General Juristic Perspective
The classical scholarship usually refers to so-called "children or adult" as either mukallaf (one who is obliged by Islamic law) and sagheer (one who is still not mukallaf). The term children (atfaal) is confusing and is occasionally used in the Qur'an (24:59).
Jurists define children in terms of takleef (obligation in Islamic Law). As Muslims before takleef (sagheer) are not legally and mandatorily required to adhere to the rulings of Islam, but after bulugh, held accountable for crimes committed, rituals missed and so on.
The Prophet (saw) said:
رُفِعَ الْقَلَمُ عَنْ ثَلاَثٍ عَنِ النَّائِمِ حَتَّى يَسْتَيْقِظَ وَعَنِ الصَّغِيرِ حَتَّى يَكْبُرَ وَعَنِ الْمَجْنُونِ حَتَّى يَعْقِلَ أَوْ يَفِيقَ.
"The pen (a consequence of takleef) has been lifted from three: From the sleeper until he wakes up, from the minor (sagheer) until he grows up, and from the insane until he comes back to his senses or recovers." (Nisa'i 3432)
Therefore, scholars have looked to seera to identify whom the Prophet (saw) considered as mukallaf. They found a number of signs for bulugh (puberty), when appearing on a sagheer they become a mukallaf; furthermore, if these signs appeared late, they would seek to identify a certain age for takleef upon which they widely differ.
Signs of Bulugh
Jurists generally agree on the following indicators for both genders and two additional ones for females:
Additional indicators for female:
Juristic Analysis of the Indicators
These five indicators are almost agreed upon in the classical madhahib (schools of law). The fifth century Maliki jurist Dusuqi said:
عَلَامَاتِ الْبُلُوغِ خَمْسَةً ثَلَاثَةٌ مِنْهَا مُشْتَرَكَةٌ وَاثْنَانِ مُخْتَصَّانِ بِالْأُنْثَى ... بِثَمَانِ عَشْرَةَ سَنَةً ... أَوْ الْحُلُمِ: أَيْ الْإِنْزَالِ مُطْلَقًا ... أَوْ الْحَيْضُ أَوْ الْحَمْلُ بِالنِّسْبَةِ لِلْأُنْثَى أَوْ الْإِنْبَاتُ
"The indicators of bulugh are five, three of them are shared (by both genders) and two are specifically for female. … reaching 18 years old (disagreed upon between scholars) … or Hulum which is the general ejection (of semen) … or Hayd or (readiness for) pregnancy for female, or the growing (of pubic hairs)" (al-Dusuqi, al-Hashyah 'Ala Sharh al-Kabir, Vol. 3, p. 293)
The same details are mentioned in almost all the madhahib, see for example:
This indicator is defined as spermatic fluid a sagheer ejects when he first reaches the age of puberty. The Shafi'i jurist Marudi and the Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudamah said:
وَالْاِحْتِلاَمُ تَعْرِيفُهُ : هُوَ إِنْزالُ الْمَنِيِّ الدَّافِقِ مِنْ رَجُلٍ أَوْ اِمْرَأَةٍ ، مِنْ نَوْمٍ أَوْ جِمَاعٍ أَوْ غَيْرِهِمَا .
