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Choosing a Good Quran Teacher

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One of the most challenging things that Muslim parents can face in their children’s Islamic education is teaching their kids how to read the Qur’an in Arabic. In my own Qur’an reading education as a child, I unfortunately was taught by an Indian woman from South Africa who had no idea how to read the Qur’an correctly and had very little ability to teach kids. It was only in high school that I realized there was something wrong with the way I read Qur’an. I then went through a grueling process in college to fix my Qur’an reading. When I signed up for my first tajweed (the science of Qur’anic recitation) class in my freshman year of college, I went in there with a furious determination. My goal was that I would become so good at reading the Qur’an that I’d be able to teach my own kids (biological and/or adopted) one day and never subject them to an unqualified Qur’an teacher.

Well, I never expected it to happen, but I teach other people’s kids (and adults, too!) how to read the Qur’an. I love teaching the Qur’an and am using my training from my ongoing Master’s in Education and high school English teaching certification program to inform my Qur’an teaching. As a Qur’an teacher who has a fierce protectiveness over entrusting kids to other Qur’an teachers, here’s some advice I have to offer to any parents looking for a Qur’an teacher for their kids. (This advice can be used for adults, as well, looking to learn to read or improve their reading.)

Photo Courtesy of Tabi Davenport

What to Look for:

Recitation correctness. The main question you have to ask is, does this Qur’an teacher recite the Qur’an correctly? When you’re going in to meet a teacher for the first time, make sure you conduct a basic recitation test. My suggestion is ask them (1) to recite a surah (from memory) they are comfortable with/have memorized, (2) to read something that they are not that familiar with (what I call “cold reading” from the book; but this will be less or more valid depending on whether or not the teacher has memorized the Qur’an), and then ask them (3) to recite another surah they are comfortable with but this time at a speed half as fast as they had been reciting the first two tasks.

If you don’t have much of a Qur’an reading background, then something to try is to record the Qur’an teacher reciting Qur’an according to the suggested test above and have a couple of people check his or her recitation on your behalf. Approach your local imam and some friends or family members who have a better background than you do (it’s also a good idea to have someone from a different cultural or ethnic background listen to the Qur’an teacher!) A caution–don’t just ask the teacher for a recording because the teacher might try recording multiple times to select the best one. You do the recording yourself! Always ask the teacher if it is alright for you to have someone check their recitation, and make sure to operate within their boundaries (the female Qur’an teacher may only want other women to hear her recitation, for example.)

Maybe this sounds a little crazy–but keep in mind, this person will teach your kids how to read the Qur’an and your kids will most likely not be any better than their teacher is.

Ability to Teach. Just because someone can read the Qur’an, even perfectly read the Qur’an, does not mean that he or she is capable of teaching others how to do the same. You have to ask, does this teacher have the ability to teach Qur’an reading (and/or basic memorization)? Consider what it takes to be a teacher–having the ability to explain something in more than one way, knowing when to push a student and when to support a student, being patient and caring, and understanding how to connect lessons to each other. There are more technical types of teaching-related things (like skills, knowledge, and sound practice) and softer character/personality types of things (like being kind, being assertive, managing undesirable behavior in a positive way.)

A way to gauge your child’s prospective Qur’an teacher’s ability to teach is to either do a handful of trial sessions (two to four should be enough for you to make a judgment call). These trial sessions can be you sitting in on your kid’s lessons, you sitting in on another student’s (or multiple students’) lessons, or you asking the teacher to treat you as a student and see how you like the teaching style being used.

Again, this might sound a little overboard, but we don’t take our kids’ Qur’an education seriously enough. Many times Qur’an teachers don’t have formal teaching training for kids, don’t even want to teach, or simply don’t know how to teach. The last thing you want is to demoralize your kid when it comes to learning how to read the Qur’an by sticking them with a horrible Qur’an teacher. Whether it’s shouting, losing his or her temper, hitting (do Qur’an teachers really still do that…?), or any other negative personality trait, your kid will probably be terrified of the teacher or start to resent him or her. Just compare your kid’s school teacher (if you’re not homeschooling your kids) to the Qur’an teacher on basic things like personality. You don’t want the kid to have a teacher in the public elementary school who gives out stickers for excellent work, but have a Qur’an teacher who yells or screams every time the kid makes a small mistake. You want to protect your kids from a teacher who will make them feel stupid or incapable of learning to read or recite.  Reading (in any language) is a challenging skill to learn, not to mention reading the Qur’an which is like reading a book + reading music at the same time + performing the recitation with proper pronunciation and pacing. If the Qur’an teacher is incapable to guiding your kid through learning to read, then the kid will feel frustrated that he or she is not getting it, when in fact it is actually the teacher’s fault (if not entirely, at least two-fold.)

