When Love is Not Enough: Reassessing Marriage in the Muslim Community
*This article is adapted from a presentation Sr. Hosai Mojaddidi prepared for the Grand Mawlid event, held February 5th, 2012 in Santa Clara, California.
According to a Soundvision survey conducted in 2010: “If you attended six Muslim weddings this summer, chances are that two will end up in divorce sooner or later!” That might sound like a shocking statistic, but sadly, right now I can think of two recent marriages that are already on the verge of divorce.
So according to this study, as of the late 1990s, the North American Muslim divorce rate stands at 31.14 percent. Incompatibility was the most cited reason for divorce (16.38%), followed by abuse (13.12%), financial disputes (10.41%), family / in-laws interference (10.20%), sexual infidelity / adultery (8.79%), and others.
When they added the results of “religious incompatibility” to the general “incompatibility” factor, it came out to 25.71%. So, basically 1/3 of our marriages are ending in divorce and 1/4th of those are because of incompatibility, specifically, religious incompatibility.
So what does this mean? Clearly, there is a problem in our marriage selection process when a third of our marriages are falling apart.
In my experience over the past 15 years, talking with Muslim couples from all different backgrounds and ages, I believe there are other, underlying reasons, that further explain why our marriages are falling apart.
For example, there is a major generational disparity between the youth and the elders of our community regarding what defines an “ideal” partner and a happy marriage. The youth have their criteria and the elders have theirs and as the saying goes, “never the twain shall meet!”
Let’s start with the youth. Unfortunately, many of our youth have been affected by what is called “The Love Delusion,” which one article describes as:
“The root of any romance today is love, but it wasn’t always so. In past cultures, people came together because their parents arranged it or they wanted to join lands or kingdoms; love was secondary. Today, love is the only thing that matters. This over-emphasis on love is encouraged by media that tells stories, sings songs and writes books about how true love conquers all, is ultimately fulfilling, brings a never-ending wealth of happiness and is rarely marred by significant conflict. “
People caught up in this are deluded by the characters created by Hollywood & Bollywood, characters like: the “Knight in Shining Armor,” the “Filmi Hero,” the “Bad Boy,” the “Rebel Without a Cause,” the “Girl Next Door,” and the “Girl Who Plays Hard to Get”.
They’re also deluded by the Hollywood notion of what “true love” is and how you’re supposed to feel when you find “The One.” We’ve all seen the dramatic scenes that associate a chemical or visceral reaction with “true love,”…you know the sweaty palms, the heart palpitations, the shortness of breath, and fainting, etc. So basically, the idea that they continue to bombard us with through film, songs, media, etc., is that until or unless you feel these things, you haven’t really found “true love.”
The reality is that the youth of our community are plagued by these destructive and unrealistic thoughts. If you don’t believe me, just look at Facebook, Twitter, or Myspace and see what people are preoccupied with.
I’ve actually heard from sisters, who have said to me, “Sister Hosai, he’s an amazing guy, I know he’ll be a wonderful husband and father, and I have no complaints otherwise…it’s just…it’s just that I don’t feel butterflies when I’m around him!” or “We don’t have any ‘chemistry.’” or …”He’s TOO nice and that turns me off!”
These are girls who are practicing their faith, they’re pious sisters otherwise, but they actually have turned away prospects for “being too nice”! Why? Because “nice guys” finish last in Hollywood, don’t they? They’re often portrayed as the weak, nerdy, geeky types; in other words, the monogamous ones who actually want a relationship! Who wants that when the “Hero” of the film drives up in a leather jacket on a motorcycle and has all the girls swooning over him? Yeah that guy is real marriage material!
Sadly, in many cases, these are the same sisters who are so trapped in the “Love Delusion” they’re willing to wait in line for hours to watch the next film in the Twilight Series or the latest Shahrukh Khan flick at Naz Cinema in Fremont.
And of course, some of our brothers have also been trapped by the “Love Delusion.” They are the ones who are so focused on physicality that if a girl doesn’t have a certain “look” then she isn’t attractive enough; she’s not “his type”. And what is this type? You know, the airbrushed face, the tall and photo-shopped physique, the fake extensions and nails. Basically, the altered and unreal images splattered across magazine covers, billboards, music videos, etc.
In fact I’ve actually had brothers ask me to find them, and I quote, “A Muslim Kim Kardashian”! What on earth does that even mean? She is the epitomy of everything a Muslim woman should NOT be! If you don’t know who she is, then consider yourself very lucky.
Now, in all seriousness, it’s important to mention that of course attraction and compatibility are important. However, when you have unrealistic expectations and wont even consider talking to someone who doesn’t look or act like a figment of your imagination, then clearly there is a problem.
So to summarize, the “Love Delusion” is the first problem. The second problem is with our elders, especially those from immigrant backgrounds, who have an entirely different, and in many cases a much more destructive issue; many of them have very fixed and rigid prejudices, often borrowed from their cultures and customs, that influence the way they select partners for their children.
Sadly, many of these elders are active community members, religiously devoted, and knowledgeable and yet, they may or may not be aware of it, but they hold some of the most distorted views and prejudices imaginable when it comes to marriage, views that have absolutely no basis in Islam.
Why is this so?
Because, if it wasn’t clear before, it should be now, that we have a very serious crisis in our community in our understanding of marriage and how to select the ideal partner. There’s been a major departure from the Islamic standard as people continue to prefer their own individual or cultural standards instead. We cannot allow things to continue as they have been. We need to completely reform our current understanding of what constitutes a good marriage and reassess the criteria with which we select spouses. Because clearly, as the title of this talk states, love alone is not enough, and neither is lust or any other superficial thing for that matter.
So what defines a successful marriage?
