Q1. I came across your website and found your writings very enlightening. I am interested in learning about all major religions of the world (especially because I study and teach religious iconography) and find your website quite helpful. I would be grateful if you would reply to my confusion about the rights of women in Islam after divorce.

Does Islam provide for maintenance / alimony beyond three months for a divorced woman by her ex-husband? My understanding is that if it doesn't, then most probably it's because women in Islam are supposed to be maintained by their legal guardian. After divorce, the ex-husband is no longer the woman's legal guardian, hence he is not obliged to give her maintenance / alimony after three months, as the divorced woman is supposed to return to her family and be maintained by her father / brother or whoever is her legal guardian. Of course, the 7th century Arabian society didn't foresee the situation of today where many women live by themselves and don't have a legal guardian. However, I may be completely wrong about this and will be grateful if you can clear up my ignorance.

I came across this blog on the Internet where I saw this heated debate going on about this subject regarding why the divorced woman in Saudi Arabia should return the mahr (dowry) to her ex-husband. This blog is written by an American woman who served as a diplomat for 20 years and resigned from service to convert to Islam, marry a Saudi Arabian diplomat, and now runs this blog, where she writes about the positive as well as the negative aspects of Saudi life.

A1. Perhaps if you read an article on "family" that I wrote in the Blackwell Companion to the Qur'an, you will see that our opinion on this issue is that the Qur'an often does NOT give legislation that is considered to be permanent and instead deals with material that was at the time of the Prophet, emending the conditions of that time. Does Islam provide alimony beyond three months? Certainly, depending on the circumstances and situation. If Muslims choose to live in a society where there are laws that govern divorce rules, then the Muslim automatically becomes subject to such law. The idea of a man being a woman's guardian, insofar as that by virtue of his gender he is somehow superior, is antiquated and un-Islamic.

The legislation of the Qur'an was based in an androcentric society and often has to be seen as simply making things better for that time. The Muslim thinkers, with the passing of time and supposed increase in their awareness of better ethics, have to address new issues with legislation mutatis mutandis based on the philosophy of the Qur'an, which means the giving of rights to those who are oppressed. After reading your short letter, I feel that you are far more advanced in your thinking and perception of the Qur'anic perspective than most of the "alims" trained in the Islamic institutions. Sadly, the issue of thought and reflection in the Muslim world of traditional scholarship is lacking.

Q2. Thanks for your very enlightening reply. I agree with you completely and have been talking to my Muslim friends exactly along these lines, but they think I am against Islam and that's why I talk like this. I am from India, where Indian Civil Code stipulates equal division of property between sons and daughters and maintenance / alimony for life for a divorced woman. But the Muslim population here is controlled by the orthodox Islamic clerics, who command them not to follow the Indian Civil Code, which according to them is the law of a secular democracy and therefore against Islam. Instead, they have forced the government to frame a separate Muslim code for them, which follows the orthodox version of Islamic law and as such, a divorced Muslim woman doesn't get any maintenance beyond three months. The government has been trying to convince the Muslims that everyone in this country should follow the Indian Civil Code, but they refuse to relent.

You mentioned your article in the Blackwell Companion to Qur”an, but I feel you should also include an article on post-divorce alimony on your website so that the common people can read it. It's magnanimous of you to think that I am advanced in my understanding of Islam, but I am not a Muslim and hence, I can't write about it because the Muslim population will not take me seriously and may even turn against me, but people may listen to you.

There is also the question of mahr - the Encyclopaedia of Islam (from E. J. Brill, Leiden) says it was the purchase money that was institutionalized by the Prophet Muhammad. In Saudi Arabia, there is a law that in case of khula (divorce), the woman has to return the money to her husband even if she has asked for khula because the husband beats her. In India, Muslims are of the opinion that the wife should return the money only if she is leaving despite his good treatment of her. If the husband has beaten her then he should pay her money as compensation. Moreover, Indian Muslims (the bride's family) usually don't take the mahr at the time of marriage and postpone its claim until the time of divorce if it happens at all. This gives the woman some money at the time of divorce and also acts as a check on the husband to treat his wife well during marriage. This is again influenced by the local custom of other communities here who don't have any practice of “bride-price”. Hence, Indian Muslims can say to their friends from other religions that they are not taking bride-price. I feel that Saudi Arabia will do well to adopt the practice of Indian Muslims of postponing the claim of mahr until divorce. But they feel this is a wrong practice of Indian Muslims, who are not regarded as Muslims in Saudi Arabia anyway.

What's your opinion about this – should the mahr be taken at the time of marriage since it is essentially purchase money and can its claim be postponed until divorce (if it ever happens)? Of course in India this means that if the divorce doesn't happen, the husband never pays this money and the wife condones him for this at some point in marriage. Perhaps you can write about this issue as well.

Please have a look at chapter 2, verse 241 in the Qur”an. The English translation says the divorced woman should get maintenance from her husband according to usage. What's the meaning of "according to usage?" In my opinion, if we can interpret it as "according to prevailing norms", then in India it should imply Indian Civil Code and hence, alimony should be paid to the divorced woman according to this Code. In other countries, it may be interpreted as according to the norms of today's world. In most countries maintenance is provided to the divorced woman, so again this verse can be used this way. I discussed it with my Muslim friends and they said that my interpretation is wrong and the divorce in this case refers to the 90 day period – but the term iddat (waiting period) is nowhere mentioned here, so I feel this verse can be used for post-divorce alimony.

A2. Your idea about the mahr is a good one. There is a law in Islam about obligations and impositions: basically that an exhortation is obligatory unless something indicates otherwise. We feel that no religion can ignore the role of custom and time. In areas where the wife is traditionally a homemaker, we feel that the mahr is applicable, and that it should be paid up front, or such provisions made that it will be paid even if deferred. The marriage contract is one wherein well-meaning parties assume permanency; to cater for what happens in divorce is to reduce the woman to a sexual vessel only. In modern society, where both spouses are often equal breadwinners, and the woman is no longer viewed as someone's property, or wherein her body parts or sexual services are viewed as something to be bargained over in a marriage, we feel that the mahr is purely symbolic, and that it may be more appropriate to make a mutual exchange of property.

In terms of the maintenance, we feel that the Qur'an, as it presents the case, and the normative interpretations thus far, are based on accepting what was present in a tribal, patriarchal society as a universal norm. This leads to injustice. As humankind has evolved from tribal to modern societies, the duties of the parents, or the expectation that a female must return to her parental home after divorce, has dwindled. We feel that each country has a set of legal norms, dictated by the interpretation of its scholars in law, ethics, human rights, etc., and that these laws are made for the betterment of society as a whole. With this in mind, we feel that the alimony payments should be the domain of the legal institutions of the country in which Muslims reside. This is what is called understanding and satisfying the goals of the shari’ah (fiqh al maqasid), in our humble opinion.

Posted January 24, 2010