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