Sisi, al-Azhar at loggerheads over verbal divorce

February 12, 2017
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaking to gathering of al-Azhar clerics in Cairo

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.”