Child marriage in the Quran? 65:4 explained

You may have noticed that both critics of Islam and a handful of Muslims eager to paint themselves as the antitheses of the West have often attempted to demonstrate that child marriage is sanctioned in the Quran, directly or indirectly, by referring to verse 65:4 to support their claim.

In this post, I will present my understanding of the verse (the understanding taken by most Muslims, and those defending Islam), as well as analysing some common apologetics used against this understanding by critics of Islam.


1. 65:4 explained

1.1. Evidence – the use of nisaa

1.2. Evidence – the grammar of the Arabic verbs

1.3. Evidence – age of marriage in the Quran

2. Criticism of this understanding

2.1. Does nisaa mean “wife?

3. General points

3.1. An indirect allowance?

3.2. But then isn’t Allah a bad communicator?

3.3. A note on the views of scholars

4. Conclusion

5. Sources and further reading

1. 65:4 explained

The verse itself is as follows:

وَ الّٰٓیِٴۡ یَئِسۡنَ مِنَ الۡمَحِیۡضِ مِنۡ نِّسَآئِکُمۡ اِنِ ارۡتَبۡتُمۡ فَعِدَّتُہُنَّ ثَلٰثَۃُ اَشۡہُرٍ ۙ وَّ الّٰٓیِٴۡ لَمۡ یَحِضۡنَ ؕ وَ اُولَاتُ الۡاَحۡمَالِ اَجَلُہُنَّ اَنۡ یَّضَعۡنَ حَمۡلَہُنَّ ؕ و مَنۡ یَّتَّقِ اللّٰہَ یَجۡعَلۡ لَّہٗ مِنۡ اَمۡرِہٖ یُسۡرًا –

Wa-allāi ya-is’na mina l-maḥīḍi min nisāikum ini ir’tabtum fa’iddatuhunna thalāthatu ashhurin wa-allāī lam yaḥiḍ’na. Wa-ulātu l-aḥmāli ajaluhunna an yaḍaʿna ḥamlahunna. Waman yattaqi l-laha yajʿal lahu min amrihi yus’ran.

“And if you are in doubt as to such of your women as despair of monthly courses, then know that the prescribed period for them is three months, and the same is for such as have not had their monthly courses yet. And as for those who are with child, their period shall be until they are delivered of their burden. And whoso fears Allah, He will provide facilities for him in his affair.” (65:5)

The meaning of this verse is relatively straightforward. It is describing how to deal with divorced women – specifically, it sets out their waiting periods after divorce (a procedure with two main purposes: to give the two a chance to consider their decision and re-initiate the marriage if desired, and to ensure that if a child is born after the divorce, the parents can be identified). The verse describes three special cases:

1. Those women who “despair of monthly courses”

This part of the verse refers to those women who, for whatever reason, have ceased to menstruate after having done so normally previously. It refers to women who have reached menopause, but also refers to women who have stopped menstruating for other reasons, like secondary amenorrhea – that is, women who have ceased to menstruate but should still be doing so. This may be due to various reasons, including illness, medical/hormonal disorders, stress, irregular eating, low body weight, low body fat percentage, or heavy exercise and athletic activity (something that can happen even through recreational practice).

2. Those women who are pregnant.

No detailed exegesis required here. Pregnant women are instructed that their waiting period will be as long as they remain pregnant; it will last until they have given birth.

3. Those who “have not menstruated”.

I save this for last because this, of course, is the main area of contention.

This section of the verse refers to those females who have not menstruated yet, but are otherwise mature. The most common explanation for this is a condition called primary amenorrhea. This is when menstruation is delayed, or does not occur, despite being otherwise physically mature (but it may still occur). Primary amenorrhea can occur for similar reasons to secondary amenorrhea – it is often due to genetic conditions and medical problems, but obviously can occur as a result of disordered eating, exercise, or a low body fat percentage (physical activity and low body fat percentages are a common cause of amenorrhea) at the time when menstruation is expected to begin.

It appears to me that given the environment and lifestyle of seventh century Arabia, this “athletic amenorrhea” may well have not been unusual. It can also be pointed out that historically, menstruation used to occur later, often after a female was otherwise mature (perhaps due to this very reason), but, in any case, I will stick to the amenorrhea explanation for now. Expanding on these points is currently beyond the scope of this post.

