Ajmal Masroor is one of Britain’s most high-profile imāms. He leads prayers in four London mosques, and has been a high-profile spokesperson and broadcaster for British Muslims. He has been a well-known proponent of reformist Islamic thought, including on issues of family values and laws, and has headed the Barefoot Institute, which counsels on matters of marriage, divorce, and family mediation for British Muslims.
In this extract, Masroor articulates some of the interpretations of marriage that he offers to young British Muslims when mentoring them in advance of officiating their nikāḥ marriages. In particular, he asks for the rehabilitation of the spiritual qualities of marriage. He criticises the popular fetishism surrounding the glamour of weddings (and the influence of “Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood”—the Nigerian equivalent). He is equally disparaging of the frequent use of nikāḥ-marriages as easy means of licencing sexual relationships. Both these factors, he argues, cloud reflection and judgement, and incite young people to take out “DIY nikāḥ marriages.”
Here he calls instead for a more “spiritual” reflection upon marriage, and the role it holds in the “just and equitable system” that Allāh has provided for man through shari‘ah. Marriage, he argues, was granted as the foundation of strong families and a stable society. Moreover, Islam’s teachings on marriage carry such universal values that they may even have constructive lessons for Western societies.
Perhaps as an antidote to the focus on the stipulations of fiqh common to much community and public discussion, Masroor seeks a return to the Qur’ānic message of marriage. Looking to āyahs such as 30:21, he argues that marriage should comprise a “space of safety” for both partners. Moreover, he plays on the difference between partners being “equal” and “equitable”: the implication being that, in the latter sense, the spouses are beholden to find a relationship of balance and complementarity that works for them. In other words, it may not be that partners should expect identical roles, but rather, that they should construct their own forms of mutual support.
Masroor also hints at some of the cultural norms that detract from proper reflection on the Qur’ānic ethics of marriage. Referencing especially the South Asian communities among whom he works, he notes that imāms, khandans (families) and biradaris (community bodies) exact unwelcome social influence in matrimonial matters. He blames cultural norms, misunderstanding, and illiteracy for practices such as “backstreet nikāḥs,” instant triple-talāq (talāq-i-bid‘āh) and nikāḥ-i-halālah (tehlīl), which he disparages as moral profanities.
Masroor identifies the need for more responsible community handling of matrimonial issues: not just of families, but also, the need for responsible imāms to officiate marriages, and for trained counsellors to handle marital breakdown in line with the Qur’ān’s teachings on divorce. He notes the Bayyah al-‘Ahd Institute as a forum for doing this.
Masroor argues that, by Islamic laws of contract, a nikāḥ contract can only be considered as lawful in shari‘ah if it is “legally enforceable”: in other words, in the contemporary UK, an Islamic marriage must be civilly registered to be valid. He makes the same argument regarding divorces, thus forbidding non-judicial divorce. These arguments have often been used by imāms in Europe, and suggest possibilities for the creative reformulation of matrimonial laws in Muslim minority contexts.
‘In my view marriage has been made far too complicated by us, our society and many other influences: the culture, the family demands that we often have to meet, and societal pressures including the ideal of the perfect marriage as portrayed by our media, Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood [the comparably influential Nigerian film industry].
I go to many nikāḥs, and conduct them often. I am selective about who I [accept to do them for], and do [sometimes] say no. There is one prominent feature of most nikāḥs, which is the expense, the money, the amount of Hollywood and Bollywood influence, and these in my view create huge burdens including financial demands. I had one guy who came to me and said “please can you help, my wife is demanding £20,000 in mahr (bridal gift) and a diamond ring, plus her family is demanding a share in my house. What do I do?” There are huge financial demands…
There is also confusion around emotion, and [the belief that] love will make anything happen [and ensure] that everything will be ok. I fear that this is a huge confusion. I ask young people, “when you feel that you are in love, where is that feeling?” They point to their heart […] Then I ask, “what about marriage? Where is the feeling?” They point to their head […] So then I ask, “if love is here, and marriage is here, and you get married without one and the other being the same, how do you expect the marriage to last?” […]
There is also the impact of the secular and materialist attitude that is dominant in our world today. There is a view that the more secular you are, the more progressive you are, so any notion of spiritual marriage is an anathema. I was laughed at on TV by secular intellectuals for talking about spirituality; they asked if I was “bringing God into the bedroom.” This attitude does have an impact.
