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Family Life

Marriage and the Roles of Husband and Wife

Among Muslims the selection of a marriage partner is a very different process than in the Western world. Because Islam emphasizes chastity and modesty so strongly, there is very little contact between young men and young women in most parts of the Muslim world. Secondary schools are generally not co-educational, and, except among the very westernized, boys and girls do not mix, date, or, in particular engage in pre-marital intimacy of any kind. And while love is certainly considered very important in the Muslim marriage, for Muslim couples love as a rule comes after rather than before the marriage.

The selection of a marriage partner is therefore generally (but not necessarily) made by the parents, especially in the case of a girl. The young people concerned can express a preference, can state what they want in a prospective partner, and can take an active role in the ultimate selection but ordinarily they do not go out and try to find a spouse on their own. Islamically, either the boy's or the girl's family may initiate a proposal but in practice it is customarily the boy who does the asking. This is done either through contact between his parents, other relatives or close friends with the parents of the girl; without the consent and approval of her father or guardian, who gives her away, marriage cannot take place. Depending on the traditions of the particular society in which they live, the prospective partners may or may not see each other before marriage, although Islam does give them this right. However, if they do meet at any time prior to marriage, this is always to be in the presence of other people since Islam forbids a Muslim man and woman who are not related to each other either by marriage or a mahrem relationship 1 to be alone with one another.

In Islam marriage is not a sacrament but rather a legal, binding contract between a man and a woman which establishes the licitness, permanence and responsibleness of their relationship, an acceptance of one another as spouses with a mutual commitment to live together according to the teachings of Islam. Both are to be mindful of their duty to God and their responsibilities to one another in all aspects of their interaction.

“O mankind, be careful of your duty to your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate, and from the two of them spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty to God in Whom you claim (your rights) of one another, and toward the wombs. 2 Verily, God is Watcher over you.” (4:1)

As we have seen, Islam assigns the leadership of the family to men, for in general they have been endowed with somewhat greater physical and emotional strength and endurance than women, For this reason they have also been made responsible for supporting and maintaining women-not only their wives and daughters but also female relatives who may be in need of help and support.

“Men are responsible for women because God has given the one more than the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). Virtuous women are therefore obedient, guarding in their (husband’) absence that which God has guarding ” 3 (4:34)

The wife is her husband's companion and helpmate, who is, together with him, responsible for the affairs of the household, the physical and emotional well-being of its members, and the training of the children. She should obey her husband unless he asks her to disobey God in which case she must not obey him, and for his part he should be considerate and concerned for her welfare. As the above Qur'anic verse indicates, she is also responsible for the proper management of her husband's possessions and property, for the guarding of his honor, dignity and respectability, and for reserving her sexuality exclusively for the man she has married.

In Islam a woman, married or single, is seen as a person in her own right, not merely as an adjunct to her husband. Thus, for example, she has the full right of ownership and disposal of her own property and earnings even after marriage, and when she marries she retains her own family name instead of taking that of her husband. The Western stereotype of the Muslim woman as a mere household drudge, preoccupied from morning to night with cooking, cleaning and looking after the children, with no spirituality, interests, personality or life of her own, who is debarred from contributing in a constructive manner to society, has no basis in the Islamic teachings. 4 For Islam regards men and women as completely equal in terms of accountability to God and in possessing unique personalities of their own 5 .It prescribes for both the same religious obligations, apart from the concessions made for women's reproductive cycle, and makes conscious commitment to Islam, the doing of good, striving with all one's efforts in God's path, the development of spirituality and seeking knowledge equally the duty of both men and women, as the following Qur'anic verses indicate:

“And their Lord answered them: `Verily, I will not allow the work of any worker, male or female, to be lost. You proceed from one another.” (3:195)

“And whoever does good, whether male or female, and he (or she) is a Believer, these will enter Paradise and they will not be wronged by so much as the groove of a date-stone.” (4:124)

“And the Believers, men and women, are protecting friends to one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong, they observe regular salat and pay zakat, and they obey God and His Messenger. As for these, God will have mercy on them. Verily, God is Mighty, Wise. God promises the Believers, men and women, Gardens underneath which rivers flow, to abide therein- blessed dwellings in Gardens of Eden. And greater (than that), God's good pleasure: that is the supreme success.” (9:71-72)

At the same time, Islam recognizes that women have a more delicate, sensitive and emotional nature than men and men are asked to treat them in accordance with this nature. There are many beautiful Hadiths of the Prophet (peace be on him) which enjoin kindness and consideration for women and advise Muslims to treat their wives with respect, honor and that quality of tenderness which suits the delicacy of their feminine nature; the best men, he said, are those who are best to their wives. 6 Because the natures of the male and the female are not the same, each has been entrusted with a particular role and function in society; these roles are complementary and each is equally basic and essential to the functioning of the society. Within this framework there is freedom for both men and women to pursue what is important to them and to contribute to society in keeping with their own individual skills and interests, provided their responsibilities for the home are not neglected and their work does not in any way jeopardize their dignity and modesty. Women must fill many essential positions in society which they can handle better or instead of men, for example, some branches of medicine, nursing, education, social work and other areas. In the Prophet's time we find women enduring persecution, exile and even martyrdom for the sake of their faith at the hands of the pagans together with men, and during battle carrying water to the wounded, tending the injured and on occasion participating in the fighting as well. We find them discussing and even disputing various matters with the Prophet himself, and on another occasion a woman standing up in the mosque to correct the Caliph `Umar on a legal point. We find `Aisha, the Prophet's widow, in later life an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, consulted by many eminent Muslims, while her sister `Asma, as a young girl and again as an old woman of ninety, did great deeds of courage and heroism.