It is also possible to make the case for this being a scientific miracle of the Quran, as it can be argued that prophet Muhammad (saw) could not have known about a condition only identified by medical practitioners centuries later – a valid argument. However, that is an entirely different discussion, and I will leave this open for the reader to ponder over. I personally think that there are better verses to use for this purpose, but those wanting to investigate further are welcome to do so.

Returning to the understanding I have presented, there are three main points to consider here which support this point of view.

1.1. Evidence – the use of nisaa

Marriage in Islam is fundamentally an institution to both physically and emotionally fulfill the natural desires and needs of an individual which develop as he/she matures, as well as an institution to produce children. Because of this, marriage is intended to be a contract between two mature people.

The Quran, when referring to marriage and conjugal relationships, always uses the word nisaa, meaning “women”. This can be verified in any dictionary, but you can refer here to the Quranic Arabic Corpus for now. (Note that they have translated nisaa in 4:127 as “girls”. Be sure to remember this – we will be returning to this point in section 2 to demonstrate why this understanding is erroneous).

Some verses demonstrating this use of nisaa:

“It is not allowed to thee to marry women [nisaa] after that…” (33:52)

“And marry not those women [nisaa] whom your fathers had married…” (4:22)

“And the divorced women [nisaa] shall wait concerning themselves for three courses; and it is not lawful for them that they conceal what Allah has created in their wombs, if they believe in Allah and the Last Day…” (2:228)

The word unthaa (females in general) is not used here. If the Quran sanctioned marriage with prepubescent girls, one would expect unthaa (females in general) to have been used, so as not to limit marriage to nisaa as the Quran does. This in and of itself is a very strong argument against the allegation that 65:4, or any other verse of the Noble Quran, allows child marriage.

Expanding further, nisaa means females who are physically mature – i.e, women who have developed secondary sexual characteristics – and, furthermore, females who are mentally mature, in that they are capable of managing their own affairs and the responsibilities of a marriage (see section 1.3). What is key to note, though, is that the word certainly does not refer to prepubescent girls. Interestingly, if you look at words for “girl” in Arabic, nisaa is conspicuously absent. Food for thought? Perhaps.

Some objections to this definition will be covered in my analysis of common counter-arguments in Section 2.

1.2. Evidence – the grammar of the Arabic verbs

Now we need to go back to the Arabic and take a closer look at the words of the verse. The exact words are وَّ الّٰٓیِٴۡ لَمۡ یَحِضۡنَ, or wa-allāī lam yaḥiḍ’na (“and those [women] who have not menstruated”).

The bit we are interested in is lam yaḥiḍ’na (“have not menstruated”) – this is basically the central point of this allegation, after all. There are three components to this phrase:

  1. Lam – the negative participle (“not”).
  2. Ya and na – these conjugate the verb to the feminine plural third person imperfect.
  3. Yaḥiḍ’na – the actual imperfect verb (“menstruate”).

The actual imperfect verb itself, though, does not refer to a specific tense. The tense is determined by the negative participle lam (used for the past tense). This verb is also in the jussive mood, denoting hope or expectation.

What does all this mean, though? If you don’t have experience with languages, you might be wondering what the point of all this analysis is. Some, though, will have already realised what I’m getting at.

Simply put, lam denotes negation explicitly in the past tense – something that did not happen. The jussive mood implies expectation. A more accurate translation, then, would be “those who did not menstruate as expected, but still hope to do so”. (Of course, this translation is somewhat cumbersome, but I personally think that conveying the full meaning is important enough to warrant some sacrifice of flow).

What does that sound like to you? Negation in the past tense, but still with an aspect of expectation or hope… it seems to fit quite well into point 3 of section 2, doesn’t it – primary amenorrhea and all that?

Now, if you want to edit your copy of the Quran to make this verse refer to prepubescent girls who haven’t menstruated yet – easy. Just change the lam to lan to show negation in the future tense (“those who have not yet menstruated at all and are hoping to do so”).

Note the difference. Now, there’s no aspect of past negation – it’s been replaced with a purely future-centred negation.

This particular grammatical structure is also present elsewhere in the Quran – see here for a further explanation.

