Divorce among Sri Lankan Muslims
Islam, according to its teachings, does not approve of divorce. However, it is permitted more as an exception to the rule, “…Expel them (women) not from their houses nor let them go forth unless they commit open immorality…” (Holy Quran — Surah 65). “Of all things permitted by law,” said the holy prophet, “divorce is the most hateful in the sight of Allah” (Abu Daud, Sunan, xiii.3).
The only concession allowed to a man or woman, to obtain a divorce, are chiefly on grounds of sexual incompatibility and infidelity by either party, These, in the main, are the basic teachings of Islam on divorce.
In reality, however, divorce is both possible and permissible in modern Muslim society for a variety of reasons and is quite easily obtained. Muslim society, today, takes divorce for granted. It is the normal climax in an unhappy marriage. Seldom or never is it understood that according to Islamic theology divorce should be the last resort. Muslim law provides for a system of arbitration between disparate couples. The Quazi system provides for the Quazis to bring about concord between estranged couples. Only when all the other means of settlements have failed, are they permitted to seek legal separation.
It is, however, a matter of regret and concern that Muslim society has degenerated into where divorce has become common on frivolous ground. Whether this could due to a breakdown in religious values is rather a moot point.
Many legally separated couples would not have sought separation if only the elders of the community or the parents of the couples had intervened. Here, society should be blamed collectively for the Muslim divorces that take place.
There is a great difference between what is morally right as is seen in the teachings of the Quran, and what is legally right as interpreted in the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Laws. The law is lax and permits divorce for a great many reasons. This is because the law itself has been evolved by society. Therefore, if we must look for a definitive teaching on divorce, we have to go to the Holy Quran which strictly prohibits it except in certain circumstances.
Why then has divorce become so common in Muslim society? Primarily, it is because couples are ill- matched. This together with the various social pressures in a society of unequal and phoney status has led to a breakdown in a great many marriages.
The Muslim community, unlike any other community, is composed of opposites and extremes. Side by side with the immensely wealthy are the desolately poor. So, too, with literacy. On the one hand we find the educated and literate and on the other the colossally ignorant and the illiterate. All living in a closely knit small community. Couples with the diverse interests are paired off by over-anxious parents. The wealthy among Muslims have found educated husbands for their daughters while many educated Muslim parents have to be satisfied with wealthy husbands for their equally educated daughters. Such social disparity is one of the reasons for divorce among the higher rungs of the community.
Marriage is compulsory to a man with health, wealth and strength according to the teachings of Islam. The Holy prophet has said, “He who is able to marry should marry for it keeps the eye cast down and keeps a man chaste….” (Bukhari 67:2). This is misinterpreted by many ignorant parents, who get their dependent sons married early and long before they are mature enough to face up to the responsibilities of married life. They become dependent on their parents and in-laws and are unable to set up a home of their own. Naturally, the rift between husband and wife widens inasmuch as they have to depend on their parents.
Yet another cause for the failure of Muslim marriages is the ever prevalent dowry system. The giving of dowry to the bridegroom is not among Islamic traditions. Quite the opposite is the giving of MAHAR. This is the giving of a dowry by the bridegroom to his bride on the day of the wedding. This practice, though observed more in the breach, has its roots in the teachings of Islam.
From a religious point of view the dowry system is taboo. But the custom of giving a dowry to a a prospective son-in-law has come to stay, probably originating from early Hindu customs. This practice has made many an anxious father promise more than what he possesses to ‘settle his daughter’. The bridegroom ‘so bought’ on finding that he has not been ‘paid his worth’, as promised, seeks divorce from his wife. Many Muslim marriages go on the rocks due to no fault of the couples, in this way.
Some Muslim girls brought up in conservative homes, living a secluded and cloistered life, suddenly on marriage find themselves released into a more liberal world. This happens among the present generations where Muslim men wish their wives to be more ‘modern’. They prefer to have their wives join them in all social activities and allow free contact with other men. But, unfortunately these girls, brought up in orthodox homes, mistake such freedom for license to have a few amorous adventures. The outcome of it is normally a breakup in their home-life. Such instances are common in urban areas among the more sophisticated of the community.
The purdah system has led many a bridegroom to marry the wrong girl. Often the younger and the more attractive of a pair of sisters is shown and the elder given away in marriage. The bridegroom finds out too late. The only alternative for him is the divorce courts.
In some parts of Sri Lanka it is customary for the newly-weds to live with their in-laws even for years after marriage. Such sheltered lives, where all their wants are met and their problems ironed out by their in-laws, often create difficulties. The influence of parents and parental interference lead to strained feelings between husband and wife who ultimately end in the divorce courts. It is common in such instances to find that at bottom parental influence had become irksome to one partner who had to compete with his or her in-laws for a greater share of affection from the other.
When such couples set up a home of their own they are unable to meet the challenge and responsibility of marriage by themselves. This often leads to bickering between couples and portends a disrupted union.There is the popular misconception that merely because Muslim law permits a man to have up to four wives, divorce is uncommon. Though the law permits such marriage very few men have more than one woman. The conditions under which such marriage is permitted are so stringent as to make it almost impossible for any Muslim in Sri Lanka to be married to more than one woman. Divorce, being the more convenient way of finding another suitable partner, is resorted to when one marriage turns out badly.
Muslims, especially in the Eastern Province, are poor and illiterate. Large families are not uncommon among them. A husband or wife unable to meet the responsibility of providing for the family seeks refuge by deserting the family as the easy way out.
The crux of the problem is largely a matter of individual approach to marriage. Muslims, Sinhalese, Tamils or Burghers are human beings first with all their follies and foibles. Human desires, hopes and aspirations are the same the world over, though their thinking may be conditioned by the society in which they live.
A Muslim is no different. If an individual wants to make a success of his marriage it is within his reach. If he should fail it is society which is largely to blame. For a collapse of the individual or his moral fibre reflects the collapse of the society as a whole. Man, as Earl Russel has said, ‘is monogamous both by instinct as well as by nature’. It is society that conditions his nature.
It must be remembered that though it is said that marriages are made in Heaven they have to be lived in this part of the Universe and in a society that is Hell-bound.