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Being a People Pleaser

Have you ever been pulled in so many directions, so many obligations, invitations, and commitments that you are unable to give any of them their haqq (due)?  You run late for events because you were too busy juggling three projects while making cupcakes from scratch, all so people will think you are ‘so nice’.  You are often snappy with your own parents because you are so exhausted from doing all the work so that you do not disappoint your MSA brothers.  Maybe your intent initially was to please Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) when you started doing the work but somewhere along the way, a darkness crept into your heart and you didn’t even realize it.

The Giving Mother, Wife, Friend

She stood in the hot kitchen wrapped in her niqab while her brothers-in-law and their friends sat at the dining table, painstakingly making another round of tamales for them. Her back ached and she knew she would miss her online Qur’an tajweed class but she kept telling herself that they only come over sometimes and she wanted them to think that she was a nice sister-in-law.

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It is essential to be a good host to our guests but are there times when we are setting up other people as ilah alongside Allah?  Do you find yourself hurrying through your salahs or missing your daily dhikr so that you can help a friend decorate for her sister’s wedding or help a brother find a great deal on a car?  Here, you pleased your friend but displeased your Lord.

 

The Overworked Volunteer

He knew he was exhausted but the task needed to be done and since it was the Fundraising Committee head who had asked him, he said yes, knowing that it will mean another sleepless night for him.

Do you always say yes to every event that happens at the masjid? Are you the person who is always working? Everyone else bailed out, so who steps in? You do. Why do you do it?  Is it because you want everyone to like you? Or maybe you start liking being known as the person who is ever ready to do work for the deen?

Being Too Nice To Say No

When volunteering becomes your life, you start enjoying the praise, the admiration. One way to check if you suffer from this disease is if or when you are replaced, do you feel resentment?  If you do, then know that your intention was not to serve Allāh or to please Him but to please others and to feed your own ego.

We are just not that indispensable to Allah – His work will get done. If your efforts for the deen are taking away from your efforts for Allah (i.e. you are missing your salah or not making dua about the work that you are doing) then there is definitely an issue. If you ever start thinking that because you do so much, you are irreplaceable, you definitely have a problem.  Know that you are addicted to the something other than God.

Is the legacy you want to leave behind that you were “masha’Allah, such a nice person”? There is no word for nice in the Arabic language – the closest translation is lateef, which means to be kind, gentle, and aware of feelings but NOT nice.

Definition for the word “nice”:  socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance, exhibiting courtesy and politeness.

So what’s wrong with being nice? Just like with anything taken to the extreme, being too nice can hurt you when people take advantage of you and use you because you are too nice to say “NO”.

Rasulullah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “He who displeased Allah for seeking the pleasure of people, Allah is displeased with him and those people are also displeased, for pleasing whom he had earned Allah’s displeasure. And he who pleases Allah, although by it he displeased people, Allah is pleased with him, and also those people whom he had displeased for pleasing Allah become pleased with him. Allah makes him splendid and his speech and acts in the eyes of others beautiful.” [Tabarani]

This hadith is usually discussed in the context of things that are clearly haram or borderline questionable that we may do to please our boss, parents, spouse, society etc. Here, I am talking about those people who are not doing anything forbidden but are overburdening themselves and are hindering themselves from greater deeds because they cannot say no.

Are you a people-pleaser?

Do you believe that others’ needs must come before your own (these are not valid needs like food or shelter but are the extra things that we do)? Do you identify with the following statements?

  • I often do more for other people and often let myself be used so I won’t be rejected for other reasons.
  • I often do a lot for other people because I don’t want to let them down even when I know that their demands are excessive and or unreasonable.
  • I always think of others, especially at the expense of my own health (especially mental health).
  • I often hear people who really care about me tell me, “Learn to say, ‘No.’ You need to stand up for yourself. You are too nice.”

Some of the most common people pleasing behaviors:

  • Putting others’ needs before yours.
  • Keeping your opinion to yourself because you think it will upset others.
  • Saying yes to every request.
  • Feeling guilty when you say no.
  • Feeling selfish when you do something for yourself.
  • Suppressing emotions because you fear that if you express then you will upset others.
  • Feeling that you have no control over your life.
  • Avoiding confrontation.
  • Going out of your way to appease others.
  • Feeling crushed by criticism and disapproval.
  • Thinking that it is your Islamic duty to please others.

If you identified with the above statements and exhibit the common people pleasing behaviors, then you are a people pleaser.  Some may ask:  “What’s wrong in being a people pleaser? Shouldn’t we live our lives on earth trying to make people happy?” Think again. What is the purpose of your life? Does Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) want us to be people pleasers? Or is our maqsad (purpose) in life to please Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)?  If in the course of making Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) happy you are also pleasing people, then it is acceptable, but if you just spent 5 hours cooking food for someone else’s party and then spent 30 minutes complaining about it to your best friend, then the net result is an exhausted body and a depleted soul.

The most destructive among the above common people pleasing behaviors is feeling selfish when you do something for yourself.  Mothers tend to do this a lot. We are willing to spend hours cheering for our children’s soccer games but will feel guilty for slipping out to spend an hour on the treadmill. Many of us will spend hours organizing our husband’s closets but feel guilty going to a halaqah for an hour. We slave away at these relationships, avoiding all conflict and all negative emotions, but they are simmering inside us and will eventually lead to stress and health problems. If you keep continuing in this way, then you will either burst with hostility at some point or will fall into depression.

We put a lot of effort in pleasing others, we think we are fulfilling their rights and then we compromise. We need to understand that if we please Allah, everyone else will be eventually be automatically pleased with us. Many self-help books don’t look at the spiritual aspect of this behavior. I am not saying that all people pleasing behavior is wrong.  Indeed we are told:

“And do not forget to do good to one another.” (2:237)

‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Whoever fulfilled the needs of his brother, Allah will fulfill his needs; whoever brought his (Muslim) brother out of a discomfort, Allah will bring him out of the discomforts of the Day of Resurrection, and whoever screened a Muslim, Allah will screen him on the Day of Resurrection.”

And remember how the Prophet was pleased with the man who baked bread for his companions while on a journey.

Really ask yourself:  Why do you do the things that you do? Correct your niyyah at every step. Do what you do solely for the sake of Allah. If you feel like doing it to earn His Pleasure and not for anyone else then alhamdulillah you are on the right track.

Memorize this du`a for Riyaa taught to us by the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and recite it often:

“Allahumma innaa na‘udhu bika an-nushrika bika shay’an na‘lamuhu, wa nastagfiruka limaa laa na‘lamuh. [O Allah, we seek refuge in you from committing shirk knowingly, and ask your forgiveness for (the shirk that we may commit unknowingly].”

 

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Hena Zuberi is the Editor in Chief of Muslimmatters.org. She leads the DC office of the human rights organization, Justice For All, focusing on stopping the genocide of the Rohingya under Burma Task Force, advocacy for the Uighur people with the Save Uighur Campaign and Free Kashmir Action. She was a Staff Reporter at the Muslim Link newspaper which serves the DC Metro. Hena has worked as a television news reporter and producer for CNBC Asia and World Television News. Active in her SoCal community, Hena served as the Youth Director for the Unity Center. Using her experience with Youth, she conducts Growing Up With God workshops. hena.z@muslimmatters.org Follow her on Twitter @henazuberi.

