In August of this year, The Muslim Institute, a think-tank based in the UK, released a new Muslim marriage contract or nikahnama. The new nikahnama, which took four years of negotiations among various Islamic sharia councils, has been welcomed as the most historic advance in sharia law in Britain in a hundred years. Noteworthy changes in the nikahnama include an overt commitment to equality between men and women. This is translated into actual stipulations by: doing away with the wali requirement and enabling Muslim women to contract their own marriages, delegation of the right to divorce or talaq-e-tafweed — making it possible for either party to initiate divorce proceedings without affecting their financial rights under the contract, and forbidding polygamy both in the UK and abroad. The new nikahnama has been endorsed by several leading Muslim organisations in the UK including the Imams and Mosques Council (UK), Muslim Council of Britain, The Muslim Law (Shariah) Council UK, Utrujj Foundation and The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. According to the authors, one of the purposes of the document is to bring Muslim family law in Britain in line with the advances in sharia jurisprudence that have been legislated in other parts of the Muslim world. Indeed several of the progressive interpre-tations of sharia included in the new document, which its authors are pushing to be used in every Muslim marriage in Britain, have precedent in other Muslim countries.
In Moroccan family law, the requirement for a wali has been abandoned and in Algeria it is optional. In addition, in both Pakistan and Bangladesh (which follow Hanafi jurisprudence), a woman has the right to talaq-e-tafweed and can ask for a divorce without jeopardising her financial interests as pursuant to the document. The requirement to waive the right to polygamy — a criminal offence in Britain — also follows interpretations of sharia which recognise that the perfect justice that is demanded to be applied between wives is a human impossibility thus invalidating the premise of polygamy itself.
Currently, Islamic marriages conducted by an imam are not recognised in Britain, with the result that most British Muslims have to contract two marriages, one with an imam and another in civil court. The result has been that many Muslim marriages are not registered with civil authorities causing all sorts of problems for spouses that can be denied immigration and state benefits because of their lack of official status. The hope is that this uniform written document will make inroads towards having the British Government recognise Islamic marriages as a form of legal marriage without requiring Muslims to go through two different ceremonies. Further, it will put an end to de facto Islamic marriages that are promulgated without a written nikahnama and with little negotiation regarding the rights of the spouses or the obligations of each party in the case of divorce. The other side up in arms over this new nikahnama is conservative British clerics who see any institution of gender equality within Islam as a threat rather than a cause for celebration. Another critique of the document has been made by Shaykh Abu Yousuf Tawfique Chowdhury, director of Al Kauthar and Mercy Mission, who insists that “the contract lowers the status and position of the husband treating him constantly with mistrust whereas the position of husband is one of tremendous right over the wife”.
In terms of substantive progress, the new nikahnama should be celebrated as a form of consensus among British Muslims that recognises the urgent necessity of reforming Sharia towards gender equality. The onus now lies with the British Government which can no longer use the argument of protecting Muslim women in its refusal to recognise Islamic marriages.