Civil Marriages Versus Islamic Marriages

 By Imam Luqman Ahmad

 Recently, I entertained a notion that I never before expected would enter my mind. I have always passionately maintained that an imam should contract Muslim marriages in the United States with no civil marriage license involved. Furthermore I argued that with respect to civil legitimacy, we as Muslims in America should demand that the local, state and federal governments accept Muslim marriages contracted in a masjid as valid and legitimate for all purposes. Furthermore, I felt that Muslims in America should establish their own courts to deal with marital disputes, divorce and adjudication. I even used to cast a disdaining eye at people who sought the city hall stamp of approval for their marriages. I still hold some of these positions. However, I do not foresee any of these happening in the near future.

Now, after 20 years of witnessing utter disregard for the sanctity of marriage, I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the off-handed informal way in which marriages and divorces are handled needs to be revised to better reflect the reality of the times while still maintaining, even enhancing the adherence of islamic law. It is painfully clear that more and more often, the sacredness of marriage has been replaced by an almost casual indifference to its sanctity.

Civil and Islamic marriages have taken on connotations of real and make-believe. A person will say: “lslamically I’m married to so and so but legally I’m still married to so and so.” Or they will say, “We are married in Islam but we are not legally married.” Too often a person will display a prima fascia disregard for a civil marriage as if it doesn’t matter because it’s not “islamic”. However when a legal dispute arises such as death of a spouse who was divorced islamically but not civilly, the former spouse will rush to claim that, hey, I’m the legal spouse therefore I deserve the inheritance or the insurance money or whatever is left behind. Then they seek the full backing of the law.

In virtually every case, a civil marriage solemnized islamically carries the full applicable weight of legality and sanctity. On the other hand, an Islamic marriage by itself in many cases only carries limited weight not extending too far beyond the boundaries of the masjid. That’s why in an Islamic marriage, women for example, may still keep their former husband’s last name, never change any of their identifications, (drivers licenses, work I.D., passports etc.) to reflect their status as married women. In some cases a woman may be married to a man islamically and still carry their former husbands last name. On the other hand, when there is a civil marriage certificate involved, signed by the imam, legal issues are adjusted across the board, names are changed to reflect the new status, real names are used on the certificate, identifications, and drivers licenses are changed, parents are notified (and believe they are married), and a realization evolves amongst couples that yes, we are married in every sense of the word.

Marriage is a serious matter. The prophet (SAWS) considered it half of one’s faith. It is arguably the single most important social institution in our religion. The marital status amongst Muslims needs to be explicit and unambiguous. Either you are married or you are not. Either you are divorced or you are not. The idea of a legal netherworld between Islamic and civil is absurd. Unfortunately, Muslims in the United States do not possess the power, influence, or organizational congruence, to establish a nationwide or even a local system of marriage and divorce. This is why men are able to go from city to city and marry as many times as they like in the Muslim community without anyone even knowing their real names, or have multiple wives without the others even knowing about it! It is also why men and women are more likely to abandon the marriage by simply walking away because the Islamic marriage in their eyes carries no real validity. It may at its inception but when things get rough as they often do, they know they can just simply walk away with no legal ramifications.


Often there is no documentation of marriage, or divorce, no reference to past marriages, to any marital history, no information regarding previously abandoned children, wives or husbands. Pretty soon we can expect that brothers and sisters may be marrying each other without knowing it. Think it won’t happen? Well think again. I know of at least two instances where it did happen. In one case the marriage was prevented in time. In the other case, incest had occurred before anyone knew better. One place to start remedying this madness would be for masaajid in any given city to share all information about marriage and divorce and establish a computer network that connects them to one another. However, that is unlikely. Masaajid are very reluctant to share information. They would rather share information with before they share it with another Masjid.

