The Associated Press reported on Monday of dozens of police reports in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan of sexual harassment, rape and physical abuse by Islamic clerics teaching in madrassas (religious schools) throughout the country, where many of the country’s poorest study—a large majority of the reported cases are boys who have not or have barely reached the age of puberty. Among recent cases:
- Muhimman, an eleven-year-old—who can only write his name slowly, carefully, one letter at a time—earlier this year, a cleric at the religious school he faithfully attended in the southern Punjab town of Pakpattan took him into a washroom and tried to rape him.
- Yaous, an eight-year-old from Pakistan’s remote northern Kohistan region, who near the end of December last year—most students were away because it was a holiday at the madrassa; only Yaous and a handful of students had stayed behind because his village was hours away, and the cost of transportation home was too much for his parents—while the other students had gone to wash their clothes, he was dragged into a room by the mullah who then locked the door and abused him. “It was so cold. I didn’t understand why he was taking my warm clothes off,” Yaous said.
There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas in Pakistan, teaching more than 2 million children. But there are many more religious schools that are unregistered. They are typically started by a local cleric in a poor neighborhood, attracting students with a promise of a meal and free lodging. Regrettably, there is no central body of clerics that governs madrassas. Nor is there a central authority that can investigate or respond to allegations of abuse by clerics, unlike the Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchy topped by the Vatican.
This is very similar to the justified sexual abuse of boys in neighboring Afghanistan. As I had previously written, in what is called Bacha Bazi (boy play), boys are dressed like women and dance for their would-be male predators—primarily Sunni Pashtun Afghan males. The practice often includes child pornography, sexual slavery and prostitution.
It is believed by some that this behavior stems from “[t]he seclusion of women and the practice of polygamy [which] limit[s] the access of young men to normal heterosexual outlets for their urges, so Islamic societies, particularly in the less developed areas, have come to resemble prison culture with their sexual predators and [defenseless young males].”
Notwithstanding Islam’s firm teaching against homosexuality, so long as the man does not love the boy, the sexual act is not reprehensible, provided that the perpetrator is the only active partner in the encounter. Some assailants claim that they can have sex with boys, referring to some hadiths that apparently are used to encourage such behavior:
- Buhaysah reported on the authority of his father: My father sought permission from the Prophet. (When permission was granted and he came near him) he entered him and his shirt, and began to kiss him and embrace him. — Sunan Abu Dawood, Book 9, hadith 1665
- Usaid ibn Hudair reported: While he was talking to people and telling jokes to make them laugh, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, poked him in the side with a staff. Usaid said, “Let me retaliate!” The Prophet said, “Take retaliation.” Usaid said, “Indeed, you are wearing a shirt and I am not.” The Prophet lifted up his shirt, so he hugged him and kissed his side. Usaid said, “This is all I wanted, O Messenger of Allah.”— Musnad Ahamda, Sunan Abu Dawood, hadith 5224
- Muhammad would also invite young boys to see him wash his private parts as narrated by Anas bin Malik: Whenever Allah’s Apostle went to answer the call of nature, I along with another boy used to accompany him with a tumbler full of water. (Hisham commented, “So that he might wash his private parts with it.”) — Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 4, Number 152; see also Numbers 153-154
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to modernize the curriculum and make the madrassas more accountable, but there is little oversight. A challenge to the crackdown is that police are often paid off not to pursue justice against clerics, they add, and cases rarely make it past the courts, because Pakistan’s legal system allows the victim’s family to “forgive” the offender and accept what is often referred to as “blood money.” When offending mullahs pay police off, they refuse to even register a case, according to the families. “We are being pressured to compromise,” says a man from Punjab who would only give his name as Maqsood. His younger brother says he was sexually assaulted at a madrassa by a cleric who threatened to kill his family if he told.
Last month Pakistan’s parliament passed its first national child abuse law, two years after the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl, Zainab Ansari; her body was found in a garbage dumpster in Kasur district near the eastern city of Lahore in 2018, sparking large protests and accusations of negligence by authorities.
Unfortunately, just like the sexual abuse of boys is “justified” by their perpetrators, so is that of prepubescent girls. This is because as Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkey, sustained that Islam is “a theology of an immoral Arab.” And while “it might have suited tribes of nomads in the desert,” it was vitiated by its sharia-based antiquated structure, thereby being counterproductive for a modern and developing state.
In the case of pedophile acts against girls, Islamic doctrine validates such conduct under the pretense that it is not child abuse but a young girl’s capacity to live out her dignity as a woman. Despite many Islamic states prohibiting such matrimonial contracts, sharia courts have the power to override state laws. In various Islamic countries, a nine-year-old girl is not, according to sharia law, considered a child for she can already be considered to have reached the age of puberty. Justification of this is found from the hadiths of Sahih al-Bukhari when the Prophet Muhammad took a six-year-old girl and “consummated the marriage” when he was 54 years of age:
“Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) narrated: “Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) married me when I was six years old [bolded for emphasis], and I was admitted to his house when I was nine years old… while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends [my mother] called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house…Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age.”
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, despite recent opposition, there does not yet appear to be a minimum age limit in which a girl can be forced to marry a man. In 2009, the Issuing Fatwas Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh upheld this practice: “It is incorrect to say that it [is] not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger. A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she [is] too you are wrong and they are being unfair to her.… We hear a lot in the media about the marriage of underage girls. We should know that Sharia law has not brought injustice to women.”
In some places, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, this observance has the approval of state law. In fact, its first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini himself married a ten-year-old girl when he was twenty-eight. He called marriage to a prepubescent girl “a divine blessing” and advised the faithful, “Do your best to ensure that your daughters do not see their first blood in your house.” Khomeini’s justification was found in the Shi’ite hadith: “The Prophet entered upon ‘A’ishah when she was 10 years old, and that one does [not] enter [upon] a jaariyah [girl] until she became a woman.”
While sexual abuse is not limited to the Islamic world, one has to distinguish that in the West it is considered a crime; in the former, it is still justified by the criminals who commit the acts and the sharia-based imams. The anti-child abuse law in Pakistan, while it is long overdue, will not curtail the practice. It is time that we make our voices heard for the victims and stop being complicit by sustaining the politically correct position that such heinous acts have nothing to do with the Islamic texts.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University in New York, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University.
* Sources not cited may be found in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.