Life Goes On: Mixed Sunni-Shi’ah Marriages in Iraq

Mixed Sunni-Shiah marriages are increasingly common in Iraq

Mixed Sunni-Shiah marriages are increasingly common in Iraq

By Ahmad Hassan
Translated By Yosra Mostafa
Reprinted from

With the continuing sectarian strife in several areas of the Iraqi capital, one might be surprised to find that the cultured Baghdadi youth remain uninfluenced when it comes to marriage. Their choices can still include someone from a sect or ethnicity other than their own.

Yes, it is true that Baghdad is divided between the two main sects: Sunni and Shiite. One will find neighborhoods that are either predominantly Sunni or predominantly Shi`ah. In areas where Sunni and Shiite intermingle, there are militias defending the major sect and they may try to obstruct the presence of families from the other sect.

However, these militias never prevent marriages between young men and women who belong to differing sects or ethnicities. The main reason is that many Iraqi families are originally mixed families, and there are areas where sectarian and ethnic exclusivity is non-existent; this helps to bind all constituents of the Iraqi society together. Moreover, religious authorities, both Sunni and Shiite, do not ban mixed marriages.

Touring the different areas of Baghdad, I talked to 66-year-old Ahmed, who worked on the railways for 32 years. His lineage is Shiites and goes back to Imam Musa Al-Kazim. Ahmed said, “When the Iraqi government was formed in 1921, it was not sectarian. Rather, it relied on educated people and school graduates to fill government positions.”

His father is an example of such a history. Ahmed recalls that his father was from Baghdad, but worked in the Kurdish city of Al-Sulaymaniyyah. His father married a Kurdish woman and they had many children. Although his paternal grandfather was a sayyid (Shiite religious scholar) and his maternal grandfather was the imam of a mosque, both fathers did not object to the marriage.

Ahmed continued, “The Shiite tradition does not prohibit Shiites from marrying Sunnis and foreigners, so I maintain strong bonds with my uncles in Al-Sulaymaniyyah, and I have married my daughter to one of my Kurdish relatives. We still exchange visits and have fine relations away from sectarianism.”

Khadija Abdul-Qader is a 35-year-old Sunni teacher who is married to a Shi`ah colleague. She said, “When Abu `Ali proposed 10 years ago, my father never asked him about his sect. He only asked him about his family, their reputation, and his qualifications, and our destined marriage was fulfilled, al-hamdu lillah.”

Khadija explained, “There is no restriction on the practice of religious rites despite the differences. Besides, there are no differences between the two Islamic traditions. I was brought up to visit all the awliyaa’ [saints] from Sayyidna Al-Kazim in Baghdad to Sayyidna Al-Imam `Ali in Najaf, to Sheikh Abdul-Qader Al-Kilany, and Imam Abu Hanifa An-Nu`man. I also used to attend the ceremonies of dhikr at the Prophet’s mawlid [birthday] (peace be upon him).”

“The only difference is that the Shiite let their arms hang down, whereas Sunnis fold their arms in prayer, but this is not a great difference. Prayer is the same, the qiblah is the same, and the Shahadah [testimony of faith] is the same.”

Khadija also made it clear that “Most Iraqi citizens from all sects do not accept the acts of killing and displacement that have taken place in some regions. Even my husband’s family embraced their neighboring Sunni family for a few days when some militants chased them with the intention of killing them or forcing them to migrate, but they were safely smuggled from the area. Most educated people are dissatisfied with these acts, which stand for a change being made to the intertwined social fabric. Even the late Ayatullah Muhammad Al-Sadr (a Shiite religious authority), used to recommend praying in Sunni mosques, and praying behind Sunni Imams. At the same time, he called Sunnis to pray at husainiyyat [female-organized worship, now associated with places].”


Sunni-Shiah marriage.

Sunni-Shiah marriage.

Half of all registered marriages in Iraq these days are Sunni-Shiah mixed marriages

The Personal Status Court

Despite the grave security situation in Baghdad, wedding ceremonies are still held, only with a slight modification in the timing of the ceremony. Instead of an evening ceremony, the families of most brides and grooms have to celebrate at noon to guarantee a safe return home for their guests before the curfew starts. Most newlyweds no longer spend their first days at a luxury hotel in Baghdad, but substitute this with a stay at a house of the groom’s family or a trip to Kurdistan or outside Iraq.

A judge at the Personal Status Court in Al-Karkh area, who refused to mention his name, said, “Among every 17 marriages that I sign on a daily basis, eight to ten are mixed marriages.”

“The families and relatives of the newlyweds are mostly educated people who do not see the sectarian or national differences as an obstacle to the happiness of their children.”

“There are Sunnis who marry Shiite and vice versa. There are fellow Turkmen who marry Kurds and Arabs and vice versa also.”

The judge commented on the problems that may arise from choosing the religious school to follow for the legal proceedings: “There are two prevalent traditions followed in Iraq: the Hanafi school [which is Sunni] and the Ja`fari school [which is Shiite]. But I notice that most people make their agreement outside the court previous to presenting themselves to me, and then I only have to speed up the process and complete the marriage according to the law.”

