They were the ideal Muslim couples.
Sakina Khan and Ali Dawood from Detroit. Sarah Tayyib and Jamal Qandeel from San Jose. Both pairs appeared firmly committed to Islam on a personal level and through activism in their local Muslim communities. For family and friends, they were examples of what an Islamically successful marriage should look like.
“People would say ‘you’re our model couple'” Khan said in an interview with Sound Vision. “In the beginning, I’d say we were,” she added.
“We were best friends,” Qandeel recalled of his marriage with Tayyib. “There were no differences in values or raising the kids or disagreement in terms of lifestyle, careers or friends.”
Today, both couples have divorced. Tayyib and Qandeel after over a decade because of her affair with another man. Khan and Dawood after more than five years together primarily because of his emotional abuse. These men and women represent a seemingly growing number of Muslims in North America choosing to end their marriages for various reasons, ranging from incompatibility to infidelity.
According to the Rutgers University National Marriage Project, the American divorce rate today is more than twice that of 1960, but has declined slightly since hitting the highest point in the country’s history in the early 1980s. Overall, close to 50 percent of marriages started today will end in either divorce or permanent separation. In Canada, the divorce rate is about 37 percent.
In terms of divorce within the North American Muslim community, the last study conducted about this was in the early 1990s by the late New York-based sociologist Ilyas Ba-Yunus. According to his research, the continental Muslim divorce rate stood at 31.14 percent, which he said was “a far cry from the Muslim world’s two highest divorce rates: Turkey and Egypt, with 10% each” (“Divorce Among Muslims” by Ilyas Ba-Yunus, Islamic Horizons magazine, July/August 2000 issue).
Today, that rate seems to be increasing.
“Divorce is on the rise in the Muslim community,” said Imam Mohamed Magid, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, and Imam and executive director of the Dulles, Virginia based All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center. “We have seen an increase in divorce from people married for a while and those married for a short time,” he said, adding that Muslims across the board are getting divorced in higher numbers. “It is not among a particular race or ethnic background or class or only among the religious or non-religious.”
“The most depressing thing for an Imam is to deal with family conflict and divorce because this is not normal. You feel down,” said Imam Ziya Kavakci of the Islamic Association of North Texas. Kavakci is also a member of the Fiqh Council of North America. He has served as Imam at his mosque for over two decades and said he sees at least one couple a day who are in conflict, including some who seek divorce. He believes divorce is a “rampant problem” in the Muslim community and that “the Ummah is a mess when it comes to marriage”.
From an Islamic perspective, divorce is the legal route out of an abusive or unsatisfactory marriage for both men and women. There are detailed rules outlining the processes involved, as well as preliminary steps to help deal with conflict before that option is pursued. Historically, divorce in Muslim societies has strongly been considered a measure of the last resort, a step chosen after much negotiation and discussion, taking into account the long-term effects on all family members, especially children.
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said “Of all the lawful acts the most detestable to Allah is divorce.” This view continues to guide many Muslims, even those who have chosen to end their marriages.
“Prior to my divorce, I wanted desperately not to be divorced,” said Zainab Awad of Washington, DC. “I didn’t want to feel like a failure, which is kind of how I looked at other divorced people, sad as it is to say that. That is why it took a while for the divorce to happen. Has it changed since then? Yes. Since then I feel that it is something that happens, it’s a part of life, and I don’t feel it is a bad thing necessarily, or rather it does not reflect badly upon a person.”
Ashraf Munir, a divorced father from Madison, Wisconsin, who ended his marriage after his ex-wife resorted to drinking and seeing other men when the couple would argue called divorce “the most horrible Halal thing you can do.” However, he added that, “I thought if something went wrong, I’d tough it out. But at one point, life gets so miserable, you understand there’s a reason it’s (the divorce option) there.”
There clearly seems to be a move away from the attitude that couples should stay together even in the unhappiest of marriages for the sake of the children, a view once held by many Muslim immigrants.
“Historically, people from immigrant cultures will be more likely to stay in a marriage even if they’re miserable,” said Salma Abugideiri, a Reston, Virginia-based therapist who has counseled hundreds of Muslim and non-Muslim families for over a decade. “I don’t necessarily think that’s better. I think we tend to value an intact family over a healthy family. It’s a matter of perspective and what we prioritize and how we define what’s best for the kids.”
Others dispute that staying together for the kids was really for the children’s benefit in the first place. “The older generation stuck it out for saving face. It wasn’t for the kids. If they were, they would get out of it for the kids,” said Edmund Arroyo, a clinical social worker with the Oakbrook, Illinois-based Heartspeak Institute, who counsels both Muslims and non-Muslims.
