I was recently asked to give a lecture, or a series of lectures, on the topic of marital issues in our communities. So the notes I prepared were organized to present the issues one may encounter before getting married first, such as the characteristics to look for in the husband and the wife; celibacy; getting to know the spouse before the marriage, etc. And then address issues encountered once married.
I thought that I would share these notes on this blog, as they may perhaps be of interest to some readers… The following is a first entry in a series of entries on the topic of Introduction to Islamic Teachings on Marital Issues: the general characteristics of the husband.
when someone asked imam al Hassan about who to choose for his daughter, the Imam peace upon him replied: “marry her to a pious man; if he loves her, he will honor her, and if he does not love her, he will not treat her unjustly.”
زوجها من رجل تقي فان احبها اكرمها و ان ابغضها لم يظلمها
The religious person always behaves within an ethical, psychological, and intellectual frame. He does not behave in a vacuum, based on what his desires and moods dictate that instant. This provides an immunity against anything and everything that may be encountered as part of life. This faith and belief in a higher order become a guarantee of what to expect from that person.
On the opposite end, there is an insistence on rejecting for marriage someone who is Fasiq as a husband, someone who openly commits sins.
In the case of women who have not had a lot of experience with men and what men will do and how they will do it to satisfy their desires, they can become easy targets because of their gullibility and innocence and general lack of experience. This is even more so when we notice that everything surrounding that girl is reminding her of her urges, her lack of romantic fulfillment, etc. because this is the predominant feature of our over romanticized and hyper-sexualized societies, as witnessed from social medias, to television series, to the romantic novels, to the movies, to the talk of social circles. And this explains the role that religion has given to the father.
Why has religion insisted on the permission of the father for the inexperienced girl? Because religion wants to ensure that reason is always in control, instead of blind passions that often lead to regrets and mistakes. The father is supposed to play the role of the advisor representing objectivity and reason.
The reason I mention this point is because many Islamic narrations having to do with the marriage of the woman in Islam involve the father. The reason is simply the points we have mentioned above (though this topic deserves its own entry as well – specifically around the issues of mature, independent daughters, as well as suitable men who are rejected by fathers…)
من زوج كريمته من فاسف لا يصعد له عمل الى السماء و لا يستجاب له دعاؤه
“Whoever marries his daughter to a fasiq, his acts of worship will not ascend, nor will his prayers ever be answered.”
This narration explains yet another example of the function of power when it is granted. Whenever Islam grants a power, a right to someone over someone or something, it comes with a heavy burden of responsibility and accountability. If the individual does not use the right or the power properly, it becomes the rope with which the person hangs themselves, so to speak. Islam is not “patriarchal” in this issue simply for the sake of enforcing the father’s authority.
It wants to make the girl avoid making regretful mistakes by ensuring that her father plays the role of the rational advisor, him being a man himself, as well as leveraging all of his experience of life and of other men in life, so that the decision she ends up taking is based on objectivity and education, as opposed to spontaneity and blind passion. The father has a duty to ensure that the suitor matches to a satisfactory degree these characteristics that have been explained in the teachings of Islam, because he is considered as a custodian, and guardian over his daughter.
One of the specific instances of Fisq that have been mentioned in the narrations is that of drinking alcohol. And though I know that the prohibition of alcohol in Islam is quite clear, there is a deeper point that we must extrapolate from these narrations.
The justification for the prohibition of alcohol in Islam is manifold, like all other teachings in Islam. But one of the most obvious reasons for this prohibition is that it takes away the ability to think or at least think with full lucidity and clarity. And that is why they say that someone who has drank alcohol is incapacitated, or that they have reduced capacities, or under the influence, or… all of these expressions are highlighting the fact that the person is no longer fully in control of their abilities, that they cannot think straight, that they cannot be relied on, that they have fallen out of the scope of objective, rational, ethical humanity…
شارب الخمر لا تزووجوه اذا خطب
“Do not accept to marry the drinker of alcohol.”
The person who drinks alcohol has nullified one the main conditions upon which family life must rest. The prophet is saying that such a person should not even be given a chance, because the risk is too high. They must clean up their act first, because it can only lead to catastrophe. And I do not want to spend too much time on the evils of the consumption of alcohol.
There is a narration from Imam Ali in which he says: if a drop of alcohol fell into a well, and its water was used to water seeds, and grass grew from those seeds, and a sheep ate from that grass, and it then gave birth to a lamb, and that lamb was slaughtered, I would never eat from it.
The point I would like to make is that the same things can be generalized to any other element that can trigger a similar reaction to alcohol in a human being, such as any other substance, drugs for instance; any other mood, anger for instance, and any other surroundings, such as bars, or bad friends. All of these elements have been explicitly mentioned in our religion as sources of evil that must absolutely be avoided at all costs.
