Marital problems among Muslims in America are of increasing concern.
Issues like divorce and domestic violence are taking their toll on Muslim families throughout America. Imams, Muslim Social Workers, helping professionals and volunteers are concerned about the consequences of these problems on the very foundation of our community, the family.
Even though Muslims in America experience a unique set of circumstances and are diverse in their culture, and road to Islam, the Quran and the Sunnah have the methodology for preventing and resolving the problems that we face.
Why discuss Muslim marriages, their associated problems and prevention strategies?
The short answer is that divorce and marital discord are reaching epidemic proportions both in and out the Islamic community. Ibn Umar reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said: Of all the lawful things, divorce is the most detestable thing in the sight of Allah (Abu Dawud).
The foundation of Islamic society is crumbling. Shahina Siddiqui of the Islamic Social Services Association in a personal interview (1997) indicated that over 60 percent of new marriages end in divorce within the first year.
In the same interview she also stated that one community reported that out nineteen new marriages ten ended in divorce within the first year while another community reported that five out of nine marriages ended in divorce within the first year.
Marriages among Muslims in America are in trouble. Sister Shahina further asserts, “this is symptomatic of a much larger problem. The growing lack of value for elders and respect for their advice is a significant problem. Muslim youth are turning to their non-Muslim peers for advice and validation rather than to their Muslim elders”.
Years as a professional social worker have led me to conclude that part of the problem is a lack of Islamic education and spiritual development.
Many Muslim couples enter into marriage each with their own set of baggage and often lack the personal relationship with Allah that will help them to be successful as a married couple.
On the one hand, the American Muslim community has been affected by the “Burger King Syndrome” that plagues North America as a whole: American society’s message is, “you can have it your way”. Individuals entering into marriage are bent on getting what they want while neither practicing forbearance and patience, nor committing themselves to one another for the sake of Allah.
On the other hand, many have subconsciously adopted the Christian doctrines of self-sacrifice and “turn the other cheek” at the expense of the emotional and physical health of one or both spouses. This is demonstrated in marriages where all signs of marital harmony have been eliminated and a dysfunctional family unit remains, unaware that this not the Islamic way.
Muslims must find a way to stem the tide of the epidemic of divorce and marital discord in order to preserve a healthy future for the Muslim community in America. We must go beyond our current state of denial to recognize that, while Muslims are not immune to marital problems, many of the problems we face can be prevented by learning and implementing the teachings of Islam. No community can survive and fulfill the responsibility of raising healthy children when marriage after marriage totally break down.
The Healthy Muslim Marriage
The Quran says: “And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts)…” (30:21)
“They (your wives) are as a garment to you, and you are as a garment to them.” (2:187)
“He it is Who created you from a single soul, and of the same did He make his spouse, that he might find comfort in her.”(7:189).
Khurshid Ahmad writes in his book, Family Life in Islam, “the relationship between husband and wife is a spiritual relationship and sustains and generates love, kindness, mercy, compassion, mutual confidence, self-sacrifice, solace and succor.”
In Islam the healthy marriage begins with a strong practice of Islamic tradition and spousal selection based on the Quran and Sunnah.
Muslims can choose a spouse for many reasons but piety is considered the best reason. Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying, A woman may be married for four reasons: for her property, her status, her beauty and her religion; so try to get one who is religious, …”(Muslim).
If a spouse is chosen merely for his or her attractiveness or socioeconomic status, the likelihood is that those attributes will be the sum total of the marriage.
A healthy marriage is based on strong Iman (faith) and strong Taqwa (fear of Allah). Because the couple unites for the sake and love of Allah, they are able to make decisions and resolve problems upon based this commitment.
Fikr (reflection) and Dhikr (remembrance) of Allah are a regular part of the marriage. The couple keeps their obligations to Allah and remembers Him often, even in their most intimate affairs. They reflect on what He has given them and on ways to improve their relationship with Him and thus with each other.
The couple not only strives in the cause of Allah but are also knowledgeable of their own and each other’s rights, roles and responsibilities. The spouses honor and ensure that each other’s rights are fulfilled and they work together to develop a strong Islamic personality.
