Note: The audio reading (found above) of this article is done by the author himself and is interspersed with his commentary.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
What is a Muslim man expected to do when he gets married? How about a Muslim woman? These questions were more easily understood and accepted in earlier times, particularly in healthy Muslim societies that had holistic understandings of God’s place in the picture of Muslim family life. But we live in increasingly fragmented societies, where extended and even nuclear families are tearing apart at the seams. Add to this the gender confusion that has resulted from today’s version of the free love movement, and answering questions about what each gender is “supposed” to do gets even more sensitive and complicated.
Given this state of affairs, Sheikh Nuh Keller’s chapter on Marriage and Family, taken from his book Sea Without Shore: A Manual of the Sufi Path, is a breath of fresh air. Clear and uncompromising, Sheikh Nuh gives advice to his disciples on how a Muslim man and woman must conduct themselves when getting into marriage. He wrote this chapter with his own students in mind, but it is so grounded in the sunnah of Rasulullah ﷺ that any Muslim of the modern age can benefit from his sage and mubarak advice. –Fareeha Khan
The importance of marriage to one’s tariqa is plain from the tremendous impact of suhba or companionship on the spiritual traveller. Every Muslim understands that a good marriage is a sunna, help, and blessing to whomever Allah gives it. From the single decision of who should be one’s mate for life comes a great deal of one’s future happiness or misery. In the path, few things furnish a comparable touchstone of one’s taqwa and character.
Because of the dominance of powerful contemporary norms essentially alien to the fitra or ‘true nature’ of the sexes, a good marriage today is oftener something that must be sought and won than an event one can live “happily ever after.” To clarify the basics, certain minimal conditions for disciples getting married have been summarized below, with key points from Imam Ghazali and others of lslamic character, adab, rights, duties, and a few practical rules necessary in our day to have a fulfilling Islamic marriage.
A disciple may marry anyone they want, as long as the following conditions are met:
1. To intend the marriage to fulfill the sunna for the sake of Allah, and to realize that marriage is a means, not an end. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “This world is but a passing benefit, and the best passing benefit is a righteous woman” (Muslim , 2.1090: 1467. S).
2. That the prospective spouse share one’s own vision of lslam, and be religious, meaning that they follow one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, pray the five prayers, and if female, cover correctly. They do all of this before ever hearing of marriage. Someone who doesn’t pray but “comes from a good family” is absolutely unacceptable, and one must not be pressured by family members into marrying such a person. One’s children could end up in hell by following their example. Men should esteem the baraka of a wife who has a tariqa.
3. That the prospective spouse agree that the household will be run according to one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence in all matters; if Hanafi, for example, that there be nothing unlawful according to the school in any of the family’s dealings.
4. That the prospective spouse know that one has a tariqa and sheikh and what this entails, knows and agrees that one goes to the weekly dhikrs and yearly Suhbas or convocations in particular countries, and that one’s main interest is Allah. If the person also has a tariqa, it must be an authentic one, meaning at minimum that the sheikh and disciple know that the Sacred Law is above the sheikh, disciple, and everyone else.
5. That the husband be the man of the family. The way of the prophets, the Sufi sheikhs, and of Islam, is that the man leads, supports, guides, and takes care of his wife and family. Allah says, “Men are keepers over women, because Allah has favored the one above the other, and because they expend of their wealth: So righteous women are worshipful, faithfully guarding their honor when their husbands are gone, as Allah has guarded them” (Koran 4:34). A man does not throw his weight around with meaningless orders, yet is not the obsequious follower of the woman Allah has made him keeper of. He rather asks Allah to guide him in his decisions, listens to what wisdom his wife may offer, and then follows his own judgement, returning especially in the big decisions to his istikhara. A man should tell his wife what he is going to do, not ask her permission.
6. That the wife be the woman of the family. There is a lot of bad advice around today about marriage that is far from any meaningful appreciation of men’s and women’s complementary natures. For a marriage to work the man must feel respected by his wife, and the woman feel loved by her husband. In previous ages of lslamic history, there was no need to advise anyone about the roles of men and women. But in our times, current cultural myths consider men and women interchangeable, forbid men to be men, and on the ground, few wives can look up for very long to the sapless males the theories have created. Presently accepted rules of behavior between men and women are merely adequate for how long most marriages today actually last.
We advise ladies in the tariqa to read and apply Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood, which contains the best description of the akhlaq or ‘proper way of handling oneself’ necessary for any woman who wants her marriage to succeed. Some of its remarks about the bedroom and women’s education are inapplicable in an Islamic context, but these are easily distinguished from the rest, and everyone who has followed the book has found that it works. Ladies find that once they start acting femininely, their men are able to respond with a manly sense of loving and protecting a woman. Women in the tariqa have also found a lot of benefit from The Surrendered Wife. A third work is Happy Housewives, especially useful for women affected by modern corporate values, though the author’s diction is occasionally indelicate.