41 Comments

41 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Tariq Nisar Ahmed

    October 12, 2012 at 3:25 AM

    Jazakumullahu khayran! Could you post the last dua in Arabic, please? Or a link to Arabic text?

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:54 AM

      I will do Br. Tariq InshaAllah

      • Avatar

        yusuf

        July 21, 2016 at 5:16 AM

        dear sister, salamalakum please may Allah help this get to someone who can help-ammenn
        im suffering from low-self-esteem and am at my weakest point its effected my imaan my family my friends and myself
        please allah help me!!!!!!!!! I cant deal with 24/7 stressing about what other people think of me and always trying to please others please Allah cure me from this burden I cant live like this im going off the damb rack because im wasting my time pleasing people when I should be pleasing the almighty thx

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:57 AM

      الَّلهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ أَنْ أُشْرِكَ بِكَ وأَنا أَعلَمُ

      وأَستَغفِرُكَ لما لا أَعلَمُ(Ahmad)

  2. Avatar

    Sadaf

    October 12, 2012 at 6:38 AM

    I do not think that I can thank Allah and then you enough, for writing this immensely beneficial post, Hena. It is a much, much needed reminder, especially for married women and mothers who also do da’wah work!
    May Allah reward you.
    P.S: I am a “selfish” woman. ;)

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:21 AM

      Jazakillah Khayrun and Alhamdulilah. Your sisterhood is so precious and this comment from you means a lot because I know you understand exactly where I am coming from.
      xxoo

    • Avatar

      Kayvee

      January 5, 2014 at 2:26 PM

      Jazakallah khairan for this article

      Unfortunately we are taught from a young age that being “selfish” is wrong

      Thats why its important to differentiate “selfishness” and “self-interest”

      Self-Interest is very important

      We cant help others, if we are struggling ourselves

      We cant give love and support when we are neglecting our own needs of love and support

      During the explanation of safety procedures, we are told to first put the oxygen mask on ourselves and THEN on others

      We need to help ourselves first to be in a place where we can truly give to others.

      You are like a cup…..fill yourself with love, support, and goodness…..until your cup overflows and your goodness and love touches others

  3. Avatar

    Libaaxa Leerta

    October 12, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    Jzkumulah kheyran

  4. Avatar

    Sultan Mirza

    October 12, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    Good article Masha Allah. Although I would like to point out that if a person avoids confrontation to prevent a bigger evil from occurring then that would not be classified as people pleasing. Correct me if I am mistaken please.

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 2:27 AM

      Assalam alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatahu Br Sultan,
      You are absolutely right if the fitnah is bigger and confrontation leads to a greater evil. But that is where you have to use good judgement for often we avoid a short term fitnah but are feeding a long-term problem.
      JazakAllah khayr for reading and commenting.

  5. Avatar

    kasim

    October 12, 2012 at 12:52 PM

    Sorry sister but the article gives an impression that being nice to others is not desirable. I know towards the end you give a kind of a disclaimer but still overall thats the message it carries and emphasizes. I know that is not your intention but it does come across that away. Whatever happened to the terms and teachings about sacrifice and tolerance.

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 2:38 AM

      Assalam alaykum wa rahmatulahi wa barakatahu Br. Kasim,
      JazakAllah khayr for making that constructive criticism. You are not a people-pleaser, see people who suffer from this disease would have had a hard time responding in the negative to anything even a stranger’s blog post because they would have want the author to like them EVEN though they don’t even know them, because they are so scared of rejection.
      You are absolutely right most of our ummah needs to read about sacrifice and tolerance but this post is addressing people-pleasers. If you answered no to most of the tell tale signs that you do not suffer from this disease of the heart, Alhamdulillah.

      Trust me as a recovering people pleaser, I can testify it can kill your soul and I know many people who suffer from the it and each of their issues may be different but the crux of the matter comes down to the need to please others. You destroy your boundaries, try to have a different persona depending on who is around, make yourself into a hypocrite.
      Be gentle, be kind, be thoughtful, be respectful and honorable, be authentic, do ihsan and ikram, be amazing but don’t always try to be ‘nice’ and do it only for Allah not for anyone else.

  6. Avatar

    umm_ismael

    October 12, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    Asslam ualaikum wr wb- very beneficial jk. I am a little confused though- In relationships there are givers and takers- should one not be on the giving side? Next question- small children disrupt ibadah and daily acts of worship- how does one become selfish in that

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:48 AM

      Assalam alaykum Sis,
      Bismillah
      Yes, in every relationship there should be giver and takers and we should be able to play both roles. It is not a balanced relationship if one person, man or woman, volunteer or organization, mother or child is always giving without any reciprocation. We teach people how to treat us, we show them what is acceptable to us and what is not.

      However, if you have reached that level of wisdom that you do everything for Allah sake and expect nothing from anyone except HIm then Alhamdulilah but unfortunately many of us have not reached that level of spiritual development, we are weak and so are our spouses , children, friends, relatives, parents, communities. We need to get something back to keep going. #realtalk
      Organizations need to give feedback, recognition, motivation, promotions to its volunteers.

      That’s a great question. Your raising of your children is ibadah if you make your niyyah everyday that I am raising this soul for the sake of Allah as He gave it to me in my custody to take care of, I do not own him/her, s/he is Allah’s amanah and I am just taking care of it. This will greatly change your way of parenting, you will not see them as interruption as they are masoom, even their interruptions could not occur without Allah’s permission.
      Take care of their needs and come back to your salah.
      Take care of your ibadah when they are sleeping or busy with something.
      Plan out an activity for them while you are praying.
      Dhikr or Quran is easy to do even while nursing or holding your child( I dont know you children’s ages so excuse me if they are older).
      You can also make them pray with you so it is natural for them to be a part of your worship.

      I hope that helped anything beneficail I said is from Allah swt and if I said anything wrong it is from my own nafs.

  7. Avatar

    Umm Ibraheem

    October 12, 2012 at 2:49 PM

    As long as our intention is correct, helping people is a means to get closer to Allah. I have the opposite problem where I don’t do enough for others and am too absorbed in myself, I would love to be that first lady in your example, making sure my occasional guests are well fed and hounored in my home , even if it means missing my Quran lesson which I can reschedule later.

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:18 AM

      Assalam alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatahu Sister,
      MashaAllah, may Allah swt grant you that noble wish. You hit the nail on the head as long as our intention is correct. See the lady in my first example would not just do it for one day, Today it is her brother in law, tomorrow it will be her cousin, the next day her child’s teacher, and then next her friends from over seas. It never ends for her, she is constant all the time saying yes to yet another request and that rescheduled Qur’an class never happens!
      Believe me sister it is a disease and until one recognizes and tries to fix themselves or they will burn up all their deeds in gheebah, keenah or hypocrisy and stand empty handed in front of Allah swt on the Day of Reckoning.
      I mainly write to remind myself first and foremost.
      JazakAllah Khayr and may Allah swt help you serve others for His Sake.

  8. Avatar

    Yasmin

    October 12, 2012 at 3:28 PM

    Jazakallah khair for this great post!

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:25 AM

      Wa iyyakum Sisiter Yasmin, you are one of our most loyal readers, may Allah swt bless you and your loved one here and in the Akhira.

