Civil Marriage in Lebanon Faces Strong Religious Opposition

Proposals to allow civil marriage in Lebanon are being strongly opposed by a religious establishment that wants to maintain a problematic hegemony over the state’s civil affairs, argues Al-Fadl Shalaq.

al-monitor Protesters, acting as bride and groom, take part in a demonstration to demand for the legalization of civil marriages, in front of the government palace and parliament in Beirut, May 15, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Jamal Saidi.

Topics covered

religion, lebanese politics

Feb 1, 2013

Every time optional civil marriage is proposed, Sunni clerics rush ahead of clerics from other sects to reject the project. They are preceded by the Sunni politicians, as if the religious-jurisprudential issues relate to politics. It is as if politics — or political conflicts — dictate religious attitudes.

Religious attitudes are essentially political positions dictated by politicians, which clerics just follow. This is how sects are.

This time, Sunni clerics have taken a violent and threatening position. They seemed to echo the Egyptian president's latest speech, in which he imposed a state of emergency in the cities of Suez, Port Said and Ismailia.

Political Islam is baring its teeth in the face of a rebellious Arab population. Isn't it remarkable that just as Arabs are staging revolutions — a revolution against all forms of authority, including political, religious, economic and military — the “old” in these Arab communities, from ancient eras and their beneficiaries, want to suppress the people, especially the youth, in a key aspect of their lives — “optional” civil marriage? The youth were and will continue to be the most important element in the revolution. These clerics want to marginalize the youth in their personal lives, when they've already been marginalized by unemployment, poverty and immigration in public life.

The speech by Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the Lebanese mufti, lacked tolerance. He addressed the public in a brash manner, as if he didn't mind saying: “Had you been harsh and mean-hearted, they would have abandoned you” (Quran 3:159).

Is the theoretical-doctrinal confusion that marked his discourse — calling for the punishment of apostasy — against the supposed act of adultery? It is known that apostasy applies to those who deny the existence of God and the Prophet. But those who commit apostasy should be interrogated three times before being punished. They should be interrogated by an imam, who represents the state.

Does the mufti, in this case, represent the state? Or is he part of it? Does he give himself the right to rule Muslims? The issue has been interpreted in several ways. The rule is, “Do not enforce punishment if there is doubt.”

Considering civil marriage — especially optional civil marriage — to be adultery is questionable. Marriage for Muslims is more like a contract, just like regular contracts agreed on between people. Contracts are signed in courts, whether religious or non-religious, and are part of the state. Contracts are ultimately registered by the state. The main dispute is over whether the state should be as the clergy want it to be. This debate was settled in favor of the state by Muslims across the world and since ancient history. The state is in charge of the affairs of Muslims and non-Muslims, youths and non-youths, the married and unmarried.

Everyone calls for a civil state. In a civil state, people are citizens, not subjects. Subjects are members of sects in the country of sects, Lebanon. The revolutionary nation seeks freedom. Freedom lies in the transformation of people from subjects of tyranny to individual citizens in a state. Free individual citizens have freedom of choice in all aspects of life — including the marriage contract. The right to choose is a part of freedom.

The act of hurm, excluding someone from Islam (not praying for their souls or burying them in Muslim graveyards), was applied by Christian churches. It is not known in Islamic history that anyone has the right to declare other Muslims to be apostates. Anyone who declares the two shahadas is a Muslim.

According to murjiah, faith doesn't increase or decrease, and the punishment for sins happens in the afterlife. Other scholars say that faith may increase and decrease, but can't drop under a certain level determined by the two shahadas. Muslims don't have churches (there is no monasticism in Islam) to bring believers together or to drive them away. The clergy have no right to dictate to Muslims who have said the two shahadas what is prohibited and what is allowed.

It's as if that the Sunni clerics in Lebanon have turned into committees for “the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice,” like those adopted and sponsored by the Saudi regime. In Egypt, in the age of the Muslim Brotherhood, there are futile attempts along these lines. The Muslim Brotherhood sees itself as the state, the authority that commands and forbids, possesses the truth and knows the will of God more than anyone else.

There is a political conflict between Arab (and sometimes non-Arab) powers over the issue of the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice — that is, holding citizens accountable to their moral actions. Advocates of committees for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice want to assume power, which they would then monopolize and use to declare their opponents infidels.

Takfir in Islamic history is a heresy launched by the Kharijites, who were rejected by the Sunnis. It is said there are those who are takfiris in Lebanon. There are pending cases in courts relating to them. The mufti's speech on “optional” civil marriage falls within the category of takfir, whether the mufti meant it or not.

The Lebanese state is being subjected to violent blows. The wise should unite to preserve the state and its rule. The state has more than security authority. The authority of the state would be reinforced if it expands beyond sectarianism with regard to personal affairs.

It is unreasonable and unacceptable for the wise to abandon their wisdom to support sectarianism and sects who employ fiery speeches that serve the opponents of the state, and which are subject to the requirements of the conflict for power.

We face a situation where the state isn't encroaching on the rights of Muslims, but where the takfiris are encroaching on the duties of the state.

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