The Concept of Divorce under Muslim Law
Firm union of the husband and wife is a necessary condition for a happy family life. Islam therefore, insists upon the subsistence of a marriage and prescribes that breach of marriage contract should be avoided. Initially no marriage is contracted to be dissolved but in unfortunate circumstances the matrimonial contract is broken. One of the ways of such dissolution is by way of divorce . Under Muslim law the divorce may take place by the act of the parties themselves or by a decree of the court of law. However in whatever manner the divorce is effected it has not been regarded as a rule of life. In Islam, divorce is considered as an exception to the status of marriage. The Prophet declared that among the things which have been permitted by law, divorce is the worst . Divorce being an evil, it must be avoided as far as possible. But in some occasions this evil becomes a necessity, because when it is impossible for the parties to the marriage to carry on their union with mutual affection and love then it is better to allow them to get separated than compel them to live together in an atmosphere of hatred and disaffection. The basis of divorce in Islamic law is the inability of the spouses to live together rather than any specific cause (or guilt of a party) on account of which the parties cannot live together. A divorce may be either by the act of the husband or by the act of the wife. There are several modes of divorce under the Muslim law, which will be discussed hereafter.
Modes of Divorce: A husband may divorce his wife by repudiating the marriage without giving any reason. Pronouncement of such words which signify his intention to disown the wife is sufficient. Generally this done by talaaq. But he may also divorce by Ila, and Zihar which differ from talaaq only in form, not in substance. A wife cannot divorce her husband of her own accord. She can divorce the husband only when the husband has delegated such a right to her or under an agreement. Under an agreement the wife may divorce her husband either by Khula or Mubarat. Before 1939, a Muslim wife had no right to seek divorce except on the ground of false charges of adultery, insanity or impotency of the husband. But the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939 lays down several other grounds on the basis of which a Muslim wife may get her divorce decree passed by the order of the court.
There are two categories of divorce under the Muslim law:
1.) Extra judicial divorce, and
2.) Judicial divorce
The category of extra judicial divorce can be further subdivided into three types, namely,
• By husband- talaaq, ila, and zihar.
• By wife- talaaq-i-tafweez, lian.
• By mutual agreement- khula and mubarat.
The second category is the right of the wife to give divorce under the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939.
Talaaq: Talaaq in its primitive sense means dismission. In its literal meaning, it means “setting free”, “letting loose”, or taking off any “ties or restraint”. In Muslim Law it means freedom from the bondage of marriage and not from any other bondage. In legal sense it means dissolution of marriage by husband using appropriate words. In other words talaaq is repudiation of marriage by the husband in accordance with the procedure laid down by the law. The following verse is in support of the husband’s authority to pronounce unilateral divorce is often cited: “Men are maintainers of women, because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property (on their maintenance and dower) . When the husband exercises his right to pronounce divorce, technically this is known as talaaq. The most remarkable feature of Muslim law of talaaq is that all the schools of the Sunnis and the Shias recognize it differing only in some details. In Muslim world, so widespread has been the talaaq that even the Imams practiced it . The absolute power of a Muslim husband of divorcing his wife unilaterally, without assigning any reason, literally at his whim, even in a jest or in a state of intoxication, and without recourse to the court, and even in the absence of the wife, is recognized in modern India. All that is necessary is that the husband should pronounce talaaq; how he does it, when he does it, or in what he does it is not very essential. In Hannefa v. Pathummal, Khalid, J., termed this as “monstrosity” . Among the Sunnis, talaaq may be express, implied, contingent constructive or even delegated. The Shias recognize only the express and the delegated forms of talaaq.
Conditions for a valid talaaq:
1.) Capacity: Every Muslim husband of sound mind, who has attained the age of puberty, is competent to pronounce talaaq. It is not necessary for him to give any reason for his pronouncement. A husband who is minor or of unsound mind cannot pronounce it. Talaaq by a minor or of a person of unsound mind is void and ineffective. However, if a husband is lunatic then talaaq pronounced by him during “lucid interval” is valid. The guardian cannot pronounce talaaq on behalf of a minor husband. When insane husband has no guardian, the Qazi or a judge has the right to dissolve the marriage in the interest of such a husband.
2.) Free Consent: Except under Hanafi law, the consent of the husband in pronouncing talaaq must be a free consent. Under Hanafi law, a talaaq, pronounced under compulsion, coercion, undue influence, fraud and voluntary intoxication etc., is valid and dissolves the marriage.
