Muslim Marraige Guide – 3
What is A Good Muslim Marriage Like?
Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
`You shall not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you shall not have faith until you love one another. Have compassion on those who are on earth, and He Who is in Heaven will have compassion for you.’ (Hadith in Bukhari)
Firstly, a good Muslim marriage should show welcome. Even if the wife did not spend all her day in the home, but perhaps had some employment outside it – even so, the Muslim home should be ready to welcome the family and the guest.
It is the most miserable thing in the world to come home to a dark, locked house, totally empty and bereft of human presence -and this is particularly crushing to a new husband or a child. Any wife thinking of taking up some kind of employment should bear this in mind. Where children are involved, she should make some arrangement with a relative or helper so that they do not build up a mental picture of a home where they `don’t count’, where they do not feel welcome. As regards a husband, as he is an adult he should not ignore the problems, but be able to talk the thing through and see what the difficulties are, and be able to support the best possible solution that is acceptable to them both.
In an Islamic marriage, both husband and wife have responsibilities and duties, and both are individuals responsible before God for their own Records. Neither has the right to impose or force the other to do something against religion, or to make the other suffer.
It is no good, of course, the husband simply feeling `hard done-by’ if he wishes to accept the wife’s earnings as part of the total income of the household, but then makes a fuss if it is he who returns to the house first, and who might, perhaps, be expected in that case to light the oven or make the tea! Obviously, if the wife returns before the husband, it is she who gets the `dark emptiness’, and she is naturally expected to accept this as part of the way things are. To some extent, it is not really `part of the way things are’ any more, in a society where the women are increasingly joining the men as part of the country’s workforce. This has to be acknowledged.
The correct Islamic attitude should always be to seek out the best way, and not insist on any code of conduct that is going to upset either partner, or make either partner suffer unfairly. It means that sometimes a husband may have to take the rough with the smooth, or it may mean that the wife may find it better for her marriage not to take full time employment, if this threatens to put too much strain on the marriage. Everything should be considered fairly and openly.
It is patently not all right to expect a highly intelligent woman to sit around at home wasting her life’s talents by limiting herself to housework alone. It is true that there is serious unemployment in many Muslim societies, and a major influx of women into the jobs market would make this much worse and leave many families without one breadwinner, let alone two. But it is also true that the Muslim world is crying out for female doctors, nurses, lecturers and so forth, and these women have to undergo considerable sacrifice in order to get themselves trained, and expect to be able to offer their services to the community in much the same way as a trained man. It is not the duty of a Muslim man to be selfish and deprive the community of these talented and dedicated women, and expect them to limit themselves to the service of just one man. So many men take the talents of their wives for granted, and stultify their possible development, which is such a great pity, and a tragedy for society.
On another level, there are many women who cannot cope with being confined all day with children and domestic affairs, who long to go out to work simply to have something else to do, other people to see and talk to, and a little financial reward at the end of it. A Muslim man should realise that he is a lucky person indeed if his wife is happy to devote her whole time and attention to him and his needs, and those of their children and relations. He should count his blessings and never forget to appreciate what a treasure he has been granted.
In many Muslim societies it is taken for granted that a married woman will pass her life in this way, and only someone who has traveled extensively from Muslim country to Muslim country, and had access and the ability to observe the life of Muslim women, can comment fairly on the enormous weight of boredom that lies over the lives of many of these sisters.
It is not full Islam – for God would not have given women the ability to be professionally employed if He had intended a wholly different vocation for them. The Prophet’s (s) first wife Khadija was first his employer, while his cousin-wife Zaynab continued to work after their marriage. She made and sold excellent leather saddles, and the Prophet (s) was very pleased with her work. When Islam began fourteen hundred years ago, the women around the Prophet participated in public life, were vocal about social inequalities, and often shared decision making with him. This continued through the golden age of Muslim civilization, when women occupied a far more central role in society than they do nowadays. There were colleges like Cairo’s Saqlatuniya Academy which provided higher education for women, and were staffed by women professors. The biographical dictionaries of the great hadith scholars reveal that about a sixth of the hadith scholars in the Muslim middle ages were women. Historians today also marvel at the major role which Muslim women played in the medieval economy, a role made possible by the fact that Islamic law grants a woman the right to own and dispose of property independently of her husband, a law only introduced in the West at the beginning of the twentieth century! But it cannot be denied that over the past three hundred years of our history, women have increasingly disappeared from such positions. It is our duty to try and revive the classical Muslim tradition in this important area.
