Monday, June 24, 2013

The Ordeal of Marriage Ceremony

Wedding ceremony in Malaysia used to be crammed during the school holidays.  Nowadays, it is held on weekends. 

In the Malay society, wedding reception is generally held separately from the marriage vows ceremony (akad nikah).  The Americans tend to do it concurrently.  I used to attend wedding ceremonies of some Christian friends when I was in the United States.  The marriage vows and the reception were held concurrently.

In Malaysia, I have attended many marriage vows ceremonies since the last decade or so.  Most of these went without any drama.  This was not always the case, though.

When I was a boy, the marriage vows ceremony was something dreaded by the groom.  The vow itself is simple enough, but many grooms somehow could not recite it properly.  For the vow to be valid, the two appointed witnesses must declare that it is valid.  This is not something that the Malays, being Muslims, take it lightly.  Invalid vow would invalidate the marriage.  If marriage is not valid, then the couple cannot live as husband and wife lawfully.

Technically, it would take nothing more than a fraction of a minute to take the vow, for it entails only a simple declaration of accepting the bride in marriage with the stipulated dowry.  But the problem in those days was that some qadis (the officials who perform the ceremony) and the witnesses insisted on the vow being recited exactly the way they wanted it, and all within one breadth.  If the groom stuttered, then the vow was not considered valid.  Even if they did not stutter, but could not complete it within one breath, it was still considered invalid.  Then there were some semantic issues which complicate the matter further.

Worse, before taking the vow, the already very nervous groom would be tested about his knowledge on a few basic Islamic rituals.  Furthermore, they would generally be asked to recite a few basic recitations, especially those recited during the prayers.  By the time the grooms went through this little ordeal, their mind went blank.  Thus, what should have taken a fraction of a minute often went into hours.  I heard of cases whereby the ceremony had to be temporarily postponed, to allow the groom to regain his lost mind after taking a short break.  One ceremony in my village had to be postponed to the next day, because the groom never recovered his senses.

Partly to address this issue that marriage course before the matrimony was introduced in the 80’s, and is continued till these days.   The purpose of the course is not only to prepare the couple about what to expect after marriage, but also to educate the groom about the marriage vows.  Since then I never heard of a groom “shitting in his pant” during the marriage vows ceremony.  In most marriage vow ceremonies I attended these days, the groom managed to get his vow validated with only one recitation.

The Americans, and I suppose other Western countries, do not seem to have this problem.  During the marriage vows ceremony, all the groom and the bride need to say is: “I do.”  Their ceremony appears to be real marriage vows ceremony, for the bride and the groom must take their vows to love and support each other through thick or thin.  In the Muslim marriage vows, or more properly the aqad nikah, it is more like an offer and an acceptance.  The groom will be offered the bride in marriage for a stipulated dowry, and the groom must declare his acceptance.  The bride, meanwhile, does not need to do anything. 

Technically, it should have been quite simple and straightforward.  And as far as I can ascertain, it is simple and straightforward during the time of the Prophet.  In those days, the aqad nikah would consist of the father (or the guardian) of the bride offering the groom his daughter in marriage with a stipulated dowry, and the groom should declare his acceptance.  The ceremony was not generally performed by the appointed official (qadi), but by the father or the bride’s guardian.

Among the Malays, the matter is institutionalized to make it more complicated and poses quite an ordeal to the groom.   It seems that to perform the marriage vows ceremony, one has to be of a certain virtue.  In most cases, being a father and a guardian is not good enough. 

During the time of the Prophet, however, the issue about the guardian (wali in Arabic, the one with the right to give bride in marriage) appears to be rather simple.  According to Muhammad Qutb in his book, Women Around The Messenger, when Umm Sulaym, the mother of Anas, wanted to get married to Abu Talhah, she asked her son, Anas, who was not yet reaching puberty at that time, to marry her.  And the young boy Anas married her mother to Abu Talhah.  No doubt Anas was a man of virtue, and was considered among the leading companions, but when he married her mother off, he was only a boy.