Involuntary intoxication: Talaaq pronounced under forced or involuntary intoxication is void even under the Hanafi law.
Shia law: Under the Shia law (and also under other schools of Sunnis) a talaaq pronounced under compulsion, coercion, undue influence, fraud, or voluntary intoxication is void and ineffective.
3.) Formalities: According to Sunni law, a talaaq, may be oral or in writing. It may be simply uttered by the husband or he may write a Talaaqnama. No specific formula or use of any particular word is required to constitute a valid talaaq. Any expression which clearly indicates the husband’s desire to break the marriage is sufficient. It need not be made in the presence of the witnesses.
According to Shias, talaaq, must be pronounced orally, except where the husband is unable to speak. If the husband can speak but gives it in writing, the talaaq, is void under Shia law. Here talaaq must be pronounced in the presence of two witnesses.
4.) Express words: The words of talaaq must clearly indicate the husband’s intention to dissolve the marriage. If the pronouncement is not express and is ambiguous then it is absolutely necessary to prove that the husband clearly intends to dissolve the marriage.
Express Talaaq (by husband):
When clear and unequivocal words, such as “I have divorced thee” are uttered, the divorce is express. The express talaaq, falls into two categories:
Talaaq-i-sunnat has two forms:
• Talaaq-i-ahasan (Most approved)
• Talaaq-i-hasan (Less approved).
Talaaq-i-sunnat is considered to be in accordance with the dictats of Prophet Mohammad.
The ahasan talaaq: consists of a single pronouncement of divorce made in the period of tuhr (purity, between two menstruations), or at any time, if the wife is free from menstruation, followed by abstinence from sexual intercourse during the period if iddat. The requirement that the pronouncement be made during a period of tuhr applies only to oral divorce and does not apply to talaaq in writing. Similarly, this requirement is not applicable when the wife has passed the age of menstruation or the parties have been away from each other for a long time, or when the marriage has not been consummated. The advantage of this form is that divorce can revoked at any time before the completion of the period of iddat, thus hasty, thoughtless divorce can be prevented. The revocation may effected expressly or impliedly. Thus, if before the completion of iddat, the husband resumes cohabitation with his wife or says “I have retained thee” the divorce is revoked. Resumption of sexual intercourse before the completion of period of iddat also results in the revocation of divorce. The Raad-ul-Muhtar puts it thus: “It is proper and right to observe this form, for human nature is apt to be mislead and to lead astray the mind far to perceive faults which may not exist and to commit mistakes of which one is certain to feel ashamed afterwards”
The hasan talaaq: In this the husband is required to pronounce the formula of talaaq three time during three successive tuhrs. If the wife has crossed the age of menstruation, the pronouncement of it may be made after the interval of a month or thirty days between the successive pronouncements. When the last pronouncement is made, the talaaq, becomes final and irrevocable. It is necessary that each of the three pronouncements should be made at a time when no intercourse has taken place during the period of tuhr. Example: W, a wife, is having her period of purity and no sexual intercourse has taken place. At this time, her husband, H, pronounces talaaq, on her. This is the first pronouncement by express words. Then again, when she enters the next period of purity, and before he indulges in sexual intercourse, he makes the second pronouncement. He again revokes it. Again when the wife enters her third period of purity and before any intercourse takes place H pronounces the third pronouncement. The moment H makes this third pronouncement, the marriage stands dissolved irrevocably, irrespective of iddat.
Talaaq-i-Biddat: It came into vogue during the second century of Islam. It has two forms: (i) the triple declaration of talaaq made in a period of purity, either in one sentence or in three, (ii) the other form constitutes a single irrevocable pronouncement of divorce made in a period of tuhr or even otherwise. This type of talaaq is not recognized by the Shias. This form of divorce is condemned. It is considered heretical, because of its irrevocability.
Ila: Besides talaaq, a Muslim husband can repudiate his marriage by two other modes, that are, Ila and Zihar. They are called constructive divorce. In Ila, the husband takes an oath not to have sexual intercourse with his wife. Followed by this oath, there is no consummation for a period of four months. After the expiry of the fourth month, the marriage dissolves irrevocably. But if the husband resumes cohabitation within four months, Ila is cancelled and the marriage does not dissolve. Under Ithna Asharia (Shia) School, Ila, does not operate as divorce without order of the court of law. After the expiry of the fourth month, the wife is simply entitled for a judicial divorce. If there is no cohabitation, even after expiry of four months, the wife may file a suit for restitution of conjugal rights against the husband.
