Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari'a Path in a Secular Society

Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari'a Path in a Secular Society

Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari'a Path in a Secular Society

Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari'a Path in a Secular Society

Synopsis

Policy-makers and the public are increasingly attentive to the role of shari'a in the everyday lives of Western Muslims, with negative associations and public fears growing among their non-Muslim neighbors in the United States and Canada. The most common way North American Muslims relate to shari'a is in their observance of Muslim marriage and divorce rituals; recourse to traditional Islamic marriage and, to a lesser extent, divorce is widespread. Julie Macfarlane has conducted hundreds of interviews with Muslim couples, as well as with religious and community leaders and family conflict professionals. Her book describes how Muslim marriage and divorce processes are used in North America, and what they mean to those who embrace them as a part of their religious and cultural identity. The picture that emerges is of an idiosyncratic private ordering system that reflects a wide range of attitudes towards contemporary family values and changes in gender roles. Some women describe pervasive assumptions about restrictions on their role in the family system, as well as pressure to accept these values and to stay married. Others of both genders describe the gradual modernization of Islamic family traditions - and the subsequent emergence of a Western shari'a--but a continuing commitment to the rituals of Muslim marriage and divorce in their private lives. Readers will be challenged to consider how the secular state should respond in order to find a balance between state commitment to universal norms and formal equality, and the protection of religious freedom expressed in private religious and cultural practices.

Excerpt

For many people, the image of Islamic law is laden with fear. Over the past five years, each time I told a non-Muslim that I was conducting an empirical study of Islamic marriage and divorce, their reaction was surprise, alarm, and in some cases horror. Many expressed dismay, revulsion even, that I (“I thought you were a feminist!”) would devote myself to this area of study. When I tried to explain the research I was doing I was asked over and over, “You mean, they have divorce?” and often (accompanied now by laughter) “Don’t they just stone the women?” These reactions to my study and to me reflect pervasive public stereotyping of Muslims and largely uninformed public-policy making about the use of Islamic legal processes.

Issues that implicate Islamic values, culture, traditions and law are increasingly prominent in the public discourse of non-Muslim countries, including Canada and the United States. This debate follows the migration of Muslim communities to North America and Europe, beginning after the colonization of their countries of origin in the nineteenth century and continuing today. These new, displaced communities are as diverse as the Muslim world. Living in non-Muslim societies where Muslims are members of a fragmented and still relatively “new” community, they face complex and sometimes painful questions of identity. How do Muslims retain their Islamic identity in a non-Muslim state? How do they meet both their Islamic responsibilities and the obligations of citizenship in their new states? How does a secular state accommodate Muslim religious and cultural beliefs and values? These are dense and complicated questions, and their discussion is often controversial inside Muslim communities. They have been further reframed—divisively, unhelpfully—by rising public fears about Islam since the events of 9/11.

This book is concerned with a hitherto unexamined question about the religious, cultural and social identity of North American Muslims:

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