Islam is a religion that provides a complete system of living for humankind, and is not a symbolic religion that limits itself to governing the demands of ritual worship and acts of devotion specific to a restricted time and place. Being the main source of law and guidance of that comprehensive system, the Qur’an seeks to provide a complete framework that covers personal, communal, social, family, and judicial operation. By presenting this Quranic paradigm, Allahintends to dignify humankind (insān) as his vicegerents (khalīfah)1 who are prescribed the duty of promoting the maintenance of spiritual and temporal order and justice upon the earth.
One particularly striking topic related to the holistic discourse of the Qur’an is the discussion in relation to marriage and family. In the Islamic worldview, the system of marriage and family is strongly promoted and is seen as the backbone for a moral society. This is apparent from various verses and prophetic traditions.
In this article, I aim to analyze the treatment of the topic of marital harmony and conflict resolution within the Quran and Quranic paradigm. This topic is of paramount relevance considering the current global reality of marital discord, even in Muslim populations. In the 1990’s, Dr Ilyas Ba-Yunus (professor of sociology at the state university of New York) conducted research that concluded that the divorce rate amongst American Muslims was a staggering 31 percent.2 Considering the huge number of divorces occurring as a result of marital discord, it is of utmost importance for us to analyze the Qur’anic presentation on this topic, in order to gain an insight into how the scripture aims to help solve such issues and mitigate the harms that can possibly result from high divorce rates.
I aim to do this by first surveying the general Qur’anic principles of marriage, exploring the models the Qur’an puts in place in the case of marital problems, and then exploring Qur’anic passages that deal specifically with the different stages of this model.
Qur’anic Principles of Marriage
Upon analyzing the Qur’an, we find that it dedicates most of its verses dealing with marriage to promoting principles of marital harmony and conflict resolution, in opposition to just blanket directives commanding people to marry. This is indicative of the fact that the Qur’an is not just promoting unregulated marriage, but rather the maintenance of sustainable and blissful marriages that will form a key part of the fabric of a utopian moral society. There are two particularly striking verses in this regard. The first is verse 187 of Sūrah al-Baqarah , where Allahsays regarding women and men mutually, “…they are [close] as garments to you, as you are to them.”3 This a powerful use of a comparison (tashbīh) with multi-faceted dimensions for striking effect (tawkīd). It indicates that spouses should have an intimately close relationship to each other, just as clothes are the closest layer to the body. Furthermore, spouses should hide and protect each other from having their dignity violated, just as clothes hide the parts of a person that are usually deemed shameful to expose. Similarly, just as clothes protect a person’s body from the elements of heat and cold and grant comfort, spouses should protect each other from all harms such as violating God’s law in terms of fulfillment of desires, and they should give each other overall comfort. Likewise, just as clothes are a form of delightful adornment, spouses should be an adornment for each other.4
The second verse is found in Sūrah al-Rūm , where Allahsays,
“Another of His signs is that He created spouses from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquillity: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect.” [Surah Ar-Rum: 30;21]5
This verse informs us of the key purpose of the institution of marriage: “to live with [each other] in tranquillity.” In order to achieve this tranquillity, Allahthen provides the keys for success: “He ordained love and kindness between you.” These two principles, along with the consciousness of Allah mentioned in the first verse of Surāh al-Nisā , constitute the key ingredients for the recipe of a tranquil marriage from an Islamic perspective. If any of these three key ingredients are missing, it is a completely logical conclusion that the marriage will be at a higher risk of failing.
However, when a person puts the consciousness of Allahat the forefront of his marriage, they will automatically fulfill all their marital responsibilities and will not oppress their spouse due to the fear of reproach from Allah on Judgement Day. Add to this the ingredients of love and kindness, and it is very unlikely that such a marriage will fail.
When Things go Wrong
Whilst the Qur’an provides the recipe for marital bliss, it still recognizes that -for a plethora of reasons- not all marriages will operate perfectly upon the ideal model, and that conflicts will inevitably occur amongst many spouses. Thus, the Qur’an also provides detailed directives regarding conflict resolution, in order to mitigate the harms of such conflict and solve it through amicable resolution before the marriage degenerates further. Furthermore, the Qur’an recognizes that sometimes when conflicts just cannot be resolved spouses may have to resort to divorce (ṭalāq); so the Qur’an provides directives that ensure divorces are handled in the most just and amicable manner so that none of the involved parties are oppressed during the process. In fact, a whole chapter of the Qur’an is named Sūrah al-Ṭalāq (Chapter of Divorce).6 Additionally, there is also mention of the concept of khulʿ – a process where a women can initiate divorce proceedings and attempt to have the marriage dissolved upon a settlement.7 The Qur’an also recognizes issues of child custody and liability after a failed marriage, as when children are involved they are often the most negatively affected.8 The presence of all these above-mentioned discussions in the Qur’an demonstrates a well-constructed and holistic marital model. Below, we shall continue by analyzing passages from the Qur’an that detail these steps of conflict resolution as well as the last resort of separation.
