Changes to Muslim marriage contract – reactions blow hot and cold

The Muslim Institute — which describes itself as a “well-respected think-tank” — has drawn up a “model marriage contract” that it claims will give Muslim women equal rights. Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, Director of the Institute, and one of the authors of the contract, said: “The document is a challenge to various sharia councils who don't believe in gender equality but the world has changed and Islamic law has to be renegotiated.”

But the text was quickly dismissed by Neil Addison, a leading Christian lawyer, who said it: “continues the unfortunate trend of separating Muslims from the general community in Britain and it is deceptive since it leads Muslims to think that they are married when in fact they are not.”

Mr Addison said: “The existence of such a ‘model’ contract endorsed, as this is, by lawyers and MPs, gives the seal of approval for the continuation of marriage ceremonies which have no legitimacy under British law. This contract is not a ‘marriage’ it is instead a sparsely worded cohabitation agreement of dubious legal status. A couple ‘married’ under this contract will find that they have no automatic inheritance rights nor the right to give consent to medical treatment and it could mean paying unnecessary inheritance tax following a death.”

Mr Addison continued: “There is absolutely no need for this to happen, Catholics, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Quakers etc all carry out their marriage ceremonies in accordance with British law either by insisting that the couple have a civil ceremony before the religious ceremony, or by registering their premises for marriages and including the legal requirements in the religious ceremony. Muslim organisations are the only religious group encouraging their members to ignore the British law of marriage and that is harmful to British Muslims because it deprives them of their legal rights under British law.”

The Muslim Institute’s proposals have, apparently, taken several years to formulate and perhaps the most surprising aspect of the affair is that the Muslim Council of Britain has bitterly criticised the contract, saying that it will produce its own version after consulting scholars. The MCB statement said: “In furtherance of its policy to work with others for the unity of Muslims and for the common good, the MCB had collaborated on a worthwhile initiative on enabling parties to a Muslim marriage to understand and respect their rights and obligations and to enable Courts to enforce the rights of parties in accordance with what is agreed at the time of the Nikah. That initiative has regrettably led to misinterpretation of Shari’ah by those who the MCB had trusted to take the lead on this matter. Those representing the Muslim Institute were reported as saying that the documentation produced was a ‘re-invention of Shari’ah’ or that it was a ‘modern’ or ‘reformist’ view of the Shari’ah. These types of glib generalisations on sharia councils are unhelpful and not in keeping with MCB’s evidence-based approach to community issues. Moreover the MCB looks to the traditional Islamic institutions of ijma (the consensus of scholars) as the way forward in resolving the issues of our times.”

Ed Hussein, the ex-fundamentalist and author of a best-selling memoir The Islamist threw some light on this disagreement between the MCB and the Muslim Institute in a Comment is Free piece in the Guardian. He wrote: “This MCB policy is as retrogressive and insular as its previous decision to boycott attending Holocaust Memorial Day. Then, it was the City Circle that pioneered an alternative platform for Muslims to remember the Holocaust, and again, the City Circle is ahead of the MCB in advocating an alternative reading of scripture to facilitate Muslim female power.

“And in typical MCB male arrogance, they dismiss the contract and promise to issue their own after ‘due consultation’ with their ‘affiliates and ulema [religious scholars]’. Why? The shariah is a diverse body of law, can’t the MCB accept another interpretation? How dare they talk of “misinterpretation”? And why consult only clerics and affiliates, and leave out women and human rights groups?

“The MCB leadership should be ashamed of itself: ashamed for not having the balls to stand up for Muslim women, and ashamed for bowing to extremist, literalist pressure.

“When young Muslim women like Amina [a serially raped wife trapped in an unwilling marriage to a Pakistani cousin] and thousands of others cannot trust MCB leaders to stand firm in support of the new Muslim marriage contract, its leaders should take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves: why do we always get it so terribly wrong?”

Read the Muslim Institute’s proposed contract

22 August 2008