"Ihtilam's definition is the fluid ejection of semen of man and woman in the state of sleeping, intercourse or others." (Marudi, al-Hawi, Vol. 6, p. 343, also a similar definition in Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni, Vol. 4, p. 297, Sharh az-Zarkashi, Vol. 4, pp. 93-95)
The evidence used for this sign is a Quranic verse attributes takleef upon the one who reaches the hulum (from ihtilam):
وَإِذَا بَلَغَ الْأَطْفَالُ مِنكُمُ الْحُلُمَ فَلْيَسْتَأْذِنُوا
"And when the children among you reach al-Hulum, let them ask permission (when entering)." (Qur'an 24:59)
They also cite one of the shawahid of the above first hadith "The pen has been lifted from three" which adds:
عَنِ الصَّبِيِّ حَتَّى يَحْتَلِمَ
"from boy till he reaches ihtilam." (Abi Dawud 4403)
The Hanbali Jurist ibn Qudamah argued this hair must be thick:
وَأَمَّا الْإِنْبَاتُ فَهُوَ أَنْ يَنْبُتَ الشَّعْرُ الْخَشِنُ حَوْلَ ذَكَرِ الرَّجُلِ ، أَوْ فَرْجِ الْمَرْأَةِ ، الَّذِي اسْتَحَقَّ أَخْذَهُ بِالْمُوسَى ، وَأَمَّا الزَّغَبُ الضَّعِيفُ ، فَلَا اعْتِبَارَ بِهِ ، فَإِنَّهُ يَثْبُتُ فِي حَقِّ الصَّغِيرِ
"For the growing (of hair), it is the growth of thick hair around the private parts of male and female which is required to be shaven, but weak downy is not considered (as a sign) because it grows for the sagheer as well." (Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni, Vol. 9, p. 392)
Haydd (menstruation) and Readiness for Pregnancy
All the jurists stipulate (الْحيض وَالْحَبل) haydd and readiness for pregnancy and some only stipulate the haydd as, according to their opinion, there is no pregnancy without haydd. They generally cite the hadith where the Prophet (saw) attributed takleef upon women who received haydd:
لاَ يَقْبَلُ اللَّهُ صَلاَةَ حَائِضٍ إِلاَّ بِخِمَارٍ
"Allah does not accept the prayer of a woman who has received haydd unless she wears a head cover." (Abu Dawud 641)
The Age of Bulugh
When scholars approached this subject, they differed so much because there is no specific age for bulugh even in one given society. So, each scholar gives the customary age of his society.
The contemporary jurist Aleesh summarised the discussion:
اُخْتُلِفَ فِي السِّنِّ أَيْ الَّذِي هُوَ عَلَامَةُ الْبُلُوغِ فَفِي رِوَايَةٍ ثَمَانِ عَشْرَةَ، وَقِيلَ سَبْعَ عَشْرَةَ … سِتَّ عَشْرَةَ وَتِسْعَ عَشْرَةَ، وَرَوَى ابْنُ وَهْبٍ خَمْسَ عَشْرَةَ ...
"They disagree on the age which is a sign for bulugh. In a narration (of the scholars, not the Prophet) 18, 17 … 16, 19, and Ibn Wahb narrated 15." ('Aleesh, Manh al-Jaleel, Vol. 6, p. 87)
Imam Ahmed, the founder of the Hanbali madhab, was asked when the woman is legally required to cover her hair (a sign of takleef), he argued:
إذَا بَلَغَت عَشْرَ سِنِينَ
"When she reaches ten years." (Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni, Vol. 7, p. 100)
He cited a hadith of the Prophet (saw) attributing takleef upon the 10 years old son or daughter:
َعَلِمُوا الصَبِيَ الصَلَاةَ لسَبْعِ سِنِينَ واضْرِبُوهُ عَلَيْهَا ابنَ عَشْرِ سِنِين.
"Teach a boy salat (the prayer) when he attains the age of seven years and discipline him (if he does not offer it) at ten." (Abu Dawud 495)
Others such as Shafi'i, Hanbali and Hanafi scholars argue the age is fifteen for the narration where the Prophet (saw) did not accept Ibn Umar to participate in battle when he was 14 but accepted him when he was 15. (Bukhari and Muslim, Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol. 5, pp. 276-279)
But this seems improbable because the Prophet (saw) only allowed male warriors above the age of 15 as they would be generally involved in the battlefield and so they should be capable of inhibiting the enemies.
We find the Prophet (saw) accepted warriors under this age when he found them qualified to the task at hand. For example, the Prophet (saw) allowed Mu'awidh ibn Afra' and Mu'adh ibn al-Jamuh (ra) who were 14 years old and killed the leader of Quraysh Abu Jahl in the battle.
