Traditional Muslim marriages hold no validity in English law, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Muslim marriages, often referred to by the Arabic term nikah, are in actuality “non-marriages” according to the judgement, meaning that they never officially took place at all. Newly “divorced” Muslim spouses therefore have no property or financial rights under English law unless they have also entered a legally valid civil marriage.

The ruling concerned a couple who had entered a nikah marriage officiated by an imam in 1998. The ceremony, in west London, was attended by no less than 150 guests but plans to stage a civil ceremony afterwards were abandoned. The relationship eventually broke down and the wife filed for civil divorce. The husband responded by insisting she had no right to a civil divorce as they had never been married under English law.

But when the case reached the High Court in 2018, Mr Justice Williams concluded that, rather than being a legally invalid non-marriage, the couple’s nikah had in fact been a “void” marriage under key legislation the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, because it had been “entered into in disregard of certain requirements as to the formation of [a legally valid] marriage”.

The ruling was regarded as so significant that an appeal was lodged by the Attorney General, the government’s senior legal advisor. The Court of Appeal duly overturned Mr Justice Williams’ decision, saying his conclusion, that the nikah fell within the scope of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, was seriously detrimental to current marital law and would “gravely diminish the value of the system of registration of marriages upon which so much depends in a modern community”.

Entering a legally valid marriage was not difficult, the Judges continued. In addition, they noted, the state held no obligation under human rights legislation to recognise religious marriages.

Campaign organisation Southall Black Sisters said the ruling could leave Muslim wives in a vulnerable position. Spokesperson Pragna Patel insisted:

“This is not about recognising religious marriages; it is about the state guaranteeing equality to all before the law.”

According to a 2017 survey, most Muslim couples in Britain hold a nikah but two out of three never undergo any accompanying civil ceremony. But that number is expected to drop as many Islamic community centres now require civil registrations to be undertaken before couples can stage a nikah on the premises.

Image by Lisa Omarali via Flickr (Creative Commons)