Just Good Zawaj-friends

"The Jews, together with George Bush, planned to blow up the Twin Towers and afterward blame the Muslims for it," screamed the voice of Sheikh Abed al-Majid al-Zindani from the cassette he distributed after the terror attacks of September 11.

"The Jews, together with George Bush, planned to blow up the Twin Towers and afterward blame the Muslims for it," screamed the voice of Sheikh Abed al-Majid al-Zindani from the cassette he distributed after the terror attacks of September 11. A year later, on a new cassette, the Muslim teacher of religious law raged that "the entire Arab world is under the occupation of the American infidel." At the same time, he said, "Islam will prevail in the entire world."

Al-Zindani is not just another of the clerics who have come out against the United States in hysterical attacks by means of video and audio cassettes. He is head of the Yemenite Al-Aslah (Reform) party and director of the Al-Imam University in Yemen, and has authored dozens of publications on matters of religion and state. He is a sharp politician who knows how to maneuver between his positions of opposition toward the President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Salah, and the necessity to cooperate with him so that his party will continue to survive.

Al-Zindani has not always been an opponent of the United States. When the Afghani Mujahadin were fighting the Soviet occupation, the United States sought Arab partners who would help the Mujahadin. Al-Zindani succeeded in recruiting about 7,000 of his disciples and went along with them to fight the Soviet infidels. There his connections with Osama bin Laden began. Later bin Laden transferred large sums of money to Al-Zindani for setting up a subversive cell in Jordan and the university in Yemen, where the American Taliban John Walker Lind also studied. The Yemenite security services investigated Al-Zindani a number of times and he was also arrested for a short while, but he returned to his activities in the state's religious and political system.

Last month Al-Zindani sent material out over the Internet that caused a huge ruckus. This was not another religious ruling against the Americans, not an attack on Arab regimes that "collaborate" and not even a condemnation of the occupation of Iraq. Al-Zindani published an innovative religious decree that allows young Muslim males and females to engage in friendships and sexual relations within a legal religious framework. Al- Zindani has termed this new kind of relationship "zawaj-friend," like the English terms "girlfriend" or "boyfriend."

Preventing a life of sin

The zawaj-friend - boyfriend or girlfriend for marriage - was conceived in Al-Zindani's mind after a trip to Europe, during which he met concerned Muslim parents who told him of their anxieties about the loss of control over their children because of the social pressures to which they are subjected. "At the age of 12 they are already looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend, as is the custom among the local young people," said Al-Zindani in talking about his conversations with the parents. "Thus they are liable to embark on a life of sin without us having the power to stop it."

Al-Zindani proposes a relationship pattern like this: The young people in love can meet with each other, have sexual relations as they like and behave like a couple in every respect. After the date, each will return to his or her parents' home. This relationship will be based on a marriage contract as is customary in Islam: The girl's guardians will give their consent to the relationship; witnesses (two men or a man and two women) will testify as to the duration of the relationship; the pair will declare their willingness to have such a relationship and the boy will give the girl a symbolic bride price (equivalent in value to an iron ring) so that the relationship will indeed be considered legal in the religious sense.

Al-Zindani believes that the advantage to his proposal is that the couple will not be living in sin when they follow the customs of young people in the West. The system will also avoid the huge expenditures that accompany marriages and deny many young people the possibility of getting married. The surprising aspect of Al-Zindani's explanation is connected to the understanding he reveals of the lives of Muslims in the West.

Many fundamentalist teachers of religious law demand that people stick closely to the strict interpretation of the laws of personal status, especially in a foreign environment, in order to preserve Muslim uniqueness. Al-Zindani believes that it is preferable to find a middle way that will make life easier and allow Muslims in the diaspora to reconcile religious law with the society.

"Muslims who live in Europe and America are a minority in a non- Muslim society," he said, "and they cannot cut themselves off completely from the societies in which they live. They have two possibilities: to allow their sons and daughters to follow the path of prostitution or to make a legal religious connection between them" (according to Muslim sharia law).

Moreover, when Al-Zindani was asked whether this kind of relationship is intended only for the children of Muslims living in the diaspora, he replied that "in the Islamic states it is customary to celebrate weddings with great panoply and to announce it publicly, but when these customs themselves in fact lead to the delay of marriage, it is better to be lenient. The principle of the zawaj-friend can also be applied in Muslim societies ... Elaborate wedding celebrations are not one of the conditions of the sharia. These are conditions that are determined by the parents; they are the ones who demand that the couple have a house, money and furniture, and they are the ones who open to us the gate of Satan."