Concerning the marriage relationship God says:

“And among His signs is that He created mates from among yourselves that you may live in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts.” (30:21)

“It is He Who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate that he might take rest in her . . .” (7:189)

The tone of marriage in Islam is thus one of mutual respect, kindness, love, companionship and harmonious interaction. In her husband, the wife has a friend and partner to share her life and concerns, to cherish and protect her, and to help her bear responsibilities which would be very difficult or impossible for her to handle alone, while a man has in his wife a companion and helper who can give him peace, comfort and repose in his struggle with the rough-and-tumble of the world's life. In the beautiful language of the Qur'an,

“They (wives) are your garments and you (husbands) are their garments.” (2:187),

serving for one another the same function as a cherished piece of clothing: to be a comfort, a protection, a security, that which serves and beautifies and warms and enfolds and covers and conceals what is private from the eyes of the world.

Although for the sake of convenience women generally do the domestic work of the house, this is not required of them by Islam. A husband should help his wife with the household work following the example of the Prophet (peace be on him), who used to assist his wives, mend his own clothes and participate in manual work. And while the mother is generally the primary means of training the children, Islam neither expects nor wants her to carry out this extremely important task alone. It is the joint responsibility of husband and wife to bring up their children properly, and although the greater part of the daily work with the children generally falls to the share of the wife, the husband is the principal authority figure in the home who is responsible not only for the welfare but also for the behavior of all members of the family. Together husband and wife must provide an Islamic atmosphere in their home and a consistent approach to training in which they reinforce and support one another.

The marriage relationship also involves another fundamental responsibility: the responsibility of both husband and wife to meet one another’s sexual needs and at the same time not to seek elsewhere for the satisfaction of these needs. While marriage in Islam legitimizes the fulfillment of an otherwise prohibited desire, it also requires that husband and wife reserve their sexuality exclusively for each other. There is to be no “ playing around “ in a Muslim marriage; adultery is, as we have seen, not only one of the most serious sins but also, in Islamic law, a heinous crime. Moreover, the protection of women from anything which dishonors, degrades or in any way exploits their sexuality is considered extremely essential. Islam therefore lays down certain limits for both men and women so that sexual attraction and expression will be confined solely to the private relationship of husband and wife, and hence will not become a source of harm or disruption in the society.

Marriages among Muslims are, by and large, remarkably stable, especially in contrast to marriage in much of the Western world today. This is due to a number of factors.

The first of these is that, unlike the Western marriage, in which premarital love and intimacy are considered indispensable, the basic ingredient of the Muslim marriage is a common set of values, principles and ways of living. Consequently a Muslim husband and wife, even if they come from different cultures and backgrounds, possess the same basic world view, frame of reference, and many similar attitudes and habits which serve to bind them together in a harmonious relationship.

Second, even with all the problems and pressures existing today in Muslim societies, marital and family stability is encouraged and reinforced by various societal institutions. This is in marked contrast to many parts of the Western world in which the breakdown of marriages is assisted-one could even say made inevitable-by innumerable societal pressures which not only weaken the commitment of the partners to each other but also weaken the capacity of individuals to maintain a stable and permanent relationship with another human being.

Third, Muslims are as a rule used to living with other people and are consequently skilled in adjusting themselves to various relationships; for this reason they tend in general to be somewhat tolerant and forbearing in their interaction with others, even when there are differences or frictions of one sort or another.

Another reason may be that Muslim men and women are generally quite accepting of their masculine and feminine roles. Consequently, because the division of roles and responsibilities between husband and wife is as a rule clearly defined and acknowledged, many problems and frictions are avoided. Again, Muslims are generally surrounded by a network of many relationships with relatives and friends.

This gives each partner his or her own life apart from the spouse, with many other satisfying relationships, emotional outlets and sources of support. Hence neither husband nor wife is forced to depend on a single relationship for all their emotional satisfactions, thus putting an almost unsupportable burden on one's partner and untenable strains on the marriage, for the variety of rewarding interactions with others makes life tolerable even if there are frictions between the partners.

In summary, to the Muslim marriage is not seen as a Hollywood- style romance but as a flesh-and-blood relationship between two very human individuals. In such a relationship strains and problems sometimes do arise. When they do, they are dealt with within the marriage relationship, assisted by the cushioning effect of the society, rather than by breaking up the marriage and the family unit, which is in the long run more difficult and damaging than accommodating and showing tolerance and patience, except in extreme cases, in which divorce is not only desirable but essential. Because of all these built-in safeguards, therefore, marriage among Muslims is basically a stable and viable institution.