This is probably an extreme example of simplicity, and probably an isolated event rather than the rule, but generally speaking, the acceptance of marriage offer was rather simple then.  The groom only needed to declare that he accepted the marriage of so and so with the stipulated dowry.

In any case, the strict requirement on taking the marriage vows appears to be largely a Malaysian phenomenon.  Years back, when I was in the U.S., I also attended marriage vows ceremonies among Malay students who got married there.  The taking of vows over there somehow appeared to be very simple. 

When one of my housemates got married, his ceremony was conducted by a Sudanese clergy, who conducted the ceremony in Arabic.  My housemate who was taking the vow did not know Arabic, and the Sudanese clergy did not know Malay.  When the clergy pronounced one word, he stopped so that my housemate can utter that word.  Next he moved to the next word, and my housemate uttered that word, so on and so forth until the whole sentence was completed.  It took a minute or two to get the whole thing completed, but somehow the marriage was deemed valid, although the whole recitation within one breadth thing was not adhered to.

My housemate who did not know what he was uttering when taking the marriage vows in Arabic, requested that the vow be done again in English, and it was done.  No one raised eyebrow.  It was simple in the U.S., even for the Malays.

Still, the marriage vows ceremony for the Malays in Malaysia are relatively easy.  They do not have to go through the difficult rites of passage like some tribes in Africa and other less developed societies, if what we watch on the television is true.

And more importantly, they do not have to go through what Prophet Jacob went through, suppose the Biblical story is accurate.   As we are told in the Bible (Genesis 29), Jacob served his uncle Laban for seven years in order to marry her cousin Rachel, the younger sister of Leah.  When he completed his time, he asked his uncle to give Rachel to him in marriage, as had been agreed.  To his dismay, he discovered that it was Leah who was in bed with him during the wedding night.

Furious, he confronted his uncle for cheating on their agreement.  The stipulated condition to marry Rachel was already rather onerous.  Jacob had to spend seven years shepherding his uncle’s sheep in order to marry his beautiful cousin, only to discover after the wedding night that it was his homely cousin who was in bed with him. 

His uncle Laban merely replied that it was not the custom of the people in that country to give the younger daughter when the older one was still unmarried, and if Jacob wanted Rachel, he had to serve another seven years.   Since it was Rachel whom Jacob desired, not Leah, the wily uncle managed to get another seven years of free service from his nephew.

At least the Malay men do not have to go through such an ordeal.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Chapter 4: The Emperor and His Sister