  9. Avatar

    IA

    October 13, 2012 at 7:38 AM

    Jazakallahu khair, a very beneficial article.
    -“And do not forget to do good to one another.” (2:238)-
    Should this be (2:237)?

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:29 AM

      JazakAllah khayr you are right, I will fix it, inshaAllah

  10. Avatar

    RCHOUDH

    October 14, 2012 at 2:37 AM

    Jazakillah ul khair for this much needed reminder. I think what helps to make sure that not just one person takes on most of the responsibilities within an organization, is to actively delegate responsibilities towards others, especially if they have certain skills that can be useful towards those responsibilities. So for example, even if your organization has board members, it’s good to ask the wider community for help in taking on smaller responsibilities so that board members don’t feel unnecessarily overburdened.
    Also I would like to add to your post that no one should take on responsibilities that they know they can’t handle. For example, if you know you’re not good at accounting, don’t become a treasurer for an organization, even if no one else is available to take it on. Also try to always keep time available for yourself and your family. I know that sometimes for mothers who homeschool, we may organize too many activities for each other, that take time away from us making time for just ourselves, our husbands and kids (and other relatives if we live nearby them like parents, brothers/sisters, etc).

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:07 AM

      Assalam alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatahu Sister,
      YOur comments are always a great addition to the site, MAshaAllah.

      Jazakillah Khayr for making those points. Indeed our masajids and other non-profits have severe issues. We should all be doing these roles with the most ihsan even more than the jobs we are paid for since we are doing it for Allah, but ihsan means doing it in the best way and if we aren’t qualified that not the best way is it- Please check out Muslim Strategic Initiative, a great site on way to help run Muslim organization in the best way possible.

      Generally for daees and volunteers:
      Our bodies, our spouses, our homes all have rights over us and if the da’wah effort is sucking up all our energy until we have none left for the other important things in our lives. that can lead to trouble. Keep the balance. I know many daees whose own children are neglected while they are seen at every masjid fundraiser or at every jawla.

      • Avatar

        RCHOUDH

        October 19, 2012 at 4:21 PM

        Jazakillah ul khair for letting me know about the initiative, I’ll be sure to check it out Insha’Allah.

  11. Avatar

    Ismail Kamdar

    October 14, 2012 at 3:28 AM

    Jazakallah Khair for this important reminder, I find myself falling into this trap too often.

    I would like to add, from experience, that never saying ‘no’ and always trying to please others does lead to fatigue, burnout, stress and anxiety as one becomes stretched very thinly and many of one’s personal needs go unfulfilled.

    • Hena Zuberi

      Hena Zuberi

      October 18, 2012 at 3:53 AM

      Assalam alaiaykum Br Ismail,
      Alhamdulillah as a Caller to Islam, with all your different duties, I can imagine how pressed you are for time. Keep my family and I in you duas.
      JazakAllah khayr

  12. Avatar

    Abu Mus'ab

    October 14, 2012 at 2:10 PM

    This is one of the cogent reasons I am an avid reader of MM, until recently. I miss the blue background home page. MM used to have. It reminds me of the good old articles. Here on MM, we talk about things the Ummah needs to talk about but for some reasons (which I can’t rally fathom) are not BRAVE ENOUGH to discuss it. Thanks Hena Zuberi for being BRAVE ENOUGH as usual.

  13. Avatar

    Salima

    October 18, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    Assalamualaikum Sr. Hena,
    MashaAllaah. An article that I can really relate to.

    I feel that we sould do istikhara everyday for the journey of that day, so Allaah may help us making the right decisions throughout the day. This way inshaAllaah we would know to sort out our priorities including ibadah, family, community, choice of words, etc. for the sake of Allaah.
    Jazak Allaah Khayr. Keep writing inshaAllaah.
    Salima Rahman

  14. Avatar

    Shiney

    October 18, 2012 at 9:35 PM

    Sr. Hena, i can’t express how beneficial this article was! it really affirmed some of the notions i had of how/when one should put themselves first and when they should put their families first. a lot of times, culture teaches women that the path to becoming a good daughter, a good wife, or a good mother or even just a good person is to always put others before yourself, even if it means cutting your prayers short or missing reading Qur’an that day. i always struggled to live up to this standard when i was in high school, because i wanted to take the advice given to me but I didn’t think it was right to compromise ‘ibadah. but now Alhamdulillah, I think I have achieved a good balance. overall, i loved the article and i hope to read more from you :)

  15. Avatar

    umm-e-abubakr

    October 20, 2012 at 6:24 AM

    BISMI RABBI

    Respected Sister

    Assalaamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah!

    Sharing some humble observations for your kind consideration.

    Alhamdulillah your article seems good enough except for a few parts like:

    “Feeling selfish when you do something for yourself. Mothers tend to do this a lot. We are willing to spend hours cheering for our children’s soccer games but will feel guilty for slipping out to spend an hour on the treadmill.”

    The idea behind your article is to point out the absurdity of extra-meticulous details in everything we do (for others usually). These details consume most of our time, attention and energy, they overburden us and thus become a source of hindering us from GREATER DEEDS or acts of Ibadah. But the lines quoted above do not refer to any greater deed rather it may lead the reader into SELF PITY esp. the women in their roles as mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. This same thought / idea lead to the concept and movement of “Women Emancipation” in the west i.e. their liberation from religious, legal, economic, and sexual oppression / bondings and their escape from narrow gender roles.

    The sunnah of Rasul Allah s.a.w is the most moderate and desirable for us all (men & women):

    “I asked ‘Aisha r.a. what did the Prophet use to do at home. She replied. “He used to keep himself busy serving his family and when it was time for the prayer, he would get up for prayer.” (Bukhari)

    …..no self pity involved in Rasul Allah s.a.w’s example. He s.a.w gave rights of people when it was time to do so and gave rights of The Creator when it was time to do so. And while giving rights of people his s.a.w’s niyah was to Please Allah SWT.

    ——————-

    secondly the lines quoted in the article:

    “I often hear people who really care about me tell me, “Learn to say, ‘No.’ You need to stand up for yourself. You are too nice.”

    … again seem to clash with a hadith in which Rasul Allah s.a.w forbade a man who was chiding his Muslim brother for being over courteous and over nice all the time and Rasul Allah s.a.w. said that “الحیاء کلہ خیر” (roughly translated it means: Decency {courtesy} always brings goodness).

    If we try a little more intelligently, we can easily enhance our skills of time management, prioritizing & delegating tasks, multi-tasking, over coming extra doses of sleep, food, baseless talks (face to face or via phone or chat), or pursuits like window shopping, net surfing etc. This will surely help us save time, resources and energies to perform lots of Greater Deeds amongst which one is to bring comfort (big or small) to fellow Muslims.

    rest of the article seems superb

    and truly Allah SWT knows best

    Loads of duas for all
    Wassalaam

  16. Avatar

    Hafeez

    October 24, 2012 at 10:49 AM

    jazakAlaahu khair for the article especially the dua at the very end is very beneficial and important. May Allaah azza wajal make your matters easy in every aspect of your life and your family life.