The gate of Satan is, of course, prostitution and a life of sin into which, according to Al-Zindani, young people enter when they cannot afford the expenses of a wedding. "In the United States alone, according to 1981 statistics, there were 11 million young women who were pregnant outside of marriage," declared Al-Zindani. "Do we want a phenomenon like that in our world as well?" Al-Zindani published his proposal on several Islamic Internet sites, which have long been the arena for issuing religious decrees in every stream and movement.

At these sites it is possible to find, for example, a section for finding grooms and brides. There, young people can detail precisely the characteristics they want in a future mate and bring up questions concerning sexual relations, watching pornographic films to encourage desire in the couple, the possibility of having an abortion and questions about marriage without living together. All the problems that concern young Muslims who want to observe religious law during the modern period come up there.

Temporary marriage

In the nature of things, Al-Zindani's proposal elicited criticism from the orthodox institutions of religious law. These have ruled that the decree has no basis in precedent because it creates a situation of "temporary marriage." The Prophet Mohammed, whose practices and statements are the ultimate decrees, did not intend this, they said. Al-Zindani replied that temporary marriages are valid and exist as a custom in most Arab countries and have even won official recognition at the Al-Azhar Institute in Egypt and the institute for religious law in Saudi Arabia. The practice is most common among the Shi'ites.

Thus, for example, in Egypt and Saudi Arabia it is customary to have temporary marriages (zawaj al-misiar) in which the husband bears no economic responsibility for his wife, there is not necessarily a common domicile and there is no time limit for the duration of the marriage. At any time, the husband can declare his intention to divorce and the woman has no way of preventing this. Many women see zawaj al-misiar as a way to maintain the status of a married woman and at the same time live with a freedom that makes it possible for her to travel abroad, go on business trips or live in a different country without needing to stay home with her husband. However, there is a great deal of criticism expressed about this kind of marriage, which does not give the woman economic rights and harms her children's inheritance rights relative to the children of a wife in an ordinary marriage.

Religious authority Yusuf Alqardawi, who broadcasts his rulings on Al Jazeera and publishes them on his Internet site, has been competing for a number of years with the Al-Azhar Institute. He has decreed that al-misiar marriages are important and valid, as "there are cases in which the man does not want to bring the new wife into his home, where his first wife lives. We know, to our great regret, that in our generation polygamy is considered a despicable crime or a repugnant decree against the first wife."

Alqardawi is careful to distinguish between al-misiar marriages, which he does not see as prohibited temporary marriages, since there is no time limit stipulated for them, and the muta'a marriages that are accepted among the Shi'ites and for the most part forbidden among the Sunni. Muta'a marriage is a temporary relationship in which the couple can decide from the outset that they will be married for a single day, for a single night, for a week or for a month.

The "husband" in a muta'a marriage has no economic obligation to the woman and he commits himself only to paying her financial compensation, which is agreed upon in advance. From the end of the period of the marriage it is necessary to wait 45 days before renewing the marriage with the same woman or performing a muta'a ceremony with another woman. The purpose of the waiting period is to ascertain whether the woman has become pregnant, so that the child will have legal status. The Sunni clerics consider muta'a marriages "licensed prostitution."

The Shi'ites, however, say muta'a marriages give the woman a status identical to that of a man with respect to terminating the marriage. The woman, who is not obligated to renew the marriage tie, receives compensation. This also allows for an "honorable solution" for women who want to enjoy sexual relations without committing the sin of prostitution. This solution is practiced by many students, who meet on campuses and want to have a couple relationship without entering into financial obligations.

Shi'ite religious authorities, however, believe that al-misiar marriages, which are common in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are unjust to women. They are intended for "the Saudi and Kuwait adulterers who come for summer vacations in Egypt to do whatever they fancy, to hurt their wives and other women and all ostensibly with proper religious authorization," as one critic wrote about the system. "Thus it happens that poor parents give their daughters for a night or a week in return for a little money. The girls suffer lifelong traumas."

In this dispute there is also harsh criticism against Al-Zindani himself. His critics, especially from Al-Azhar circles, say that he is not even entitled to issue a religious decree because he never completed his studies in religious law at Al-Azhar. He did not even complete his studies in pharmacy. This is a common argument against someone whose opinion is annoying. Thus, for example, several Al-Azhar sages have said of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, that he is not authorized to rule that women should not be sent out on suicide operations, because he has never been ordained to make religious rulings. They did not say that the ruling itself was improper.

Some critics hastened to note that Al-Zindani himself was suspected of adultery by a religious newspaper in Yemen. The editors of the newspaper, incidentally, were sentenced to 80 strokes of the whip (the usual punishment for slander in Yemenite law) and they were forbidden to write for a period of one year.

Other critics argued that it is impossible to accept a ruling by anyone who is close to Osama bin Laden. However, in the meantime Al-Zindani's "invention" is continuing to make waves. Judging by the reactions of surfers on the Internet, the zawaj-friend has a promising future.