            The first thing that Constantia did when she arrived at Nicomedia was to see her half-brother Constantine, the new sole Emperor of the whole Roman Empire.   Constantine was on his way to a small conference room when Constantia met him.    He was about to meet a very important visitor. The fact that he was about to receive a visitor in that room suggested that the visit, if not the visitor, was a very important one.  The conference room was where Constantine discussed important affairs with his trusted advisors and generals.
“I just need a brief moment with you, brother,” insisted Constantia when Constantine asked her to wait until the dinner time, on account that he was already late for a very important meeting, “besides, I need a private audience with you, and dinner is not exactly private,” she added.
Constantine relented.  He dared not refuse the request from someone who had just lost a husband, especially since the loss was due to his order.   They went to a secluded room, away from other people.   
“How are you?”  Constantine asked while walking to the secluded room.  There was a real concern in his voice.  It had been a bit more than two months since they met, which was the day of Licinius’ funeral, two days after he was executed.  After that, Constantine came back to Nicomedia while her sister remained in Thessalonica, until Theodora her mother paid her a visit.
“I forgive you already, if that is what you mean?”  Said Constantia.
“No, that’s not what I meant.  I mean how are you doing?”
“I am as good as any widow who has just lost her husband.”  She said.  Constantine asked no further.
“When I said I forgive you already, I mean it,” said Constantia when they were inside the room.  Constantine kept his silence, not quite knew how to respond.  He was not sure whether his sister was really serious or was just being cynical.   So far as he knew, however, Constantia was quite straightforward.  But then again, her husband was just executed.  Anything can happen after that. 
Constantine also knew that he did not ask his sister to forgive him; at least not since he ordered Licinius to be executed.  When Constantia declared that she had forgiven him, without him asking for it in the first place, he sensed that there was something more to it than meet the eye.  His sister must have something up her sleeve.
“I know you don’t quite expect me to forgive you so soon, but I mean it, partly because I cannot really blame you.  In any case I want you to know that my forgiveness is conditional.”
Constantine’s eyes were widened.  What she said caught his attention even more.  Conditional forgiveness?  He spoke no word, but he was all ears.
“What is done is done.  Whether I forgive you or I don’t, Licinius is not coming back.  But I have other interest.  It is Licinianus, my son, your nephew.” 
Constantia spoke in a measured tone.
“What about him?”  The emperor asked.
“I want a guarantee for his safety.”
“Is there a reason to believe that his life is in danger?”  Constantine appeared to be quite concerned.
“You should answer that question, Constantine.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want a guarantee from you, that you will not make an attempt on his life, like you did on his father.”  Said Constantia to his half-brother, Emperor Constantine.  The Emperor Constantine was taken aback.  He didn’t see it coming from his sister.
“Why would I want to kill my nephew?”  He asked.
“You should answer that for me, Constantine.  Do I have your guarantee?”
“He is just a boy, not even 10 years old I believe.  Why would I want him executed?”
“He is a boy now, but you may fear that when he grows up, he will fight against you.  Now, do I have your guarantee for his life?” 
It may seem like an innocent or a modest request, but the consequence of that request was far reaching.  In the modern lingo, it would be akin to a catch 22: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  Constantine knew the implication of whatever answer he gave.  If he said yes, then it would mean that he is putting himself in danger, should Licinianus decide to avenge the death of his father sometime in the future.  If he said no, then it would mean that he had the intention of harming the boy should the occasion arise.  If he said nothing or gave no answer, it would mean that he could not give assurance to his sister, which would be as good as saying no. 
In that intricate moment, he decided to balance his promise with a caution, so he said:
“On the life of our father, I promise not to make an attempt on my nephew’s life, unless if he makes an attempt on mine.”
Constantia stared at his brother in a very disappointing look.  Apparently she was not prepared for that kind of promise.  A conditional promise for a conditional forgiveness!  What a fitting match.
“You don’t even have a courtesy to at least lie for the sake of your sister’s peace of mind,” the empress of the late emperor finally spoke.
“You put me in an impossible situation, my dear sister.  How else can I do?”  Constantine responded.
“So it seems,” said the sister and made her way out.  Constantine called out to his sister, but Constantia did not turn back.  It would be unnecessary to add that she did not come to the dinner that night. 
Constantine cursed himself.  Why the hell did I not make that simple promise?  After all, the thought of putting Licinianus his nephew into eternal sleep did not cross his mind, until the matter was brought up by his sister.  Constantine’s mind was troubled.  He repeatedly cursed himself and thought of pursuing his sister and made a solemn promise.  It would not be difficult to make that simple promise.  He didn’t have to be so forthright, if being forthright would mean that his relationship with his sister whom he loved would become more strained.  After all, he would not be lying were he to make a solemn promise, because he truly did not want to harm his nephew.  What would happen in the distance future would be a different matter altogether. 
Constantine was about to race to his sister when he suddenly changed his mind.  Time was not appropriate.  He had just broken his sister’s heart yet again.  It would need some time to heal.  He promised himself to settle the matter at a later day.
At the moment, he had important meeting to attend to.  But Constantine did not go straight to the conference room.  Important though the meeting was, plus the fact that he was already an hour late, he was not yet ready to meet the visitor.  Constantine was rather disturbed with the short conversation that took place with his sister just now.  He sat in his chair for ten minutes or so, cursing himself many times over, and finally tried to calm his mind to get ready for the meeting.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Chapter 3: The Late Emperor’s Queen and Her Mother

