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Divorce and remarriage

Re-marriage after divorce in Christianity and Islam

by Dr Zahid Aziz

The question of re-marriage of a divorcee in church has come under public discussion after the announcement that Prince Harry of England is to marry a divorced woman, Meghan Markle. For example, the UK newspaper Metro carried an article on 28 November 2017 entitled ‘Will Prince Harry and divorcee Meghan Markle be allowed to get married in a church?’ The Daily Express carried an article on 27 November, ‘Prince Harry CAN marry divorcee Meghan Markle at Westminster Abbey’, which began as follows:

“Question marks have been raised over whether Meghan and Prince Harry would legally be allowed to have their wedding within the Church of England as tradition dictates.”

It goes on to quote a church spokesman for Westminster Abbey who said that since 2002 “it has been possible for divorced people to be married in the Church of England”.

As the article in Metro noted, as recently as 2005, Prince Charles and Camilla were refused permission by the then Archbishop of Canterbury to have a Christian wedding. They married in a civil ceremony, followed by a blessing in church. The article also noted the historic event in 1936, when the King of England, Edward the eighth, was forced by the British government and the Church of England to give up his throne as he insisted on marrying the divorced Mrs Wallis Simpson.

So, what is the reason for the Christian objection to the marriage of a divorced person taking place in a church? According to the Religions section of the BBC website, on the page headed ‘Divorce in Christianity’, the Church of England says that:

“divorce is a breach of God’s will for marriage” (see link)

The same page tells us that since 2002 the Church of England has accepted that “in exceptional circumstances, a divorced person may marry again in a church”. When a member of the clergy is approached by a couple to conduct their marriage, he has the power and discretion from the Church authorities to agree or to refuse to perform the marriage if one of the couple is a divorced person.

From the same page we also learn that the Catholic Church, which is more strict, considers that:

“Marriage is both a legal bond on earth and spiritual bond which God has witnessed. The latter cannot be broken using temporal laws.”

On the page headed ‘Christian Weddings’ of the same BBC website, the Catholic view is given as follows:

“Because a marriage is a divine institution it can never be broken, even if the partners are legally divorced: as long as they are both alive, the Church considers them bound together by God.” (see link)

The concept behind these Christian church teachings is that the marriage of a couple has been brought about by the will of God, and therefore for the couple to divorce is to violate the will of God. (This concept allows as exceptions such cases where the marriage was invalid in the first place; for example, where deceit was practised by one party to marry the other.)

With this topic of remarriage of a divorced person being in the news, it would be an ideal opportunity for Muslims to put forward the teachings of Islam on this issue and show that these are much more rational, progressive and compassionate.

Islamic teachings

In Islam there is no stigma whatsoever attached to a divorced person, man or woman. Remarriage of a divorced Muslim, man or woman, with a new spouse, is no different from a first marriage. The Quran addresses husbands as follows about their wives:

“…retain them with kindness or let them go with kindness…” (2:231)

“…retain them with kindness or part from them with kindness…” (65:2)

In other words, if the husband cannot tolerate to live with his wife showing her kindness, he should end the marriage with kindness. There is no guilt attached.

Regarding wives, the Quran says:

“Then if you fear that they (the married couple) cannot keep within the limits of Allah, there is no blame on them for what she gives up to become free thereby.” (2:229)

Maulana Muhammad Ali here writes that not being able to keep within the limits of Allah means “their inability to perform towards each other their marital obligations and to maintain good fellowship”. The reference in “what she gives up to become free thereby” is to her right to obtain divorce by returning the nuptial gift, known as mahr, back to the husband. Maulana Muhammad Ali comments as follows:

“These words give the wife a right to claim a divorce. It is one of the distinguishing charac­teris­tics of Islam that it gives the wife the right to claim a divorce, if she is willing to forgo the whole or part of her dowry.”

The Maulana here cites a case which was brought to the Holy Prophet Muhammad by a wife “who was dissatisfied with the marriage”. The Holy Prophet allowed her to divorce her husband if she returned to him an orchard he had given her on marriage. He adds:

“If, then, a woman could claim a divorce for no reason other than the unsuitableness of the match, she had certainly the right to claim one if there was ill-treatment on the part of the husband or any other satisfactory reason, and among the early Muslims it was an established right.”