1.3. Evidence – age of marriage in the Quran

To supplement the case for this understanding of the verse, we can also go elsewhere in the Quran to see if there is any reference to the age of marriage. One verse often used for this purpose is 4:6 –

“And test the orphans [in their abilities] until they reach marriageable age. Then if you perceive in them sound judgement, release their property to them…” (4:6)

Marriageable age here is associated with sound judgement, and fully developed abilities (both mental and physical). This would seem to imply at least some standard of maturity – a standard of maturity high enough to warrant entrusting property to them. Certainly, if prepubescent marriage was permissible, and there was no minimum standard of maturity required for marriage, there would be no concept of reaching “marriageable age”.

This article provides a good explanation of 4:6 and other verses referring to marriageable age in the Quran. I highly recommend you have a read and then return to this post, as I will be referring to 4:6 in the next section, where we will be analysing other pertinent verses of the Quran. It will, of course, be of benefit to you if you familiarise yourself with this particular verse beforehand.

2. Criticism of this understanding

Now we’ll take a look at an objection raised by critics of Islam attempting to defend the position that child marriage is permitted in Islam.

The most common angle taken by these critics is to argue that nisaa does not refer only to mature females. If this can be proven, they claim, the verse can be shown to support child marriage.

This is, of course, ignoring the fact that both the grammar of the verse and the rest of the Noble Quran do not allow for such an interpretation, whether nisaa refers to newborn babies, pensioners, Daleks, or anything else. For the sake of argument, I will overlook this inconvenient point for now.

The critics’ approach may yet have some merit. Words, after all, can take different meanings based on context – especially in Arabic – but if you want to translate a word in a different way to its standard meaning, you need to first provide evidence for the alternative understanding, and then show that such an understanding is viable given its context.

The argument made is that nisaa refers to any female that is a wife, regardless of age. We will briefly discuss this now.

2.1. Does nisaa mean “wife”?

Nisaa is used many times in the Quran, and in several places, is translated as “wife” – for example, we have 2:187 of the Quran, where “women” is used as a stand-in for “wife”. Thus, the critics argue, 65:4 refers to all married women, regardless of age, because it refers to “wives”. At first glance, it appears to be a valid point. A similar feature of using the word for “women” as a word for “wife” exists in other languages too (e.g. Spanish). However, that fact made me realise that the word still carries the connotations of maturity evident when it means “woman”. That is, it would be odd to call a married eight-year-old a nisaa. The specific word “wife” (azwaaj) could be used, yes, but “nisaa” would carry the wrong connotations. The obvious question would be: why not use azwaaj? Why use a word with connotations of maturity if child marriage were permitted? Of course, one could also point out that the word still means “woman” – it is just understood to mean “wife”, as that’s the easiest way to translate it into English (since it would be odd, idiomatically, for one to say “my woman” when referring to their wife.)

A second part of the critics’ argument here centres around the idea that even a prepubescent girl, when married, becomes a “woman”, as she is married and/or has lost her virginity. However, this point too is illogical.

Consider whether you would call an eight-year old girl who has had sex a “woman”. Does an eight-year old girl become a woman if she loses her virginity? If marriage/virginity is a deciding factor in this definition, would the argument hold true for a girl even younger than that? What about if a baby has a marriage arrangement signed?

Obviously not. We are not concerned here with who is married and who is a virgin. We are concerned with maturity – and so is the word nisaa.

A second, supplementary point can be raised here in light of the actual topic of the chapter – divorce. We’ve gotten so caught up in the possible meanings of nisaa that we’ve overlooked the obvious: there are no “wives” anywhere in this verse. After all, it deals with women who have actually been divorced, rather than dealing with married couples. 2:231 of the Quran supports this (And when you divorce women and they have [nearly] fulfilled their term), putting “divorce” before the completion of the waiting period, but it is obviously a rather straightforward connection to make anyway. The meaning of “wife”, then, cannot really apply. These are, in essence, “ex-wives”. Therefore, even if we accept the critics’ argument here, it is completely useless to them since it does not apply to this verse.

3. General points

I will now address a few general objections to the counterarguments above.

3.1. An indirect allowance?

One response I have seen in reply to my defence of Islam in this case is that the verse still gives an “indirect” permission for underage marriage.

Frankly, this is a particularly unintelligent point, and anyone who makes it is either deliberately lying – or genuinely delusional.

“Never attribute to malice that which could be adequately explained by stupidity.”

For those who have not read the preceding few thousand words: this entire article has been deconstructing the claim that there is any permission, direct or indirect, for child marriage in this verse. In a nutshell: since the verse does not refer to prepubescent children (as we have shown) there is no such permission.

