Some brothers and sisters have asked me to comment on a practice that is increasingly reported of travelling Muslim scholars and teachers of Islam in the West, and those who travel to the West as teachers and preachers. This is the practice of contracting secret marriages in the places these scholars visit or pass through.
The first thing to be said is that people generally do not make a secret of actions and relations except when they have some sense that these actions and relations, if known, would be disapproved of. Those who take the responsibility of public teaching of Islam must know that they are seen as representatives of the religion and looked up to as role models. Not only the words they preach but also their actions and lifestyle influence the decisions and actions of others; before God they are liable for that influence and for its consequences in the lives of others. Preachers, teachers, and other public figures in the community, have a responsibility to ensure that their conduct adheres to the ideal of those who fear even to displease God, let alone wilfully disobey His commands or those of His Messenger, upon him be peace.
Every Muslim knows that good deeds repel evil ones. God has said so in His Book: “Verily, the good deeds remove the evil deeds”. (Surah Hud 114) The effort of preparing for prayers and doing the prayers through the day helps to sustain God-wariness, to prevent failures and shortcomings from becoming established habits with consequences hard to undo. We strive after good thoughts, words and deeds in order to disable and annul temptation, so that we acquire, so far as God wills, something to negate/counter the harms and wrongs that we accumulate to our account over a lifetime.
But how many of us are mindful that the converse is also true: that evil deeds can negate, undo or outweigh good ones? The following is reported by `Abd al-Razzaq in his Musannaf:
Ma`mar and Sufyan al-Thawri narrated to us from Abu Ishaq, who narrated from his wife saying that she called among a company of women on `A’ishah [ra]. A woman said to her: O umm al-mu’minin, I had a slave-girl, whom I sold to Zayd ibn Arqam for 800 with deferred payment of the price. Then I bought her from him for 600 and I paid those 600 on the spot and I wrote him 800 as debt. `A’ishah said: By God!How evil is what you bought! How evil is what you bought! Tell Zayd ibn Arqam that he has invalidated his jihad with the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, except if he repents. (Abd al-Razzaq, al-Musannaf, 8/185)
Note here the strength and presence of mind of `A’ishah [ra]. In her indignation against this legal trick to do what God’s law fiercely condemns and pronounces as illegal (namely, loans on interest), she does not exaggerate or lose her balance of judgment. She does not hesitate to say of Zayd that, by taking part in this transaction, he has annulled his effort of jihad. But she also remembers to say, ‘except if he repents’. Some wrongs (like riba) are indeed so heavy in their nature and their personal and social consequences that that they may annul one’s good deeds. Yet, until death is known to be imminent, the door of repentance is not closed to any sinner, and God has said that He loves to forgive.
Secret marriage is one of several kinds of violation by men of the rights and dignity of women. I have been informed that it is increasingly common for Muslim preachers in Europe and America and for those visiting the West to marry women in secret and for a short period, after which they, presumably, end the marriage, before going on to contract another marriage of the same sort somewhere else. This is a violation of the laws and good purposes of marriage, and a vicious exploitation of women whose circumstances oblige them to enter into such contracts. The wrong is analogous to riba, which is a violation of the laws and good purposes of lending money, and severely injurious to those whose circumstances force them to borrow in this illegal way.
Marriage in Islam
Marriage in Islam is presented as a good deed, a noble thing to do, when it is done in the manner and for the purposes described as ma`ruf – i.e., according to the known, established norms of kindness and public, legal form. It is explicit in Surat al-Nisa’ that even when a Muslim contracts a marriage with a slave, he must inform her family and get their consent, and he must pay her the mahr. What is explicitly forbidden is taking lovers in secret, debauchery, and fornication, i.e., sexual relations without responsibility for the other person and for the consequences of the act. Secret, temporary marriages are (just like the legal tricks to enable riba) a legal cover for what is illegal and known to be so.
