Sisi, al-Azhar at loggerheads over verbal divorce
Cairo - Al-Azhar’s decision that verbal divorce complies with sharia law pits the highest Sunni Islamic authority against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and fuels debate on the issue inside and outside Egypt.
Citing rampant divorce rates throughout the country, Sisi in January called on al-Azhar to draft legislation to ban verbal divorce and make it effective only when documented.
“This will give couples the chance to rethink their desire to separate,” Sisi said during a televised speech while looking at Grand Imam of al- Azhar Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, who was in the first row of the audience.
Verbal divorce allows Muslim husbands to terminate their marriages by uttering the words “I, hereby, divorce you” to their wives, even before documenting the act at the office of a religious official authorised by al-Azhar to record marriages and divorces.
Following a February 5th meeting by the committee of senior clerics, al-Azhar said verbal divorce was valid even without documentation as long as it was in line with all conditions stipulated by the Islamic religion. It added that, for verbal divorce to be legitimate, the husband has to be in his right mind and use appropriate phrasing.
By approving verbal divorce, al- Azhar pits itself against Sisi, who more than once in the past two years called on its clerics to start a process of reform.
“Al-Azhar wants to protect its sovereign interests and the status of an al-Azhar sheikh as an absolute master in the society regardless of whether what he says is right or wrong,” writer Sayed al-Qemn argued. “If al-Azhar says that verbal divorce counts, why don’t al-Azhar scholars acknowledge verbal marriage?”
About 900,000 marriages are registered every year in Egypt, with 40% of them ending in divorce in the first five years.
Some children of collapsed marriages end up on the streets, exacerbating Egypt’s street children problem, civil society activists said.
“This is why a law banning verbal divorce has been a long-awaited demand,” said Entesar al-Saeed, the head of women’s rights group Cairo Centre for Development. “When husbands fail to document divorce, they deprive their ex-wives and children of their financial rights.”
Sisi’s proposal and al-Azhar’s rejection have divided the religious institution, with some of its top clerics expressing support for Sisi’s plan.
Saad al-Din al-Hilali, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, said that legitimising verbal divorce humiliates the judiciary and other state institutions.
“Verbal divorce should not count as long as it is not documented,” Hilali said. “There is no verse in the holy Quran on verbal divorce."
He said God does not say how divorce should be carried out.
“Hence, this is not a religious matter but a jurisprudential one,” Hilali said. “Like the case with buying and selling, divorce must be officially documented to be effective.”
He said at the time of the Prophet Mohammad marriage and divorce were agreements made verbally but documentation was later introduced to protect rights.
“Now, if a man divorces his wife verbally without documentation, she will be neither married nor divorced,” Hilali said. “This is totally unfair for women.”