  17. Avatar

    Omar

    October 30, 2012 at 6:30 PM

    Masha Allaah. May Allaah give us all such a great understanding of deen. A great topic covered well BUT I fear some of the points will be greatly misunderstood by many who may go to the extreme trying to avoid what this article points out as people pleasing behaviour which actually leads to more harm, Satan is an open enemy to us!

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  24. Avatar

    Aisha

    December 3, 2015 at 6:17 PM

    How amazing!
    I am a person with natural empathy for people. It makes me feel good when I do good for people. I feel I am pleasing my lord. Then when I don’t get the same treatment back I feel used. This showed me that I need to correct my intention and do only what I can for his sake without giving my own needs. That way I will have reward both here and herafter.

    Jzkallah

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  26. Avatar

    Raziah

    October 11, 2016 at 7:43 AM

    slm alaikum

    i am really a people pleaser all my life right up until now. my son is getting married and because my 2 sisters cannot make it for the reception, it has become a problem. Unfortunately this was the first time i could not please them, because this is how my future daughter in law has planned the day. I did explain to my sisters that it is not in my hands now because if i intervene then it can become a problem between me and my daughter in law. Kindly advise.

  27. Avatar

    drfaiza

    October 22, 2016 at 8:57 PM

    im v thankful fr tis article
    in indian cultures tis is a v common upbringing aspect
    vv been brought up sayin its gud being nice n flawless
    suc articles r a breaktru n eyeopeners
    v useful
    may Allah reward u
    hope to get suc articles more in d future
    jazakumullahu khairan

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#Life

Like Tinder, But Safer: Troubleshooting Arranged Muslim Marriage

Like many people in my mid-20s, I approached my parents about getting married and initially chose to use a more traditional route. That is to say, creating a resume – or biodata – and sending it to matchmaker aunties. I wanted this approach because I wanted to be able to balance my American, Desi, and Muslim identities. I wanted things to be done in a halal way with my parent’s knowledge. However, over the past 2 years, my experience with the process has left me jaded.

Before I continue, I want to preface with two things. The first is that my parents are wonderful. We’ve butted heads, but I recognize that they are doing what they think is best, via a method that they’re used to. Providing critical feedback of the method should not be taken as critical to my parents.

The second is that while I have critical feedback, I am not intending to discredit the entire process. Meeting people through family is hardly a bad thing, and maybe what some people need. It is very possible that I will still end up using this process. That said, there are changes that need to be made, especially in the modern world. I want to make sure that my younger brothers and sisters can get an idea of what the process is, and what they’re in store for.

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Superficiality

The biodatas that we send and receive are inherently superficial. They are, in total, the person’s education/career, info on their parents and extended family, and pictures. There’s nothing written about the person’s personality barring, perhaps, a few sentences about their interests. This doesn’t provide any real depth of information about the other person at all.

Then there is the emphasis that is placed on the pictures. It is important to acknowledge that physical attraction plays a role in all of this. I think one of my early mistakes was that I was trying to pretend it didn’t matter at all, and that’s not reasonable for a marriage. The problem, however, is that given the lack of personal detail in the written part of the bio-data, we are left with the photo being the most personal piece of information presented. Unless you really care about where a person’s grandfather went to University in the 1940’s, that photo ends up being the most important thing you’re making your choice on.

Like “Tinder, but safer,” a friend said to me, as I explained how these situations played out. That’s not far off from how the experience played out for me. We’re not given much time to make a decision on the bio-data, so the result is the superficial, un-Islamic swipe based on attractiveness alone.

How many times have I heard, “Oh, she’s too fat,” or “Oh, she’s too short,” or “Too tall,” or “She’s pretty dark isn’t she?” Bengali speakers will recognize the word “moyla,” [dirty] used to describe women who are slightly darker, which is terribly problematic.

It’s not just that women are being chosen based on their looks alone, but on top of that, they’re being held to Eurocentric notions of what is deemed attractive. We’re all being held hostage to a standard designed by and for an entirely different race of people, and I have been told that it would be weird for me to be attracted to a darker-skinned woman because in the minds of many, dark skin is undesirable.

The superficiality is worse for women, but even as a guy I felt it. I’m fine with how I look, but you can only hear, “Oh, your face looks weird in that picture,” or, “He’s not tall enough,” so many times before it starts to mess with you. Men face another superficial judgment as well: the problem with men being reduced to their ability as moneymakers. I’m a graduate student and there are people in my class who have a spouse and children and are making it by just fine on the stipend we receive. But, inevitably, it will come up that I’m not making tons of money, so how can I support a family? While recognizing that men do have an Islamic responsibility to financially support their families, it troubles me that the process boils men down to one thing and one thing only – money, and not just having enough of it, but lots of it.

Age

I’m relatively young, 27 in May, and so when I started this process two years ago, I told my parents that I was willing to go +/- 3 years, just because I thought that would be a good range to encompass people I’d have some similarities with. However my prospect of an older wife – even a day older – was rejected with quite some vigor. I’ve been disqualified from matching with some women because they were born just a couple of months before I was.

The majority of the biodatas sent to me are of women still in college, between the ages of 19 and 22. It doesn’t matter when I say that’s too young, or how that I feel like I’d be taking advantage of someone who hasn’t fully grown up yet. I get told that I’m wrong.

Do you know how many random aunties and uncles have told me that a 7-8 year age gap is necessary to make a marriage work because otherwise, the women “will demand too much?” It’s shocking that I’m being told specifically that I need a wife young enough to be manipulated and shaped to my desires. When I push back on this, I’m, again, told that I’m weird.

I’m being constantly told to reconsider my age preferences as if wanting to marry a woman in her mid-20’s is a weird thing to do when I myself am in my mid-20’s. The sheer number of times I face this makes me think it’s an inherent flaw in how our cultures think, and not something unique to my situation. This is to say nothing of the fact that people will, to our face, tell me (26) that I’m too young for marriage, but my sister (25) is rapidly passing her expiration date.

Race

As a Bengali man, I have no problem marrying a woman of Bengali descent, but it’s annoying that even in 2020, it’s seen as a taboo to marry outside of your race in Desi culture. I personally have had it conceded to me, that if I choose an Indian or Pakistani woman on my own, that might be ok, but nothing else. Not an Arab. Certainly not someone with (black) African descent. And a white/Hispanic/black convert would cause a genuine scandal.

And even this concession is not universal, as there are many Bengali parents I know who will not let their child marry anyone outside of their own culture. Even when people have pushed through it and married outside of their ethnic backgrounds, there is still gossip and concern as to how the parents could “let this happen.”

Going into this I thought, “Well, all I have to do is show a few videos from Imams talking about how inter-racial marriages shouldn’t be taboo for Muslims,” but it doesn’t matter how many of these clips I show, it falls on deaf ears.

I understand the concern of losing culture and heritage to life in the West, I get it. But if I want to teach my kids about their Bengali roots I can do that with a wife of any background, and if I don’t want to teach them, having a Bengali wife isn’t going to make me any more likely to do so.

Ultimately, the feeling I get is that the older generation wants in-laws who they can go and have chai and gossip with, to do traditional things they saw their parents do with their in-laws. And again, while I empathize with the desire to do something familiar, this seems like an unhealthy reason to dictate why your children can’t marry someone from another race or culture.