For Humaira Basith of Chicago, the impending birth of her first child was the impetus to seek a divorce more than a decade ago. At the time, she was married to a man 10 years older than her who was verbally and emotionally abusive.
“I would not raise a child with him and pass on his absurdities to another human being,” she said, explaining why she chose to end her marriage of five years when she did. Basith added she did not want her daughter to be raised in a home where there was no harmony, since she and her ex-husband argued regularly.
Munir, the divorced father from Wisconsin, emphasized that the negative effects of divorce on a former couple are prolonged and painful when children are involved. “There is no finality to divorce with a child,” he said. “A divorce goes on forever because there is always a struggle over a child.”
More than 1 million children each year experience their parents’ divorce in the United States. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at all ages, children frequently have psychosomatic symptoms as a response to anger, loss, grief, feeling unloved and other stressors related to divorce. It is not uncommon for them to try to play one parent against the other because they need to feel in control and test rules and limits. However, they are likely to feel guilty and responsible for the separation and feel that they should try to restore the marriage.
It is these negative effects that continue to give a number of warring couples pause before pursuing a divorce. “On the one hand, kids deserve to have both parents, but on the other hand, they don’t see a happily married family,” said Aneesah Nadir, president of the Islamic Social Services Association, explaining the dilemma.
While there is evidence that children of divorce face a higher risk of mental and other issues, research also notes that some factors can ease the pain for them. These include a positive temperament, an optimistic view of the future, consistent parental discipline, parental acceptance and warmth, and the maintenance of as normal a routine as possible.
“I think it really depends on how the divorce takes place as well as how secure the children were before the divorce,” said Abugideiri. “Children can be very resilient if they have good attachments with each parent and they’ve been nurtured properly. But children who, from day one, have experienced a lot of conflict in the house, they already will have issues.”
Qandeel’s parents divorced when he was ten and he said the experience was far from negative.
“I remember how relieved I was when my parents got divorced,” he said. “There was a coldness in the family. There was clearly no love or affection. The home was a cold place and even as a 10-year-old you see it.” He said after his parents’ divorce, his mother became happier and “my life improved considerably as a child.”
Today, he is grappling with this same struggle as he helps his two children adjust to the break up of his own family. He said that since they were quite young when he initially moved out months before the legal divorce from his ex-wife, his children don’t remember a time when the family lived together.
However, Qandeel remains ambivalent. Based on some of the artwork they have drawn since then, he has tried to get a clearer idea. He described drawings where “one kid is holding the hand of mom and another of dad but mom and dad not holding each other’s hands.” He noted though that, “they’re still happy pictures. I’m hoping that that’s telling me their mental development has not suffered too much.”
“I’ve seen parents that make sure they put their children first so even if the parents can’t get along, they’re cooperative, they’re civil, they don’t put the kids in the middle, they’re really decent about it,” said Abugideiri. “Those children fare the best. Children can get very torn if their parents put them in the middle or talk badly about the other parent or undermine the other parent’s authority. It could be anything from difficulty in school to low self-esteem to depression. Some kids will start acting out, especially as teenagers. They might run away from home, take drugs, take a girl/boyfriend. But it’s not a necessary outcome of divorce. There are lots of cases when the kids actually want the divorce if they’ve witnessed domestic violence.”
Basith said that when she divorced over a decade ago, there was plenty of rumor-mongering, finger-pointing and whispering behind the backs of she and her family in her local Muslim community. Divorce was like a death sentence.
“It was really hard for the family to see beyond the stigma,” she said, adding that at the time, there was no Imam with any counseling experience, no Muslim counselor or any other authority figure she felt she could turn to who would maintain confidentiality. “For me, there were no options,” she said.
That seems to have changed for the better, at least in urban centers with large Muslim populations like Chicago.
“The majority of the people interviewed have described a great deal of fear and apprehension about telling their families or Imams that they want a divorce. But once they divorced, they received more support than they expected,” said Julie Macfarlane, a professor at the University of Windsor Law School in Canada, who is conducting an empirical research project on the topic of Faith Based Dispute Resolution, and specifically Islamic Family Law as it relates to religious divorce. She has interviewed close to 200 Muslims, including divorced men and women, 45 Imams from across North America, as well as community workers dealing with the issue.
She added that in her research, she found more mosques were beginning to hire counselors to deal with issues of family conflict, and more Imams willing to admit they were not sufficiently trained to handle these challenges.
However, this support for divorcing couples is still not as easily available in cities with a smaller Muslim population.
