A Muslim woman’s Sharia marriage to a property developer in a London restaurant 22 years ago was not valid under English law, senior judges ruled today.
Nasreen Akhter only has a ‘limited’ claim to his cash, property and pensions and is not entitled to any maintenance from her Muslim husband Mohammed Shabaz Khan.
Mrs Akhter wanted a divorce from her husband Mohammed Shabaz Khan who she married in a religious ‘nikah’ ceremony carried out by an imam in 1998.
But in a landmark ruling in London today three judges including Britain’s top family judge, Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton, said the English courts did not recognise their Sharia marriage because it ‘had no legal effect’.
The judgment means Mrs Akhtar is powerless to claim significant sums of money or property from Mr Khan in the same way a legally married spouse can because they did not also have a legal civil ceremony as well.
Mrs Akhter is expected to appeal to the Supreme Court in a case that has major implications for people of other faiths including Hindus and Sikhs.
Leading family law barrister Camini Kumar told MailOnline even though they have four children and lived together for almost two decades she will have ‘limited’ claims to his assets.
She said: ‘The judgment confirms that when their relationship breaks down these women cannot make the financial claims against their husband that they would be entitled to if they had married in a qualifying ceremony. They are to be treated as any other cohabiting couple in the eyes of the family court.’
Nasreen Akhter wanted a divorce from her husband Mohammed Shabaz Khan (both pictured in 2018) who she married in a religious ‘nikah’ ceremony in 1998 – today the Court of Appeal ruled they can’t divorce because they were never legally married
She added: ‘There are some women who are married in Islamic ceremonies who believe they are married not only in the eyes of their communities but also under the law. There are others who participate in Islamic ceremonies relying on their husband’s promise that there will be a civil registration afterwards which then never materialises’.
What is Sharia law? Islamic legal system largely drawn from the Koran
Essentially Islam’s legal system, Sharia governs all aspects of the observant Muslim’s life, and is drawn largely from the Koran- the Islamic sacred book – as well as the hadiths, which are the actions attributed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
As well as marriage and finances, Sharia law encompasses everyday rules around things like hygiene and dress codes. Although there are Sharia councils and tribunals operating in the UK, they are not courts of law, and their rulings are based purely on religion.
They cannot overrule regular law courts, but Muslims will often seek the assistance of a Muslim council in resolving marital or financial disputes.
Many Muslim couples do not follow Islamic ceremonies with civil marriages – a requirement generated by the 1949 Marriage Act.
Today’s ruling reinforces the need for a civil ceremony to ensure couples are legally married.
Ms Kumar added she could try to be the beneficial owner of any of Mr Khan’s property including the family home, but says it’s a ‘minefield’.
The warring estranged couple went to the High Court in 2018 after Mrs Akhtar petitioned for divorce after their relationship broke down in 2016.
The couple, both of Pakistani heritage, chose to marry at a restaurant in Southall, west London, in a religious ceremony carried out by an imam with 150 family and friends as guests.
Mrs Akhter, who is a solicitor, also wanted a civil ceremony but claimed her husband refused when they lived together in Pinner, Middlesex.
She told the High Court that Mr Khan had become her ‘husband’ and he had considered her his ‘wife’.
‘From my limited understanding of Islam at the time it did comply with all the requirements,’ she said.
She added ‘I saw him as my husband. There was no question in my mind at all. He always introduced me as his wife’.
But Mr Khan had argued she couldn’t have a divorce on the basis that they are ‘not legally married’ in the first place because they are married ‘under Sharia law only’.
The High Court ruled two years ago that Mrs Akhtar was right and their union should be recognised because their vows had similar expectations of a British marriage contract.
But today the Court of Appeal overturned the decision and said the wedding was ‘a non-qualifying ceremony’ because it was not performed in a building registered for weddings, no certificates had been issued and no registrar was present – meaning the marriage was ‘invalid’.
Charles Hale QC of 4PB who represented Mrs Akhter, said: ‘Thousands of women, usually Muslim women believe that they lawfully marry in this country each year by undertaking a religious ceremony only. Many of them do not know in fact that, no matter how many people attend, no matter how public an expression of the marital contract, that they are not in fact lawfully married in accordance with the laws of England and Wales.
‘This means that many have absolutely no rights at the end of what they believe to be their ‘marriage’. No rights to assets in the husband’s sole name, and no rights to maintenance, even if, as with Mrs Akhter, they were married for 18 years’.
Britain’s top family judge, Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton, pictured today delivering the judgment, said the English courts did not recognise their Sharia marriage because it ‘had no legal effect’
Overturning his ruling, the Court of Appeal found that ‘no marriage ceremony took place in respect of which a decree of nullity could be granted’.
Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton, who considered the case with two other judges, said the 1998 Nikah was a ‘non-qualifying’ ceremony.
Announcing the court’s decision, he said: ‘The parties were not marrying ‘under the provisions’ of English law.
‘The ceremony was not performed in a registered building. Moreover, no notice had been given to the superintendent registrar, no certificates had been issued, and no registrar or authorised person was present at the ceremony.
‘Further, the parties knew that the ceremony had no legal effect and that they would need to undertake another ceremony that did comply with the relevant requirements in order to be validly married.
‘The determination of whether a marriage is void or not cannot, in the court’s view, be dependent on future events, such as the intention to undertake another ceremony or whether there are children.’
Sir Terence added: ‘With respect to the judge, who was clearly seeking a route which he understandably believed would lead to a fair outcome for (Ms Akhter), that is to say the ability to make an application for financial remedies for herself, we do not consider that his approach can withstand analysis.
‘The difficulty with the judge’s approach is that … at no time did the parties in fact seek to effect a legal marriage.’
Having reached a settlement, neither Ms Akhter nor Mr Khan played any part in the Court of Appeal proceedings, and the appeal was brought by the Attorney General.