Islamic Lebanese Divorce in U.S. Courts
By Gabriel Sawma
Published on September 18, 2011
Lebanon was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from 1516 until World War One. Relief came in September 1918 when the British army moved along with the Arab forces into Palestine and opened the way for the occupation of Syria and Lebanon. At San Remo Conference held in Italy in April 1920, the Allies gave France a mandate over Greater Syria, which includes modern day Republic of Lebanon, and the Arab Republic of Syria. France then appointed General Henri Gouraud to implement the mandate provisions over the two countries.
As a result of the French mandate, the laws of Lebanon were greatly influenced by the French legal system and judiciary. Due to the fact the Lebanese population is heterogeneous; the leaders of the country developed a highly complex system of governing, whereby a complex power-sharing among the main religious communities, mainly Christians and Muslims were put into effect. By 1970, the balance of power between Christians and Muslims was threatened due to the influx of Palestinian refugees, fleeing from the 1970 civil war in Jordan; they were joined by the Lebanese elements that aligned themselves with the liberation of Palestine. That led to a civil war in 1975, which continued until 1990.
The Religious Court System in Lebanon
The judiciary in Lebanon is divided into four main court systems; each is spread among other subdivisions. The systems are: (1) the “qada’ Adli” or the judicial courts; (2) “Majlis al-Shura” or the administrative court system; (3) the military court system; and (4) the religious courts.
The religious court system in Lebanon is composed of the court systems of eighteen recognized denominations covering the three main religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The jurisdiction of these courts is limited to family law matters and other matter defined by the law.
The Muslim courts are known as “al-Mahakim al-Shar’iyyah” for Sunni Muslims and al-Mahakin al-Ja’fariyah for Shia Muslims and another system for the Druze sect. There are also ecclesiastical courts for the different Christian denominations and a Jewish court for the Jewish community. Judgments of the Courts of First Instance are appealed to the relevant courts of Appeals for each denomination.
Source of the Islamic Family Law
The source of Islamic family law for the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon is based on the 1962 enactment known as The Law of the Rights of the Family, which stipulates that “the Sunni judge shall give judgment according to Hanafi doctrine, except in cases specified in the Ottoman Family Rights Act of 1917”. The Hanafi School of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam is one of four “schools of thought” or “schools of jurisprudence” (Arabic singular, madhab; plural, madhaheb) and is considered the oldest school of law. It was named after its founder, Imam Abu Hanifa (father of Hanifa) from Iraq (700 AD).
During the Ottoman Empire, the Hanafi School was the most spread and widely applied in the areas of marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody and waqf (real estate establishments owned by the Muslim communities such as mosques, madrassas, and other religious institutions). In addition to the Hanafi doctrine, Muslims belonging to other schools of thought were allowed, under the Ottoman rule, at times, to have their cases looked at by other Islamic schools of jurisprudence, such as the Shafi’i, Hanbali or Maliki. All of them applied Islamic Sharia principles in Islamic family disputes. Sharia is the Arabic term for Islamic law. In Lebanon, the provisions of the Hanafi School are applied to Sunni Muslims in family issues involving marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance and waqf.
Divorce in Lebanon under the Hanafi law
Under the Hanafi rules, a man can divorce his wife at will, any time, any place, with or without a reason, regardless of the wife’s approval or approval of the court. The husband does not have to bring any excuse for his divorce. He can do so using the “Triple Talaq” doctrine by uttering the following words three times: “You are divorced” or “my wife is divorced”, or “I divorce you” in the presence of witnesses. Such an announcement will terminate the marriage immediately.
For the purpose of documentation, the husband has to have the religious court sign off on his divorce in the presence of two male witnesses, or one male and two female witnesses. The only obligation on the husband is to pay his wife the ‘mahr’ as stipulated in the marriage contract. The ‘mahr’ consists of the amount of money or its equivalent that the husband gives his bride at the wedding or during the divorce. It can be paid partially or in full, at the wedding or during the divorce. The amount of the ‘mahr’ paid at the divorce does not take into consideration the inflation aspect. For example, a woman who was married twenty years ago and whose ‘mahr’ was worth one thousand US Dollars at the time of marriage, will receive that amount only without any interest, which might be worth much less at the time of divorce.
The “Triple Talaq” doctrine can be used by the husband only. The wife does not have the same privilege. A wife seeking Islamic divorce in Lebanon must go through a judicial process; her request must fall under certain criteria, typically khul’s, abuse, and mistreatment; inability to provide financial support, prolonged absence from the home or incarceration. Under such circumstance the wife has to prove her claims and it is up to the court to agree to her request or disagree.
Recognition in the U.S. of Islamic Divorce Obtained in Lebanon
American men with Lebanese ancestry may travel to Lebanon in order to obtain quick divorces. In such a situation, the man leaves most of his property, children, and wife in the United States. But could the divorce obtained in such a way be entitled to recognition and enforcement in the United States?
Recognition of foreign divorce judgments by U.S. courts is based on the principle of ‘comity’ in private international law. The U.S. Constitution does not require that states should recognize and enforce foreign divorce judgments. State courts will only recognize foreign judgments of divorce if the decree obtained overseas is in accordance with the principles of comity among nations. This means that due regard to international duty and convenience, and the sense that respect is due to the judicial act of another nation, comity becomes a deference accorded to the foreign decree to the extent that it is enforceable in the country which rendered it, provided that the foreign court has jurisdiction and due process was provided to the parties involved and that public policy of the state in which the recognition is sought is not violated. Should the decree fail to meet these criteria, it will not be recognized as such.
The most important criterion that a state court will consider is the domicile of the parties at the time of the foreign divorce was obtained. State courts will consider recognition of a foreign judgment of divorce under the doctrine of comity if the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was respected and most importantly, if the public policy of the state was not violated.
Gabriel Sawma, a lawyer with Middle East background, dealing with International Law, mainly the European Union Law, the Middle East Law and Islamic Shari’a law. Professor of Middle East Constitutional Law, Islamic Shari’a, Arabic at Fairleigh Dickinson University, NJ. Professor of Islamic Finance at the University of Liverpool, UK. Professor of Islamic Economics at Islamic Economics.
Expert consultant on Middle East affairs, terrorism and authority on Islamic Shari’a, including Islamic marriage contracts, the mahr, Islamic banking and finance, Islamic inheritance and child custody. Admitted to the Lebanese Bar Association of Beirut. Associate Member of The New York State Bar and the American Bar Associations. Author of an upcoming book on Islamic marriage Contracts in U.S. Courts and the mahr issue.
Article picture: A 17th-century drawing of a Turkish Mufti. Source: Wikipedia.