A stable networking system of marriage and divorce in the Muslim community may be years away. In the meantime, I advocate utilizing a civil marriage certificate signed by an imam until we get our act together. This way there will be a modicum of regulation and reference and it may help stem the tide of reckless marriage and runaway divorce. Granted, this is not an easy dilemma to resolve. There are fundamental differences between marriage and divorce laws in Islam and those in secular law. The downside of marriages employing the civil system is that it subjects people to the inherent injustices of the American divorce process, which tend to unfairly (from a Muslim perspective) favor women. One positive note is that some cities are open to the idea of incorporating Islamic principles into the civil system for Muslims, which still would require that the Muslims in that city be of one accord on the fiqh of the issue. This may be an area that warrants further exploration and advocacy. I realize that the idea of allowing the government to license Muslim marriages may be distasteful to some Muslims. I do not fully endorse the notion myself. However, in light of the tragic consequences of having no system at all, I believe this is the lesser of two evils. And Allah knows best.

This and other issues like it are indicative of our unpreparedness to do what it takes to take care of our own. When a single mother with children is in need of assistance, she doesn’t go to the masjid, she goes to the welfare office. When there is a violent dispute between spouses, they do not call the masjid, they call 911 and get a restraining order. When there are financial disputes between Muslims, we do not have a system for binding arbitration in the Muslim communities, they simply go to civil court. We file and pay taxes faithfully yet we ignore zakat and resign ourselves to having to put on fundraisers which are now starting to resemble rock concerts. The chronic divisiveness of the Muslim community only augments this difficulty. Muslim communities in America are going to have to start thinking as a group. At some point “organizational normalcy” needs to occur. Our lives and individual communities are simply too interconnected for us to continue acting as if they aren’t. America in the new information age is all about connectivity. It is high time for us to catch up.

The ideas of fully utilizing the civil system in contracting Muslim marriages should not be necessarily frowned upon. We are already entrenched in the American legal system in almost every aspect of our lives and in most legal matters it is the primary system used by Muslims in the United States. Even when making hajj, you need a U.S. Government issued or approved passport and you have to use your “legal name” not your Islamic name. About the only way in which we do handle our own is in death; we do wash our own bodies and bury our own. Are we prepared to change? Only the future will tell. My dear Muslims, when are we going to realize that sooner or later we are going to have to come together as one people? We need to wake up. Our survival depends upon it.

Imam Luqman Ahmad

Imam Luqman is the Imam of Masjid Ibrahim Islamic Center in Northern California. He can be reached at, or visit his blog at

14 responses to “Civil Marriages Versus Islamic Marriages”

  1. Latiya Abdullah Avatar
    Latiya Abdullah


    Yes, Brother definitely this is true! We have to keep in mind that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world! In the next 20 years there will be over 50 million Muslims living in America. InshaAllah. If we don’t start creating our communities now, we are going to be in a lot of trouble later. I see so many communities building by working together. For example, the Asian Pacific Islanders have built a massive neighborhood in the south Sacramento region in California. How is it that they dominate over three miles on commercial real estate and businesses? They have a huge Chamber of Commerce! It is one of the most influential Chambers in the City of Sacramento and they have a say in whatever goes on concerning their affairs with the city. We have no Islamic Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps, that is one place to start. A place where like minded Muslims come together and a make things happen. My Husband told me that there are three types of people in this world: 1. The ones the talk about what will happen 2. The ones that watch what happens and 3. The ones that make it happen. Keep moving forward in your vision Brother. May Allah strengthen your vision and the courage to put it in action.
    ” Men who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those doing it.”
    – Chinese proverb


  2. Assalamu ‘Aleikoum

    Well said & thought provoking! Perhaps we should gather our Muslim software engineers to establish a program in which all main masjids in every city of the country (only one program/per mosque to avoid confusion) will possess and put all the necessary information of every couple who wants to marry or file their divorce papers. The creation of such a program & it’s legal distribution might bring certain difficulties, but once it’s established, it would be simple data-entry procedures. Nevertheless, it requires leadership, solidarity & commitment from the Muslim community as a whole. Also, you mentioned, sheikh, that the civil system “unfairly favors women”. In what sense? I, myself, am a woman & I’m currently minoring in civil law. I admit that it has its flaws, but when you put the necessary clauses which will make it more acceptable “islamically”, before signing the contract, then you should be fine, no ? Excuse me for my ignorance on the matter.

