“It is the wife who must always bend over backwards, compromise, and tolerate every injustice from her husband and in-laws, if she wants her marriage to work.”
Think of a woman who has just got divorced; the first question that people usually ask is: what did she do to bring it about? Unfortunately, when her ex-husband’s sins, cruelty and vile habits become known as the cause, well-wishers and critics both wonder why she wasn’t more patient and forbearing to tolerate and ignore them in the long term, for her children’s sake.
“(Gasp!) What? She asked her husband for a divorce, just because he hit her once or twice? She must have done something to provoke him. What a headstrong woman!”
“She got married again? I hope this husband of hers is more strict, so that she stays within limits.”
As I write this article, I recall so many times that I have heard well-wishing women, especially those from the older generation, make such generalisations and sexist statements. In contrast to this, I know several young women who initiated a divorce from their first husbands who are now happily remarried and well-settled in life. Four out of these five women initiated the divorce on Islamically legitimate grounds. For example, the ex-husband of one suffered from a chronic unwillingness to sustain a job/career to provide for his family. The ex-husband of another de-stressed at night with extra-marital internet affairs and clandestine porn viewing. The remaining cases were that of severe incompatibility, which were causing chronic misery, low self-esteem and depression.
Another sister who has recently initiated divorce revealed to me, “I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone, I had no friends because he wouldn’t let me have any, he hated my family and I could rarely ever see them; he wouldn’t even let me see a counsellor. For weeks and months prior to me leaving, I would wake up for tahajjud and pray and beg Allah (SWT) to show me a way out of the problems. I did istikharah over and over again.”
When a marriage goes awry and remains an unhappy one despite patience, persistent effort and compromise on both sides, divorce provides a means of welcome relief, happiness and liberation. Not to mention, it paves the way for future happiness because it allows the divorcee to move on and start life anew, having another chance of matrimony.
This is especially true for cases in which the husband did not fulfill the obligations of Islam, such as observing daily prayers, or that he unapologetically indulged in its prohibitions, such as drinking and adultery.
Can we expect a man who does not fear Allah (SWT) to treat his wife properly, even if she fears Allah (SWT) in her dealings with him?
The Islamic evidence
The question is, what does Islam say about the largely culture-based myth that a woman who asks for a divorce for a valid Shari’ah reason is being sinful?
The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: “Any woman who asks her husband for a divorce when it is not absolutely necessary, the fragrance of Paradise will be forbidden to her.” (Sahih, Abu Dawud)
The question then arises: what are the reasons that make it permissible for a Muslim wife to ask for a divorce?
“Among the reasons which make it permissible to ask for divorce, is bad treatment on the part of the husband, refusal to spend on the wife’s maintenance, his being away for more than six months without any prior agreement between them, and the wife’s disliking the husband so much that it is too difficult for her to stay with him or she is afraid that that may push her to disobey him and fall short in her duties towards him.” (IslamQA.com, No. 144016)
Why then, do modern-day Muslims tend to place the ‘blame’ for a divorce squarely on the wife’s shoulders, even when a husband’s oppressive, controlling and outright cruel behaviour causes his wife’s mental breakdown?
“No man leaves his wife without a reason. She must have done something to make him dislike her. She probably didn’t try hard enough to make it work….”
We should see how the best of mankind, Prophet Muhammad (SAW), dealt with Allah-fearing Muslim wives who initiated divorce, even when their husbands were righteous. The two ahadith quoted below show how our Prophet r not just allowed, but facilitated such divorces:
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: “Barirah’s husband was a slave called Mughith, as if I am seeing him now, going behind Barirah and weeping with his tears flowing down his beard.
The Prophet (SAW) said to ‘Abbas, “O ‘Abbas! Are you not astonished at the love of Mughith for Barirah, and the hatred of Barirah for Mughith?”
The Prophet then said to Barirah, “Why don’t you return to him?”
She said, “O Allah’s Messenger! Do you order me to do so?”
He said, “No, I only intercede for him.”
She said, “I am not in need of him.””
(Sahih Al Bukhari, Book 63, 206)
Barirah’s concern for obeying the Prophet (SAW), even if it meant staying with a man she wanted to leave, is commendable, because it is a clear example of correct priorities of a Muslim wife i.e. loving and obeying Allah (SWT) and His Prophet r, at a level over and above her obedience to, and love for, her husband. Contrast that to the ‘modern’ Muslim wife, delaying her obligatory salah to the last half hour because she has to simmer biryani for her husband just the way he likes it!
The fact that Barirah’s husband, Mughith, loved her more than she loved him is clear from the hadith via both Ibn ‘Abbas’ description of Mughith’s behavior, as well as the Prophet’s comment about it.
Nowadays, people, especially older married women, express immense shock when hearing about a husband madly in love with his wife but she not reciprocating his love at the same level, even if he is righteous. When they meet such a wife who is comparatively indifferent to her loving husband, even if she fulfills all his Islamic rights, her attitude is seen as scandalous and she is considered cold and ‘sinful’.
However, the Prophet (SAW) did not find this situation scandalous. He did not reprimand Barirah for her lack of love for Mughith, even though he observed Mughith’s very public distress at losing his wife, so much so that he commented about it to his cousin Ibn ‘Abbas. He (SAW) then encouraged Barirah not to leave Mughith, but when she frankly informed him that she was “not in need of” her husband, he was neither shocked at this confession, nor did he force her to change her mind.
In some Muslim cultures, especially in the East, a wife is supposed to love her husband unconditionally, even if he beats her, mistreats her, or humiliates and insults her in front of their children and others. Even valid ‘complaints’ by such oppressed or battered wives are met with prompt reminders of the impermissibility of being ungrateful for one’s husband, and how the majority of dwellers of Hell will be ungrateful wives. These sort of judgments occur even when the wife is being cheated upon, displays black-and-blue bruises on her body, or is being forced to work and become the principal breadwinner of the home.
Another hadith expounds how the wife of a companion of the Prophet (SAW) initiated divorce because of her concern for the way staying married to her husband was affecting her relationship with Allah (SWT).
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: “The wife of Thabit bin Qais bin Shammas came to the Prophet (SAW) and said, “O Allah’s Messenger (SAW)! I do not blame Thabit for any defects in his character or his religion, but I am afraid that I may become unthankful for Allah’s (SWT) Blessings.”
On that, Allah’s Messenger (SAW) said (to her), “Will you return his garden to him?”
She said, “Yes.”
So she returned his garden to him and the Prophet told him to divorce her.”
(Sahih Al Bukhari, Book 63, 199)
This hadith highlights a couple of points about Muslim wives at the time of the Prophet (SAW): Firstly, her concern with the pleasure of Allah (SWT) and the importance of remaining close to Him (through shukr, for example) was greater than their preoccupation with the pleasure of, or love for, their husbands. Additionally, her maturity and discernment in making a final decision about her marriage, and upholding that decision, even if it meant paying back the mahr, becomes admirably evident. The fact that she had not spent the mahr she received through her marriage also shows her lack of love for dunya, because in order to pay it back to her husband, she had to still own it.
While Islam views divorce as a last resort and certainly does not encourage it, Muslims need to seek knowledge of both the Qur’an and the Prophet’s seerah in order to avoid unwittingly becoming tacit bystanders of oppression that goes on in many marriages today. The first step in that direction would be to stop blindly blaming those wives who are brave enough to take a step that is justified before Allah (SWT).
Sadaf Farooqi thinks that if a wife truly fears Allah (SWT) regarding her husband, she will not acquiescently allow chronic oppression. She will either put a stop to it, or opt out of a marriage that is ruining the couple’s Akhirah.