DIVORCE IS DESCRIBED by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as the most hated permissible act in the sight of Allah. When difficulties in a marriage cannot be reconciled, divorce in its various forms are a blessing to the involved man and woman, allowing them to end their union so they may go on to find a more compatible mate.
The divine wisdom of allowing couples to dissolve their marriages is obvious and essential to healthy community building. But disturbing statistics show an unprecedented rise in divorce among North American Muslims, and the collective community is not showing any signs of improvement because of it.
In her study, “Understanding Trends in American Muslim Divorce and Marriage: A Discussion Guide for Families and Communities,” Dr. Julie Macfarlane set out to collect quantifiable data relating to the increasing number of divorces in the North American Muslim community. Macfarlane, a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor, (Ontario, Canada) received funding to research trends of American Muslim divorce from The Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Macfarlane became increasingly interested in the topic of Islamic divorce amidst the heated public discussions and accusations of Shari‘ah Law “infiltrating” the legal systems in the United States and parts of Canada.
From 2006 to 2010, Macfarlane attended conventions, mosque functions, and other Muslim community events, set up a table, and advertised that she was conducting a study about divorce. Not surprisingly, she left many events empty handed, until a woman—in full niqâb—boldly announced that it was about time that our community shed light on the topic.
This led to increased participation. Ultimately, a total of 212 imams, counselors, and divorced men and women participated in the study. Of the participants, 80 percent were women and 20 percent men. About three-quarters of them live in the United States, with the remaining 25 percent residing in Canada. And about 75 percent of the participants were born in the Muslim world. Macfarlane says that the test group represents an equal mix of nationalities and ethnicities present in the Muslim community (South Asian, Middle Eastern, and so forth), but with less proportional representation from the African American community.
The purpose of the study is to provide quantitative data to better explain why almost half of Muslim marriages now end in divorce, and why at the same time nearly all Muslims, regardless of how secular or practicing, opt to carry out a religious marriage contract, nikâḥ, and divorce, talâq or khulʿ, alongside their civil ones.
From her research, Macfarlane provides practical advice for imams, community leaders, and counselors when she opens discussions of divorce with Muslim mosque and Islamic center communities. Macfarlane hopes to communicate to non-Muslims that the Shari‘ah Law permeation, of which they are so afraid, has its function in the most basic and benign aspects of Muslim family life and does not in any way constitute a threat of imposition for them.
In order to understand divorce among North America’s Muslims, Macfarlane first had to examine how her Muslim participants were getting married. The study found that a whopping 98 percent of participants used a nikâḥ with either a spoken or written contract. This included those who were admittedly non-practicing Muslims.
These participants recognized that it was a necessary ritual that they would not feel right getting married without. Macfarlane interprets this trend as meaning that Islamic identity is often thought of as independent of observance, that those who did not pray or fast were still using Shari‘ah Law to get married because they were born Muslim.
Along with a religious contract, around 95 percent also had a civil union through a local court. In many cases, imams said that they would not perform a religious marriage unless a civil license was first obtained.
Three broad themes of marital conflict emerge from the study: Gender roles and authority, Islamic family traditions, and Domestic violence and abuse. Following is a synopsis of her findings in each category.
Gender roles and Authority
The most common source of marital conflict grows out of each party having different expectations and assumptions in terms of the role of the wife inside and outside the home. Female participants complained that they were expected to quit their jobs and leave school. Many were upset that the husband did not take an active role in minding the children or the house, despite the fact that the wife also worked outside the house. Most used the word “equality” when describing what they wanted from the partnership.
Male participants overall “expressed confusion over what they felt were inconsistencies between their wife’s aspirations to greater equality and independence and their [wife’s] continuing desire to be ‘taken care of’ by he husband, as their fathers had provided for their mothers.”
In most of her case studies, these stipulations were never discussed in detail before marriage.
Islamic Family Traditions
- Relations with In-Laws
For some women, particularly those from South Asian cultures, the relationship with the mother-in-law was a main point of contention. They complained of being expected to relinquish authority to their in-laws in a range of household matters. This caused them to feel a loss of independence and connection to their spouse.
- Transnational Marriages
Some of Macfarlane’s participants describe being married to someone from overseas, generally encouraged by parents to help retain the tradition and cultures of their countries of origin. In this study, females born in North America marrying a male from “back home” generally presented the description of these marriages. Again, among this group, mismatched gender expectations were a main area of contention.