In Islam, all contracts must be reasonable and legally enforceable. And what I have learned in my studies is that, by Islamic teaching, marriage is only a marriage when it is enforceable by contract. It is [a contract] between two adults, a male and a female, and it is social, financial, and spiritual, a vow between two people with God in their presence. If you believe in God, and have God in your vows, that is no simple thing. It is a mark of commitment to many things, of which one is accepting the other person as an equitable partner. “Equitable” does not mean “equal,” and it relates to what I call the “leaning effect”—that one partner should be able to lean on the other. When two people lean on one another, there has to be a point of equilibrium—it may not be in the centre, but may be slightly one way or the other, depending on the peoples’ height, weight, and many other factors. If you create an equal partnership it could be a problem; an equitable partnership is far better. Equitable indicates equality in honour, equality in every sphere, as well as equitable in terms of proportionality. So in my view, the first thing is acceptance of that particular partnership.
The second thing is that people often hold a notion of sakīna, from the Qur’anic verse of living in sakūna. I often see a mistranslation of this from Arabic to English as “tranquillity”—“you can live with them in tranquillity”—and I find this absurd, because the Arabic word [sakūna] does not mean tranquillity. It refers to [the place where] you live: I translate it as “to create a safe space.” “Li-taskunū ilayhā”: a manifestation of living with somebody, in a place of safety, where you can both grow, emotionally, and spiritually. A commitment to creating a safe space is missing from our conversation. Marriage should be a safe space for the couple, for families, for children; but the reality has become wholly different, and it is a safe space no longer.
The other reference to safe space in the Qur’ān [is] when Allāh talks about relationships. He actually talks about two, rather than one, realms of relationship: one has relatives through blood or through marriage. But in current conversations, I often hear of [only] one or the other… This imbalance is a big problem. If the Qur’ānic notion of family is based on both your blood and your marriage, what about creating a balanced environment where there is safe space for all?
The other commitment that we are making in marriage, in my view, is investing in love and mercy. Love and mercy are two terms that are often misunderstood. The word mawadda is used in the Qur’ān—but what does it really mean? It comes from the Arabic word al-wudd—and Allāh’s name is al-Wadūd. The other Arabic word is al-Raḥmān, which is Allāh’s name too. So please don’t mistranslate these words as some mad love or infatuation that you and I have but that is only manifested materially. It can’t be, for the word would be hūbb, if it only meant material love. So if Allah is talking about creating a safe space in which you will become recipient […] Allah will be put in between the two concepts, mawadda and al-raḥma, the integral part of a relationship. You can’t have it unless there is a safe space, and you can’t have it unless you understand the concept. These are very fundamental spiritual concepts. And this is missing in the majority of marital discourse.
I am afraid I have to single out the South Asian community. Being in continuous discourse with my own community, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Gujaratis, Sri Lankans—our communities have missed this understanding of marriage completely. It has become something very different.
So in my view, a nikāḥ is only valid when the following criteria are fulfilled: when there is proposal and acceptance, when there is a witnessed contract, a mahr, public declaration, and a walī for all schools of thought except Ḥanafīs. But the seventh criteria, which is integral in my view, is legality. If there is no legality, there is no nikāḥ. There is no nikāḥ without legal [recognition] in my view. When people have come to me, and told me that their marriage could not be enforced, I have said to them that that marriage is not [a real] marriage. I was saying this even twenty years ago, and have received several threats as a result.
The same applies to ṭalāq. A man merely pronouncing “I divorce you” three times in my view is not real ṭalāq. It is an abuse of the word ṭalāq, because this is not mentioned in the Qur’ān, this is talāq-i-bid‘āh […] I really go mad when people say to me “can I give three ṭalāqs in one go?” I say one more thing too, which is that ṭalāq must be legally enforceable. Otherwise, ṭalāq is not ṭalāq, just like a nikāḥ is not nikāḥ unless it is legally enforceable.
There are too many misunderstandings, too many backstreet nikāḥs, because of these problems; because there are biradaris (community associations), there are khandans (extended families), there is illiteracy, there are imāms who [claim to be] important and [other] people with vested interests—this conversation [about marriage] is one that the imāms ought to be having.
In my view, anyone who wants to divorce their wife, or husband, should go to a court, [and] whether they live in a Muslim or a non-Muslim country makes no difference. Do you think that the purpose of marriage and divorce was so that they could become kinds of DIY exercises? I think of the McDivorce—just drive through a shop and you pick up your marriage and then you go to the next window, and you get a divorce and your marriage is dissolved. It can’t be this way, because this nullifies the purpose of shari‘ah, which is to produce a just and equitable system.