Moral Uprightness. Now, this is a hard thing to judge. It’s problematic, actually, to look too deeply into without a good reason, generally speaking. But I believe that a Qur’an teacher should be an example of basic moral goodness. This means doing just the basic things–praying regularly, not cursing or using profane language, being trustworthy with business and other money issues, not having a loose tongue in terms of gossiping, and being involved in other social ills. This is difficult to explain, but just imagine if your kid’s Qur’an teacher smoked or was in an illicit relationship or was behind spreading a vicious rumor in the community. Of course, no one is perfect and Qur’an teachers are not angels. But especially with younger kids, it’s important for them to see their Qur’an teacher as affected by the light of the Qur’an in some way.

Common Mistakes

Beautiful recitation and the ability to read quickly do NOT mean correct recitation. Don’t get lost in the dulcet melodies of a reciter’s voice. Don’t just assume reading the Qur’an means reading the Qur’an quickly or confidently. Some people can read the Qur’an beautifully but do so at the expense of correct recitation and some people can read the Qur’an quickly but also at the expense of correct recitation. Although these might not seem great, there is no problem if a person can read the Qur’an perfectly but it  sound like nails on a chalkboard or they read slowly. These two measures aren’t relevant to the quality of the recitation in terms of correctness.

Spoken language barriers between the teacher and child. Many parents I know hire online teachers from different countries, which may be cheaper and more convenient. But often times the teacher and the child have an intense language barrier and cannot effectively communicate. Talking about and describing sounds is incredibly difficult in the first place (try describing the sound of a baby crying or rain drops falling) and adding a language barrier is going to be disastrous for your kid. You’ll see your kid and the teacher going through cycles of frustration and the kid may only be able to mimic the correct sounds without understanding any further the what, how, or why of those sounds.

Qur’an Qualifications, AKA “Ijaazah” (or Permission to Teach): Although the ijaazah system can be highly rigorous and organized, an ijaazah doesn’t mean too much in my book. (This is my opinion, maybe it’s slightly blasphemous.) What is an ijaazah? An ijaazah is basically a license that the a person’s teacher has given after determining that he or she has mastered the Qur’an recitation enough to teach others. The most crucial thing to understand about an ijaazah is: each ijaazah has the potential of being entirely different from another ijaazah. In other words, ijaazahs are entirely relative when you are considering whether or not someone’s ijaazah makes them a better person to teach your kid how to read the Qur’an. Someone may have gotten an ijaazah from a teacher that simply is horrible at reading the Qur’an. Someone may have gotten an ijaazah from a marvellously brilliant reciter, but that ijaazah may have nothing to do with their ability to teach the Qur’an or teach the Qur’an to kids. It is almost impossible to determine the worth of a person’s ijaazah, so if this is a huge deal to you, hopefully you know enough about the ijaazah system in regards to the Qur’an to be able to understand what that particular person’s particular ijaazah means.

Just a personal note, I do not have ijaazah in the Hafs an Asim recitation (the most commonly used Qur’an recitation in the world). My Qur’an teacher’s students who helped me improve did not have ijaazah at the time (and maybe still don’t). In another example, a Qur’an teacher once approached me to be her student so that she could train me for an ijaazah under her. But I had already heard her recite before and I thought she was (quite honestly) horrible and made a bunch of mistakes that my original Qur’an teacher always taught me to avoid. So I just made an excuse about not having the time, because if I got an ijaazah, I didn’t want it to be from someone with reading like hers.

Masjid Farooq Quran students preparing for a competition

Having Private Qur’an Lessons in Private Settings. A huge problem that needs to be addressed in the Muslim community is predatory behavior which can literally happen with any person and in any context. Sending your kid to the Qur’an teacher’s house to have private lessons (or even semi-private lessons) is not a good idea. Qur’an classes should be hosted in public spaces, like the masjid’s prayer hall or a classroom with many students inside of it, or in another space in which you have constant access to and the ability to monitor, such as at your home in an open room constantly in your sight.) Many families use online Qur’an classes (I teach only online through video calls at the moment) out of convenience or lack of teachers nearby, but there are some dangers to using webcams and video calling as well (just think about sexting.) Make sure you have access to the video call at all times, maybe even check in a few times during each lesson. Taking the appropriate preventative measures is necessary, and then educating your kids on what behaviors are appropriate for the Qur’an teacher to engage in with them is also crucial.