Now, if you wish to still claim that there is indirect permission for child marriage in this verse, then feel free to do so. In fact, feel free to rewrite the verse to support your claim. It won’t be the Quran any more, but at least it won’t conflict with your opinion.

Perhaps, though, what our critics mean by “indirect permission” is that the verse, at first glance, supports their allegation. We will cover this idea next.

3.2. But then isn’t Allah a bad communicator?

The next objection is that Allah is somehow at fault for not making the real meaning of the verse clear enough.

I propose an alternative hypothesis: Allah has made the meaning clear enough – after all, I seem to have understood it without too much difficulty – but you lack insight and knowledge.

Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi (@ProjectAndalus on Twitter) puts it like this:

If I’m shown to have misinterpreted the Qur’an through evidence, I don’t blame the Qur’an for not being “clear enough” like some privileged narcissist; I blame myself. I understand the Qur’an’s clarity does not guarantee immunity from my own flaws.

It is human nature to not want to admit your errors; it can be difficult to concede that something is beyond your understanding, and the natural reaction is to shift the blame away from yourself (in this case, by blaming the Quran for not being “clear enough”).

However, whether this reaction is understandable or not is irrelevant to whether or not it is correct.

Personally, I have learnt through experience that when a critic resorts to this argument, it almost always means that they are unable to answer the points refuting them. This objection allows them to attempt a counter-argument without actually having to engage with the points against them.

3.3. A note on the views of scholars

Having discussed and debated this issue numerous times, I have also noticed that whenever these arguments are presented to a critic, their immediate reaction is usually one of surprise, as very few sources go into this much detail about 65:4. As a result, they avoid addressing the points head-on. Often, they do not even raise the objections covered in 3.1. and 3.2.

Instead, their response is almost always to quote the opinions of various scholars and exegetes supporting their interpretation, and then challenge me as to whether all the well-known names they are presenting are somehow mistaken. Invariably, they present no explanations, no reasoning, and no arguments – rather, they simply present a declaration of an opinion.

My response would be that firstly, any argument which relies on scholars rather than scripture – as the critics do here – is not nearly as strong as one that makes its points first and foremost with the Noble Quran, and then refers to the opinions of scholars as an additional support. According to Islamic theology (and common sense) the Noble Quran always takes precedence over any scholar, no matter how distinguished.

I remember once watching a debate between Dr. Shabir Ally (a well-known Muslim Imam) and the late Dr. Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim who converted to Christianity). Dr. Ally was asked why he had quoted primarily scholars, while Dr. Qureshi had quoted primarily scripture – this point clearly resonated with the audience, with some even applauding to show their support.

If you cannot defend the position of these scholars with the Quran itself, you have no choice but to reject their view. Attempting to use only their position and their status to try and counter genuine arguments from the Holy Quran is, by definition, an argument from authority, which is a logical fallacy.

Now, if you can prove their position with hard evidence, then we can begin to analyse their claims in more detail. Until then, it would be incorrect to accept this line of argument as valid.

This is not to say that Islamic scholarship is unimportant. On the contrary, Islamic religious literature is a great treasure trove of knowledge. However, one must always be ready to question information that they are presented with, even if it comes from a source that one would like to agree with (e.g, a renowned scholar).

(N.B – there are numerous scholars who disagree with the claim that the Quran supports child marriage. See section seven of this article.)

4. Conclusion

Now that we’ve analysed the verse in more detail, I hope that my position has become a little clearer. 65:4 does not allow marriage with prepubescent girls, because “women” – physically mature females – are the ones addressed in the verse. Attempts to prove otherwise fail because the alternative translations proposed are not suitable given the context, and/or are fundamentally incorrect. Furthermore, if we look closer at the grammar of the verse, it becomes clear that the females addressed are those who did not menstruate normally as they expected, but still may do so in the future (i.e those suffering from primary amenorrhea) – not those who have not menstruated at all and have never previously expected menstruation. Indeed, marriage in Islam is a serious contract designed to accommodate the needs of human beings that arise when they mature, and thus is a contract between two mature people; sound judgement, mental maturity, and physical maturity are required for two people to live together as husband and wife.

5. Sources and further reading

What causes amenorrhea?

“Athletic amenorrhea”

The grammar of 65:4

Marriageable age in the Quran

An analysis of various verses relating to the issue of child marriage in the Quran

The 65:4 child marriage claim refuted

Asadullah Ali al-Andalus on the clarity of the Quran

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