“Can’t we have a law that makes divorce only effective when it is documented?” asked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a televised speech he gave at the Police Day celebration on January 24. “If marriage is documented then the same should apply to divorce.” Sisi then addressed the Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, who was among the attendees: “Don’t you agree with me, your eminence?”
He then playfully added, “You are giving me a hard time, your eminence!” Sisi was referring to verbal divorce through which a Muslim husband can end the marriage through uttering the words, “I, hereby, divorce you.” Throughout the few days that followed the speech, the issue of verbal divorce has become the talk of the town with growing speculations over an imminent legislation and equally growing debates on the possibility of changing what is seen as an integral part of Islamic family law.
For journalist Mahmoud Bakri, what seemed like a joke between Sisi and Tayeb is actually an indication of the tension between the presidency and al-Azhar as far as religious discourse is concerned. “This is not the first time Sisi criticizes al-Azhar for not embarking on serious attempts to adapt religious laws to modern times and to correct untruthful conceptions of Islamic ideology,” he wrote. “True, Sisi has been calling for a reform in Azhar as a means to combat terrorism both in Egypt and the Islamic world, but now his criticism was also directed at the way al-Azhar handles family law.”
Bakri noted that talk about banning verbal divorce started in mid-2016 based on a book entitled Verbal Divorce Ban for Documented Marriages in Egypt by professor of comparative jurisprudence at al-Azhar University Saad al-Din al-Helali. “A committee to discuss the matter was formed by al-Azhar. It included representatives of the four Islamic schools of thought as well as historians and theologians and they agreed against the ban.” Bakri argues that Sisi is asking al-Azhar to reconsider its position. “This puts al-Azhar is a very awkward situation since it either takes the president’s request seriously or risk an escalation of tension with the presidency.”
Sisi’s call for banning verbal divorce stirred much controversy among religious scholars. Islamic preacher Khaled al-Gindi, who had previously filed a lawsuit against the prime minister, the Ministry of Justice, and al-Azhar’s grand imam to demand banning verbal divorce but dropped it following Sisi’s speech, argued that verbal divorce does not count. “There are two contracts, one for marriage and another for divorce. Only the second can annul the first,” he said. “If a man divorces his wife verbally 20,000 times, this has no value whatsoever.” Gindi noted that verbal divorce was only valid at a time when all contracts were verbal and documentation did not exist. “Verbal contracts were totally eliminated in 1931 and ever since every deal has to be documented.”
Professor of Islamic law at al-Azhar University Ahmed Kereima argued that all transactions were originally verbal and the words said were translated into action. “Any contract is based on wording because wording is indicative of an intention to do a certain action,” he said. “Documentation is only an administrative formality that aims at preserving the rights of the parties involved in this contract.” According to Kereima, verbal divorce has been valid since the establishment of the Islamic nation and is agreed upon by the four schools of thought and by the majority of scholars. “It is also part of the Quran and the prophet’s teachings, so demanding otherwise is absolutely unacceptable because this would be a secularization of God’s laws.” When asked if banning verbal divorce would reduce growing divorce rates as Sisi said in his speech, Kereima replied in the negative. “When a man divorces his wife verbally while he is angry or ill or without meaning it, he can seek advice from al-Azhar which can then find a way out for him since divorce has to be based on a firm intention to end the marriage,” he said. “Plus, society needs to adapt to the rules of Islam not the other way round.”
Egypt’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Shawki Allam said that Dar al-Iftaa, the institution in charge of issuing religious edicts, receives an average of 3,200 inquiries about verbal divorce. “After thorough investigation of each case and after looking into the husband’s intentions and the circumstances under which verbal divorce took place, only three of them prove to be an actual divorce,” he said.
Preacher Mazhar Shahin said that there are hundreds of cases where women are trying to prove that they were verbally divorced and cannot remarry because of that. “All these women remain in limbo for they are neither married nor divorced and have no right to remarry because no document proves they were divorced,” he said. Shahin added that as “guardian” of the Egyptian nation, Sisi has the right to “restrict the permitted,” as he put it, if this is in the best interest of his nation.
MP and professor of theology Amna Nosseir said that Sisi’s request “sent ripples across stagnant water,” as she put, since it brought back to the forefront one of the most critical problems Egyptian families face. “I think that the Committee of Religious Affairs at the House of Representatives should start taking the necessary steps towards drafting a legislation that bans verbal divorce,” she said, adding that she will fully provide members of the committee with the scholarly help they would need in this regard.
MP and secretary general of the Committee of Religious Affairs at the House of Representatives Amr Hamroush said that the committee will be ready in a few days with a draft law that regulates verbal divorce. “We will meet with representatives of major religious institutions and prominent scholars to discuss the law and make sure it does not contradict Islamic law,” he said. “The law aims at protecting Egyptian families from disintegration and at preserving the rights of the wife and the children and it will include fines and jail sentences for violators.” MP and member of the same committee Mohamed Shaaban argued that the new law is a manifestation of respect for women as stipulated in Islam. “A woman will no longer be under the mercy of a few words said by an angry husband during an argument,” he said.