The way a marriage is carried out has many cultural variants in the vast Muslim world that extends from Indonesia to North America. Essentially, however, a marriage must satisfy the following Islamic requirements:
- The couple must be willing to take part in marriage out of the exercise of their free choice.
- A marriage contract comprising of certain conditions and mahr (dowry, usually in the form of money or another asset) is formulated in front of at least two witnesses.
- The marriage is announced to the community.
Usual Marriage Proceedings
Since Islam does not sanction the Western customs of dating or courtship, it is common for future spouses to be introduced by parents or by friends. This introduction may occur in a myriad of ways. It is more common today for a couple to meet at a particular social occasion and seek to get to know one another through friends and relatives. Although the practice may vary from culture to culture and according to the level of Westernisation of a Muslim country, there are a number of important elements in relation to how marriage occurs in a Muslim society.
The first step is for the prospective couple to see one another and discuss marriage with the supervision of a trusted person. At no time should the couple be alone, either in private or in public. The third person is usually a guardian from the woman’s side, with the power to end the talks if she decides to have no more contact with the man. This phase can last for as long as the couple wishes to get to know one another. There is no obligation to continue meeting if either of them decides to end the relationship.
If the couple decides to get married, the family of the man makes a proposal to the guardian of the woman. This step can also vary from culture to culture. The key factor here is that families are involved at this point to ensure the protection of the woman. The freely-given consent of both the future husband and wife is essential.
If both the man and the woman give their consent, the engagement period commences. The period of engagement is flexible and can be a few weeks to a few years. During this period, the future couple gets to know one another better and makes the arrangements for the marriage ceremony. Love usually develops in this period and after the consummation of marriage when the couple gets to know one another intimately. Islam does not condone the idea of “trying out the person” before marriage. Break-ups could also occur if the couple notices serious incompatibility during the engagement period.
The final step is the wedding ceremony where the couple is married, usually by an imam or official. At this ceremony the two people profess their commitment to marriage in front of at least two witnesses. The wedding ceremony does not have to be performed in a mosque. A marriage contract is also signed where the bride sets the mahr, which acts as an insurance policy for the bride if the marriage ends after a short time. The wedding includes a reception where the marriage is announced to the community and celebrated by family and friends. The reception may be immediately after taking the wedding vows or some weeks later depending on individual circumstances. The marriage does not proceed unless both sides agree to the terms of the contract.
The most colourful aspect of the marriage is the reception or the public announcement. This is where most of the cultural elements step in, as Islam does not stipulate a fixed way of holding the reception. It usually involves a feast sponsored by the families and entertainment for men and woman in separate quarters.
Centuries of this practice have been very successful, as the divorce rates have been very low in Muslim societies. Even today, divorce rates in Muslim countries are much lower than those of many Western countries.
Divorce in Islamic Family Law
While Islam encourages men and women to get married to form families, it also recognises that over time people may no longer be compatible or may have irreconcilable differences. The Qur’an persuades men and women to think twice about divorce and even use third party mediators to reconcile differences. Although divorce is said in Islam to be “the least liked of all lawful things by God”, Islamic law (Shariah) allows it to proceed regardless of who instigates it. Just like marriage, divorce also occurs by making a certain affirmation of separation and making a public announcement that the couple is no longer married. Contrary to popular myth, divorce in Islam is not of the prerogative of men. Either party can initiate divorce. The divorce process is simple. Why should it be bitter and involve expensive proceedings that take their toll on everybody?
Divorce at the instigation of the men is called talaq. In this case, the man pronounces to his wife a statement such as “I divorce you” three times. This pronouncement initiates the first phase of the divorce process. At this point, all sexual activity stops between the couple for a period of three menstruation cycles, known as iddah. The Qur’an states, “…The divorced woman shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods.” During this period, the man must pay the bills for the woman and not abuse her emotionally. If the woman is found to be pregnant, then there is a very good reason to re-think the divorce. Also in case of divorce being final, the parentage of the child will be known. If the couple has sexual relations during the iddah period, the divorce process stops and marriage continues as before. If the iddah period expires and they want to stay married, the man must propose and another wedding must take place. In order to give a strong message to the man to think twice before initiating a divorce, this process of talaq can only be repeated three times. After the third time, he cannot remarry her unless she is legitimately married to someone else and then divorced. Since this is unacceptable to any man, it serves as a real deterrent.
Divorce at the instigation of the woman is called khul, derived from khul al-thaub which translates as “removing the dress”- from the Qur’anic verse (2:187), which states, “… the women are your garment and you are their garment”, indicating the complementary and equal status of man and woman in marriage. A woman may ask for a divorce if there is sufficient reason. There are six reasons why divorce initiated by the wife is acceptable.
