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October 2014

Creating an asexual jurisprudence in Islam

It took me awhile to decide what to write about for this Carnival. Not because I don't know what I want to say, but because I've already written so much on the topic. Not including this post, my asexuality and Islam tag includes 14 original posts.

I've written a few posts (1, 2, 3) on hijab (the Islamic modest dress) and how people's perceptions of that intersects with my asexuality. I've written about belonging (and not belonging) to communities and about compulsory sexuality. I've written tips for straight Muslims and other allies. But the topic I've written about most extensively is marriage.

The (so far) eight posts in my "Asexuality, Islam, and Marriage" series tend to be the least-read of all my asexuality and Islam posts, which doesn't surprise me. They're dense and they also discuss topics that are foreign to most asexuals on Tumblr - both because Islam is not well-known to most non-Muslims and because most online aces tend to be secular or atheist.

However, these posts are the ones that I most hope that other asexual Muslims will read and benefit from, and they're the most important to me. They're the result of 15 years of independent study of Islamic jurisprudence as it relates to sex and marriage.

Although only one of the posts explicitly proposes a new framework, I see all of them together as constituting a fledgling asexual jurisprudence. Why is an asexual jurisprudence needed? Because traditional and orthodox jurisprudence doesn't work for asexual Muslims, especially those who cannot, do not, or will not engage in sexual activity. For asexual Muslim women especially, the traditional jurisprudence of marriage can result in oppressive and harmful outcomes because it tends to consider such women as inherently deviant.

Whether asexual Muslims are seeking to enter a marriage with an allosexual Muslim, and need safeguards if the relationship falls apart, or if they want to legitimize a queerplatonic or other non-sexual relationship with another asexual Muslim, they will need to go beyond the orthodox jurisprudence of marriage, even in a cross-sex relationship. And, yes, asexual Muslims may need to create a jurisprudence of same-sex marriage too.

In practice, there are many obstacles to implementing asexual jurisprudence, which to me emphasizes just how unorthodox it can be - and why asexual Muslims need it.

Presenting any kind of challenge to orthodoxy, whether it is Islamic feminism or queer theology*, can evoke a strong backlash. Moreover, I have no formal Islamic scholarly qualifications (let alone the advanced ones many traditionalists claim are needed to engage in independent reasoning). This is often very difficult for women to obtain, and I have extremely limited access to any kind of Islamic learning from where I live, except online. Right now, my fledgling asexual jurisprudence is too obscure for anybody to have had much of a reaction to it. And it may only ever be a niche interest.

But for me it's about leading a livable life as an asexual Muslim, and that's why I've embarked on this. I claim the right to do it out of sheer necessity.

*I could also have called my work an "asexual theology" in the broader sense of "religious discourse" but in Islam the term "theology" (kalam) tends to refer to discourse about the nature of God, so "jurisprudence" is a more precise term.


An Asexual Muslim Perspective on Arranged Marriages

demigrayspeaks recently wrote about issues facing aces in India. This is an excellent post and I recommend reading the whole thing. I want to add my own perspective to the specific issue of arranged marriages, since if I were to marry (I don't plan to), my marriage would likely be to some degree arranged. I am defining an arranged marriage as one in which a person other than a party to the marriage selects the spouse; most commonly this is done by older family members.

Muslims who follow strict rules of gender interaction do not date in the way that is common in Western culture today. This is the main reason that many Muslim marriages are arranged. Family members (or others) who are of the same gender as the prospective spouse may investigate and interview potential spouses then present one or more options to the person who wishes to get married. The prospective couple will often have chaperoned meetings to get to know each other and to determine compatibility before they agree to the marriage. They will likely not know each other deeply and are relying heavily on the judgment of their family members (or whoever is arranging the marriage) that this person will be a good spouse for them.

Stepping back to look at the larger context, in Islam, marriage is considered a private contract between the two parties. It is not a sacrament and is not required to be performed in a mosque. Historically, it was not registered with the state or with any religious body, so it does not require anybody to officiate. Instead, the only requirements are two parties who are able to make the contract according to Islamic jurisprudence, and two witnesses. (It is considered recommended for the couple to publicize the marriage within their community, such as by holding a wedding party with invited guests.) Many Muslims in the West do marry in a mosque today, or with the imam (prayer leader at the mosque) officiating at an off-site location. Since most imams are authorized by the appropriate state or local government to officiate at marriages, the couple can have a religious marriage and a civil marriage at the same time. However, it would be entirely valid for a couple to marry privately and have a separate civil marriage when they wish to register with the state.

According to three of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, a woman is not authorized to contract a marriage on her own behalf, but must delegate this to her agent (wali) who serves as her proxy. It is not uncommon in some Muslim cultures for the contract to be made at a private ceremony attended only by the groom, the bride's wali (usually her father), and the two witnesses (both of whom have to be adult males), then later there is a big wedding party when the couple will be establishing their residence together.

The school of jurisprudence that I follow is one of the three that require the woman to delegate to a wali. There are detailed rules for which male relatives can serve as wali in what preference order. However, this does not apply to me since the wali must be a Muslim and as a convert I do not have any Muslim relatives. In such a situation, it is preferred but not required for the woman to ask the imam of her local mosque to serve as the wali. As an alternative to the imam, she can designate any adult male Muslim that she wishes to be her wali.