If your anger makes you lose control to the point of doing things that do not fit with your personality and normal behavior, then you are no different than someone who is “incapacitated,” or “under the influence.” And according to Islam, you have some work to do on yourself…
Imam Rida says
ان خطب اليك رجل رضيت دينه و خلقه فزوجه
Which means “if someone comes asking for your daughter’s hand and you are satisfied with their religiousness and manners, accept the proposal.”
Manners are considered an intrinsic part of our religion. They are not separate from it.
احسنكم احسنكم خلقا مع عياله و انا احسنكم خلقا مع عيالي
Prophet Muhammad says: “The best of you are the best towards their family. And I am the best towards my family.”
The criterion upon which the prophet says the husband must be assessed are his manners inside the house. And that is why he uses himself as an example, because this is something from everyday life, and some of us might think that the prophet is too elevated in status, and that everyone is but a servant before him. And yet he says that he himself has the best manners with his family, despite his most elevated status, and their arrogant, ignorant, and often disrespectful behaviour towards him, as is well known.
We have narrations from the Holy Prophet in which he summarizes all of religion as consisting of good manners: Islam consists in having good manners.
الاسلام حسن الخلق
It is said that someone came to the Prophet, stood before him and asked him what is religion? He replied: good manners. He then came from the right side and asked him: what is religion? He replied: good manners. He then came from the left side and asked him: what is religion? He replied: good manners. He then came from behind him and asked: what is religion? He replied: do you not understand? It consists in not getting angry!
Anger is what inflames and triggers the problems, becoming a slippery slope…
We have all heard the story of Sa’ad bin Ma’ath, who was considered a great companion, but who had bad manners inside the house.
So why this insistence in the narrations on having good manners inside the house? Frankly speaking, still today, in most societies, social lives are structured in such a way that the wife and the children have less power, less rights, are less in control. They are at the mercy of the husband and father, and they can easily be abused, oppressed, and their rights can easily be forgotten or transgressed.
It is human nature that when someone is placed in a position of power and authority over someone else, that they will have a tendency to abuse, to display some lack of respect, to trespass and take away their rights.
We all know the importance that Imam Ali gave to standing up for the oppressed, any oppressed. (That is why a Christian author wrote a 5 volume book about Imam Ali called “The Voice of Human Justice”) And the importance our religion gives to the oppressed, the destitute, the weak, so that they can be saved from their oppressive environment, extracted from the conditions of weakness and placed in positions of respect and dignity, exactly as Islam itself has done. So what would Islam’s position be if someone claims to follow Islamic teachings, and yet they act as a tyrant and in an oppressive manner inside the house, with those who are weaker, with those who have been placed under him, in his custody, under his guardianship and protection?
Trustworthiness, integrity, custodianship/guardianship:
اذا جاءكم من ترضون دينه و امانته يخطب اليكم فزووجوه
“If someone comes to you asking in marriage and you are satisfied with their religion and guardianship then accept them in marriage.”
Why? Ultimately, the girl is going to be in the custody of this person. Truthfulness and guardianship were the two characteristics that were the signature of our prophet peace upon him, and the two characteristics that became a theme in many of the teachings of Islam as well.
These characteristics are a reflection of the nature, of the quality of the inside of a person. It is easy to fool others with the outside. The Qur’an says that if you look at the hypocrites who were at the time of the prophet you would be impressed by what you saw, and yet they are two-faced, because their external behaviour does not match their internal reality. They lack faith and sincerity, they are simply fooling you in appearance. We have a narration that says:
لا تنظروا الى كثرة صلاتهم و صيامهم و تنترتهم في الليل و لكن انظروا الى صدق الحديث و اداء الامانة
“Do not look at the quantity of their prayers and fasting, rather, look at the extent to which they are truthful and trustworthy.”
لو ائتمنني قاتل ابي الحسين على السيف الذي قتله به لاديته اليه
Imam Sajjad peace upon him says: If the killer of my father, Imam al Hussain, entrusted me on the sword he used to kill my father, I would honor that trust.
The reason for insisting on the matching of the external appearance and behavior with the true internal reality of the person is that once we are in a the comfort of the spousal or family relationship, behind the sacred walls of our homes, sooner or later, the mask we wear with the outside world falls off, and our true colours shine through. The traits of truthfulness and trustworthiness are therefore given as indications of what to expect in the spousal relationship, behind closed doors.
When the Prophet was asked who do we accept in marriage, he replied: those who are worthy. And when he was asked to clarify worthiness, he said: the believers are worthy or each other.
قيل من نزوج؟ قال ص الاكفاء. قال يا رسول الله و من الاكفاء؟ فاجاب ص المؤمنون بعضهم اكفاء بعض.