Both have realistic expectations of each other and of the marriage, and they practice good communication skills, engage in mutual consultation, and are calm and even-tempered. Honesty, trustworthiness, humility and a willingness to cooperate and compromise help to build a strong relationship.
Additionally reliance on the Quran and Sunnah for decision-making are essential.
Problems Couples Experience
A comprehensive Islamic social service system that includes prevention education and support, early intervention and treatment is greatly needed by the American Muslim Community.
Given this, it is important to explore some of the problems Muslim couples are experiencing in marriage:
Problems in this realm may occur because the husband is Muslim and the wife is not and does not support an Islamic family life.
It may also mean that the husband and wife are Muslim but one is more observant in the practice of the faith while the other may be described as Muslim but not religious.
The husband may not want the wife to wear Hijab despite her desire to do so. When a disagreement arises, one spouse wants to refer to Quran and Sunnah for the answer while the other ignores these primary sources of guidance to the preference of cultural traditions as the basis for decision-making.
It is essential that Muslims determine the importance of Islam in their lives prior to marriage. Each individual’s level of religiosity will affect decision making, problem solving, daily practices and fulfillment of religious obligations.
These often result when the husband is either unemployed or underemployed or the couple has poor money management and budgeting skills.
When the husband is either unemployed or underemployed the family is likely to experience significant stress. The wife may take a job or the family may obtain Zakat or governmental welfare assistance to make ends meet.
When the wife enters the workforce under these conditions the additional stress of childcare and fulfilling homemaking duties become a concern.
Also the high potential for employment discrimination experienced by Muhajabas (Muslim women who wear the traditional Islamic dress and headscarf) add to the family’s stress. The husband’s self- esteem is severely affected in such circumstances because he is unable to fulfill one of his primary Islamic obligations.
As the couple prepares for marriage the future husband’s current and potential ability to financially support a family has to be discussed.
Additional consideration must be given to the issue of whether or not the wife will work at various points in the marriage and the consequences thereof. Premarital discussions and/or money management training can provide the skills necessary to develop a fiscally responsible home.
Cultural Diversity In Marriage
The Muslim community in the United States includes Muslims from all around the world. Some are immigrants. Others are refugees. Still others are indigenous to North America and have converted to Islam.
On one end of the continuum securing a spouse of the same culture has become more of a priority than piety in a potential mate, blinding parents seeking suitable matches for their children.
On the other end of the continuum, the main goal is simply to marry an American thus losing sight of the importance of piety.
While marriage to someone of the same culture should not be the primary criteria for marriage, cross-cultural marriages seem to be at risk for marital discord. Frequently, the couple finds it very difficult to accept and adjust to each other’s cultural norms and traditions. When Islam is not the primary guide in their lives and each one operates from a cultural base unfamiliar to the other communication problems, parenting problems and emotional and/or physical abuse often arise out of the frustration.
One couple reported to the author that they required eight hours to discuss a matter that takes couples of the same culture an hour to discuss. The couple went on to say that arguments often developed because of cultural misunderstandings, lack of patience and lack of a mutual commitment to place Islam first and foremost in their affairs.
Cross-cultural marriage seems to work best when both spouses commit to make Islam according to Quran and Sunnah a priority. In issues not having to do with worship, both have to be tolerant and willing to compromise.
In the premarital stage these matters must be discussed. The couple has to agree to resolve problems based on Quran and Sunnah. Preparation for marriage should include stringent study of the Quran and the Sunnah, particularly with regard to family life, the development of an Islamically-based family personality and the building of communication skills.
In the early stage of the marriage opportunities for arbitration, mediation or counseling should be available to the couple on an as needed basis.
Unresolved legal issues
These issues, which can and have pulled couples apart, may relate to one spouse’s immigration status or prior incarceration, unsettled financial judgments or familial problems.
Unfortunately, in the zeal to come to the US or to change immigration status, inaccurate or incomplete information may have been provided.
