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We live in a time of great cultural, economic, and ideological upheaval, and marriage is among the many institutions affected by these changes. Cultural change is part of human nature, but the speed and depth of the changes experienced by recent generations, even in aspects of marriage that seem as old as time itself, have created disquiet and uncertainty: have we perhaps lost something essential to what it means to be human? In such times it is well to revisit the wellsprings of divine revelation from the Creator of human nature, that we might anchor our understanding of marriage on the solid ground of abiding truth.    

The nature of marriage cannot be understood without grasping the purposes of the institution. Among the primary purposes of marriage in Islam is the cultivation of love between a man and a woman. The Prophet said, “There is nothing like marriage for two who love one another.”[1] In the Quran’s beautiful words: “And one of His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves so that you may find comfort in them. And He has placed between you compassion and mercy.”[2] And God instructs believing men: “Live with your wives in fairness and kindness.”[3] Imam al-Qurtubi (d. 1272), the Andalusian commentator on the Quran, explained that “fairness and kindness” in this verse means:

to give a wife her rights of dowry and provision, and not to frown at her for no reason. And to be cheerful in speech, not rude or harsh, nor showing an inclination toward another woman…God commands good companionship with women when a marriage contract is made with them so that there is familiarity between them and perfect companionship, for it is more calming for the soul and better for life. This is a duty upon the husband…Some righteous people of knowledge said, “He should beautify himself for her as she does for him.”…Ibn Abbas[4] said, “I love to adorn myself for my wife as I love for my wife to adorn herself for me.”[5]

Islam teaches that marriage fulfills the deep need for comfort and companionship that men find in women and women find in men. Men and women complete one another: “They are a garment for you, and you are a garment for them,” God tells us.[6] The Arabic original of this verse clearly describes marriage as a matter between men and women, with the first phrase using the Arabic plural feminine pronoun for the subject and the plural masculine pronoun for the object, then reversing the order in the second phrase.

As suggested by the metaphor of this verse, men and women complement one another in marriage. Their roles and responsibilities are equally indispensable to the balance and good order of the household, but they are not the same. This is reflected in God’s statement:

Men are the caretakers (qawwamun) of women, because God has given one more (strength) than the other, and tasked with supporting them financially. And righteous women are devoutly obedient and, when alone, protective of what God has entrusted them with.[7]

Imam al-Qurtubi said that “caretakers,” or qawwamun (sing. qawwam), means that “men provide for women and defend them.” Tellingly, he added that, according to two of Islam’s four major legal schools:

Since men provide (for women) from their wealth, if a husband is unable to provide for his wife, he is not a qawwam for her. And if he is not a qawwam for her she has the right to annul the marriage contract, due to the removal of the intended purpose (maqsud) for which marriage was divinely legislated. And therein is a clear proof of the truth that marriage (may be) annulled in the event of poverty due to the lack of provision and clothing.[8] 

Likewise, the Prophet used a beautiful metaphor to describe the complementarity of husbands and wives, and the cooperative nature of marriage:

Behold! Each one of you is a shepherd and each one is answerable with regard to his flock…A man is a shepherd over the members of his family and shall be questioned about them. A woman is a shepherd over the household of her husband and his children, and shall be questioned about them.[9]

The Shafi’i hadith scholar Abu Sulayman al-Khattabi (d. 998) explained this hadith this way:

The man’s “shepherding” of his family is his management of their affairs and giving them their rights, and the woman’s “shepherding” is the ordering of the affairs of the house, children, and servants, and advising her husband in all of that.[10]

Hence, marriage is the form of household order, which in turn is the foundation of society and civilization. Relatedly, the Prophet  emphasized procreation as a foundational aim of marriage, and urged believing men to “marry women who are loving and fertile.”[11] For this reason, Al-Shatibi (d. 1388 CE), the seminal Andalusian jurist, held that:

