Last month, in Tajikistan, religious authorities banned the use of text messages by Muslim men to divorce their wives. To those not familiar with the practice, this may seem an odd thing to worry about. But divorce by text message has become a problem in Tajikistan because an increasing number of migrant workers there are not returning to their countries of origin and so need a remote method to divorce their wives from home. Text messaging specifically impacts Muslims seeking a divorce because they are being used to issue the “triple talaq,” the process by which a husband ends a marriage by stating his desire for divorce three times.
However, although the modern technology may be convenient, according to Abdurakhim Kholiov, the head of the Tajik religious affairs committee, the use of text messages in this way violates Islamic law and thus is the target of a fatwa. Tajikistan is not the first country that has had to address the issue of divorce by text message specifically–and the role of new technology in religion in general. In fact, this has been an issue of debate in Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
In Islam, marriage is considered to be a sacred union. It is described in the Qur’an in chapter 4 verse 21 as “a solemn covenant” (mithaaq ghalidh) and the reason for it is mentioned in an often cited verse:
And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect. (Chapter 30 verse 21 )
Thus the focus of marriage in Islam is mainly about the creation of bonds between human beings.
This relationship, however, is also described in Islamic law in contractual terms. In other words, it is a civil contract between a man and a woman, according to Mahmoud Hoballah in Understanding Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary. Thus, like other contracts it has certain conditions that must be met to be valid and additional stipulations can be added if agreed upon.
Even though marriage is considered to be sacred, divorce is permitted in Islam if reconciliation is impossible; however, it should be the last resort and in a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is recorded to have said, “Of all lawful acts, divorce is the most detestable to Allah.”
Just as marriage has conditions, divorce also has conditions that must be met. The overall condition is maintaining kindness and dignity, which is made clear in chapter 2 verse 229:
A divorce is only permissible twice: after that, the parties should either hold Together on equitable terms, or separate with kindness. It is not lawful for you, (Men), to take back any of your gifts (from your wives), except when both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by Allah. If ye (judges) do indeed fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by Allah, there is no blame on either of them if she give something for her freedom. These are the limits ordained by Allah; so do not transgress them if any do transgress the limits ordained by Allah, such persons wrong (Themselves as well as others).
As stated in this verse, both parties are not to transgress the boundaries of God by harming the other or taking advantage of them.
It is for this reason that some have spoken out against the use of text-message divorce saying that it violates the spirit of parting with kindness, since it ends a sacred union in a callous manner. Moreover, it prevents the possibility of reconciliation that is supposed to precede any movement towards divorce. Finally, it is considered by some, like Ibrahim Negm, the spokesman for the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar Ali Gomaa, to represent “a clear-cut abuse of the law.” Besides Tajikistan, Singapore banned the practice in 2001. Hopefully, more countries will follow the lead of Tajikistan and Singapore, and protect the rights of Muslim women that are clear in the faith but neglected by its followers.
What do you think of text-message divorces? Do you think they violate the spirit of Islam? How should new technologies be incorporated into a faith without leading to abuses? Please share your comments below.