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Marriage

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Marriage

    For Muslims, marriage is essentially a religious duty. The Qur'an notes that Allah created men and women to be companions for each another and to produce children. In addition, marriage is believed to guard against sexual temptation and to be a means of ensuring chastity. Although Islam permits divorce under certain circumstances, the Qur'an and sunnah emphasize the seriousness of divorce and view it as a last resort.

    Living in Harmony.

    Before the rise of Islam in the early 600s, Arabs lived in a traditional, patriarchal (male-dominated) society. Women were considered to be property, and no limitations on polygyny existed. Islam brought some reforms, particularly with regard to the status of women. The Qur'an recognized a woman's right to choose her own marriage partner, and it set limits on the practice of polygyny. A man could have as many as four wives, if he could provide for and treat them equally.

    Islam characterizes the relationship between a husband and a wife as complementary. The husband's primary responsibility is to support and protect the family. The wife cares for and disciplines the children and maintains the home. Although Islamic law teaches that the husband and wife are equal before God, women are subordinate to men. According to the Qur'an, rights are proportional to responsibilities, and men are regarded as having greater responsibilities outside the home. Nevertheless, the Qur'an counsels spouses to honor a bond of mutual “love and mercy” in their marriage and encourages them to “dwell in tranquility.”

    Drawing Up the Contract.

    Issues affecting the family, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance, became central to Islamic law, which developed in the 700s and 800s. Based on Qur'anic principles, family law has generally remained in force through the centuries. Nevertheless, interpretation of the law and practices vary significantly from one Muslim country to another.

    Marriage is a contract between a man and a woman or between a man and a woman's legal guardian (wali), who is always a male and usually her father. Islamic law requires four conditions for a valid marriage—an offer, an acceptance, a minimum of two competent Muslim witnesses, and a marriage gift. The law prohibits certain categories of marriage partners, such as the marriage of close relatives. Some regulations reflect concerns about the faith of the future children. Although the husband is the head of the household, the children spend most of their time with the mother, and therefore, they are likely to adopt her religion. A Muslim man may marry a woman who practices Judaism or Christianity, because these religions are based on monotheism and divine revelation as recorded in scripture. The law forbids marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, however, because the man assumes responsibility for the religious instruction of the older children.

    Traditionally, Muslim families arrange marriages. The mother seeks suitable wives for her sons. Once a potential bride is chosen, her legal guardian assumes responsibility for the arranging of the marriage contract. Despite the Qur'an's prohibition of forced marriages, traditional Islamic law allows a father to force his daughter to marry a man of his choice without her knowledge or permission, and he can refuse to allow her to marry at all. In practice, parents usually ask their daughter whether she agrees with their choice of spouse. Moreover, most Muslim countries have passed laws to prevent the guardian from compelling his daughter to marry. In addition, modern lifestyles are replacing the traditional custom of arranged marriages, as men and women meet their future mates through mutual friends, contact at the workplace or university, or while traveling.

    The marriage contract usually sets the mahr, an amount of money or property that the prospective husband must pledge to legally validate the marriage. Some men agree to pay the mahr in two parts, half at the time of the marriage and the other half in the event of divorce or their death. Ideally and by law the mahr is intended as a gift from the groom to the bride for her to use as she sees fit. In practice, however, some families take the mahr, and some husbands reserve it for their own use.

    Spouse for a Day.

    Muhammad reportedly recommended the pre-Islamic practice of temporary marriage, or mutah, to his soldiers and companions. Soon after the Prophet's death, however, Sunni Muslims rejected the custom. Shi'i law, by contrast, still permits temporary marriages.

    A mutah is usually associated with a private, verbal contract between a man and an unmarried woman, whether she has never been married, is divorced, or widowed. The parties must specify the length of time—whether one hour, one year, or 99 years—that the marriage will last. In addition, the contract must indicate an amount of money to which the woman is entitled. A man may enter as many temporary marriages as he desires without jeopardizing his right to have as many as four wives. A Shi'i Muslim woman, by contrast, is permitted only one temporary marriage at a time. A single woman may arrange a mutah, but only with her father's permission.

    The Islamic government of Iran actively promotes temporary marriages, known as sigheh. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the government encouraged sigheh for war widows as a way for them to obtain companionship and financial support. Today Iranian clerics and government leaders continue to endorse temporary marriage as an acceptable alternative to sexually promiscuous behavior, especially among young people who cannot yet afford marriage. Despite the official approval of sigheh, the practice remains very controversial. Many Iranians regard temporary marriage with ambivalence, and some consider it to be little more than legalized prostitution.

    Although some Muslims hope that sigheh will liberalize sexual attitudes in Iran, women who engage in the practice face negative consequences. The fact that a woman has entered into a sigheh means that she is no longer a virgin, and this can hurt her future marriage prospects. Although some young couples enter temporary marriages, sigheh usually occurs between older men and divorced women.

    Attempts at Reform.

    The formulation of marriage and divorce laws in the contemporary Middle East is part of an ongoing debate that has persisted since the late 1800s. During the period of colonial rule, some Westerners identified the inferior status of Muslim women under Islamic law as the central cause of poverty and backwardness of Muslim society. Muslim reformers held similar views. Egyptian Muhammad Abduh ( 1849 – 1905 ) argued that a Muslim man's unrestricted right to polygyny and divorce created an unstable environment in which to raise children. Another Egyptian reformer, Qasim Amin ( 1865 – 1908 ), believed that women's rights were central to progress and favored reforms in marriage laws. Feminist writer Malak Hifni Nasif ( 1886 – 1918 ) denounced polygyny, early marriage for girls, and the custom of marriage between older men and young girls. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, founded as a movement to reassert religious tradition and resist British occupation, sought reform in marriage and divorce laws.

    During the 1900s, some Muslim governments passed legislation that introduced changes to family law. For example, the Tunisian Code of Personal Status, enacted in 1956 , established a minimum age for marriage, abolished polygyny and the right of guardians to contract marriage without the woman's consent, and imposed conditions on a husband's right to divorce. In general, however, modern legislation regarding marriage and divorce has done little to correct the inequalities in Islamic family law in traditional societies. Moreover, Islamic political movements have worked to limit further reforms in family law by insisting on strict application of shari'ah. They associate the desire for changes to Islamic family law with Western values and cultural imperialism. With the resurgence of revivalism, those who want to liberalize the law run the risk of being labeled infidels. See also Divorce; Family; Law; Women and Reform.

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