We need to change law, to make [a nikāḥ] equal or equivalent to a civil marriage. Criminalisation alone is not the solution.
Another issue is that the walī-ship is not what our communities perceives it to be. As a walī, you don’t own someone; you have a right to play a mentoring or guiding role, but it is a God-given right for [a person] to choose [their own] partner. That is one form of knowledge that we are not giving to the younger generation… The walī has the right to guide you, but not to tell you what to do. There is a telling story from the second Caliph of Islam, who was looking for someone to give a reference for a boy who had made a marriage proposal for his own daughter. He went to the mosque and said, “does anyone know this boy?” A man claimed that he knew the boy, since he came to the mosque every day. Caliph ‘Umar said, “there are three criteria that I use before I can take a reference: either you know the boy because you have lived with him, or because you have had issues with him, or you have done business with him. Which are you?” The man said “none – I know him from the mosque,” and ʿUmar said, “you are thus disqualified from giving a reference.” This has a message about the guardian. He is a person who puts in the legwork to get the referencing right, to fill in the background detail, and give an objective perspective. That [point] must not be lost in translation [of the term] or in the fiqhī debate that we have.
A relationship cannot be formed based purely upon platonic relationship. Nikāḥ legalises a sexual relationship with another person, but the sexual aspect is only a part. In Britain, in the community that I come from, I see more divorces, more people separating, and more children suffering as a consequence. The way to [address] this is by strengthening families—and marriage is crucial to creating a stable society […]
In my view, nikāḥ has been often misunderstood. It should not just be a case of an imām doing something inaudible, illegible, or without any participation […] When I perform a nikāḥ, I provide some criteria […] of which one is that the people attending are able to hear everything clearly, and can take part […] to me, nikāḥ is an important agreement between two people, a prenuptial agreement. Unfortunately, Muslims don’t always do it [in this way]…
In a case I am dealing with now, a very successful girl is marrying with a young man who is just starting out, struggling, and from a difficult background. They love each other and want to get married. But she is smart, and came to me and asked if I could help make a pre-nuptial agreement; she could not go to a lawyer, since that would be too much pressure on the boy. I agreed, and went to the boy’s family. But he said, “no, I don’t want a pre-nuptial agreement, doesn’t she trust me? It’s instant blackmail!” So I said to him, “can you sign a piece of paper, saying that all the things she has and owns before her marriage, and whatever she gets by way of gifts or inheritance from her family, will be hers?” He said, “I can do that.” So we went through the details, and then I asked him “If you can sign this, can you not do it for a solicitor?” He had been afraid that a pre-nuptial agreement would mean that it would take away his rights, as a man, and would give more rights to his wife. So, there is an element of fear within our community [regarding pre-nuptial agreements] that needs to be clarified. I am very much in favour of pre-nuptial agreements, as I am of marriage, and it is the most important issue that we can clarify for our generation.
Just to finish: nikāḥ-i-halālah (a form of temporary remarriage) is the biggest ḥarām (sin) we have in our world today, and this needs to be stated loudly and unequivocally by everybody. Ḥalāl is a sacred term, and it is unethical and unacceptable to use this term for prostitution. This is a manifestation of complete ignorance in our community, of a man wanting to have his cake and eat it, divorcing his wife three times, abusing the God-given right that he has, and then wanting her back. If I were a judge, I’d put him in prison […]
When there is conflict in a marriage, couples should not resort to families, since they are not objective. I would like to analyse the Qur’ānic injunctions about reconciliation—I believe this ability should be given to a body of counsellors or a trained professional. I want to have people who are trained and accountable to provide a nikāḥ. I don’t want untrained people conducting nikāḥ and therefore causing problems. We [ourselves] do this through our own organisation [the Barefoot Institute], to provide as much as we can.
A second thing is to learn from Europe. The divorce rate in Britain or Germany is close to 50%, which is too high… Marriage is integral to everything we do as Muslims.
I think that Muslims and non-Muslims should together create some universal value system that is driven by the Qur’ān and the Sunnah, as we understand, on those principles on which we have no disagreements, which is about 95%. For the [other] 5% we can create a template called “agreeing to disagree.” If we can create that, I think some of the problems can be overcome.’
 Qur’ān 30:21.