Let’s not be naive any longer. Chances are you probably know of someone who was taken advantage of by their Qur’an teacher. If you only take one thing from this post, let this be it!

Pairing Teachers and Students of Opposite Genders. Although this is not a black-and-white issue, I personally believe that once your child has reached Islamic maturity/puberty, it is important to make sure that the Qur’an teacher is of the same gender as your child. Although having a teacher of the same gender does not ensure your child’s safety in any way, I do believe that it is most appropriate to maintain gender segregation between Qur’an teachers and their students. Here’s a few reasons that lead me to this opinion: I never feel comfortable reciting in front of men because I have to worry about embellishing my recitation with any sort of melodic beauty, it is easier to communicate about current circumstances (like menstruation) that may affect Qur’an reading, and because there is a lot of mimicking that the teacher expects the student to do it is easier for this to occur in same gender pairings (because of things like tonality and pitch of the voice.)

Confusing Ethnic Ties with Proper Qur’an Recitation. Just because a Qur’an teacher has an Arab ancestry or is from an Arab country or is a native Arabic speaker does NOT mean that he or she is the best Qur’an reciter or teacher. (In fact, the best I know of personally are pretty much not of Arab origin.) Another mistake related to ethnic ties is that a person assumes that going to someone of the same ethnic or national background is the best. For example, an Egyptian family will find an Egyptian teacher and an Indian family will find an Indian teacher. This is also fraught with many potential problems because, especially with immigrants, there is this false notion that “the way it’s done back home is correct.” This is the same problem that I faced in my Qur’anic reading education as a child–the assumption was that the imam reads Qur’an “like an Arab” and the teacher reads Qur’an “like a Desi” and there is no valid distinction between the two. There are actually a host of common recitation mistakes that are traced to people’s national/ethnic origins. (For example, when I work with older Desi students, I expect certain mistakes. When I work with Egyptian students taught by Egyptians, I expect another set of certain mistakes.) The best way to not get caught up in this confusion is to simply get multiple opinions about a potential Qur’an teacher’s recitation from people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Last Thoughts

I hope you can find these suggestions useful in choosing a good Qur’an teacher for your child (or yourself.) Learning to read the Qur’an can be a huge investment of time, effort, and money but in this hyper-educated and hyper-literate society, if we don’t take the time to teach ourselves and our kids how to read the Qur’an, then what does that say about us?

Related Posts:

https://muslimmatters.org/2016/02/04/why-i-let-my-child-quit-the-quran/

https://muslimmatters.org/2010/12/16/child-teacher-parent-quran-lessons/

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Meena is a high school English teacher, DIY enthusiast, wife, and new mom. She loves working with Muslim youth and is interested in literature, arts, and culture. She studied Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine, briefly dabbled in Classical Arabic studies in the US, and has a Master’s in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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    November 29, 2017 at 12:50 PM

    Jazakillahu Khayran, this was an excellent post bringing up many good points.

    Are you currently taking new students? :) Please contact me if you are.

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#Culture

Messiah, A Fitnaflix Production

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Netflix released Season 1 of a new thriller series called “Messiah”. The series imagines the emergence of a character claiming to be sent by God, the Messiah, or Al-masih (messiah in Arabic) as he is referred to in the television series. 

This so-called Al-masih first emerges in Damascus at a time when ISIS is about to storm the city. He then appears in Palestine, Jordan and ultimately America. Along the way, he performs miracles and dumbfounds the Israeli and American intelligence officers charged with tracking him and figuring out who is enabling him. The season ends with a suggestion that he is truly a divine man, with the ultimate miracle of reviving the dead.

The entertainment value here is quite limited. Some stretches of the series are just flat or straight out boring, and the acting is not all that great. However, the series does create an opportunity for discussion about Muslim eschatology (the knowledge of the end of times), response to fitnah (faith testing tribulations) and Muslims portrayal in and consumption of entertainment media. 

