In July, Adeel Zeb, the Muslim chaplain for the Claremont Colleges, near Los Angeles, posted on Facebook about something that was bothering him. “I have been approached by multiple Muslim couples recently to perform / lead their ‘secret nikkah (secret Islamic traditional marriage),’ ” he wrote. These students told him that they had fallen into haram, or sin, by having sex outside of marriage, which is prohibited by Islam. They wanted to get right with God by getting married—but they wanted to do so without telling their parents. Zeb described their thinking: “In the short term, I can exercise my passion, and in the long term I won’t go to hell.”
Each of the couples said that they wanted to have a bigger wedding later, with family involved, but for now their parents were the roadblock to their relationship. In one case, Zeb offered to intervene and talk to one of the fathers, but the couple was reluctant. So Zeb refused to take any part in it. “I am writing this message to warn young people against these secret marriages, and any leader who will arrange the wedding without their respective families being notified,” he wrote on Facebook.
The elements of a traditional Islamic marriage ceremony are fairly straightforward. Both the bride and the groom need to agree to the marriage. At least two witnesses must be present. The groom has to give the bride a gift—money, a trip, or a promise to teach her something, for example. In most cases, the bride also needs a male guardian to be there, typically her dad. Technically, couples don’t even need an officiant, although many might ask an imam to oversee the ceremony. And yet, according to Islamic scholars, the Prophet taught that marriage is supposed to be public; communal weddings follow both the spirit and letter of the law. This expectation was reflected in Zeb’s post: parents and families should be fully involved—and marriage can’t just be a spiritual cover for having sex.
The post set off a flurry of discussion among his friends, many of whom lead influential Muslim organizations around the country. At its core, the conversation wasn’t just about secret marriage and the kind of religious loophole it seems to represent. Zeb and his community were grappling with how young Muslims should navigate sex, relationships, and marriage while remaining faithful to their religious obligations—and how the adults who guide them should think about their roles. It’s a topic that scholars have also been looking at in recent years, as they try to create space to talk about all kinds of sexual encounters among Muslims rather than bristling at the idea that young Muslims have sex.
The idea that young people should wait to have sex until they get married is countercultural in America. Roughly ninety per cent of Americans have premarital sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people are sexually active by the time they enter college: at least three-quarters of students reported having had sex in a recent survey of undergraduates at a large public university. That number may be lower among Muslims, although there’s not much recent data to tell us for sure. In one of the largest studies of college sexual activity, from 2srcsrc1, fifty-four per cent of college-aged American Muslims reported having had sex, despite not being married—a number that several sources cited to me. “There’s so much shame and stigma around the conversation,” Qudsia Saeed, a twenty-year-old junior at American University, in Washington, D.C., who has led discussions about sex at her school’s Muslim Student Association, said. “But people are now realizing that we can’t leave the next generation with all the trauma that we carry from the past generation.”
The practice of young Muslims seeking secret nikkahs is not entirely new. Zeb, who is forty, recalls that when he was a student at Baylor University, in Texas, a few of his Muslim friends sought secret marriages in order to have sex. But, along with Zeb, other Muslim scholars and leaders have noticed an uptick in conversations about secret marriages lately. Mariam Sheibani, the associate academic director at Cambridge Muslim College, in the U.K., told me that she started hearing about secret nikkahs a few years ago, “sort of from a distance initially.” Then the topic started feeling more personal. “A friend of mine approached me, asking both what are the rules and the loopholes,” she said. “I was a bit surprised.” Though divorce is discouraged in Islam, it’s not forbidden, Sheibani pointed out, and the process for getting a religious divorce is fairly straightforward. Sex outside of marriage, on the other hand, “is like a major big deal.” This is why secret marriage might appeal to some young Muslim students: it may seem like a way to stay religiously faithful even if they’re not ready to get married for life.
As a chaplain, Zeb has come to feel that secret marriages are risky for the couples involved. When Muslim parents, who are sometimes first-generation immigrants, drop their kids off at one of Claremont’s colleges, they are trusting him to be their children’s spiritual guide. “I’m taking care of their children for the next four to eight years,” he said. “I have to be responsible to God at the end of the day, and to the parents and families. How does that work with my Islamic ethics for me to take this couple and say, ‘O.K., I’ll take your money, and I’ll get you secretly married. Nobody in the community will know about it’?” At the same time, he said that he recognized the difficulties of getting young Muslim couples to commit to abstinence. Instead of capitulating to the secular American norm of premarital sex, Zeb said, Muslim leaders should promote early marriages—real ones that are intended to last, held in public with the consent of families. “There’s no other solution,” he said. “What do you do?”
