Celebrity imams and dodgy marriages

The logo of the organisation FACE (Facing Abuse in Community Environments), consisting of a red and light blue square, with a profile of a face dividing the two parts.
The logo for FACE, which produced the report on Fatih Seferagic

In the last week or so, two Muslim celebrities, one a social media celebrity with a spot on a mosque board and the other a well-known Qur’an reciter who could draw crowds and was booked for Eid gatherings around the world, including the UK, were exposed for abusive behaviour. The first, one Osama Eisa who used the social media handle ‘PartyTillFajr’, courted a woman in his local community, lied to her about why his parents would not be at their wedding, induced her to run up thousands of dollars of debts on her credit cards and refused for months to make their marriage official. To deny him more than his fifteen minutes of infamy, the Qur’an reciter Fatih Seferagic, was then the subject of a report published mid-week detailing some eighteen separate accusations of sexual assault (including one that resulted in a sexually transmitted infection that led to the woman developing cancer), physical assaults, misappropriation of funds (e.g. taking money for tuition that he did not deliver, and borrowing a large amount of money and refusing to pay it back) and professional misconduct while employed as a teacher. Despite the report detailing so many separate accusations, Seferagic has not been charged with any crime and is free to travel around the world even if his bookings in the West have dried up somewhat as a result of public outcry; currently, he is touring Togo in west Africa.

Predictably, some people have accused the organisation behind the report of having it in for imams and Muslim men in general. I’d like to address one particular claim made in an article on so-called “imam hunters”, published on the Muslim Skeptic website. The article is extremely long, laden with derogatory terms popular in online misogynist communities, and mostly concentrates on exposing the directors of FACE, the Dallas-based group that published the Seferagic report, of having a pro-gay stance and does not really address the truth of the accusations, but the claims are in the first few paragraphs.

The claim is that it is quite acceptable if an imam marries without publicising the marriage to his community. According to them, this is only abuse “according to feminism and #metoo garbage”. They quote FACE’s director Alia Salem as claiming that “it does not matter if it was 100% consensual, they made this decision of cognizant, sound mind, that does not remove the power dynamic at play”, which I accept is a dubious claim; the women involved are nearly always grown women and can refuse. The reason it’s problematic for imams to marry on the sly is that there are multiple hadith that attest to the importance if not the necessity of a marriage being public. One of them is from Tirmidhi, in which the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) says that “the difference between an unlawful and lawful marriage is the beating of drums and the raising of voices” (1088). In another well-authenticated hadith in Ibn Hibban, the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said “announce the marriage”. Some scholars deduced from this that a marriage with two witnesses was not valid until it was made public, though others said it was not invalid but still disapproved of.

Muslim Skeptic also claims:

As we see in this report, FACE considers it “abusive,” for example, when a powerful imam marries a community member who is younger than him. This is “abuse” only according to feminism and feminist legal standards. It is not “abuse” in Islam. But FACE is not concerned with Islamic standards. They are only concerned with feminist #metoo standards.

True, it’s not haraam and it’s not abuse for an imam to marry a younger woman. It’s been the norm throughout history. But normal men marry with the intention of growing old with their wives, not exchanging them for more young flesh as soon as they can; they work on a marriage and make it last. Some of these imams and touring public speakers have more marriages in their twenties than most people have in a lifetime; this demonstrates that they do not take marriage seriously or, worse, are doing so merely to fulfil sexual desires and make it look respectable. If an imam is continually marrying young women and then divorcing them a couple of years later, or if they go behind a young woman’s parents’ back to entice her into marriage without their blessing with the intention of exploiting her or getting her into debt or of concealing his past from her which they might be able to find out, this is abusive behaviour and it’s also deceitful. It’s not feminism or “me too” that requires the involvement of a young woman’s parents; it’s the Shari’ah.

It is clear from this article that the “Muslim Skeptic Team” (led by Daniel ‘Haqiqatjou’) do not realise that the rulings on unproven accusations of fornication or adultery (zina) in Islam is not the same as that on rape. When a woman approached the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) alleging she had been raped, he did not require her to produce four witnesses nor punish her for failing to do so. The reason is that zina is a matter of private morality and thus the proving of it has been made so difficult that, in practice, a couple would have to commit the act in public to be convicted. Rape and sexual abuse are matters of public safety and exposing it comes under the category of warning the community of evil. Sexual abuse often takes place in private spaces or at least secluded ones; if there are four witnesses, they are usually the perpetrators.

We shouldn’t be debating whether the devious marriage practices of some Muslim public speakers are haraam or not. An imam should not be indulging in behaviour that we might grudgingly accept is just about technically this side of the law if an ordinary Muslim did them. Their behaviour is meant to be excellent, exemplary. They are the face of Islam, especially to Muslims; they should be behaving according to the Sunnah, not the bare minimum within the Shari’ah. A man who cannot make a marriage last should not be accepted as a teacher or qari or anything else that makes him a representative of Islam and gives weight to any opinions he might express, or make people reluctant to criticise him or others harsh or emotional when people do; if he is, mosques and other Muslim organising bodies should stop giving him bookings. We need to have higher standards for those we look up to; they should be people we would be happy to have at the family dinner table on a regular basis, not celebrities we might admire from a distance for a natural talent, as having a beautiful voice is no substitute for a beautiful character.

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