If tempted by divorce, a woman should remember that it is usually a bad solution, that married couples tear apart rather than come apart, that most women after feeling relieved for a few months wish they had never got divorced, and that when there are children, one can never really get the other parent out of one’s life. It is haram for the parent who keeps the children to turn their hearts against the other parent. Because of a woman’s superior feminine insight into the emotional dimensions of life and love, the solution for many marriage problems lies in her hands rather than her husband’s, and she is recommended to read, after the titles above, the works on marriage and divorce by Michelle Weiner-Davis, and the twenty-five-year-long landmark study of the effects of divorce on children published under the title The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The most hateful of lawful things to Allah Most High is divorce” (Abu Dawud , 2.255:2178. D). To end a marriage in divorce is only an acceptable solution when to stay married would entail great harm or suffering, or committing on-going haram.
7. That the husband have a lawful income by which he can support a wife and free her from the need to work, providing for her a bayt shar’i or ‘home as guaranteed by Sacred Law,’ meaning her own house or self-contained part of a house, which she runs, and has complete security in and everything else she needs, according to the standard enjoyed in her father’s house. It means she has an autonomous privacy not subject to her husband’s family entering at will or meddling with her. This said, an intelligent wife understands from the first that she cannot separate her husband from his family, so she uses diplomacy with her in-laws, to make them feel welcome in her house as guests. A woman who turns her husband’s heart against his mother, so he ceases to regard her and never visits her, has committed a great crime, and should repent to Allah and make amends. If she doesn’t get along with her in-laws or suffers harm from them, the husband can visit them himself at their home. If a man in the tariqa wants to get married, he has to be able to provide all this. Otherwise, he is not ready for marriage, and should save his money and make plans for the future, with Allah’s help. One need not obey parents’ demands to marry if one is unable to provide a wife with these basic rights guaranteed by Sacred Law, unless the wife knows that her living situation will involve forgoing some of them and she completely accepts.
Because of its many challenges, some sheikhs of the path have preferred a disciple wait to marry until he has achieved a sound footing in the tariqa for a few years, meaning that taqwa and Iman have become his mode of thinking. New converts to Islam too, who often hear well-meant advice from other Muslims about promptly getting married, should practice their religion and adjust to it for a year or two before taking on the additional challenges of marriage. If one is single and suffers from temptation, one may request the “Settling One’s Grounds” program from the sheikh or muqaddam.
Anyone who marries someone meeting these seven conditions marries with the sheikh’s complete blessing and best wishes, although there is baraka in seeking his permission, and tremendous good in marrying a spouse in the tariqa who is serious about their suluk. Among the more important adab leading up to marriage are the following:
Looking for a Good Wife
The qualities praised by the sunna in a prospective wife are that she be religious, intelligent, amiable and well-mannered, fertile (as inferable from her mother or female relatives), from a good family, a virgin, pleasing in appearance, undesirous of an exorbitant marriage payment (mahr), and not a close family relative.
When seeking to marry a woman, one should make one’s intention for Allah, then send someone, preferably a family member, to her family to ask for a chaperoned meeting with her. The messenger should be someone who will honestly tell them how one is. One should inquire about the prospective bride from a religious and reliable informant, not for example someone who bears malicious tales between people (namima). Women are better to send, as they normally notice family details more closely than men, and can meet with her and her female family members. One should ask about her religiousness, her diligence in prayer and fasting, her shyness, reserve, and modesty, her personal cleanliness, her chasteness of speech, whether she stays at home, and how well she respects her parents. One should ask about the character of her father, and about her mother’s behavior, religion, and works, for often in marriage, “Like mother, like daughter.”
It is then a key sunna for one to personally meet the woman, to sit and talk with her as many times as it takes to make up one’s mind about marriage. The man and woman should make sure they communicate well, are comfortable with one another, are inclined towards each other, and are on the same page in their religion. One should not admire in a woman qualities admirable only in a man. It is better to avoid the overly “academic type” of girl whose mother has waited on her all her life at home with every conceivable labor to free her to study, so that she never learned how to work, cook, clean, run a house, take care of children, or make a home comfortable. There is much misplaced confidence by some parents today in “good schools” that do not provide students with skills fundamental to life, and which they themselves in consequence have not taught them either. Nor should a prospective spouse come from a dysfunctional family, broken home, or household dominated by an aggressive mother. If a family seems a bit off, it usually is. If the prospective bride has debts, one must think of how they will be paid. One should pray istikhara a few times after learning everything one can about her.
