadarche”. This is the stage that witnesses the earliest biological changes in both sexes. The ovaries and the testes begin to grow and increase the production of the sex steroids, especially estradiol and testosterone. Gonadarche, as modern researches indicate, is reached approximately at 8 years and it indicates that true central puberty has begun. Menarche is reached by girls approximately at the age of 12. The timing of menarche differs from girl to another and is greatly influenced by genetic, environmental and nutritional factors. In much hotter regions like Africa and Arabia, the age of puberty as noticed by researchers is reached earlier than in colder places. This rapid development was also noticed by the famous British Orientalist “Ronald Victor Bodley” during his journey to Arabia, and he testified for it in his writings. The body development could be noticed on girls at the age of 9 and for boys at 10. Many historical reports state that boys and girls were married at 9 & 10 years of age at these regions, like the report of companion “‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Amr Ibn Al-‘Aas” who told that his father was older than him by 11 years, he was born during the pre-Islamic era.
  5. These customs were not restricted to Arabia, they were the global customs followed all over the world as indicated in the first point. They were still followed until the 19th century. In the early 1800s, the age of consent in most states was 10 years. Modern estimates in the U.S. say that the average age of puberty for girls is estimated by modern researchers to be 10 years and the process takes an average of about 4-5 years till its finish. That’s why the legal age of marriage for girls in most of the states today is 16 with parental consent. But there are some exceptions like for example the state of “New Hampshire” where the age of consent for females is 14, and 13 is allowed in cases of “special cause” with parental consent and court permission. It’s not that the modern medical studies haven’t reached New Hampshire yet, but because it could be allowed without medically endangering any of the two parties involved. Some medical reports have stated very clearly that the age of puberty is now constantly decreasing and children are attaining puberty earlier than the above figures, in some cases by 4-5 years. North Carolina: Applicants 14 years old must provide a certified copy of the court order authorizing the marriage. For most European countries, the age of consent is 14-16. In South America, in Colombia, the age of consent is 14 with parental consent. In Paraguay it’s 14 for females, Article 39, clause “b”, of the Paraguayan Civil Code. In Peru it’s 14 for females, so is the case with Ecuador. In Asia, it’s 12-18. Today the age of consent in many Islamic countries is 16-20 due to several factors, mostly, the way of life and the customs that have changed and made the females premature and unqualified neither physically nor psychologically to get married as soon as they reach puberty. Moreover, Birth control reasons and the great environmental changes played a big role in this. The luxurious way of life has made females physically much weaker than they used to be 1400 years ago. Many Muslim jurists have issued their opinions that girls under 16 should not be allowed to get married for this exposes most cases to harm, and the general Islamic ruling taught by the prophet says, “Let there be no harm, nor any reciprocation of harm.” In my country Egypt it’s 18 for both genders.

I can have a field day with this issue but I think that what I’ve stated is enough to just ring a bell inside the reader’s mind and make him/her realize that they should take a look at the wider picture to complete the view before judging what they don’t have full knowledge about. Today, most people weigh any matter based on their personal analogy, the end product is that according to today’s limits of civilized thinking, the prophet’s marriage to lady ‘Āʾishah was simply an expression of his perverted sexual desire, but the truth is far away from that. I shall continue discussing this issue in connection with the story of Prophet Muhammad’s marital life. To say the least, this marriage couldn’t have been issued forth from such an accusation. Kindly read the post included in the link above before you read my coming post about this issue.

Written By: Ehab Shawky

All references and links are included and underlined in the post

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