In other cases the immigrant spouse may have become involved with illegal activities which placed him or her at risk of deportation. Although these activities may have occurred in the individual’s early days in America they may play havoc on the marriage.
In one case the entire family was uprooted because of the head of the household was deported. The stress of the ordeal placed the marriage in severe jeopardy.
Acceptance of Islam may have occurred during incarceration. Unfortunately few programs exist that are designed to assist in the transition to life outside the penal institution. Despite an individual’s sincere practice of Islam, parole and probation issues continue to loom on the horizon of life on the outside; said issues often disrupt the couple’s life and their ability to start anew.
It is important to be aware of and discuss unresolved legal issues prior to marriage. When unresolved legal matters are included in the premarital discussions potential spouses and their guardians can identify the risks and prepare for the challenges associated therewith. Each potential spouse can then determine whether or not they are suited for the impending marriage.
As difficult as is it is to acknowledge it, Muslim families experience domestic violence.
Some of the factors associated with domestic violence include: a controlling personality or other personality disorder, financial stress, misunderstanding and use of verses of the Quran to justify maltreatment, lack of knowledge of the Sunnah with regards to anger management and treatment of women, poor impulse control, immaturity, mental illness, the effects of racism and oppression against Muslims, ethnic minorities and foreigners and a history of domestic violence in the family of origin.
While there are a variety of causal factors the bottom line is that Islam does not condone the abuse and maltreatment of women. Muslim women forced to leave their home without a means of support in search of safety from an oppressive spouse are legacies the Muslim community can not afford.
In addition to this, domestic violence has been proven to produce a cycle of violence in the next generation. As Muslim children watch their fathers abuse their mothers they internalize that behavior and are likely to repeat it.
One strategy to prevent domestic abuse is to mandate a thorough discussion of the potential spouse’s temperament, problem solving and conflict resolution skills during premarital counseling. Of particular import is an exploration of his or her parents’ relationship and whether domestic violence was present in their home. At a minimum each party has to be asked whether he or she has been raised with domestic abuse at home or whether or not they have experienced domestic abuse in their life.
Differences in parenting style
Lack of parenting skills, significant differences in parenting styles, lack of knowledge of the examples of healthy, effective parenting from the Sunnah, the stress of adjusting to life with a new baby, or as a stepparent can lead to discord in the marriage.
Good marriage preparation affords the couple an opportunity to learn about their obligations as parents based on examples in the Quran and Sunnah.
Further, a discussion to examine expectations of proper care of children, how each potential spouse was reared, methods of discipline, and the general challenges that come with all phases of childhood, will produce strong parents, firmly anchored in the Islamic model of familial relationships.
Intimacy and sexual fulfillment
Problems related to an unsatisfactory or absent physical relationship tend to occur because no one has spoken with the young man or woman about these matters prior to marriage. Often, the prospective couple is unaware about the physical makeup of the human body or is unaware of the Islamic responsibility and right to intimate fulfillment by both parties. Inability to communicate seems to exacerbate the problem unless professional intervention is obtained.
Marriage preparation education will educate potential spouses of their rights and responsibilities with regard to sexual fulfillment. It would also provide an opportunity to learn some basics of the human anatomy as well as the traditions of Prophet Muhammad with regard to marital intimacy. The role of good communication skills in sexual fulfillment would also be a part of premarital education.
Marriage frequently brings together individuals who have physical and mental health problems. In most cases, these matters are not discussed prior to marriage thereby impeding the couple’s ability to weather a chronic condition like asthma, diabetes, hypertension or a catastrophic event such as injury due to accident or major illness.
Whether a spouse suffers from a physical condition or chronic mental illness, premarital conversation concerning the nature of the disorder, medications used and effective reaction to episodic flare-ups must be engaged in order to prepare the couple for inherent challenges of living with and caring for a sick spouse.
History of marriage preparation programs in mainstream America
Formal marital education was first instituted in the early 1930s when the Merrill-Palmer Institute established a premarital educational program (Rutledge, 1968).