Being Asked For
Much of the preceding advice may be equally given to the woman whose hand is sought in marriage. She should send a reliable informant to ask about the man’s madhhab, his religiousness, his taqwa, tenets of faith, personal manliness and respectability, and whether he is true to his word. She should ask about his family and relatives, his group affiliations, who visits him, how diligently he keeps the prayer, and his moral rectitude at work.
The man must know how to work. He should be financially responsible, and have successfully held down a job for some time working, preferably for someone besides his father. The man must be religious, not high-handed, arrogant, sinful, or have heretical views. He should not be spoiled, meaning self-centered, quick to anger, and in need of instant gratification of his whims. A mama’s boy should be shunned. In our times, he should be free of addictions, meaning not only to illicit substances, but to pornography, gaming, blogging, endless surfing online, restauranting, the entertainment industry, the various forms of adrenaline addiction, and the host of vices purveyed by the Internet to the profit of a few and ruin of many. Addictions destroy marriages. A prospective wife should not hope to rehabilitate a man, but should marry someone she can live with, realizing that with few exceptions, “what you see is what you get.”
She should want him for his religion rather than his wealth, and the way he conducts his life rather than his fame. She should resolve to live with him contentedly within their means and to obey his commands, for that ensures affection and love.
A sin that often brings unlooked-for misfortune in marriage is revealing one’s sins to another. In Islam mentioning any of one’s past sins is itself a sin. Allah has commanded us to hide all acts of disobedience, except when that would lead to actual harm to another. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said, “Whoever conceals the faults of a Muslim, Allah will conceal his faults in this world and the next” (Muslim , 4.2074: 2699. S). This includes one’s own sins, and “conceals” means from one’s spouse, prospective spouse, or anyone else. It includes previous illicit sex, which is haram to mention and obligatory to conceal, even by deception if necessary. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
All of my Umma shall be forgiven, except those who commit iniquities openly. Verily, “open indecency” includes a man committing an act by night, and then in the morning when Allah has concealed what he did, saying, “O So-and-so, last night I did such and such.” He spent the night, his Lord having concealed what he did; and when morning came, he pulled aside the veil of Allah (Bukhari , 8.24: 6069. S).
In Islam, to mention a sin is itself a sin. Imam Nawawi mentions this hadith under the rubric of “the prohibition of pulling aside the cover from one’s sins” (Sharh Muslim , 18.119). How many a person was unable to resist telling a friend or a spouse about sins they committed in their previous life, and Allah punished them with contempt in the other’s heart that could never be effaced, because there is no baraka in the haram. All of which refers to sins now finished, as opposed to ongoing habitual problems such as addictions, which the person asked about must truthfully disclose to a prospective marriage partner, since, like defects in a spouse that permit annulment of marriage, addictions ruin marriages, and the partner must know about them in advance to reach an informed decision.
When a man decides to marry a woman, they should keep the interval between the signing of the contract and the wedding day as brief as possible, certainly not more than a space of months. At the wedding, he does not kiss the bride in front of her family. The groom should be manly and firm, not allowing unreligious family members to plan anything at the wedding or reception that will take away the marriage’s tawfiq, or anger Allah, or shame them on the Last Day, such as music, alcohol, mixing of the sexes, wasteful extravagance, or other matters some people today take for granted. The groom should simply tell everyone he refuses to come to such a wedding. They are unlikely to have it without him.
FAMILY RIGHTS AND ROLES
Abul Hasan al-Shadhili related from his sheikh ‘Abd al-Salam ibn Mashish:
There are two ill deeds that even a great many good deeds can seldom have any benefit with: bitterness over Allah’s destining, and wronging Allah’s servants. And there are two good deeds that even a great many ill deeds can seldom do any harm with: acceptance of Allah’s destining, and forgiveness of Allah’s servants (Durra al-asrar , 88).
Few things cause so much bitterness and wrong as disregarding the rights of family. A murid who wants to be close to Allah must observe the rights, duties, and adab of dealing with family members.
A man should be his wife’s intimate friend, pleasant and courteous in speech, show her love and affection, and be relaxed and informal when they are alone. He should not put her down, but overlook occasional missteps, forgive mistakes, defend her honor, seldom argue with her, honor her family, continually promise her the best, and have the manly jealousy to keep things between her and other men from exceeding the permissible limits.