This question is in “an evolutionary moment right now,” Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies Islamic constitutional theory, said. Recent publications have made an effort to explore the many kinds of relationships and marriages that Muslims experience, whether or not they are recognized according to traditional Islamic law. “Tying the Knot,” “a feminist / womanist guide to Muslim marriage in America,” published in the spring of 2src22 by a group of female Muslim scholars, including Quraishi-Landes, takes on topics ranging from mut‘a marriages—the temporary partnerships practiced by some Shia Muslims—to interfaith marriages, L.G.B.T.Q. marriages, and polygynous marriages, in which men have multiple wives, although the latter are rare among the estimated three and a half million Muslims in the U.S. The book, despite its emphasis on inclusivity, is not just an attempt to put Islamic dressing on a secular, progressive, American framework. It’s an earnest engagement with what it means to practice Islam. The text opens with the invocation “Bismillahi al-rahman al-rahim,” meaning, “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.”
Many of the feminist Muslim scholars I spoke with described feeling trapped between two intellectual traditions: “You either are for women’s rights or you are for Islam, but you can’t be both,” Quraishi-Landes said, describing a widespread mentality. Roshan Iqbal, an associate professor in religious studies at Agnes Scott College, in Georgia, said that she had “deeply internalized” the idea that she was “an oppressed Muslim woman.” (“These things are directly beamed into your brain, right?” she said.) In her work, she tries to articulate a modern Islamic sexual ethics that doesn’t mindlessly defer to the expectations of white, secular feminists. “I fear that in our desire to seem progressive to the West, we are willing to succumb to whatever the system of dating and marriage is right now,” she said. “There is a certain amount of embarrassment and shame—as if when you don’t explore sexuality at a particular age or time you’re oppressed.”
And yet one of the big questions in this rising field of scholarship is how to deal with the fact that many Muslims do want to explore their sexuality at a younger age. Few of the academics I spoke with thought that secret marriage was the answer. Some feared that these ceremonies could be co-opted by bad actors. Nisa Muhammad, the assistant dean for religious life at Howard University, said she’d talked to students who had been coerced into sex under the guise of secret marriage: “This person said they were going to marry me, and then after sex, you know, the wedding is over, or the so-called engagement is over.” In recent years, several high-profile imams have also allegedly used these arrangements to lure women into having sex with them—a phenomenon often described as “spiritual abuse.”
Rabea Benhalim, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Law School, does not like the concept of secret marriage; she approaches her work from the Maliki perspective, one of the four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, which mandates that marriage be public. Instead, she believes that the barriers to entry and exit from marriage should be lowered. “There is no reason why a couple can’t say, ‘I want to try this. I want to be good with God. I don’t know if you’re my forever person, and I don’t think I’m ready for kids yet.’ ” Her scholarship looks at how American marriages can satisfy the demands of Islamic law while conferring more rights on women, such as the right to initiate divorce more easily, and reducing the expectations of entanglement for both parties, for example, by making it optional for couples to combine their finances. Islamic marriage doesn’t have to look like marriage with a capital “M,” as defined by American law and culture, she said. Iqbal, for her part, writes about temporary marriages—partnerships that end after a set period, which are generally only used by Shia Muslims—and how they might be used to rethink Muslim sexual ethics.
As scholars debate these ideas, other Muslims are finding ways to open up the conversation about sexuality, dating, and marriage in their communities. Nadiah Mohajir, the co-leader of a reproductive-justice and violence-prevention organization called HEART, recently spearheaded the publication of a Muslim guide to sexual health called The Sex Talk, which frankly addresses a wide range of relationships and sexual-health issues. The authors included several topics that many Muslims (and non-Muslims) might find uncomfortable: queer identity, abortion, and, yes, premarital sex. “There were nights where I stayed up crying, where I had my own crisis of faith. Am I not Muslim enough?” Mohajir told me. “The responsibility that I was feeling was very deep, not just to my community but to God.” That sense of vulnerability—the strong intuition that writing and talking about Muslims and sexuality can invite all sorts of unpleasant reactions and commentary—was something that I heard a lot in my interviews. Mohajir worried about the possibility of backlash within the community, but there’s also a strong potential to reinforce negative generalizations about Muslim sexuality outside of the community. False stereotypes are common and sometimes contradictory: that Muslims are both sexually exotic and sexually repressed; that all of Islam is patriarchal and all Muslim women are oppressed; that Muslims don’t have diverse, evolving, and rich sexual lives just like members of any other religious group.