Some of the most hostile discussions I’ve witnessed have been between Black men and women during their discussions about relationships. It gets heated. It gets nasty. It gets dirty. Black American Muslims often get into heated conversations about gender roles, power struggles, and family instability. Black dysfunction is a sore topic and often people blame the strong black woman, the independent black woman, the mouthy and insubordinate Black woman for the break down of the Black family, and therefore community. That, as well as the men who don’t know how to be men. So, many find the answer within Islamic traditions, texts, and 1400 years of scholarship. This is the idealized version of an Islamic marriage where men are protectors and maintainers and women are devoutly obedient.
We don’t have statistics for success rates of Black American Muslim marriages, largely due to the number of Islamic marriages that are not registered with the state. In a major urban center, one counselor who does pre-marriage counseling told my husband that about 75% of the marriages end in failure. Has the advice we’ve been given worked in the past few decades? Will it work, even if everyone tries to comply with the traditional gender norms of the obedient wife and husband who protects and provides? Our expectations are not always grounded in our cultural, economic, and social realities. The truth is, most of us enter our marriages with poor relationship and communication skills. Instead, we talk about rights and obligations. As for skills, we tend to overlook that.
I know I’m going to get some push back, but I had some thoughts about infantile notions of marriage within the Black American Muslim community. I think the notion that an adult Muslim women must obey their husbands, shut their mouths, provide sex, and cook food is a gross simplification of the formula for creating a happy husband. I’ve heard a number of Muslims cite works such as “The Submissive Wife” or “Fascinating Woman,” advocating mythic submission based on the Bible without acknowledging some of the nuance in these books, and some of the problems. They are just proof that women should obey and stop complaining. They catalogue gendered emotional needs, without considering that not everyone is the same. For example, on the notion of respect. Both men and women want to be respected. A healthy marriage is built upon mutual respect and love. One cannot disregard and disrespect the feelings of a partner without expecting a build up of resentment. And how does that resentment get expressed? Either through passive aggressive behavior or confrontational behavior.
Sometimes we tend to look at a hadith or Quranic verse and think that we have the entire prescription for a social problem. But without context, we may not understand the kulliyat (big picture). The other point that becomes important is that perhaps Muslims need to look beyond rights and rules and look towards ethics, or rather a way of being in the world that embodies the sunnah of our Prophet (s.a.w.) . While I am not qualified as a mufassir (commentator of Quran), I am aware that some authoritative scholars have interpreted verse 4:34 in various ways, including in a way that does not entail that a woman has to obey her husband’s commands, but God’s commands. Many scholars have qualified what is allowed in with the “beat them” with a “lightly” in parenthesis, to others who have looked to the seerah (prophetic biography) to outright prohibit wife beating. The reality is that there are Muslim traditionalists who will still uphold the right of a husband to hit his wife with a miswak (a tooth brush), and even some Black American Muslims who would argue that a smart mouthed woman could get a back hand to the face. I have even sat in a Arabic khutbah where the immigrant imam did say that a man can hit his wife, just not in the face. But the majority of American Muslim scholars are against domestic violence. I personally cannot even entertain the idea of wife beating as part of a healthy marriage, let alone a right that would help foster love and mutual devotion.
I think that some men are taught that their spouses only respect them if the wife is immediately compliant. At the same time, this expectation leaves many intelligent women who may have legitimate reservations also feeling disrespected by their partners. Men are not the only ones who need respect. Everyone wants respect. We feel respected when someone listens to us and takes our feelings into consideration. So, while the Quran acknowledges the degree that men have over women, it does not mean that they always wield their privilege over their wives in a way that belittles them, infantalizes them, and emotionally harms them. If you really like your spouse as a person, would you treat them in a way that makes them feel like a child or treat them in a way that you wouldn’t treat an animal?
This raises the question as to something being allowed in Islam, but not necessarily being the best thing to do. Commanding someone and making demands, from a point of privilege and entitlement can breed a lot of ill feelings. Just as a woman may find that an indirect approach to her husband will yield success, a man may find out that asking his wife, “Do you mind making dinner?” may leave open some space for her to say that she feels ill that day, she is tired after a long day of work and maybe take-out would be best. But the demand for dinner may leave a woman feeling a yoke of oppression, as opposed to the husband appreciating the home cooked meal, rather then feeling entitled.
While some people choose to conform to the idea of an obedient, subservient, and submissive wife, some of us choose to have an engaged surrender, or submission. And there are happy marriages where the wife is an equal partner and the husband does not feel his manhood threatened by his wife telling him something is a bad idea or to occasionally pick up take out. In fact, one of the most pious women I know has a marriage built on a model of mutual respect and consultation.