Classism

I understand that families need to mesh and that it makes things easier if there are similarities that exist. However, in what world am I reading a biodata and seeing what a woman’s uncle does for a living, and then deciding that she’s marriage material?

It doesn’t work for me that way, but it works on the minds of the older generation, and there are even ways of working the class distinction to your advantage. Uncles in the community have actually told me that marrying into a “lower class” may be good if you want someone to be subservient to you because they’re thankful you brought them to your status. But they’ve also told me that marrying a “higher-class” woman isn’t bad either, because a rich father-in-law could have its perks. Caveat- beware of them being snobby with you, since you may be expected to be thankful, subservient one instead.

I can’t even wrap my head around what people are talking about here, but it’s yet another factor that I end up having to deal with during this process.

Religion

I want a wife who cares about the deen and prays 5 times a day, and I want this not to be a controversial take.

I have been told that’s unrealistic. Literally a couple of weeks ago, an auntie told my sister that ‘modern women’ do not pray regularly and so I should not expect that in a future wife. She said this, of course, to my sister who is both a modern woman and someone who prays five times a day without fail.

It’s crazy to be told that I’m being too picky because I want a wife who already has her religious-ness established. I have been told, by both aunties and uncles, that it’s better for me to marry a wife who isn’t too religious yet so that I can shape her deen. This isn’t about mutual growth in faith as you may hope for in a marriage. This is about controlling women with religion by only teaching her what I want to teach her. When older women tell you this, it raises so many concerns about what they’ve been through and what they want future generations of women to go through.

When I tell people I want a religious wife, they seem to translate that as subservient to me, not Allah. And that scares me. I don’t mean to fetishize anybody, but I want a wife whose religion drives to be bold, to stand up for what’s right, to be outspoken. I want to partner with someone whose religiosity pushes me to be a better version of myself, not to do what she’s told.

Marry Back Home

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me, as someone who has lived their entire life in the US, to think that I’ll mesh much better with someone with a similar background. This isn’t universal, some people will genuinely get along better with people from “back home,” and that’s fine, but this needs to be a personal choice.

Yet, I keep getting told that it would be better for me to marry from “back home.” I have been told, straight up, if you bring a wife over here, she’ll be more “indebted,” to me because I brought her to America. Setting aside that I don’t want to marry someone who just wants to marry me for a Green Card, why would I want to marry someone who feels like they owe me?

I fail to see how marrying from “back home” is an issue of compatibility in this case, it feels way more like an issue of subservience.

You can see here that the concern isn’t about finding a spouse who matches with my personality, it’s about finding someone who’ll come and cook and clean and bear children for me without speaking up about it because they feel like they owe me. Which segues to…

Gender Roles

I want to preface this section by saying that this is one topic where my parents haven’t, at all, been the source of my concerns, but rather, this something that comes up when talking to certain members of the community.

For men, there is an emphasis on making money to provide for a family, and for women, raising children and taking care of the home. There’s no problem with this model, but it is not the only model. It’s a valid option, but I am being told it’s my only choice.

In the eyes of many, the preference is to pick a homemaker. This seems at odds with the desire to select a woman with a good education, making it seem that I’m then not expected to let her utilize that education professionally. After all, it could be embarrassing for me if my wife makes more than me, and I have been told to be careful, because a wife who makes too much money could be “too independent.”

I must also be careful to stay in my exclusive role as a moneymaker too, and not try to go beyond that. I had pictures with my nephews in biodata because they mean the world to me. I was told to take them out because somehow a man taking care of children is deemed…bad?. I also like cooking. I once said this to an auntie and I remember her saying, “Why do you like doing girl’s stuff?”

Quite bluntly, I don’t want a wife who will only cook and clean and raise children for me. I want someone I can share those duties with because they’re my equal partner, an idea that, to me, keeps getting glossed over in this process. Every couple deserves the opportunity to figure their marriage out for themselves.

Quick Marriages

There are limits to what we can(‘t) do as Muslims. I understand that we shouldn’t have 3 year-long courtships or live together before getting married, and I am not advocating that. But we should be allowed some time to make such an important decision. I’ve been shown bio-datas and have been expected to come back with an answer in two days – just two days – about whether the information on this piece of paper is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.

Please, can we have a few months? Can we talk, and try to make sure that this is the decision we want to make (chaperoned)? When reviewing potential spouses, try to make sure everyone is one the same page about how much time you give to each other in order to avoid heartbreak and confusion.

Nature Of Relationship With Parents

My parents and I have a pretty good relationship. It’s relatively open and comfortable, but it’s still a Desi parent-child dynamic. Expressing a dissenting opinion is disrespectful, which means it can be harder to speak up without fear of disappointing them.

Plus, my parents and I never openly spoke about sex or physical attraction, at least not in-depth. To go from that to suddenly having to talk to your parents about the physical aspects that you’re looking for in a wife is awkward, and it can lead to miscommunication.

It’s a culture clash on top of a generational one. I have a hard time articulating what I want to my parents, and it’s not easy to figure out. If you know this before starting the process, you can make an effort to speak as openly about things as you can. You can even recruit an older cousin or friend, or an Imam you trust to help you. Don’t do what I did and go by yourself, have people to support you to make sure you and your parents are communicating well.

In Conclusion

It’s not reasonable to expect that you’ll get everything you want in a spouse. There will be compromises that are made, whether they be with yourself or with what your parents want. But don’t sacrifice on the points most important to you. Determine those, know what your must-haves are, and negotiate on other things. Make sure your potential spouse is on board. It can be awkward, especially with how many of us were raised, but talk to your potential spouse about these important things.

While this was a reflection of my own experience, I place emphasis on the aspects I feel are more universal. Speaking to other Desi Muslims in my age bracket, it certainly does seem that my concerns are relatively common. Obviously, there are individual factors that are at play, but these were things that came up regularly when speaking to elders in the community.

I also, again, want to stress that this isn’t an attack on my parents. While I have a level of frustration with how this situation has played out, I recognize that this is what they’re used to. And to their credit, they have made some concessions. Furthermore, it’s not just parents who are playing a role in this. The (often unwarranted) voices of certain elders are given undue emphasis, and that, I think has complicated the situation even further.

Ultimately, I’m not telling people that they shouldn’t consider arrangements or biodata, but if you do, then you must openly discuss this with your parents. Make sure they know what you want, and stand firm if it’s something important, even if it complicates things. It may put a strain on your relationship with your parents, but it’s better to open about things now than to have anger and resentment towards them for years later.

I’ll end with a specific piece of advice to the brothers: You have a duty to learn about why these issues are red flags and to push back on them yourselves. Women can be labelled as too rebellious if they push back themselves, and we need to be aware of this. Speak up for your (biological) sisters, family members, and friends when you notice their discomfort. Make sure you establish with your potential spouse that she is actually on board with the process, not just going along with it because she feels that she needs to. It might be awkward, but it’s important to establish a clear line of communication with someone even before you get married.

May Allah bless us all with happy, healthy, and fruitful marriages. Ameen

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Black Youth Matter: Stopping the Cycle of Racial Inequality in Our Ranks

In Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, he said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” Yet, as Muslims living in America, we are not fulfilling our role in eradicating racism from our own ranks. We are making race our problem. With so much injustice plaguing the world, the time is now to embrace the youth, celebrate their diversity, and let them know there is a place for them in Islam.