All this reminds us that true submission to God in Islam means that each individual must do the very best possible to make use of all their talents and abilities, for the greater good of the community. If the person involved happens to be a Muslim woman, there is the extra responsibility that the household and family must not suffer, and the onus really falls on her. Any Muslim woman worth her salt will work out a satisfactory way of fulfilling all her obligations, and any Muslim man bearing this in mind should be supportive and sympathetic, and willing to pitch in and give practical help when required.
The sunna of the Blessed Prophet in this respect was revealed by his wife A’isha. A hadith in Bukhari tells us that when asked what he did at home, she replied that he helped his wives with their work until it was time to go out to lead the prayers. As a perfect gentleman and the leader of the Muslim nation, he did not regard helping his wives as a slur on his manhood.
If the wife spends all her time caring for her home, then her man must appreciate this sacrifice and devote sufficient time to her as reward for her efforts. He should notice what she has done, and take an interest in it. It is not good Islam simply to take everything for granted, and insult the wife’s stalwart efforts by regarding them simply as a man’s right. A good Muslim husband will obviously not distress his wife by going off boozing and flirting with other women, but neither should he just pop into the house for a meal and then rush off out again with his male friends and spend excessive hours in their company (even at the mosque), leaving the wife alone in the evening when she might have hoped to share a little of his time.
It is a commonplace `blindness’ in many societies that only the employed people are `working’, and the ones at home are not. True Muslims should never forget that the money brought in for the family’s support is earned by a joint effort; if husbands think they are the sole earners and breadwinners, then they should stop to figure out what it would cost them if they lost their wives and were obliged to hire a purchasing agent, a cook, a kitchen hand, a cleaner, a housekeeper, a decorator, a nursemaid, a chauffeur for the children, and so on. Normally the wife saves all this expense by doing this work herself – quite a contribution!
If the wife does go out to work, then extra thought and organisation are obviously needed, if the home is not to lose out. This might mean that a husband would be expected to do more in the way of housework than he might really want to do – and in fairness, if a woman is working long hours as well as the man, then he is a poor Muslim if he does not do his fair share around the house.
Some Muslim men need reminding that the various fatwas (authoritative pronouncements in religious law) on who has responsibility for housework actually vary quite a lot from madhhab to madhhab, and that there is no fixed and rigid Islamic ruling in this respect. The Hanafis, for example (who include most Muslims in Britain), regard housework as a religious obligation binding upon the wife. Yet the position of the classical Shafi’i school is quite different:
`A woman is not obliged to serve her husband by baking, grinding flour, cooking, washing, or any other kind of service, because the marriage contract entails, for her part, only that she let him enjoy her sexually, and she is not obliged to do other than that.’ (Reliance of the Traveler, tr. Keller, p.948.)
If the man is not prepared or able to do his fair share, then other things have to be done when a woman goes out to work: cleaners, gardeners and baby minders have to be hired to help. With good organisation, if can be done. A Muslim wife who let her home go to ruin while she made money outside would be at fault; but the responsibility of seeing that all runs smoothly is up to both husband and wife. There is no point whatsoever in a wife collapsing with exhaustion to the disgust of an unsympathetic husband. The Islamic way is one of love and consideration, and unselfish sharing.
Another aspect of welcome is in the generous reception of guests, which is regarded as an important Islamic duty. In Islam, the guest needs no invitation, even to come and stay for a few days, though it is obviously good manners if the visitor can inform the host in advance of his or her arrival. When guests come, Muslims should be hospitable and generous, whether or not they expect to get the same treatment in return.
As regards the guest, you do not know whom God will send you, or for what reason – therefore you should always be prepared, no matter how humble the guest, or how inconvenient – and your household should always be welcoming. To achieve this, it has to be well ordered, with thoughtful and considerate catering.
