There remains a great deal of confusion in the Muslim community about what constitutes a legal marriage in the UK; a problem which unfortunately often only comes to light when one or both parties choose to divorce.
Many Muslim couples resident in the UK choose to have a nikah ceremony in addition to a formal civil ceremony, carried out by a registrar or superintendent registrar. Traditional Muslim marriages that have taken place in the UK without the additional civil ceremony are not recognised under English law and couples are therefore considered to be co-habitees, which can spell disaster for the financially weaker party, when it comes to divorce. This is because co-habitees do not enjoy the same rights and benefits under English law as married couples.
In the “Information and Guidance on Muslim Marriage and Divorce in Britain” report issued by the Muslim Women’s Network UK, it is claimed that large numbers of Muslim couples are failing to register their marriages by way of civil ceremony, placing women in particular, in a very vulnerable position. It reveals that between January and October 2015, 40 enquiries were received by the organisation’s helpline. The majority of these were questions about divorce, whilst the rest focused on aspects of domestic violence. A third of the enquiries were from women who were not in legally-recognised marriages.
The advice given to Muslim women who are either preparing to marry or have only attended a religious ceremony, is that it is always advisable to insist upon an additional civil wedding. This can take place at any point, at a registry office or at a formally-approved wedding venue. Alternatively, some mosques may also be registered to solemnise a marriage. There have been a significant number of instances whereby a civil marriage was agreed, but then did not take place, leaving the woman with few legal rights and financial benefits. Some of these women were financially secure prior to the marriage, but then found themselves penniless at the point of divorce, due entirely to this issue. It is therefore always advisable to have a civil ceremony before the religious ceremony takes place.
It is also worth noting that even if a marriage is solemnised in a registered mosque by an authorised person, as required by English law; it may still be declared invalid, if that authorised person does not follow procedure and issue a civil marriage certificate. For this reason, it should be ensured that paperwork is always received after the event.