Getting a Divorce
Islam provides many safeguards to ensure a happy and stable marriage. Nevertheless, conflicts can arise, and Muslims are given guidance on what to do when a marriage seems doomed. Even in divorce, the Qur'an encourages kind treatment of one's spouse: “Hold together on equitable terms, or separate with kindness” (Qu'ran 2:229).
Steps to Divorce
The Qur'an lays out a series of steps for a couple to follow in an attempt toward reconciliation. First, the couple should try to work things out themselves. If that doesn't work, arbitrators from both the husband's and wife's families can get together to try to solve the problem peacefully and justly. “If you fear a breach between them [the spouses], then appoint two arbiters, one from his family and the other from hers. If they seek to set things aright, Allah will cause their reconciliation. For Allah has full knowledge and is acquainted with all things” (Qur'an 4:35).
If all attempts at reconciliation fail, divorce is permitted, although it is discouraged. Muhammad once described divorce as “the most hated in the sight of Allah, among all the things that are permissible.”
Upon divorce, there is a three-month waiting period (called the iddah) during which the couple still has an opportunity to reconcile. This gives the couple ample time to calm themselves, evaluate the relationship, and determine whether the wife is expecting a child.
When divorce is final, the couple is advised to part ways in kindness; there is to be no game playing or yo-yoing. “And when you have divorced women … either retain them honorably or release them honorably. But do not retain them in order to injure them, for this is transgression, and whoever does this has wronged his own soul” (Qur'an 2:231).
Can Women Initiate Divorce?
If a woman no longer wishes to be married to her husband, she can initiate divorce by returning the mahr to her husband. In addition, a woman may include provisions in the marriage contract that pertain to her right to divorce, specifying certain circumstances that might lead to divorce. As a final option, a woman may also appeal to a judge to grant a divorce if there is evidence that her husband is unjust, is mistreating her, or has violated the terms of their marriage agreement.
One verse of the Qur'an is often misinterpreted to allow for physical abuse of a wayward spouse. The verse in question addresses the instance when a woman is guilty of serious illegal conduct: “As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them first, then do not share their beds, and at last tap them lightly; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means of annoyance, for Allah is Most High, Great” (Qur'an 4:34).
The Prophet Muhammad serves as an example for Muslims to follow. It is known that he never raised his hand or voice to anyone, male or female. On this specific point, he advised his followers, “Do not strike the female servants of Allah.”
In many English translations of the Qur'an, the phrase “tap them lightly” is written as “beat them.” This is a misinterpretation of the Arabic words. Muslims who lived at the time of the verse's revelation and early jurists both understood this phrase to mean a light tapping, with something no bigger than a toothbrush, which leaves not even a mark on the body. Under no circumstances is a Muslim at any time permitted to strike someone in the face or cause any bodily harm. This verse applies only to those cases where the wife is guilty of an extreme infraction or lewdness, and the husband is innocent and well behaved. As a last resort, after all other steps listed above have failed, the husband may resort to this symbolic expression of his disapproval. This final step is intended as an extreme expression of disapproval, with hopes that the wife will come around, cease the disruptive behavior, and prevent the marriage from ending up in divorce.
In the event of divorce, children often bear the most painful consequences. Islamic law takes their needs into account and makes sure that they are cared for.
The financial support of any children — both during marriage or after divorce — rests solely with the father. This is the children's right upon their father, and courts have the power to enforce this responsibility upon the father, if necessary.
Islamic law maintains that physical custody of the children must go to a Muslim who is in good physical and mental health and is in the best position to meet the children's needs. Islamic law takes into account the differing needs of children depending on their stage of development. Young children under the age of seven are generally cared for by the mother. At this stage in life, mothers have the best ability to nurture and tend to the child. If the mother remarries, however, the father may make a claim of custody.
For children over the age of seven, courts take into account the children's wishes and their changing needs. There are some differences among Islamic scholars about child custody, so one might find variations in local law and the application of it. However, the overwhelming concern is that the children are cared for by the parent most fit for custody, and that their emotional and physical needs are fully met.