The chief characteristic of worthiness is religiousness.
But there are also other characteristics. Some of these were mentioned by Imam as Sadiq, peace upon him: worthy is he who is chaste and has material ability.
الكفو ان يكون عفيفا و عنده يسار
Chastity and material ability. Chastity is the sexual and psychological immunity required for a happy married life.
As for the material ability, it does not mean more than the ability to sustain a household. It does not mean that the person is deemed wealthy or rich by social standards. But they must be able to proceed with this important step in life, and take care of the material needs of their wife and family.
Poverty and wealth are relative notions, and depend on customs and traditions. The Holy Qur’an and the narrations are clear that poverty on its own should not constitute a barrier preventing worthy men and women from getting married.
في الحديث عن الامام الرضا ع ان خطب اليك رجل رضيت دينه و خلقه فزوجه و لا يمنعك فقره و فاقته. قال الله تعالى : و ان يتفرقا يغن الله كلا من سعته. و قال: ان يكونوا فقراء يغنهم الله من فضله
In a narration from Imam Rida, he says: “if a man comes to you asking (your daughter’s hand) in marriage, and you are satisfied with his religion and good manners, then accept his proposal and do not let his poverty or need prevent you. God says: God will enrich each (of the spouses) from His wealth. And he says: if they are poor, God will enrich them from His grace.”
There is more to cover in terms of compatibility of the spouses under this heading, but I will leave it for another entry.
These are the essential characteristics of the husband.
There are other characteristics about which we often hear questions. For instance:
Lineage and heredity:
The holy prophet said that it is important to look at the heritage that you are marrying into. Look at the family, at the parents, at the siblings, of the person you want to marry.
الخال احد الضجيعين
“The uncle is one of the two lying in bed”.
And I do not think that it is any longer necessary to establish the importance of the genetic heredity specifically for the children. In our Islamic narrations, it is easy to find references to heredity.
اختاروا لنطفكم فان العرق دساس
“Choose well for your seeds, the root creeps deeply.”
In this famous narration: the root is a reference to the family and genetic make up of the woman. The holy prophet is saying that when you want to choose a mate, don’t look at the woman only, but look at her family as well, because her genetic make up will creep into the make up of your children.
And the well known practical application of this principle in Islam is when Imam Ali, peace upon him, asked his brother Aqil, who was a specialist in lineages and family trees, to find him a woman who comes from a family of brave warriors, so that she gives me a warrior as a son, so that he supports his son Imam Hussain some thirty years later in Karbala. Aqil told him why would you not marry Fatima Bint Hizam…
And in the battle of Jamal, Muhammad bin al Hanafyia tells us that when his father, Imam Ali, asked him to attack, he hesitated for a moment and told the Imam “O Amir Al Mu’mineen, don’t you see the arrows and spears as if they are streams of rain?” The Imam pushed him in chest, took the banner from him, and attacked while saying “you were touched by a nerve from your mother.”
All of this said, Islam has not made the factor of heredity and lineage of such an importance that it is to be taken at the expense of other, much more important attributes. Salman, the greatest companion of the Prophet utside of his family, would have never gained any respect in Islam because he was Persian, and Abu Lahab, the Prophet’s paternal uncle, would have kept his prestige in Islam for his lineage and wealth and would not have been shunned if this factor of lineage meant anything more than the secondary points we highlighted. So it is something that must be kept in mind, but not at the expense of the main traits of manners and religiousness.
The story of Juyber: Juyber was one of the companions of the prophet. The prophet called him and asked him “why don’t you get married?” He replied “O prophet, who will ask a hand for me, when I have no beauty, nor reputation, nor wealth.” The prophet told him that “Allah has elevated by Islam those who were condescended before Islam, and he condescended by Islam those who were elevated before Islam. And He honored by Islam those who had been lowered before Islam, wiped out by Islam the honors of pre-Islam, the pride of tribal belonging, and the nobility of lineage. Today, all people, whether they are white or black, whether they are from the tribe of Quraysh or not, whether they are Arab or not, are all the sons of Adam. And God created Adam from clay. The most beloved people to God are the most pious and obedient to Him. And O Juyber, I do not know anyone among the Muslims today who has some merit over you, unless they are more pious and obedient to God.” He then sent him to ask for the hand of the daughter of one of the important men.
Culturally, there are some well known traditional preferences in term of the respective ages of the spouses. For instances, many want the man to be a little older, and some claim that he should be a lot older.
Islam has not given much consideration to the issue of age difference between the spouses, and doesn’t care about whether the woman is older or younger for instance. What it has given importance to is compatibility. When one man asked Imam Sadiq about marrying their children at a very young age (perhaps meaning in their early teenage years), the Imam replied “they may not be able to be compatible.” In other words, they will not have the maturity to find the required compatibility. Of course, this was taking place 13 centuries ago and social customs were very different, but this story still illustrates the principle of compatibility.
