In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
The following is an excerpt from the published manuscript of a new revision of the manual of the tariqa. It is copyright MMIX © Nuh Ha Mim Keller, and may not be reproduced in any form without written permission. Some has been drawn from traditional sources such as Imam Ghazali, while some is new. It has been excerpted here from manuscript as a stop-gap to answer some questions about marriage frequently received, and because the manual will take longer to finish than people’s questions permit. May Allah help all through it.
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 true 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 often something that must be striven for and attained, rather than an event one can live “happily ever after.” To clarify the basics, we have summarized below certain minimal conditions for disciples getting married, key points of Islamic character, adab, rights, and duties from Imam Ghazali and others, and practical rules necessary in our day to have a fulfilling Islamic marriage.
Minimal Conditions in a Spouse
A disciple may marry anyone they want, as long as the following conditions are met:
1. That the prospective spouse share one’s own vision of Islam, 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 someone of this description. One’s children could end up in hell by following their example.
2. That the prospective spouse agree that the household will be run according 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.
3. That the prospective spouse know that one has a tariqa and sheikh and what this entails, knows that one goes to the weekly dhikrs and yearly Suhbas, 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.
4. 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” (Qur’an 4:34). A man does not throw his weight around with meaningless orders, but 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 best judgement, returning especially in the big decisions to his own istikhara.
5. 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 different natures. In previous ages of Islamic history, there was no need to advise anyone about the roles of men and women. But in our times, current cultural norms consider men and women interchangeable, forbid men to be men, and few wives can look up to the sapless males the theories have created. The present rules of behavior between men and women are merely adequate for how long most marriages today last.
We advise ladies in the tariqa to read and apply 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 to 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.
6. 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 uses diplomacy with her in- laws, to make them feel welcome in her house as guests. 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, the man must 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 involves forgoing some of these, and she completely accepts.
Anyone who marries someone meeting these six conditions marries with the sheikh’s complete blessing and best wishes, although there is baraka in seeking his permission. Among the most important adab in the events leading directly up to the marriage are the following.
The Man Seeking a 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, and not a close family relative.
When seeking to marry a woman, the prospective suitor should make his 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 he is. He should inquire about the prospective bride from a religious and reliable informant, and not
for example someone who bears malicious tales (namima) between people. Women are better to send, as they normally notice details more closely than men, and can meet with her and her female family members. He 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. He should ask about the character of her father, and about her mother’s behavior, religion, and works.
It is a key sunna to then personally meet with the woman, to sit and talk with her as many times as it takes to make up his mind about marriage. The man and woman should make sure they communicate well, are comfortable with and like each other, and are on the same page in their religion. The man should not admire in the woman qualities admirable only in a man. It is better to avoid the “student type” whose mother has served her all her life with every conceivable labor at home to free her to study, hence never learned common sense, how to work, cook, clean, run a house, take care of children, or make a home comfortable. 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, he must think of how they will be paid off. He should pray istikhara a few times after learning what he can about her.
The Woman Receiving a Marriage Proposal
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 uprightness and goodness at work.
The man should be financially responsible and have successfully held down a job for some time working, preferably for someone besides his father. A husband has to know how to work. The man should 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, adrenaline, and to the host of vices purveyed by the Internet to the profit of a few and ruin of many. Addictions destroy marriages. She should not hope to rehabilitate the man, but realize that “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 in contentment with their means and to obey his commands, for that ensures affection and love.
One sin that often brings unlooked-for misfortune in marriage is revealing sins to another. In Islam to mention past sins is itself a sin. Allah has commanded us to hide all acts of disobedience, except when it 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 whether 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 with his Lord having concealed what he did; and when morning came, he pulled aside the veil of Allah (Bukhari , 8.24: 6069. S).
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 of the wickedness they did in their former life, and Allah requited them with contempt in the other’s heart that could never be erased, 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, and not allow unreligious family members to plan anything at the wedding or reception that will take away the marriage’s tawfiq, anger Allah, or shame them on the Last Day, such as music, alcohol, mixing of the sexes, wasteful extravagance, or other matters taken for granted by many today. 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 that he said:
There are two ill deeds that a great many good deeds seldom have any benefit with: bitterness over Allah’s destining, and wronging Allah’s servants. And there are two good deeds that a great many ill deeds seldom do any harm with: acceptance of Allah’s destining, and fully forgiving Allah’s servants (Durra al-asrar (c00), 88).
Few things cause such 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 friend, pleasant and courteous in speech, show her love and affection, and be relaxed and informal when they are alone. He should 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 matters between her and other men from exceeding permissible limits.
He should be calm and chivalrous with his wife, well-mannered, patient, and tender, and know how to dispel tensions and arguments with jokes, ridiculous asides, and amorous liberties. He doesn’t have 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 a domineering tyrant. If she has no adab or respect for him, he should send her back to her family
until she wants to be a wife. Whenever 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, even if wealthy, because it is difficult for a wife 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. With Imam Shafi‘i and all of our sheikhs I regard such equity as so difficult for most people to manage that marriage to more than one wife is religiously “superior not to do” (khilaf al-awla) under ordinary circumstances. 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 set matters right, and prevent unfairness, verily Allah is oft-forgiving, all-compassionate” (Qur’an 4:129).
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 sordid. He does not keep his hem 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 gawk around him while walking, look at other women than his wife, sit on the doorstep of his house with neighbors, or talk 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 and loving, and keep up her appearance. She should honor his family and relatives, be appreciative for him, accept his deeds with gratitude, and show him her happiness when she sees him. She should give her husband first priority and attention rather than her children.
Otherwise, husbands eventually get tired of being ignored, spend increasingly long hours away from home, and begin talking about divorce or getting a second wife.
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. Her 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 seek and earn the halal, and not ask for many 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 effort. If a friend of her husband calls when he is not at home, she does not admit him, seek to understand his purpose, or speak with him at length—out of jealousy for her honor and that of her husband.
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 attainments, but their rules for them should be equally unconditional: plain, unsubject to change, and enforced with unvarying discipline.
Parents should help their children be kind and respectful to them by not being harsh, bullying, obsessed with 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 make hardship for him” (Mustadrak (c00), 2.58. S). Parents should raise their children for Allah and the children’s benefit, not merely their own.
Parents should not favor one child above others. Gifts, praise, and attention should be equal 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 those 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 trust from Allah, and that children do not raise themselves.
It is not permissible, but a crime against a child to spoil it. If the child learns hardiness, self- sacrifice, and patience, it will have the emotional means to succeed in life. The 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 the 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. 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; while those who raised their child with discipline for Allah found their efforts well repaid.
A child, even when grown up, should heed his parents, rise when they stand, and obey their commands in everything halal that does not cause harm to himself or his wife or children. 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” (Qur’an 17:24).
To summarize, a good marriage is for Allah. He shows His favor to such a marriage by tawfiq, harmony, and happiness between family members. The sign of tawfiq is good character. Dhul Nun was asked, “Who among men is the most plagued with hardship?” and he answered, “The worst of them in character (akhlaq).” When then 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 the long conflicts of someone else’s marriage. The sheikh listened and finally remarked, “Thus do We consign wrongdoers to one another, for that which they would earn [Qur’an 6:129].”
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 ethnic Muslims about promptly getting wed, should practice and adjust to their religion 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.