The Lawgiver intended marriage primarily for the purpose of procreation, and secondarily for the purpose of establishing a household and maintaining relations with the wife’s family due to their nobility or piety, or the like; or for the purpose of serving (them), or to secure his interests, or for enjoying pleasure with women through means God has permitted, or for securing benefit through the wealth of the woman, or out of desire for her beauty, or admiration for her religious observance, or for avoiding what God has prohibited, or for other reasons indicated in the Sacred Law.[12]   

Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111) set forth five benefits of marriage:

There are five advantages to marriage: procreation, satisfy­ing sexual desire, ordering the household, providing compan­ionship, and disciplining the self in striving to sustain wives. The first advantage of marriage is procreation: it is its foundation, and marriage was instituted on its account. The aim is to sustain posterity so that the world would not want for humankind.[13] 

Likewise, the Hanafi jurist Al-Marghinani (d. 1197 CE) wrote in his Al-Hidayah that “the primary purpose of marriage is procreation.”[14] Al-Ghazali elaborated on the procreative aspect of marriage in a profound and serious way:

Everyone who re­frains from marriage neglects tilling, wastes away (his) seed, does not use the prepared instruments which God has created, and violates the aim of nature and the wisdom implied in the evidence of creation written upon the organs, not in letters or voices, but by divine inscription: readable to any with the divine insight to understand the intricacies of everlasting wisdom. And for that reason, the Sacred Law made it an abomination to kill children and bury girls alive, for such acts were forbidden so that existence would be fulfilled.[15] 

This does not mean, of course, that childless marriages are invalid; in light of the purposes of marriage that Al-Shatibi and Al-Ghazali list, such marriages nevertheless fulfill needs that are at the heart of human happiness. As the authors of the Fiqh Encyclopedia of Kuwait explain: “The majority of jurists agreed that infertility, if one spouse discovers it in the other, is not a defect that establishes the option of seeking annulment of the marriage contract.”[16] 

Related to the aims of procreation, love, and companionship, marriage fulfills our created need for sexual intimacy with a beloved companion, which God permits only within a lawful relationship. The Prophet  said, “In sexual intercourse there is charity.” His companions asked him: “O Messenger of God, when one of us fulfills his desires, will he have some reward for that?” He replied, “Do you not see that if he were to act upon his desire in an unlawful manner then he would be deserving of punishment? Likewise, if he were to act upon it in a lawful manner then he will be deserving of a reward.”[17]

Commenting on this statement of the Prophet , Imam An-Nawawi (d. 1277 CE) said:

Sexual intercourse is an act of worship when one intends to fulfill the right of the wife and live with her in kindness as God Almighty has commanded, or to seek a righteous child, or to keep oneself or the wife chaste, and to prevent them both from looking at what is forbidden or fantasizing or thinking about it, or for any other good intention.[18]

Hence, although the primary purpose of sexual intercourse is to produce children, Islam has made the marriage bed a refuge of tenderness and affection for men and women. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d. 1350) said: “Among the necessary preliminaries of sexual relations is that a man must caress the woman and kiss her, and kiss her tongue. The Messenger of God used to caress his wives.”[19] 

One of the most touching examples of tenderness in marriage is the story of the companions of the Prophet ﷺ, Abu Talha and Umm Sulaim. While Abu Talha was away, their only child passed away. Umm Sulaim asked her family members not to tell Abu Talha about his son until she did. When Abu Talha came home, he asked his wife about their son, and she replied, “Better than before.” Umm Sulaim had cooked him dinner and made herself up for him, something she did not usually do. He ate dinner and then she made love to him. When Umm Sulaim saw that he was satisfied, she said, “Abu Talha, if some people borrow something from another family and then they ask for its return, would they resist?” He said no. She said, “Your son has passed away.”