            The news of Licinius’ execution reached Flavia Maximiana Theodora, the mother of Constantia, ten days later.  Upon receiving the news, she quickly prepared herself for a journey from Nicomedia where she was residing, to Thessalonica, where the wife of the late co-emperor was staying.  The news of the execution of her son in law grieved her a great deal.  But she knew that Constantia’s grief was graver. 
“Why didn’t you tell me about your husband’s death?”  She asked when arrived at Constantia’s palace.
            “What is the use mother, he is dead anyway.”  Answered the daughter, matter of factly.  “Besides, I don’t want to trouble you with the news,” the daughter added.
“Some help you are.  Don’t you know that I will know sooner or later?”  The mother retorted.  The daughter just kept quiet.
            Flavia Maximiana Theodora was none other than the widow of Chlorus Constantius, the father of Constantine.  She was the step daughter of Maximian, the co-emperor of Diocletian.  Constantine’s father had married the step daughter of Maximian after divorcing his first wife, Helena, the mother of Constantine, in order to strengthen his position as the emperor in the West.  Coincidentally, Constantine also married the daughter of Maximian, Fausta.   That made both the father and the son the in laws of Maximian.  The only difference was that Constantine was a full son in law, since he married the daughter of Maximian, while his father Chlorus was a step son in law, since Chlorus had married Maximian’s step daughter. 
Theodora was the mother of Flavia Julia Constantia, the step sister of Constantine, whose husband he had just executed.  Intermarriage among the elite circle was common then as it is now.  The objective of the marriage was to cement close relationship between rulers, or, as often is the case, to consolidate power.
Be that as it may, it was maternal instinct, perhaps, that led Theodora to rush to her daughter’s boarding.  She somehow sensed that the execution of her son in law by his step son was a bad omen to her daughter and her other children, the step siblings of Constantine. 
Constantia had been mourning the death, or rather the execution of her husband.  It was never easy to accept the death of one’s husband.  It was even more difficult to accept when the death was caused by the decree of one’s brother.  In Constantia’s case, the difficulty was graver since it was her brother who betrothed her to her late husband.  Perhaps the most difficult to accept was that the execution came after the amnesty.  What kind of man would one day pardon the sin of his rival but to reverse the decision in another day?    Then, again, her half-brother had his reason.  Her late husband was not totally innocent.  She knew by now that her late husband had been plotting the assassination on his half-brother.  His execution was therefore justified.  That, however, did not ease her sorrow.      
“This is bad omen,” the mother broke the silence.
“He is dead mother.  What can be worse?”  Said the daughter.
“I am not talking about your late husband.”
Constantia looked at her mother in a puzzling stare.  Apparently she couldn’t make up what her mother meant.
“Then bad omen to whom?”  The daughter asked.
“Your siblings and your son.  My children and my grandson.”
“My full brothers are not my half-brother’s enemies,” Constantia said referring to Constantine’s step brothers, the sons of Theodora, “and my son is too small to be a cause of threat.  Besides, Constantine is now the sole emperor.  He has nothing to worry.”
“Even after being the wife of a co-emperor, you are as naïve as ever, Constantia.”  The mother snipped. 
“Perhaps I am, but I am sure I know about my step brother more than you do, mother.”  The daughter replied rather curtly.  That happened to be the truth, for Constantia was close to her half-brother Constantine while her mother was not.
“It is not him that I fear.”  Said the mother.
“There you go again, mother.  Whom are you referring now?”
“His mother.”
“Who else?”
“Why would Helena be a source of threat?”
“Your wisdom, or the lack of it, defies you age, Constantia.”  Insulted the mother, which was not entirely fair.  Constantia may be the widow of the aged late co-emperor, Licinius, but Constantia herself was not old.  She was only thirty.  She was married to Licinius when she was nineteen years old, and Licinius was sixty three.  While she was at first not amused by the matrimony to a man more than three times her age, she later found that the status of a Queen to an Emperor had its own merit.  Besides, young girl marrying a much older man was common in those ages, perhaps more common than in the modern times.
