Marriage Amongst the Muslims
In Past, Present, and Before God
In the earliest days of Islam, marriage was theologically simpler. The theological rules of marriage were built on the religious viability of natural, existing, pre-Islamic relationships. They were uniform codifications of the rights, responsibilities, and social consideration for each party to a marriage in given situations; monogamy, polygyny, divorce, widowhood, and so on and so forth, etc etc.
Marriage in Islamic theology is a matter of declaration between two people religiously eligible to marry each other. It does not depend on a particular person or office’s seal of approval. The two words still used for “marriage” in Arabic are:
1. “Zawaj”, which literally translates into “Pairing” or “Coupling”
2. “Nikah” which is literally a word for sexual intercourse.
In religious sources, the second word is mostly used in the context of a religiously permissible “bond”. Which is to say, a sexually consummated relationship. For example, a couple who have undergone a public marital ceremony but never consummated it have not undergone “nikah”.
Turn your attention now to the first word. Zawaj. Now imagine yourself (if you are not already) as an English speaking Muslim, hearing a 20th or 21st century male and female publicly identifying themselves as “a couple” in English. Or even some modern vernacular Arabic. Would you think of them as married? Most likely, you would not. This is because the perception most Muslims have of marriage nowadays is built on a different social model.
Nowadays, in the age of the nation state, marriage amongst Muslims is socially different. The perception of marriage is now heavily influenced by how intertwined most marriages are with the state, often along with religious institutions of varied levels of state integration themselves.
The concept of the modern nation state was built from myriad contributing factors, civilisations and geographic influences. But the perception of marriage within the modern nation state is a direct successor to the perception of marriage during early Christian Europe. For example, marriage in Catholic England, a hefty few centuries ago, could only be deemed socially and legally valid if recognised by the Church. Which, to the average marrying man or woman at the time meant getting a paper from the nearest building with a cross on it, whatever that entailed.
It is true that certain tribal declaratory marriage customs which preceded a unified Catholic church survived for a while. Perhaps some still do. And it is true that both the Catholic church and the institutions which succeeded it in some places also relied on declaratory factors and customs as part of whether or not recognition to a marriage could be granted. But the fact remains that the Catholic church passed on a very strong idea to modern nation states worldwide. A marriage is not a marriage without some form of institutional recognition.
I’m not arguing for or against institutional protection of rights in personal relationships here, nor am I ignorant as to why the need for institutional approbation of marriage developed. I am just illustrating how the perception that marriage can only originate from religious or state-affiliated institutions originated in the Early Christianised West, which was Christianised on a mixture of alleged Christian canon, Roman law along with local and tribal customs.
Now, as Muslims, we’ve inherited a lot of that perception. Through trade, wars, scholarship, and a hundred other mediums of cultural exchange, the entire world now lives under the concept of the nation state, and with the nation state, this inherited perception has grown amongst Muslims quite significantly. And it’s testing the consciences of our faithful to their limits.
The Western nation states found a way around that perception. First they underwent a number of separations between Church and State, and then they underwent a series of religious revolutions, whereby they stopped caring what their respective religious institutions said. They accepted that their openly monogamous relationships that haven’t undergone ceremony and paperwork are not in fact marriages. Even some of those who consider themselves religious in the west accept that. “You’re living in sin”, “yeah, whatever.”
I’m actually all for Church and State separation. But what happened in the west was more than that. The religious revolutions in the west were not just legal or social separations. They were personal. They tore asunder people’s personal relationships to their faiths. Which again, I have no particular position on.
But I don’t want it happening to us Muslims simply because we can’t reconcile the natural state of men and women living together with a pre-medieval Judeo-Christian perception of marriage. This perception has already caused many Muslims to drift from practicing their faith, and some to abandon their faith altogether. Those of us who operate outside of that perception often do so to make a mockery of the entire marital concept whilst placating our religious guilt. I refer to Muslims who practice a number of ill-advised things such as marrying in secret. Since marriage in Islam is declaratory, it should never be carried out in secret.
I think that for us, as Muslims, a new way needs to evolve. A social integration of relationships which protects individuals’ rights without being religiously rigid. But this perception of “sinful” relationships and non-sinful relationships, built on our inheritance from colonialism and the modern nation-state needs to stop. For a start, it makes us way more judgemental that we ever need to be.
For example: when we see a non-Muslim couple publicly identify as a couple and living together, most of us will think of them as “living in sin”. Whether we’re more “live and let-live” or “holier than thou”, it’s our principal thought. They’re doing something wrong. It’s just that some of us don’t care and some of us aggressively disapprove, or even feel scandalised at what the world has come to. Because we think they’re “living in sin”. We should not.
You read that right. We should not think of them as living in sin. That “exemplary” (heh) couple is in a declared relationship, and everybody knows about it, and that relationship has its own rules, agreements and terms. It is not, in and of itself, on principle “sinful”. Granted, its rules, agreements and terms may not be in accordance with the rules, agreements and terms a Muslim relationship should have, but that’s okay because NEITHER ONE OF THEM IS MUSLIM. If there is anything sinful about their relationship, it is not on the principle of them openly living together as a couple without institutional approval. And it is no real concern of yours unless one of them knocks on your door and complains the other smacked them around. Or they invite you to “participate” in their romantic activities. Otherwise shut up.
“But Alfy, they’re both considered sinful in the religions they follow.”
“That’s right Abdallah, they both consider themselves to be living in sin. They told me so.”
I DON’T CARE! Are you following their faith, or yours? In your faith, in our faith, accusing someone of a sin they didn’t commit just because you don’t understand your own faith is a grave sin in and of itself. Sticking the “fornicator” label on them when they’re not actually, per the rules of Islam, considered fornicators, is an unimaginable transgression of God’s laws.
“Okay. So what does that mean for us as Muslims? Can we all just go get busy as long as we let everyone know we’re doing that as a couple?”
No. You have a bunch of Islamic conditions to make sure you fulfil before you do that. That said, these conditions are probably a lot simpler than getting married in whichever society you currently live in. And a whole bunch of these conditions actually amount to rights of the bride and groom, so a lot of them can be dismissed by mutual consent between bride and groom. I don’t recommend doing that if you’re young and dumb though. God put these “given” rights for a reason.
What this means for us as Muslims is that if someone does do that, we shouldn’t be quick to judge, and that really, a better, smoother way for couples to be together in their most natural state, needs to re-evolve before we have a religious revolution on our hands, like the series of religious revolutions which took place in Western Judeo-Christian culture. I say re-evolve, because I’m referring to Islam’s natural take on the physical, intimate relationship between couples. Islam brought rules to improve upon a pre-existing social institution. Marriage. Islam did not make marriage contingent upon an ever-inflating cycle of legal and social ritual. Things need to change before the new generation boils over. Yesterday. No that’s not right. Yesteryear. Actually, about 20 years ago. Start the conversation.