The Volokh Conspiracy

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"Shariah Law Does Not Apply"—But American Law Does

A Michigan appellate court correctly enforces a Muslim couple's "mahr" agreement, entered at the time of the couple's marriage and calling for the husband to pay certain funds to the wife -- it's a valid contract, enforceable under secular law, regardless of its religious motivation.


From Ali v. Syed, decided yesterday by the Michigan Court of Appeals:

In 2012, defendant approached Mohammed Ali and asked permission to marry plaintiff, Mr. Ali's daughter. Defendant and Mr. Ali negotiated the terms of the arranged marriage. Mr. Ali proposed that defendant could marry his daughter if defendant paid her $51,000, a payment the parties referred to as mahr, a traditional component of Islamic marriages. Defendant agreed to the payment proposed by Mr. Ali. Plaintiff considered defendant's offer of marriage, on the financial terms negotiated by her father, for approximately one year. Plaintiff ultimately decided to accept defendant's proposal and the parties married in 2013.

It is uncontested that plaintiff and defendant had only a verbal agreement for payment of $51,000, in consideration of marriage, until the day of their marriage ceremony in the state of Illinois. During that ceremony, the parties signed a document that placed the contract to marry in writing. The one-page document signed by the parties was titled "Marriage Certificate." The document stated that "The Groom Khaja Naseeruddin Syed age 30 solemnly proposes to marry Miss Nausheen Farnaz Ali and take her as my wife and agree to pay Mahr of $51,000 Later." Furthermore, the document stated that "The Bride Nausheen Farnaz Ali age 26 Solemnly accept the proposal of Mr. Khaja Naseeruddin Syed to take me as his wife with agreed Mahr." …

During the course of the marriage, defendant made several payments, totaling $3,900, toward the $51,000 mahr. In 2016, plaintiff filed an action for separate maintenance and defendant filed a counterclaim for divorce… During the divorce trial, plaintiff asked the trial court to enforce the contract to marry and award her $47,100, the unpaid amount of the mahr.

The trial court concluded that the parties executed a valid, simple contract and entered a judgment in plaintiff's favor in the amount of $47,100. In addition, the trial court granted the parties a judgment of divorce, denied plaintiff's request for spousal support, and divided the parties' marital assets….

Shariah Law Does Not Apply

Defendant … argues that the contract states on its face that it was made under Shariah law and that it was not made under any state law. Defendant argues that the contract merely provides for a religious obligation rather than an enforceable contractual obligation under Michigan law. Defendant further argues that, under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, the courts of the state of Michigan lack jurisdiction to enforce Islamic marriage contracts. We disagree.

The trial court clearly stated that it was not applying Shariah law, but was applying Michigan law to the parties' contract. Despite defendant's argument that the contract was a ceremonial document governed only by Shariah law and not by the civil law of any state, we also stress that we are not interpreting or applying the contract between the parties under Shariah law, but are applying Michigan law to the review of the parties' contract and the judgment of divorce entered by the trial court….

In this case, neither the trial court nor this Court is required to resolve ecclesiastical questions. The trial court did not claim any power to grant the parties a divorce under Islamic law, but only the power to grant the parties a civil divorce under Michigan law. The trial court did not claim any power to decide the parties' respective religious obligations under the tenets of their faith tradition, but only decided the parties' respective obligations under long-established principles of Michigan contract law. Because this case does not require the resolution of any ecclesiastical questions, we conclude that defendant's argument is without merit….

This strikes me as exactly right. American courts don't enforce Muslim law (or Jewish law or any other religious law) as such; they enforce American law (here, Michigan law). But one important American legal principle is that contracts are enforceable, so long as they can be enforced without resolving theological questions—and that's true whether or not the contract is motivated by the parties' religion, or tracks that religion's principles. For more, see my Religious Law (Especially Islamic Law) in American Courts, 66 Okla. L. Rev. 431 (2014), which also talks about Sharia and employment law, family law, and more.