Sunday, August 10, 2008

You see, it's not really that hard

A group of Islamic groups in the UK have just announced a new nikah, or marriage contract, for British Muslims. This new contract brings Islamic marriages in the UK more in line with a standard marriage in the UK in terms of rights of each partner, but does include features which a simple civil ceremony does not impose.

The new nikah can be found here, and is an interesting read. The first few pages are preamble and then some general instructions on how to fill out the form. The most important page is the last one, where the rights and responsibilities of each partner are outlined. The responsibilities of both partners include: to not abuse their partner or children, to not be away from home for more than 60 days without prior permission, to not transmit diseases, to not have an affair and to not interfere with their partners property. I don't really think any of those should be too hard, particularly for a couple who care for each other. There are a few extra responsibilities for the husband including not withholding financial support to the family, not entering into a nikah with another woman, and the one I found most interesting, to procure a home away from his family and parents (not far away, but a place of their own).

These however are minor points. Probably the biggest change is that the nikah ceremony must be held by a registered marriage celebrant, or the couple must have had a civil ceremony beforehand, which makes the marriage official in a legal sense, and so the partners have a recourse to the British courts if things go pair shaped. While reading about this I learned that traditionally Islamic marriage is essentially a civil contract, and in some cases even just a verbal contract, which can make solving disputes tricky when there's no evidence of a marriage (although I wonder if such a marriage would count as a de facto relationship, which I think has some legal standing). This is a big step.

Another big change is that talaq al-tafwid is a standard clause. In the old contract, the husband could initiate divorce pretty much without cause, but if the wife did, she was liable to forfeit some of her property. Talaq al-tafwid is where the husband grants the wife the same right to divorce at will without loss.

The last big change is not an addition but a subtraction. The wife to be no longer needs the approval of her nearest male relative, or Wali, to get married. I have to admit, I do like the way they explain this one. The word is polite but firm.

Parents are responsible for the upbringing of their children. Out of respect and courtesy it is important that young people involve their parents or guardians throughout the process of marriage. However, parental or guardian’s legal role finishes when children reach adulthood. Thereafter their role is optional and complementary. Hence the Muslim Marriage Certificate does not require the approval of the parents.

This new marriage contract is, as the British like to say, a good thing. It shows that the ideals of Islam and the ideals of the West. Except for resolving disputes through a Sharia organization, for which I'd substitute something like a marriage counselor, and having an Imam sign the it, what this document outlines is almost the way I see the marriage relationship being. If I were to change anything it would be to make it so that the rights and responsibilities of both partners are exactly the same since the wife does get out of a few responsibilities the husband has to follow, and the bit about marriage being only between a man and a woman, but that would be it.

I hope that this new nikah gets widespread adoption within the Islamic community, and that the Muslims in other countries develop similar nikahs that show that Islamic ideals and Western ideals are not irrevocably different.

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