The series shows some sophistication in the portrayal of Muslim characters relative to what people have been accustomed to with Hollywood. Characters that are situated in the Middle East are performed by actors from that region who speak authentic regional Arabic (including Levantine and North African dialects). The scenes appear authentic. While this is progress, it is limited, and the series falls into oversimplification and caters to typical stereotypes. While several Muslim characters draw the viewers’ empathy, they are not used to provide context or nuance for issues that the series touches on: ISIS, refugees, the Israeli occupation and suicide bombings. The two American Muslim characters are never really developed. In fact, all Muslim characters tend to be “flat” and one dimensional. This is in contrast, for example, to American and Israeli characters which appear multi-dimensional and complex, often dealing with personal challenges that a Western audience is likely to identify with (caring for an aging parent, mourning the loss of a spouse, balancing career and life, dealing with family separation, abortion, etc.). While Muslim characters are shown as hapless refugees, terrorists, religious followers, political activists, a university professor and student, their stories are never developed.

The show repeatedly refers to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. There is also consistent normalization of Israeli occupation and glorification of the occupying forces.  

Islamic eschatology 

Orthodox Muslims affirm a belief in “the signs of the End of Times, including the appearance of the Antichrist, and the Descent of Jesus 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) the son of Mary 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), from the celestial realm. We also believe in the sun’s rising from the west and the appearance of the “Beast of the Earth from its appointed place” [1]. Dr. Omar Al-Ashqar gives a detailed review of the authentic narrations regarding the signs of the end of times in his book Al-Qiyamah Al-Sughra [2]. When it comes to actual figures who will emerge in the end of times, Sunni scholars generally affirm the following:

  • Imam Mahdi, who is a just ruler who will share the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) name. 
  • The False Messiah (Antichrist), or Al-Masjih Al-Dajjal, who will be the greatest fitna to ever to afflict this Ummah. 
  • The True Messiah, Isa ibn Maryam, who returns in the end of days, kills the Antichrist and rules for 40 years and establishes justice and prosperity – close to the time of the day of judgement. 

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) warned that the fitna of Al-Dajjal will be the most severe ever. In a hadith narrated by Ibn Majah and others, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is reported to have said, “Oh people, there has not been a fitna on the face of the earth, since God dispersed the progeny of Adam, greater than the fitna of Al-Dajjal. Every prophet of God warned his people from Al-Dajjal. I am the last prophet. You are the last Ummah. He will appear amongst you no doubt!”

Al-Dajjal comes after a period of famine and drought. He will be one-eyed and will claim to be God. Believers will recognized a mark or word of disbelief on his forehead. He will perform many miracles. He will endow those who follow him with material prosperity and luxury, and those who deny him will be inflicted with deprivation and suffering. He will travel at high speeds, and  roam the whole world, except Makkah and Madinah, which he will not be able to enter. He will create a heaven and hell, command rain, the earth, animals, and resurrect the dead – all supernatural occurrences that he has been afforded as a trial and test for others. The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) went as far as encouraging us to flee from confronting him, because it will be a test of faith like no other.

Reflections on the series and lessons to be learned

The Prophets and the righteous are not tricksters and riddlers.

The Netflix series portrays the character ‘al-masih’ as someone who speaks cryptically; it is never clear what he is teaching and why. He leads his followers on long physical journeys without telling them where they are going or why. He speaks in riddles and tortures his followers with mental gymnastics and rhetorical questions.

On the other hand, a true prophet of God offers real guidance and brings clear teachings and instructions – the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) spoke clearly to his followers, he taught them how to worship Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone, to be just, to uphold the ties of kinship, to look after one’s neighbour, and so on. He did not abandon them in a state of confusion to fend for themselves. Moreover, “al-masih” deceives his followers by concealing his true name (“Payam Golshiri”) and background – something a righteous person would never do, let alone a prophet.

What Netflix got right and what it got wrong

The Al-masih character initially emerges in Damascus (and the Islamic tradition mentions Isa ibn Mariam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will descend in Damascus). However, the character is eventually revealed to hail from Iran. A number of ahadith refer to Al-Dajjal first appearing in Khurasan, which is part of modern-day Iran. He poses as a righteous person, but it is revealed that he doesn’t pray at all. He quotes religious scripture, but only to service his cryptic speeches. That Al-Dajjal would pose as a religious person would not surprise Muslims, since some hadith mention he will emerge from the remnants of the Khawarij, a heterodox group known for overzealousness and fanaticism [3]. Al-Dajjal travels the world at fast speeds, disappearing from one land and appearing in another, just as the character in the series does. 

messiah

photo credit: IMDb

However, numerous features of Dajjal would make his identity obvious to believers, not the least of which is that the word ‘disbeliever’ will be written – whether literally or metaphorically (scholars differ) – on his forehead in such a manner which even those unlettered would be able to read. Physically, Dajjal is a short man, with a deformity of his legs, and one of his eyes is likened to a “floating grape”, sightless, and “green like glass”. The Prophet is said to have focused on these physical features because they are so manifest and eliminate any confusion.

