Recently, I entertained a notion that I never before expected would enter my mind. I have always passionately maintained that an imam should contract Muslim marriages in the United States with no civil marriage license involved. Furthermore I argued that with respect to civil legitimacy, we as Muslims in America should demand that the local, state and federal governments accept Muslim marriages contracted in a masjid as valid and legitimate for all purposes. Furthermore, I felt that Muslims in America should establish their own courts to deal with marital disputes, divorce and adjudication. I even used to cast a disdaining eye at people who sought the city hall stamp of approval for their marriages. I still hold some of these positions. However, I do not foresee any of these happening in the near future.
Now, after 20 years of witnessing utter disregard for the sanctity of marriage, I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the off-handed informal way in which marriages and divorces are handled needs to be revised to better reflect the reality of the times while still maintaining, even enhancing the adherence of islamic law. It is painfully clear that more and more often, the sacredness of marriage has been replaced by an almost casual indifference to its sanctity.
Civil and Islamic marriages have taken on connotations of real and make-believe. A person will say: “lslamically I’m married to so and so but legally I’m still married to so and so.” Or they will say, “We are married in Islam but we are not legally married.” Too often a person will display a prima fascia disregard for a civil marriage as if it doesn’t matter because it’s not “islamic”. However when a legal dispute arises such as death of a spouse who was divorced islamically but not civilly, the former spouse will rush to claim that, hey, I’m the legal spouse therefore I deserve the inheritance or the insurance money or whatever is left behind. Then they seek the full backing of the law.
In virtually every case, a civil marriage solemnized islamically carries the full applicable weight of legality and sanctity. On the other hand, an Islamic marriage by itself in many cases only carries limited weight not extending too far beyond the boundaries of the masjid. That’s why in an Islamic marriage, women for example, may still keep their former husband’s last name, never change any of their identifications, (drivers licenses, work I.D., passports etc.) to reflect their status as married women. In some cases a woman may be married to a man islamically and still carry their former husbands last name. On the other hand, when there is a civil marriage certificate involved, signed by the imam, legal issues are adjusted across the board, names are changed to reflect the new status, real names are used on the certificate, identifications, and drivers licenses are changed, parents are notified (and believe they are married), and a realization evolves amongst couples that yes, we are married in every sense of the word.
Marriage is a serious matter. The prophet (SAWS) considered it half of one’s faith. It is arguably the single most important social institution in our religion. The marital status amongst Muslims needs to be explicit and unambiguous. Either you are married or you are not. Either you are divorced or you are not. The idea of a legal netherworld between Islamic and civil is absurd. Unfortunately, Muslims in the United States do not possess the power, influence, or organizational congruence, to establish a nationwide or even a local system of marriage and divorce. This is why men are able to go from city to city and marry as many times as they like in the Muslim community without anyone even knowing their real names, or have multiple wives without the others even knowing about it! It is also why men and women are more likely to abandon the marriage by simply walking away because the Islamic marriage in their eyes carries no real validity. It may at its inception but when things get rough as they often do, they know they can just simply walk away with no legal ramifications.
Often there is no documentation of marriage, or divorce, no reference to past marriages, to any marital history, no information regarding previously abandoned children, wives or husbands. Pretty soon we can expect that brothers and sisters may be marrying each other without knowing it. Think it won’t happen? Well think again. I know of at least two instances where it did happen. In one case the marriage was prevented in time. In the other case, incest had occurred before anyone knew better. One place to start remedying this madness would be for masaajid in any given city to share all information about marriage and divorce and establish a computer network that connects them to one another. However, that is unlikely. Masaajid are very reluctant to share information. They would rather share information with amazon.com before they share it with another Masjid.
A stable networking system of marriage and divorce in the Muslim community may be years away. In the meantime, I advocate utilizing a civil marriage certificate signed by an imam until we get our act together. This way there will be a modicum of regulation and reference and it may help stem the tide of reckless marriage and runaway divorce. Granted, this is not an easy dilemma to resolve. There are fundamental differences between marriage and divorce laws in Islam and those in secular law. The downside of marriages employing the civil system is that it subjects people to the inherent injustices of the American divorce process, which tend to unfairly (from a Muslim perspective) favor women. One positive note is that some cities are open to the idea of incorporating Islamic principles into the civil system for Muslims, which still would require that the Muslims in that city be of one accord on the fiqh of the issue. This may be an area that warrants further exploration and advocacy. I realize that the idea of allowing the government to license Muslim marriages may be distasteful to some Muslims. I do not fully endorse the notion myself. However, in light of the tragic consequences of having no system at all, I believe this is the lesser of two evils. And Allah knows best.
This and other issues like it are indicative of our unpreparedness to do what it takes to take care of our own. When a single mother with children is in need of assistance, she doesn’t go to the masjid, she goes to the welfare office. When there is a violent dispute between spouses, they do not call the masjid, they call 911 and get a restraining order. When there are financial disputes between Muslims, we do not have a system for binding arbitration in the Muslim communities, they simply go to civil court. We file and pay taxes faithfully yet we ignore zakat and resign ourselves to having to put on fundraisers which are now starting to resemble rock concerts. The chronic divisiveness of the Muslim community only augments this difficulty. Muslim communities in America are going to have to start thinking as a group. At some point “organizational normalcy” needs to occur. Our lives and individual communities are simply too interconnected for us to continue acting as if they aren’t. America in the new information age is all about connectivity. It is high time for us to catch up.
The ideas of fully utilizing the civil system in contracting Muslim marriages should not be necessarily frowned upon. We are already entrenched in the American legal system in almost every aspect of our lives and in most legal matters it is the primary system used by Muslims in the United States. Even when making hajj, you need a U.S. Government issued or approved passport and you have to use your “legal name” not your Islamic name. About the only way in which we do handle our own is in death; we do wash our own bodies and bury our own. Are we prepared to change? Only the future will tell. My dear Muslims, when are we going to realize that sooner or later we are going to have to come together as one people? We need to wake up. Our survival depends upon it.
Imam Luqman Ahmad
Imam Luqman is the Imam of Masjid Ibrahim Islamic Center in Northern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his blog at imamluqman.wordpress.com