1. In instances of continued domestic violence and cruelty.
2. Non-fulfilment of the terms of the marriage contract.
3. Insanity on the part of the husband.
4. Incompetence or impotence.
5. The abandonment of the wife and any children by the husband.
6. Any other reasons deemed consistent with the law.
The Qur’an states, “… If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband’s part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best …” If a woman divorces her husband, she is required to return all or part of the mahr or dowry given to her as a gift on the occasion of her marriage. This is not required if the husband initiates the divorce. The Qur’an encourages men to donate this in any case.
Maintenance (nafaqah) is another right of the wife, given to her in marriage and extended in the event of divorce. This includes the right to food, clothing and residence, essential services and medicine, even in the event the wife is a wealthy woman in her own right. The Qur’an outlines the responsibility of the man in providing maintenance in the case of divorce: “…Let the woman live in ‘iddah in the same style as you live, according to your means: Trouble them not so that you make things difficult for them.”
The mother automatically gets the custody of children, as Islam recognises the greater emotional need of the small children for their mother. After the age of seven for boys and the age of puberty for girls, the father can file for the custody of his children. The court decides who is the most suitable guardian for the children at this point.
Is arranged marriage part of Islam?
There is a perception that in Muslim countries women have no rights in marriage, that they are forced into a marriage with an unwanted man, and the cause of this is Islam’s segregation of women. The truth of the matter is that in Islam, a woman has the right to choose her partner or decline a proposal for marriage. This right was given to Muslim woman fourteen centuries ago at a time when women generally had no marriage rights in the most of the world.
The reader must make the distinction between forced marriages and arranged marriages. The freely given consent of both, the future husband and wife, is essential in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad stated, “… The woman shall not be married until her consent is obtained.” Another statement attributed to the Prophet is, “… When a man gives his daughter in marriage and she dislikes it, the marriage shall be renounced …” He also declared a marriage as invalid when the bride complained to him that her father forced her into marriage. Clearly, forced marriages are outlawed in Islam.
Nevertheless, in some Muslim countries, as in some non-Muslim countries, the father or a male relative of a woman may force her to get married to a man that she does not want. The parties that force a woman into marriage obviously are not following the teachings of Islam. This might be simply because of their lack of religious practice and knowledge. Surely, the failure of some Muslims to follow their religion’s injunctions cannot be attributed to Islam.
Arranged marriages are not part of Islam nor does Islam strictly require it. There is no reference in the Qur’an or in the practice of the Prophet Muhammad that instructs Muslims to arrange a marriage. Just as in many other cultures, arranged marriages arise out of the practical need to facilitate the meeting of a couple for the purpose of marriage. Since Islam does not sanction the Western custom of dating and courtship, it is common for future spouses to be introduced by parents or friends. This introduction may occur in a myriad of ways and is by no means binding on the couple. They can break up at anytime in the process of getting to know one another. The only requirements of Islam are that the couple should not be alone either in private or any public place and the purpose of the meetings should be for the intention of marriage.
Dating did not exist in the Western world a hundred years ago. Matchmaking and dating services in the contemporary Western culture are a way of returning to the old arranged culture with a modern twist. Although it is not endorsed in Islam, some people are comfortable with arranged marriages and latest studies show that arranged marriages are more successful than other methods. The divorce rates as high as 50% in the United States show that dating does not guarantee success in a marriage. Divorce rates in Western countries have actually been on the increase since the sexual revolution of the sixties. It is increasingly alarming that people who decide to co-habitate before marriage seem to be more susceptible to divorce after marriage. Therefore the notion that through dating one will find the most suitable partner in life is not entirely supported by available social evidence.
Marriage to Non-Muslims
In Islam, a Muslim man can get married to a Christian or Jewish woman (people of Scripture) but not to a person who does not believe in God. A Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man. What appears to be a somewhat discriminating injunction is really designed to ensure freedom of belief and the protection of women in marriage.
Not only Islam but many other religions and cultures value a long and healthy relationship of a male and a female in marriage. Marriage has become a universal way of expressing one’s commitment to a partner where the union produces a family, which is the fundamental component of a society and a nation.
The most important aspects of a family are its health, longevity and ability to raise mentally and spiritually healthy children so that children can become contributing members of a society. Since religion plays a large part in one’s way of life, behaviour and motives, Islam recommends that Muslims get married to other members of the Muslim community. If a non-Muslim wishes to marry a Muslim man or woman, it is expected from that person, whether male or female, to consider converting to Islam if they are convinced of its teachings.
Inter-religious marriages could work well between individuals for whom religion is not an important part of life. In this case, their way of life is the common culture of the society rather than either person’s religion. The marriage may be doomed to failure from the start if either person or both are committed to religion. It is almost unavoidable not to have any conflict in an intimate relationship such as marriage. Therefore, the couple should seriously consider the future of their marriage and only take the step if they are convinced that it will work.
So why does Islam allow men to marry women from another faith, but not the other way around? Even though there are exceptions to the rule, the general observation is that men have a tendency to be more prominent in the family than a woman as he bears the prime responsibility for the welfare of the family. Since Islam commands a man to deal in a fair manner with his wife, a Christian or a Jewish woman has the legal and moral guarantee that she will be looked after well and allowed to practice her religion without fear or oppression from her husband. The Prophet Muhammad said, “the best among you is the one who has the best character and the best of those are the ones who treat their wives the best”. Provided that a Muslim man is a good practising Muslim, the woman in marriage should be guaranteed a very good life. This is the reason why most Muslim women look for practising Muslim men to marry.