A guest cannot be welcomed if the cupboards are bare, and the furniture is dirty or broken down, or if the husband and wife are seething with anger and resentment for each other.
To this end, it is very important that Muslim men learn properly the principles of Islam when considering both the guest and the person who caters for the guest – who is, of course, usually the wife. It is bad manners to bring back people unexpectedly, unless this really cannot be helped, especially in a society that has full use of the telephone! Even then, a good guest should not expect to be entertained lavishly if no warning has been given – for the cupboard could be bare, or the wife could be sick or exhausted, or vitally engaged in some other planned activity. It is one thing to welcome the guest as the `gift of Allah’, but it is quite another thing for people to impose rudely on others without thought for their convenience. If this happens, the wife can at least console herself with the thought that her sacrifice and good manners will be recorded to her benefit, whereas the guest’s and the husband’s rudeness will have to be accounted for!
Allah has taught that although a good wife will always be hospitable, a Muslim should not enter another’s house before seeking permission (sura 24:27-8), even from those very close to him or her – for people in their homes may be in a state of dress or mood in which they do not wish to be seen. The Prophet (s) said that if a man arrived home earlier than expected he should wait, so that `the woman who has not dressed may have time to smarten herself, and one whose husband was away might take a bath and become neat and clean.’ (Bukhari)
The Prophet (s) taught that it was wrong to bang loudly on a door, for someone might be asleep or ill inside the house. Furthermore, unexpected callers should not persist if they suspect the householders do not wish to answer them. If there is no response after knocking (or ringing) three times, the Prophet (s) instructed that the caller should tactfully leave.
The Prophet (s) was exceedingly generous, and encouraged Muslims to be similarly generous to guests, letting them stay overnight if need be – but he limited this automatic right of hospitality to three days. The principle is that no guest should stay so long as to become a nuisance or a burden. He said:
`The entertainment of a guest is three days, but unstinting kindness and courtesy is for a day and a night. It is not permitted for a Muslim to stay with his brother until he makes him sinful.’ They said: `O Messenger of God! How would he make him sinful?’ He replied: `By staying with him so long that no provisions are left with which to entertain him.’
In normal circumstances, a good Muslim wife should never be totally unprepared, or caught without something to offer as hospitality. At the least, the guest should be able to expect ‘pot luck’, a simple drink and cake or biscuit; but should then go and not linger excessively. The Sunna of the Prophet makes it quite clear that he always advised giving proper warning when a guest was coming, so that the wife could have things ready, and not be shamed by the thoughtlessness of her husband.
The second quality needed in a Muslim home is commitment. This means commitment from both partners, of course. It must be obvious even to newlyweds that people cannot go through life without annoying each other, irritating each other, letting each other down in all sorts of ways, and making mistakes. Commitment means that when things start to go wrong, neither partner will give up and run away.
In many parts of the world marriages are quickly broken because the partners take the view that if it doesn’t work out, then they’ll end it. They regard marriages as conditional. Where that viewpoint exists, the marriage is almost doomed from the start, and generally produces pain and heartache.
Threatening to walk out is a kind of blackmail that can have dire consequences. It brings insecurity, making the partner who is to be left behind convinced that the other does not really love them. It outs the nasty sneak feeling of being abandoned in the back of the listener’s mind. It is especially dangerous to make this kind of threat if ‘walking out’ means abandoning someone who cannot cope on their own, or returning to a foreign country.
Once two people have committed themselves to each other, they should move mountains in order to stay together, rather than let silly things come between them. A good rule is never to go to bed in anger with a quarrel unresolved. Sometimes proud people find it incredibly difficult to make ‘peace terms’ with each other when they have fallen out; in a good marriage some kind of code or signaling is sometimes an enormous help. You do not feel like falling at the feet of your spouse in abject apology, but you do not wish to prolong hostilities. A pet word, or phrase or gesture is what is needed as a kind of ‘white flag’; when it is recognized, it gives a chance to cool down and restore good humor. My own husband (fresh from Pakistan) and I used to have blazing rows over all sorts of things which often got quite frightening for me; but I always knew when the `rough wind’ was blowing over when he grunted that I was a `bloody Englishwoman’! It was hardly a compliment, but it was my little signal that peace was on its way, and sure enough, our arms were around each other before very long – even if neither side refused to give in!