Zihar: In this mode the husband compares his wife with a woman within his prohibited relationship e.g., mother or sister etc. The husband would say that from today the wife is like his mother or sister. After such a comparison the husband does not cohabit with his wife for a period of four months. Upon the expiry of the said period Zihar is complete. After the expiry of fourth month the wife has following rights:
(i) She may go to the court to get a decree of judicial divorce
(ii) She may ask the court to grant the decree of restitution of conjugal rights.
Where the husband wants to revoke Zihar by resuming cohabitation within the said period, the wife cannot seek judicial divorce. It can be revoked if:
(i) The husband observes fast for a period of two months, or,
(ii) He provides food at least sixty people, or,
(iii) He frees a slave.
According to Shia law Zihar must be performed in the presence of two witnesses.
Divorce by mutual agreement:
Khula and Mubarat: They are two forms of divorce by mutual consent but in either of them, the wife has to part with her dower or a part of some other property. A verse in the Holy Quran runs as: “And it not lawful for you that ye take from women out of that which ye have given them: except (in the case) when both fear that they may not be able to keep within the limits (imposed by Allah), in that case it is no sin for either of them if the woman ransom herself.” The word khula, in its original sense means “to draw” or “dig up” or “to take off” such as taking off one’s clothes or garments. It is said that the spouses are like clothes to each other and when they take khula each takes off his or her clothes, i.e., they get rid of each other. In law it is said is said to signify an agreement between the spouses for dissolving a connubial union in lieu of compensation paid by the wife to her husband out of her property. Although consideration for Khula is essential, the actual release of the dower or delivery of property constituting the consideration is not a condition precedent for the validity of the khula. Once the husband gives his consent, it results in an irrevocable divorce. The husband has no power of cancelling the ‘khul’ on the ground that the consideration has not been paid. The consideration can be anything, usually it is mahr, the whole or part of it. But it may be any property though not illusory. In mubarat, the outstanding feature is that both the parties desire divorce. Thus, the proposal may emanate from either side. In mubarat both, the husband and the wife, are happy to get rid of each other . Among the Sunnis when the parties to marriage enter into a mubarat all mutual rights and obligations come to an end . The Shia law is stringent though. It requires that both the parties must bona fide find the marital relationship to be irksome and cumbersome. Among the Sunnis no specific form is laid down, but the Shias insist on a proper form. The Shias insist that the word mubarat should be followed by the word talaaq, otherwise no divorce would result. They also insist that the pronouncement must be in Arabic unless the parties are incapable of pronouncing the Arabic words. Intention to dissolve the marriage should be clearly expressed. Among both, Shias and Sunnis, mubarat is irrevocable. Other requirements are the same as in khula and the wife must undergo the period of iddat and in both the divorce is essentially an act of the parties, and no intervention by the court is required.
Divorce by wife:
The divorce by wife can be categorized under three categories:
(iii) By Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939.
Talaaq-i-tafweez or delegated divorce is recognized among both, the Shias and the Sunnis. The Muslim husband is free to delegate his power of pronouncing divorce to his wife or any other person. He may delegate the power absolutely or conditionally, temporarily or permanently . A permanent delegation of power is revocable but a temporary delegation of power is not. This delegation must be made distinctly in favour of the person to whom the power is delegated, and the purpose of delegation must be clearly stated. The power of talaaq may be delegated to his wife and as Faizee observes, “this form of delegated divorce is perhaps the most potent weapon in the hands of a Muslim wife to obtain freedom without the intervention of any court and is now beginning to be fairly common in India”. This form of delegated divorce is usually stipulated in prenuptial agreements. In Md. Khan v. Shahmai , under a prenuptial agreement, a husband, who was a Khana Damad, undertook to pay certain amount of marriage expenses incurred by the father-in-law in the event of his leaving the house and conferred a power to pronounce divorce on his wife. The husband left his father-in-law’s house without paying the amount. The wife exercised the right and divorced herself. It was held that it was a valid divorce in the exercise of the power delegated to her. Delegation of power may be made even in the post marriage agreements. Thus where under an agreement it is stipulated that in the event of the husband failing to pay her maintenance or taking a second wife, the will have a right of pronouncing divorce on herself, such an agreement is valid, and such conditions are reasonable and not against public policy . It should be noted that even in the event of contingency, whether or not the power is to be exercised, depend upon the wife she may choose to exercise it or she may not. The happening of the event of contingency does not result in automatic divorce.
