Marriages are complex. In the relationship not just between husband and wife, but also with parents, in-laws, siblings and children, are manifold dynamics. When things go wrong, it is hard enough for those intimately involved to apportion blame, let alone those on the outside looking in.
Few of us have the integrity to engage in the issues we encounter objectively—be it a report on the evening news, a request for support or a demand for action—we are swayed by our beliefs, experiences, upbringing and feelings, and react accordingly. If this is self-evident anywhere, it is when a marriage runs into trouble. Enter that minefield at your peril.
If we always take the side of the woman, or the man, or our friend, we will not be just. Who of us would admit that we were to blame for an argument? If we cannot be dispassionate in our own affairs, in which we are intimately involved, how could we act as arbiter in the matters of another? Sadly, rarely are any of us really just: we will take sides according to our personal biases, prejudices and taboos, or out of love, empathy or compassion.
So witness many a gathering, purportedly convened to purify the soul, strengthen iman and improve the self, where bitter, heartbroken men exchange tales of all that is wrong with Muslim women today, reinforcing each other’s sense of themselves. Witness many a schism in the community, where close friends, best friends and friends of friends rally around their honoured companion, accepting her version of events without question. In the heat of the moment when emotions are heightened few worry about bearing false witness. To be at our companion’s side in their hour of need is the only consideration in that instant.
Marriages are enterprises that have to be nurtured and built with care. They must be founded on mutual respect, recognising that we are all individuals with our own thoughts, opinions and path to tread. Different periods of life pose different challenges to any marriage: the arrival of children can place immense strain on relationships; financial instability can generate stress and worries; a bereavement in the family can cause unimaginable upset; illness can cause panic and fear. Marriages must be cultivated by both parties working in tandem towards a common goal; by Allah’s help it will flourish.
Commonly, however, we encounter the belief that good marriages just happen, as in fairy tales. All you need is the right princess to kiss the right frog, or the right foot for the right slipper. Frequently we encounter the infantile expectation that the responsibility for a successful marriage lies with one partner. A wife laments, “If only my husband was religious,” or, “If only he had a good salary.” If only he was a mini-scholar, life would be rosy. But we have all seen how this undertaking ends: that kind young man whose fasting and five prayers were deemed unworthy becomes an arrogant zealot, unloved.
We have come to see marriages as an instrument by which we are served, rather as a means to serve each other and God. Often I hear people say, “I wish I had a pious wife.” But, after listening to their complaints for a minute or two, what I think they really mean is, “I wish I had a slave.” They want a companion who is obediently subservient to them, who has no opinions of her own, who dares not assert her rights to say what she thinks, feels or believes. In the end, it is as if she must be invisible.
Some women believe this is the way they should live their lives too; they believe their husband can only become a true man if they surrender to his will. These seekers of righteousness do not see the strong marriages forged by strong women working hand in hand with strong men. They have their vision of what a woman and a man should be, and so that miserable reality comes into being. The spouse disrespected gives no respect in return. Indignity breeds indignity, just as indifference breeds the same.
If piety was to treat others as you wish to be treated, that pious spouse may have been revealed, for piety begets piety. “Verily, gentleness is not found in anything except that it beautifies it, and it is not removed from anything except that it disgraces it.”1 Humbleness is manliness, arrogance is not. Patience, endurance and forbearance are characteristics of manliness, for manliness is what a man should reflect in light of our deen, not necessarily as it has come to us via local customs. The truly pious do not see themselves above others.
It seems that when people insist they wish they had a pious spouse, what they usually mean is, “I don’t want to change.” People will willingly travel thousands of miles to unfamiliar lands to sit in the company of learned guides, certain in the belief that the scholar will enable them to reform their souls, but will flee from the tariqa of the home. Marriage is about spiritual migration: it demands a level of commitment unmatched; it necessitates compromise and understanding; it is constructed on humility and self-effacement. It requires two people—once unknown to each other—to come together to create something bigger than themselves.
Who are the servants of the Most Merciful? Are they those who walk arrogantly on the earth? Who are those who possess taqwa? They are those who are generous in spending their wealth on others and mild in judging others. They are serenely self-possessed and calm. They are inclined to be lenient and merciful. They feel regret and sorrow for their sins, and for wronging others.
“And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous. Who spend during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people—and Allah loves the doers of good; And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves, remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins—and who can forgive sins except Allah—and who do not persist in what they have done while they know. Those—their reward is forgiveness from their Lord and gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide eternally; and excellent is the reward of the workers.”2
Marriages are complicated transactions. When two people come together there is no guarantee it will work. Sometimes marriages just fail: perhaps there is no hope for them. Remaining in a violent or abusive marriage is unlikely to help anyone in the long-run.
But often marriages stutter or stumble like the changing weather; storms come and go; spring follows winter. Relationships can be repaired: with kind words, humility, apologies, love. With a box of chocolates, a bunch of flowers, a thoughtful meal, a beautiful gift, a holiday away. Relationships can be made stronger with appreciation and thought, with gratitude and forgiveness, with inquisitiveness and compassion, with laughter and smiles. A dusty mirror can be polished. Rusty cogs can be brought back to life. Dead earth can bloom anew.
Marriage is the best tariqa. It is training for the soul unmatched. Some great individuals of the past had very hard spouses, but the way they behaved with them propelled them to amazing heights. Often we ignore the blessing placed directly before us, believing it necessary to travel a thousand miles to find our soul. Perhaps our spiritual ascent is right there for us to grasp, if only we could see it. “Perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.”3