Muslim marriage and divorce practices in contemporary Britain :: Part 3 :: Musharraf Husain

By Shaheen Ali and Justin Jones


Musharraf Husain is an ‘alim and imām based in Nottingham, and one of the leading Muslim community representatives of the Midlands. Trained at Al-Azhar in Cairo, he is a scholar of the Qur’ān and Islamic sciences, and is a public community spokesperson and educator; he is also the chief executive of the Karimia Institute, an Islamic foundation that engages in numerous activities of religious education and charity. He has been an important Muslim spokesperson on issues of integration and community cohesion in the UK.

In his statement, Husain draws upon his work as a community imām, and reflects upon the hindrances he has faced in encouraging Muslims to handle their marital lives in accordance with civil laws. Positioning himself as an intermediary between community and state, Husain speaks of his firm belief in the importance of the registration of nikāḥs as civil marriages, and sees this as a necessary condition of the nikāḥ in Islam. He also recounts his efforts to encourage his congregation to take up the practice, for instance, by obtaining a marriage licence for his mosque, so that the institution is able to provide civil marriages simultaneously with nikāḥs.

However, despite his efforts, he notes with some frustration that many Muslims are either uninterested in, or even hostile to, the idea of registering a civil marriage. Like other contributors, Husain attributes the lack of willingness within the community to various factors, including a lack of awareness; sheer carelessness; and the “callous and materialistic attitude” of those who may benefit from avoiding legal responsibility. He also notes that Muslims do not instinctively consider their mosque as a natural location for marriage, meaning that, unlike Christians, Muslim families often choose to solemnise their nikāḥs in homes or private settings rather than a properly licensed religious building.

Additionally, he remarks how many imāms and community leaders have wanted to keep marriage as “flexible […] feasible, and easy” as possible, perhaps to avoid ruptures to community norms; and thus, they have often not pushed for civil registration. Muslim marriage in the UK, he suggests in a striking metaphor, has become like a “Drive-thru McDonald’s,” with Islamic marriages and divorces being contracted and terminated with minimal planning or consideration.

Attitudes within the community are only part of the explanation, however. The state has also played a part: by refusing to legislate on nikāḥ-only marriages, it has allowed them to persist. Indeed, elaborating on the state’s role, Husain offers a striking interpretation of ongoing Muslim disengagement from marriage registration, which goes back to the initial migrations from South Asia in the 1950s-60s. At this time, he argues, economic migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh considered the UK to be merely a “transient home”: they remained focused upon an imagined “myth of the return” to their places of origin. Meanwhile, the state offered little support for these new communities and merely “left” them to integrate. This created an ethic of community self-reliance that has led to disengagement from the state and an enduring “laissez faire attitude to marriage.”

Husain, speaking in his role as an imām, presents himself as seeking a constructive means forward: one that is gradualist in approach, but seeks a closer alignment between religious and civil laws of marriage. Referring to his own practices, Husain describes how the nikāḥ-certificates that his association provides include a written statement that a nikāḥ-marriage must be civilly registered for it to be considered valid. Likewise, he describes how he and other imām in Nottingham, when confirming Islamic divorces such as ṭalāq and khulʿ, note on a divorce certificate that the Islamic divorce only stands once a civil divorce has been confirmed. The same practice is now being conducted by some other imāms and solicitors in the UK who work with Muslim family law, who comparably confirm an Islamic dissolution of marriage after the completion of civil divorce proceedings (among these are Saher Tariq, Husain’s own student and a family solicitor based in Leeds, who works in conjunction with imāms to provide parallel Islamic and civil separations). This mechanism for aligning Islamic and civil legal stipulations on marriage and divorce, he implies, offers a constructive model that might feasibly be taken up more widely by shari‘ah councils and other community forums.


‘I would like to share my experience after working in community organizations for 40 years and as an imām for 25 years.

Yesterday I was conducting a nikāḥ for a couple; they haven’t had it registered yet, but have said that they will and I hope they will do so. Another woman came to me just before, saying that her daughter was getting married tomorrow, and she would like it if I could do the nikāḥ. I said that I already had three appointments that day, and couldn’t do it. But this happens time after time, even though these weddings are being planned months and years ahead. What this shows is that the religious side and the legal side of marriage is very far from people’s minds. There is nothing legal about it for them, and it can be sad, alarming, and shocking.

Five years ago, I decided to register my mosque as a place for the registration of marriage. I kept talking about how it wasn’t right that we are only performing nikāḥ [without civil marriage]; that it is not recognized by the law; that it leads to complications; and that those who suffer most are usually women, and it is something we shouldn’t be doing. I tried to inform people about this 24/7; I talked about it in my Friday sermons, and had signs and billboards made for my mosque.

Lo and behold, along came the first person who came to me to conduct the nikāḥ for his daughter’s wedding. I told him that he wouldn’t need to get his daughter and son-in-law to get a separate appointment with the registrar to get a civil marriage, and that I could do the civil marriage and the nikāḥ together in the same place. He told me “No no, they can do that later on, you just do the nikāḥ.” I said “Sorry, I’m not going to do it.” Finally he went to someone else. And this was one of the people from my own prayer congregation. That just shows how little marriage registration is being thought about.

After five years, the Nottingham Registry Office were supposed to give me a register so that I could do the whole thing [myself]. But they said that they couldn’t give me a whole register until their superintendent had seen me do seven or eight marriages in their presence. After five years, I have done dozens and dozens of nikāḥs, but only four or five registered marriages. They are just not [requested] […] In fact, one of my close colleagues, on the Board of Trustees, had his daughter’s marriage conducted just a few months ago; again, he just wasn’t interested in getting it registered.

