A new court ruling on Islamic marriages could affect thousands of British Muslims
By Barfi Culture Team
2nd August 2018

A surprise court ruling yesterday recognised that an Islamic marriage, a Nikah, could be recognised as a 'valid' marriage under English law, but only in special circumstances.

The ruling potentially affects thousands of British Muslim women, both married and single. Many welcomed it while others said it raised more questions than it answered.

It could have far-reaching implications for British Muslims. However, campaigners say Muslim women should ensure they get legally married during their religious ceremony anyway.

What happened?

After 20 years of marriage, Nasreen Akhter wanted to divorce Mohammed Shabaz Khan. The British Pakistani couple had lived in London, Birmingham and Dubai.

He argued that since they had married only under Islamic law, not English law, she could not get a divorce in an English court. The two had only had a Nikah and the marriage had not been legally registered.

But her side argued their Nikah had been like an English marriage ceremony and he had "always introduced me as his wife". And she said she had repeatedly asked for a civil registration of the marriage but was denied one.

The judge concluded that the marriage fell within the scope of the 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act.

The full judgement is online here.

He said: "Unfortunately, from the wife's point of view she being of a trusting and compliant nature had allowed matters to go too far to then be able to insist that a civil ceremony was undertaken. I accept that it had been her genuine expectation that the Nikah ceremony would have been followed in a very short space of time by a Walima and by a civil ceremony arranged by the husband. I accept her evidence that she viewed the Nikah as only a part (albeit a significant part) of a broader process which she expected would include the civil ceremony as a less important but integral component of the whole."

What does this mean?

It means some British Muslim women can use this precedent to obtain a divorce if they had previously been denied an Islamic divorce.

That in turn potentially gives Muslim women the right to make financial and legal claims under English law.

It does not mean however that Sharia Law is being recognised by the UK. There is no indication judges are going further than recognising a Nikah.

Family law barrister Jasvir Singh told Barfi Culture: "It doesn't make it a legal marriage, but it takes such marriages out of the non-marriage category."

"That means that there can be financial orders (of a limited nature) being made. The marriage is still void, which means it isn't legal."

In February, a review of Sharia Law in the UK recommended that Sharia Councils, which rule on marriages and divorces, be regulated to ensure women were being informed of their rights. It called on the government to ensure all religious marriages were legally registered too. The government rejected that option but now may be forced to act.

What was the reaction?

Mona Siddiqui, a Professor on Islamic & Interreligious Studies, and who led the review on Sharia Law in the UK, told Barfi Culture she welcomed the legal ruling.

She said: "It’s quite a landmark ruling giving women protection and equally telling both parties that marriage is marriage whether it’s a nikah or civil marriage. I would still urge men and women to register their marriage civilly so that their marriage is duly recognized under the civil system whether in England or Scotland."

Aisha Ali-Khan, who has previously campaigned on the issue, called it a "a very significant milestone towards gender equality in divorce proceedings".

But she pointed out the full implications were not yet known.

"The actual impact of yesterday’s ruling going forward is yet to be assessed- and perhaps it has thrown up more questions than answers: will UK courts recognise Islamic nikahs during divorce proceedings only and if so, what about the rights of the wife during the course of the marriage? Will this ruling apply retrospectively to the many hundreds of thousands of Muslim couples who have married under sharia law only?"

Ali-Raza Ilyas, Labour councillor in Manchester, wrote: "Finally! Many women have suffered as a result of the State not recognising a Nikkah as a marriage. No marriage equalled no basis to exercise rights, including in financial matters."

Aina Khan wrote at Imams Online: "This case means a lot more to many women in the UK than just an acknowledgement of a shariah law in a western court. This acknowledgement has given a woman back her legal rights, and as Hazel Wright, a family law specialist at Hunters Solicitors said, the ruling had “given heart to many who otherwise suffer discrimination”."

Hazel Wright, a partner in the family law team at Hunters Solicitors, said: "The ruling that this marriage was just like a marriage for the couple, their families and friends, and indeed it satisfied the UAE authorities, and so was a valid but void marriage has given heart to many who otherwise suffer discrimination."

Is this a big issue?

Aina Khan, who is part of campaign called Register Our Marriage, said last year: "My experience of 25 years as a lawyer specialising in Islamic marriage and divorce is that this is not only a major problem but a growing problem."

"My anecdotal evidence suggests that in the last five years the proportion of people under 40 having nikah-only marriages is as high as 80%."

This ruling is likely to affect most of them.

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