As we joined the rest of America in celebrating Black History Month and commemorating the legacy of the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., with tweets, infographics, and sharing famous quotes, racism and colorism continue to plague the Muslim community. 

When we hear of a weekend course about the illustrious muadhin of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Bilal Ibn Raba’ah, may Allah be pleased with him, or a whitewashed cartoon movie based loosely on his life, we flock to the location. When the imam retells his story during a Friday sermon, we listen intently and feel inspired, we smile in awe upon hearing about his fortitude in the face of incessant torture. We cry while reliving the part where he enters the city of Makkah alongside the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) victorious, and calls the adhan atop the Ka’aba. 

Then, we leave. 

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We return to our homes and all but forget about it until the next time he is brought up— unless we are Black Muslims. Like King, his impact comes in waves, maybe once a year like MLK Day or like Black History Month, for many of us. Yet, there were more Black companions and renowned Black Muslims in our history, just as there were countless civil rights leaders who fought for racial equality in America. For many of us who are not American of African descent, we live our lives unperturbed by the implications of ignoring the racial disparities that exist within our own places of worship.

However, it is our youth that bear the brunt of this injustice. 

A few weeks ago, I witnessed an incident that made me reflect deeply on the effects of racism and fear on our youth and the Muslim community. After picking up my son from middle school in Baltimore County, I drove to a nearby 7-Eleven for some snacks. While I was standing in line to pay for my groceries, I noticed that the man behind the counter was Muslim. From his outward appearance, accent, and name tag, I guessed he was South Asian. We greeted each other with salaam, a smile, and a head nod of camaraderie.

As he was ringing up my items, a group of chattery students still in school uniforms, approached the entrance of the convenience store. The cashier looked up horrified, and in mid transaction swung his arm back and forth as if swatting a fly. I turned to look at who he was gesturing to and saw the children were swinging the door open to enter. They were about 6 African American children from the same public middle school as my son. In his school, each grade level wears a different color polo with khaki pants as part of their uniform, so I could tell that most of them were in his same grade level.

“No! No! No!” the cashier cried harshly, “Out!”

I turned to him grimacing in disbelief, surprised at his reaction to the kids and then I noticed his expression. He had a look on his face of fear coupled with disgust.

One child cheerfully told him, “I got money, man!” My head turned back and forth from the students to the cashier. He reluctantly said, “Fine,” but as more students followed, he added sternly, “Three at a time!” I wondered if this was a rule when one of the girls in the group said, “Yeah, three at a time y’all,” and the majority stayed back, as if they were familiar with the routine. Some of them rolled their eyes, others laughed, but they remained outside the door. The cashier followed the ones who entered with his eyes intently as he finished bagging my items. He looked genuinely concerned. I tried to make light of the situation and get his attention away from the children, asking, “The kids give you a hard time, huh?” He smiled and nodded nervously, but I was not satisfied with his answer. 

As I swiped my debit card to pay, I felt troubled. My maternal instincts were telling me that I should defend these children. I felt anger and helplessness at the same time. These kids were tweens or barely 13 years old, yet they were being judged because of the color of their skin. There was no other logical explanation. They were not rowdy or reckless, not any more than any other child their age. They did not look menacing; in fact, they were all smiling and joking with one another.

Yet, this cashier, my Muslim brother, was looking at them as if they were a threat. The same way some white American may look at a Muslim sporting a beard and thobe boarding a plane.  

I tried to find excuses for his behavior. Perhaps he had a bad experience, or he was having a bad day. Could some of the kids from the middle school have stolen something before and this prompted his apprehension? There is some crime in this neighborhood located in the southwestern part of Baltimore County, on the outskirts of the City. Could he have suffered from some type of trauma that led to his anxiety? Maybe there was a fight in his store one day? Yet, even if any of these assumptions were true, I still felt like he was overreacting.

After all, these were just kids.

In Dr. Joy Degruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, she mentions that policing continues to represent one of the most pervasive and obvious examples of racial inequality; one that even the youth are unable to avoid. She cites an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, highlighting a study by UCLA, the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Boston, Massachusetts, Penn State, and University of Pennsylvania that investigated how black boys were perceived as it related to childhood innocence. They found, “converging evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” Consequently, African American youth are often unfairly singled out as troublemakers. 

They found, “converging evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” Consequently, African American youth are often unfairly singled out as troublemakers. Click To Tweet

On November 22, 2014, a 12-year-old African American child, like my son and his middle school peers, was fatally shot by police while he played with a toy gun in a playground. The child, Tamir Rice, was just a young boy playing cheerfully outdoors, but police officers regarded him a threat, demonstrating the ghastly reality of the above-mentioned study. After hearing about this atrocity, I remember telling my own children that they can never play outside with nerf guns or water pistols, out of fear of this happening to them. This is the type of world our children are living in. As Muslims, why do we choose to be part of the problem and not its solution?

Black youth

Junior football team huddling together

As I walked through the door and past the group in front of the 7-Eleven, all I could think about is that the kids were no different than my son who was sitting in the car, hungry, waiting for me to bring him some food. The only difference was that I was there to defend him, if need be. The children did not have an adult to stand up for them against the discrimination to which they were being subjected. I felt guilty for not saying more. I also remembered an incident where a group of African American youth were turned away from the tarawih prayers at a local mosque, not too far from the 7-Eleven, during the month of Ramadan, because they were perceived to be “too rowdy.” This prompted me to write about this incident; to speak up for them now, and to remind myself and other Muslims that the Prophet, peace be upon him, taught us compassion. 

He said, “Whoever does not show mercy to our young ones, or acknowledge the rights of our elders, is not one of us.” (Musnad Ahmad)

Even when a bedouin came into the masjid, the House of Allah – a place much more sacred than any convenience store – and urinated, yes urinated there, he still treated him with dignity. (Muslim)

The students standing at the door of the 7-Eleven were just going in for a snack. Even if they had been misbehaving, the gentleman at the counter could have addressed them with kindness. Similarly, the youth at the local mosque just wanted to pray tarawih. Now imagine the impact it had on them to be turned away from praying with their brethren during the month of Ramadan. 

I sat in the car where my son was waiting and found him looking out the window, unaware of what was happening. We were parked far from the entrance.

“Do you know any of those kids?” I asked him. “Yeah, the girl on the right is in my gym class,” he said.

My heart sank more and as we sat in the car, I wondered, what would have been the cashier’s reaction if the kids had been white? More than likely, he would not have treated them the same way. This racial profiling leads to devastating consequences. A recent news report by WUSA9 revealed that the state of Maryland leads the nation in incarcerating young black men, according to experts at the Justice Policy Institute. Their November Policy Briefs for 2019 entitled, Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland, revealed that disparity is most pronounced among emerging adults, or youth ages 18-24, where, “Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.”

“Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.” Click To Tweet

What was most troubling about the incident at the 7-Eleven was that the students had been conditioned; they were already used to being treated that way. It was routine for them and business as usual for the Muslim cashier. While he may believe that he is doing the right thing, by averting a potential “problem,” the harm that he is causing has greater ramifications. He is adding to the trauma these children are already experiencing being black in America. Black students in Baltimore County were not even allowed by law to earn an education past 5th grade in 1935, and 65 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, the county’s schools are still highly segregated. Local and federal leadership in America have continuously failed African Americans, and it is disheartening to think that the immigrant Muslim community is headed in the same direction. 