One of the earliest premarital counseling programs, established at the Philadelphia Marriage Council (Mudd, Freeman, and Rose, 1941), was designed to provide education and information about married life to couples contemplating marriage and to help prospective spouses work out interpersonal difficulties they might be encountering.
Historically premarital counseling has been provided in churches by trained pastors and ministers, laypersons or by mental health providers. Clinebell (1984) has argued that in most cases what has been ordinarily described as premarital counseling actually is not counseling in the sense of treatment and addressing problems but rather it is more personalized training or “psycho educational counseling”.
The Catholic dioceses requires premarital counseling before a couple may be married by a priest.(Lamanna and Reidmann, 1991) The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, along with courts in many other counties, mandated premarital counseling as a prerequisite for obtaining a marriage license by minors. (Wright, 1981).
The newest approaches to educating for marriage are marital enrichment programs (Stahmann and Salts, 1993). These programs emerged around the early 1960s, and many were connected to religious institutions (e.g., the Roman Catholic Marriage Encounter program, first established in Spain by Father Gabriel Calvo; the marriage enrichment retreat for Quakers led by David and Vera Mace; the United Methodist Church leadership training programs for couples, developed by Leon and Antoinette Smith; see Mace & Mace, 1986).
Several secular programs for marriage enrichment have also been developed, including Otto’s More Joy in Your Marriage (1969), The Minnesota Couples Communication Program (Miller et al., 1975), and Relationship Enhancement (Guerney, 1977).
The core philosophy of marriage enrichment is a “positive growth-oriented, and dynamic view of marriage” (Hof & Miller, 1980). The major goals of marriage enrichment are to increase self- and other awareness to explore and express thoughts and feelings with honesty and empathy and to develop and use skills important in relationships, such as communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution (Hof & Miller, 1980).
While common sense suggests that these kinds of programs prevent marital discord and increase longevity of marriage there does not seem to be enough mainstream research to provide conclusive evidence. More and more research is being conducted about the value of prevention and the role of family life skills education in prevention of family dysfunction. Family experts see these programs as important, especially for adult children of troubled, dysfunctional, or divorced families.
The Handbook of Family Life Education describes three approaches to education for marriage and includes a brief discussion of education for remarriage in consideration of those that have divorced and are widowed.
The three approaches include general marriage preparation programs, premarital counseling programs and enrichment programs. The typical goals of education for marriage are to increase couple and family stability and satisfaction, and to improve the quality of couple and family relationships.
Marriage preparation according to Islamic tradition
According to Islamic tradition, marriage should be entered into for the sake of Allah. Marriage is, therefore, Ibadah(worship).
Allah’s guidance should be sought on all matters, particularly the decision to marry and who to marry. Likewise, when we experience problems we must call on Allah to help us through the trying times.
Allah says in Sura Ghafir, “And your Lord said: Invoke Me (believe in Me alone and ask Me anything) I will respond to your (invocation). Verily, those who scorn My worship (i.e., they do not believe in My Oneness or ask Me), they will surely enter hell in humiliation”(Quran 40:60).
Intrinsic Islamic traditions that facilitate marriage preparation and education and consequently positive marital outcomes include prayer, Dhikr, the requirement of a Wali (guardian) for women who have not been married, the obligation to study the religious practices, the use of arbitration and importance of Nasiha or advice giving.
Marriage preparation, according to Islamic tradition, includes the study of the religious practices and traditions so that the believer has knowledge of Islam in its various facets including marital life.
According to Habib Ahmad(1996) the methodology used by the Sahaba in their acquisition of knowledge included the prioritization of educational objectives.
Al’Ilm al-Shar’i , that is, the knowledge pertaining to Islamic faith, acts of worship, and necessary transactions and daily dealings of a Muslim, must be our first priority in our educational pursuit.
Study of Allah, the articles of faith, prayer and other matters of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) are primary. Then other obligatory acts of worship and guidelines for business transactions, family life, community affairs, Dawa (inviting to Islam) with Muslims and non-Muslims and Arabic language should be next.
The Key to the Garden (Al Haddad, 1990) outlines the areas of Islam that Muslims must be taught first. This outline lists conditions of marriage among the first things a Muslim should know after the five pillars and behaviors that lead to major sin.
