Ethics and Community

Because the male is legally the head of the household, he is entitled to make decisions on its behalf, such as where the family will reside. He is also given decision-making power over the welfare of the children. While there may be a moral norm that he exercises these privileges for the good of the household and in consultation with the wife, the wife is expected to defer to her husband's decisions with respect to these decisions. The husband's prerogatives of control over the household do not entitle him, however, to interfere with his wife's personal rights, such as control over her own property. 

Finally, Islamic law gives men (but not women) the right to contract up to four marriages simultaneously provided that certain conditions are met. The wife's primary legal obligation arising out of marriage is to make herself available to her husband for sexual intercourse. Whether the wife is obliged to perform housekeeping and other domestic chores is a matter of disagreement among Muslim jurists, but in any case, even for those who recognize such a duty, the duty is generally limited to the kind of household work she would do for herself. 

Title: Bangladeshi wedding Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/altairthegreat/3429626923/It is important to keep in mind, however, that because Islamic law understands the marital relationship to be contractual, the parties to a marriage contract can, and do, vary these rules to suit their own needs. For example, it is not unusual for women to include terms in their marriage contracts that would protect them from the risk that a husband would marry a second woman. A woman could also write into the marriage contract the right to divorce or a contractual stipulation regarding the location of the household. It is also important to understand that not all moral norms governing relationships between spouses are reflected as legal rules. Values such as love, generosity, and mutual support, are all normative elements of the Islamic conception of marriage. The Quran, for example, states that among God's signs is that "He made for you mates from yourselves that you may find tranquility with them, and caused love and compassion to arise between you" (Al-Rum,30:21). Such values do not necessarily form part of the legal system's regulation of the parties' rights within marriage or upon its dissolution.

Islamic family law is best understood as establishing a minimum baseline regarding family life that parties, within certain boundaries, are free to modify. Because of the flexibility of Islamic family law, Muslim countries in the 20th century have engaged in a wide variety of family law reform projects with the intent of furthering greater equality within the traditional heterosexual family by, among other things, restricting polygyny and reducing the male's right to initiate unilateral divorces. Many groups of Muslims continue to advocate for further reforms of the Islamic family law codes that are applied in the Muslim world and one may reasonably expect that further reforms in the direction of greater gender equality will be made in the Muslim world in the foreseeable future.

English-speaking Muslims typically do not apply Islamic family law rigorously in the regulation of their marriages and divorces. Accordingly, most disputes involving Islamic family in the North American context, for example, raise the question of whether the husband's obligation to pay his wife a dowry (mahr or sadaq) as specified in their Islamic marriage contract is enforceable as an ordinary civil obligation. While it is customary for a Muslim couple to enter into an Islamically-recognized marriage contract, it would be unusual for the couple not to register their marriage civilly. Well-established North American Islamic centers typically refuse to prepare an Islamic marriage contract for a couple until they first produce a civil marriage license or evidence of a valid marriage under civil law.

Practices such as unilateral divorce (especially a unilateral and irrevocable divorce) had been long been frowned upon in traditional Islamic law (even though they were legally effective), and as such are rare among Muslim communities in North America. To the extent a husband purports to exercise such a right, the weight of opinion among contemporary Muslim authorities would deny the effectiveness of such a divorce. Ultimately, however, at least as a matter of religious law (but obviously not civil law), the decision to recognize the effectiveness of such a divorce turns on the religious scruples of the couple involved. If the wife sincerely believed that a divorce took place, for example, then she would be ethically bound to leave her husband, and vice-versa. The great majority of Muslim religious authorities in North American Muslim communities also counsel Muslims to refrain from polygyny on the grounds that it is not permitted under domestic law. On the other hand, given the substantial possibility that laws criminalizing polygyny could very well be struck down as unconstitutional in either the United States or Canada, the Islamic objection to polygyny in North America based on its illegality would be subject to revision.

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