“I don’t recall that the security incidents negatively affect a large number of people who apply for marriage [certificates]. I think a 40 percent decrease is a fair enough comparison to the figures before the American invasion, because many of the youth have migrated, unemployment is now rampant, security is nonexistent, families are displaced, and heads of families are killed for reason of security or sectarian violence. Traditionally, the death of a relative prevents you from having a wedding party until a year has passed. All of this has directly and indirectly affected marriage in Iraq, especially in Baghdad.”

In the middle of my conversation with the judge, loud sounds of cheering came from outside — the youth have arrived! I ask the judge to allow me to witness the marriage. The groom’s name is Maher, a Sunni engineer who graduated recently and works in one of the departments of electricity. The bride is Zaynab, a Shiite, a graduate from the Department of Translation and a colleague at Maher’s workplace. When the wedding was completed, the cheering was loud, and well-wishers showered them with kisses. I asked Maher after congratulating him if he did not have Sunni relatives whom he could marry. Amazed at the question, he said,”What attracted me to Zaynab is her politeness. This reflects her elevated upbringing and conservative family.”

When asked about how Zaynab’s parents agreed to the marriage when she is Shiite and he is Sunni, Maher replied, “Her father never considered that at all. He only asked me about my job, inquired about my family, then agreed and I appreciated that.”

Then I asked Zaynab, “Do you expect to find difficulties, being from a different sect from your husband’s family?” She replied, “No, no, I don’t expect that, especially as his mother is a Shiite and my husband’s lineage ends with Imam `Ali [`Ali ibn Abi Talib ] (may Allah be pleased with him). Besides, they are a well-educated family and they’re not rigid about their tradition. I noticed this while working with him in the same department for a year. My family as well taught me to respect others and to listen to their views, and that there is no difference between the traditions. I would even like to say that my brother is in Al-Mahdi Army [a Shiite militia], and he did not object to my marriage to Maher.”

And Members of Parliament?

One of the female Parliament members of the Iraqi Alliance List [an electoral coalition formed mainly from Shiite groups] is a Shiite who asked for her name not to be mentioned. She denied any significant effect of the sectarian strife on Shiite –Sunni marriages.

“I’m from a strict Shiite family, but my brother is married to a Sunni, and although he was killed amid sectarian incidents, we married one of his daughters to a Sunni.”

I was tempted to ask her if the sectarian discourse comes up in closed Parliament sessions.

“There are those who are from all [electoral] lists,” she replied, “who talk about nationalism and sectarianism. This mentality differs according to the upbringing and culture of each one. We have on the Alliance List someone who speaks in this manner. Despite requests to not use such expressions which reflect badly on the streets, they commit themselves to not speaking in that way for a week, and then they continue as before. I think the brother on the Sunni Tawafuq List suffers the same problem, but some of them have a moderate discourse that reflects their Iraqi identity and their patriotism.”

I asked her, “As an unmarried young woman, if one of the Sunni MPs proposed to you, how would you respond?” She replied, “If he is not a fanatic, is a college graduate, and is unmarried, then I will definitely accept his proposal, but with my parent’s consent.”

“In the Parliament, we should encourage such marriages to bring about a generation of Iraqis who are not preoccupied with sectarianism, who represent Iraq with all of its constituting elements, and who would build bridges of trust and cooperation with everyone.”

An Iraqi MP from the Sunni Tawafuq List, who wished to be referred to as A.S. said, “I’m against sectarianism, and the greatest proof is that my daughters are married to Shiites, and I’m about to marry one of my sons to a Shi`ah. We should bring everyone closer together because Iraqi history is not sectarian and does not prevent Sunnis from marrying Shiites or vice versa, nor Kurds from marrying Arabs or Turkmen. As long as the religion is one, Islam, then I see no problem in spreading these marriages to preserve the intertwined fabric.”

MP Safiyyah Talib Al-Suhail, a member of the National Iraqi List headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, is proud to represent the Iraqi unity with all of its sects. She is married to former minister of human rights, Dr. Bukhtyar Muhammad Amin, a Kurdish Sunni. Her sister is also married to a Sunni and they have sons, daughters, and many grandchildren. I asked her, “In your view, is sectarianism an obstacle for youth on the road to marriage now?” She replied, “The Bani Tamim tribe [to which she belongs] has Sunni moieties. They are a part of our origin and we can’t separate ourselves from them. That is why my father did not see this issue as prohibitive or faulty. He wanted tribal members to follow his example and to see the vision of one Iraq and that mixed marriages are harmless as long as the couples are understanding. Their life should be filled with love, and disagreements between sects and ethnicities should not be an obstacle in the way of love that bonds a husband and wife. Added to this, children would spread messages of interrelatedness and family ties between different tribes and ethnicities.”

After a peak of 16 during the time of the toppled regime, the percentage of Sunni-Shiite marriages may slightly decrease due to fears of failing to build a stable Iraqi family structure. But the Iraqi societal fabric remains well knitted even in the darkest of times.

Ahmad Hassan is an Iraqi journalist and writer based in Baghdad.

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