A New Text in Islamic Law

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 19, 2008

CAIRO -- The Cairo woman stared in disbelief at the text message in her cellphone inbox.

She and her husband, an Egyptian army officer away on duty, had just hung up after quarreling on the phone. She ignored his return call, not wanting to continue the argument, the woman recounted in an interview this week.

The electronic chirrup of an incoming message signaled his response. "I divorce you," her husband had written. "That will teach you not to answer my calls."

Reconciliation followed, only to be broken by another quarrel, this one over the woman asking her family to mediate the couple's problems. "I divorce you," her husband wrote in another message. "Don't ask other people to interfere in our business."

Another reconciliation. Another argument. And another declaration of divorce from her husband, this time face to face, late last year.

Islamic law can make the act of divorce stunningly simple for men, even if the ensuing financial settlements often are not. A husband has only to declare to his wife, "Inti talaq" -- "You are divorced" -- three times, and mean it, to end their marriage.

But technology has introduced a complication that Egyptian religious authorities are now debating in the case of the 25-year-old Cairene, an engineer and an observant Muslim: How should Islamic laws that began to take shape in the 6th century apply to 21st-century text messages?

In Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where some of the first text-message divorce cases have arisen in recent years, civil and religious officials have arrived at varying conclusions.

Until Egyptian courts and religious scholars decide the fate of the woman's marriage, she lives apart from the officer with their 4-year-old son, but still wears her wedding ring. She asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, because such cases are so rare in Egypt.

"What hurts me most is I don't even know if I'm divorced or not," she said in an interview. The woman, slim and soft-spoken, wore a lavender head scarf to cover her hair and matching lavender shadow drawn carefully around her eyes.

Judicial officials confirmed her identity and the facts of the case, initiated in family court in December. Court officials could not agree on whether the case was Egypt's first or second text-message divorce. They said the army officer had not yet appeared in court.

Islamic institutions have adroitly adopted evolving technology to spread their message and tend their followers. Preachers abound on satellite television channels. Many religious institutions and sheiks offer Web sites that provide their followers with online fatwas, or rulings, on religious questions.

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