Muslims in Britain: Marriage and divorce, traversing between Islamic and British values
Dr Islam Uddin
Ph.D. Middlesex University
This paper explores the practices of marriages and divorce among British Muslims. The law of England and Wales is a monolithic legal system, that it recognises no parallel systems of personal law. Matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, and children are exclusively dealt with by the civil law which applies to all. Legislation such as the Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 stipulate the conditions for a valid marriage and divorce. Existing studies show that some British Muslims follow customary/normative laws from their cultures of origin, resulting in marriages performed according to religious rites. Where this is not coupled with a civil ceremony of marriage, these couples are treated as cohabitees by the law, and their nikah is seen as a ‘non-marriage’ or ‘non-existent marriage’, limiting their access to state dispute resolution mechanisms. This paves the way for religious dispute resolution forums such as Shariah Councils. Recent debates have focused on the use of Shariah Councils i.e. quasi-legal, unofficial bodies that function to mediate, arbitrate and issue Islamic divorce certificates. Critics argue that Shariah Councils follow Islamic norms, discriminate against Muslim women, operate as a parallel legal system, contradict human rights law and therefore should be banned. Others view Shariah Councils as flexible and providing a solution to the needs of Muslim women while operating within the law.
This study employed a qualitative methodology to understand the causes and motivations surrounding practices of marriage and divorce among British Muslims. The research involved in-depth interviews with British Muslim women. The ‘narrative’ nature of the interviews established a timeline of events for participants, which covered marriage, marital disputes, and divorce.
Furthermore, the study involved interviews with professionals identified as providing services to Muslims during the marriage, marital disputes and divorce ranging from Imams, Shariah council judges, to solicitors and counsellors; and observation of Shariah council hearings and analysis of its procedural documents. The data collected were analysed using thematic analysis, and the emergent themes from the rich data provided a deep insight of the research problem, allowing a socio-legal examination of the research problem firmly embedded in the ‘lived’ experience.
The findings provide an insight into the intricacy of marriage and divorce practices among British Muslims and reveal the strong influence of religion and culture in establishing social norms, dictating the importance for nikah (Islamic marriage) and Islamic divorce, and highlight the role of Shariah councils as a dispute resolution forum within the British Muslim community. For some British Muslims the adherence to Islamic values supersede the need to follow British values, thus the practice of nikah-only or unregistered marriages, similarly many seek a religious divorce even having gained a civil divorce, and will use a Shariah council if required. Nonetheless, this study also found some British Muslims easily navigate between official and unofficial law, traversing between Islamic and British values to suit their personal needs, whilst maintaining strong a connection with their identity.