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Ask Zahra

Welcome to the Ask Zahra advice column!  Sister Zahra is ready and willing to answer your questions about Islam.  Her answers are based on years of studying Islamic scholarship and culture throughout the Muslim world.  Zahra welcomes your questions, and looks forward to providing balanced and credible access to information on the many issues that are important to Muslim women.

Ask Zahra

Do you have questions about Islam or Islamic law?

What are the differences between a Civil marriage and an Islamic marriage?

We receive regular inquires about the differences between a civil marriage and an Islamic marriage. Many ask whether American law recognizes an Islamic marriage. In addition to this, many ask whether American law would protect the rights of a Muslim woman without a civil marriage. To answer these questions, we need to distinguish a foreign Muslim marriage from a domestic Muslim marriage.   Foreign Marriage   A foreign marriage occurs when a couple marries outside of the United States – regardless of whether or not either party is a U.S. citizen. Two simple examples: (1) bride and groom from Maryland decide to travel to Bangladesh to get married; (2) Jordanian bride and groom living in Jordan get married in Jordan; shortly after their marriage, they immigrate to the United States. In these two scenarios, the law of the country where the marriage was performed governs the validity of their marriage. Bangladeshi law governs in the first example and Jordanian law governs in the second example. Some states, like New York, provide that the law of the marital domicile would govern the validity of a foreign marriage. In other words, assume that in example #1 and #2 the married couple resided in New York for ten years. New York marital domicile law potentially would apply for purposes of the validity of the parties’ marriage. This approach highlights the public policy in New York that provides a presumption in the validity of marriages so the state that would validate would receive deference. In these examples, a Muslim marriage performed in accordance with the laws of the place of marriage is recognized and enforced in the U.S. However, this only applies to the marriage itself. As to the consequences of the marriage – custody, child support, martial property and alimony – the law of the marital residence governs. So, in the example with the couple that married in Jordan and immigrated to the U.S. residing in the United States for several years before filing for divorce, the law of their state of residence would govern all of the consequences of the marriage – custody, alimony and equitable distribution.   Domestic Marriage   In the majority of states, to be valid, a marriage requires a couple to obtain a marriage license from the state and then take that marriage license to a person authorized to solemnize marriages. American law authorizes certain government officials, such as mayors and judges, and most religious officials, to solemnize marriages. The majority of Americans choose to have their religious official solemnize their marriage.   What are the legal consequences if you only marry religiously without obtaining a marriage license as required under the law?   The answer depends on the state you live in. There are three approaches to this issue. Some states still recognize common law marriages. Most states abolished common law marriage. While the elements of a common law marriage differ from the ten or so states that recognize it (Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire-posthumously-, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and the District of Columbia), most have three basic elements: intent to be married, continuous cohabitation, and public declaration that the parties are husband and wife. Therefore, if the Muslim couples with only a religious marriage contracted in the United States reside in a state that recognizes common law marriage, their religious marriage is likely to be valid because the Muslim marriage contract is an intent to be married, live together and the public know the couple to be husband and wife. In this case, the wife’s marital rights would be protected under state law (alimony, equitable distribution/community property, child support). The other states take one of two approaches: the marriage is void or the marriage is voidable. The void states say that if you fail to obtain a marriage license, then your marriage is void; therefore, no rights or privileges arise therefrom. This means a wife would not be entitled to alimony or to a share in marital assets. Furthermore, if the husband dies– naturally or because of a third party’s negligence, the wife in these circumstances would not inherit nor would she be able to sue on behalf of her husband. Of course, children are entitled to child support whether the marriage is valid or not. Some states allow a legal action called palimony. In an action for palimony, the party asserting the claim must prove to the court that his or her partner promised to take care of him or her for life. The parties moved in together, worked together and then the party promising to care for the claimant decides to pick up and leave. In this case, the court would award the injured party damages for the breach of the promise to take care of the partner for life. These cases are very difficult to win and some states now require that such promises be in writing. The voidable states, on the other hand, provide that a marriage without a marriage license would render it voidable. If you prove to the court that a person authorized to solemnize your marriage performed the solemnization, the court is willing to recognize the marriage being valid and effective as of the date of solemnization. In this case, the law protects the palimony claimant’s rights arising out of his or her voidable marriage. The best practice is to follow local law and obtain a marriage license before you go to your Imam to solemnize your marriage. This is the best route to protect your rights and the validity of your marriage.

