Puberty is a natural phenomenon that occurs at varying ages in different individuals. Research in global human behavior seems to indicate that girls and boys who are born and live in warmer parts of the world are more likely to reach puberty earlier, than their peers living in the colder regions and climates of the world. For example, those who live in the Middle Eastern Arab countries tend to reach puberty at an earlier age compared to those who live in Northern European countries.
However, reaching the age of puberty should not be considered as the only criteria for deciding on an appropriate age for marriage. Other factors such as the overall maturity of a person, and his or her ability to discern between what is good or bad, such that his personal approval or disapproval in important decisions of life become valid, must also to be taken into consideration.
Like all other living beings, the human being too goes through a process of constant change and growth. This natural overall process can be seen distinctly through changes in height, weight, habits, skills, and social, economic and emotional behavior. All these patterns have been widely studied and discussed through psychology and other related sciences.
Ayatullah Khomeini (may Allah be pleased with him) has defined 'maturity' thus: 'Maturity implies powerful presence of mind and intelligence in one's dealings, one's ability to safeguard one's possessions from being squandered away and one's prudence in spending in a judicious manner.'
For girls, maturity may be defined as follows: 'A girl's ability to manage a good life, her level of acceptance of the responsibility of motherhood and child-rearing, as well as her appropriateness in social behavior.'
From the above definitions, we can see that although one may have reached the age of puberty and according to Islamic practical laws, Salat (prayer) and Sawm (fasting) are now obligatory on him/her, but if he/she is not socially active and economically productive, then he/she may be termed as an adolescent, but not as 'mature'.
The prime age of marriage for girls, would also depend on their mental and psychological maturity. It may be possible that in some cases by the age of 14, a girl may be mature enough to shoulder the responsibility of family-life and motherhood, but a woman of 30 may not yet be mature enough to do so!
Therefore, what is important in determining the ripe age for marriage is one's own level of maturity and readiness, whether one has reached the legal age for marriage or not! It would be very naive to ignore geographical and regional conditions and norms, as well as the needs of the youth of the day, and such negligence could lead to many problems.
In the present world, with the greater intermingling between sexes, better nutrition, educational facilities and more awareness due to advanced mass media, children are reaching "maturity" much earlier than ever before; and considering these factors, raising the legal age for marriage for boys and girls is quite unjustifiable.
It is interesting to note that at one point of time, the British Parliament had passed a law that had set the minimum legal age for marriage of boys at 21 years, whereas the minimum permissible age for being candidate for the post of Prime Minister was 18 years! When the people raised an objection to this absurd law, the Parliament responded by declaring that it was often more difficult to manage a wife than to manage a country.
Raising the legal age of marriage and not permitting young boys and girls who are dealing with strong sexual urges, to have a healthy and safe outlet for their natural, youth-related tendencies, only leads to the spread of promiscuity and moral corruption in the society. If boys aren't allowed to form a family before the age of 18 or 20 years; or if girls are forced to face emotional and psychological pressures due to the same reasons, then they become very prone to social and psychological problems.
Thus, we conclude that a suitable age for marriage would be the time of physical and mental maturity in a person. Islam has specified the age of physical maturity but it has not specified the age of mental maturity. Rather, it has left it open to the discretion of the parents and children themselves.
Those who are in favor of raising the legal age for marriage argue that:
1. Boys, before the age of 18 and girls, before the age of 15 aren't equipped to form a family and aren't in a position to bear the heavy responsibilities and difficulties of family life.
2. Early marriages are a contributing factor to criminality.
3. Women who have fled from their husbands' homes and have them become resentful towards them, are mostly women who have got married before the legal age of marriage.
In response to such arguments it could be said that although there is no denial of the fact that early marriages, before physical and mental maturity, may lead to betrayal, family disagreements and many other problems; however, when a girl or a boy is physically and mentally ready for married-life, then there is no reason why the legal age for marriage should be increased.
The Noble Prophet (S) has said: "Virgin girls are like fruits on trees. If not plucked in time, the sun will rot them and the wind will disperse them. When girls reach maturity and their sexual instincts arise, like that of women, their only remedy is marriage. If they aren't married, they are prone to moral corruption. It is because they are human beings and human beings are prone to making mistakes."
There is a very subtle message in this saying of the Prophet (S). Just as there is proper timing for plucking fruits, there is a proper age for marriage, for every girl. A girl who cannot understand and shoulder the responsibility of married-life is like a raw fruit that needs to remain on the tree (i.e. her father's home) until it ripens and sweetens. On the other hand if a girl loses the freshness of youth while yet unmarried, then she is like an over-ripe fruit that would further wither away, as the time passes.
Is there a relationship between the age gap of the husband and wife and success of the marriage?
Since there is a difference in the age of puberty of girls and boys, they don't reach mental maturity at the same age either. Moreover, since women lose their sexual desires relatively earlier than men, a 5 to 6 year age gap between the husband and wife seems to be appropriate. With this age gap, women reach menopause when the sexual desires of men have somewhat subsided. This would add to the possibility of the success of their marriage and increase the spirit of sacrifice and intimacy between them.
If the man happens to be much older than his wife, in that case he could end up treating his wife like a daughter and the wife may think him to be more of a father than a husband. As a result there may exist lack of compatibility and friendship between the two.
On the other hand if the wife happens to be much older than the husband, she may be more of a mother to him and not be able to play the role of a wife. This could lead to indifference and anger, for, there doesn't exist a mental and physical balance between the two. Under such circumstances they would be unable to perceive each other's needs. So a healthy age difference between the husband and wife is very important for a happy and successful marriage.
Thus, we could conclude that the personal physical and mental state of a boy and girl are the most important criteria to decide on the appropriate age for marriage.