“There was very little advice in terms of what I could do to absorb her anger, to make her feel better about her areas of concern, to make myself a better husband, to coordinate peace and truce between us to give things time to heal,” said Nasser Fares from Spokane, Washington, who has been divorced for over five years. “The community here is not very well developed so services like counseling and so forth are unavailable, especially to couples that do not have families here in the area,” he said.
Fares felt he and his ex-wife would have benefited from “professional support groups and counselors.”
“The usual female support group to a wife always makes her feel justified and the usual male support group for a husband always makes him feel justified. Those kinds of support groups are the worst thing for either spouse. You need real professional support groups that help you express your concerns in a constructive way that do not hurt the other spouse’s feelings, and also teach you to truly listen to what your spouse is trying to say,” he added.
But while support is growing in some places, the social stigma remains.
“A lot of times, women post-divorce feel like they’ve lost their community because they can’t socialize the same way. People blame them for the divorce,” said Abugideiri. “The divorced woman is excluded from social activities because she is ‘contagious’, which has no basis in Islam.”
This was the case for Linda Kortobi of Poughkeepsie, New York, after she divorced a decade ago. “I was lonely at Eids,” she recalled. “You become a liability to couples. No sister wants a young, single sister around her husband.”
In her case, because she was a convert to Islam, she also had to deal with the lack of support from her non-Muslim family, who had been hostile to her conversion. She said her family adopted an “I told you marrying a Muslim would do this” attitude towards her divorce.
However, Muslim men face a level of stigma in the aftermath of divorce as well.
“Many did not want to come forward to ask how I was doing (after the divorce), they were almost acting like they did not know what happened,” said Kareem Adly of Merrillville, Indiana. “Many Muslims, especially the older generation, do not want to ask about my past and in general do not like to talk about negative events in life. It is almost like it is a taboo subject.”
“The community needs to offer support to people going through difficult times,” advised Abugideiri. “When a couple divorces, that’s when they need the community the most. They need to continue to include each person. They’re still individual members of the society. Those children need to feel they’re not being looked down upon just because their parents had problems.”
Divorce is clearly a pressing issue in the Muslim community, even with the lack of statistics. Based on the experience of leaders, counselors and other activists, there seem to be nine major reasons that lead to divorce in the Muslim community.
“Parents and other family members do not allow the young couple to develop their relationship organically and independently of the family,” explained Azam Nizamuddin, a Chicago-based attorney who specializes in family law, among other fields. Apart from general interference in the couple’s life, there are a few specific problems in this regard that lead to divorce amongst Muslims. Foremost among these is conflict between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws.
In some cultures, particularly South Asian, according to Kavakci and Arroyo, a wife may be expected to live with her in-laws after marriage for economic and/or emotional reasons. This often leads to serious clashes.
“Men have to be sensitive to the fact that their mothers will not necessarily treat their wives well,” Arroyo said. “And they have to be willing to stand up against it.”
Kavakci was more forthcoming with his criticism. “The husbands are chicken,” he said and unable to protect their own nuclear family unit for fear of their mother’s displeasure. In his experience, a mother-in-law’s jealousy towards the daughter-in-law’s closeness to her son often causes problems in these scenarios and has led to divorce.
Arroyo explained that when a husband does not defend his wife in situations where she is abused, belittled or mistreated by his mother, that leads to distrust in the marital relationship, paving the way to more serious problems and possibly divorce.
In a setup where the wife lives with her in-laws, control of the household, privacy and cultural expectations are three of the biggest sources of tension.
“When a young man brings his wife to the household, he needs to consider: does she have her own room, her own space, can she be in a place where does not have to wear Hijab, for example, or does she always have to wear Hijab because of other people being in the house?” said Imam Magid. He added that in some cases, a wife cannot even cook her own meals “because the kitchen is the domain of the lady of the house, which is her mother-in-law”.
He added that cultural rules and expectations may also negatively affect how a daughter-in-law is treated, especially if she was born and/or raised in North America and her parents-in-laws come from abroad. Some of these include entertaining guests even if they are not her or her husband’s and serving her in-laws to the detriment of her marriage. “She does not feel she is given enough time to bond with her husband, she has to cater to more than one person,” explained Imam Magid.
He also noted that displays of affection between the married couple may also cause tension when in-laws share a household. “Can they hold hands in front of their in-laws? Can they sit close? One of the problems is that parents feel it is disrespectful. They feel all kinds of intimacy should be restricted to their bedroom.”
In cases where the wife will be living with her in-laws, the solution is to firmly establish parameters and boundaries in the relationship between the new couple and the in-laws from the start and for all parties to know and understand a wife’s rights from the Islamic perspective, according to Siddiqui.
