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A marriage of convenience will not do

The Muslim Council of Britain wants a modern Islamic marriage contract, but it needs to be thought through with community buy-in if it is to succeed

Reefat Drabu
Guardian Comment is free
21 August 2008

Yesterday, Ed Husain accused the Muslim Council of Britain of bowing to extremist pressure and succumbing to its alleged male-dominated sensibilities because it withdrew from an initiative to create a Muslim Marriage Contract. Naturally I beg to differ and here are the reasons why.

As chair of the MCB's social and family affairs committee, I regularly come across very real issues of broken families and loveless marriages. These include the very sad cases of forced marriages and domestic violence. Moreover, when two parties enter into a Muslim marriage (nikah) and then seek arbitration in British courts, there is very little documentation that emanates from unions conducted solely on a religious basis. Of course, these issues are not only pertinent to Muslims, but our community should have the mechanism and the wherewithal to tackle them from within the faith with as wide a consensus as possible.

So when we were asked by the Muslim Institute, also known as the Muslim Parliament, to endorse and promote the Muslim Marriage Contract on behalf of MCB, we readily did. Here was an opportunity to crystallise the rights and responsibilities already enshrined in Muslim marriages into a simple, usable written format. This would document evidence of rights and responsibilities of both parties to a nikah so that the same can, if necessary be used in British courts. Moreover, such a contract – if conducted under the wide parameters of Islamic law -– will re-iterate the free consent of the two parties which is mandatory for a marriage to be valid under Islamic law.

Unfortunately those that the MCB had trusted to take the lead in launching the initiative misrepresented the content and claimed that it was a "re-invention of shariah" or, as Mr Husain puts it, to "develop and update" Islamic jurisprudence without recourse to or the understanding of Islam's diverse juridical viewpoints. I find it strange that while he hastens to speak out against those who condemn Islam's diversity, then proceeds to pronounce that all British Muslims must follow one school of thought, as directed by him.

The marriage contract produced by the Muslim Insititute is simply one interpretation of shariah. It is not the shariah that needs to be re-invented, but a change in behaviour among some sections of our diverse Muslim communities. This is an onerous task that cannot be achieved through blustering demands and emphatic slogans that will only resonate in the salons of Islington and Notting Hill.

The allegations that the MCB is "retrogressive and insular" are misguided and malicious. The source of these allegations causes no surprise. The MCB is a broad-based inclusive organisation of Muslim communities living in the United Kingdom. It recognises and respects the choice of Muslims to follow such interpretation of the shariah in relation to marriage as they wish.

MCB represents and serves diverse Muslim communities. The initiative on producing marriage documentation which meets their needs is not motivated only because we feel that Muslim women need protection from abhorrent cultural practices like forced marriages but also to raise awareness about rights and responsibilities of parties under all schools of thought in Islam. Marriage governed by shariah should give women respect, protection and empowerment.

MCB remains non-partisan on issues of theology, respecting diversity and supporting individual choices. Disappointed by the initiative, we would like to start again, create a wider consensus and deliver real change based on traditional scholarship and community buy-in. Rather than playing to the gallery, as our detractors would have us do, we need to take meaningful steps that will safeguard the rights of Muslim women in Britain.




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