Nearly everyone knows that roughly 1400 years ago, the rise of Islamic faith forever changed the landscape of the Arabian Peninsula. Developments in creed, worship, and family matters were only some of the major issues that were addressed in Arabian society. Within the matters related to the family, revolutionary changes in marriage and divorce were also instituted due to the fact that the Islamic tradition acknowledged the importance of marriage and recognized it as a necessary building block in the process of developing a healthy and vibrant community.
Islam went to great lengths to encourage the Muslim to marry and instituted numerous measures to curve and minimize the appearance of divorce in the Muslim household.
The hadith master, Abu Dawood transmits a tradition whereby it is noted, “The most hated of all permissible matters in the sight of Allah Taala is divorce.” Attributing this tradition to the Prophet PBUH is questionable, but regardless, its meaning is clear, well-accepted; that to divorce a woman unjustly is terrible crime. Despite such persuasive and compelling narrations, we find that Muslim society today often takes divorce for granted.
It is oftentimes, the normal outcome of an unhappy marriage. Statistics have captured this trend, as noted in a recent study conducted by Dr. Ilyas Ba-Yunus, a sociology professor at State University of New York, who found an alarming increase in the divorce rate among Muslims in North America reaching approximately 31%. In other words, roughly 1 out of every three Muslim marriages in North America will end in divorce.
The fact that the divorce rate in Muslim communities is approaching that of non-Muslim communities gives credence to the notion that we have failed to apply what the Quran so vividly speaks of when Allah Taala says: “And among His signs, is that He created for you wives from among yourselves, that you may find repose in them, and He has put between you affection and mercy…” – Qur’an 30:21. In another verse, Allah says: “… And live with them honorably…” – Qur’an 4:19.
Living with our spouse honorably and being affectionate with them are just two of the necessary ingredients in a lasting, happy marriage. The Quran lays out a detailed formula for how to keep the ties of marriage strong and avoid the turmoil of divorce. For example, Allah Taala reminds us to always be patient with our spouses and not focus on their shortcomings, but rather focus on their good qualities, “So if you dislike them, it could be that you dislike a thing that Allah Taala puts in it tremendous good.” Quran 4:19. Despite this, if problems arise between couples, we are reminded to not seek out divorce immediately, but to try to rectify the problems by various measures within the household. Allah Taala says, ““And those you are fearful of discord with them, admonish them, separate beds with them, and subdue them. So if they obey you, do not transgress against them.” Quran 4:34.
Furthermore, if the problems between couples cannot be resolved between the couples themselves, they are instructed to seek help from family members. Allah Taala says, “If you fear a split between them (the spouses), send one arbitrator from his family and one from her family. If they desire to set things right, Allah shall bring about harmony between them. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” Quran 4:35
The Qur'an specifically mentions arbitration from family members rather than individuals from outside the family because they are generally more aware of the intricacies of the situation between husband and wife, and as family members they have more at stake than someone from outside the family. If all of the above fail to lead to a resolution of the conflict between husband and wife, divorce now becomes a viable avenue to consider.
In the Qur'an, marriage is described as a sacred and strong bond, meethan ghalithan, but while stressing the sanctity of matrimonial bonds, it allows them to be broken by a following a proper method. Firstly, evidence for the permissibility of divorce can be found in the verse where Allah Taala addresses his Prophet and says, “O Prophet! When you do divorce women, divorce them at their prescribed periods, and accurately count their prescribed periods…” Quran 65:1. Secondly, the method prescribed by the Qur'an for divorce is that a husband can give divorce only twice, on two different occasions, and then either he has to keep the woman with kindness or leave her with benevolence. This is based on the verse, “Divorce is only permissible twice…” Quran 2:229. In pre-Islamic Arab society, without any justification, a man could divorce his wife an unlimited number of times. In other words, he would divorce her, then take her back during her waiting period, then divorce her again, then take her back during her waiting period, and so on, without this cycle ever breaking. In the Jami of Imam Attirmidhi, Aisha makes it clear what used to happen during the period of ignorance. She states, “The husband would divorce his wife whenever he wished, and he could take her back, even if he had divorced her over one hundred times.” In this manner, certain men would use this infinite divorce ability to mistreat their wives, mocking the institution of marriage with the constant threat of divorce. Islam put an end to this chaotic form of marriage when Allah Taala revealed in the Quran, “Divorce is only permissible twice: after that, the parties should either hold together on equitable terms, or separate with kindness.” Quran 2:229
When going through the process of divorce, it should be done in a matter that is consistent with the universal principles of Islam that includes respecting the rights and dignity of the two spouses, as Allah Taala says, “… And whoever transgresses the boundaries of Allah, he has indeed wronged himself…” Quran 65:1…”
Throughout the divorce process, like the reconciliation process that proceeded it, the Islamic tradition encourages patience for the purpose of contemplation, discourse, and possible salvation of the sacred marriage bond. This “sunnah” method, or method advocated by Allah Taala and His messenger, mandates that a man only say divorce once while his wife is in state of purity, void of conjugal relations, and he let her pass through her waiting period. During this waiting period, the wife is encouraged to honor her husband and accentuate her positive traits in the hope that the husband will realize the value of his wife and what life would be like without her. This highlights the remarkable principle that the Islamic divorce system allows for reconciliation between the spouses even after the process of divorce has been initiated. The entire process of marriage, maintenance of strong bonds between husband and wife, conflict resolution between couples, arbitration involving family members, and even divorce, if necessary, accentuates a system that is deliberate, gradual, reversible, and with just aims.
Dr. Aamir Sheikh is the Resident Scholar at Darul Taqwa, Maryland.