Another growing problem in relation to in-laws is increased meddling on the part of a wife’s mother.
“More and more, I’m seeing mothers of the wives interfering,” said Shahina Siddiqui, President of the Canadian branch of the Islamic Social Services Association. In many situations, she explained that it’s a case of projection. These older women want what they didn’t have for their daughters and they may cause tension between the couple to get it, she said, whether that is freedom from household chores, advanced degrees or a fancy menu at the wedding.
Itedal Shalabi, co-founder and co-director of Arab American Family Services in Burbank, Illinois has found the same in her experience as a counselor, with mothers pushing for materialistic things they did not receive as wives. “Marriage is not about a $10,000 wedding ring,” she said, warning, “do you want the marriage or the materialistic things?”
“If this was a one night stand, I could forgive. But she called him the love of her life,” said Jamal Qandeel of San Jose, referring to how his ex-wife described the man she had had an affair with. “It really came down to wanting more out of a marriage than being with someone who is a great person but that you are not in love with. And I was perfectly happy until I found out about the affair and then my love just disappeared.”
“Nothing justifies an affair,” he added. “If you hate it (the marriage) just leave it. Nothing is more destructive. An affair is far more destructive than a divorce. Usually when you have one you have other so you have the double whammy.”
“I look at her today, I don’t see the woman I love, I see the nanny of my children,” said Qandeel, referring to his ex-wife. “That woman died the day I found out about the affair. It just took me a while to come to grips,” he said painfully.
“This is the ultimate betrayal,” noted Siddiqui. “When you don’t feel revulsion to a sin like this you tend to rationalize it away,” she said. Adultery is clearly a growing problem in the Muslim community, especially given the highly sexualized environment in North America where movies, television, billboards, and the internet glorify sexual relationships outside of marriage and offer the false promise of excitement and gratification via illicit affairs. In some cases, especially where one of the spouses has always been faithful, adultery has led to mental breakdown. “Some people are so stunned they can’t believe it happened to them,” said Nadir.
Arroyo and Siddiqui both agreed that there are clear gender differences in how adultery affects marriages. Men tend to blame their wives, calling their character into question. Women, on the other hand, often blame themselves, wondering what they did wrong that led their husbands to commit adultery.
“It’s so difficult emotionally for a guy to get over that,” said Arroyo, adding that “it’s much easier for a woman to forgive her husband than a man to forgive his wife.”
Abugideiri said, “affairs are exit strategies. They basically happen when the marriage is not going well. One of the partners is not getting needs met and rather than confront the issue, they get their needs met somewhere else.” That includes, but is not limited to, sexual needs and dissatisfaction.
Abugideiri also warned that there is no age limit to adultery. She said she had recently counseled a Muslim couple in their 60s where the husband cheated on his wife. “I believe anyone is susceptible to an affair, which is why Islam has such clear boundaries about this.”
Imam Magid noted that there used to be a greater sense of fear and shame about adultery in the Muslim community. It is not the same today. However, he also emphasized that in his experience, a lack of religiosity and spiritual connection makes it more likely that a person will cheat on their spouse.
In addition, especially among Muslims who married at a younger age, “when they are in their 40s, they have a middle age crisis. Because they married young, they feel they’ve been with the same person too long and become bored with their relationship. So they start showing interest in someone else.”
Adultery leading to divorce isn’t restricted to in-person sexual and physical relationships, though. Siddiqui said that there are plenty of emotional affairs being carried out in cyberspace, what she describes as “adulterous foreplay”. In these scenarios, Muslims develop intimacy with members of the opposite sex at work or online through social networking sites like Facebook (www.facebook.com). She gave the example of one couple she counseled where the husband, after coming home from work, would immediately sit in front of a computer and share how his day went with a woman he had met online, instead of doing the same with his wife. “This is something you do with your spouse,” she said.
Sexual dysfunction, while long ignored in the Muslim community, is starting to be discussed more openly, according to Siddiqui, but there is still a long way to go. She said she has dealt with cases where dissatisfied spouses have come to her asking if it is Islamically acceptable to look at and fantasize about other members of the opposite sex to fulfill this need in their marriages.
Pornography is a multi-billion dollar business. No longer is it restricted to sleazy magazines at the back of a store. Most of it is available online, easily accessible with a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse. More than 70% of men from 18 to 34 visit a pornographic site in a typical month (comScore Media Metrix) Muslims are not immune from it either.
“Young men call me crying because they’re addicted to pornography,” Siddiqui revealed. These are married Muslim men, she noted. “Porn is becoming a huge issue.”
