Imam calls attention to division between religious and secular marriages

by Jordan Green

Islamic marriages performed without the validation of a state-issued marriage license are leaving some Muslim women in North Carolina vulnerable to abuse and neglect, a Greensboro Islamic leader told YES! Weekly on Sept. 7.

Badi Ali, an imam at the Islamic Center of the Triad in Greensboro, said he urges his fellow Muslim clerics to require couples to complete a state-issued marriage license to give their partnerships the protection of the courts. In turn, he hopes that the state ‘— through legislative action in either Raleigh or Washington ‘— will give legal force to a provision in the Islamic marriage contract that specifies the amount of dowry the bride’s family agrees to contribute to the new family and other conditions Islamic married couples may choose.

While insisting that most Muslim marriages in the United States are built on trust and respect, Ali said he believes Muslims who rely solely on the Islamic marriage contract ‘— the only document required in countries where Islam is the state religion ‘— leave open a dangerous loophole that can allow abuses by unfaithful partners.

‘“Islamic marriage is becoming an alternative solution for those who cannot keep a commitment, because the state is not involved,’” he said. ‘“When a woman comes to me and she wants me to perform an Islamic marriage without the documents of the state I tell her I will not do it because I cannot protect her rights. Then when she comes back with the marriage license, I say, ‘Okay.””

Dick Ellis, spokesman for the NC Administrative Office of the Courts, offered a simple answer to the question of whether an Islamic marriage by itself is recognized under state law.

‘“They would have to have a state-issued, valid marriage license to be protected under our law,’” he said.

Suzanne Reynolds, a professor of law at Wake Forest University, echoed that appraisal.

‘“Marriages are a contract where the third party is the state,’” she said. ‘“If you don’t try to comply with the conditions the state imposes then you can’t enjoy its protections. It’s ironic that this ceremony that most people see as intensely religious is totally controlled by the state.’”

She added that an immigrant woman married in an Islamic ceremony who was unaware of the state licensing requirement might be able to prove the validity of her marriage in court if she could make a reasonable case that she was deceived.

‘“[The husband] might be estopped to recognize the validity of their marriage if she is reasonable in relying on his representation,’” she said. ‘“Estoppel is the legal doctrine that works to the benefit of a person working in good faith who has been reasonably misled by a misrepresentation that someone made. If she were duped into this marriage the issue is her good faith compliance with the laws of North Carolina.’”

Calls to about a half dozen Triad-area mosques over two days were not returned, suggesting that perhaps other Islamic leaders are not as eager to broach the subject of Islamic marriage as Ali. But Minister Willie Muhammad, who presides over Muhammad Mosque #92 in Greensboro’s Glenwood section, said that as part of the Nation of Islam his mosque sidesteps the issue altogether by relying on the county magistrate or an ordained Christian minister to officiate marriage ceremonies.

‘“We do ceremonies, but we don’t say they’re official marriages,’” he said. ‘“Usually the marriages I participated in I was doing it with a Christian minister who was ordained. We’re not in the Islamic culture. We’re in America.’”

The paperwork for a marriage contract in accordance with Islamic law and that of a marriage license filed with the county register of deeds contain many similarities. Both include the name, place of residence and birthplace of the bride and groom, along with the signature of the officiant and that of two witnesses. The Islamic marriage contract goes further by including the additional conditions of the dowry and other stipulations. Ali considers these a matter of cultural difference that should be legally enshrined for Muslim married couples.

For instance, one marriage performed by Ali for a Turkish groom and an American bride states that a $20 down payment had been made on the dowry, and $5,000 was deferred. Perhaps more significantly, the contract specifies that the couple’s children must be raised Muslim. Other conditions imposed by one side or the other might be that the bride be allowed to complete her university education or that a groom who is suffering from an illness be cared for, Ali said.

‘“They’re there to protect the weak and vulnerable,’” he said of the conditions. ‘“Unfortunately, if we do not recognize Islamic marriage we are going to have some who take advantage of Islamic marriage to achieve their own ends. The impact of that will not be just for the two people to deal with but the whole community.’”

As an example, Ali said social services could be burdened in the aftermath of broken marriages and state resources might be needlessly wasted as courts sorted through the ambiguous legal status of fractured Muslim partnerships.

The imam said he believes the construction of the state-issued marriage license reflects the traditional dominance of Christianity in the United States and the gradual de-emphasis of religion in the west with the emergence of the doctrine of church-state separation. Echoing the recent call for Guilford County courts to allow Muslims to swear on the Quran instead of the Bible, he suggested American jurisprudence should accommodate the customs and values of new segments of society.

‘“Since we are becoming a diverse society,’” he said, ‘“we are witnessing the need to absorb other cultures. We need to consider changing some of the bylaws to be more accommodating.’”

Rev. Charles Hawes, the Episcopal chaplain for UNCG and pastor of the socially liberal St. Mary’s House church, added a note of confirmation to Ali’s contention that Christian marriages are departing from tradition while Islamic marriage custom seeks to reinforce it.

‘“There’s a long history of Christians being involved with dowries,’” he said. ‘“Traditionally, the priest asks: ‘Who gives this woman to be married to this man?’ It comes from a time when women were considered property.

‘“Because of that issue the alternative has become: ‘Who presents this man and woman to be married to each other?”” he added. ‘“Which does away with the notion that the woman is of quantifiable value, either more or ‘— as the case may be ‘— less than the man. Now, usually, it just gets left out altogether.’”

North Carolina lawmakers contacted for this story said the question of whether the additional conditions written into Islamic marriage contracts could be given legal force is not an issue they’ve given much thought to.

‘“It’s not a subject that anyone’s brought up with me before,’” said Rep. Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary I Committee. ‘“I look forward to learning more about it.’”

Senator Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican who represents Cabarrus and Iredell counties and who chairs the Senate Judiciary II Committee, said he would hesitate to rewrite marriage law to apply uniquely to one specific faith.

‘“There are cultural differences between people of many faiths, but the law is generally fairly straightforward,’” he said. ‘“The law has got to be blind.’”

He pointed out that North Carolina statute already provides for the enforcement of premarital agreements as long as the marriage itself is valid. Dowries might be covered under that statute or enforced as a matter of contract law, he added.

Other conditions written into Islamic marriage contracts might be trickier for the courts to mediate.

‘“My understanding is that it’s not uncommon in a marriage performed in the Catholic faith that there is some kind of covenant that a child would be raised a Catholic,’” he said. ‘“I’m unaware of any state law that has ever been used to enforce that. I think there might be a church-state issue there.’”

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