Al-Dajjal’s time overlaps with that of two other eschatological figures – Imam Mahdi and Esa ibn Maryam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Imam Mahdi is prophesized to fill the world with justice and rule for seven years, after which Dajjal will emerge. While the Muslims following al-Mahdi are taking shelter in Damascus, Prophet Esa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will descend and eventually slay the Dajjal. Therefore, according to the Islamic eschatological tradition, things will get better before they get worse before they get better again – Imam Mahdi precedes Dajjal and Dajjal precedes Prophet Esa [2].

Safeguarding against tribulations

The best safeguard is to have sound knowledge of theology and law, and to have our iman rooted in revelation and reason. For example, the most basic understanding of Islamic theology would lead us to reject any man who claims to be God, as Al-Dajjal will claim. With basic Islamic knowledge and reasoning, we would know that Allah does not manifest in human-like form, much less one that is deformed, as Allah is the all Powerful and Perfect. Could it be that at the end of times even such essential Islamic knowledge is lacking? 

walking on water

Al-Dajjal deceives people by his miracles and supernatural abilities. Our iman should not be swayed by supernatural events and miracles. We should measure people and ideas according to their standing with the Shari’ah. We must keep our heads level and not be manipulated because we cannot explain an occurrence. 

Al-Dajjal also lures people by his miracles and by his ability to give them material prosperity, comfort and luxury. We must tie our happiness and sense of satisfaction to eternal spiritual truths, not to the comforts of this life, and be willing to give up what we have for what we believe. We should live simply and not follow into the path of excessive consumerism and materialism.  

Another important consideration is not to base our connection to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) on another human being (except the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Scholars, celebrity preachers, imams and teachers are all prone to error and sin. We must use the Shariah and the Prophet Muhamamd’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) character and teaching as the filter by which we evaluate them, not the other way around. Despite his obvious deformities, the Antichrist will be a mesmerizing blinding celebrity, but whose falsehood will be uncovered by believers who make judgements based on loyalty to principle, not personality. 

Is it time to live on a remote mountain?

The clearest indication of the nearness of the Day of Judgement is the prophethood of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). The Prophet likened the difference between his time and the Day of Judgement as the difference in length between the index and middle fingers. However, before we sell everything and move to a remote mountain, let’s exercise care in projecting Islamic eschatology on the political events of our times. The reality is that no one knows when these things will happen. Explaining the current phase in our history away by end of times theories or conspiracy theories, are simpleton intellectual copouts that lead our Ummah away from actively working towards its destiny. Anyone who has claimed that this event (remember Y2K) or that event is a major sign of the Day of Judgement has been wrong, so far. There were scholarly guesses in the early centuries of Muslims that expected the Hour 500 years after the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) death. Yet, here we are. No one knows.

The best you can do is stay calm and make salat!

Muslims and the entertainment media

This increased sophistication and the apparent familiarity with Islamic sources exhibited by Messiah producers should lead us to value the importance of producing accurate, authentic and polished material and content about Islam and Muslims and our community’s role as a source of information. 

It is also important for Muslims to produce works for the mass media and entertainment industries. This is no longer the era of the sole MSA Da’wah table. Sophisticated, entertaining and authentic media production is an imperative for modern Muslims.  When we don’t tell the story, someone else will. 

Make it a Netflix Night?

We may refer to it as Fitnaflix, but let’s all admit that we cannot avoid television and the entertainment industry, for better or for worse. We can however moderate, guide and channel its use. Start breaking the isolation in which many of our children and young adults consume media. Families should watch TV together and use it as an opportunity to model how we select appropriate material and to create teaching and discussion moments. Parents should know what is influencing their kids even if they don’t like it. 

Some parts of the series Messiah, despite its flaws (and an explicit sexual scene in episode 9, not to mention profanity), could be used as a teaching moment about trials and tribulations, the end of times and the importance of Muslims engaging in the entertainment industry in a principled and professional manner. 

