The Marriage Contract in the West

The Marriage Contract

Coming to Terms With the Law of the Land

Altaf Husain 

You must have heard time and again that Islam is a way of life, a religion whose teachings are universal, comprehensive, and timeless. That is, the teachings are applicable anywhere in the world, the teachings cover all aspects of life at least in spirit, and the teachings are as applicable today and in any point in the future as they were at the onset of Islam some 1,426 years ago.

So what’s the problem, you must be wondering. Why are Muslims today behaving in some cases as if Islamic teachings are not universal, meaning they are not transferable outside the so-called Muslim world? Why are Muslims today behaving in some cases as if Islamic teachings are limited in scope and do not apply, for example, to politics or international affairs? Or just as bad, why are Muslims today behaving in some cases as if Islamic teachings are totally out of sync with what is going on in the world today, suggesting that Islamic teachings need to be revised, revamped, or rejected in part to make them applicable to the “modern world”? Who are these Muslims and why is their understanding of Islam so skewed? Why is it that the rest of the world is talking about the global village, the fusion of borders, and the shrinking world, and some of these Muslims are still splitting the world into the world of the Muslims and the world of the kuffar or the disbelievers? Although there are so many issues that could be discussed along these lines, one particularly disturbing trend has appeared in the realm of marriage.

Islam in the West

After Muslims have lived for seven centuries in Europe and for at least the last century in America, one would think they would have come to terms with the law of the land. Yet, regrettably, of late, some young Muslims have taken it upon themselves to reject the laws of their respective lands, opting supposedly to live their lives only by Islamic teachings. The irony is that one of the central principles of Islamic teachings is that a Muslim is obligated to follow the law of the land, be it America or the United Kingdom, as long as following the law of the land does not contradict any Islamic teachings or forbid the practice of Islam itself.

To date, with the exception of the hijab ban in France and most recently and regrettably, the hijab ban in Tunisia of all places, there have been no instances of laws of the land that contradict Islamic teachings. For example, although homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, some countries in the West are adopting laws to protect the rights of homosexuals. Islamic teachings are not violated by such laws because there is nothing within those laws that makes homosexuality mandatory on every citizen. And the same could be said about the laws governing the production and consumption of alcohol as well as gambling, abortion, and so many other societal norms in the West. It must be emphasized again that Muslims should have no problems living by the laws of the land as long as those laws do not contradict Islamic teachings and do not outlaw the practice of Islam itself.

Why Register the Marriage in “Kafir” Courts? Why Not?

With particular regard to marriage, some young Muslims are beginning to question the necessity of registering their marriage according to the law of the land. The common argument goes, “Why should we bother to register our marriage in a kafir country being ruled by kafir law?” Translation: Why should we bother to obey the law of the disbelievers?  How these poor souls came to such a distorted understanding is far from obvious. What is obvious is that they are indeed being selective as to which laws of the land they agree to follow and which laws of the land they reject.

For example, these same young people celebrate joyfully arriving at the age at which they can register themselves for a driver’s license — a requirement set up by the so-called disbelievers to ensure that the Muslims and all other citizens are qualified to handle a machine moving at the proverbial speed of light. In addition, the car being driven must be registered with the government and a valid license plate must be displayed to identify the particular car. When they pull me over for a moving violation and I show them my license, the traffic police knows exactly who I am, where I live, that I am licensed to drive, and to be sure, that my license has not expired. From the license plate and registration information, they know that in fact the car is registered and, more importantly, that I or a family member is the registered owner of the car — that is, the car is not stolen. Anything wrong with obeying these laws? No, goes the argument. Of course I have to get a license to drive or risk being fined and jailed, depending on the particular law I break while driving. But are those not kafir laws? Silence. Awkward pause. Than why not get a license to marry? More silence. Extended awkward pause.

Marriage Procedure in the US

In the United States, for example, in most states a couple must be 18 years of age and acquire a license, usually from the Clerk of the Circuit Court, before they can get married. In order to acquire the license, the couple must swear under oath that the information they are providing about each other is the truth and acknowledge that any false testimony is punishable by law. For the oath, although the tradition is to swear on the Bible, the couples who are not Christian are not required to swear on the Bible. After acquiring the license, the couple must marry within 60 days and the marriage ceremony must be performed by a religious official, a celebrant (a person licensed by the Clerk of the Circuit Court), or a judge. Anything difficult to swallow according to Islamic teachings?

