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Understanding Trends in American Muslim Divorce and Marriage: A Discussion Guide for Families and Communities
Date: 1/5/2012

Executive Summary


The divorce rate among North American Muslims has risen sharply in the last 25 years. While marriage breakdown is also on the rise in some Muslim countries, for many members of the older generation divorce was unusual or even unheard of in their family. When marriages did end, the widespread social taboo associated with divorce meant that it was difficult to talk openly with one’s family and other community members about marital discord and breakdown. This taboo continues today, to some degree, in the North American Muslim community.

This four-year empirical study has encouraged individuals and groups to discuss marital conflict openly and frankly. The goal was to explore what they understand as their Islamic obligations in marriage, the challenges they face in their married lives, and under what circumstances they might consider divorce – including their decision-making process, where they turn for help, and what rituals of closure and divorce outcomes are important to them.

While most Muslims who end their marriages will obtain a civil court order, many want to ensure that they have fulfilled their Islamic obligations – including the commitments they made in their nikah–and so some also seek some type of religious approval for their decision (usually from an imam). The continued significance of religious divorce for some Muslim men and women is evident among both newer immigrants and those born in the United States or Canada, and regardless of their level of education and assimilation into a secular society. Respondents in this study described the significance of Islamic marriage and divorce for them both as believing Muslims, and as members of their cultural community for whom these processes represent their affirmation of an Islamic identity.

The debate over marriage and divorce in Islam reflects a wide range of ideals and aspirations about Muslim family life in 21st century North America. It offers a case study of an evolving shari’a-compliant approach to marriage and divorce in contemporary North America. At the same time, it has ignited a firestorm of public debate over “shari’a law” which misunderstands the role of Islamic tradition and principle in Muslim marriage and divorce, and marginalizes the Muslim community.

Muslim couples face many of the same challenges as non-Muslim couples as they adapt to changing societal values and norms, including gender roles within marriage, attitudes towards the participation of women in work and education, the role of the extended family, and attitudes towards divorce. At the same time, contemporary Islamic family identity is emerging from a range of traditions and practices which are rooted in cultural values as well as religious principles. This evolving identity reflects a continuing commitment to an “Islamic imagination” among Muslim families whose children are born and raised in North America–what Tariq Ramadan calls “…the building of the Muslim personality in the West and…in the modern era.”

A National Debate

There is widespread and growing fear of Islam in the U.S. often fixated on the concept of shari’a. Media coverage constantly reinforces an image of shari’a as a rigid, authoritarian and brutal system of punishments. Misinformation and misunderstanding has made shari’a a toxic word in public discourse, associated with the idea that Muslims wish to impose “their” laws on non-Muslims.

This study shows that for North American Muslims, whatever their level of observance, the most commonplace expression of their shari’a obligations is through critical rites of passage and family transitions, especially marriage and divorce. None of the 212 individuals – including imams, religious scholars, social workers, therapists, lawyers and divorced men and women–interviewed for this study suggested that they wanted the extension of the most notorious penal regimes described as “shari’a” to North America. This is hardly surprising since the majority of respondents regarded these regimes as aberrant and lacking in Qur’anic authority. Further, only three of 212 respondents favored a separate, parallel Islamic legal process for family matters or the legal recognition of Muslim marriage and divorce. On the contrary, there was widespread and consistent acceptance of the civil courts both as legitimate state institutions, and as a forum for dispute resolution. All the respondents in this study understand their private choices of Islamic marriage and divorce as separate from the formal legal system, drawing a distinction between god’s law— regarded as a matter for personal conscience rather than public adjudication—and the law of the state or “human law.” they consistently expressed a desire to be able to continue to access their Islamic traditions in a private, informal system, and also to be able to use the legal process (many used the courts to resolve contentious issues).

Ironically, hostility and negativism towards Muslims and shari’a post 9/11 may be reinforcing and entrenching recourse to traditions such as Muslim marriage and divorce. In the face of hostility one strategy for the Muslim community in North America is withdrawal, including a falling back on familiar norms and customs and a reassertion of identity. Another – not incompatible–strategy is to increase efforts at mutual understanding and integration. The first step in such a strategy is greater openness and discussion among Muslims themselves about the issues raised by Muslim marriage and divorce in the West.

The Study

The impetus for this study was the 2003-2005 Ontario “shari’a debate” which reflected widespread public fear and ignorance regarding Islamic divorce, as well as divisions within the Muslim community. This followed the highly publicized appeal by a small group, the Darul-Qada, for a formal Islamic tribunal to arbitrate family matters. The debate that ensued exposed the lack of data on what types of processes were being used, how they were used, and why they remained important to some Muslims in Ontario – all of which further stoked public alarm.

The primary objective of the study was to document, using a qualitative, interview-based approach, how North American Muslim communities manage divorce. Specifically, the study explores Islamic approaches to marriage, reconciliation, and divorce and the meaning and significance they retain for Muslims in North America. Men and women who had experienced religious divorce were solicited to join the study. Also part of the respondent group were imams and scholars who play a role in reconciliation and, in some cases, divorce, as well as other professionals working with families (social workers, therapists, lawyers). Interviews were conducted with a total of 212 individuals between 2006 and 2010.

