Reconciling Ancient Beliefs With Modern Technologies
She and her husband, an Egyptian army officer away on duty, had just hung up after quarrelling on the phone. She ignored his return call, not wanting to continue the argument, the woman recounted in an interview.
The electronic chirrup of an incoming message signalled 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, "Enti 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 UAE 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.
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 shaikhs offer websites that provide their followers with online fatwas, or rulings, on religious questions.
Egypt's state-appointed grand mufti, one of the country's highest religious authorities, recently began offering online imam training. Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa's fatwa website receives 3,000 hits a day, and a similar hotline gets scores of calls a day, according to his spokesman, Ebrahim Negm. Almost all the inquiries have to do with family matters, including divorce, he added.
Spreading the message
Yet the proliferation of televised preaching and Islamic websites has produced a confusing array of voices competing for followers. Broadcast and internet media can amplify hate or oversimplify a complex religious point. Technology offers modes of communication that the first practitioners of Islamic law never could have imagined.
Conservative and liberal streams within Islam each have used technology to get their messages across. In Egypt, young members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement used blogs last year to urge that the Islamic organisation be more inclusive of women and less exclusionary of other religions.
Islamic institutions have adopted websites and other technology as a tool to show that Islamic law still provides "pragmatic solutions to contemporary problems," Negm said. "We also believe there has been abuse of technology," he added. "This does not lead us to say, 'Forget it.' That would not be possible."
But text-message divorces represent "a clear-cut abuse of the law," Negm said.
Religious authorities in the UAE and Qatar upheld divorce by text message in rulings between 2001 and 2003. Islamic officials in Singapore rejected it.
Government officials in Malaysia decried the first cases, promising big fines for any man who tried to shed his wife by impersonal text messages. Malaysia's religious leaders upheld the legality of text-message divorce, and government talk of bans and fines ended.
For the 25-year-old engineer, text messages have made the costs impossibly high.
Her husband wants her back, the woman said, but the religious scholars she consulted tell her she is divorced in the eyes of God and would be returning to him out of wedlock.
But if she refuses to return, and the courts rule the text-message declarations invalid and her marriage intact, she risks losing her claim to her young son.
With the text messages, she said, "the doors of hell have opened on my life." (Gulf News)