Ed’s note: Much of the series’ content is R-rated. Besides depictions of terrorism and other mayhem, sexual activity and brief rear nudity are shown. Mature themes include abortion, adultery, infertility and alcoholism.

Works Cited

[1] T. C. o. I. Al-Tahawi, Hamza Yusuf (trans), Zaytuna Institute, 2007. 
[2] O. Al-Ashqar, Al-Qiyamah Al-Sughra, Dar Al-Nafa’is, 1991. 
[3] [Online]. Available: https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2014/06/23/dajjal-emerges-khawarij/.

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Gender Relations

Podcast: Get Over It: 21 Ways to Say Goodbye to that Haram Relationship and Move on With Your Life | Ehab Hassan

Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

So you finally came to your senses. That girl or guy you’ve been talking to is not the best thing that’s ever happened to you, and definitely not helping you advance or get closer to Allah. You know it’s wrong, you want to get over it, you want to move on, but it’s just so hard and no one understands you! InshaAllah, it’s all going to be alright.

You're probably thinking that getting over a relationship can’t be as easy as people make it sound.Click To Tweet

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#Society

No-Nuptial Agreements: Maybe Next Time, Don’t Get Married

marriage
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 “Nikah is part of my sunnah, and whoever does not follow my sunnah has nothing to do with me.”

–Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), Narrated by Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her)

Many Muslims have experienced marriage, then suffered a subsequent divorce as a financial, emotional, and social meat grinder. Some critics have noted the divorce system seemingly exists primarily to benefit itself; the lawyers: mental health experts, investigators, forensic accountants.

They form an entire industry dedicated to extracting the wealth of a disintegrating family, often forcing the middle class or working class into poverty and bankruptcy. All of this happens without any noticeable benefit to society. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone.

For many, divorce happens multiple times. A divorced person who gets remarried is more likely to get divorced again.

While men often complain about how the “family court” system is against them, the reality is that women often bear the financial brunt of divorce. Divorce is more likely to drive women to bankruptcy than men.

After one or two divorces and a few lost years of retirement savings or a decade or more of home equity, another “marriage” starts to look downright irrational. My advice to such people: stop getting married, at least under state law. Get a nikah and a “no-nuptial agreement” instead. Allow me to explain.

Fun with Words

It is impossible to have a meaningful conversation about virtually anything unless we have a common understanding of the meaning of words we are using.

In law, even ordinary words have definitions that defy conventional understanding or even common sense. Basic familial terms like “son,” “daughter,” “father,” and “mother” have state law definitions that are different from what those words mean in Islam or our understanding. Under state law, “parents” can adopt adult “children” a similar age to them or even older, and have the same status as a biological child. In Islam, an adopted child is not the same as a biological child and does not have rights to inheritance in Islam.

In law, even words like “life” and “death” don’t always mean what you think they mean. A living person can go to court to dispute his death, demonstrate he is living, breathing, speaking, and everyone agrees he is the “dead person” in question, yet, he is ruled legally dead. Famously, corporations are legally people and are immortal.

Law is not the same thing as truth.

Similarly, it is folly to conflate nikah, the thing that exists in Islam, with marriage under state law. In different states, rules for who and under what circumstances people can get married can vary. One thing that all the state law definitions have in common is that they are not marriage in Islam.

What is Marriage?

For marriage, there is a state law definition, there is an Islamic definition, and there is the definition that the individual married couple has. Under state law, two men can be married to each other, but three men cannot be. In Islam, marriage (let’s call it nikah to be more precise) is a halal social and sexual relationship, and there are rules in the fiqh that are different from state law.

Under some state laws, “secret marriages” with no witnesses or publicly available registration are part of the law and commonly used. In Islam, there is a witness requirement for nikah. None of the rules in Islam require the state’s approval for nikah.

The third definition is how each couple sees their marriage. It is a flexible institution. To the extent it is an economic, social or familial partnership can vary widely. Couples may live together or apart. They may have one income or two.  They may share the same social circles or share none of them. The variations are endless.

Domestic Partnerships

For most of the history of legal marriage in the United States, marriage can only be between one man and one woman. States started allowing for “domestic partnerships” to give some “benefits” of marriage to same-sex couples, like employer health benefits and hospital visitation.

In many instances, these were available almost exclusively to same-sex couples, even after same-sex marriage became part of the law in all states. However, as of January 2020, California opened up domestic partnerships to everyone, including different-sex couples.