I don’t fully know, but I think I have some kind of explanation for [the reluctance to register marriages], partly from a historical perspective, and partly a theological one. Most British Muslims started arriving [in the UK] in the 1950s, the majority from rural areas of Pakistan, Kashmir, Bengal, and India; and they only had one priority then, which was to earn money and look after their families back home. They were keen on setting up alāl meat shops, and mosques to cater to their needs (indeed, when we [my family] came here in the early 1960s we set up a mosque). So, most thought of this country as a transient home, and there was a sense of this myth of the return. It was the culture, religion, politics, of the home country that was real, and the rest was just transitory.

And sadly that seems to, in a sense, still be going on after 50-60 years. Maybe this is because there was no serious attempt by the state or the government to help. Little support or consideration was given to the religious and social needs of these communities, who were often left to integrate. They were regarded [only] as cheap labour, and little engagement was shown with shari‘ah or their social customs. The lack of engagement with these communities and poor understanding of how Islamic law affects people has, in my opinion, given rise to [the community’s] alternative avenue and this very relaxed, or lax, or laissez faire attitude towards marriage…

I have seen marriages done in my [ancestral] village in Pakistan, and it is totally different. There, the first thing that people think is, “we shall get the munshi sahib (the official clerk or superintendent): we must arrange his appointment first.” But here, people invite me, and say “we want you to come and do the nikāḥ in my house,” and I say “no, I’m not going to do it in your dingy bedroom or your dingy lounge, I’m sorry, it’s got to be done here in the mosque.” And they say “no, then don’t do it.” And that sort of attitude is not changing yet.

That is why I am so adamant that it could be a good thing if there is a change in the law to say that a nikāḥ has to be done in a registered place and that anyone who doesn’t would be breaking the law, or something along those lines. On the other hand, one of my very senior imāms said, “we don’t want that, we need to keep [marriage] flexible; we want to keep it feasible, easy, so that people can just walk into it.” It is almost like some kind of drive-thru at McDonald’s, where people come in and then go out on the other side. There is that laissez faire attitude towards it, sadly.

But there is perhaps [also] a theological underpinning of it, which is that people regard British law as being based on Judeo-Christian values, and of course it is Christian to a great extent. They then say that the Qur’ān is the muṣaddiq, the confirmer, the affirmer, of Judeo-Christian values; therefore, it is [our Islamic practice] that is completely lawful. So whatever is happening in our lives, even if the civil law is silent about it, it is the law of Islam [that matters]; so there is no problem [with unregistered marriage]. I think that might be a reason why some people are so relaxed about registration.

And there is no doubt the question of people not wanting to face legal consequences, men in particular. Some men might have a callous and materialistic attitude, and some women are not bothered either. I always ask when people come to me, “have you made an appointment to get a civil marriage?” A lot say no. I say that they must, but even then they ignore it. Sometimes, this is because of the legal consequences. But it is not always greed and materialism [that prevents marriage registration]. Sometimes, because there is no legal requirement [to register] people just assume that they have got their Islamic endorsement, and that that is enough for them.

On the bottom of the nikāḥ-namah certification that we use in our mosque, we have written clearly that this document is not valid until it is registered with the marriage registry. But again, people are not bothered about it.

Another issue that I have to contend with as an imām is divorce. Women sometimes say that they have got their civil divorce from the courts, but then say that they are still not satisfied, and want an Islamic divorce. I say to them that [the civil divorce] is ten times more powerful than an Islamic divorce, because you and your husband have stood in the dock and declared that you are divorced. What other kind of divorce could you want? [To deal with this problem], I sat down with other imāms and we formulated a certificate that we hand out, that shows that, once you have received your decree of divorce from the magistrate court […] on this date, then that stands as a valid Islamic ṭalāq [divorce]. Three or four of my imāms have signed it, so we give them that.

But even that is not satisfactory to some. So about three years ago I asked Saher Tariq, one of my students and a barrister, who with her husband runs a solicitors firm in Leeds. And after seeing the poor handling of khulʿ divorces, and the poor performance of some of the shari‘ah councils, we decided that it was easy enough to do this ourselves, and we set up our own a shari‘ah council to perform this service. This means that, if people want an Islamic divorce to accompany their government divorce, they can now get their khulʿ from us.

These are the anecdotes I wanted to share with you. I think there is a persistent attitude [among British Muslims] of not taking things seriously. The law or the government might be able to step in here, but I can’t see the government ever interfering, since things don’t work in the way they might in France or Germany, so I would be very surprised if the British government ever involves itself [in regulating Islamic marriage], unless you get the 3.5 million Muslims in Britain suddenly becoming interested and saying they want it. I would be very happy if the British government does say that nikāḥ-only marriage is not allowed, or that anyone who performs it will be punished, but I can’t see it happening.

We should remember something else. One of the core purposes and essence of Islam is to develop the science of human relationships. The Prophet emphasised that his real purpose was to make people of strong character, by which what was really meant was the virtues of kindness, goodness, modesty, gratitude, humility and so on; and the institution of marriage is part of this. The Qur’ān points out the four functions of marriage: it is a legal contract; it is moral (in that you have to exercise raḥma, being moral, within it); it is spiritual, and it has a social aspect. So marriage is very important—and we would not exist as human beings if we did not have this institution… And (I am not being arrogant here since I live in a Western society), this is what the West might actually learn from Islam’s view on this great institution of marriage… So as an imām, it is important for me to emphasise its significance for the wellbeing of my own community, and somehow we have to come back to emphasising this great institution.’

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