Decoding the Sunni Position on Civil Marriage

It was difficult to tell what was more cringe-worthy. Was it the Mufti’s bizarrely maximalist and unreasonable position on civil marriage in Lebanon? Or was it the spectacle of embarrassed Sunni politicians pussyfooting and dancing around the issue, trying to both appease the Mufti and distance themselves from him at the same time?

Witness the reaction of prime Minister Miqati, to whom this was a “divisive” and “sensitive” issue that is better dealt with later (Translation: I support civil marriage but I’m not going to be the one who stands in the way of the Mufti). Meanwhile over at the Future Movement, Lebanon’s largest Sunni party, poor Ahmad fatfat was the one left to articulate his party’s position (Mr. Hariri was too busy carving out his electoral share in Paris with other political bigwigs.) Fatfat, an ex-communist and a medical doctor, had to jump through rhetorical and logical hoops to square this circle: “It’s better not to address this topic today”, he said, but then he added “Each Muslim has the right to hold on to his/her convictions, [the] Future bloc is a civil party”. There you have it, the world’s most complicated way of agreeing and disagreeing with the Mufti at the same time.

So why are Sunni politicians going in circles? Why the lack of clarity and missing convictions? To understand that, we will need to dig a bit deeper.

Sunni Exceptionalism

Many Sunni Muslims, even the most moderates, don’t support civil marriage. They see in it a slippery slope towards loose social morals, uncommitted marriages, sex out of wedlock (since the only “real” marriage is religious,  civil marriage sex is considered out of wedlock), dismembered families,  fault-free divorce and other social ills. One of the most common arguments you hear from them is the high divorce rate and single-parenthood in the west. But that is not what makes Sunnis unique, after all religious Christians and others are against civil marriage for very similar reasons.

Where Sunnis are unique is in their official view of the scope of religious authority. While other religions allow for “free will” in leaving one’s faith and liberally interpreting some rules, Sunni orthodoxy and practice makes a big deal out of “apostasy” and creates all sorts of barriers that scare people out of committing it. Hence, a Sharia court has the authority to annul your marriage, separate you from your spouse, deprive you of your inheritance and even deprive you of a proper religious burial (see the Mufti’s threat). There is no such thing as an “optional” civil marriage with such a mind set. This is real power, the kind of power that scares parliamentarians and gets a Billionaire prime minister to mumble sheepishly.

Moving Forward

Is all hope then lost for civil marriage in Lebanon? 

At the moment, the Sunni roadblock is too serious an obstacle in the face of this cause. To try to take the topic heads on, to somehow force the issue through, would be both naive and foolish. The solution can only come through a long-term “facts on the ground” strategy, ie doing little things like allowing people to strike off their sects from their ID cards (God bless you Ziad Baroud), the individual efforts like those of Nidal and Kulud to get married, with the public debates they encourage, the gentle pushing by the Lebanese president on the issue, all this will lead to an eventual situation where it will become very obvious that some parties are just sticking their heads in the sand.

And the good news is, despite all evidence to the contrary, this strategy seems to be working. Why else do you think the Mufti was so angry?

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  • Fadi

    What you’re describing is essentially the catholic church, some couple hundred years ago. Anyone who’s read their share of history knows that when the catholic church used its power to enforce its will, it bet big and it lost big.
    I’m thinking that’s one chapter of history the mufti didn’t care to read, and I’m willing to bet that if enough people (sunnis and otherwise) challenge his position head on, we could have a civil marriage law in Lebanon sooner rather than later. Hopefully the people who are behind the civil marriage efforts are less sheepish than the politicians and won’t hesitate to put the ball back in the mufti’s court.

  • izisaoun

    As usual, you have simply said it: most do not support civil marriage. Moderates or other. It’s the ‘happy few’ again rummaging around their bubbles. And yet, the debate is vital to Lebanon on the long run, and it should come accompanied with a string of reforms and measures to establish the roots of social cohesion beyond religious affiliations. The civil marriage debate opens Pandora’s box or to be more appropriate: opens a closet full of skeletons. Our current politicians and religious figures will shove those skeletons back into that closet. As deep as they can.