“I have just lost my husband, mother.  I don’t need another insult.  Why can’t you just say it straight, that is, if you have a point to make?”  Constantia started to feel irritated by her mother’s insult.
“Helena’s husband left her for me, don’t you feel that it amounts to anything?”
“Still, what has it got to do with us?”
“She is the daughter of an inn-keeper, and I am a daughter of an emperor.  And now it is her son, not mine, who has become the emperor.”
“It seems that you are envious of her, mother, not she envious of you,” the daughter quipped.  Theodora stared at her daughter in a very stern look.
“When the great Theodora lost for word, she stared,” mocked the daughter.  The mother laughed cynically.
“I wasn’t staring at you Constantia.  I was looking behind your beautiful face.”  Said the mother, and added, “you know what I find?”
“Yes mother, I know.  You find nothing.  You told me many times already that I got a beautiful face without a brain.”
“And your face is still beautiful in spite of the years, only a little sad.  And yes, you still haven’t got any brain behind your beautiful face. Don’t you feel that the lives of your siblings, even your son, are under threat?”
Both the daughter and the mother were quiet for a moment.  Constantia didn’t quiet appreciate the insult from her mother, but deep down she felt that Theodora did have a point.  Constantine may not have felt that his half-brothers were a threat to his throne, for at the moment they were still paying second fiddles to him.  But soon they might be men enough to challenge Constantine, if they felt that their lives were at stake.  It was very likely that Constantine’ mother, Helena, would make him see it that way even if he ignored it.
Alas, knowing the dilemma was not the same as having a solution for it.  Fear started to slowly loom into Constantia’s heart.  Her mother’s visit certainly didn’t bring peace to her grieving mind.  Instead, it slowly started to tear it into pieces.  After fear, Constantia slowly felt a strange feeling of fury, followed by helplessness.
“And this well respected emperor, a half-brother of yours, what kind of man is he?  One by one he put his rivals to death.  And we are not talking about strangers here.  We are talking about his family members: his father in law, his brothers in law—my father who was your grandfather; my brother, who was your uncle; my son in law, who was your husband.  I put it to you, my daughter, that from this day on, none of you full brothers, and especially your son, is safe.”  The mother added more fuel to the fire.
“Even so mother, there is nothing we can really do.  The best is to make peace. I will talk to him.  He listens to me.  I am his favorite sister.”
“Don’t be such a fool,” retorted the mother, apparently more furious than her daughter who had just lost the husband.
“Whatever you say mother, whatever.  I just don’t want to have any more bloodshed in this family.”
“Some wife you are,” snipped the mother, “your husband’s grave is still wet, and you want to make a pact with his executioner already.  Poor Licinius’ soul, tormented not by the burning hell, but by his treacherous wife.”
“May gods smite your mouth with a bolt of lightning, mother, for saying such a thing.”
“Poor Licinius’ soul.  His body turns and twists in the grave, asking for revenge.  And what does he get?  He gets a wife who is going to make a pact with his enemy.”
“And if you have nothing better to say, mother, and I know you have no better alternative,” said Constantia, feeling tired, angry, furious and lousy, “I want to sleep.”
“Yes, go and sleep while your husband’s soul is burnt with fury.”
Constantia did go to her room, but she could not sleep.  Not after a venomous spit by her mother.  Twisting her body this side and that side for many hours, the poor woman fell asleep out of exhaustion, only to be rudely awakened by a scary nightmare.  She saw her son fell into a ravine.
She didn’t know the meaning of her nightmare, but she thought that it was a bad omen.  The nightmare disturbed her a great deal.  Not knowing what to do, she made preparation to move to Nicomedia.  Her going there may not help the situation, or eased her anxiety about her son, but at least she would be at a closer distance with her half-brother.  As people say, with friends be close, with enemies, closer.  In spite of her mother’s insult, Constantia was neither naïve, nor stupid.  She didn’t know what she should do, but being closer to her half-brother would be the first step.  Or so she thought.