The third vital quality is sense of humour, something our Blessed Prophet (s) understood very well. No marriage will survive without it. The ability to see the funny side of things has saved sanity and avoided bloodshed in many a tricky situation. One of the lovely things about a successful marriage is that when the storm clouds have blown over, one can often look back and laugh at whatever if was that had seemed such a serious and vital matter at the time. A sense of humour helps a person to keep things in perspective.
It helps one to cope when your mother-in-law is breathing heavily down your neck, or when some eminent visitor has called unexpectedly and caught you at your worst; it helps you to cope with that apparent law of nature (actually a trial) that if it is possible for a thing to go wrong or get worse it will choose the most inconvenient (and public) moment to do so.
It helps you to look objectively at what went wrong, and put your failing into perspective; most of our human failings are pretty common, and shared by the vast majority of humanity. Sometimes things that seemed so serious to us at the time when they happened become just a story to be told with a laugh when you recount them later to others.
The fourth quality is patience, which goes hand-in-hand with tolerance and consideration. A Muslim learns to be patient in so many ways. In the early days and weeks of marriage, young couples are often impatient to have all the things that they were used to in their parents’ homes – but this is obviously unreasonable, unless you are very wealthy. Sometimes it took your parents a lifetime to collect up all their worldly bits and pieces. You are only just beginning, and you cannot have everything in the first five minutes.
Sometimes the new husband complains that his wife can’t cook like his mother. But how does he know how well his mother could cook when she first got married? It may be that his wife is actually doing better than she did!
Sometimes a new wife complains that her husband isn’t bringing in the money like her father used to. But how does she know how her father struggled when he first got married?
If you are given everything without having to work for it, you will not value it and be thankful for it. Nobody would. It is important for your relationship that you grow together, and work together, and build up your home with its own particular atmosphere, together.
There are two serious dangers here – a `martyrdom’ complex (the one doing all the work and making all the sacrifices and/or decisions), and a `not-my-home’ complex (the one who is left out, or who chooses not to get involved). If only one of you does all the work or all the planning, the other partner will never feel that he or she fully belongs, and may even become resentful – which seems so strange to the partner who has done all the donkey work `for’ the other. Build your home together, so that its atmosphere is created by both of you, then neither side will be resentful or undervalue the sacrifice of the other.
You are no longer a single person, but have a companion to share your life with. It takes time and effort to blend two lives together in harmony. Many romantic stories end when the couple get married and they live `happily ever after’. In real life, the wedding is just the first chapter, and it is the living happily afterwards, day by day, that presents the challenge. There is not a lot of thrill in getting up early, going to work, doing the chores, and so on.
Like a lot of people nowadays, you may have launched your marriage with expectations that were not very realistic; and when these were not met, you came down with a big dose of disappointment and dismay. Yes, it can come as a shock when you are no longer living alone (when you can do as you like), or with a family that you have been with all your life and are used to. You might suddenly discover that you don’t know the new person you are with as well as you thought you did. The success of your marriage and your happiness will depend upon your willingness to make allowances, and adjust.
Be tolerant with the other person’s ways, likes and dislikes. Give the other person room. So many marriages are spoiled by wives or husbands clinging desperately on to their spouse, unwilling to let them do the least little thing on their own. This can be a terrible mistake, for no matter how much you may love that other person, you cannot change him or her into you. There will be all sorts of things that your partner would like to do, which he or she may not feel they can do once they get married. This is a great pity, and brings loss into the relationship rather than gain.
Try to organise your life together so that you do have some space that is your own, and some activities which are your own too. This could become of vital importance if the husband is one of those Muslims who starts spending more and more time away on that most innocent of pleasures – his time at the mosque. Two things are important – firstly, that the wife can accept cheerfully that he does want to go, and that it is good for him to do so; and secondly that the husband does not make his trips out to the mosque an excuse to neglect his wife and family.