  • Z

    oh well, the fight against religion is always with ultra superior weapons….
    as we know, if someone committed suicide, he is not allowed to be prayed on, yet i know 5 people who committed suicide and they were prayed on.
    added to this, one must pray for a dead person who was dead if he was drunk, and many people i know had accidents and were dead (may their soul rest in peace) and the mufti was the one who prayed for them.

    and talking about his holy mufti, being against civil marriage is aside and letting his family members to be going to night clubs and bullying people is on the other side.
    well Mr. Mufti, i guess your god doesn’t have an excel sheet and he will + – you good things and bad things.
    unfortunately the revolution that will happen against Islam will be very bad for Muslims around the world because this is what happened when Catholics used to sell heaven land for money on earth.
    i guess iftaa’ should work on overhauling the perspective of Islam toward life matters….
    many many stuff are needed to be looked at… if we start the list won’t end.

    anyway, I guess Mr. mufti should have talked like this when Sfeir refused it back in the days of Hrawi and Hariri (both RIP).
    i guess it was a wrong call, but no one pays the price, expect open minded Muslims aka kuffar.
    and BTW i am not that happy if you want to pray behind me.

  • Anonymous

    As far as I know, and correct me if I’m wrong, two countries of Muslim majorities, Turkey and Tunisia, have civil matrimonial laws. The majority of their populations follow the Sunna as well. Or so they thought, until Grand Mufti Qabbani informed them they were all apostats, way far and out of the Sunna way and that millions of them were so unduly treated like good muslims in life and death for all this time.

  • Gabriel

    Where Sunnis are unique is in their official view of the scope of religious authority. While other religions allow for “free will” in leaving one’s faith and liberally interpreting some rules, Sunni orthodoxy and practice makes a big deal out of “apostasy” and creates all sorts of barriers that scare people out of committing it. Hence, a Sharia court has the authority to annul your marriage, separate you from your spouse, deprive you of your inheritance and even deprive you of a proper religious burial (see the Mufti’s threat).

    All this time, we thought the Sunnis didn’t need their Martin Luther, because structurally Sunnism was “Reform”. The way it reads, the Mufti seems to have been elevated to Papal figure.

    Truth be told, if enough Sunnis wanted it and supported it, they could congregate and stand behind some Imam with a more liberal outlook. Some news snippet suggest there’s some “Gay Imams” supporting “gay marriages”. Surely, if there’s a market there, there would be a market for this.

    Where I think you have hit the nail on the head is the rather honestly expressed opinion that many Sunnis (even the most moderate of them) don’t actually support civil unions. At this point, it is the so-called moderates that are the hurdle. (What else can one expect from the non-moderate).

    I think the people that are holding back from supporting this are doing it for altogether different reasons. For fear of dilution of power, for fear of dilution of authority. They are part of the problem.

  • gkaram

    Religion is a living thing. If it fails to evolve with the times then it will be left behind. Clergy of all sorts set themselves up as guardians of a particular faith by making followers fear the
    crossing the clergy’s interpretation of what is wrong and what is right.A fatwa is nothing more than an interpretation of a text by an Imam , no more and no less. It does not carry any more weight than this, it is not binding and it needs not be followed.
    An excellent example of the diversity of interpretation is the fact that Turkey, is it 80 million people?, do not have religious weddings.They have only civil marriage.
    Individuals are free to believe whatever they want to believe, if one does not feel that a civil marriage is binding then let him have a religious wedding on top of that but that does not mean that others must be forced to have their wedding blessed by a clergy if they do not so choose.
    Objections to civil marriage on moral grounds is the shakiest objection of all. A contract where the female of the specie cannot seek divorce is a stronger foundation for a family unit? You must be kidding. What is equally disingenuous is the big scare that civil marriage will introduce same sex marriage. Why are we scared of an act of love between individuals of the same sex? Is it better to perpetuate the myth that there are no gay people in Moslem countries? Give me a break.
    Clergymen do not like to loosen their hold on their flock even if they have to scare them into obedience. Civil marriage will deprive them of a form of income as well as a hold on their congregants and in particular if civil marriage is to lead to members of one sect marrying someone from a different sect without the permission of the Imam/Mufti. There is no room for the sacred in the public square. Those who have personal faith are free to hold to it over and above the dictates of civilian statutes but civilian statutes will have to be honored by all.

    • Gabriel


      Turkey is 80 million people, and 99.8% or thereabouts Muslim (according to the CIA world fact book).

