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Is this the beginning of a new European Islam?

Urmee Khan
Telegraph Blogs
8 August 2008

Today’s news that Muslim women in Britain will be guaranteed equal rights in Islamic marriages has wide ranging consequences, not just for women but for a new model of European Islam.

For the first time, a woman undergoing a Muslim wedding will have written proof of the marriage. The bride will no longer need a ‘marriage guardian’ (wali) and she will have an automatic right to initiate divorce (talaq-i-tafweed) retaining all her financial rights as agreed in the marriage contract. Furthermore, the contract requires "two adult witnesses of good character" as opposed to the traditional insistence on two Muslim men.

The contract itself is very specific . The husband has to agree not to:

• abuse his wife/child(ren) verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually

• be absent from the marital home for more than 60 days unless by agreement

• withhold money towards his wife/family

• transmit disease

• interfere with the wife’s property

In return, the wife agrees to abide by all of that as well - except for the provision not to withhold money from the household.

There are also some special conditions - for example, the rule that the husband’s duty is to procure independent accommodation separate from his family home, and that the husband delegates his power of divorce to his wife.

Within sharia law, these changes are an enormous step. Just ask any Islamic feminist who continually challenge traditional interpretations of the Quran.

For example Surah 2 Verse 228 of the Quran can be translated as: "And woman shall have rights similar to rights them, according to what is equitable. But men have a degree of advantage over them."

Islamic feminists like Riffat Hasan have constantly said that such verses should be studied in the historical context in which they were revealed and we need to update the translations.

The fact it took 4 years to agree this text gives some idea of the lengthy consultations that had to take place with women’s groups and religious leaders.

Anne-Marie Hutchinson, a family lawyer, welcomed the new contract: "Most importantly it will provide civil law protection to many women and children through the obligation on the parties to enter into a binding civil marriage. All too often spouses have found themselves marginalised and cut off from the legal and financial protection afforded by the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1973" she said. 

Obviously, we’ll be able to gauge opinion after the contract has been in effect for a while and it will be interesting to monitor this.

The most important thing is that we have a modification to sharia law which reflects the reality of a modern and European population. Contrary to what militant secularists say, it is actually possible to modify ancient religious rulings to adapt to a modern setting. As Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, Director of the Muslim Institute and one of the authors of the contract, said: "This contract is revolutionary and will lead the way in addressing problems that exist under sharia law. Although it is only the tip of the iceberg, it is a revolutionary step, nothing like this has happened in 100 years. The adoption of this model will change everything and force people to talk about the issues."

The controversial academic Tariq Ramadan has made calls for European Muslims to evolve nothing less than its own form of Islam "We need to separate Islamic principles from their cultures of origin and anchor them in the cultural reality of Western Europe." With 15 million Muslims on the Continent, Ramadan believes it’s time to abandon the dichotomy in Muslim thought that has defined Islam in opposition to the West. "I can incorporate everything that’s not opposed to my religion into my identity," he says, "and that’s a revolution."

Perhaps this development is a move towards an independent European Islam.




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