In an interview in 1997 Sheik Shamudeen, a well known religious leader formerly in the metropolitan Phoenix area, indicated that, as part of his study in Madinah (in Saudi Arabia), he and other young male students attended a class called Haqa Souja (the rights of the wife).
This class covered general as well as intimate issues in marriage. The inclusion of such a class as part of the training of future Imams suggests the importance of marital issues in Islamic study. Training of Dawa workers and community leaders must also include discussion of family and marital issues.
The prayer of Istikhara (decision making), a tradition of Prophet Muhammad, should also be undertaken in the selection of a mate, asking Allah’s guidance in the choice of the mate best to assist one in preserving his or her Iman (faith) in order to prepare for the Ahkirah (Life after death). If Istikhara is performed sincerely asking Allah’s guidance in the choice of a mate the marriage will be established at the outset on the best foundation.
The Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet are rich with wisdom and the best examples of appropriate Islamic behavior in family life. It is important that those seeking marriage study the examples put forth by Allah and His Messenger in choosing a mate as well as resolving marital problems.
The requirement of a Wali or Wakkil (guardian or agent) for women who have not been married and the tradition of family involvement in arranging the marriage are also important aspects of preparation for marriage so that those with good sense and wisdom about the potential spouse’s personality, strengths and weaknesses will assist them in making the best selection of a mate and will adequately inspect the references of the future mate.
The habit that has been developing of choosing a mate without the involvement of family or community elders and without a Wali seems to be contributing to many of the marital problems in our community.
Marriage as a contract
Although marriage is an institution Divinely-ordained by Allah, each marriage is a contract between the spouses. Marriage is a social contract, a noble contract and a sacred contract (Khurshid Ahmad, 1974).
The physical document usually developed as part of the marriage process serves as a tool in preparing the couple for marriage. This provides an opportunity to give consideration to issues or concerns that may need discussion and agreement prior to marriage. As marriage in Islam is largely a contract between the couple before Allah this phase provides an opportunity to discuss the terms of the contract and to remind the parties of the obligation they have before Allah to maintain their contract and its terms.
Arbitration is another method at our disposal. If used as an intervention strategy it provides an opportunity to give the couple guidance as well as facilitate problem-solving and a reconciliation between them.
The Holy Quran says: “And if you fear a breach between them twain (i.e. husband and wife), appoint an arbiter from his folk and an arbiter from her folk. If they desire amendment Allah will make them of one mind. Lo! Allah is ever knower, Aware” (4:35).
Allah says, “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good admonition, and have disputations with them in the best manner; surely your Lord best knows who goes astray from His path, and He knows best those who follow the right way” (Quran 16:125).
The Islamic responsibility to offer Nasiha, that is, giving advice for commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, indicates the importance of providing good Islamic guidance to those who are straying from the teaching.
In this tradition of Nasiha is opportunity for individuals before marriage and couples after marriage to obtain good advice from family, community elders, Imams or Muslim counselors and social workers regarding ways to prevent and intervene early in potential marital problems.
It is clear that inherent in the teachings and traditions of Islam are many opportunities to prevent and address marital problems.
Just as prevention has taken some time to become valued and recognized as an essential part of the service continuum, so too will marriage preparation education as prevention strategy take its time.
Most couples spend more time preparing for the wedding than they do preparing for the marriage. Premarital programs focus on preparation for the marriage and for a long and harmonious family life in service to Allah.
The naiveté and innocence of most young couples make it difficult for them to even imagine that they may experience challenges in their marriage. The reality is that marriage comes with some difficulties and some trials, so it is important that the young couple, their families and the community recognize the importance of comprehensive marriage preparation.
Allah knows when the time will be right and marriage preparation will catch on. As for now it seems to be a little bit ahead of its time and perhaps part of the wave of the future. Time will tell.
However, the primary goal of developing and implementing a marriage preparation program that results in stronger Muslim families who will, in turn, strengthen and renew the foundation of Islamic society through the 21st century should be of paramount concern.