Guidance on Conflict Resolution from the Quranic Paradigm
Allahsays in Sūrah al-Nisā’:
“Live with them in accordance with what is fair and kind: if you dislike them, it may well be that you dislike something in which Allah has put much good.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’:4;19]9
This verse is part of a collective of verses in the Chapter of the Women (Sūrah al-Nisā’) that enjoin good treatment of women. The first part of this particular verse provides a directive to live with them (ʿāshirūhunna) with maʿrūf. The verb ʿāshara – yuʿāshiru in the mufāʿalah form is taken from the word al-ʿishrah, which means ‘to associate’. Some linguists state that the word is actually derived from al-ʿashīrah (nearest kinsfolk), indicating that a husband should make his wife feel as though she is amongst the closest kin to him by treating her in the best way.10 As for the definition of the word maʿrūf, the exegetes say that it refers to as much gentle speech and treatment as is humanely possible in the spirit of the Shariah, just as a man would expect to be treated by his wife.11 Other exegetes add generosity in spousal endowments (nafaqah) and housing (mabīt).12 Some commentators also add that this treatment with maʿrūf is according to her family standards and proper societal norms (ʿurf),13 and not in the singular opinion of the husband –a point that indicates the importance of assessing compatibility (kafā’ah) between prospective spouses in order to avoid issues later on.14 This order is followed by the indication that this good treatment should be upheld even in the case of disliking a certain quality in the spouse, for if people were to exhibit poor behavior upon not liking a certain quality in a spouse, then most marriages would be destined to fail. This is as no human being is perfect, and people are naturally of different temperaments.
Thus, this part of the verse strongly promotes tolerance and compromise between the spouses, and concludes by adding that the same quality that you dislike may actually become a source of good for you by virtue of your exercising patience and tolerance. Exegetes explain that in the heat of the moment, a person may not understand at first glance how any good could come of such a situation. However, a person should take the time to ponder and think deeply about this, all the while acknowledging that sometimes the knowledge of true good is a wisdom belonging to Allahalone. This will stop a person from being hasty in mistreating a spouse or considering divorce unnecessarily.15
In a separate verse of Sūrah al-Nisā’, Allahprovides directives as to how a husband should conduct himself and deal with his wife if the relationship further deteriorates and there is a need to take action for there to be a chance of the situation being rectified and marital harmony being preserved long-term:
“Men are the caretakers of women,16 with [the bounties] Allah has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what Allah would have them guard in their husbands’ absence. If you fear high-handedness [nushūz] from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them: Allah is most high and great.”[Sūrah al-Nisā’: 4;34]17
This verse begins by stating that men are qawwāmūn of women – meaning they are their protectors, caretakers, and maintainers who are responsible for both their care and just rectification if required.18 The verse then states that this is with ‘the bounties Allah has given to some more than others’ – acknowledging the better financial situation and corresponding responsibilities Allahhas placed upon males.19 It is also an indication to the different dispositional qualities that males and females have been given by Allah that make each gender physically and mentally more suited to certain tasks. In this case, men are deemed by the Qur’an to be more suitable for the task of being qawwām of women. The verse then describes the qualities of righteous wives.
The next part details the course of action a husband should take in his role as qawwām (intensive form of qā’im, pl. qawwāmūn) if he experiences nushūz (high-handedness or ill-conduct) from his wife, which conflicts with the description of a righteous wife. He is given step-by-step instructions; first, he is to advise her with good words hoping this advice will be sufficient to rectify her. If this does not bear fruit, he is to cease conjugal relations with her, or abandon sleeping and conversing with her in her bedding, or avoid speaking with her in the usual manner20 – hoping this advisory action may push her to reflect and realize her behavioral error. The final resort is then to hit (iḍribūhunna). This may seem drastic on face value; however, it is imperative to explore the context and explanation of this advice in order to fully comprehend the issue at hand. Based on numerous prophetic traditions encouraging the good treatment of women and expounding on this issue, the earliest commentators stated that this final resort ‘hit’ was to be light enough not to leave a mark (ghayr mubarraḥ), should be done with nothing bigger than a tooth-stick, and should not be on the face.21
Furthermore, the biographical works have no mention of the Prophethimself ever hitting a woman or servant, even lightly. Additionally, if a woman feels her husband is exceeding bounds or if she is physically harmed, then she has the legal right to get help from her guardian and pursue legal action that could also result in a divorce, khulʿ (divorce upon a settlement), or faskh (marriage annulment). The verse then ends by stating that if the wife rectifies herself through any of these disciplinary steps, then they are not to be acted against unjustly and are to be treated with maʿrūf.
Whilst in the previously mentioned verse Allahinstructs men on how to deal with wives who display nushūz (high-handedness/ill-conduct), in verse 128 of Sūrah al-Nisā’ Allah now gives instructions to the women who fear similar nushūz or alienation (iʿrāḍ) from their husbands:
“If a wife fears high-handedness or alienation from her husband, neither of them will be blamed if they come to a peaceful settlement, for peace is best. Although human souls are prone to selfishness, if you do good and are mindful of God, He is well aware of all that you do.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’:4;12]22
This verse states that the solution to such a situation is to attempt to agree to a peaceful settlement, as settlement is better than continued disagreement, aversion, arrogance, and hasty divorce.