Islam does encourage people to get married as soon as they are ready for marriage, for many reasons: It prevents one from looking elsewhere; it preserves the sanctity of the family; it prevents against the spread of disease; etc. All the while fulfilling basic physical, psychological and affective needs. But again, Islam teaches that the spouses should have the maturity for married life.
Family ties and consanguinity:
In Islam, it is forbidden for a man may to marry his daughter, grand-daughter and all descendants, step-daughter, daughter-in-law, aunt, niece, sister, half-sister, sister-in-law, mother, step-mother, father’s wife, mother-in-law, grandmother, a woman who nursed him, and any children who were nursed by the latter.
As you can see, cousin marriages are not forbidden in Islam. In fact, the Muslim world, especially the Middle East, is no stranger to marriages between relatives. There are obvious practical reasons for marrying someone with whom we share some family ties, such as:
- We know them, the mentality, their manners and behavior, their family, their values, their history… so there are fewer surprises and one knows better what to expect;
- There can be more compatibility because the spouses share similar value systems and cultural backgrounds;
- There can be stronger feelings of attachment, and an increased care because they want to honor the family ties as this is not only their spouse, but also their relative
- And marriages between relatives usually strengthen the ties between the families…
In one narration, Prophet Muhammad peace upon him says: “There is no woman like a cousin.” And in a narration from Imam Sajjad peace upon him, he talks about the rewards of wanting to strengthen family ties by marrying a relative. But this, of course, can be a delicate topic.
Although there is talk about other family ties between spouses, the loudest and better known critique surrounds cousin marriages, and first cousin marriages specifically. Depending on where you are in the world, this topic can be viewed with a lot of stigma as well as legal implications, because cousin marriages have been prohibited in large parts of the United States, China, Taiwan and other countries.
Stats seem to indicate that somewhere between 10 and 20% of marriages around the world are between first cousins. (cool website on this topic: http://consang.net) Did you know that Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Abraham Maslow, Samuel Morse, Edgar Allan Poe, and numerous marriages of monarchies (and specifically British monarchy), including Queen Victoria’s, as in the Victorian Era) were all between first cousins?
Marriages between cousins happened throughout history without much concern, and the Bible seems to indicate that God at times commands marriages between first cousins. Robin Fox, professor of anthropology, estimates that 80% of all marriage in history were between 2nd cousins or closer! (see this article)
Apart from the cultural differences and legal implications, the main point of argumentation around cousin marriages is that of increased risk of genetic disorders affecting the children from such marriages. Because the parents of the cousin spouses are related, they share more genetic traits than strangers. So any bad genetic traits will have a higher probability of appearing in children from a marriage between cousins. When parents are not directly genetically related, the risks of genetic disorders are around 3-4%; between cousins, the risks are between 5% and 7%. Obviously, if consecutive generations of cousins keep marrying into each other, the risks of genetic disorders also increases in consequence…
While Islamic narrations do recognize some benefits of marriages between relatives and even cousins, it does recognize the potential health risks of such marriages. For example, in one narration the Prophet says “Do not marry close relatives, because the child will be born frail.” In another narration, he says “Marry strangers to avoid frail children.” Although this was not completely understood when it was uttered by Prophet Muhammad, our contemporary understanding of genetics makes the meaning very clear to us – and once again, one can only be astonished at the meticulousness of Islamic teachings…
It may therefore be advisable for some prospective couples to undergo some genetic testing and understand the implications…
NOTE: Although this is a technical topic in Islamic law, I think that it is worth making a quick comment about it here… The narrations mentioned a little earlier about children possibly being “weaker” as a result of their parents sharing genetic make up illustrates an important technical difference between two types of Islamic teachings.
Some Islamic teachings fall under the category of legislative commands, while others fall under the category of advisory commands.
Legislative commands are obligations and prohibitions that result in divine reward and punishment, such as the obligation to perform the prayer or to fast Ramadan.
Advisory commands do not entail any reward or punishment, but they are mentioned because they have implications on people’s lives – even though they do not necessarily impact the salvation of a person’s soul. For instance, when Islam says that if you marry your relative, the children may be born frail or weak, this is not a prohibition, but an explanation of the natural results of your action. When Islam says that eating raw meat can cause sickness, it is not saying directly that you are not allowed to do it, only that you should be aware that this a possible natural result of this action. Many Islamic teachings fall in this category of advisory commands, and it is important to distinguish them from legislative commands.
As I said, the precise application of this distinction requires advanced courses in Islamic law.
As always, your comments and questions are welcome.