Fears for daughters’ rights lead some Sunnis to adopt Shiaism

Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Fears for daughters’ rights lead some Sunnis to adopt Shiism
Vast difference in inheritance formulas causes many couples to convert – and not everyone approves
 
By Agence France Presse (AFP)

 

Ines Bel Aiba

Agence France Press

BEIRUT: Nada had no choice. The Sunni Lebanese woman decided to become a Shiite because that branch of Islam guarantees that her daughters will one day be her sole heiresses.

“If I became a Shiite it was not out of conviction,” Nada told AFP. Had she not converted, the girls’ uncle would receive the bulk of her inheritance when she died, in line with Sunni laws.

Shiites, a minority community in Islam, have sometimes been at odds with the Sunnis in the Arab world, but in Lebanon conversions between the two branches are easy and mostly done for practical purposes.

In Lebanon, religious tribunals rule on marriage, divorce and inheritance. For both Sunnis and Shiites, women receive one-third and men two-thirds of an inheritance.

Problems arise when a Sunni couple only has girls. They would inherit just a small part of the assets, while the larger part of the inheritance would go to the closest male relatives – grandfathers, uncles or cousins.

One solution for Sunni couples in such a situation is to become Shiites, as the sect’s religious regulations allow daughters to be the sole heiresses in the absence of male offspring.

Sunni couple Hassan and Sana Tawil became Shiite about 30 years ago because they had two daughters.

“We saw atrocious things happening in the family, such as an uncle who wanted to take everything from a cousin. It made an impression on us when we were children,” Hassan said.

They may be Shiites on paper but the Tawils remain deeply Sunni in practice.

 “I stayed profoundly Sunni,” said Sana, confirming that she raised her daughters “in line with Sunni values.”

“Even famous Sunni politicians became Shiites for the same reason,” she explains, citing Riad Solh, who was prime minister at the time of Lebanon’s independence in 1943 and who had five daughters.

In line with Lebanon’s confessional political system, the country’s prime ministers are Sunni – although at least four of them became Shiites because they did not have sons.

Like other couples in the same situation, the Tawils went to a Shiite court, where they converted before a sheikh who, they said, seemed to be very aware of the real motives behind their conversion.

“The sheikh looked at me and asked: ‘Do you have children?’ I said yes,” recalled Sana.

“He said: ‘How many?’ I said two. He asked: ‘Boys?’ I said no.

“Then he just looked at me and nodded. And I became a Shiite,” the 63-year-old woman said with a smile.

Sheikh Mohammad Noqari, director general of Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority in Lebanon, confirmed that some Sunnis were becoming Shiites – but expressed disapproval.

“It is true that some Sunnis are doing this,” he said. “But if someone converts from one Muslim confession to another for material reasons, it is not really correct.”

But for Sheikh Jaafar Fadlallah, from the Shiite Sharia Islamic Institute, converting is “an issue of personal choice.”

“Nothing should prevent a Muslim from converting to the  branch that suits him best,” Fadlallah said.

Shiite authorities say that about 350 Sunnis become Shiites every year.

According to sociologist Marlene Nasr, the ramifications of such decisions are not always pleasant. “There are sometimes cases where people are ostracized” after converting, she said, “but not by the religious authorities – rather by their own families.”

Talal Khodari, a lawyer specializing in family legal affairs, said such conversions were “common,” although often “not accepted and not taken very well” in Lebanese society.

He also said that the issue sometimes causes additional family problems because male relatives feel that they are being accused, by implication, of being willing to take what rightfully belongs to their female relatives.


Copyright (c) 2007 The Daily Star

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