Triple Talaq: Call for Reform

The issue of triple talaq is a very sensitive one. On the one hand are traditionalist Muslim scholars who wrongly regard even the slightest deviation from the opinion of their school as unlawful. On the other hand are thousands of Muslim women whose lives are being destroyed under the evil effects of a particular method of divorce.

By Waris Mazhari

The issue of triple talaq in one sitting has once again become a subject of heated discussion. Many Muslims continue to oppose the argument that uttering the word talaq in one sitting cannot dissolve a Muslim marriage. This is because triple talaq in one sitting as constituting an irrevocable divorce has been the position of many (though not all), of the scholars affiliated with the four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence for centuries.
Some Muslims wrongly believe that any rule whose origin is from outside the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence is prohibited, and that is why they oppose the argument for making three talaqs in one sitting to be just one, not three. However, this concept has no authentic foundation in Islamic jurisprudence. In Sunni jurisprudential history, there are many instances of practices which earlier were followed by others who were treated as innovators but which later on, due to changes in political and social conditions, were favourably adopted by the Sunni ulema or scholars of Islamic jurisprudence. It is hoped that the pressure of circumstance would similarly lead the ulema of today to accept suitable reforms in the law of divorce, too.

Famous Islamic Jurists and Theologians
There have always been a considerable number of Muslim scholars and jurists, since the period of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad until today, who have insisted on the other view, that if a Muslim husband utters the word talaq three times in one sitting, it constitutes one talaq. According to Ibn ul-Qayyim (d.1350), the famous Islamic jurist and theologian, some noted Companions of the Prophet, such as Ali (the fourth Caliph of the Sunni Muslims), Abdullah bin Masood, Abdullah bin Abbas, Zubair bin Awwam, and Abdur Rahman bin Awf, viewed the utterance of the word talaq in one sitting as one, not three, and, thus, as not resulting in an irrevocable divorce(al-talaq ul-mughallaza).
Ibn ul-Qayyim writes that some of the followers and disciples of Abu Hanifa, putative founder of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence (with which most Indian Sunnis claim affiliation),issued rulings in accordance with this view. This is also the view of some Muslim sects, such as the Ahl-e Hadith and the Shias of the Jafari school.

Quranic Restraint on Quick Divorce
When formulating the law about divorce, it appears that the Quran tends to put a restraint on quick divorce since it clearly suggests that ‘A divorce is only permissible twice: after that, the parties should either hold together on equitable terms, or separate with kindness.’(2:229) According to this verse, there must be room for retaining the wife after uttering the word talaq, which would not be possible if triple talaq in one sitting were considered an irrevocable divorce. It seems illogical and unnatural that a marital relationship of, say, 30 years breaks off within thirty seconds, without leaving a chance of reconsideration. The Quran (4:22) refers to the agreement which a husband and a wife pledge together as a ‘strong covenant’, and, obviously, that cannot be so vulnerable and easily broken by a one-sided decision taken in a state of anger or depression.
An Innovation is Condemnable
Another important point to consider is that according to all Islamic scholars, uttering talaq thrice in one sitting and taking it to mean a final divorce is an innovation (bid‘ah), and innovation is condemnable, as is clearly mentioned in the Hadith, reports attributed to the Prophet. This being the case, how can an innovation be enforced and made a rule in the matter of divorce?
Those who claim that three talaqs in one sitting count only as one, and not three, and so do not result in the end of a Muslim marriage also infer their opinion from a hadith recorded in the Sahih Muslim, a collection of Hadith reports widely respected among Sunni Muslims. According to this report, Abdullah bin Abbas, a famous Companion of the Prophet, said that triple talaq in one sitting was considered as one in the period of the Prophet, the period of the first Caliph Abu Bakr, and during the early years of the second Caliph Umar (Sahih Muslim, 1482). Another tradition relates that a companion of the Prophet, Rukanah bin Yazid, divorced his wife thrice in one sitting. He then regretted what he had done and approached the Prophet. The Prophet asked him how he had divorced his wife. Rukanah answered that he had done so by pronouncing the word talaq thrice. The Prophet asked him if he had pronounced it in a single sitting, to which he replied in the affirmative. The Prophet then said that it had the effect of one divorce, and that if he wanted to take his wife back he could. And so, Rukanah took her back (Musnad Ahmad: 2387).
Defenders of triple talaq in one sitting often cite the enforcement of this practice by Umar, the second Caliph. In response, it can be said that this was intended for the welfare of the society in that particular socio-historical context. Umar thought it an appropriate ruling as men had made talaq a joke by taking back their wives even after uttering the word talaq several times, because of which their wives had to suffer, being stuck in a vicious circle and not being able to gain their freedom. Misusing the provision that allowed men to utter the word talaq and then take back their wives, men had become reckless and irresponsible, and that is why he decided to consider triple talaq in one sitting to constitute an irrevocable divorce.
The issue of triple talaq is a very sensitive one. On the one hand are traditionalist Muslim scholars who wrongly regard even the slightest deviation from the opinion of their school as unlawful. On the other hand are thousands of Muslim women whose lives are being destroyed under the evil effects of a particular method of divorce. It is incumbent upon Muslims to find a balanced solution to this in accordance with the teachings and spirit of Islam and thereby protect Muslim societies from corruption. Muslims must take initiatives for the reform of the practice of talaq. This reform needs also to happen at the level of laws, too. Many Muslim-majority countries have reformed their laws in this regard, considering three talaqs in one sitting to be just one. Indian Muslims must come forth as well to support this sort of reform, realising that it is essential for their own welfare.
(Waris Mazhari, a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, is a Ph.D from the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, where he is presently teaching. He can be contacted on [email protected])

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