CONVERTING to another faith is one of the most consequential decisions an individual can make in their lifetime. It must therefore be undertaken with a certain level of maturity and an appreciation of the long-term impacts on one’s relationships with the immediate family, standing in the community, inheritance rights, etc. Youth is synonymous with impulsivity and immaturity. However, the Lahore High Court, while dismissing a petition for the recovery of a minor girl who had converted to Islam from Christianity, has ruled that the mental capacity of a child is of crucial importance when considering the question of his/her conversion. The case had been brought by the 17-year-old’s father, a rickshaw driver who alleged that his daughter had been kidnapped and married to her abductor after being forcibly converted. As to whether the conversion was forced, the court has held that it cannot undertake the evidence-based inquiry required to determine that question. At the same time, it correctly pointed out that while Article 20 grants the right to citizens to propagate their faith, that right does not include converting anyone to another religion through coercion or inducement.
In recent years, the allegedly forced conversions of many minors, particularly females, have created a sense of insecurity among non-Muslim communities in Pakistan. The LHC’s verdict will do nothing to dissipate that fear, and indeed may embolden those who support such unethical acts. In its verdict, the court cited an example from Islamic history in support of its contention about child converts and said that neither the Quran nor any hadith stipulates a minimum age for conversion. The fact is, however, one would be hard-pressed to find another exceptional minor who could display the level of circumspection required to make such a life-changing decision. Moreover, neither source of Islamic law also sets a minimum age for marriage. But a minimum age for marriage is nevertheless on the statute books as a consequence of modern legislation that does not in any way contravene religious precepts.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2021