Changing the face of Muslim family life

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A new Islamic marriage contract sets aside cultural practices

Samia Rahman
8 August 2008

Tonight, at the City Circle, the Muslim Institute will launch a radical marriage contract (pdf) it hopes will change the face of British Muslim family life.

Currently, the Islamic marriage ceremony (nikkah), performed by an imam in the presence of two witnesses, is not recognised by British law and often involves little or no paperwork.

If things go awry and the couple divorce, the woman – and it is almost always the woman – experiences great difficulty securing the financial rights guaranteed to her under sharia law. The terms and conditions of this new contract, signed at the nikkah, clarify both husband and wife’s rights and obligations in all eventualities. For example, it ensures that the right to divorce (talaq-i-tafweed), is automatically delegated to the wife, something that is practised in most Muslim countries.

The contract is not just about divorce, though. It seeks to establish healthy relationships by highlighting difficult scenarios the couple may encounter in the future. Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute explains: “By laying out the terms and conditions of the marriage it encourages both parties to establish consensus on issues such as where they will live.”

Many couples bring to a marriage a certain amount of cultural baggage. They can find they have vastly differing approaches to lifestyle, such as the division of housework and personal finances. The architect of the contract, Mufti Barkatulla, has spent the past 25 years presiding over thousands of divorce cases at the Islamic Sharia Council. “Problems arise when couples don’t know what to expect. The lack of respect for each other’s personality and choices is shocking,” he says.

The contract is the culmination of a four-year consultation process to address the pervasive gender inequality in Muslim marriages across the UK – inequalities based not in theology, but in culture.

A major fault line is the role of in-laws. Sharia law explicitly states that a wife has the right to a separate living space, yet some Muslim communities in the UK, such as those from the subcontinent, cherish a rigid cultural attitude that living with in-laws is an Islamic convention. Polygamy is another contentious issue the new contract clarifies, illegal under British law and subject to strict conditions set down in the Qur’an.

The Qur’an has always been translated from Arabic, a language in which words can take on multiple meanings, in a process historically undertaken by male scholars. Islamic law declares a witness to a nikkah must be a sane, responsible adult. This has been culturally interpreted to mean men only. In the new contract women and non-Muslims may be witnesses. In addition, the consent of a wali or guardian of a female adult who wants to marry, becomes optional. Parents attempting to prevent their daughter marrying against their wishes can no longer use this rule.

That the rights accorded by the contract are rooted in sharia law ignites the debate over whether aspects of sharia may be incorporated into UK law. However, if more mosques apply to become sites registered for the solemnisation of marriage, Muslim couples will be able to make their civil ceremony coincide with the nikkah, rendering part of that controversy redundant.

What better way to encourage social cohesion and tackle radicalisation than building families in a context of harmony and cooperation, where the rights of women are not only respected, but valued? Bringing up children in a positive, nurturing environment will do much to combat disaffection and alienation in future generations, and could help cut off the oxygen that fuels extremism.

These are ambitious aims. However, the fact that the contract is endorsed by an unprecedented number of Muslim organisations and the launch hosted by a progressive group of second-generation Muslims, the City Circle, bodes well.

Yet, it remains to be seen whether the Muslim marriage contract will make an impact on more traditional Muslim communities such as those in Bradford and Oldham, and whether it can challenge the widespread misunderstanding of gender roles in Islam.


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