I was haunted by this incident and returned to the 7-Eleven a week later to ask the cashier or the owner of the store about their (mis)treatment of the middle schoolers. I parked directly in front of the glass doors of the entrance and it was there where I saw a sign typed in regular white computer paper that read, “AT A TIME NO MORE THAN THREE (3) SCHOOL KIDS ARE ALLOWED IN THE STORE & please do not bring bags inside the store. Thanks.” I had not seen the sign before, maybe I overlooked it the day of the occurrence. Nevertheless, I went inside and spoke with the owner of the franchise, a Muslim gentleman who greeted me with salaam. I asked him about the sign outside the door and the reason why the middle schoolers were treated like would-be criminals. He explained that students from local schools have stolen goods from the convenience store on many occasions. To prevent this, they established a rule that only three unaccompanied school children could enter at a time and they were not allowed to bring their backpacks. The owner further added that crime and vandalism were prevalent in the area. Unfortunately, because this side of town is predominately African American, the blame falls disproportionately on this group. 

Nevertheless, patrolling and intimidating the African American youth in the area is not the solution. As Dr. Degruy stated in her book, “The powerful oppress the less powerful, who in turn oppress those even less powerful than they. These cycles of oppression leave scars on the victims and victors alike, scars that embed themselves in our collective psyches and are passed down through generations, robbing us of our humanity.”

A thirty-four-year veteran police officer named Norm Stamper wrote a book about racism in the criminal justice system entitled, Breaking Rank, (2005) and he mentioned that, “It is not hard to understand why people of color, the poor, and younger Americans did not, and do not, look upon the police as ‘theirs’… Do the police protect ‘the weak against oppression or intimidation’ or do they oppress and intimidate the very people they’ve sworn to protect?” Likewise, this young generation will begin to see Muslims of all colors as no different, if we take the role of the oppressor. 

When Abu Dharr insulted Bilal ibn Rabah, may Allah be pleased with them, by calling him, “O son of a black woman!” and the Prophet, peace be upon him heard of this, he rebuked Abu Dharr and said to him, “By the One who revealed the Book to Muhammad, no one is better than another except by righteous deeds. You have nothing but an insignificant amount.” We may have read or heard this and other narrations before, however, we fall short in implementing these teachings.

In Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, he said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” Yet, as Muslims living in America, we are not fulfilling our role in eradicating racism from our own ranks. We are making race our problem. With so much injustice plaguing the world, the time is now to embrace the youth, celebrate their diversity, and let them know there is a place for them in Islam.

Sometimes it takes one person to stand up and point out the wrong to set the right tone. The sign at the 7-Eleven in my neighborhood has been taken down.

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No-Nuptial Agreements: Maybe Next Time, Don’t Get Married

marriage

 “Nikah is part of my sunnah, and whoever does not follow my sunnah has nothing to do with me.”

–Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), Narrated by Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her)

Many Muslims have experienced marriage, then suffered a subsequent divorce as a financial, emotional, and social meat grinder. Some critics have noted the divorce system seemingly exists primarily to benefit itself; the lawyers: mental health experts, investigators, forensic accountants.

They form an entire industry dedicated to extracting the wealth of a disintegrating family, often forcing the middle class or working class into poverty and bankruptcy. All of this happens without any noticeable benefit to society. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone.

For many, divorce happens multiple times. A divorced person who gets remarried is more likely to get divorced again.

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While men often complain about how the “family court” system is against them, the reality is that women often bear the financial brunt of divorce. Divorce is more likely to drive women to bankruptcy than men.

After one or two divorces and a few lost years of retirement savings or a decade or more of home equity, another “marriage” starts to look downright irrational. My advice to such people: stop getting married, at least under state law. Get a nikah and a “no-nuptial agreement” instead. Allow me to explain.

Fun with Words

It is impossible to have a meaningful conversation about virtually anything unless we have a common understanding of the meaning of words we are using.

In law, even ordinary words have definitions that defy conventional understanding or even common sense. Basic familial terms like “son,” “daughter,” “father,” and “mother” have state law definitions that are different from what those words mean in Islam or our understanding. Under state law, “parents” can adopt adult “children” a similar age to them or even older, and have the same status as a biological child. In Islam, an adopted child is not the same as a biological child and does not have rights to inheritance in Islam.

In law, even words like “life” and “death” don’t always mean what you think they mean. A living person can go to court to dispute his death, demonstrate he is living, breathing, speaking, and everyone agrees he is the “dead person” in question, yet, he is ruled legally dead. Famously, corporations are legally people and are immortal.

Law is not the same thing as truth.

Similarly, it is folly to conflate nikah, the thing that exists in Islam, with marriage under state law. In different states, rules for who and under what circumstances people can get married can vary. One thing that all the state law definitions have in common is that they are not marriage in Islam.

What is Marriage?

For marriage, there is a state law definition, there is an Islamic definition, and there is the definition that the individual married couple has. Under state law, two men can be married to each other, but three men cannot be. In Islam, marriage (let’s call it nikah to be more precise) is a halal social and sexual relationship, and there are rules in the fiqh that are different from state law.

Under some state laws, “secret marriages” with no witnesses or publicly available registration are part of the law and commonly used. In Islam, there is a witness requirement for nikah. None of the rules in Islam require the state’s approval for nikah.

The third definition is how each couple sees their marriage. It is a flexible institution. To the extent it is an economic, social or familial partnership can vary widely. Couples may live together or apart. They may have one income or two.  They may share the same social circles or share none of them. The variations are endless.

Domestic Partnerships

For most of the history of legal marriage in the United States, marriage can only be between one man and one woman. States started allowing for “domestic partnerships” to give some “benefits” of marriage to same-sex couples, like employer health benefits and hospital visitation.

In many instances, these were available almost exclusively to same-sex couples, even after same-sex marriage became part of the law in all states. However, as of January 2020, California opened up domestic partnerships to everyone, including different-sex couples.

As a practical matter, domestic partnerships are simply state-sanctioned marriage by another name. It is notable though some jurisdictions may have limited domestic partnerships that are something less than marriage. In most states that have it, the same family law system, for good or ill, that comes with marriage under state law is also true of domestic partnerships.

While domestic partnership combined with a nikah is available to Muslims in states where it exists, there is no real advantage to using it.

No-Nuptial Agreements

For decades now, in the United States, there has been no taboo against men and women openly having sexual relationships with each other, living and raising families together outside marriage. Courts have long recognized these people should have contractual rights with each other.

When a man and women live together, those involved may be gaining something and giving something up. So if a man promises a woman something, and the agreement is not founded merely on sexual services, the state should enforce those promises, not in family court but civil court.

Marvin started it all

The principle case that established this is the California case of Marvin v. Marvin in 1976. A couple broke up, but the woman wanted to enforce promises made to her by the man. The man felt such a commitment should not be enforceable because, among other reasons, he was legally married to a completely different woman when this non-marital relationship started. Under California law, at the time (abolished by the time the case got to the court), this was criminal adultery.

