Sex beyond Sects

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Daniel Martin Varisco


The civil strife in the wake of the unending Arab Spring has captured the attention of the world for its winds of political change and for the daily reports of bloodshed.  But a different kind of civil strife has arisen in Lebanon: the first recognition of civil marriage in a society beset with sectarian strife that had turned the streets of Beirut into a war zone in the mid 1970s.  Officially Lebanon recognizes eighteen religious sects, each of which has administered marriage without a civil marriage as such available from the state.  In the past, Lebanese who wished to marry someone not in the same religious sect had to travel abroad, usually nearby Cyprus.  But recently the marriage of Kholoud Sukkarieh, a Sunni Muslim, and Nidal Darwish, a Shi’a Muslim, was officially recognized as a civil marriage by the government and authorized by the Minister of the Interior, Marwan Charbel.  The legal precedent was found in a 1936 decree from the mandate period in which those who did not belong to a religious community would be under civil law.  In 2007 a law allowed Lebanese to remove any reference to their religious affiliation from governmental records, so it is now possible for the Lebanese to officially achieve a civil status.

There are few issues that the various religious sects in Lebanon agree on, so it is not surprising that more conservative elements condemn this new option.  The Lebanese Grand Mufti, Shaykh Muhammad Rashid Qabban, who is Sunni, issued a fatwa (religious opinion) that “Every Muslim official, whether a deputy or a minister, who supports the legalization of civil marriage, even if it is optional, is an apostate and outside the Islamic religion.”   Similarly, the Higher Shi’a Council of Lebanon has also opposed the idea of civil marriage.  However, President Michel Sleiman, who by law must be a Christian, is a strong supporter of civil marriage.  It is reported that a kind of twitter war played out between President Sleiman and Lebanon’s out-going Prime Minister Najid Mikati, a Sunni Muslim by law, who opposes civil marriage because he sees it as causing more conflict.  Yet there are notable supporters of such marriage, including Saad Hariri, the former Sunni Prime Minister and head of the Future Movement party.  The noted Druze politician Walid Jumblatt supports Sleiman’s efforts as a way to curb the unchecked power currently given to religious authorities. A recently formed Facebook group supporting civil marriage in Lebanon has over 30,000 members.

The rationale of most religious authorities in opposing the legitimation of civil marriage is a classic anthropological trope: endogamy.  Older ethnographies on cultures of the Middle East always dealt with kinship, especially endogamous systems such as cross-cousin (bint ‘amm) marriage preference.  Most explanations had an economic aspect  -  keeping land or other forms of property within the lineage.  This is clearly not the main force behind Qabban’s controversial fatwa, which is designed to keep members of each sect strictly separated.  In Islamic law, for example, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman, while a Muslim woman is only permitted to marry a Muslim man. But the prohibition of a Sunni marrying a Shi’a in Lebanon is more a remnant of French mandate policy than a precedent in the Islamic law schools.

Marriage is much more than a legal affair.  Class differences have impacted marriage rules in all periods of the Islamic era and across the diverse cultures where Muslims live.  In Yemen, where I have conducted fieldwork, there has long been the principle of kafa’a (suitability), which is legally a broad category that can include suitability of spouses based on tribal lineage, whether one is slave or free, wealth, profession or even religiosity.  On a practical level, the issue is generally about marriage status between locally identified social categories. Thus a Sayyid woman, defined as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, was not supposed to marry someone who was not also a descendant of the Prophet.  Similarly, a tribal woman should not marry a man from one of the traditional low status client groups. In most contemporary Muslim-majority states, these kinds of cultural prejudices are falling by the wayside.  In Yemen, for example, there are increasing rates of intermarriage across status categories.

While many observers fear an Islamic resurgence following the Arab Spring revolutions, the recent adoption of civil marriage in Lebanon and the loosening of traditional religious restrictions of Islamic law elsewhere are going to be difficult to curb.  A major reason is that, unlike Catholic teaching, marriage in a Muslim context is a contract rather than an indissoluble union sealed in the eyes of God.  While polygyny is still sanctioned in most Muslim contexts, Sunnis continue to prohibit temporary (mut’a) marriage of traditional Shi’a law.  And all Islamic law schools have formally abandoned concubinage and slavery. Just as divorce, with restrictions and variable enforcement, has always been present in Islamic law, marriage rules can be modified and are not as difficult to reconcile with civil law codes.  In the Middle East, as elsewhere, ideas about marriage are increasingly less bounded by sects.  Sex, unfortunately, is another matter altogether.

Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra U in Hempstead, NY. His most recent book is Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. He is editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient, the online journal of the Middle East Section of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir

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