Muslim marriage and divorce practices in contemporary Britain :: Part 1 :: Introduction

By Shaheen Ali and Justin Jones

Recent years have seen heated debate about the ability of modern, purportedly secular Western nations to accommodate the practice of Islamic norms of marriage and divorce by their Muslim citizens. To what extent should Muslims be able to live under the jurisdiction of laws derived from their religious traditions in matrimonial and family questions, should they choose to do so? And to what extent should modern states tolerate or accommodate the existence of these laws—for example, by permitting or recognising nikāḥ-only marriages and religious divorces within the legal system?

Consideration of issues such as these has been increasingly prominent in the UK in recent years. In a renowned 2008 speech, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Reverend Rowan Williams, made a case for the possible recognition of multiple legal jurisdictions to allow for constructive accommodation between civil laws and the religious laws of minorities; his speech was widely misconstrued as advocating the imposition of shari‘ah laws in Britain. Recent years have seen a further reverberation of interest in related questions regarding the legal practices of Muslim citizens, sometimes with the insinuation that Muslims are operating outside the bounds of civil laws. For instance, we have had several years of high-profile debate about the role of shari‘ah councils. Sections of the media have alleged that such bodies operate a parallel system of justice in the UK, while Caroline Cox, a member of the House of Lords, has introduced several bills in the House since 2012 seeking their abolition. Simultaneously, there has been considerable coverage of the question of unregistered Muslim marriages, including a prominent 2017 Channel 4 documentary, The Truth About Muslim Marriage, which asserted that up to 80% of British Muslims are not registering their nikāḥ marriages with the civil authorities. And in 2018, a government-commissioned review of these issues led to the production of a report, Applying Sharia in England and Wales, which acknowledged the widespread persistence of nikāḥ-only marriages and Islamic divorces, and the active role of bodies such as shari‘ah councils in adjudicating on such matters. The full implications of the report have yet to be digested.

Alongside these discussions, there has been a rapid growth of academic interest in these questions in recent years. Scholars such as Rajnaara Akhtar, Shaheen Sardar Ali, Samia Bano, John Bowen, Rebecca Probert, Rehana Saleem, Prakash Shah and Islam Uddin are just a few of those scholars who have reflected upon Muslim marriage and divorce practices in modern Britain.[1] All have confirmed the existence of these same modes of marital conduct among British Muslims, and have interrogated them according to a range of sociological, anthropological and legal perspectives.

While the media, academics, and policy-makers have thus all made themselves heard in these debates, the most immediate participants in these worlds—the figures who work within British Muslim communities—can often be drowned out. This blog series seeks to put forward the voices of some of the Muslim religious leaders, lawyers, and activists who handle matters of Muslim marriage and divorce in the UK at the grassroots level. This is the gap that this blog, in part, seeks to address.

Our blog arises from a thought provoking panel discussion that was held as part of a conference, “Reformulating matrimony in Islamic law,” organised by Justin Jones and held at the University of Oxford in June 2018.[2] This panel, which was chaired by Shaheen Sardar Ali of the University of Warwick, was convened to consider Muslim marriage and divorce practices in the contemporary UK.  Unlike many debates to date where discussions remain mainly within an academic and theoretical framework, the panellists for this event were all selected on the basis of their vocations: all hold practical involvements within Muslim communities, in their roles as imāms, members of shari‘ah councils, community activists, and lawyers. All were asked to reflect from their personal experience upon the matrimonial lives of Muslims in Britain: the kinds of marital and divorce practices followed within the community, and the working relationship between religious and civil laws. It was a lively session, engaging and frank, with panellists sharing their knowledge and opinions openly and honestly. They reflected upon their vast experience of actual practice among Muslim communities, and proposed their own opinions on the existing challenges and possible means of redressing them. The question and answer session too, brought into relief the rich canvass of views, perspectives, and practices prevalent within British Muslim communities regarding Muslim family law.

In this blog series, the contribution of each panellist will be presented almost unchanged (only tidied up slightly for readability and with a few later comments from Q&A incorporated), with a view to maintaining an authentic record of their accounts. We begin each instalment with a few of our own ruminations on its contents and implications.

Several striking claims arise from the contributions that follow, some of which may make uncomfortable reading for some, but which are supported by other empirical research on Muslim marriage practices in the UK. First, that significant numbers of Muslim women in nikāḥ-only marriages believe that their “marriage” is legally recognised under the law in England and Wales, even though it is not. Second, that some Muslim couples choose consciously to remain in nikāḥ-only marriages, for a range of reasons that will be explored in this series. Third, that nikāḥ-only marriages are being used by some members of the younger generation of Muslims as a form of “alāl dating” in the absence of a civil marriage, or a means of “testing” a relationship before taking on the legal commitments of a registered marriage. Fourth, that shari‘ah councils serve an important community need, including issuing divorces for nikāḥ-only marriages; and that demand for their services remains high in many communities (although, we must note, these bodies are in no way considered a replacement for official courts). And fifth, that nikāḥ-only marriages create space for alternative marriage practices, such as polygamous unions, which would not be possible in the UK if these marriages were registered.

The ensuing five blogs, offered by community practitioners from different parts of England, all offer a series of interconnected glimpses into the matrimonial realities as lived by UK Muslims. The speakers are open about the challenges faced, and equally, are proactive in their search for a constructive relationship between British and Islamic legal values. Finally, in a concluding statement, we offer a few reflections on ways forward. We hope that this blog series will ask many questions, and if we are lucky, it may even suggest an answer to some of them.


[1] Several particularly useful contributions by some of these scholars are available in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion (7, 3, 2018): 367-454.

[2] The conference was part of a larger comparative project on Islamic family laws and the changing nature of Muslim matrimonial practices, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

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