Whilst other companions reached the age, the Prophet (saw) rejected them from participating because they were not physically capable to fight, such as Zayd ibn Thabit (ra).
Other Hanafi scholars argued the age as either 18, 22, and 25, for example, the Maliki jurist as-Sawi stipulated:
أَوْ بُلُوغُ السِّنِّ ثَمَانِي عَشْرَةَ سَنَةَ
"The bulugh of age is 18 years." (as-Sawi, al-Hashiyah 'Ala al-Sagheer, Vol. 3, p. 404)
So the original rule is that the bulugh is identified by the previous indicators in any given age, but when these indicators are late, a similar age of his or her counterparts in his or her society is used.
The second-century jurist Imam Shafi'i, the founder of the Shafi'i madhhab, argued that indicators are given priority:
ًليس عَلَى الصَبِي حَجٌ حَتَى يَبْلُغَ الغُلَامُ الحُلُمَ، والجَارِيَةُ المَحِيضَ فِي أَيِّ سِنٍ بَلَغَاهَا، أَوْ استَكْمَلَا خَمْسَ عَشْرَةَ سَنَة
"The sagheer male is not required to perform hajj except after reaching the (sign of) hulum (ihtilam) and the (sign of) haydd for sagheer female. In any given age they reach (the signs of bulugh - they became mukallafs) or (if the signs did not appear, the sign would be) complete 15 years." (Shafi'i, al-'Umm, Vol. 2, p. 121)
The ninth-century Maliki jurist al-Mawla Khisru argued it has to do with the custom of people when the physical indicators did not appear:
وَقَالَا فِيهِمَا بِتَمَامِ خَمْسَ عَشْرَةَ سَنَةً … وَبِهِ يُفْتِي لِلْعَادَةِ الْغَالِبَةِ، إذْ الْعَلَامَاتُ تَظْهَرُ فِي هَذِهِ الْمُدَّةِ غَالِبًا فَجَعَلُوا الْمُدَّةَ عَلَامَةً فِي حَقِّ مَنْ لَمْ تَظْهَرْ لَهُ الْعَلَامَةُ
"They argued in both (male and female) to complete 15 years … It is given as fatwa because of the overwhelming aadah (custom) as the signs normally appear around this period. So they stipulated the period as a sign for those who have not yet received any sign." (Khisru, Durar al-Hukam, Vol 2, pp. 275-276)
Other scholars added other elements for the perfection of such bulugh, for example, the maturity of voice, underarm hair, appearance of breasts, beards and moustache for males and others. (Suyuti, Mattalib 'Uli an-Nuha, Vol. 3, p. 404, al-Dusuqi, al-Hashyah 'Ala Sharh al-Kabir, Vol. 3, p. 293, Aleesh, Manh al-Jaleel, Vol. 6, p. 87)
Children in Islam are those who have not yet reached the point of bulugh (puberty) or takleef (responsibility). The line between the two stages is not identified by age, rather by biological indicators of maturity.
Classical scholars identify three indicators for both genders and other two indicators for females: ihtilam and pubic hairs (for both gender), haydd and readiness for pregnancy (for females) and when these indicators are late, they considered an age from 10-25 based on custom.
Shafi'i, Kitab al-Umm
Al-Dusuqi, al-Hashyah 'Ala Sharh al-Kabir;
Marudi, al-Hawi al-Kabir;
Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari
Zarkashi, Sharh az-Zarkashi 'Ala Mukhtasar al-Khiraqi;
Al-Sughdi, an-Natf fi al-Fatawa;
As-Sawi, al-Hashiyah 'Ala al-Sagheer;
Suyuti, Mattalib 'Uli an-Nuha;
Aleesh, Manh al-Jaleel Sharh Mukhtasar al-Khalil;
Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni;
al-Mawal Khisru, Durar al-Hukam
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