      While a pair who choose to be wed may take exception to the rules set forth by the sharia (and perhaps the civil law in Turkey is not in line with that), the likelihood of having contentious “separations” is far lower, given that almost 10 times out of ten, both parties share the same faith.

      The situation in Lebanon is a little more complex in that the unions may well involve a Christian and Muslim. And so things aren’t so simple. For example, what if a “Muslim” girl takes a “Christian” boy (currently, not allowed under Sharia). And as many “moderate” Muslims will attest, this is something they will very likely find problematic. (I know quite a few moderate ones, who imbibe alcohol, and eat bacon, who for one reason or another draw the line there!)

      This sort of situation goes above and beyond the Fatwa-mongering Imams. It is what makes it more difficult an issue to progress in a place like Lebanon.

  • gkaram

    So what is wrong with having a Moslem marry a Christian or Christian marry a Druze… It is up to them to decide and not a bunch of clergymen interpreting old manuscripts to maintain control on a flock. Please do not tell me that someone else knows what is best for various individuals because that is what is commonly known as dictatorship.

    • Gabriel


      nothing wrong until such time if they decide to separate.

      • gkaram

        Why is separation problematic? There would be civil laws that decide on how to split the estate and who is responsible for what. It is actually much more reasonable.

      • Gabriel


        Separation is problematic because the “majority”, the democratic majority would not allow it- your wishes and idealizations aside.(see recent events in the Arab world!)

        Let’s speak in practical (and blunt terms).

        Today, the Sharia allows for example a Christian woman to be wed to a Muslim man (though not preferred of course). The woman need not convert. The reverse is not true. This rule is not there to placate some after-life godly requirement, but rather a very logical and pragmatic way of propagating and prejudicing the law in favor of Muslims, given that society in the Middle East is patriarchal.

        In the case of a separation, the Christian woman has custodial rights over her children only until the age of religious discernment.

        Sharia is prejudicial to Muslims. And yet you didn’t see Egyptians voting in droves to reject a constitution that is inherently prejudiced.

        Your example of Turkey is a very poor one. Turkey replaced one prejudicial system with another. Whereas pre-secular Turkey made it a crime to insult Islam, secular Turkey made it a crime to insult Turkishness,.. Now I understand that those two issues are not to be conflated, but in a place like Turkey, generally Christians are not “Turks”, so that practically, the distinction disappears.

        When you have, in a society like Turkey, a religiously homogeneous population, the point I raise above becomes moot. For every 1000 Muslims in Turkey, you’ll be lucky to find one or two non-Muslims. Those non-Muslims are mostly insular, stick to their own communities, etc.

        A “secular” civil law that deals with separation and is not prejudicial to “religion” (as the Sharia is for example) may pass uncontested in a place like Turkey because cases of divorce and separation don’t raise difficult questions.

        You can be certain that in more than 998 times out of a 1000, you need not worry for example about a situation that may award custodial rights of a child to a non-Muslim parent.

        This statistic is not the same in a place like Lebanon.

        You may believe that the Sunni street is somehow being scared from adopting a more liberal, “civil-based” law because they are somehow being scared into that position by a clergy set to control the masses.

        I think you’re giving far too much credit to the clergy and far too little accountability to the people who vote in the ballot box.

        Yes- there should be civil law that deals with all aspect of marriage and separation.

        Good luck passing them!

  • ruba

    Thanks Mustapha. i appreciate your article. but as long as this kind of thing “gets a Billionaire prime minister to mumble sheepishly.” to quote you, then i’m not very optimistic about near future amends. its really strange that my civil marriage obtained in Cyprus is registered and effective in Lebanon and civil laws apply normally IN LEBANON to any marital issues i will not confront, yet the Mufti makes this threat. It really doesn’t make sense except when it comes to his personal political issues with politicians who may support the option of civil marriage. in fact, civil marriage is accepted in Lebanon’s Laws despite his threat. the only thing missing is a formal set-up for actually conducting the ceremony. for this we just go somewhere else, Cyprus, Turkey, Ghana, or anywhere else in the world and register our marriage through the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    pick up marriage certificate from Ministry of Foreign Affairs (sent via the Lebanese Embassy in foreign country), then Ministry of Interior and the wife Registrar of Personal Status. When done, you can finally issue a new Family Copy of Extract of Civil Registration and a Lebanese Marriage Certificate. Voila! officially certified in Lebanon