Last month a religious leader in Morocco, Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman al-Maghraoui, received a question on his website about whether a woman can get married before reaching puberty. He responded by issuing a fatwa, or religious ruling, saying it was lawful for a Muslim man to marry girls as young as nine years old. “The marriage of nine-year-old girls is not forbidden because according to the Hadith (the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings), Mohammed married Aisha when she was only six years old and he consummated his union when she was nine,” wrote the Sheikh. “I am a confirmed theologian and I have not made this up. It is the Prophet who said it before me.”
Morocco prides itself on a relatively moderate brand of Islam, and has been battling a rise in radical Islamist tendencies with some of the most sweeping political and social reforms of this decade in the Arab world. Moroccan women, in particular, have achieved some important victories, playing an increasingly active role in politics and successfully lobbying for a new family law which now grants them equal rights in marriage, divorce, and the ownership of property. Since 2004, Moroccan law stipulates a minimum age of eighteen for women to marry.
Public outrage over the controversial fatwa prompted Moroccan authorities to act decisively. Morocco’s highest religious authority, the Council of Islamic Scholars, issued a statement condemning the marriage of underage girls and denouncing al-Maghraoui as an “agitator.” A court inquiry has been launched against him and on September 25th, the government closed 60 Koranic schools run by the Sheik’s organization, as well as his headquarters in Marrakesh.
The organization reportedly receives its funding from Saudi Arabia, which promotes a particularly rigid strain of Islam known as Wahhabism. The organization’s website www.maghrawi.net is also slated to be shutdown, but is currently still accessible and a cryptic disclaimer on its homepage suggests the organization may be regrouping elsewhere on the web: “For the sake of the advancement of the site, we would like to advise our brothers and sisters that a new membership site will open very soon. Hence we are asking all registered members of this organization to consult their email messages where we will send the password to check into the new site.”
In this YouTube video of a Moroccan television report about the controversy, al-Maghraoui defends himself saying his fatwa was wrongly interpreted: “When this question came up, I cited certain criteria: the girl has to be physically strong, has to have a mature personality, and other capacities that are rare for a nine-year-old.”
WIDE ANGLE’s Class of 2006 profiled the first group of Moroccan women to be officially trained as religious leaders, against the backdrop of heated debate about Islam and women’s rights.