My friend Mufti Barkatullah is an unusual chap. He is a fully qualified "mufti", a traditionally educated and recognised expert in Islamic law. You cannot guess by simply looking at him, and his attire would definitely fool you, but in western terms he is also highly educated. He is just the kind of person who can combine tradition and modernity to produce something new that retains the best features of the old - and I think this extra ordinary mufti has done just that. He is the driving force behind the "model Muslim marriage contract" launched by the Muslim Institute.
I first met him in the mid-1970s, wandering in the streets of Jeddah. Both of us were in our mid-twenties. I was working for a local university; he was looking for gainful employment in a country overburdened with traditionally educated religious scholars. I started a conversation by making a few caustic remarks about Islamic law - it was outdated, irrelevant, that sort of thing. To my surprise, he agreed with me. What we need to do, he replied, is to update it, make it relevant to Muslim life, purge it of obscurantism. I found him exceptionally congenial, always smiling and laughing, and far removed from stereotypical religious scholars, who tend to be austere, arid and obsessed with the legal opinions of Dead Muslim Men from bygone ages. Even my sarcastic remarks about his beard - "a dozen hairs in agony", I seem to recall - only produced a smile. "There isn't much hope for a man of your calibre in the kingdom of obscurantist scholars," I told him. And advised him to move to London.
He took my advice. He had to struggle financially, but he managed to get through a university degree. Over the years, he has worked tirelessly to shape a more progressive outlook among British Muslims. He developed a database of classical Islamic sources that is readily available and easily accessible to young Muslims - "to make muftis like myself irrelevant", he once said, jokingly. He played an important role in introducing sharia banking to Britain, which generates more than £2bn a year for our economy. Now, his standard Muslim marriage certificate is set to make a profound impact on British Muslim family life.
When Muslims say they want the sharia in Britain, what they mean is that they want their marriages and family life regulated by it. In particular, they want marriage, or nikah, performed according to Muslim law. The problem is that the nikah system is biased towards men, is often not registered in civil courts and, in the case of divorce, leaves women without financial support.
The new standard contract adjusts this imbalance. It provides women with written proof of their marriage, with clearly laid-out terms and conditions that both parties have to follow. Men are required to waive their so-called "right" to polygamy; women are not required to have a "marriage guardian", or wali. Conventionally, it is the parents who play the role of wali and whose consent is required.
What the new arrangement means is that a young Muslim is free to marry whomever he or she wishes, without their parents' consent. Women also have an automatic right to divorce while retaining their financial rights to alimony. The two witnesses to the marriage, by custom Muslim men, can now be any adults of any gender, Muslim, non-Muslim, or of no faith at all. The overall emphasis in the contract is on mutual consultation, the financial independence of both parties, shared obligation to support the family, and a relationship based on mutual love, respect and kindness.
Rather simple and obvious stuff, you might say. But the point is that all of this is based on the sharia. The new contract is not only couched in Islamic terminology, it also provides Islamic rationale for the changes it introduces. That is why it has the consensual support of all the major Muslim organisations of Britain, including the Islamic Sharia Council, the Muslim Women's Network UK, the Imams and Mosques Council (UK) and the Muslim Council of Britain. It demonstrates, as Mufti Barkatullah told me all those years ago, that the sharia can be updated and made relevant to contemporary times. And it can be done relatively easily.
For me, the new marriage contract also says something else. It shows that orthodox Islamic seminaries can occasionally produce individuals of profound intellect and capability. It is a pity - nay, a tragedy of grand proportions - that not all traditionally educated religious scholars are of the calibre of Mufti Barkatullah. If we had a critical mass of muftis like him across the Muslim world, I reckon many, if not most, of our religious problems would be solved with relative ease. If only.