With respect to the different Islamic schools of thought (madhāhib), does a Muslim have to follow one specific school of thought (madhab)?

It is not required for every Muslim to follow one specific madhab. Muslims who have limited knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) should ask a reliable and competent scholar about issues of concern to them and then follow his opinion. On the other hand, Muslims who studied fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), principles of fiqh, and the higher objectives of Shari’ah (Islamic law) can study the reasoning of each Islamic school of thought and adopt the opinion they find most convincing intellectually. When engaging in such reasoning, a person should entirely base his/her acceptance upon sound reasoning and not satisfaction of desires. Finally, a mujtahid (one who engages in jurisprudence) should use independent reasoning that results in a legal opinion extracted from the primary sources of Islam.

Why do the various schools of thought have different opinions on legal issues?

There are several reasons why schools of thought have different opinions on legal issues, and the fact that these views differ does not present any problem or conflict. Historically, jurists encouraged their followers to seek out the opinion they found to be most sound according to their intellect and understanding of Islamic basic principles and public interest. The differing views are due to different understandings and interpretations of the Qur’ān, and to differences in accepting the hadith (words and example of Prophet Muhammad), as well as in juristic methods.

More specifically, in terms of understanding the Qur’ān, jurists differed due to different reasons. Among them is the fact that the Qur’an is rich in meaning. Consequently, there are often several meanings for key terms in the Qur’ān. Also direct imperatives in the Qur’ān could be properly understood to range from commands, to indicating permissibility of actions, to offering guidance or giving warning, and they were read differently by the various schools.

The differences among reports of hadith were due to the fact that a particular hadith may have never reached a certain scholar, or that a certain hadith was considered defective due because the chain of narration was incomplete, the text contradicted the Qur’an, or it conflicted with reason. Each jurist had his own reasoning when determining whether or not a particular hadith was defective.

Finally, other factors also affected the difference in juristic methods used for interpretation. For example, one factor in the process is whether or not a jurist considered the rulings of Companions. Another is whether the jurist accepted principles of public interest as a legitimate element in the reasoning process. Additionally, some jurists were more inclined to caution or leniency, while others were more severe in their rulings. Others adopted customary law or local customs, or relied on precedent.

In all these cases, jurists were usually very open and flexible to adapting their opinion to different circumstances and contexts. For instance, Imam Shafi‘i, who initially lived in Iraq, completely re-adjusted his school of thought when he moved to Egypt to fit the needs and circumstances of the Muslims there.

Since `Eid ul Fitr is coming soon, I would like to know how I should give Zakatul-Fitr? Can I give it in cash or should it be given in grain? Who should pay it and when?

Giving Zakatul-Fitr purifies our hearts and provides food for the needy. Zakatul-Fitr is a charitable donation which should be paid by every capable Muslim individual male or female, young or old.
Zakatul-Fitr can be paid in grain but it is more beneficial and highly recommended to pay it in cash nowadays. It is calculated in each country or community according to the cost of a meal in the local currency. In the United States, the equivalent of $8 to $10 dollars is fine.
Every head of a Muslim family is required to pay Zakatul-Fitr for himself/herself and his/her dependents including children whom they support. It is also due on behalf of every child, even one who is born a few minutes before the `Eid prayer on the first day of the month of Shawwal.
Zakatul-Fitr should be paid a few days before the end of Ramadan. Some scholars argue that it may be paid at any time during Ramadan, while others insist that it is payable on the last day. All scholars agreed that it should be given no later than the `Eid prayer.

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