The three schools that require a wali give greater power to the father when he is serving as the wali for a daughter who has not previously been married, in that she does not need to give her consent to the marriage contract. In effect, the not previously married daughter is treated as if she were a minor or legally incompetent. This is despite the fact that the Prophet stated that it is required to obtain the consent of such women. (Ah, patriarchy!) If the daughter has been previously married, or if the wali is anyone but her father (including another male relative), then the marriage is invalid without her consent. The school I follow is unique among the three that require walis in stating that if the not previously married daughter presents a suitable husband candidate (where "suitable" is defined as being religiously committed; other schools have stricter rules defining suitability, usually based on income/profession or social class), the father cannot refuse to contract the marriage as wali, even if he has another candidate that he wants her to marry instead. This rule allows her to take the initiative to marry whoever she has chosen, despite the legal power given to her father. (In the other two wali-requiring schools, the father can arrange the marriage that he wants even if another candidate has been presented.) All three wali-requiring schools affirm that non-paternal walis cannot refuse to contract a marriage to a suitable candidate (however this is defined by the school) and that, if they do, they lose their right to be a wali and it passes to the first person on the preference list who will contract the marriage. (The fourth school, which does not require the wali in most circumstances, only allows a woman to contract her own marriage if the husband is suitable in terms of both religious commitment and profession, otherwise her wali can annul it. So this isn't exactly a feminist position either.)

The requirement for the wali is not necessarily the same thing as an arranged marriage as the wali is only legally necessary for the marriage contract itself. This can be seen in the example given above where the woman presents her own choice of suitor and the wali (incuding a paternal wali, in the school I follow) has no choice but to contract the marriage. Instead, as noted above, the preference for arranged marriages comes out of the rules for gender interaction. What the wali requirement means is that if the marriage is arranged, the wali (whoever he is) will be the one doing the arranging.

So how would all of this play out in my own personal situation? Here's the key passage from my local mosque's marriage guidelines:

The bride should be represented by a Wali (male guardian), usually the father. If he is not present, a blood relative of the bride will take permission from the father to represent the bride. If no blood relative is available, written consent must be obtained from the father prior to the marriage.

What this means is that the father or other designated wali has to be physically present to act as the bride's proxy; if he is not present, he should delegate another male relative to serve this function and if no such relatives are available, he must submit a written consent that authorizes the bride to act on her own behalf.

The guidelines don't go into detail about how to proceed if the wali is not the father, much less if the bride has no male relatives at all to serve as the wali. Apparently these situations don't come up very often; I know for a fact that there are very few converts in my local community. Presumably, I would need to contact the imam and explain my situation and he would designate a wali who would be physically present.

At this point, I can't help but note that because of the gender separation that is observed at my local mosque, I have never actually met the imam or even seen him in person. I am mostly unmosqued and largely isolated from the community. When I go to the mosque for big community prayers like Eid (described in the linked post), I go directly to the women's building where we listen to the imam via loudspeaker, pray, then leave again. Although many women are much more involved in the community than I am, I would guess that unless they specifically volunteer at the mosque or its attached school, they have little or no interaction with the imam either. Strictly in terms of making use of the limited facilities that are available, having a separate women's building is probably the least-bad solution, but it is very far from ideal and leaves women isolated. (I could write a lot more about my struggles with this situation, but that is far beyond the scope of this post.)

At the same time, my isolation means that I do not have a lot of contacts with the men in my community (or with the women, for that matter) so arranging a marriage within the community but outside the mosque isn't really a feasible option.

All of this would be daunting enough for me (as a sometimes socially awkward introvert) if I were looking for a standard marriage. But in fact I'm not. As I've written about before, sex is not an option for me. The only kind of marriage I could enter would be a celibate one. This would require a highly unorthodox marriage contract, one that the traditional schools of jurisprudence do not consider valid. In my earlier post, Reconciling Asexuality with Belonging to a Muslim Community, I talked about the difficulty in having to turn to the orthodox establishment in my community (i.e., the imam at the mosque) to contract an unorthodox marriage. I honestly don't see any way at all that I could do this except by having found a potential husband on my own that would agree to a celibate marriage and then hope that the imam would agree to contract the marriage without asking questions.

But that then brings me back to the issue of gender interaction, as this makes it very difficult to find and get to know a potential spouse on one's own. For many allosexual Muslims, matrimonial banquets and online matrimonial services aimed specifically at observant Muslims are an answer. However, that would hardly seem to be an effective way of meeting an asexual Muslim man, and in fact the idea of going through a speed-dating experience or trying to get to a serious conversation about asexuality or celibacy from there fills me with dread and even horror.

I actually kind of like the idea of having someone that I trust be able to really investigate and evaluate potential spouses and of having a more business-like approach rather than presenting marriage as some great romantic dream (I'm aromantic and would not be able to "fall in love" with any potential spouse). This might make it easier to bring up things like celibate marriage stipulations. This is why I think that if I were to seek marriage, I would probably want it to be arranged to at least some degree, because I would need someone's help in being able to construct the kind of marriage that I would need.

I need to conclude this post by reiterating that in fact, given all of the many barriers I've discussed in this post and elsewhere, and the fact that even being in a celibate or queerplatonic relationship with an asexual man somehow doesn't compute in my mind, I am not planning to marry, whether in an arranged marriage or otherwise. The purpose of this post is to describe a hypothetical situation where I might, in order to illustrate the thought process that I've gone through in the past before ruling the whole thing out, and to give an idea of how an asexual Muslim woman who is also a convert might choose to approach the question of arranged marriage.