The negative effects of pornography on Muslim marriages are two-fold, according to Arroyo. First, wives become self-conscious of their body image. They feel inadequate in the face of the airbrushed perfection of the women featured in such movies and pictures.
Then, since most Muslim wives do not approve of their husbands consuming pornography, which is also disallowed in Islam, they lose respect for their spouse. This, along with the feeling of being unloved are a clear “recipe for divorce,” he pointed out.
Sometimes, Nadir said, husbands who watch pornographic movies want their wives to do the same to learn how to please them in the bedroom. This lack of ability to communicate sexual needs in an Islamically acceptable manner is a problem. With little appropriate sex education offered in Muslim homes, as well as full-time and weekend Islamic schools, Nadir said young Muslims are talking about sex with their friends but they are not getting a “wholesome perspective about what sexuality and intimacy in a marriage are all about.”
Arroyo said parents must be on the front line in protecting Muslim marriages from pornography by helping their teenage sons steer clear of these damaging images from the start, which have an addictive component.
“You can’t expect a teenage boy to self-monitor that,” he said of online pornography. “As parents, we have to make sure to put whatever safety valve we can on that computer.”
“Lots of people are aware in the beginning of their marriages that they are incompatible,” said Abugideiri. “But because of pressure to stay married, they stay together.”
A common problem she said is a difference in religious understanding, even in couples for whom Muslim identity is important to both spouses. “When they get married they discover they are at very different places on the continuum. For example, a couple get married and the husband wants his wife to wear Hijab and she doesn’t want to. It’s basically an incompatibility problem. Then the whole card of ‘you have to obey your husband’ has to be pulled. The initial problem was lack of compatibility,” she explained.
Other times, the incompatibility manifests itself much later in a marriage. “Sometimes when people get married. both of them are liberal or both of them are conservative. Then, one of them starts changing and the other person doesn’t. They don’t see eye to eye anymore, with one spouse concentrating on the spiritual versus the social aspect of life more, which leads to tension in the marriage,” explained Imam Magid. He added that this also applies to differences in ideological perspectives, such as “Sufi versus Salafi, Sunni versus Shi’i”.
This was the case for Awad of Washington, DC. “He became very controlling and was not the person I thought I married,” she said of her ex-husband. “Before we married, our relationship was open and understanding. After, it was more like he was the boss and I had to obey. When we married I was 22 and had plans to go to graduate school and work. After marriage he wanted me to throw away my plans and start having children.”
Awad’s example also points to incompatibility in life goals and dreams which Arroyo said, “starts to become an undercurrent to their other problems. That’s why it’s important to make life goals as a couple.”
Cultural differences are another minefield, especially amongst couples where one spouse is from abroad and the other raised in North America.
“When I would question or just discuss something he said, it was an insult to him that I didn’t accept his word as the final word,” Basith of Chicago said of her ex-husband, who came to the United States from India after they married. She was raised in the United States. Basith added that her uncles advised her not to “discuss anything with him” to avoid conflict.
“Sometimes we have cases where a man goes to North Africa and marries a woman who does not speak English. Abuse takes place because of frustration,” said Imam Magid. “In some cases of intercultural marriage from people of different backgrounds, the spouse cannot meet expectations because they were not raised in that culture.”
Compatibility among spouses in the Muslim community, Nadir noted, is often assessed based on short-term factors, like physical attractiveness and level of education, for example, instead of looking for qualities that will help a marriage succeed in the long run. “We don’t think long-term enough, that this person is going to be the father or mother of my children. And that you’ll be raising this kid with someone you can’t stand (if you divorce),” she said.
A major cause of divorce for many Muslim couples is unrealistic expectations of their spouse and their relationship. This is especially true in a culture where, for decades, gender roles have been challenged. The traditional husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker is no longer a given in many families. The pressure to maintain two-income households means confusion over who does what and why. This often leads to the expectation that each spouse conform to both modern and traditional values.
“People want the best of both worlds,” explained Abugideiri “For the guys that means ‘I want a woman who is intelligent, independent and will help me financially’. That’s the best of the Western world. So they get married, he discovers that he also wants an excellent cook, a homemaker and a wife who will greet him with a smile when he comes home from work…and she’ll also take orders,” she added.
“For women they want a man who will value them as an independent person, somebody who will be an equal parent, friend, confidant and at the same time, they might be resentful that he’s expecting her to pitch in with the finances, he might not be a strong decision-maker, maybe he relies on her too much. They also want the man who is going to be the protector, the one who will be opening doors for them,” Abugideiri continued.
“As a community we are going through a transition,” she said. “As women understand more about Islam and what they have the right to demand in marriage, men don’t like the fact that a woman isn’t 100 percent dependent on him. There are a lot of power struggles happening.”