    Jazakallah khair,



  3. BarakAllah feek! Back room marriages in convenience stores, quickie nikahs in parking lots, I am so frustrated hearing about all of this. Many Muslim men have found that they can use the Nikah ceremony as a dating tool. EVERYONE, especially the sisters need to know that marriage in Islam is ‘easy’ yes, but it is not frivalous! It must be seen as REAL. Many think they can (because they get away with it) just wake up angry with their wife and run out and grab another one real quick to ‘show her’. The problem is the new wife thinks it is something real. I applaud the masajid that make a marriage certificate mandatory. It is more of an attitude that needs to be taught in the masajid. Marriage is ‘easy’ is a much overused phrase. Women are the losers in these situations and need protection. Just because she may not have a Muslim mother, father, or brothers does not mean she should be used and abused. We are ALL her family—lets protect her as we would our own sisters and mothers and daughters!


  4. I completely agree! For these purposes of establishing a “real” marriage, I told my intended I would like to be married civilly. He does not get the seriousness of protecting the rights of one another, mainly myself. He would like me to move in with him, but if something should go awry and should he decide not to act in an islamic matter, with no one there ( the legal system) to establish something beneficial for both parties he could literally put me on the street. This is something we all must beware of. Allah SWT tells us to make our marriages public and in America, to make a marriage public is to make it civil. As muslims we all know what we should follow as muslims, in many states secular divorce law actually coincides with islamic law, for instance I live in PA, it takes a 3 month waiting period to obtain a divorce. The same amount of time a couple is given in islam to reconcile their differences and possibly come back together. As muslims we must take responsibiltiy for our beliefs, we know how we should govern ourselves according to islamic law, we should make our marriages as “public” as possible and continue to live our lives according to the islamic law.


  5. Mujahid Abdul-Aleem Avatar
    Mujahid Abdul-Aleem

    This is a very sensitive issue. I appreciate Imam Luqman being quite frank about it though. I myself am not in agreeance with going to civil courts, because they have a real bad tendency to disrupt the Islamic process, especially in matters of divorce. At the same time, muslims today take Islamic marriages as a joke, so I am in congruence witht the Imam’s settiments about civil marriages.
    American muslims should have worked to set up a national marriage service a long time ago. Now we get brothers who divorce sisters left and right, and divorce mothers who don’t let the fathers see their kids because social services said so.


    1. There tends to be documented abuse if social services are involved. Social services don’t get involved otherwise. In addition, social services generally sets up supervised visitation until an allegations are resolved or until the parent seeks therapy. So stop making it sound as this is the way civil courts operate they don’t.


  6. I am for making it illegal (felony) for rabbi, iman, priest from performing a religious wedding without recording it properly in the United States. This would include having jail time for them and a hugh fine for the mosque, synogogue, or church. This would help eliminate the abuse that undocumented marriages are using the welfare system to pay for the unwed mother and children when in fact they are married. Sick of the abuse on the system. If you can’t support them then don’t have them, wife or children. Women need to ensure they have a damn good pre-nup with all the bells and whistle as well. Too many muslim men go in and out of marriages like a revolving door. American government may have religious freedom to a degree but it doesn’t have to have it to a point of bankruptcy for supporting every religiously irresponsible person. I shouldn’t have to support folly and stupidity.


  7. How exceptional one-sided of you. It is your blog but the only dialogue is your way or the highway. The fact that social services are called in is because there is known abuse is well known. Social services are not part of divorce precedings unless physical and mental abuse has been established. Apparently, noting the abuses is something you do not wish to address. Apparently, you also did like my comment on iman, priests and rabbis. I think requiring them to register marriages does a great deal for society and stops abuse of women. It also stops the abuse of the welfare system. Of course, ensuring that they are criminally charged for failing to have the marriage registered is the best step to keep them from creating societial problems such as men gone wild. Marriages everywhere, children all over the place, my back yard is the playground, and my neighbor picks up the bill. Darkness begets darkness.


    1. soaofthefreeworld Avatar

      I thought when he said social services is called it meant that the husband was incapable of finically supporting his family so social services steps in as the provider I didn’t get the reference of it being against domestic violence. Plus having the government involved isn’t always a rosy situation often times they make matters worst by taking children out of the home forcing vaccinations and taking hijab’s off confused and weak girls. ( although if a sister is wearing the hijab and is easily convinced to take it off she shouldn’t be wearing it anyway). I get what the brother means our Ummah or Masjid should be our center. Much like the jews who have there own schools, hospitals and police within major cities the muslim should be self sustaining and trust in the Quran and Hadiths to guide our way of life. Co dependence on the Kufar isn’t Islam.