Commentators mention that this settlement could be fair reconciliation brought about by arbitration, or may be the giving up some financial or personal marital rights in order to preserve the marriage relationship – though this verse was revealed in the context of Mother of the Believers Sawdah bint Zamʿahfearing divorce for no reason other than the fact that she was elderly and that the Messenger of Allah did not want to burden her with intimacy. In this case, Sawdah waived her right and donated her day to Āʿishah . She did this happily in order to remain a wife of the Prophet and gain the virtue that comes with being a Mother of the Believers (Umm al-Mu’minīn).23 However, most women today who are experiencing marital problems or high-handed husbands would understandably not be happy to waive their own rights as this could cause further resentment.
Therefore, when attempting to bring about a resolution to a marital issue after exhausting all other steps, the Qur’an strongly advises that arbitration takes place with the counsel of wise people from the families of both sides as this will be conducive to amicable and fair reconciliation being achieved:
“If you [believers] fear that a couple may break up, appoint one arbiter from his family and one from hers. Then, if the couple want to put things right, Allah will bring about a reconciliation between them: He is all knowing, all aware.”[Sūrah al-Nisā’:4;35]24
The Last Resort
When all the above-mentioned steps have been exhausted and reconciliation could not be achieved, thus making the marriage impossible to maintain whilst upholding the aims and principles of marriage from an Islamic perspective, the Qur’an provides an exit route from such a situation. This is the institution of divorce (ṭalāq). Considering that divorces are often a time when oppression is rife, the Qur’an provides detailed guidelines on how an amicable divorce should take place. In the opening verse of the Chapter of Divorce (Sūrah al-Ṭalāq), Allahsays:
“Prophet, when any of you intend to divorce women, do so at a time when their prescribed waiting period can properly start, and calculate the period carefully: be mindful of God, your Lord. Do not drive them out of their homes––nor should they themselves leave––unless they commit a flagrant indecency. These are the limits set by Allah – whoever oversteps God’s limits wrongs his own soul – for you cannot know what new situation Allah may perhaps bring about. When they have completed their appointed term, either keep them honorably, or part with them honorably. Call two just witnesses from your people and establish witness for the sake of God.” [Sūrah al-Ṭalāq: 65;1]25
Further on in the chapter, Allahsays:
“House the wives you are divorcing according to your means, wherever you house yourselves, and do not harass them so as to make their lives difficult. If they are pregnant, maintain them until they are delivered of their burdens; if they suckle your infants, pay them for it. Consult together in a good way- if you make difficulties for one another, another woman may suckle the child for the father.”[Sūrah al-Ṭalāq: 65;7]26
The instructions found in the above verses clearly aim to encourage responsibility and consideration when undertaking divorce, particularly regarding affairs of the household and children.
Furthermore, the Qur’an recognizes that in some cases an ideal separation will be out of reach for the wife, due to the husband’s refusal to allow an irrevocable divorce which he has no right to repeal except with his ex-wife’s agreement upon a new marriage agreement (ṭalāq bā’in baynūnah sughrā), or his refusal to issue three divorces that together constitute the highest degree of irrevocable divorce that forbids the couple from remarrying except after the woman has legitimately married and divorced another man (ṭalāq bā’in baynūnah kubrā/mughallaẓah). For this particularly difficult scenario, the Qur’an also provides a solution:
“Divorce can happen twice, and [each time] wives either be kept on in an acceptable manner or released in a good way. It is not lawful for you to take back anything that you have given [your wives], except where both fear that they cannot maintain [the marriage] within the bounds set by God: if you [arbiters] suspect that the couple may not be able to do this, then there will be no blame on either of them if the woman opts to give something for her release. These are the bounds set by God: do not overstep them. It is those who overstep God’s bounds who are doing wrong.” [Surat Al-Baqarah: 2;229]27
This verse mentions the ruling of khulʿ – the process where a women can initiate divorce proceedings and attempt to have the marriage dissolved upon a financial settlement such as the return of her wedding dowry (mahr).28 In the case that the husband still refuses to allow a divorce, the Islamic legal system allows a women to seek marriage annulment (faskh al-nikāḥ), which is a binding dissolution of an Islamic marriage pronounced by a Shariah court or council after reviewing the application of the wife upon valid legal grounds.29 These grounds include the husband’s failure to fulfill marital obligations; the husband’s failure to provide maintenance despite capacity to do so; cruelty to the wife; serious discord between the parties; and marriage by deception, amongst other reasons that will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the adjudicating body. This provides a much-needed last resort for an abused woman, and ensures that she does not remain locked in a relationship that is damaging for her well-being.
Based on the above analysis of the Qur’anic paradigm on marriage and conflict resolution, we can conclude that the Qur’an presents a holistic model that seeks to uphold the vital social institution of marriage whilst ensuring that individual human dignity and health is put at the forefront of this system. The guidance on key principles of a blissful marriage, various suggestions regarding conflict resolution, and detailed exit system are clear evidence of this.
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Source: Muslim Matters