Abu Talha told the Prophet ﷺ about what had happened and he said, “May Allah bless the two of you in this night of yours!” Umm Sulaim became pregnant and delivered a son, and the Prophet named him Abdullah. When he became a man and married, Abdullah had nine sons, each of whom memorized the entire Quran.[20] 

More than a relationship of tenderness, mercy, and intimacy, marriage should be fun. Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), the great Quran scholar, said, “It was the character of the Prophet ﷺ to live in a beautiful manner with his wives, always being cheerful, having fun with his family and being kind to them, generously spending on them, and laughing with them.”[21] The Prophet used to play games with his wives. His wife Aisha once said: “I raced him on foot and I outran him, but when I gained some weight, I raced him again and he outran me. The Prophet said, ‘This is for that race.’”[22]

In sum, marriage is, by its nature, an institution ordained by God between men and women with the primary purpose of procreation, along with a rich, multilayered array of purposes such as love, companionship, and security, that are of secondary importance yet nevertheless central to human happiness. Any given marriage might not fulfill one or more of these purposes and yet still be considered a marriage: but marriage itself, in its essence, cannot be defined as marriage without them because they are inseparable from what it means to be human. The customs and laws of men may claim to alter the essential elements of marriage, but such claims are false: and as God reminds us, “truly falsehood is ever vanishing.”[23]  These elements are found combined in God’s touching description of the unity, partnership, comfort, hope, burdens and joys of marriage and family:

It is He Who created you from a single soul, and made from it its mate, that he might find rest in her. Then, when he embraced her, she bore a light burden, and carried it about. But when she grew heavy, they called upon God, their Lord, “If You give us a sound child, we shall surely be among the grateful!”[24]

And we see these meanings in God’s sweet description of the believers as

Those who say: “Our Lord! Grant us from our wives and children the joy of our eyes!”[25] 

[1] Muhammad bin Yazeed ibn Majah al-Qazwini, Sunan Ibn Majah, trans. Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2007), vol. 3, p. 59. The hadith in Arabic:  لم نر للمتحابين مثل النكاح

[2] Quran, Al-Rum 30:21. The verse in Arabic:

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ أَنْ خَلَقَ لَكُم مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَزْوَاجًا لِّتَسْكُنُوا إِلَيْهَا وَجَعَلَ بَيْنَكُم مَّوَدَّةً وَرَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

[3] Quran, An-Nisaa 4:19. The quoted portion of the verse in Arabic: وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ

[4] A close companion of the Prophet and his cousin, considered the greatest Quranic commentator.

[5] Abu Abdullah Muhammad Shams ad-Din Al Qurtubi. Al Jami’ li Ahkam al-Quran. (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Masriya, 1964), vol. 5, p. 97. The quoted portion in Arabic:

وذلك توفية حقها من المهر والنفقة ، وألا يعبس في وجهها بغير ذنب ، وأن يكون منطلقا في القول لا فظا ولا غليظا ولا مظهرا ميلا إلى غيرها … فأمر الله سبحانه بحسن صحبة النساء إذا عقدوا عليهن لتكون أدمة ما بينهم وصحبتهم على الكمال ، فإنه أهدأ للنفس وأهنأ للعيش . وهذا واجب على الزوج … وقال بعضهم : هو أن يتصنع لها كما تتصنع له … وقال ابن عباس رضي الله عنه : إني أحب أن أتزين لامرأتي كما أحب أن تتزين المرأة لي . وهذا داخل فيما ذكرناه .

[6] Quran, Al-Baqara 2:187. The quoted portion of the verse in Arabic: هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَكُمْ وَأَنْتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَهُنَّ

[7] Quran, An-Nisaa 4:34. The quoted portion of the verse in Arabic:

الرِّجالُ قَوّامونَ عَلَى النِّساءِ بِما فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعضَهُم عَلىٰ بَعضٍ وَبِما أَنفَقوا مِن أَموالِهِم فَالصّالِحاتُ قانِتاتٌ حافِظاتٌ لِلغَيبِ بِما حَفِظَ اللَّهُ

[8] Al-Qurtubi explains that this is the view of Malik and Ash-Shafi’i, but that Abu Hanifa disagreed. Al-Qurtubi, supra, vol 5, p. 168. The original of the first citation states: أي يقومون بالنفقة عليهن والذب عنهن. The second states:

وبما أنفقوا من أموالهم أنه متى عجز عن نفقتها لم يكن قواما عليها ، وإذا لم يكن قواما عليها كان لها فسخ العقد ؛ لزوال المقصود الذي شرع لأجله النكاح . وفيه دلالة واضحة من هذا الوجه على ثبوت فسخ النكاح عند الإعسار بالنفقة والكسوة ؛ وهو مذهب مالك والشافعي . وقال أبو حنيفة : لا يفسخ ؛ لقوله تعالى : وإن كان ذو عسرة فنظرة إلى ميسرة وقد تقدم القول في هذا في هذه السورة .

[9]Abul Hussain Muslim bin Hajjaj. Sahih Muslim. Ed. Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair ‘Ali Za’I, trans. Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2007) vol. 5, p. 155. The full hadith in Arabic:

ألا كلكم راع، وكلكم مسئول عن رعيته، فالأمير الذي على الناس راع، وهو مسئول عن رعيته، والرجل راع على أهل بيته، وهو مسئول عنهم، والمرأة راعية على بيت بعلها وولده، وهي مسئولة عنهم، والعبد راع على مال سيده وهو مسئول عنه، ألا فكلكم راع، وكلكم مسئول عن رعيته

[10] Cited in: Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1959), vol. 13, p. 113. The quoted passage:

ورعاية الرجل أهله سياسته لأمرهم وايصالهم حقوقهم ورعاية المرأة تدبير أمر البيت والأولاد والخدم والنصيحة للزوج في كل ذلك

[11] Abu Dawud Sulayman Ibn Al-Ash’ath Al-Sijistani, English Translation of Sunan Abu Dawud, ed. Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair ‘Ali Za’I, trans. Yaser Qadhi (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2008), vol. 2, p. 501. The quoted section of the hadith: تَزَوَّجُوا الْوَدُودَ الْوَلُودَ

[12] Ibrahim bin Musa al-Shatibi, Al-Muwafaqat, ed. Abu ‘Ubaidah Ali Salman (Cairo: Dar ibn ‘Affan, 1997), vol. 1: 383. The quoted passage:

لأنا فرضنا أن الشارع قصد بالنكاح مثلا التناسل أولا، ثم يتبعه اتخاذ السكن، ومصاهرة أهل المرأة لشرفهم، أو دينهم، أو نحو ذلك، أو الخدمة، أو القيام على مصالحه، أو التمتع بما أحل الله من النساء، أو التجمل بمال المرأة، أو الرغبة في جمالها، أو الغبطة بدينها، أو التعفف عما حرم الله، أو نحو ذلك حسبما دلت عليه الشريعة

[13] Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali. Ihya Ulum ad-Din, (Beirut: Dar al-Marifah, n.d.), vol. 2 p. 24. The quoted passage:

وفيه فوائد خمسة الولد وكسر الشهوة وتدبير المنزل وكثرة العشيرة ومجاهدة النفس بالقيام بهن الفائدة الأولى الولد وهو الأصل وله وضع النكاح والمقصود إبقاء النسل وأن لا يخلو العالم عن جنس الإنس

[14] Ali Abi Bakr al-Marghinani, Al-Hidayah fi Sharh Bidayat al-Mubtadi (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d.), vol. 2. p. 308. The quoted passage:  لأن المقصود الأصلي من النكاح الولد

[15] Al-Ghazali, p. 25. The quoted passage:

فكل ممتنع عن النكاح معرض عن الحراثة مضيع للبذر معطل لما خلق الله من الآلات المعدة وجان على مقصود الفطرة والحكمة المفهومة من شواهد الخلقة المكتوبة على هذه الأعضاء بخط إلهي ليس برقم حروف وأصوات يقرؤه كل من له بصيرة ربانية نافذة في إدراك دقائق الحكمة الأزلية ولذلك عظم الشرع الأمر في القتل للأولاد وفي الوأد لأنه منع لتمام الوجود