- Second Wives/Adultery:
One in seven women admitted that the reason they ended their marriage was because of their husband’s relationship with another women, whether marrying a second wife or being unfaithful beyond the realm of marriage. In cases where the women were not told of the second union, “it was noticeable that marital infidelity was explicitly described as ‘adultery’—as opposed to a dispute over a second wife—by more than half these women.”
- Cross-Cultural Marriages:
Many of the imams interviewed assumed that marriages of partners from different backgrounds are responsible for the rise in divorce rates among North American Muslims. In this study, however, only 20 percent of participants cited their cultural backgrounds as a reason for their separation. In one case, an Indian male was unfamiliar with his Caucasian American wife’s tendency to repeatedly bring up divorce and yell at him. Some female converts complained that their husbands “treated them like ‘second class Muslims,’ constantly reminding them that they were not ‘really’ Muslim.”
It should also be noted here that 25 percent of the participants cited differences in religious practice as a reason for divorce. The study does not specify these comments, however.
Domestic Violence and Abuse
One in three female divorcees described domestic abuse as the reason for divorce. Almost all these cases involved allegations of physical violence, including hitting, punching, and rape.
Verbal abuse instances included a husband repeatedly threatening divorce and seizure of children. While no males cited instances of abuse by their ex-wives, Macfarlane recognizes that men can experience domestic abuse, as well.
When asked how family and community responded to the allegations of abuse, the women said their families and community expected them to “be patient” and wait until the situation got better. Often they were expected to tame their husband’s heart and cause him to be less abusive.
Macfarlane notes that this lack of support affected some women’s willingness to go to the police. Some imams explicitly discouraged victims from seeking outside help and support, saying that non-Muslim police would not understand the importance of a Muslim marriage. Other imams had a “zero-tolerance” policy and took steps to make sure that the victim and her children were placed in protective care.
As a professional arbitrator, Macfarlane recognizes the Islamic tradition of reconciliation. Though divorce is legal in Islam, the Quran calls on feuding couples to reconcile whenever possible, calling in third party family arbitrators if need be.
Notable in this section of the study is the number of participants who pointed out that, despite feeling as though they tried to make things better, family and community insisted that they not get divorced and thereby “make things work.” The rationale family and community often gave to these women was that the wife’s duty is to bear up under whatever pressures she is facing and to keep the family together. Fear of familial and community judgment played a large role in the decision of many of the women to stay in failing marriages longer then they would have liked.
Macfarlane notes also the frustration of participants about the lack of professional support in the reconciliation process. Only a small number of imams offered marriage counseling and most parties did not feel comfortable asking for “paid” help. Even in cases where imams opened discussion, they admitted that they lacked training and specialization in family counseling.
Getting a Divorce
According to the study, obtaining a religious divorce for some Muslim divorcees was not a matter of choice but the obligatory step in ending a marriage Islamically. For others, the “religious approval legitimize[d] their decision to divorce in the eyes of their community, and also satisfie[d] their own conscience,” as sort of a “just-in-case” measure.
Most participants had their divorces finalized by a single imam while others by a panel of imams. In the study, there is emphasis on the number of women who had trouble obtaining a divorce because the imam was unwilling to grant it. A number of female participants admitted to “imam-shopping” until they found one that would grant them a divorce.
More than 50 percent of the marriages studied were marriages that ended after less than five years. About 90 percent were childless. Around a third of the marriages in the sample lasted between 5 and 15 years, and 17 percent lasted more than 15 years. For the marriages that lasted longer, all but one had to be settled in court. A small group of women said that they did not receive their mahr at the conclusion of marriage, and one said that her “mental peace and freedom [was] more important than money.”
An interesting and less considered observation on the part of Macfarlane is that about half of the imams interviewed stopped their intervention when divorce was declared, leaving to family lawyers ancillary issues like support, division of property, and placement of children.
While her study is open to the public, and the researcher is not Muslim, Macfarlane stresses the need for imams to reflect on the findings and to take action. She recognizes that imams are “highly influential in setting norms for family life…for the Muslim community in North America.”
It is becoming increasingly evident that many imams are overwhelmed and inadequately trained to address the number and complexity of these family issues. Macfarlane ends her report with suggestions for imams and community leaders so that they may engage the community in discussing this issue.
- pre-marital counseling: Ensure that both parties understand the nikah and what is expected of them. They should be encouraged to negotiate the terms of the contract before marriage. The amount for mahr should be reasonable so in the case of divorce, it can be paid.