Besides these general teachings of Islam, there is the incident of the marriage of the Holy Prophet himself to his divorced cousin Zainab. We may note here that his wives are known as “mothers of the believers”, and thus one of the “mothers of the believers” was a divorced woman. How then could a stigma be attached to a woman for the reason that she was divorced? This incident is mentioned in the Quran itself (33:37), leaving no doubt whatsoever for a Muslim that the story is true and that Allah teaches us some lessons from it.

Maulana Muhammad Ali has explained in his notes the facts about this incident, which are accepted by general Muslim opinion. Zainab was daughter of an aunt of the Holy Prophet (on his father’s side) and Zaid was formerly a slave whom the Holy Prophet liberated, and who was like a son to him. The marriage between Zaid and Zainab took place at the great insistence of the Holy Prophet who wanted to remove distinctions of social class among Muslims. However, it turned out not to be a happy union, differences arose and Zaid expressed his desire to the Holy Prophet of divorcing her. The Holy Prophet advised Zaid not to divorce Zainab, as clearly stated at the start of 33:37, addressing the Holy Prophet:

“And when you said to him (Zaid) to whom Allah had shown favour and to whom you had shown a favour: Keep your wife to yourself and keep your duty to Allah…”

However, Zaid did not heed this advice. The verse later says:

“So when Zaid dissolved her marriage-tie, We gave her to you as a wife…”

To quote from Maulana Muhammad Ali’s footnote:

“After Zainab was divorced the Holy Prophet took her in marriage, that being the wish of the lady and her relatives before her marriage to Zaid, and the Prophet was, now that the marriage arranged by him proved unsuccessful, morally bound to accept their wishes.”

If ever a marriage could be described as what Christians call “God’s will for marriage” (see the statement from the BBC website quoted earlier), it was the marriage between Zaid and Zainab. It was brought about by the firm insistence of the man sent by God, to whom God was revealing His will all the time. Yet neither the Quran nor the Holy Prophet himself attached any blame or stigma to the couple for contravening the will of God. The Holy Prophet’s advice, “Keep your wife to yourself”, was not acted upon by Zaid, yet there is no condemnation of his action, nor does Zainab occupy a lower position among the wives of the Holy Prophet for being divorced.

As I wrote above, the recent discussion in the news about re-marriage of divorced persons should have provided Muslims with an excellent opportunity to show the progressive and humane nature of the teachings of Islam. Unfortunately, Muslims have deprived themselves of that opportunity by coining the notion that, in Islam also, the marriage of every couple is decided and pre-ordained by Allah, and is not the fallible decision of any human being. It is said that when parents and relatives of the man and the woman pray to Allah in regard to their proposed marriage, Allah guides their hearts to the right answer, as to whether to go ahead with the marriage or not. Under this notion it is impossible to understand why Allah, in the case of His holiest and greatest of prophets, never directed him by revelation to abstain from insisting that Zainab marry Zaid.

In Muslim societies, stigma has been attached to divorce so much so that those who have been divorced have difficulty in re-marrying. It is considered to be a subject which cannot be discussed. On the other hand, the divorce of Zaid and Zainab has been proclaimed publicly in the Quran, and since the beginning of Islam commentators of the Quran have been putting forward their various views on why this divorce took place. It is reported in Bukhari:

“Zaid ibn Harithah came to the Prophet complaining about his wife. The Prophet used to say: ‘Keep your duty to Allah and keep your wife to yourself’. Aishah said: ‘If the Messenger of Allah were to conceal anything, he would have concealed this’.” (hadith 7420)

The Holy Prophet would have wished to keep this matter private, but Allah made it public by revealing it in the Quran. Yet we think that any such incident must be kept concealed. Unless such matters are discussed, and lessons are learnt from them, we can never find ways of avoiding the same mistakes in future and preventing similar occurrences happening again.

The incident of Zaid and Zainab conveys and reinforces the Islamic teaching that marriage is a human decision. There is always a possibility that such a decision can be wrong, even if the decision is made with the best of intentions, with complete sincerity, and all available investigation and knowledge, and is accompanied by prayers seeking guidance from Allah.

Muslim societies, by ignoring and contravening the teachings of Islam, while convincing themselves that they are right, are unable to bring about reform of their own social ills. So they are far, very far, from showing the rest of the world that the religion of Islam, in matters of marriage and divorce, is eminently sensible, practical, just, kind and caring.