[16] The authors note that Imam Ahmad held that fertility in one of the spouses does constitute cause for annulment. Al-Mawsu’ah al-Fiqhiyyah al-Kuwaitiyyah, 1st ed. (Cairo: Dar Al Safwa, n.d.), vol. 30, p. 268. The quoted passage:

اتفق جمهور الفقهاء على أن العقم ليس عيبا يثبت به خيار طلب فسخ عقد النكاح إذا وجده أحد الزوجين في الآخر

[17] Sahih Muslim, supra, vol. 3, p. 51. The hadith in Arabic:

قال: أوليس قد جعل الله لكم ما تصدقون به: إن بكل تسبيحة صدقة، وكل تكبيرة صدقة، وكل تحميدة صدقة، وكل تهليلة صدقة، وأمر بالمعروف صدقة، ونهي عن المنكر صدقة، وفي بضع  أحدكم صدقة قالوا: يا رسول الله، أيأتي أحدنا شهوته ويكون له فيها أجر؟ قال: أرأيتم لو وضعها في حرام أكان عليه وزر؟ فكذلك إذا وضعها في الحلال كان له أجر.

[18] Abu Zakariyya Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Dimashqi al-Nawawi. Al-Minhaj Sharh Sahih Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj. (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi), vol. 7, p. 92. The quoted passage:

فالجماع يكون عبادة إذا نوى به قضاء حق الزوجة ومعاشرتها بالمعروف الذي أمر الله تعالى به ، أو طلب ولد صالح ، أو إعفاف نفسه أو إعفاف الزوجة ومنعهما جميعا من النظر إلى حرام ، أو الفكر فيه ، أو الهم به ، أو غير ذلك من المقاصد الصالحة .

[19] Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah. Zaad al-Ma’ad fi Hadi Khair al-Ibad. (Beirut: Mu’asasat ar-Risalah, 1994). Vol. 4, pp 31-32. The quoted passage:

ومما ينبغي تقديمه على الجماع ملاعبة المرأة، وتقبيلها، ومص لسانها، وكان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يلاعب أهله

[20] See Muhammad Muhsin Khan, trans., The Translation of the. Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1997), vol. 7, p. 229; Sahih Muslim, supra, vol. 5, pp. 507-508.

[21] Ismail Ibn ‘Umar Ibn Kathir Damishqi. Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim. (Beirut: Dar Al-Kutub Al-‘Ilmiyah, 1998). Vol. 2 p. 12. The quoted passage:

كان من أخلاقه صلى الله عليه وسلم معهن أنه جميل العشرة ، دائم البشر ، يداعب أهله ويتلطف بهم ، ويوسعهم نفقته ، ويضاحك نساءه

[22]  English Translation of Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol. 3, p. 246. The hadith in Arabic:

عن عائشة رضي الله عنها أنها كانت مع النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم في سفر قالت فسابقته فسبقته على رجلي فلما حملت اللحم سابقته فسبقني فقال هذه بتلك السبقة

[23] Quran, Israa’ 17:81. In Arabic: إِنَّ ٱلْبَطِلَ كَانَ زَهُوقًۭا

[24] Quran, Al-Araf 7:189. In Arabic:

هُوَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَكُم مِّن نَّفْسٍۢ وَحِدَةٍۢ وَجَعَلَ مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا لِيَسْكُنَ إِلَيْهَا فَلَمَّا تَغَشَّىٰهَا حَمَلَتْ حَمْلًا خَفِيفًۭا فَمَرَّتْ بِهِ فَلَمَّآ أَثْقَلَت دَّعَوَا ٱللَّهَ رَبَّهُمَا لَىِٕنْ ءَاتَيْتَنَا صَلِحًۭا لَّنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ ٱلشَّكِرِينَ ‎

[25] Quran, Al-Furqan 25:74. In Arabic:  وَالَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا

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Source: Muslim Matters