Marriage and Divorce: A Qur’anic perspective
Coming together of a man and a woman to form a family is considered the most essential religious rite in all religions of the world. A family is the foundation of a society and a centre of nurturing the future generation in a safe and healthy environment. It is the nucleus of human civilization.
The Qur’an uses the word nikah for this union of a man and a woman. It literally means getting absorbed in each other the way rain water absorbs in earth. Hence the Qur’an describes husband and wife as each other’s zauj (partner). It means that both are essential for each other in the family union as each complements the other in a manner that without one the other cannot consider himself or herself complete. It is obvious that in the absence of compatibility, the family life will not be balanced and healthy.
The Qur’an describes nikah as a solid contract between two adults. Thus a marriage solemnized before adulthood is not considered a nikah in the Qur’anic explanation. In fact, the Qur’an declares the age of marriage as a mark of adulthood. “And test the orphans [under your supervision] until they reach a marriageable age.” (4:6)
The Qur’an gives absolute free choice to both man and woman to select his/her life partner. On one hand, it tells men “then marry from among women such as are lawful or desirous to you” (4:3), while on the other it tells women that men cannot hold them against their will: “O you who have attained to faith, it is not lawful for you to [try to] become heirs to your wives [by holding onto them] against their will” (4:19)
Thus the Qur’an promotes the idea of a balanced, compatible, contractual marriage to ensure equality, dignity and responsibility. The objective of such a union is clearly defined when in chapter four and verse 24, it says that the marriage is a union of likeminded people to promote dignified relations.
The Qur’an also promotes the idea of monogamy. It does not give free licence to men to marry more than one wife. In fact, the Qur’an talks of marrying second time only when the first wife is no longer there. “But if you desire to give up a wife and to take another in her stead” (4:20). In other words, marrying second time can take place only when the first wife is not there.
How can we reconcile this Qur’anic directive with another verse that occurs in the same chapter and allows men to marry more than one? “And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among [other] women such as are lawful to you - [even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one - or [from among] those whom you rightfully possess. This will make it more likely that you will not deviate from the right course” (4:3).
Prior to that the Qur’an says: “Hence, render unto the orphans their possessions, and do not substitute bad things [of your own] for the good things [that belong to them], and do not consume their possessions together with your own: this, verily, is a great crime” (4:2).
In other words, marrying two, three or four women is conditional. It is not a general permission. This provision or amendment was necessitated by the then prevailing situation. It was allowed only to ensure the protection of orphans and widows provided absolute justice is maintained in relationship as the Qur’an made it clear “but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one” (4:3). In other word, monogamy is the general rule.
Sometimes, some people make the argument that if the wife is barren or in terminal illness, second wife in the presence of the first wife is allowed. This is not the intention of the Qur’an as it says “He gives both male and female [to whomever He wills], and causes to be barren whomever He wills: for, verily, He is all-knowing, infinite in His power” (42:50). In other words, to be barren is not a requirement for marrying second time. Thus, the Qur’an is absolutely clear on a monogamous marriage.
Divorce: Marriage (nikah) is a contract for a peaceful, balanced and dignified relationship. The Qur’an recognizes the possibility of separation between a husband and a wife if the relationship becomes imbalanced, and undignified and differences become irreconcilable. For this the Qur’an uses the term Talaq (divorce).
Thus, the Qur’an gives minute details of the process of separation or divorce and does not leave it to the arbitrary decision of one partner. The Qur’an first advises the husband and wife to reconcile their differences amicably on their own and if the two fail to do so then it describes an elaborate process to seek a mutually agreed solution. It says: “And if you have reason to fear that a breach might occur between a [married] couple, appoint an arbiter from among his people and an arbiter from among her people; if they both want to set things aright, God may bring about their reconciliation. Behold, God is indeed all-knowing, aware” (4:35). In other words, an arbiter from both sides would be appointed to resolve the differences and if the arbitration committee fails to help the husband and wife reconcile their differences, then they can recommend the divorce or if they have been given the authority to take a decision, they can pronounce and execute the divorce.
The decision to divorce is not an individual decision, not certainly a prerogative of men to pronounce the word “talaq” three times to end the relationship. What would happen afterwards? Both husband and wife are free to marry again. However, there is a condition in this provision for wife. She would wait for three months and if she is pregnant, she would wait until the delivery. During this time, the husband is responsible for all her expenses. A man can marry without waiting but if he wants to reconcile with his wife then he can renew the marriage contract once again during this period. Thus the Qur’an says: “And during this period their husbands are fully entitled to take them back, if they desire reconciliation; but, in accordance with justice, the rights of the wives [with regard to their husbands] are equal to the [husbands’] rights with regard to them, although men have precedence over them [in this respect]. And God is almighty, wise” (2:228). The expression that “men have precedence over them [in this respect]” is an additional opportunity given to them to honour the contract. In fact, it is an additional responsibility.
After the reconciliation of the first talaq, if the relationship become sour and irreconcilable then the second talaq can be pronounced provided the process used during the first talaq is followed. However, if the talaq is sought and decreed the third time, then it would be irrevocable. A woman is entitled to marry after this third talaq and only if her second husband dies or divorces her three times, her previous husband can remarry her again. These are the simple rules of marriage and divorce in Islam. The Qur’an does not allow its followers to decide things arbitrarily. Pronouncing the word “talaq” three times by a husband is not a Qur’anic decree or right. In fact, it is against the spirit of the contractual relationship and basic norms to maintain a healthy family.
But this is not what happens in our Muslim society in general. What happens is totally in contradiction of what the Qur’an says. But there are so many other contradictions in Muslim behavior when we compare it with the Qur’anic message.
We must realize that the Qur’anic rules governing the marriage and divorce were interpolated with values and custom that were and are still strong in patriarchal societies, arbitrarily decided on the basis of the opinions of human beings. These rules have nothing to do with the divine guidelines. It is, thus, imperative to develop an honest and accurate understanding of the Qur’an and discard interpolation that has occurred over the centuries.
Giving men the absolute right to verbally terminate the marriage by simply saying, “I divorce you three times” in one sitting or in three separate sittings is nothing but an assertion of the old patriarchal system that allowed men to dictate their terms upon their women. It violates the spirit and letter of the contractual relationship. It places women in a state of total dependence on her husband and above all it makes her feel that her survival as a wife depends on the will of her husband. This is not contractual relationship. It is nothing but glorified slavery. It is illogical, unjust and contrary to the divine wisdom. This custom is responsible for ruining the lives of millions of women who have suffered silently at the altar of what is called the religion. This custom needs to be analyzed in the light of the Qur’an and amended and changed because it is in clear violation of the divine justice.