Arab world’s first female interior minister rekindles debate on civil marriage in Lebanon

Tuesday 26 February 201906:28 am
Lebanon’s new Interior Minister Raya Al-Hassan has announced her intention to start a serious debate on the contentious subject of civil marriage in Lebanon, which she claims to now have the support of the government of Prime Minister Sa’ad Al-Hariri. The bold announcement comes only a month into Al-Hassan’s tenure, and provoked an array of responses from across the spectrum of Lebanon’s politicians, artists and religious figures. Lebanon’s combative debate around civil marriage first began in 1951. While Lebanese law does not recognise the validity of civil marriages performed inside the country, it does - in accordance with Article 25 of Order No. 60 - recognise marriage contracts conducted outside of Lebanon. Many Lebanese of different denominations travel to neighbouring Cyprus to perform civil marriage ceremonies. The disparity between the two positions is now being cited by supporters of the new push, who insist that optional civil marriage cannot be in contravention of public order in Lebanon since it is already partially recognised. However, the country’s various religious authorities continue to reject it - and were quick to remind the interior minister of their stance.

Support for Al-Hassan’s call

Many have commended the call by Al-Hassan, who until recently had earned the epithet of “Muslim minister” – a reference to her descent from a notable Sunni family in the city of Tripoli. Considering the historical stance of the country’s Dar Al-Fatwa – the country’s top religious authority – the positive reactions have been a noteworthy development. Indeed, under the leadership of its former leader Sheikh Rasheed Qabani, the council once ruled that any Muslim official who worked towards sanctioning civil marriage was considered an apostate. Amongst the most prominent politicians to voice their support for Al-Hassan’s call was the well-known Druze leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, Waleed Jumblatt. In a tweet Jumblatt
">affirmed his backing, declaring: “Can we give our opinion around civil marriage without being subject to Takfir [rulings of apostasy]? Yes I support optional civil marriage… enough [of] using religion to divide citizens”. The leader of the ‘Democratic Meeting’ bloc and member of parliament, Faysal Al-Sayegh, applauded the interior minister’s call, calling for an attitude of openness towards the proposition and an objective discussion of its dimensions - away from “grandstanding” and what he described as “fanaticism”. “I see in it [civil marriage] more positive interaction between society’s different components, which helps to reduce the intensity of sectarian political discord,” he said. Noting that thousands of Lebanese citizens already conduct civil marriages in Cyprus and elsewhere, he asked: “Why do we recognise it abroad and refuse it at home?” Meanwhile, the prominent Lebanese artist and celebrity, Elissa,
">tweeted: “We are in the year 2019 and some of the merchants of religion make infidels of anyone who speaks about civil marriage. A civil state does not require permission from anyone… God strengthen you Raya Al-Hassan.” The sentiment was repeated by other sectors of parliament: Nicola Sahnawy, a member of the ‘Strong Lebanon’ parliamentary bloc, stated: “Objections and obstructing civil marriage in Lebanon freezes the hands of time in the nineteenth century. Preventing Lebanese families of various religions and sects from marrying and having relationships with one another maintains division in our society for another century.”

Religious opposition

Conversely, the opposition to civil marriage crosses the country’s notorious religious divides. The official church in Lebanon refuses any Christian marriage conducted outside of its authority, believing marriage to be one of its ‘secrets’, whereas Muslim scholars underline that marriage must take place in the “framework of the Qur’an and prophetic tradition [Sunna].” On Monday morning, the media office of the Islamic Rulings Council (Dar Al-Fatwa) confirmed that the position of Lebanon’s Mufti, Abdel Latif Daryan, was identical to both that of the Supreme Islamic Sharia Council as well as the Rulings Council. According to the Council, that stance is well known and has been consistent for years: namely, “absolute refusal” as it “categorically contravenes the rulings of the Islamic Shari’a.”   Further attributing statements to the Dar Al-Fatwa, the National Media Agency in Lebanon said: “This [civil] marriage cannot be sanctioned in parliament without taking the opinion of the various religious authorities in the country.” Addressing parliament, the statement continued: “Do not get engrossed in all these discussions on the subject of civil marriage, which is the prerogative of the religious authorities.” The Mufti of North Lebanon and the city of Tripoli, Sheikh Malik Al-Sha’ar, also echoed the calls of opposition, describing civil marriage as “opposed to Sharia.” “No one in Lebanon can dare undertake it, especially from the followers of the Islamic and Christian denominations,” he said. Al Shaar repeated the assertion that marriage was the prerogative of religious authorities, and stressed the necessity to prioritise “the rituals and specificities of the religious denominations and sects”. Criticising the interior minister’s comments as “putting the cart before the horse,” he added: “She did not comprehend the meaning of civil marriage in its Islamic and religious dimensions… In my opinion, if this step is approved it leads to altering the rulings of the Shari’a that came in the Qur’an and which Muslims abide by.” Al-Sha’ar further condemned the call for civil marriage “coming from a minister belonging to a well-known Muslim house in Tripoli and the North.” “If the minister knew the danger of what she proposed she would not have done so,” he said. Warning Al-Hassan of the scale of the opposition she was likely to face, Al-Sha’ar recalled a previous attempt to approve civil marriage by Prime Minister Sa’ad Al-Hariri, from which he eventually had to retreat due to pressure from religious figures. The event took place in 2013 following a Fatwa (religious ruling) which declared that those who called for civil marriage were no longer Muslim. “All forms of entertainment are present in Lebanon,” Hariri declared at the time. “And they are illegitimate in the religious understanding… this does not mean that those who allow it are infidels”. Hariri stated that his personal position then was “that there should be civil marriage after discussions around the subject”. However, in an interview with Lebanon Debate, Al-Sha’ar insisted that Al-Hariri personally informed him that he will not agree to civil marriage if it is put forward. According to Al-Sha’ar, Al-Hariri comforted him that the subject will “remain in the drawers because it is in contravention to Islamic affiliation and any Muslim would not dare undertake it”. This is not the first time that the subject sparks a feud inside Lebanese politics. In 1999, a bill proposing civil marriage was debated in cabinet and approved by a majority of 21 votes; however, former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri refused to sign the law and submit it to parliament for ratification - apologetically claiming that Lebanon’s circumstances at the time “did not allow it”.
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