He should be calm and chivalrous with her, polite, patient, and tender, and know how to dispel tensions and arguments with jokes, ridiculous asides, and amorous advances. A man has no need to prove he is tough, but should always mean what he says, and not humor his wife’s whims or be so soft-hearted or indulgent that he worsens her character and turns her into a domineering tyrant. To do so is a devastating mistake that ruins a great many marriages in our times, and the last forty years or so of the unisex experiment have sufficiently proved that unisex does not work. If she has no adab or respect for him, he should send her back to her family until she wants to be a wife. If he sees something ethically wrong, he should be grave and critical. He should be moderate and fair, buying her gifts and flowers, paying admiring compliments, and spending ungrudgingly on her necessities. He is neither stingy, nor wastefully lavish in buying things of little enjoyment or benefit. He should leave the house to work during the day or study, even if wealthy or retired, because it is difficult for most wives to respect a husband who hangs around the house.
If a man has two wives, he should be strictly equitable in time, attention, and advantages to both, and not let one bully or enamor him into being unfair to the other. Imam Shafi’i regarded such equity as so difficult for most people to attain that marriage to more than one wife is religiously “better to avoid” (khilaf al-awla) under ordinary circumstances: meaning except, for example, when there are pressing medical reasons or the like. Shafi’i’s position is borne out by the word of Allah “You shall never be able to be completely fair between wives, however much you want to; So do not incline so wholly towards one that you leave the other one hanging; And if you put matters right and prevent unfairness, verily Allah is oft-forgiving, all-compassionate” (Koran 4:129). Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman and Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wakil used to warn anyone who would listen against taking a second wife, and it is plain from instance after instance that whoever marries a second wife in our day usually opens up a can of worms on himself. The social norms that once made it possible no longer seem to exist.
As a Muslim man, a husband should be clean in dress, make frequent use of the breath-freshening tooth-stick (siwak), and wear clothes neither intended to draw attention nor yet mean and shabby. He does not keep the hem of his garment low out of pride, or high to appear ascetic. He attends the Friday prayer, always prays in a group, and does much dhikr and worship. He does not stare around him while walking, look at other women than his wife, sit on the doorstep of his house with neighbors, or talk too much with his friends about his wife and what takes place in his home.
A woman should be her husband’s friend, while keeping a respectful shyness towards him, avoiding arguing with him, obeying his word in everything lawful. She should hold her peace when he speaks, keep his honor when he is away, and not treacherously take his property. She should smell pleasant, care well for her teeth and clothes, be content with her standard of living, be tender, loving and caring, and keep up her appearance. A woman who tries to be the man of the house will generally find her house someday without a man. She should honor her husband’s family and relatives, be appreciative of him, accept his deeds with gratitude, and show him her happiness when she sees him. When children come, she should give her husband first priority and attention rather than her children. Many wives err in this in our times, abetted by a spate of paperback books that urge baby-adoration with names like “attached parenting,” and they find themselves astonished and dismayed when their husbands eventually get tired of being ignored, spend increasingly long hours away from home for work or any other excuse, and begin talking about divorce or getting a second wife. Men in such a situation are extremely susceptible to the admiration and attention of other women, particularly at work, because they lack any at home, where it is all being given to the children. These signs of discontent are often her last warning to change.
As a Muslim woman, she should prefer to be in her own home, taking care of her house and children, making sure that both are clean and orderly. She should learn her religion to properly practice it and raise her children Islamically. A woman devoted to academic or career achievement should leave marriage and family to those with the time for it, because she will not be able to give them their due. A Muslim woman’s ambition should lie in perfecting herself. She should faithfully perform her prayer and fasting, study her own faults, and think of her religion. She should speak little, not waste time on pointless conversations, and lower her gaze. She should be vigilant of her Lord, make much dhikr, encourage her husband to earn the halal, and not ask for a lot of gifts from him. She should be shy and modest, neither harsh or coarse in word, have fortitude, be thankful, prefer others to herself, and be generous with herself and her efforts. If a friend of her husband calls when he is not at home, she does not admit him, ask him what he wants, or converse with him at length—out of jealousy for her honor and that of her husband.
To benefit from changes in life, spiritual travellers must be with Allah, not their own story line. When a young woman marries, for example, she suddenly finds herself not only with another ego in the house to live with, but within a short space, that the comparative ease and calm of her younger days have been swept away by the sheer work needed to keep up and think of everything in a real home. When she has her first baby, she must manage for another life even more dependent on her personal sacrifices. By the second, third, or fourth child, her days and nights belong almost entirely to others. Whether she has a spiritual path or not, such a mother can seldom resist a glance at the past, when there were more prayers, more meanings, more spiritual company, and more serenity. When Allah opens her understanding, she will see that she is engaged in one of the highest forms of worship, that of producing new believers who love and worship Allah. She is effectively worshipping Allah for as many lifetimes she has children, for the reward of every spiritual work her children do will be hers, without this diminishing anything of their own rewards: every ablution, every prayer, every Ramadan, every hajj, and even the works her children will in turn pass on to their offspring, and, so on till the end of time. Even if her children do not turn out as she wishes, she shall be requited in paradise forever according to her intention in raising them, which was that they should be godly.