Lian: If the husband levels false charges of unchastity or adultery against his wife then this amounts to character assassination and the wife has got the right to ask for divorce on these grounds. Such a mode of divorce is called Lian. However, it is only a voluntary and aggressive charge of adultery made by the husband which, if false, would entitle the wife to get the wife to get the decree of divorce on the ground of Lian. Where a wife hurts the feelings of her husband with her behaviour and the husband hits back an allegation of infidelity against her, then what the husband says in response to the bad behaviour of the wife, cannot be used by the wife as a false charge of adultery and no divorce is to be granted under Lian. This was held in the case of Nurjahan v. Kazim Ali by the Calcutta High Court.
Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939:
Qazi Mohammad Ahmad Kazmi had introduced a bill in the Legislature regarding the issue on 17th April 1936. It however became law on 17th March 1939 and thus stood the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939.
Section 2 of the Act runs thereunder:
A woman married under Muslim law shall be entitled to obtain a decree for divorce for the dissolution of her marriage on any one or more of the following grounds, namely:-
• That the whereabouts of the husband have not been known for a period of four years: if the husband is missing for a period of four years the wife may file a petition for the dissolution of her marriage. The husband is deemed to be missing if the wife or any such person, who is expected to have knowledge of the husband, is unable to locate the husband. Section 3 provides that where a wife files petition for divorce under this ground, she is required to give the names and addresses of all such persons who would have been the legal heirs of the husband upon his death. The court issues notices to all such persons appear before it and to state if they have any knowledge about the missing husband. If nobody knows then the court passes a decree to this effect which becomes effective only after the expiry of six months. If before the expiry, the husband reappears, the court shall set aside the decree and the marriage is not dissolved.
• That the husband has neglected or has failed to provide for her maintenance for a period of two years: it is a legal obligation of every husband to maintain his wife, and if he fails to do so, the wife may seek divorce on this ground. A husband may not maintain his wife either because he neglects her or because he has no means to provide her maintenance. In both the cases the result would be the same. The husband’s obligation to maintain his wife is subject to wife’s own performance of matrimonial obligations. Therefore, if the wife lives separately without any reasonable excuse, she is not entitled to get a judicial divorce on the ground of husband’s failure to maintain her because her own conduct disentitles her from maintenance under Muslim law.
• That the husband has been sentenced to imprisonment for a period of seven years or upwards: the wife’s right of judicial divorce on this ground begins from the date on which the sentence becomes final. Therefore, the decree can be passed in her favour only after the expiry of the date for appeal by the husband or after the appeal by the husband has been dismissed by the final court.
• That the husband has failed to perform, without reasonable cause, his marital obligations for a period of three years: the Act does define ‘marital obligations of the husband’. There are several marital obligations of the husband under Muslim law. But for the purpose of this clause husband’s failure to perform only those conjugal obligations may be taken into account which are not included in any of the clauses of Section 2 of this Act.
• That the husband was impotent at the time of the marriage and continues to be so: for getting a decree of divorce on this ground, the wife has to prove that the husband was impotent at the time of the marriage and continues to be impotent till the filing of the suit. Before passing a decree of divorce of divorce on this ground, the court is bound to give to the husband one year to improve his potency provided he makes an application for it. If the husband does not give such application, the court shall pass the decree without delay. In Gul Mohd. Khan v. Hasina the wife filed a suit for dissolution of marriage on the ground of impotency. The husband made an application before the court seeking an order for proving his potency. The court allowed him to prove his potency.
• If the husband has been insane for a period of two years or is suffering from leprosy or a virulent veneral disease: the husband’s insanity must be for two or more years immediately preceding the presentation of the suit. But this act does not specify that the unsoundness of mind must be curable or incurable. Leprosy may be white or black or cause the skin to wither away. It may be curable or incurable. Veneral disease is a disease of the sex organs. The Act provides that this disease must be of incurable nature. It may be of any duration. Moreover even if this disease has been infected to the husband by the wife herself, she is entitled to get divorce on this ground.
• That she, having been given in marriage by her father or other guardian before she attained the age of fifteen years, repudiated the marriage before attaining the age of eighteen years, provided that the marriage has not been consummated;
• That the husband treats her with cruelty, that is to say,-
(a) Habitually assaults her or makes her life miserable by cruelty of conduct even if such conduct does not amount to physical illtreatment, or
(b) Associates with women of ill-repute or leads an infamous life, or
(c) Attempts to force her to lead an immoral life, or
(d) Disposes of her property or prevents her exercising her legal rights over it, or
(e) Obstructs her in the observance of her religious profession or practice, or
(f) If he has more than one wives, does not treat her equitably in accordance with the injunctions of the Holy Quran.