Muslim couples often acquire the license and then hold the actual ceremony to sign the contract and to announce the wedding in the masjid or Islamic center. The imam presiding over the signing of the contract first ensures that the couple have acquired the license from the Clerk of the Circuit Court. Once the imam, the bride and groom, and the two witnesses sign the contract, the imam completes the necessary paperwork which must then be returned to the Clerk of the Circuit Court to consider the couple officially married and registered in the government’s records. Again, anything contrary to Islamic teachings thus far?

The alarm must be sounded to awaken those young people who continue to insist that their marriages will not be registered as required by the law of the land. There are increasing numbers of cases in Europe and in America, whereby those couples who did not register their marriages with the government are finding themselves at a total loss when the marriages end up in divorce. And the wife is the one who often suffers the most because she has no right of petition because the government was not even aware of the marriage taking place. Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqui, renowned scholar and the current chairperson of the Fiqh Council of North America, challenges the view of those who say a marriage does not have to be registered according to the law of the land. He writes in response to a questionposed in’s Fatwa Section:

They say that in Islamic marriage paper work is not necessary. They also say that they only care for what is halal and want to marry according to the Shari`ah, they do not care whether the marriage is legally recognized here or not. However, there are some cases where Muslim women have greatly suffered, due to these unregistered marriages. Some Muslim men marry without any legal papers and then leave their wives. These women do not know what to do and how to get divorce from their husbands who abandon them. Upon resorting to the US and Canadian courts they are told that according to the local laws they are not considered married. These women have nothing to prove their marriage and the courts have no marriage record of these women. Even the local Islamic centers in the US and Canada are unable to help them, because the laws in these lands do not give the right of divorce to anyone except to the local superior courts. It is important for Muslim men and women to have their marriages and divorces properly documented. Islam teaches fairness and justice in all cases.

Protection of Rights Is Islamic

It is inconceivable that a young Muslim couple, and especially a Muslim woman, would in this day and age agree to put themselves in such a vulnerable situation by not registering their marriage. More efforts are needed in the Muslim community to educate both young men and women that there is absolutely no contradiction of Islamic teachings when a couple register the marriage according to the laws of the land. With increased advocacy, Muslims are making great strides in having the civil courts recognize the marriage contract drawn up and signed in accordance with Islamic teachings. Therefore, in a case where a Muslim couple end up in court for whatever issues related to their marriage, conditions and stipulations set by the Islamic marriage contract will be enforceable by the law of the land.

Now That You’re Married, Celebrate!

Having touched upon the serious topic of registering the marriage according to the law of the land, we move now to touch upon a more lively topic — creative halal ideas for wedding celebrations. Of late, the same poor souls who wish not to register their marriages according to the laws of the land are also recommending that marriages be treated as somber occasions, without any form of celebration. This brief article is not intended to address the more complex topic of whether or not music and dancing are permissible at wedding celebrations. The reader should seek out the answers to these questions with knowledgeable, respected, and trustworthy scholars. It does go without saying that there is no justification within Islamic teachings, nor disagreement among the majority of scholars, about celebrations which allow for the free mixing of men and women. For our purposes, it suffices to say that there are many creative halal ideas young couples and their families have come up with to celebrate and enjoy the wedding day, all well within the bounds of Islamic teachings.

Planning Makes All the Difference

While spontaneous wedding celebrations can be lively and memorable, it is best not to rely solely on Uncle Ahmed to become inspired and lead everyone in a nasheed. Having a written, planned program for the celebration might seem anti-fun, but all couples who look back at their wedding celebrations will admit that planning does make all the difference. These days, a typical wedding day consists of the contract signing, the wedding feast (walimah), and the wedding celebration. The contract signing should be done, as much as possible, in the masjid, and men and women can remain in their respective praying sections during this segment of the program.