Marriage is both a personal and social fact for the contracting parties. It is not merely one and not the other. It is an integral part of what makes marriage a good deed that it should be done with the intention of building a legal, social, physical space in which children are to be welcomed and raised. It is an integral part of what makes marriage a good deed that it connects families not hitherto connected, or it extends and consolidates existing connections. In this way, marriage widens the network of family relations, so that there is multiplicity of siblings and cousins, uncles and aunts and nephews and nieces, among whom responsibility for each other’s well-being (physical, economic and spiritual) is shared, usually unevenly, as means and talents and situations are diverse. The social relationships facilitate and diversify, and thereby strengthen and support, the burdens of personal relationship of the husband and wife. It goes without saying that when a man contracts a marriage he commits himself, in principle, to provide for his wife for her lifetime – it is not lawful for a Sunni Muslim to contract a marriage knowing in advance that this commitment is temporary. Let us suppose that a Sunni Muslim owns an oil-well and he is able to pay out, all at once, as much money as any woman could expect to have in a whole lifetime: for this Sunni Muslim it is still unlawful to contract a marriage knowing that it is temporary, however much he pays out, and unlawful also, obviously, for the woman. Of this man it may be that his great wealth makes him the greater sinner, since he could use it not to indulge himself but to assist others to get married.
What distinguishes a marriage as such, what ennobles it above any form of improper association of man and woman, is that it is proclaimed to be a responsible union: marriage proclaims the couple’s right to privacy and intimacy with each other, and the purposes of that right. The neighbourhood and community must know the legal status of the couple’s being together, so that they can celebrate their relation and support it. Secret marriages, in addition to violating the rights of women, also violate the right of the community to be spared the innuendoes and slanders that are so corruptive of social order, harmony and trust. Such marriages do the same long-term damage to what is nowadays called ‘personal and social capital’, as American-style fast foods (and other ‘instant’ conveniences, not least social media ‘friendships’), do to long-term physical and mental health, and to the long-term sustainability of how food is produced and distributed.
The Prophet , peace be upon him, said: ‘Proclaim the marriage’ (Sunan al-Nasa’i, 3369; Musnad Ahmad, 15697; Sunan Sa`id ibn Mansur, 635).
This a clear injunction that marriages must be proclaimed, made public, not held in secret. That is the practice of the Prophet himself, of all his Companions, and of the prominent scholars of the early generations. None of them ever indulged in secret marriages and they never, explicitly or tacitly, approved any such marriages. We read in al-Mughni, k. al-Nikah that among those who expressed explicit disapproval of secret marriages are: `Umar ibn al-Khattab, `Urwah ibn al-Zubayr, `Ubaydullah ibn `Abdillah ibn `Utbah, `Amir al-Sha`bi. Abu Bakr `Abd al-`Aziz says: ‘Such a marriage is void’. There too we find that the majority of the jurists say that the proclamation of marriage is recommended, i.e., they do not make it a legal condition for the validity of a marriage, assuming that it has been legally witnessed. Some say that proclamation is mandatory.
This is the opinion of al-Zuhri: ‘If someone marries secretly, brings two witnesses but commands them to keep it secret, it would be obligatory to separate the husband and wife’. Similarly, it is reported that Imam Malik’s opinion is that non-proclamation of marriage invalidates the marriage (al-Mughni, k. al-nikah).
Even those scholars who do not make proclamation a legal condition for the validity of a marriage do not express approval for keeping it secret. Ibn Taymiyyah, as forceful and forthright as ever, likens secret marriages to prostitution (Majmu` al-fatawa, 32/102).
Sunni fiqh condemns secret and temporary marriages (secret or public) because they are so injurious to the rights and dignity of women, and because they diminish the good that comes from marriage, namely family life and family relations with all that they provide of testing and training for mind, heart and temperament, and for all the consolations of sharing feelings and experiences across generations. Contracting secret/temporary marriages reduces marriage to sexual relations in an ugly sort of rental arrangement, that is profoundly demeaning, especially to women. Accordingly, I strongly advise women to be careful before they consent to marry anyone. I strongly advise them to inform, consult with and find support from, family, friends and community before they make any commitments so that the matter is known, and so that their rights are observed and respected. It is better (for women and men) to endure the hardships of being single than to enter into contracts that insult the laws and norms, and seek to subvert the purposes, of marriage as commanded by God and His Messenger, upon him be peace.
As for those who present themselves in public as teachers and preachers of Islam and yet have entered into such contracts, what can I say? It is obligatory for them that they refresh their intentions in due fear of God and that they remember that the door to repentance, to reform, and to making amends, is not closed.
God’s Messenger has affirmed in many places that God loves to forgive His creatures if they turn to Him. He makes the way to forgiveness easy for whoever repents sincerely. No believer’s sins, however great or numerous, can be greater than His mercy.