In Syed Ziauddin v. Parvez Sultana , Parvez Sultana was a science graduate and she wanted to take admission in a college for medical studies. She needed money for her studies. Syed Ziaudddin promised to give her money provided she married him. She did. Later she filed for divorce for non-fulfillment of promise on the part of the husband. The court granted her divorce on the ground of cruelty. Thus we see the court’s attitude of attributing a wider meaning to the expression cruelty. In Zubaida Begum v. Sardar Shah , a case from Lahore High Court, the husband sold the ornaments of the wife with her consent. It was submitted that the husband’s conduct does not amount to cruelty.
In Aboobacker v. Mamu koya , the husband used to compel his wife to put on a sari and see pictures in cinema. The wife refused to do so because according to her beliefs this was against the Islamic way of life. She sought divorce on the ground of mental cruelty. The Kerela High Court held that the conduct of the husband cannot be regarded as cruelty because mere departure from the standards of suffocating orthodoxy does not constitute un-Islamic behaviour.
In Itwari v. Asghari , the Allahabad High Court observed that Indian Law does not recognize various types of cruelty such as ‘Muslim cruelty’, ‘Hindu cruelty’ and so on, and that the test of cruelty is based on universal and humanitarian standards; that is to say, conduct of the husband which would cause such bodily or mental pain as to endanger the wife’s safety or health.
Irretrievable Breakdown: Divorce on the basis of irretrievable breakdown of marriage has come into existence in Muslim Law through the judicial interpretation of certain provisions of Muslim law. In 1945 in Umar Bibi v. Md. Din , it was argued that the wife hated her husband so much that she could not possibly live with him and there was total incompatibility of temperaments. On these grounds the court refused to grant a decree of divorce. But twenty five years later in Neorbibi v. Pir Bux , again an attempt was made to grant divorce on the ground of irretrievable breakdown of marriage. This time the court granted the divorce. Thus in Muslim law of modern India, there are two breakdown grounds for divorce: (a) non-payment of maintenancy by the husband even if the failure has resulted due to the conduct of the wife, (b) where there is total irreconcilability between the spouses.
In contrast to the Western world where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, and in contrast to the low rates of divorce in the modern Middle East, divorce was a common occurrence in the pre-modern Muslim world. In the medieval Islamic world and the Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was higher than it is today in the modern Middle East. In 15th century Egypt, Al-Sakhawi recorded the marital history of 500 women, the largest sample on marriage in the Middle Ages, and found that at least a third of all women in the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria married more than once, with many marrying three or more times. According to Al-Sakhawi, as many as three out of ten marriages in 15th century Cairo ended in divorce. In the early 20th century, some villages in western Java and the Malay peninsula had divorce rates as high as 70%.In practice in most of the Muslim world today divorce can be quite involved as there may be separate secular procedures to follow as well. Usually, assuming her husband demands a divorce, the divorced wife keeps her mahr, both the original gift and any supplementary property specified in the marriage contract. She is also given child support until the age of weaning, at which point the child's custody will be settled by the couple or by the courts. Women's right to divorce is often extremely limited compared with that of men in the Middle East. While men can divorce their spouses easily, women face a lot of legal and financial obstacles. For example, in Yemen, women usually can ask for divorce only when husband's inability to support her life is admitted while men can divorce at will. However, this contentious area of religious practice and tradition is being increasingly challenged by those promoting more liberal interpretations of Islam.
# Sinha R.K., Muslim Law, 5th Edn., (Allahabad:2003).
# Tyabji, Muslim Law, 4th Edn., p.143.
# The Holy Quran, IV, 35.
# Abdur Rahim, 327.
# Diwan Paras, Law of Marriage and Divorce, 5th Edn., (New Delhi:2008)
# The Raad-ul-Muhtar, II, 683-684.
# Faizee, Muslim Law, p. 156.
# The Hedaya 139, Fatwa-i-Alamgiri, I, p.669.
# Baillie, Digest of Moohummudan Law, pp.238, 109.
# A.I.R. 1972 J&K 8.
# Hamidoola v. Faizunnisa, (1812) 8 Cal 327.
# A.I.R. 1977 Cal 90.
# A.I.R. 1988 J&k 62
# ( 1979) II Andh LT 179
# (1943) 210 IC 587.
# (1971) KLT 663.
# A.I.R. 1960 All 684.
# A.I.R. 1945 Lah 51
# A.I.R. 1971 Ker 261.
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