Successful marriages are built on solid foundations. In order to learn these things, we need to return to the Prophetic example and see what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did in his own life and what he taught others about marriage. He is the perfect example in every way and his standards should be our standards.
We must first begin by starting backwards and trying to undo the harm caused by our distorted views. So once we learn what he taught us about how to marry we can then extrapolate what he didn’t teach us.
For example, he didn’t teach us to worry about:
- The shade or color of someone’s skin…
- Or whether one speaks Fus-ha or has a Khaleeji, Shammi, or Masri accent.
- Or whether one is Punjabi vs. Memon, or Kandahari vs. Kabuli…
- Or whether one has a Bachelor’s degree or a Master’s degree
- Or whether one is a car salesman’ or a doctor
- Or whether one has green eyes or brown eyes
- Or whether one is balding or has straight hair vs. curly
- Or whether one is 21, 31, or 41…
- Or whether one has been engaged before or married…
The bottom line is, that no matter how much importance we may give to these things based on our perception of what will make us happy, and it really is just a perception, we will never be happy.
There’s a video of a Professor of Psychology from Harvard, by the name of Dan Gilbert, called, “Why Are We Happy?” In the video he describes the human adaptation of being able to simulate experiences by just simply creating them in our mind. For example, he jokingly describes how Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t have “liver-and-onion” ice cream, not because they whipped some up and said yuck, but because you can simulate the flavor and imagine that it wouldn’t taste very good. This ability that we have, although very useful, comes with a glitch. It’s called the “impact bias” which he describes as, “the tendency for the simulator to work badly. For the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are.”
So, we do this right? We all simulate happiness and misery, especially when it comes to marriage. Some of us, before we got married or before our children grew up, we already ruled out certain groups of people as potential spouses. Based entirely on our PERCEPTION of what certain unions would be like or what type of a spouse a certain person would be, we discriminate. Without any experience at all and based entirely on our ideas, we presume to know what is good enough for our son or daughters. How many people have come to learn the hard way that none of these things matter? That none of our superficial or material preferences have any importance in determining happiness if we have not first and above all else considered the content of someone’s character.
After all, if education or financial status were among the most important criteria, what do you say about our Beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) who was unlettered and left this earth without even enough oil to light his lamp on his deathbed? Aisha (may God be pleased with her) had to borrow oil for the lamp as he lay passing! If he was unlettered, is a brother to be looked down upon simply because he did not pursue his graduate studies or did not complete his studies in order to pursue a trade or a skill or to study the sacred sciences?
Or if a sister was previously married, what do you say about some of the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him)? If they were good enough for the Best of Creation (peace be upon him) despite having been married before, who are you? Is such a sister not good enough for you? Do you have the right to caste her aside or dismiss her for your son, brother or grandson, because simply put she’s not a virgin?!
Are we not better than this? Are we not better than who we have become?
Every single day, there are sisters in our community who are suffering, by God they are suffering. I can’t tell you how many emails, phone calls, and meetings I have personally had over the years–stories that would break your heart–from sisters who are LONELY and wondering what defect they have because they cannot seem to get married! I deal with this almost on a weekly basis. And if you don’t believe me, go to any matrimonial gathering at any of these conferences, ISNA, RIS, the MCA, and see the disproportionate number of sisters to brothers. Please brothers and sisters, understand that this is a serious crisis in our community!
Many of these sisters have either been humiliated and marginalized or completely overlooked because they are either too dark, too short, too heavy, too old, married before or engaged, not educated enough or too educated, from a lower “class”, or a culture that is apparently too inferior. Nothing seems to be good enough anymore, so the question we must ask ourselves is: whose standards are we trying to meet?
I’ve also received emails from brothers who feel helpless because they want to marry a girl of their choice, but their parents disapprove of her because again, somehow she doesn’t seem to fit their skewed “criteria.” So what happens? Brothers are either conditioned early on to rule out sisters from certain groups as we mentioned before or they are cornered by guilt, threats, and ultimatums. In both cases they become part of the problem and the cycle continues.
Many of our youth feel helpless, but I have to speak today on behalf of the sisters, because from what I’ve observed they are the ones that are truly suffering. And believe me when I say that for many sisters, because of fear of being alone, their standards have drastically declined. Many of them have reached the end of the rope. I know several sisters who have considered and even married non-Muslims to avoid being alone because they feel the Muslim community has banished them completely when it comes to marriage.
Is this what we’ve come to? How can we stand by and let this happen?
So, dear brothers and sisters, I appeal to all of you and I remind myself first and foremost that we will be asked. In other words, our displays of racism, ageism, classism, whether they are outward or subtle, should not be taken lightly because Allah (swt) is a witness to everything.
Love alone is not enough to sustain a marriage, and neither is material wealth, beauty, lineage, etc. Yes, you can marry for those reasons as the hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him) permits us to but we shouldn’t expect that those things are enough to keep us happy. To truly heed his advice, we must look for sincerity of faith above everything else.
The person we should wish to marry or we should wish for our sons and daughters is the one who we are confident isn’t just there to enjoy the ride when the waters are calm but who will not abandon the ship when the storm clouds appear.
Let us learn from the example of the bond between the Mothers of the Believers (may God be pleased with them) and the Prophet (peace be upon him). Let us remember Khadija & Aisha (may God be pleased with them both) and all of his wives. Let us remember that every one of his marriages were purely for the sake of Allah (swt); He was at the center, He was the goal. This was the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him). May we follow in his mubarak footsteps and not be among those who stray and prefer our own path to his.
Hosai Mojaddidi is the co-founder and past editor of MH4M. She has been actively involved with the Muslim community in the San Francisco Bay Area and the southern California community for nearly 15 years. Additionally, Sr. Hosai is a published author and lecturer.