Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Divorce by phone poses problem for Islamic law


After a quarrel with her husband, a young wife flees back to her mother and he fumes from outside: "If you don't leave your parents' house, you will be divorced."

This text message delivered from his cell phone to hers was more than just a cry of frustration. Under Islamic law, it was enough to start formal proceedings that eventually annulled the 18-month marriage -- the cyberspace equivalent of serving divorce papers.

A Malaysian religious court's ruling last week that the text message was a valid notice of intent to divorce caused a furor in this Southeast Asian country. Experts say it also underscores the difficult problem of how to make Islam's sacred and age-old traditions jibe with the modern world.

As computers, cell phones and other gadgets increasingly become part of people's lives, Islam's guardians are being asked to interpret how new technology applies to the Shariah, or religious law, set out in the Koran.

Divorce is allowed in Islam. Interpretations vary, but it is generally accepted that a Muslim husband has divorced his wife if he announces his intention to do so and the decision is ratified by a cleric. For a wife to divorce a husband, however, the process is far more difficult.

When the Koran was written more than 2,500 years ago, few options would have existed but for a face-to-face meeting between husband and wife or a handwritten declaration.

But in 2001, in the United Arab Emirates, a phone text message was accepted as a form of written declaration, prompting test cases in other Muslim countries. In nearby Qatar, an Islamic scholar decreed that divorce by e-mail was OK. But in Singapore, which has a large Muslim minority, religious authorities disallowed phone text messages.

Dr. Patricia Martinez, an expert on women's role in Islam, said the divorce debate isn't likely to shake Islam's foundations, but is an example of how Islamic authorities need to adapt its rules to new technology or risk losing relevance to today's Muslims.

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