Islam requires a Muslim to believe that Moses and Jesus were appointed by God to guide humanity during the time when they lived and that the Scriptures that they brought were revelations from God. Naturally, a Muslim man will have natural affinity to a Christian or a Jewish woman in marriage. However, such an affinity does not exist between a Muslim woman and a man of other faiths and traditions, including atheism. Therefore, the marriage of a Muslim man to a Christian or a Jewish woman can work well. In this situation, the couple should agree before marriage that the children in the marriage should be educated as Muslims. Again children who are Muslim accept Moses and Jesus and their Scriptures as well as Muhammad, therefore the expectations of both partners are satisfied.
In the reverse scenario, where a Muslim woman is married to a non-Muslim man, the marriage does not ensure the religious freedom of the woman. Since a Christian or a Jewish man does not recognise Islam and its Prophet, there is no guarantee he will not use his economic and physical dominance (in most cases) against the Muslim woman to limit her freedoms and in some cases force her to convert. She can never be sure that she will have the freedom to practice if she is married to a non-Muslim man. At the very least, there may be a lot of conflicts in everyday life situations and the raising of the children. What will the Muslim woman do if her husband asks her to cook pork for dinner? The whole marriage will mean that each person will have to continuously compromise so as not to offend the other. This may lead to frustration, arguments and eventually to divorce. Therefore, Islam does not allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men.
Marriage to more than one Woman – Polygamy in Islam
When Islam first appeared in the 7th century (610 CE), it effected improvements and changes in individual and social life by bringing in new laws and prohibiting or regulating the existing ones. The practice of regulated polygamy falls into the regulation category. Islam did not invent polygamy, but rather has regulated it. Before Islam, a man could marry as many women as he wanted or could afford. Islam put a limit on the number of women that a man could marry, along with some tough conditions.
The verse that allows Muslim men to marry more than one woman is as follows: “Marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one.” (Qur’an, 4:3). While allowing marriage with up to four wives, this verse discourages its practice by imposing some tough conditions such as achieving justice between wives, and encourages marrying only one. Being just between wives means providing them with equal food, accommodation, clothing and time spent with each of them. The consequence is that a man with four wives must provide four houses and must sleep in a different house every night, only returning to the same house less than twice a week. He must provide food and clothing equally between each of his wives and enjoy their company equally, even though one may be twenty and one forty. This is a very tough lifestyle for any man. As a result, the great majority (about 99%) of Muslim men have only one wife. This fact is true for all Muslim countries with slight differences in the marginal rate. This large percentage of monogamy was more or less maintained throughout the history of Islam. According to a survey conducted of the Ottoman archives, the percentage of men married to only one wife never fell below 92%. That is, only 8% of the total male population were married to more than one wife at any one time.
According to Islamic law, if a man were known for his unjust behaviour, he would not be allowed by the State to marry more than one woman at any time. A woman can stipulate in her marriage contract that her husband-to-be cannot marry a second woman during the lifetime of their marriage. Furthermore, if the licence to marry more than one woman is abused or becomes widespread in society, the State can impose tight regulations to prevent the abuse for the benefit of the greater society. The shortcomings of individuals should not be used to blame Islam.
Sometimes polygamy becomes a practical solution to serious social problems. Throughout history, and still in developing and third-world countries, women depended on men’s economic support. Some women may not be able to bear children. In such cases, if the husband wants to have children, he may marry again instead of divorcing his first wife. A “barren” woman may find it hard to marry again if this weren’t permissible. Moreover, after wars, there is usually a shortage of young men. This was evident in Australia after World War I, as it was difficult for many widowed women or even young ladies to marry as there was a limited amount of available men. To maintain the stability of society in such instances, some men should be allowed to marry more than once. More importantly, their second wife should be a widow. For example, after World War I, the famous writer Victor Marqveritte, after the decrease in the male population of France, said the following: “18 million European women have been the victim of the system of living as a widow because of the death of their partners. As a result, they are condemned to misery, economically and morally”. Bearing in mind that only in the last few decades did women gain economic independence and only in Western countries. Ultimately, regulated polygamy ensures the economic security of marginalised women.
In summary, Islam regulated the uncontrolled practice of polygamy and laid down some tough conditions for people who choose to enter such a practice. This has greatly reduced its occurrence and polygamy became the exception rather than the rule. Islam has not abolished the practice, as this could lead to the social evils of adultery, prostitution and the economic alienation of women. It should be stressed this is an allowance, not a regular practice. This practice is designed to allow women, generally those that are barren, widowed, or where there are not enough unmarried men, to enjoy a married life being loved and wanted where it would not be possible if monogamy was the rule.