As a practical matter, domestic partnerships are simply state-sanctioned marriage by another name. It is notable though some jurisdictions may have limited domestic partnerships that are something less than marriage. In most states that have it, the same family law system, for good or ill, that comes with marriage under state law is also true of domestic partnerships.

While domestic partnership combined with a nikah is available to Muslims in states where it exists, there is no real advantage to using it.

No-Nuptial Agreements

For decades now, in the United States, there has been no taboo against men and women openly having sexual relationships with each other, living and raising families together outside marriage. Courts have long recognized these people should have contractual rights with each other.

When a man and women live together, those involved may be gaining something and giving something up. So if a man promises a woman something, and the agreement is not founded merely on sexual services, the state should enforce those promises, not in family court but civil court.

Marvin started it all

The principle case that established this is the California case of Marvin v. Marvin in 1976. A couple broke up, but the woman wanted to enforce promises made to her by the man. The man felt such a commitment should not be enforceable because, among other reasons, he was legally married to a completely different woman when this non-marital relationship started. Under California law, at the time (abolished by the time the case got to the court), this was criminal adultery.

No-nuptial agreements (sometimes called cohabitation agreements or Marvin agreements) can be used by couples when they want to have enforceable contracts but do not want to subject themselves to the family court system or the family code. They can include provisions of mahar, sharing expenses, equity as well as dispute resolution processes like arbitration and mediation.

The couple can also document limits on what they agreed to to what is in writing. For example, during a breakup, one party may be able to claim an oral promise the other party never made and potentially have it enforced in court. A written agreement protects both parties and the understanding they had when they entered into the relationship.

These agreements have a broad utility for many different kinds of couples. However, for some couples, the main benefit would be documentation that nobody is under the illusion that this is a marriage under state law. It is a private contract between two individuals.

Example of a No-Nuptial Agreement

Salma, 58, does a nikah with Sheher Ali, 62. They also create a no-nuptial agreement. Sheher Ali is a widower, and Salma is a divorcee. They both have their separate assets, including their own homes. Each has adult children and young grandchildren. Both want to put their adult children at ease that this relationship does not exist for predatory financial reasons – a common fear when parents marry later in life.

Salma, 58, does a nikah with Sheher Ali, 62. They also create a no-nuptial agreement. Sheher Ali is a widower, and Salma is a divorcee. They both have their separate assets, including their own homes. Each has adult children and young grandchildren.Click To Tweet

Salma and Sheher Ali do not plan to live together, which is common for couples their age. They mostly pay for their expenses themselves. They may spend the night at each other’s homes whenever they want but will split time with their separate children, grandchildren and social circles. Sheher Ali pays for joint vacations and outings. He agreed to a mahar. Both agree in writing they did not marry under state law.

Sheher Ali and Salma can still call each other husband and wife, since that is true for them and everyone they know. Both keep all of their finances separate, and each does their independent estate planning where they name each other as partial beneficiaries of their estates as required in Islam. The two also complete HIPAA forms allowing each to see the other’s private medical information and name each other in Advance Healthcare Directives so they can make healthcare decisions for each other.

Legal Strangers

Unmarried couples are “legal strangers.” Doctors won’t share healthcare information. Islamic spouses don’t get an inheritance from a no-nuptial agreement spouse by default. They don’t get things like tenancy by the entirety, community property, or elective shares in places where such things exist. As I described above, though, this can be remedied. However, as I described in the example above, the “legal stranger” aspect of the relationship may be more of a benefit than a downside in some cases.

Some “benefits” of marriage under state law are against Islamic principles.  For example, some state laws that provide for “elective shares” are diametrically opposed to the Quran’s share of inheritance.  Muslims must follow Islamic rules of inheritance anyway, which are different from default state rules, so being under state law is no special advantage. Even with proper planning, the downsides of the “legal stranger” problem still may come up in extraordinary contexts, however, such as lawsuits.

Immigration and Taxes

Another concern is that employee benefits to spouses and dependents don’t generally extend to those with no-nuptial agreements. Immigration law does not allow a path to the United States through the “family unification ” process for those with a no-nuptial contract. Marriage under state law (or the law of a foreign country recognized in the United States) may be the most practical solution in such cases.

In some cases, state-sanctioned marriage may lead to lower taxes. Other legally married couples may experience the so-called “marriage penalty” and pay higher taxes than couples with a no-nuptial agreement. Couples may often find they will pay less in taxes with a no-nuptial agreement than they would if they were married under state law.

Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements

One may wonder, to avoid the “meat grinder” of the family court system, why not just get a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement? It’s accurate that in general, having such arrangements are superior to not having them. These agreements offer greater certainty, though by no means total confidence, on how a divorce would end. There are disadvantages to such an agreement over no-nuptial agreements, however. A big one is that divorce is still in the family court system.

Many Muslim men, especially immigrants, may perceive cultural biases cause a stacked deck against them in family court. The nature of these agreements may make this perception worse. Sometimes, courts treat prenuptial and postnuptial agreements with a presumption of coercion. It is different from an ordinary contract. The family court system is often free to be more paternalistic and make a husband prove he did not force his wife to sign a document.

The Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, which will be worded differently in the different states that adopted it, provides for a process to make these marital agreements harder to defeat. However, the process is perhaps arguably more expensive, cumbersome, and awkward for a couple than a no-nuptial contract. Talking about a prenuptial agreement with a fiancé may be more uncomfortable than bringing up a no-nuptial arrangement and nikah. Without a state-sanctioned marriage, a written agreement is essential. Many people perceive the pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements as both optional and, perhaps unfairly, as a sign of mistrust.

Custody and Child Support

Unfortunately, there is no agreement you can come up with that will pre-settle child support and custody. A judge will decide those things.

It does not matter if you have a “plain vanilla” marriage governed entirely by your state’s family code, a prenuptial agreement, or a no-nuptial agreement. Children are not parties to such a contract. No court anywhere will subject a child’s care and welfare to such things.

For custody and child support, courts in family court will use the sometimes hard to define standard of “best interests of the child.” One Massachusetts family law attorney in a popular divorce documentary cryptically joked that she called children in the system  “little bags of money.” They are often a significant reason family law cases are so profitable for lawyers, mental health professionals, investigators, and everyone else.

No Protection for Poor Life Choices

A good rule to follow is never to do nikah with a person capable of having children unless you are sure she or he can be trusted to raise your future children, and you have made peace with making child support payments to this individual if your relationship ends. If you have a child, you may be suck with a child support order. There is no getting out of this one.

As an Islamic estate planning lawyer, the most important advice I can ever give anyone is not to get a proper estate plan. It is not to get a good lawyer. Of course those things are good, indeed no-brainers, but they have limits. The most important advice is to choose a spouse wisely. If you fail here, there is no law, no lawyer or document in existence that can turn back the clock. A no-nuptial agreement may make a future breakup easier than a family court divorce. There is still no guarantee it won’t be a complete mess anyway. Good documents are never a substitute for poor life choices.

“The Law of the Land”

Islamic institutions like masajid are conservative don’t like taking needless risks, as they should be. Many will not officiate a nikah unless there is a marriage license. They usually will not officiate bigamous marriages, on account of it being illegal.  Of course bigamy, like marriage, has a specific legal definition under state law. One almost universal refrain is that as Muslims we need to follow “the law of the land.”

No-nuptial agreements are in full conformity with the 'law of the land.' It is not a marriage under state law. Nobody is claiming that it is. Limiting nikah to marriage under state law not based on Islam.Click To Tweet

But what if that term did not mean what you think it means? No-nuptial agreements are in full conformity with the “law of the land.” It is not a marriage under state law. Nobody is claiming that it is.  Limiting nikah to marriage under state law not based on Islam. Recently, the Islamic Institute of Orange County, a large masjid in the Los Angeles area, changed its nikah officiating policy. Instead of always requiring marriage certificates, they will also recognize no-nuptial agreements.

Masajid Should Welcome No-Nuptial Agreements

Masajid should have standardized policies and procedures in place. Every masjid should have carefully considered policies to protect the vulnerable and the institution. No masjid wants to open themselves up to a “drive-by nikah” or other nonsense. One policy may well include mandating a no-nuptial agreement when there is no marriage certificate. There is no reason to believe one protects people and institutions better than the other.

Nikah is a vital sunnah for us. It is not something that should be in the shadows, secret, or something shameful. It is fundamental to how we organize our families and communities. When it’s done right, it helps us strengthen our iman, bring us closer to our communities and our loved ones. State definitions of words should not always be your guide to right and wrong.

It is appropriate that Muslims want to do the sunnah of nikah at the masjid, publicly and with friends and family watching.  We should recognize and celebrate every new couple that has done a nikah in our communities. Never mind the state has not sanctioned it.

The state statute book has its definition, we have ours.

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