Aside from the tremendous reward, within the path itself it is noticeable that many of those who benefit most from the khalwa are women who have raised children. With only a little daily dhikr and worship over the years, but much toil and sacrifice for others, they surpass many a younger person who has had more free time, effort, and “spiritual works.” What they find is greater because their state with Allah is greater; namely, the awe, hope, and love of the Divine they have realized by years of sincerity to Him.
When children are born, parents should remember that their children do not belong to them, but to Allah, who has reposited them with them as a trust, to raise to be good Muslims who will gain eternal happiness. Parents’ love for their children should be unconditional and not based on their achievements in life, but their rules for them should be equally unconditional: clear, unwavering, and enforced with unvarying discipline.
Parents should help their children be kind and respectful to them by not being harsh, bullying, obsessed with worldly achievement, or imposing more on them than they can bear. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Whoever harms, Allah harms; and whoever makes hardship for another, Allah makes hardship for him” (al-Mustadrak , 2.58. S). Parents should raise their children for Allah and think of the children’s benefit, not merely their own.
Parents should make Islam something beloved in their children’s hearts by loving it themselves. They should give them two examples of halals for every haram. They should not favor one child above others. Gifts, praise, and attention should be given equally between all. Parents should not compare children with one another within their hearing to the favor of one and disadvantage of the other. Father and mother should never fight or argue in front of the children. Parents should never throw temper tantrums or use harmful violence against family members, for these are transmitted from generation to generation by the bad example of parents, and predecessors bear the sin of all who follow them therein.
A father must be around to show his children by precept and example what a man is. Children raised without a man in the house are greatly disadvantaged. A father should not spend night after night “out with the boys” away from his family, but realize they are a trust from Allah, and that children do not raise themselves.
It is not permissible, but a crime against a child to spoil him. If the child learns hardiness, self-sacrifice, and patience, he will have the emotional means to succeed in life. A child who is the center of his parents’ doting seldom turns out to be good for anything else. If parents see that their children share things with others, do not throw tantrums, sit quietly when told to, respect elders, and obey their father and mother–in a word, have good character–they should thank Allah for their tawfiq. But if their children are badly behaved and selfish, parents should realize they are not succeeding, and have the humility to ask parents of well-behaved children what they do. Someone is always in control of a situation, and if it is the child, it is the worse for parents and child alike. Well-behaved children benefit far more from the adult world around them because everyone wants to help them, while spoiled children are universally detested, and everyone is relieved when they disappear. Neglecting discipline is equally neglect; and over-indulged children, like other victims of neglect, grow up unable to hold down a job, succeed in marriage, or live normal lives. How many a parent gave their child everything it wanted, counting on its eternal gratitude, only to find that their ill-bred child later had no use for them either; while those who disciplined their child for Allah found their efforts rewarded in this world and the next.
A child, even when grown up, should heed his parents, rise when they stand, and obey their commands in everything lawful that does not cause harm to himself or his family. He should respond to their invitations, and not exasperate them with insistence or remind them of any kindness or matter he has taken care of for them. He should not regard them dismissively, or refuse their behest. He should provide generously for them when in need, and in their infirmity of years, he should “lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy” (Koran 17:24).
To summarize, a good marriage is for Allah. He shows His favor to such a marriage by success, harmony, and happiness between family members. The key is good character. Dhul Nun was asked, “Who among men is the most plagued by trouble?” and he answered, “The worst of them in character (akhlaq).” When asked, “What is the mark of bad character?” he replied, “Always disagreeing.” I was once visiting Sheikh Nuh al-Qudah at his home in Zarqa in the 1980s, when a man came in and spoke of long, bitter conflicts between a husband and wife. The sheikh listened, and finally remarked, “Thus do We consign wrongdoers to one another, for that which they would earn” [Koran 6:129]. The sovereign advice for most marriage difficulties is simply “Be Muslims.” Were our character as Allah had commanded, our marriage and family life would be smooth sailing, which has a great deal to do with our Sufism.
Reprinted with permission of the author, Keller, Nuh Ha Mim, Sea Without Shore: A Manual of the Sufi Path, Amman: Sunna Books, 2011, p. 253-266.