Despite the fact that Muslims can achieve a valid divorce in their faith tradition of Islam, Muslim men and women in the United States can only become legally divorced by obtaining a divorce decree from a civil court with jurisdiction over their case. Muslim Americans can use private methods of resolving disputes and mediating their divorces just as non-Muslim Americans do.
Divorcing as a Muslim means that you are doing so as an obligation to your faith and do so only after receiving approval from your religious leaders. Women, in particular, can spend a great deal of time, sometimes years, trying to find an imam (Islamic religious leader) who will grant her approval for a divorce from her husband.
This is true for extremely religious and pious Muslims as well as Muslims who identify as followers of Islam but in practice have become secularized. Faith and family are on the whole very important to American Muslims and obtaining a divorce within the Islamic faith can be done as much to please friends and family and it is done to please God.
A sense of approval from the leaders of their community is important for many American Muslims. Like non-Muslims, Muslim Americans can feel a sense of guilt when attempting to move on from a failed marriage. Obtaining the consent and approval of an imam to divorce their spouse can be a step in the healing process for many Muslims, specifically female Muslims.
Spouses that agree that a divorce is necessary and also agree on the terms of that divorce often times enter into private agreements that dissolve the marriage and divide up property as such. However, in instances where there is no agreement between the parties an Imam is often times utilized as a third-party arbitrator. This can put the wife at a serious disadvantage because she must act especially polite and courteous towards the imam given that she will still need to obtain permission from the imam for the divorce to be allowed.
The process of Islamic divorce
Across the country, and the world, there is no uniformity in terms of how an Islamic divorce is overseen.
Imams typically oversee the divorce process and do so only after attempting to have the spouses reconcile with one another. If you are a wife and ask an imam for permission to divorce your husband be prepared for the imam to ask your husband for his thoughts on the situation prior to your gaining the imam’s approval. Different imams will apply different standards for wife-initiated divorces.
Financial consequences of divorce for Muslim Americans
Many imams purposefully do not involve themselves heavily into the relationship of the persons requesting the divorce. They see their role as one where they can dissolve the marriage and do little else in terms of approving spousal support, a division of property between the spouses or child custody issues. In fact, many imams will ask to see the person's civil divorce decree and will approve the divorce request upon seeing that a civil divorce has been granted.
For the most part, imams decline to issue “rulings” related to child custody. Those matters are almost entirely reserved for civil courts. The division of property is an issue that imams do take into consideration, however. Many Muslim spouses are beginning to incorporate elements of Muslim law and civil law into their agreements upon divorce.
For instance, child support percentages that are outlined in the Texas Family Code may be used as well as limited amounts of spousal maintenance to be paid by the husband to the wife. In this way divorcing spouses anticipate that civil courts are likely to order these elements to be included in any divorce decree and elect to incorporate them into their own Islamic based divorce agreement as a result.
When to utilize the services provided by American family law courts
When Muslim spouses are not able to reach an agreement on financial, property and child custody related issues it is common for men and women to ask a civil family court for a resolution to these issues. The types of issues that are brought to civil court judges vary in terms of the length of the marriage and whether or not the parties have children together.
Commonly, shorter marriages where no children were born of that marriage do not result in spousal maintenance being ordered for the husband to pay to the wife. Most of the disputes in these marriage negotiations center around dividing up what we in Texas refer to as “community property”.
Marriages that have lasted longer and have had children be born of the relationship typically will bypass any attempt to resolve the issues initially through an Imam and will be adjudicated through the civil court system. Women especially can benefit a great deal in using the civil courts. The reason is that after sometimes years of attempting to obtain permission to divorce a spouse who is unwilling to agree to do so, a request for a divorce in Texas is absolute and cannot be voided by a spouse who does not want a divorce.
Social consequences of being a divorced Muslim-American
Many Muslims (like Americans of all backgrounds) worry about the social stigma associated with being divorced.
Women bear the brunt of judgment regarding divorce and the significance and intensity of the judgment vary for women based on their age, socio-economic status and the specific communities in which they live. Men are judged often times for being divorced but typically not to the degree that women are.
What leads Muslim-Americans towards divorce?
Many of the same issues that affect non-Muslim Americans in considering and pursuing divorce affect Muslim Americans as well. For example, the role of men and women in the United States differs significantly from that of men and women in majority Muslim nations.
As such, Muslim spouses in the United States have to cope with changes in how the sexes approach their traditional roles in marriage. As women attempt to become more educated and enter the workplace in greater numbers, Muslim husbands are left to deal with those changes in social expectations.
When Muslim wives express a greater desire to accomplish their goals in the workplace it can be seen that they are not taking their responsibilities as a wife and mother as seriously. These issues can drive a divide between husbands and wives.
The role of Imams in facilitating divorce
While some Imams have been more willing to agree to divorce spouses at the request of wives, many do not grant requests with as much ease. This can be to the detriment of a wife who has a legitimate reason for requesting permission to divorce her husband, such as if she has been the victim of domestic violence.
Imams are the religious leaders for Muslims in their local communities and as such can play a tremendously important role in defining the expectations for spouses in a marriage relationship. While the mosque is often the site of marriage counseling and other services for married congregants, it would be helpful for imams to have greater access to resources like professional counselors and therapists that are commonly involved in civil divorce cases.
The more established that Muslim Americans become in their communities the more likely, I believe, that they are to achieving greater access to persons who can help in the reconciliation process in order to avoid costly and difficult divorces.
Questions about obtaining a divorce as a Muslim-American? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
The attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC understand the importance of faith in the lives of our Muslim neighbors. If you are in a position where you are considering a divorce from your spouse please do not hesitate to contact our office today.
We can help you to balance your need to adhere to the teachings and traditions of your faith while ensuring that you achieve a valid civil divorce that will be honored by the judicial system in Texas. We offer free of charge consultations six days a week with a licensed family law attorney.