Modern marriage

A new arrangement means a young Muslim is free to marry whomever he or she wishes, without their par

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 I started a conversation by making a few caustic remarks about Islamic law - it was outdated, irrelevant, that sort of thing.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.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.
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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.