The teaching of the Blessed Prophet was quite clear on this score – a man who neglected his wife was not the `best of Muslims’ and was not scoring `good points’ for himself by his long hours away from her and his family – even if he was busily saying extra voluntary prayers. Such prayers can be said at home. It is real neglect if he is still behaving like a single man, and is just socialising with his male friends. Once again, a really abandoned wife might find consolation in the realisation that she will be earning merit for coping with this distressing situation. He, of course, will be building up sins of omission for which he will one day be called to account.
Try not to nag. This only gives the nagged partner an extra excuse to stay away – to avoid the nagging! The Prophet Suleiman (as) once said `a nagging wife is like water endlessly dripping.’
Women are often more emotional than men, and more inclined to give vent to their feelings when they are upset about something, and they may also feel that this is the only weapon they have. But this kind of emotional pressure only alienates husbands, it does not solve the problem. It is simply a wife’s duty as a Muslima to point out both sides of the situation, and leave her partner to draw his own conclusions, and take the responsibility for his own action, or lack of it.
Think, and be compassionate, before you criticise. Before a wife wonders where her romantic suitor has vanished to, now that her husband takes her for granted, she should try to understand that he maybe stressed and working hard in today’s demanding workplace to be a good provider, and struggling with his new responsibilities. Likewise, before a husband wonders what has happened to the glamorous young lady he married, who has `changed, now that she has got her man’, notice whether she is working hard to cook and clean, and gets tired and does not have as much time to spend on looking attractive as before. Empathy and patient understanding are virtues that no marriage can flourish without.
This business of patience really leads us on to the next important quality in a marriage – trust. If you do not fully trust your partner, then your marriage is already failing. Worse, if you happen to know for certain that they will let you down, or do something you will not like, then they are deliberately attacking the foundations of your relationship.
Life partners should have a faithfulness towards each other that no one can challenge – whether another woman or man, or a member of the family, or a person at work, or at the mosque. In the world outside people will say and do all sorts of things for all sorts of motives; often they try to upset a happy marriage for no other reason than it is happy – this being a form of destructive jealousy. If you know your partner fully, and know their character, then you should be able to trust implicitly that they will not behave in a manner that would let you down, and that if they are accused of having done this, then the accusation is false.
Even, if the worst came to the worst, and the accusation was not false, and on this occasion your spouse had let you down, if you trust your partner you will know that he or she will be bitterly regretting it, and wishing things could have turned out differently. The kindest thing in this situation in Islam is to `cover the fault of your loved one, and set it aside, giving them a chance to repent and not repeat the misdemeanour. `Whoever conceals [the misdeed of] a Muslim, Allah shall conceal his misdeeds on the Day of Arising. (Hadith narrated by Bukhari)
It is in keeping with the mercy of Allah that you should deal gently with them. If you were severe with them, or harsh of heart, they would have dispersed from round about you. So pass over their faults, and ask forgiveness for them. (Holy Quran, 3:159)
None of us is perfect. None of us can claim never to have done or said something that we did not later regret. The most beautiful thing about Islam in everyday life is its mercy and compassion -and the knowledge that when we are sorry for the things we have done wrong, or the things we have not done that we ought to have done, that our Lord forgives us.
O My servants, who have transgressed against their own souls! Do not despair of the mercy of Allah! Truly, Allah forgives all sins; He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Holy Quran, 39:53)
In Islamic marriage, we should try to act by these same principles, and always give our partners the fullest opportunity to make amends for their mistakes, trusting that their Islam is strong enough for them to live according to this principle. The Blessed Prophet (s) explained:
Believers are like one body; if one member aches, the other members ache for it with fever and sleeplessness. (Bukhari and Muslim)
`The Muslims are to each other like the structure of a building. Each part of it gives support to the others.’ Then the Blessed Prophet intertwined the fingers of one hand together with the fingers of the other. (Bukhari)
All of this is not just a generalised teaching to all the Muslims; it is especially important to Muslims who happen to be married to each other.