Thursday, August 4, 2011

Guardianship in Muslim marriage.

The idea of a guardian in Arab society permeates into Muslim societies until today, as can be seen by the relegation of women in Saudi Arabia as being in the eternal custody of a male guardian. In Southeast Asian culture where women have historically worked alongside men in the public space, I find that the idea of guardianship in Singaporean Malay Muslim marriage exists solely in a symbolic sense.

What I found in the Quran pertaining to marriage (4:23-35) is that the groom must give a mahr (gift) to the bride, and must seek permission of ahlihinna (her people). But here in Singapore, an Islamic solemnisation ceremony takes place between the bride's male guardian (father or next closest relative) and the groom, while the kadi (registrar or court representative) if present checks with the bride if she gives her consent.

It is not a directly a contract between the bride and the groom - it is a contract between the bride's guardian and the groom, who takes over as her new guardian. The idea of an obligatory guardian in marriage is backed by the opinions of scholars of the Hanafi, Shafi'i and Maliki (but not Hanbali) schools of thought - and most of Singapore's Muslims follow the Shafi'i school of thought.

Interestingly, wali is used as the title of a woman's guardian only on her wedding day and in no other social situations in Singapore - showing that there are no other events in a Singaporean Muslim woman's life that requires guardianship. In the case that the bride is a convert, she does not even require the permission of her guardian - implying that guardianship only exists in a specific religio-cultural context, and does not transcend boundaries - even though she may still maintain links with her male relatives.

What I found in the Quran made more sense to me. Doing a quick concordance, I found that the word wali in the Quran is overwhelmingly used to refer to Allah, as He is the Guardian and Protector of those who believe.* Awliya' (plural) is used to describe those who should protect Masjidil Haram (the Prophet's Mosque in Mecca). It is also possible to take as awliya': Shaytan (4:119, 7:27, 7:30), unbelievers (4:139, 8:73, 9:23) or anything else (7:3), but this is of course a really bad idea (: 

The verse that is often used to justify a bride's need for a wali is 4:25, but here the Arabic word that is often translated as 'guardians' is not awliya' but ahlihinna - used in other terms like ahl ul kitab (People of Scripture) - which could reasonably be simply translated as 'people', not 'guardians'. In other words, before a man marries a woman, he should ask permission from her people - her parents, extended family, or others in her society - again, perfectly reasonable.

As for the marriage ceremony itself, it seems that one is free to marry in any way one wishes - following customs or not, since I find that guardianship is more a custom (whether Malay or Arab) than a religious argument. Believing men and women are awliya' of each other (9:71), much like those who disbelieve are awliya' of each other (8:73). Personally, I would rather enact a marriage contract with my future husband than have him enact a contract with my father.

So why does this half religious, half cultural custom exist? Does religion or culture perpetuate it? Why are we holding on to elements of patriarchy when it comes to marriage and inheritance?
* See 2:107, 2:120, 2:257, 3:68, 4:45, 4:75, 4:173, 5:55, 6:14, 6:51, 6:70, 6:127, 7:155, 7:196 for some of many examples.


HaYsIa said...

again, something Nasir and i were just discussing yesterday evening.. thanks for sharing dear

orange streaks said...

Perhaps there is more mention of the need for a wali in a marriage contract in hadith?

Sya said...

orange streaks (Zak? :D): Definitely. However, I'm just pointing out here that the term 'wali' is not primarily used in that sense in the Quran - so I don't think hadith should supersede this.

Aisyah: I get the feeling that more women have doubts with this than they are willing or able to admit (:


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