For the segments of the program following the contract signing, extra care must be given to ensure that the venue chosen for the celebration ensures the separation of men and women. In the United States, it has become customary to use the basements or multipurpose halls of Islamic centers as venues for both the wedding feasts and wedding celebrations.

According to some couples who chose this route, the Islamic center option has both advantages and disadvantages. One clear advantage is that there are great blessings associated with having the contract signing done in the masjid, with as many members of the Muslim community witnessing the offer of marriage and the acceptance as possible. Even if the couple intend to have a reception at another location with a smaller group of family and friends, offering a light meal at the masjid with an open invitation to the entire community also has its blessings and is in line with Prophetic teachings. We learn from the narration of Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him), that “the worst food is that of a wedding banquet to which only the rich are invited while the poor are not invited. And he who refuses an invitation (to a banquet) disobeys Allah and His Apostle” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 62, Hadith 106 and Sahih Muslim, Book 8, Hadith 3349).
It is true that catered receptions are not inexpensive and there is nothing wrong in principle with having such a reception if one can afford it, but to the extent possible, the light meal at the Islamic center should serve as the wedding feast so that the most diverse segments of the community can partake of the food and join in making du`aa’ for the newlyweds. An additional advantage is that having all aspects — from contract signing to the wedding feast to the actual celebration — held in one venue such as the Islamic center limits the need for family members and friends to move around the city all dressed up in their best outfits. A disadvantage exists only to the extent that the physical size of the center does not accommodate comfortably all of the wedding guests. This is especially the feedback from the sisters because often the center facilities have very limited prayer space for women. 
Some More Ideas!

Another venue to hold wedding feasts and celebrations is at a designated party hall or hotel ballroom. There are again advantages and disadvantages to choosing the party hall or hotel ballroom. One advantage is that such designated facilities allow the most flexibility for ensuring separation of the sexes and therefore the most relaxed environment, especially for the women, to enjoy the auspicious occasion. Among the creative ideas that mostly women have come up with is an arrangement for a live video feed from the men’s section to the women’s section so that the women can see and hear certain segments of the celebration such as the Qur’an recitation, the brief talks by family and friends, and if the video feed is mistakenly not turned off in time, the attempts by the men of the family at performing some of the cultural dances.
The sisters have also developed a sophisticated array of outfits that allow them to be dressed up without necessarily revealing, while in mixed and public settings, how dressed up they in fact really are. Another advantage is that the newlyweds, who are often beyond the point of exhaustion, can have a hotel room or honeymoon suite, as it is more commonly known, to rest and to change into the multiple outfits for each segment of the celebration, as dictated by culture.

One disadvantage is that such venues are expensive and could pose a financial hardship on the newlyweds and their respective families. Another disadvantage is that, partly due to the exorbitant per person catering costs and partly due to the venue capacity, families usually have to make very difficult decisions as to whom to invite to attend. Of course, such selectivity, though entirely justifiable, precludes the possibility of having a diverse and long guest list. One final disadvantage, which is really more of an inconvenience more than anything, is that in separated halls, parents of very young children are unable to maintain communication because mobile phones do not have clear reception — or wait, who actually keeps their phones on during celebrations? Another creative response to this inconvenience has been to have on hand several sets of two-way radios (walkie-talkies) and designated young volunteers who remain on alert to listen and convey messages between the by-now frustrated fathers and mothers of very young children who want to be with daddy, no wait, with mommy, no wait, with daddy, and so on.

Final Thoughts

So let us not make life more difficult for ourselves by insisting on not registering marriages in kafir countries with kafir laws. While living in majority non-Muslim countries, we must follow the law of the land as long as that law does not contradict the teachings of Islam nor prohibits the practice of Islam. When it comes to wedding celebrations, let us also not restrict ourselves unnecessarily. Within the bounds of Islamic teachings, there is great flexibility as to how the newlyweds and their family members and friends can enjoy the occasion and make the celebration memorable. Great care must be taken to involve as much as possible the newlyweds themselves in the planning so that they can add their personal touches. Most recently, Muslim party planners have emerged, and what a blessing indeed it is to leave the organizing of the celebration in the hands of persons trained to plan!


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