It’s these kinds of “fairy tale expectations”, as Nadir called them, that also lead to unrealistic views about day-to-day life in marriage. For women she has counseled, Nadir said there’s “the sense that he’ll always bring flowers, there will always be romance in the relationship. I think Muslim women who have kept their chastity deserve a fairy tale kind of relationship but it has to be balanced with the reality of life.” But while this may not be possible daily, “with training, a couple can learn to spice up their relationship, especially those who haven’t dated or seen their parents in a happy marriage,” she added.
For men, Shalabi noted that a wife’s appearance is a major subject of fairy tale expectations. She said a number of men in cases she has seen expect their wives to slim down drastically to pre-baby proportions after having children, for example, and don’t understand the role that biology and genetics often play in weight gain and loss. An additional expectation is that a husband can socialize and hang out with friends late into the night as he did before marriage.
“On average, America has been moving in the direction of secular individualism, as can be seen in the general drift of our family trends,” noted the report The State of Our Unions 2007 by Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project.
Nadir has a catchier way of describing this individualism that is affecting more American marriages, including those of Muslims: the “Burger King Syndrome”, referring to the fast-food giant’s slogan “you can have it your way.” This, she said, is exactly what leads many Muslim couples she has counseled to divorce. “There is a lack of compromise in the marital relationship.”
In the past, it was usually only extreme physical abuse that would push women, in particular, to walk away from a marriage. That is still the case in a number of Muslim marriages. Today though, as abuse is being recognized in other forms, such as sexual, verbal and emotional, these too are leading to divorce in Muslim families.
Emotional abuse was a major factor in Sakina Khan’s divorce, even though she did not initiate it. “I was always walking on eggshells around him, afraid to upset him” she said of her ex-husband Ali Dawood of Detroit. “He was easily irritable.”
“He became excessively angry over trivial oversights of mine such as using the wrong coupon or forgetting to lock the front door in daylight hours,” she explained. “This especially hurt the marriage as his anger was expressed through extended periods of silent treatment, mean demeanor and abandonment. He was convinced that my oversights were acts of disrespect toward him.”
Khan said the abuse included belittling, name-calling, public anger, threats and coming home at very late hours in the night with no explanation of where he had been. “He exhibited absolutely no regard for me as a human being, let alone as his wife and the mother of his children.”
In the end, her efforts to appease her ex-husband’s anger, as well as the involvement of Muslim community leaders to help resolve the issues in their relationship made no difference to him.
“My (ex)husband was adamant about wanting a divorce and the religious leaders and mediators involved felt he was unstable in this decision,” she said. “He made it clear that the house was not mine and that he wanted me out. Although, once the children and I left, he wanted us back. But I decided that I had exhausted every possible means toward change and that he did not exhibit any reassurance that his treatment of me would change if I returned.”
“There should be disapproval of any kind of abuse from community members,” she advised. “Men need to be more courageous and there should be more social responsibility if someone is out of line.”
“We’re preparing for the Walima but not the marriage,” quipped Nadir. She and other Muslim social service providers noted that there is often a lack of maturity and seriousness when young people, particularly, choose to marry. There is also little clarity about the primary reason a Muslim should go forward with a move which the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, described as “half of faith”.
“The purpose marriage is to serve Allah and to help each other get to Heaven,” said Nadir. “It’s about more than sex and having children. The purpose of a human being is to worship Allah. Too many young people, in particular, come into marriage for a Halal dating thing”.
“We just don’t have strong enough Taqwa, fear of God, and our understanding of marriage is weak,” said Siddiqui. “It all boils down to our young people having no clue Islamically how a marriage runs.”
“A lack of understanding of spending and the habit of going into debts and loans create tremendous stress. Some spouses start creating their own financial planning because they don’t trust their spouse and when the other discovers that, they feel betrayed,” said Imam Magid.
Another issue is the student loan debt many Muslims have incurred long before debts from the wedding surface. Couples often walk into marriage burdened with thousands of dollars in student loan debt, creating further stress on their relationship.
Money-related issues can also lead to abuse. “A lot of women stay in an abusive marriage because they are not able to take care of their children financially, especially if they have always been stay-at-home moms,” said Shalabi. This puts Muslim women who are more financially stable in a better position to get out of these situations. “I’ve seen an increase in divorce among the younger generation. They say I’m not going to put up with this and live with someone for the rest of my life who I’m not happy with.”
However, a wife’s income can also exacerbate a warring couple’s relationship. From an Islamic perspective, a woman is not obliged to spend money she earns through employment or other sources, on her household. Her husband is completely responsible for this. However, if she chooses to, she may contribute to family upkeep, earning her a spiritual reward for doing so.