  8. Here is America, would be couples are forced to get the Civil marriage done first and then bring the papers to the masjid and get the Islamic marriage done second, atleast this is the way here in MCA Bay Area in Santa Clara, CA. When asking why this would be, it is because there were too many divorces and it is thought from the Masjid that people would take marriage more seriously if they had a civil ceremony. That sounds very bad as an American Muslimah.. Why are Muslims so easy to head to divorce?


  9. Asalaam alaykum.
    I agree that something needs to change as divorce is on the rise even in the young muslim community its not uncommon to be divorced. But I disagree with the statement:
    ‘They may end up having multiple wives without the others even knowing about it’…. so what? Is this haraam? Islamically this is not the right of the wife to be consulted… like it or not thats what Islam says. And Im a woman speaking! Anyway… we should create our own way of protecting our community and stop allowing government interference in our homes and marriages. Im completely against the idea of civil marriage validifying and strengthening nikah as it shouldnt be able to do this! We should be establishing our own authorities to enforce islamic shariah in our marriages…. and this is the problem in living in kuffar countries. It isn’t the home for believing men and women.Surely it is an act of kufr to rely on….seek protection from…. and abide by man made laws regarding marriage especially if they go against Islam!


  10. We’re living in a society where men are marrying men and women are marrying women. The divorce rate is over 60%. There are many more African American children being born out of wedlock than are being born in wedlock. The abortion holocaust is reached the stratosphere. These are common social ills. Please. Do you really think that a system that has become so dysfunctional will be able to solve the special problems that young Muslims are facing? No.

    First of all fornication is legal, and socially encouraged in The Secular Western World. The institution of marriage as a Christian sacrament or an Islamic Social Contract, is not compatible with a secular society’s mission statement which is to not get involved in Religious business. The State can’t solve it’s secular problems. It will most likely simply exacerbate the problems.

    The State’s secular attitude and policies towards sexuality has already destroyed the role of father in the family, and made the traditional role of mother obsolete. No. Muslims need to go back to the drawing board and realize the revolutionary nature of Islam, and change our own selves recognizing that no community is going to be perfect. But understanding that every community most take real and definite steps grow and develop higher and deeper ethical, and moral values.


  11. Ayesha UmHurairah Avatar
    Ayesha UmHurairah

    Salam Alaikum
    This issue with Islamic versus civicl marriages Egypt also has…And there was a revolution making children within such a marriage legal and personally I think that if its difficult to leave a wife with papers it should be difficlt to leave a wife without papers because it is taqwa not papers that should keep people together not even the children but taqwa and nothing but taqwa should make a man fear treating his any of his wives with injustice, disrespect and end a relationship. It should not be easy to walk away from any marriage whether civil or islamic marriage. To me it seems that a civicl marriage without nikah with imam/wali and 2 witnesses is not a legal marriage so what makes it legal is the nikah not the paper work which Muslims have learned from nonMuslims who in America in particular makes it very difficult with divorce. As long as women have negative thoughts about polygamy and dont allow their husband to take another wife there should be no problems with islamic secret marriages but if one wife tells her husband to tell her if he wants another wife before it happens to prepare her and so she knows where he is and he does not have to lie, cheat and go behind her back then it is wrong of the husband to make secret marriage but if a wife demand divorce and will create many problems sand will never accept it then its ok but polygamy must be done the prophetic way such as prophet married for a good reason not desire, he made nikah but not civil marriage, he had simple marriages no big wedding parties and each wife had just one room, he did not disrespect aisha raa when taking another wife and so on…


  12. Assalamu Alaikum,

    I am currently facing this problem.Recently I got married in Islamic way but now my husband is not excepting this marriage just because we didnot do the civil marriage.He doesnot want to give me divorce either ,for him this marriage is not valid.I dont know what should I do know.We are not currently living together.Should I file for divorce in civil court.If anyone Can give me any advice that will be really a very great help for me.


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