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Customs and Culture >
How does Islam treat divorce?

In contrast to Catholicism and other Christian denominations, in Islam marriage is a contract, not a sacrament. Islam has always recognized the right to divorce under certain circumstances. In pre-Islamic times, Arab custom enabled a man to divorce at any time and for any reason, while his wife had no rights at all. However, the Quran established new guidelines to control a husband's arbitrary actions. It considers divorce, among the permitted things, to be a last resort and encourages arbitration between the spouses. “If you fear a split between a man and his wife, send for an arbiter from his family and an arbiter from her family [thus putting the wife's interests on a equal footing with those of her husband]. If both want to be reconciled, God will arrange things between them” (4:35). The Quran admonishes husbands faced with the prospect of proceeding to divorce to “either retain them [their wives] honorably or release them honorably” (65:2).

The seriousness of the act of divorce is reflected in the requirement given in the Quran that in order to make his divorce irrevocable a husband must pronounce “I divorce you” not once but three times, once each successive month for a period of three months. This is to allow time for reconciliation between husband and wife or, if there is no reconciliation and the wife is found to be pregnant, to arrange child support for the unborn child. “When you divorce women, divorce them when they have reached their period. Count their periods … and fear God your Lord. Do not expel them from their houses … Those are limits set by God” (65:1).

Despite Quranic guidelines, an abbreviated form of divorce, which allows a man to declare “I divorce you” three times at once, became commonplace. Although considered a sinful abuse, it is nevertheless legally valid. This kind of divorce is a powerful example of how male-dominated customs overcame religious requirements and affected divorce rights in various Muslim countries for many generations.

Muslim countries have instituted a variety of laws, using the Quran and the courts, to control divorce proceedings and improve women's rights. In many countries today, Muslim women can obtain a divorce on a variety of grounds from the courts. Muslims who live in America or Europe must abide by civil law in obtaining a divorce. However, there are also many patriarchal societies where custom continues to allow extensive rights for men and more restricted rights of divorce for women. This illustrates the fact that problems with women's rights originate not from Islam but from patriarchy, which is still a strong force in many societies.

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