But the mantra of wives in many Muslim marriages in crisis has become “my money is my money and your money is our money,” said Imam Magid.
Arroyo noted that when this mentality pervades the marriage, wives expect to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. That means being able to work, keep all of their money for their own personal use, yet expect their husbands to maintain an unrealistically high standard of living. He said there are also cases where wives expect their husbands to pay them back if they buy something from their money for the household. This attitude only causes resentment and frustration.
“If it’s a good, functional marriage, where is the Rehma (mercy)?” asked Siddiqui, adding that wives in this situation can and should help husbands if they are struggling financially.
This cause of divorce also points to an attitude of gender competition versus gender cooperation. Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid is president of Sound Vision, and has spoken and written extensively about marriage, youth and other family issues. He explained that the move towards more materialism in the community in general is often the root of these problems, with neither spouse in struggling marriages willing to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure that the entire family unit moves forward successfully.
“It’s like driving a car,” he said. “There is one steering wheel and if both front seat passengers try to take control of it, that will result in a car crash. Among successful couples, there is an understanding that one person is the driver, the other the navigator. This helps them cooperate and work together to reach their destination safely.”
He emphasized that the Shura model of running family affairs, based on the example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is the ideal way for spouses to complement, not compete with each other. This goes for not only financial matters, but all other issues in marriage as well.
Siddiqui added that money problems “can be worked out if people are serious about marriage.”
Hiding or denying critical information about issues like physical and mental health history, immigration status and prior marriage, for example, is also a leading cause of divorce. Mental illness, still a taboo in much of the Muslim community, continues to be one area causing couples to break up.
“Sometimes people get married and they don’t know the person has clinical depression,” said Imam Magid. “That leads to mood swings and requires medication. Or people have anxiety or bipolar disorder. This sometimes leads to physical and verbal abuse.”
This was the case for Kareem Adly of Carbondale, Indiana and Najwa Basheer of Baltimore, Maryland. Both discovered after their marriages that their spouses suffered from mental illness, information which was not revealed prior to the wedding.
Adly said he initiated divorce from his ex-wife because of “unexplained emotional instability due to possible mental illness and falsifying information,” which he later found out about. He said he tried to help resolve the issues with his ex-wife, but she was unwilling to. She returned to her home state and refused to come back.
In Basheer’s case, she discovered a few months after her marriage that her ex-husband suffered from clinical depression, leading to anger and mood swings followed by weeks of her receiving the silent treatment for unknown reasons.
“He wasn’t able to express himself,” she said. “I knew he was a little quiet and I’m a little loud so I thought everything would be okay.”
That changed when she found him crying one day and her ex-husband told her he had had communication problems since he was a child.
“I thought I was the problem,” she recalled. “I was trying to see how I could change.” She began to suffer health problems like sudden weight loss and high blood pressure. Things became clearer when she went to see a doctor, a Muslim, who helped her understand what was happening.
“He said ‘you lost 25 pounds and you just got married. You’re not happy’,” Basheer said. He also asked if she felt like a “bird in a cage”. Basheer’s marriage ended after barely eight months.
Imams, community leaders and divorced Muslims interviewed suggest various solutions to help avoid the pitfalls of marriage crises resulting in divorce.
One of the main suggestions was more mass education in the Muslim community about marriage, its purpose, what to expect and how to make it work through Friday sermons, seminars, study circles, Islamic Awareness Week events, books and other outlets. Imam Magid emphasized that this needs to start very early on.
“We need to have incorporated in our curriculum of youth and Sunday schools what we mean by family,” he said. “As people get older, they can talk more about the husband and wife relationship.”
Nizamuddin emphasized that the mosque, as the premiere community institution, must be at the forefront of this campaign.
“I believe it is important for the community to provide seminars and workshops to young Muslim adults about the rules or Adab or Akhlaq of marriage as well as gender relations,” he said. “When I mean community, I mean first most the masajid and its leadership. While some young adults are educated and provided with a good upbringing from their parents and families, many are not.
“We are often taught by the elder generation, Khateebs and even parents not to ask questions generally, but in particular, not to ask controversial questions about gender relations and sexual matters,” he continued. “If some of our Masajid can stop their petty infighting, power struggles, and religious zealotry and instead focus more on providing important services such as counseling and educating young adults, then it would be a tremendous help to the community. Unfortunately, too many leaders of some Masajid believe that the only education proper at a Masjid is the primary sources of Islamic law.”
“People can hide a lot of things,” noted Nadir, of the process of finding out more about a person for marriage purposes. “You need to see a person in different circumstances.”
