I will never forget the first embarrassingly explicit question that I was asked. During one of the earliest series of lectures that I gave (the explanation of Kitab al-Tawhid), when I was still in my very early twenties, an older sister (probably in her mid 30s) came up to me and said she needed to ask a question. I was expecting something related to the topic, so I said, 'Yes, go ahead.' Instead, she asked a very frank question about the legal permissibility of something she and her husband did. All that I remember was turning beet-root red, looking down in embarrassment, and muttering some type of incoherent response back at her. Truth be told, not only did the question completely catch me off guard and discomfit me, I actually didn't even know the answer to it. They most certainly did not teach us such material in Madīnah!
Over the next few years, as I became more active in delivering sermons and lectures, I realized that the most common area that people needed guidance in was with regards to marital issues and spousal relationships. It didn't matter if my talk was regarding some obscure and outdated fourth-century theological controversy in Nishapur, almost invariably a question or two would slip through and make its way towards me regarding a personal, marriage-related concern. It was also quite irrelevant where I happened to be talking. From America to Dubai and from Australia to the UK, marriage problems and marital advice topped the list of queries. As if to prove this point, the escalating problem of divorce amongst our generation is a matter that we are all painfully aware of. It is obvious that the Muslim men and women of our generation are having greater difficulty in maintaining healthy marriages.
Just a few weeks ago, after a seminar I delivered, a sister approached and asked for a few minutes of my time regarding a private issue. Her problem was not an uncommon one, although perhaps she was more traumatized by it than others. She told me that she had been married for a few years, but that her marital life was not satisfactory. Almost at the verge of tears, and in a very embarrassed state, she said that her husband was a good man in most respects, but in 'that department' he really was quite incompetent, and even selfish. All he was interested in was satisfying himself; her needs seemed to be of no concern to him. She told me that that her level of frustration and exasperation continued to grow and grow, and in fact many times she was left in tears after what should have been a moment of intimacy and romance. Not only did he not care, he was not even willing to acknowledge that there was a problem. Was it Islamically permissible, she asked, if she asked for a divorce to end the marriage and try to find happiness in another marriage?
Similar problems abound amongst brothers as well, although few are manly enough to actually admit it and seek guidance. The most common complaint amongst men is that their wives do not seem anywhere near as interested as they themselves are in being intimate. For these men, both the quantity and the quality of experiences are unsatisfactory. As a result, many brothers are tempted to believe that the only solution to their predicament is in marrying a second wife. They do not realize that such a 'solution' will in all likelihood compound this very problem, not to mention add a whole multitude of new ones as well. Instead of finding fault with an existing wife, a husband would fare better in seeing what he can do to improve the situation. Most times, a little bit of understanding and compassion (also known as 'romance') will go a very long way.
In my humble opinion, and based on my own observations, most of this tension arises from perceived gender roles and misguided expectations of how the 'other' should interact in a marriage. And while sexual roles and expectations are by no means the only problem, they are clearly a major one, and one that exacerbates other tensions within a marriage.
The problem is underscored by the fact that most men and women have no clue regarding how the opposite gender thinks, feels and acts. This ignorance is found in both Muslims and non-Muslims, but in this regard, non-Muslims typically do have an edge over us. Because of their consistent exposure to the opposite gender (and their frequent dating), non-Muslims do have a better understanding and are usually more sympathetic to the needs of the opposite gender. Additionally, because the predominant culture entails open and direct competition amongst members of one gender to stand out and appear attractive to the opposite gender (no arranged marriages there!), both men and women typically do display and cultivate emotional characteristics and sensitivities that their significant other would find extremely appealing. Men learn that romance and compassion will get them far; women learn that they can have more control over their man if they 'push the right buttons'. For better or for worse, however, our own brothers and sisters are woefully in the dark about these issues, and the more conservative (and therefore 'righteous') a person is, the less experience he or she would have had in this regard, and hence the less prepared to face marriage. Most Muslim couples enter marriage not quite knowing what to face.
The problem is compounded for most of us, since we as a modern generation of Muslims are caught between two cultures: the excessive ultra-conservatism of our parent's culture (in which parents never even held hands in front of their kids, or addressed each other in endearing terms, or indeed showed any signs of being romantic), and the hyped over-sexuality and over-romanticism of the culture surrounding us (in which much happens in public that we'd rather not discuss). We grew up receiving confusing and contradictory messages from the home and family on the one side, and from television and society on the other.
Such an onslaught of problems and questions forced me, from very early on, to read up on issues not quite on the curriculum at Madīnah! And while many of the books I read were extremely beneficial in terms of understanding the psychological and emotional differences between men and women, all of them were written for people with very different ethics and value systems than those of our own. I found myself trying to sift through and extract the beneficial bits while discarding suggestions that would not work from within our religious and cultural paradigm. This material, I strongly felt, had to be 'Islamified' and then passed on to others.
Last year, an opportunity arose which allowed me to express some of those ideas in front of an audience. A dear friend and mentor was teaching a class about the fiqh of marriage. As part of that class, one section would deal with issues of intimacy. It just so happened that I would be in that same city for another reason, and would be free on that particular day. The Shaykh, when he heard that I would be in town, confessed that he felt awkward doing this section because he had not been raised in this culture, and felt that I might be more appropriate since I could better relate to the issues facing our youth. At first I was quite hesitant to take up this offer (“So, Shaykh, let me get this straight: you want me to stand up in front of five hundred young men and women and talk about sex?!”), but after thinking through this issue, and with the continued persistence of the Shaykh, I decided to put myself in the 'hot seat' and go through with it. I thought about the questions and problems that had been presented to me over the last decade, and the issues that people had confided in me regarding their marital problems. I structured my notes around those experiences, re-read many of the works that I had on the subject, and added a healthy dose of Quranic and hadith references, along with some Islamic common sense. I decided that it would be appropriate to separate the brothers and sisters, and lecture one gender at a time. That way, not only could I modify the lecture to target each gender specifically, I could also avoid the awkwardness that would have been felt if the other gender had been present.
The results and feedback after my talk astounded me. Overwhelmingly, people thanked me for the frank and relevant advice – for speaking in explicit terms and moving beyond simplistic one-line platitudes. Many people asked for a recording of this session (it had not been recorded), and quite a few suggested that my talk should be expanded and taught in a separate seminar. Word quickly spread (along with a few inevitable jokes!), and this class led to a few more speaking engagements along similar topics. Along the way, I had to research more and more and expand into more issues. Feedback and questions from audiences also helped me shape the topic and fine-tune my talks.
The last time I taught the class – to a group of brothers and sisters in the UK – I asked each student to fill out an anonymous feedback form regarding the talk. I specifically told them to point out any weaknesses and mention criticisms. alḥamdulillāh, the survey came back without a single negative comment. Again and again, people expressed the sentiment that this information needed to be taught to all Muslims of our generation: those who were yet to be married, those who were newlyweds and experiencing problems, and those who wanted healthier marriages.
This is why, after praying istikhārah and speaking to others about this issue, I have decided to commit some time to this area and address this very delicate subject directly, from an Islamic perspective. The initiative is called 'Like A Garment' (www.LikeAGarment.com), from the famous Quranic phrase of spouses being like garments to one another. The website has two aims: to disseminate information about this topic (which will, insha Allāh, be beneficial to all Muslims, single and married), and to garner, via anonymous questionnaires, the problems and concerns that the Muslims of our times are facing in this area (which will help me better prepare future lectures). I encourage those who are interested to log on to the website and sign up to receive our weekly journal.
I pray that Allāh helps me to make this project successful, and that through it many, many Muslims are able to live better lives and obtain happier marriages! Āmīn.