The maelstrom of ethics and marriage

For the last few weeks, areas of the Muslim blogosphere have been abuzz about a recent article published in Emel Magazine by Imam Zaid Shakir, “The Ethics of Chivalry.” The article has been highlighted by many Muslim media outlets, including Altmuslimah, MuslimMatters, Goatmilk, Muslimah Media Watch, Meccho, and MPACUK. Imam Zaid’s article opens with a story of an engaged couple whose marriage was saved by the fiance’s chivalrously overlooking the fiancée’s unfortunate disfigurement. The story is cited as an example, albeit exaggerated, of a man showing commitment, empathy, and kindness to his wife.
Imam Zaid’s article asks us to remember the ethics and compassion in Islam, not just the rules, laws, and requirements:

Namely, our religion is not an empty compilation of laws and strictures. The law is important and willingly accepting it is one of the keys to our salvation. However, the law is also a means to point us toward a higher ethical end. We are reminded in the Qur’an, “Surely, the prayer wards off indecency and lewdness.” (29:45)

Furthermore, Imam Zaid extends this reminder to the arena of marriage; he seeks to remind Muslim men of their responsibility to not discard certain types of women as options for marriage when they are actually permissible to them. For example, Imam Zaid asks why so many Muslim men seem to be averse to marrying older sisters, divorced or widowed sisters, or sisters of a darker complexion. And why are the independent and educated Muslim sisters finding themselves having been left to “spinsterhood?” He reminds us that the Prophet’s (pbuh) own wife, Khadija (ra), was older than him as well as wealthy and accomplished in business. God places piety above all other qualities like skin color or age. In fact, these obstacles have not been put up by Islam, but rather by cultural traditions which exist in the Muslim world and which have carried themselves over to American and Canadian Muslim communities as well. Reserving marriage for only young, fair, or docile Muslim women has led to several psychological and social implications for our communities and our Muslim women (of all kinds).

This would seem to be a universally acceptable premise, especially for Muslims in America and around the world who wish to remind non-Muslims of the compassion and love in our religion as well. However, there have been objections to Imam Zaid’s article, from men and women alike. Many commenters’ first reaction was to reject being responsible for many Muslim women still being single in their late 20s, 30s, and beyond; they claim [same commenter] that it was those women’s independent choices to pursue other interests first (e.g., higher education, career, etc.) and therefore their own fault. The implication here is that those women have become too old or too independent to be a good option as a wife. This conclusion is based on the assumption that a woman cannot be assertive or independent AND a good wife, simultaneously. In a similar vein, other comments worry about the “leadership problem” that arises when an independent wife does not respect her husband’s authority, while others went further by claiming that women who question their husbands’ absolute authority (under Allah (swt), of course) are attempting to live according to their own kind of Islam, not that given by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

One commenter on MuslimMatters acknowledged that men have lessons to learn, but reminded the readership that women must have the “right attitude,” too; he respectfully differentiated between an independent woman and a disrespectful/condescending woman, as a good option for marriage. As is the case on the internet, that comment sparked a vibrant dialogue in the comments section about the qualities of a good wife, and whether a working woman can be part of that definition.

Of course, there were many readers and commenters which praised Imam Zaid’s article and agreed that Muslim communities need to be less judgmental of women. One sister wrote sincerely about the marriage crisis facing Muslim women, in an attempt to remind some other commenters that there is a real demographic imbalance between available Muslim men and women. There were a few posts which shared the beauty and peace that can be found in a committed and patient marriage. Several other commenters offered further points to act and improve; one commenter on MuslimMatters reminded us that as a new generation, we have the opportunity to establish healthier traditions. Another frequent contributor to MuslimMatters, Siraaj, agreed with the spirit of Imam Zaid’s article, but expressed concern about our ability to implement them. He writes, “marriage isn’t community service. It’s easy for a leader to look above with a big picture view and see social problems that need to be addressed, and it quite something else to realize relationships are more complex than simply pairing up this one with that one.” I believe this comment makes a good point about the reality of implementing social change in the arena of marriage; it is a fiercely personal decision and you will rarely find someone willing to “take one for the team” by marrying someone they are not happy with. However, I think the point of Imam Zaid’s article is to remind our hearts that perhaps we should re-examine what is best for ourselves; for example, there may be value in marrying a mature woman (or a worldly, independent woman, or a “dark” but kind-hearted woman, etc.), and our cultural traditions disavowing these women are only doing harm to ourselves and our communities.

(Photo: Nina Matthews)
Anjum Malkana is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah


  • Zumar says:

    I have noted that Muslim Americans of South Asian descent appear to be shedding, albeit slowly, the bias against women of a darker complexion. While our counterparts in Pakistan or India continue to hold on to the ridiculous notion that lighter is tantamount to better, I feel that we, the Muslim community in the United States, are beginning to discard this deeply ingrained bias.

    Perhaps because we are fortunate to grow up in a society where we are exposed to a broad spectrum of colors and learn to appreciate each one, whereas Pakistanis or Indians live in a more homogenous environment where the lines dictating beauty are not as malleable.

    Or perhaps because our parents are content when we select a Muslim of similar ethnic background and education, whereas parents in Pakistan and India know that their children will inevitably marry a Pakistani or Indian Muslim, and in addition they demand that the bride or groom-to-be is also “tall, fair and slim!”

    I’m optimistic that discussions such as these are moving us in the right direction.