Interviews with divorcés or divorcées discussed their marital relationship from the beginning. They described their decision to marry and the signing of their nikah or marriage contract, the conflicts they experienced in their marriage, and the final breakdown of the relationship. In-depth interviews illuminate broader changes taking place within diverse Muslim communities in North America as they adjust not only to life in the West, but also to more systemic changes in societal norms. Data gathered in interviews, as well as larger group conversations in mosque and Islamic community centers, provides a window into many of the critical social and cultural forces at play in North American families.

Interviews were conducted face-to-face in Dearborn, Michigan; orange county, Los Angeles; Omaha, Nebraska; and Toronto, Windsor, London and Ottawa, Ontario; and by telephone with individuals in cities all across the United States and Canada. The project website (www.islamicdivorce.org) was an entry point for many men and women and it was also regularly visited by other men and women seeking advice and information on Islamic divorce. Approximately 75% of the data was collected from respondents in the United States, and 25% from Canada. No pervasive differences were noted between the two jurisdictions, and the analysis presented here does not distinguish between the United States and Canada.

Three slightly different semi-structured interview formats were used for the three major respondent groups (imams and other facilitators of divorce processes; divorcés or divorcées; and “community specialists”, including social and community workers, therapists and mental health professionals, and lawyers). Interviews lasted between 30 and 90 minutes. All were noted contemporaneously, including transcribing many direct quotations. Audio recording was avoided because it seemed to alienate some respondents and generally reduced comfort with sharing sensitive and/or personal data.

Data was analyzed using the NVivo 7 software and a variety of other manual processes including story synopses, a model for distinguishing different divorce process narratives, outcome narratives, motivations for seeking religious divorce, and a typology for mapping a range of imam approaches and interventions.

Study Demographics

It is clear that not all North American Muslims seek a religious sanction for divorce, and just how many do is unknown. Just 5% of those seeking divorce in this study were clear that they did not want an Islamic divorce, but this number is not representative of the general population because the study specifically solicited individuals who would talk about their experience of religious divorce. However it is clear that the desire for religious divorce among North American Muslims is both widespread and common. Once trust had been established in both the researcher and the research project, the study was able to easily identify many individuals for whom religious approval for divorce was very important; moreover each of these respondents knew of others who had also sought religious divorce. the majority (80%) of stories of divorce come from women, probably because they are required to be more proactive than men in obtaining permission for divorce.

The other demographics of the sample show that those who seek religious divorce are an extremely diverse group. Divorced study respondents included both first and second-generation immigrant American Muslims as well as recent immigrants. Approximately half came to North America as an adult (often to study), a quarter as a young child, with the other 25% born in the United States or Canada. Divorced men and women also came from all ethnic groups. Almost half the sample identified as South Asian (predominantly Indo-Pakistani), nearly 30% said that their families came originally from the Middle East, 10% identified as African, and 6% were African-American. A small number (2%) were Caucasian converts to Islam. Almost 20% of the marriages were cross-cultural, that is, the spouses did not share the same cultural or ethnic background.

The ethnic breakdown of study respondents closely reflects the estimated breakdown of the whole North American Muslim population in all but one respect; the under-representation of African-American/Canadian Muslims. The wide ethnic diversity of the sample and the inclusion of both new and more established immigrants and citizens demonstrate that there is no “typical” profile for those who seek a religious sanction for divorce.

Also reflecting the demographic of the wider North American Muslim community, the sample was a highly educated group. Approximately half identified themselves as professionals (lawyers, doctors, dentists, researchers, teachers and journalists among others), many with graduate degrees. Almost all the remainder held college or university degrees, with a very small number having a high school diploma and no secondary education.

Both Sunni and Shia imams contributed to the study, representing all five schools of Islamic jurisprudence. However all the imams described themselves as taking a highly pragmatic approach to applying the relevant rules to each case. The following comments are typical: “I use the school that can solve the problem before me”; “as a Muslim living in the West I cannot afford to follow just one school. I must construct a modern approach that responds to the reality of the contemporary West and in particular … the diversity of (Muslim) communities”; and “We are not here to be Hanifi, Maliki and so on–but to be a human being.” this pragmatism means that there was no consistent differentiation between approaches to divorce based on school or sect. Far more significant were the imams’ attitudes towards a woman’s role in the family, and sometimes the degree of conservatism of his community and their tolerance of divorce.

Report Purpose & Structure

This report presents some of the results of this research project, focusing on what it reveals about Muslim family life in North America, and the many challenges faced by Muslim families as they adapt their culture and values to life in a Western secular state. The report is directed at anyone who is concerned about the future integrity and vibrancy of Muslim family life, whatever different forms that might take. It covers four discrete topics – getting married, marital conflict, staying married and getting divorced.

Each section includes suggested questions for reflection and discussion. Much of what this report describes – the rising rate of divorce, changes in women’s expectations, their growing independence via participation in professional work and higher education – is as yet a relatively new and often unfamiliar development for Muslim communities in North America. Debate and dialogue – in which many different opinions and Islamic values will be expressed–is crucial to developing an informed response. as increasing numbers of marriages fail, the Muslim community should be looking at how marriages are arranged, recurrent marital conflicts, and attitudes towards divorce. Where there seems to be a need for new thinking or programming – for example, more pre-marital counseling, or the modernization of the nikah, or greater consistency among imams in relation to giving women permission to divorce – it will also be important to consider just how such an enhancement could be promoted, and by whom? Discussion of the questions suggested – and many others that could be added–is a step towards formulating a community response.

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