- polygamy: End passive tolerance of polygamy. Multiple marriages should be discouraged.
- local marriage: Encourage reconsideration of trans-national marriages where obvious cultural differences are present. An overwhelmingly large amount of these marriages end in divorce and the study shows that marriage to another North American, even if from a different background culture, has a statistically better chance of lasting.
- gender expectations: Encourage discussion of gender roles with younger and older generations. The number of Muslim women going into professional fields is increasing, and it should be acknowledged that female empowerment is not inconsistent with faith.
- family autonomy: Open discussion about greater autonomy among younger couples independent of familial intervention. “While the extended family is very important in Muslim culture,” says Macfarlane, “it is equally important for young couples to be able to negotiate their own norms and expectations, even (perhaps especially) where these are different from those of their parents and in-laws.”
- act against abuse: Consistent action needs to be taken in response to domestic violence and abuse. Imams should become active in the safety of their community and the appropriate law enforcement and support should be actively involved. Communities should not tolerate any form of abuse because it is grossly inconsistent with human rights and with the status of the person in Islam.
- act against abuse: Introduce more marriage counselors to the community and remove the stigma of seeking outside help. Imams should also establish relationships with family lawyers to provide to divorcing couples a complete range of family services.
- destigmatize divorce: Divorce should be discussed openly and recognized as an allowable act –after which no one is ostracized. Establish caring and compassionate norms around divorce.
- act against abuse: Make it easier for women to receive a divorce if all reconciliation fails. Imams should also discourage the use of talaq where no dialogue or discussion takes place.
- train imams: Imams are an integral part of Muslim communities and should be encouraged and supported in getting training in family services and counseling. Moreover, they themselves should be actively trying to understand their communities so that they may better serve them.
It is essential that the discussion of divorce become open and active in the North American Muslim community. Too many marriages end soon after they begin and on very uncompassionate terms. Macfarlane repeatedly states that the statistics and reasons for Muslim divorce are almost the same as in the non-Muslim communities in North America—which is all the more striking because a community that has the guidance of Allah should avoid actions that are displeasing to Him in all areas, especially in family life. In Surah al-Talaq, after describing allowable actions to divorce, Allah warns of past communities who defied His commands and were held to a severe accounting.
It seems to me that many of the results of Macfarlane’s study can be summed up as Quranic illiteracy and lack of understanding and weak practice. As a non-Muslim, she recognizes that the main problem is that those looking to get married do not understand what is expected of them by the Shari‘ah and that their nikah and marriage terms are to be openly and compassionately discussed and negotiated. The purpose of marriage is to come closer to Allah, pleasing Him, and being grateful to Him for a companion. Premarital counseling which give the couple time to talk about Islamic expectations –as well as to work out additional stipulations in their marriage arrangements– should be institutionalized in our masjids.
Despite Macfarlane’s relatively small case study size, trends consistent with its findings are very much out in the open in Muslim communities across North America. Though lack of greater numbers may skew the study, it is not surprising that the majority of her participants were women, both because cultural expectations often make a woman’s role in marriage more difficult to adjust to, and, because traditionally men, Muslim or non-Muslim, do not open up in personal matters.
The number of domestic abuse and violence cases in our communities should be absolutely disturbing—no, gut-wrenching. To many of us it is not a surprise, but it should definitely not be brushed under the carpet in hopes of saving the Muslim image. In popular media, the Muslim man is ALWAYS an abuser, so we have no unsullied to tarnish there, unjust as this is. On the contrary, we should correct this image and the future of our communities by being active against abuse –as Islam and the Shari‘ah mandate. This means reporting it when it happens and salvaging the dignity of victims instead of disgracing them even more.
MacFarlane is clear on her views of polygamy, but her resolution is not a simple clause. Polygamy is allowed in Islam and cannot be otherwise, but the discussion of its illegality in North America and the importance of establishing and maintaining a single happy household before adding others should be openly circulated in communities where this may pose a point of contention.
Overall, this study is an important first step in helping our communities understand and acknowledge that while divorce is allowed –and should happen so as to ensure the health of our communities– cultural stigmas and human ignorance are very present threats in our homes and in our masjids. It is time to realize that the happiness of your neighbor, your brother, your sister should be a major concern for you.
May Allah help us strengthen our community.
- Because this article is a reprint from Aljumuah Magazine, which was published a number of years ago, we would like to warn readers that the statistics mentioned in the article might have changed.