Question: Which phrases count as explicit or equivocal terms of divorce?
Wa alaykum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
Thank you for your important question.
Words of divorce in the Shafi’i school are either explicit, equivocal, or neither-nor.
Explicit expressions of divorce
In English, the only explicit word would be to use ‘divorce’. If a man says, ‘I divorce my wife.’, then as long as he is sane, awake, and intentionally says the words, then his wife is divorced. It would be irrelevant what he intended by saying those words.
Equivocal expressions of divorce
Equivocal words are words that could well be construed as meaning divorce, but also accept other interpretations. For example, ‘Our marriage is over’ or ‘Get out of my life!’ or ‘Consider yourself no longer my wife’ and other similar phrases could all be understood as divorce, but they could have other meanings too.
Here, we would ask the husband what he intended by those words. If he said that he intended divorce, then it would be a divorce. If he said that he intended something else, then it would not be a divorce. If he refused to say, the Islamic magistrate would force him to state his intention.
It is worth noting that writing ‘I divorce you.’ which when said is explicit and does not require any intention, is only considered equivocal. For example, if a man wrote an email to his wife telling her that she was divorced, we would ask him what he intended by sending it. If he replied that it was just a draft and he only sent it accidentally, we would accept his claim (Sharh Ba Sudan ala Daw al Misbah, Ba Sudan).
If a man who could speak used a phrase that does not indicate divorce at all, this would not count, even if he did intend divorce. For example, he got in a fight with his wife and expressed the futility of the argument and the end of their marriage by saying something like, ‘Words. Words. Words.’ This would not count as a divorce even if he intended divorce thereby (Sharh Ba Sudan ala Daw al Misbah, Ba Sudan).
I remember I once called up my teacher asking about a specific scenario. He said that we muftis do not give answers on the phone. He explained that in theory, the case I was asking about was a divorce, but that to get a real answer the questioner had to go to the Sharia court.
What I would advise is to go to an Islamic court in a Muslim country, or a fiqh organization that deals with divorces in a non-Muslim country. If none of this is possible, to agree with your spouse to have one scholar give an answer that both of you will follow (tahkim).
I pray this helps.
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Ustadh Farid Dingle has completed extensive years of study in the sciences of the Arabic language and the various Islamic Sciences. During his studies, he also earned a CIFE Certificate in Islamic Finance. Over the years he has developed a masterful ability to craft lessons that help non-Arabic speakers gain a deep understanding of the language. He currently teaches courses in the Arabic Language