What No One Says About Marriage: Rethinking the Way We Conceive Relationships (Part I)

As Anne Kingston explains, it is all about being a bride! Brides have become a symbol of marriage and the major consumer item of all times almost universally (The meaning of Wife).

We all want to get married, have a pretty dress, a nice reception, and a happy family and in-laws…. or at least it has crossed our minds at some point.

However, we know little about what comes with marriage or the actual reason for marriage to exist.

In Islam, as in most legal systems in the world, marriage is not about two people getting together and living happily ever after; instead, marriage is a legal contract that encompasses rights and responsibilities.

If relationships were equal and people were able to handle them responsibly marriage wouldn’t be necessary. If relationships and procreation weren’t so important for the nation-building process and the inheritance of citizenship or religion, marriage wouldn’t exist. If there wasn’t any need to define what is ‘normal,’ marriage would not be regulated.

Nonetheless, marriage remains the most powerful institution of all times. It does not matter how much it fails to meet the needs of the spouses; it does not matter what critics of the institution have to say. Marriage is here to stay.

Although nowadays in the West we like to think that marriage is about love… Islam has been much more pragmatic about the purpose of marriage; therefore, Shari’ah dedicates a great deal of attention to it.

Yes, differences in opinion remain. However, the point is that marriage is not about two individuals choosing specific type of life. It is about two individual lives being regulated for the sake of the community and collective interests.

Islam promotes heterosexual marriage as the only institution were sex and procreation are lawful. Yet, marriage does a whole bunch of things on top of that.

Marriage is a tool against celibacy. Prophet Muhammad was recorded as saying that those who could afford to marry should marry. He also said that celibacy is not lawful in Islam. In addition, he encouraged his men to spend time with their wives before and after going to war. Those who hadn’t consummated the marriage, were not allowed to join him in battle.

Marriage is also a tool that dictates normativity. Being in a heterosexual marriage is normal and it is the model to which other relationships will be compared to. Thus, marriage is a resource against promiscuity, homosexuality, celibacy, etc, which under Islāmic law, are ‘deviant’ and haram.

In Islam marriage also regulates family relationships; thus, one could marry a cousin, but not a brother or half-brother, uncle, step son, nephew, etc. This serves a communal purpose. It defines family members vs. outsiders.

Moreover, marriage regulates sexuality. Sexuality is very concerning for most religions, and the lack of control over it is identified as ‘deviant’. Islam restricts women to one husband and allows men to have up to four. This served a very basic need at a time when there were very few men and too many women. That is why polygamy is not unique to Islam. Most Judeo-Christian prophets were polygamous, a number of indigenous tribes were, China got rid of polygamy just under the communist regime, some  Mormons practice it, etc.

However, the polygamy issue is debatable. The Qur’anic verse that allows a man to marry up to four women, given that he is fair with all of them, is considered by some to be later abrogated by another Qur’anic verse, which explains that men are never going to be fair. Nonetheless, some other people argue that polygamy is only lawful in circumstances where men are scarce and there are too many women, as at the time of the prophet.

Yet, a very important feature of this is the fact that women’s sexuality remains regulated by marriage because it is basic to the political purposes of the umma. A woman will always know who her child is, but men cannot have the same certainty. Since men have traditionally owned the property, have participated in the public sphere and have dealt with politics, the issue of inheritance becomes a primary focus of Islamic law.

The way in which a Islam guarantees that a man will know who his children are is through marriage.

Yes, adultery could be practiced;  but according to Shari’ah law, adultery deserves capital punishment. Adultery threatens the social order because marriage is not only about two, but about the community.

On the other hand, marriage is an economic tool that is encouraged even today.

Bush and his government endorsed  series of programs in places like Oklahoma to end poverty. While some of them had to do with welfare, Oklahoma has endorsed marriage as a poverty strategy to address the fact that a number of single, working mothers are out there living on less than minimum wage.

Instead of actually helping the women through social welfare, the state decided to encourage them to marry, so their husbands would become their source of welfare. In addition, marriage, in this circumstances, makes men employable. Instead of being out engaging in ‘dubious’ activities, men would be caring for their families.

Islam does something similar. It attributes the financial responsibility to the man and it is expected that the couple will live out of whatever income he has, even if his income is charity.

Islam takes the financial burden out of the community and takes it into the private sphere. Once in there, the community has to contribute through zakah (one of the pillars of Islam).

Something to keep in mind is that Islam encourages commercial activity, and it demands people to work if they are able to. However, this is only mandatory for men and optional for women, on the assumption that a woman’s primary source of income is her husband.

Nevertheless, one of the major purposes of marriage is the nation-building process. Whoever has read the Old Testament or even the Genesis can see how this works. Patriarchal societies trace their descent through the father. For the purposes of nation-building , in patriarchal societies, one should able to trace lineage through the father line.

Islam guaranteed that most people would be able to do that by regulating marriage. So a man could have children from multiple wives from different tribes, but the children could go back to his lineage for reference.

Although this may not seem a major issue nowadays in many countries, it was huge in many cases.

Fatima Mernissi in The Veil and the Male Elite shows us how important this was. Mernissi talks about the issue of Hadiths and the chain of transmitters that should come with it. When she refers to one if the companions, Abu Bakra (not to be confused with the Khalifa, Aisha’s father) she shows this was problematic.

To be considered a ‘reliable’ source of hadith, one should be able to demonstrate a good character and a moral life, which can be proven through lineage. Being a slave, Abu Bakra could not trace lineage to anyone except his mother. While this was not an issue for prophet Muhammad, it was for other people.

After the death of the prophet Abu Bakra’s status depended only on his companionship to the prophet and his relationship with the important people of the city where he lived. Nonetheless, Abu Bakra’s reliability has been questioned along history due to this and the type of hadiths that he recalled.

All this account, show that marriage is less about love as it is about community, legality and politics. Nowadays, we are trying to reconcile love with the fact that marriage is not an institution that preserves individual choice.

So it is not all about being the bride! that is done in a day or two…it is about being a wife and what that encompasses legally speaking. We may love our husbands, but there are larger responsibilities towards the community, and those get regulated by either law in all countries or Shari’ah in Islam.

Our desires either have a limit or are limited by marriage.

The realm of rights and responsibilities is full of those contradictions…

(To be continued…)

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