Sharia is more than a legal code. Sharia is based on the Koran and the Sunnah (the ways of the Prophet Muhammad). It governs every aspect of a person’s life. It also contains detailed rules governing marriage and divorce. In this post, I would like to explore some of the various rules and regulations over the customs and practices of marriage in Islam.
If my understanding is erroneous or imperfect, please, do comment on it: I will be very happy to have any of my misconceptions corrected. My aim is to bring the reality of marriage under Sharia forward, so that even non-Muslims may understand it and its implications.
There are several aspects of Islamic marriage which are addressed under Sharia. These are the terms of the marriage itself, the terms of any divorce (which is permitted and regulated under Sharia), the ‘marriage present’, or ‘bride price’, which is obligatory under Sharia, and who may or may not enter into a marriage contract.
1. Islamic marriage
There are several types of marriages in Islam. In all cases, a marriage is a social contract, with legal documents specifying the terms of the marriage. Here is a list of the main ones, with a brief explanation:
This is the most common Islamic marriage. It is a ‘permanent’ marriage – and somewhat similar to the ‘Western’ concept of ‘marriage’. However, instead of equal obligations among the husband and wife, the husband is responsible for the welfare of the wife, and becomes her legal guardian (as a woman cannot be emancipated under Sharia – her status is equal to that of a minor).
According to the Koran, a man may have up to 4 wives through Nikah marriage at any point in time. A wife is not permitted to have multiple husbands at the same time.
Divorce is permitted, provided it follows the proper rules under Sharia.
This is a ‘fixed term’ or ‘temporary’ marriage (mainly practiced under Shi’a form of Islam – and which is promoted in Iran as an alternative to young people having extra-marital affairs).
Even before the marriage is entered into, a time limit is specified for the duration of this marriage. This period can last years, or it can be as little as one hour. Following this period, the marriage is dissolved. The same rules and obligations now apply to the couple as under an Islamic divorce.
‘Fixed term’ or ‘temporary’ marriages do not count towards the maximum of 4 wives.
This is also termed ‘traveler’s marriage’ – and also does not count towards the maximum of 4 wives.
Under this type of marriage, the husband’s obligations are significantly reduced, as he does not have to support this wife. In return, she retains more independence. This is mostly a ‘Sunni’ practice, just as the nikah mut’ah is a mostly Shi’a practice.
The husband is not responsible for the maintanance of this wife, though he enjoys the marital privileges of ‘visiting her’ as frequently (or seldom) as he pleases.
Special Case 1: female slaves (prisoners)
If a man cannot support a wife (or multiple wives) sufficiently, it is recommended that instead of entering into a marriage, he should purchase a female slave. Sharia has very specific rules on slavery: female slaves are ‘permitted’ to a man who owns them, without binding him with the obligations a marriage entitles.
Female prisoners are considered equivalent to slaves: that is why, according to some Islamic scholars, part of the ‘punishment’ of a female prisoner is rape by her jailers. Both ‘slaves’ and ‘prisoners’ are referred to in the Koran as ‘those whom your right hand possesses’.
Special Case 1: ‘broken’ wives
It is well recognized that sexual intercourse with infants or other very young females may cause permanent physical damage to them (including sterility). Sharia has a specific rule to deal with this ‘special case’: if a young ‘wife’ becomes ‘broken’ through the husband’s sexual practices, the husband cannot divorce her and remains responsible for her maintenance for the rest of her life. She will remain ‘available’ to him – but will not count towards the maximum of 4 wives.
2. Mahr – Marriage present (bride price)
When the marriage contract is signed, the groom must give the bride a ‘present’: this is meant to be her ‘nest-egg’ and support her in case of divorce. In some traditions, the bride’s parents request a very high ‘marriage present’, in order for the groom to prove his worthiness.
Because under Sharia, a woman is not a legal person (as in, a mature person – her legal standing under Sharia is equal to that of a minor), a woman may ‘own’ property, but not control it. Just like minors in ‘The West’ who have a trust-fund, there is guardian who is appointed to oversee any property ‘owned’ by a woman and who controls it. Under Sharia, this guardian of a woman’s property is also the woman’s guardian.
So it is with this ‘marital present’: it is usually (not always) entrusted to the male guardian who authorized the marriage contract. The reasoning behind this is that in the case of divorce, this man will again become the guardian of the ‘bride’, and will therefore be able to use this ‘marriage present’ to maintain her until he can arrange another marriage for her.
In my next post, I will explore the rules of divorce under Sharia as well as who may or may not enter into a marriage contract… and some of the real-life implications of these rules.