A wide assessment of the marriage prospects of women within our community reveals a crisis. There is a paucity of eligible bachelors and this is an ominous sign. Buoyed by misleading statistics which casts Islam as the “fastest growing religion in America” (this is true but certainly not because of conversion or sustained religious commitment. Rather, on average Muslims tend to have more children than their Jewish or Christian counterparts) and a delusional sense of permanence, we have failed to take stock of the threat of discontinuity facing Islam in America. A 2017 Pew research study found that nearly 23% of Muslims in the US grow disaffected with the religion by the time they reach adulthood. That’s nearly 1 in 4. Without the benefit of hard data there’s no way of knowing for sure but I’d be willing to bet on a strong correlation between commitment/disaffection with Islam and intimate partner choice/accessibility. To be sure, there have been minority Muslim communities who failed to maintain distinct identities due, at least in part, to exogamy (marrying outside the community). This issue deserves a thorough treatment. A blog piece of 1500 words, even an overambitious one (wink wink) can offer nothing beyond impressions. Nonetheless, we would like to initiate some conversation: In light of the current situation, should we explore wiser ways of discussing the centrality of marriage to Muslim religious life?
A social phenomenon is the consequence of many factors: economic, cultural, religious, etc. In spite of the heterogeneous make up of our community, can we pinpoint any overarching trends? How might we approach responding to this challenge? As the saying goes, “We didn’t get into this overnight and we’re not getting out of it overnight.” When proposing solutions to the marriage breakdown, people tend toward boldness. This is productive. Some say we should arrange marriages among our youth while they’re teenagers. Some cite the Prophetic practice of plural marriage as a potential means of addressing this situation. Others maintain that the prohibition of interreligious marriage for Muslim women is based on outmoded notions of gender hierarchy and should be discarded so that Muslim women can pursue marriage with eligible Christian and Jewish men in addition to Muslims.
Prophetic record and practice indicate a clear priority given to the value of excellence in relationships over other modalities of religious devotion. The Prophet (upon him be peace) forbade monasticism, corrected a young man who assumed celibacy more expressive of high spiritual aspiration than marriage, and taught that marriage is half of our faith. This is undeniable. Yet, religious messaging that makes marriage the sine qua non of faith is potentially irresponsible—especially in our context. What is to be said of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ (upon them be peace), at-Ṭabarī, Rābia al-Adawīyya, an-Nawawī, Ibn Taymiyya, or the companion who was dragged to the Messenger of God (upon him be peace) by her father. In his homiletic compilation, at-Targhīb wa at-Tarhīb, al-Mundhiri cites an interesting tradition of the Prophet (upon him be peace):
“A man came to the Prophet dragging his daughter by the arm, complaining that she had no interest in marriage. He expected the Prophet (upon him be peace) to chide his daughter. Instead of encouraging her to get married, the Prophet (upon him be peace) simply asked: ‘Why don’t you have any interest in marriage?’ ‘Before gauging my interest in marriage,’ said the young woman whose composure and poise can be sensed from the text, ‘I would need to know exactly what marriage entails.’ After the Prophet explained the contractual dimension of marriage to her, she exclaimed, ‘I will never have that kind of responsibility to any man!’ turning to address the woman’s father at this point, the Prophet (upon him be peace) said, ‘She’s made her decision. You shouldn’t force her.’”
There was no mention of anything wanting in this woman’s adherence to the teachings of the Prophet (upon him be peace). The young man alluded to earlier erroneously assumed celibacy a superior expression of faith than marriage and he was swiftly corrected by the Prophet with his words: “…Who are these people? Whoever desires something other than my way is not from me.” Conversely, this woman appears to have no interest in such grand claims. She’s simply stating marriage isn’t for me. And that’s ok. For sure, there are vast differences between a woman who doesn’t have any interest in marriage owning her truth and living it boldly and a woman who wants to be married and can’t find a suitable match. What they share, however, is that neither of them is married and neither is deficient or inadequate in any way. For such individuals, perhaps being free of the responsibility of marriage will open them to other forms of encounter with the Divine. Many Muslim singles have personally confided in me that they feel depressed, religiously adrift, purposeless, etc. because they are single. Loneliness is real and it would be a reprehensible form of spiritual bypassing to assume a one-off scriptural reference held together by admittedly tenuous thread capable of removing the lack of fulfillment and even sadness being alone may contain. Scripture should not be used to blot out human emotion. However, knowing that nothing is religiously wrong with me because I’m not currently married might make patient perseverance a little less unnerving.
As stated, the reasons underlying the current crisis are multifarious, complex, and dynamic. Given the tremendous diversity within our community, it’s extremely difficult to generalize. For instance, Blackamerican Muslims (women and men) face disproportionate levels of discrimination in areas of education, employment, recidivism, etc. It goes without saying that these factors can militate against one’s ability to start/maintain a family. Addressing this specific challenge will involve continuing to develop visions of community which intentionally aim at mitigating the impact of these factors. Muslim women from second and third generation immigrant backgrounds still confront the phenomenon of in-group males marrying from “back home” or exclusively seeking partners that are younger and less accomplished. How can this coexist with a culture that encourages academic achievement and professional appointment for women? Undoubtedly, this requires the renegotiation of certain priorities. However, as far as overarching trends go, in my estimation, the most consistent issue contributing to the breakdown of marriage within our community is our inability to create a culture that really esteems marriage.
By now, we have to face it. Marriage is no longer the exclusive or even preferred means of experiencing emotional and physical intimacy with a partner. Dating and now, hook-up culture, offer other forms of relationship; many of which are not nearly as public or demanding as marriage. Yes, for the devout it’s not merely the physical and emotional intimacy promised by marriage which makes it desirable. It is the grace of God. This is deeply inspiring and hugely problematic: Deeply inspiring because within a culture which doesn’t restrict romantic relationships to the marital bond, Muslims of conscience seek this responsibility for the sake of God. It’s hugely problematic because a culture of marriage can’t thrive if marriage is restricted to the devout. Once upon a time, family pressure and expectations of social conformity could shore up the places religious devotion failed to inspire a commitment to marriage. Those extraneous motivating factors haven’t lost all of their influence but a culture of radical individualism and decreased familial cohesion has weakened them significantly. In regard to motivating marriage, religious piety will continue to function as it always has. The crisis is the outcome of the waning influence of those secondary motivating factors.
Marriage in our tradition is not a religious sacrament or just something one does to avoid sin. Deep and abiding friendship, financial advantage, wellness promotion, providing the stability required to achieve greatness, a reunification of souls that were together on the day of “Am I not your Lord,” the depth and beauty of a commitment to another person based on love AND MERCY, the opportunity to explore yourself through service to someone else, etc. traditional articulations of marriage in Islam contain rich conceptual frameworks. We must make use of these and many more, especially when counseling our young men, if we aspire to develop a culture that truly esteems marriage. Earning the pleasure of God and avoiding His wrath is the ultimate motivation for the Muslim, but in regard to marriage, it’s always had reinforcements.
From polygamy to pragmatism (the suggestion that traditional positions prohibiting interreligious marriages for women are irrelevant or outmoded), responses to the current situation are varied and bold. Sacred Law contains limits but also much variety and boldness. Inshallah, our next post will provide an opportunity to explore the viability of some of these proposals.
To Be Continued…