This is why she proposed a system of Islamic courtship as a solution to avoiding future conflicts in marriage that can lead to divorce. Courtship allows a prospective bride and groom to interact in a chaperoned setting, such as with family present or at least one family member with the couple when they meet. The system used to be common in the United States at the turn of the century, but has given way to the practice of dating, which is chaperone-free and often leads illicit relationships outside marriage.
However, others caution that it is the courtship system which has led to the existing dating format. They argue that after years of dating, fifty percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, no amount of courtship can guarantee a successful marriage.
“No Imam should marry a couple without first requiring they complete Islamic premarital education,” advised Imam Magid. “The Imam should not be like a pizza delivery person, just do the Nikah and leave. Talk to them (the couple). I have some people who do premarital counseling and they decide not to get married.”
Research backs this up. Scott M. Stanley, a University of Denver psychology professor, reported in the journal Family Relations that 9 out of 10 couples who took premarital counseling considered it worthwhile — and were less likely to consider divorce within the first five years of marriage.
Shad Imam took Imam Magid’s premarital counseling sessions at the ADAMS center with his wife of over six years, Sana Pasha, in 2002.
“There was a period of about eleven months between our engagement and the wedding, and so we wanted to maximize that time by doing the counseling and discussing topics that we may have otherwise neglected to ask one another and get the Imam’s perspective on them,” he said.
“Imam Magid hosted five sessions of pre-marital counseling with us, in his office,” he said. “We covered topics ranging from ‘life after the wedding’ to ‘money issues’ to ‘anger management’. Imam Magid tried to touch on nearly all facets of married life through the counseling.
“Hearing Imam Magid’s perspective on married life went a long way to calm many of the fears we had about ‘working out’ as a couple. We realized that much of married life was about communicating with one another properly to understand one another’s perspective – as opposed to trying to ‘mold’ the other person.”
His only complaint about the program was that there was no follow up afterwards to see how the couples who attended fared. “The best type of pre-marital counseling would be one that includes marital counseling after the couple is married and has established a solid relationship with one another,” he said. “The premarital counseling would be much more effective if it continues into marital life as well.
Imam’s participation in premarital counseling reflects a growing awareness and desire among more Muslims to seek this kind of marriage preparation. “There is a lot of discussion of the need for premarital counseling,” said Macfarlane of the results of her research. “Especially premarital counseling that educates Muslim men and women on their Islamic rights and responsibilities in marriage.”
Imam Kavakci of Texas gives all couples who plan to wed at his mosque a prenuptial agreement. They can then notarize it and put conditions in it accordingly, making expectations, rights, rules and responsibilities clear from the start of marriage. This clarity helps avoid many conflicts that crop up after the wedding. It also has legal weight. “In courts, it is applicable,” he said. He added that he has explained the document to judges when they have needed clarification in applying it locally.
Kavakci also believes that Imams in the United States do not have the right to legally divorce anyone, only legally marry them. He said establishing a court system where Muslims can apply laws Islamically
is critical in ensuring that, for example, wives abandoned by husbands are not left in limbo, and all sorts of other abuses are kept in check.
“Anything that gives people clearer expectations helps avoid conflict,” noted Macfarlane, who is also a lawyer.
“A lot of times people wait too long to get counseling,” said Basith of Chicago, and one of the spouses has already “checked out of the marriage.”
Early intervention is key to working through problems that could easily save many marriages. Talking to both religious authorities and counselors to get an outsider’s perspective may be all some couples need to reconcile if this is done at the outset of difficulties.
“I have recommended counseling with a licensed and trained therapist or an Imam that I know,” said Nizamuddin, explaining one of the steps he pursues when a Muslim couple approaches him to divorce. “In my experience, they are quite helpful for a relationship that is falling apart. It is important for a couple having difficulty to talk to a religious authority to provide some religious guidance and instruction, lend an ear and provide Islamic guidance during this painful period.”
“Before you have a relationship with each other, you have to have a relationship with the Creator, otherwise, there is no self-policing in the marriage,” said Siddiqui.
“People should not enter marriage with the intention that it’s disposable,” advised Imam Magid. “You have to enter it with the mindset that you’re going to work hard. Some young people say ‘we’ll, see how it works.’ Marriage should not be used as a label to make dating Halal. It is a commitment.”
“There is no such thing as a perfect marriage,” said Siddiqui. “Human beings go through ups and downs. When we’re down, we help each other up. We don’t run when we’re down or take pride when we’re up.”
N.B. Most names and some details of the divorced Muslims interviewed for this article have been altered.
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