  • Saadia says:

    I think its better to read sometimes and respond other times. Although a believer can be anyone who believes in God, I found Imam Shakir’s response to be mostly appropriate and don’t think it should be taken too personally that not a lot of people responded. No one responds to mine either.

  • Saadia says:

    Earlier this year, a Newsweek cover had the shoe bomber all alone while everyone was hooked to him.

    In an election year, it might seem great to have a beautiful dolphin all alone. Then all the other beautiful dolphins can gather around and vote in drones.

    If you like, go and vote and numbers – Get involved in the issues. Organize like crazy.

  • Saadia says:

    But do not do the wrong things for the wrong reasons for any party.

  • Sobia says:

    “And why are the independent and educated Muslim sisters finding themselves having been left to ???spinsterhood???? “

    Just another reason that interfaith marriages for Muslim women should not be frowned upon. If our Muslim “brothers” don’t want to marry us, then why not try our Jewish or Christian “brothers”? There seems to be more maturity when it comes to looking for romantic partners as many of them don’t have the same hang ups Muslim men seem to – i.e. complexion, virginity (meaning no widows and divorcees), independence, education level, etc.

    ” have noted that Muslim Americans of South Asian descent appear to be shedding, albeit slowly, the bias against women of a darker complexion.”

    Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case for Canadians of South Asian descent – namely the Toronto crowd (not to bash on them). Canadian desis are not as removed from India or Pakistan as American desis appear to be so the ways of thinking remain into the generations born here. Additionally, those in places like Toronto tend to be isolated from non-desis, thus not many opportunities to change their views.

    At least, that has been my impression of them. Hopefully I am wrong.

  • Saadia says:

    Actually, I didn’t read Zaid Shakir’s entire article a second time, but just generally acknowledging the idea of chivalry.

  • katseye says:

    Personally, I feel that if I were to ever be widowed or was a divorcee, I’d have an extremely hard time remarrying if I were to ever make such a decision. It’s reality-I’m educating myself, have children, and am in my 30’s and know very well what I want and what I do not want.

    As for the article, both men and women need to be actively solving this problem. For those of us raising sons, as women what are we teaching them? Do we carry around personal/cultural baggage and social customs that are not Islamic? Do we encourage stereotypes and gender inequality? Do we teach our daughters to dumb down and pretty up in order to be married? Do we teach our sons to look for girls who are not as educated or focused? Do we encourage intelligence/career yet live a life quite opposite?

    If we shed all of this then we’ll be more successful in solving this crisis, otherwise, it’s going to get worse.

  • Anjum says:

    Zumar – I do hope you are right, that American Muslim communities are beginning to shed the bias against darker-skinned women. however I think “beginning” is the key word there – it’s still pretty active, from our mothers and match-making aunties. It’s not easy for most men to go against their mothers and/or cultural traditions, to “go to bat” for a darker girl – especially if it is someone they aren’t already in love with. Nevertheless, I’m optimistic that Generations X and Y make active changes for our marriages and our children’s marriages.

    Saadia – lol you are right – I think a lot of people must’ve read Imam Zaid’s article and thought, “well, duh.” I wish more people (on altmuslimah, on the internet in general!) would post comments of encouragement and agreement!

    Katseye – I agree entirely, that this is not an issue of laying fault on one gender or the other; it’s clearly something that we all need to work on, including those who are *already* married. I think there has been a tendency in our community to leave this problem to those who haven’t managed to get married yet (or get married again, as the case may be for widows or divorcees). Good luck getting mothers of particular colors to change what they teach their sons though; they must know it’s not fair to dismiss a woman simply because of her skin color, but they do it because “that’s how it is” or other similar “tradition-is-tradition” explanation.

  • Saadia says:

    @ Anjum ~

    I read Zaid Shakir’s article again. It just discusses ways to improve gender relations.

    Its important to not only chase physical beauty and wealth in exclusion to liking a person for who they are -how they treat people, personality, spirit, etc.

    After all, couples grow old together and it doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. Women can have problems related to having children and not retain the weight they had before regardless of what it was.

    Moreover, there are very good looking and rich people out there, who don’t like it when people are just after them for those things and overlook the rest of their personality.

    But I think in other cases its good to find balance between the spiritual and the physical. This was the idea behind trends like the Renaissance, influenced from the Arabs who studied Greek and Roman Texts (and incidentally the texts were translated by Jewish scholars who were often multilingual – so it was really a watershed phenomenon that needed different faiths to work in tandem towards enlightenment and the greater good.)

    So I feel that the hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) that Imam Zakir quoted needed more context for different situations.

  • Saadia says:

    Moreover, it really is important to create some education on what Prophet Muhammad was about…from different and informed viewpoints (and demonstrate tolerance in the discussion since some ideas have proven to be controversial.) The 2 points that most often come up as a source of confusion, either in approaching foreign affairs or in discussions within one country are:

    1) Women’s Rights
    2) The Concept of Jihad

    John Esposito of Georgetown has written about both issues, especially relevant after the Soviet Union wasn’t the primary focus.

    Even if people don’t want to say it in public, these confusions have the potential to worsen problems.

    These controversial topics are not withstanding the fact that Muhammad was named as the #1 out of the #100 most influential people in history.

  • Saadia says:

    Also important is not to get caught up in manipulation and games. Things fall into place when you do your own prayer.

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