An interview with author Suzy Ismail

When Muslim Marriage Fails: Divorce Chronicles and Commentaries by Suzy Ismail is a provocative compilation of five divorce cases, each told in the first person from the wife’s perspective, the husband’s perspective, and then wrapped up with a commentator’s analysis. Each story is based on a distinct theme – abuse, infidelity, culture clash, growing apart, and stress – yet the main threads that tie them together are poor communication of expectations and feelings between spouses and an unwillingness to cooperate and compromise.
With the alarming rate at which Muslim-American marriages (and marriages in general) are crumbling, Ms. Ismail, a Communications professor at DeVry University in New Jersey, wrote this book in order to explore the root causes of divorce and promote honest discussion on how couples can avoid the same end. In this interview with the author, we discuss these root causes in more depth as well as practical lessons on how to improve our own relationships.

Why did you decide to focus on divorce among Muslims rather than divorce in general? You mention that the issues explored in your book are not specific to Muslims; nonetheless, are there some distinct differences in how divorces occur and are handled in our community versus society at large?

Divorce in general is a topic that is openly discussed and has a great deal of writing already available. However, divorce among Muslims has been an almost taboo topic that people hardly talk about, let alone write about. One of the biggest differences between Muslim divorces and non-Muslim divorces is that dissolution of marriage has become almost commonplace among non-Muslims and is talked about openly, but even though Muslim divorce rates are increasing at a rapid rate, discussions of prevention and the aftermath of divorce are still very hush-hush.

What was your process for compiling and writing these stories? How has your understanding of this topic evolved throughout the process?

I gathered many stories of divorce using mostly informal methods to get people to open up, changed names and specific details, and compiled them into the five segments of the book. Then I rewrote the stories based on how I imagined each partner would feel and from each person’s perspective. The most common factor in the cases I saw was a lack of communication or several points of miscommunication between spouses. Many of the situations began as a series of misconceived emotions that eventually spiraled out of control. My understanding has evolved based on a greater awareness that problems should never be left to fester and that fearing Allah (swt) in your treatment of spouse along with open communication are the keys to a successful marriage.

Three stories involve immigrant spouses who struggle to adapt to American culture. To what extent does our community’s overall struggle with cultural adjustment contribute to our divorce rates, particularly regarding gender role expectations? How can we address this issue?

Intercultural and interethnic struggles tend to be more common themes in failed Muslim marriages. Unfortunately, we have first and second generation Muslims, born and raised in the United States, whose parents still feel that they must marry someone from “back home”. This often creates an intercultural struggle because of completely different upbringings and cultural implications, such as different views of gender roles. Often these views have no basis in Islam but are expected based on cultural tradition. In Islam, the concept of kafa’a in marriage is strongly encouraged. Kafa’a expresses the idea of compatibility. We should encourage people who are looking for a spouse to follow the guidelines of kafa’a and to know that their naseeb is out there even if it takes a little patience and a lot of faith to find him or her.

Inflated expectations are a major problem in all five stories. How can we as a community shift our focus away from an idealized image of marriage towards more realistic models?

Education is the key to gaining a better understanding of what is truly important in a marriage. We need to continually promote the idea of what a real, strong marriage is. This is the best way to dispel the idealized notions that the media and even our own cultural movies and notions tend to dramatize. The romantic ideals of marriage are often very different from the day-to-day joys and trials of marriage. The sooner we can recondition the upcoming generations to view marriage as a continual work in progress, the better the outcome will be for the future of Muslim marriages.

As you emphasize in the book, certainly divorce is not to be taken lightly. However it seems that in many of these stories, the root problem is that marriage was taken too lightly, to the point that weddings were rushed, couples barely communicated beforehand, and those that did failed to have discussions on substantive issues that would have revealed their incompatibility. How would you advise two people to get to know one another in a productive, honest way?

It is impossible to completely know another person prior to marriage. This means that it is more important for people to know themselves before attempting to know someone else. If you can clearly identify your own needs, desires, and life goals as well as your good and bad points, you will have a better chance of identifying potential compatibility. We also need to change our line of questioning when meeting a potential mate. Rather than focusing on an interview-style firing of question after question, we should instead develop a discussion that can unfold into a mutually beneficial conversation that will help reveal some basis of kafa’a.

Why do you think all the individuals in these stories refused or were unable to communicate with those around them, especially their own spouses? For people who struggle with expressing their feelings and expectations, how would you advise they improve this important skill?

Not knowing yourself is often a huge hindrance in effective communication. You really need to know who you are and how you best convey your thoughts. So, if you’re not much of a talker, maybe you’re a writer. Leave your spouse notes instead of phone messages. Maybe you’re an e-mailer or a texter. Whatever way you choose to communicate, just stick with the way you do it best and do it.

The last story is interesting because it illustrates that even when a couple agrees in theory on expectations before marriage, the trying reality of living together and having children puts their ideals to the test, causing beliefs to change (or perhaps causing true, buried feelings to surface). How can young couples prepare for the possibility that their beliefs may evolve and conflict over time?

All of us know that we have immutable points that we won’t compromise on and other points that we might give a little on. It is important to understand yourself, identify these points, and communicate them to your spouse or potential mate. This will definitely help a marriage in the long run.

The couples in your book could have benefited significantly from marriage counseling. Why did none of them pursue this option, and how can we encourage Muslim couples to reach out for professional help when they need it?

It goes back to the cultural taboos that we have in our societies. Couples often feel that they would rather save face than share with anyone that they are having marital problems. Unfortunately, the lack of openness makes couples hesitant to open up even with a professional counselor about marriage problems. There is also a very low number of certified Muslim Marriage Counselors in the U.S. The lack of such trained professionals makes many couples hesitant to approach anyone at all about possible alternatives to simply ending a marriage.

How has the Muslim community in general responded to your book? Do you plan on writing more about divorce among Muslims?

The Muslim community as a whole has been very receptive to the topic and there has been a great deal of interest both in this book and in another book that I am currently working on about how to choose the right Muslim marriage mate and hopefully maintain a successful marriage. Also, my latest book, 9 to 5: Muslims in the Western Workplace, which is scheduled for release this month, God willing, deals with several of the crises in marriages that happen due to the pressures of gender relations at work and juggling our busy lifestyles in the West. Many of the topics in that book developed from the stories I heard about divorces. It’s intended to offer solutions and paths towards preventing the breakdown of families in our current times.

Your book is a pioneering step in helping our community to face the very sensitive issue of divorce. What other steps do you see or hope to see that will further this goal?

I am working with several groups right now to develop Muslim Social Services Centers. By creating centers where people can go when they are in trouble, we can move towards establishing safe havens that should hopefully help Muslims from all walks of life experiencing marital or other life problems.

For more discussion on her book, watch Suzy Ismail’s interview on the Natasha Sherman Show[/url. More information about her work is also available on her [url=]website.
Sarah Rashid is a Contributing Editor for Altmuslimah.

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