No-nuptial agreements (sometimes called cohabitation agreements or Marvin agreements) can be used by couples when they want to have enforceable contracts but do not want to subject themselves to the family court system or the family code. They can include provisions of mahar, sharing expenses, equity as well as dispute resolution processes like arbitration and mediation.

The couple can also document limits on what they agreed to to what is in writing. For example, during a breakup, one party may be able to claim an oral promise the other party never made and potentially have it enforced in court. A written agreement protects both parties and the understanding they had when they entered into the relationship.

These agreements have a broad utility for many different kinds of couples. However, for some couples, the main benefit would be documentation that nobody is under the illusion that this is a marriage under state law. It is a private contract between two individuals.

Example of a No-Nuptial Agreement

Salma, 58, does a nikah with Sheher Ali, 62. They also create a no-nuptial agreement. Sheher Ali is a widower, and Salma is a divorcee. They both have their separate assets, including their own homes. Each has adult children and young grandchildren. Both want to put their adult children at ease that this relationship does not exist for predatory financial reasons – a common fear when parents marry later in life.

Salma, 58, does a nikah with Sheher Ali, 62. They also create a no-nuptial agreement. Sheher Ali is a widower, and Salma is a divorcee. They both have their separate assets, including their own homes. Each has adult children and young grandchildren.Click To Tweet

Salma and Sheher Ali do not plan to live together, which is common for couples their age. They mostly pay for their expenses themselves. They may spend the night at each other’s homes whenever they want but will split time with their separate children, grandchildren and social circles. Sheher Ali pays for joint vacations and outings. He agreed to a mahar. Both agree in writing they did not marry under state law.

Sheher Ali and Salma can still call each other husband and wife, since that is true for them and everyone they know. Both keep all of their finances separate, and each does their independent estate planning where they name each other as partial beneficiaries of their estates as required in Islam. The two also complete HIPAA forms allowing each to see the other’s private medical information and name each other in Advance Healthcare Directives so they can make healthcare decisions for each other.

Legal Strangers

Unmarried couples are “legal strangers.” Doctors won’t share healthcare information. Islamic spouses don’t get an inheritance from a no-nuptial agreement spouse by default. They don’t get things like tenancy by the entirety, community property, or elective shares in places where such things exist. As I described above, though, this can be remedied. However, as I described in the example above, the “legal stranger” aspect of the relationship may be more of a benefit than a downside in some cases.

Some “benefits” of marriage under state law are against Islamic principles.  For example, some state laws that provide for “elective shares” are diametrically opposed to the Quran’s share of inheritance.  Muslims must follow Islamic rules of inheritance anyway, which are different from default state rules, so being under state law is no special advantage. Even with proper planning, the downsides of the “legal stranger” problem still may come up in extraordinary contexts, however, such as lawsuits.

Immigration and Taxes

Another concern is that employee benefits to spouses and dependents don’t generally extend to those with no-nuptial agreements. Immigration law does not allow a path to the United States through the “family unification ” process for those with a no-nuptial contract. Marriage under state law (or the law of a foreign country recognized in the United States) may be the most practical solution in such cases.

In some cases, state-sanctioned marriage may lead to lower taxes. Other legally married couples may experience the so-called “marriage penalty” and pay higher taxes than couples with a no-nuptial agreement. Couples may often find they will pay less in taxes with a no-nuptial agreement than they would if they were married under state law.

Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements

One may wonder, to avoid the “meat grinder” of the family court system, why not just get a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement? It’s accurate that in general, having such arrangements are superior to not having them. These agreements offer greater certainty, though by no means total confidence, on how a divorce would end. There are disadvantages to such an agreement over no-nuptial agreements, however. A big one is that divorce is still in the family court system.

Many Muslim men, especially immigrants, may perceive cultural biases cause a stacked deck against them in family court. The nature of these agreements may make this perception worse. Sometimes, courts treat prenuptial and postnuptial agreements with a presumption of coercion. It is different from an ordinary contract. The family court system is often free to be more paternalistic and make a husband prove he did not force his wife to sign a document.

The Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, which will be worded differently in the different states that adopted it, provides for a process to make these marital agreements harder to defeat. However, the process is perhaps arguably more expensive, cumbersome, and awkward for a couple than a no-nuptial contract. Talking about a prenuptial agreement with a fiancé may be more uncomfortable than bringing up a no-nuptial arrangement and nikah. Without a state-sanctioned marriage, a written agreement is essential. Many people perceive the pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements as both optional and, perhaps unfairly, as a sign of mistrust.

Custody and Child Support

Unfortunately, there is no agreement you can come up with that will pre-settle child support and custody. A judge will decide those things.

It does not matter if you have a “plain vanilla” marriage governed entirely by your state’s family code, a prenuptial agreement, or a no-nuptial agreement. Children are not parties to such a contract. No court anywhere will subject a child’s care and welfare to such things.

For custody and child support, courts in family court will use the sometimes hard to define standard of “best interests of the child.” One Massachusetts family law attorney in a popular divorce documentary cryptically joked that she called children in the system  “little bags of money.” They are often a significant reason family law cases are so profitable for lawyers, mental health professionals, investigators, and everyone else.

No Protection for Poor Life Choices

A good rule to follow is never to do nikah with a person capable of having children unless you are sure she or he can be trusted to raise your future children, and you have made peace with making child support payments to this individual if your relationship ends. If you have a child, you may be suck with a child support order. There is no getting out of this one.

As an Islamic estate planning lawyer, the most important advice I can ever give anyone is not to get a proper estate plan. It is not to get a good lawyer. Of course those things are good, indeed no-brainers, but they have limits. The most important advice is to choose a spouse wisely. If you fail here, there is no law, no lawyer or document in existence that can turn back the clock. A no-nuptial agreement may make a future breakup easier than a family court divorce. There is still no guarantee it won’t be a complete mess anyway. Good documents are never a substitute for poor life choices.

“The Law of the Land”

Islamic institutions like masajid are conservative don’t like taking needless risks, as they should be. Many will not officiate a nikah unless there is a marriage license. They usually will not officiate bigamous marriages, on account of it being illegal.  Of course bigamy, like marriage, has a specific legal definition under state law. One almost universal refrain is that as Muslims we need to follow “the law of the land.”

No-nuptial agreements are in full conformity with the 'law of the land.' It is not a marriage under state law. Nobody is claiming that it is. Limiting nikah to marriage under state law not based on Islam.Click To Tweet

But what if that term did not mean what you think it means? No-nuptial agreements are in full conformity with the “law of the land.” It is not a marriage under state law. Nobody is claiming that it is.  Limiting nikah to marriage under state law not based on Islam. Recently, the Islamic Institute of Orange County, a large masjid in the Los Angeles area, changed its nikah officiating policy. Instead of always requiring marriage certificates, they will also recognize no-nuptial agreements.

Masajid Should Welcome No-Nuptial Agreements

Masajid should have standardized policies and procedures in place. Every masjid should have carefully considered policies to protect the vulnerable and the institution. No masjid wants to open themselves up to a “drive-by nikah” or other nonsense. One policy may well include mandating a no-nuptial agreement when there is no marriage certificate. There is no reason to believe one protects people and institutions better than the other.

Nikah is a vital sunnah for us. It is not something that should be in the shadows, secret, or something shameful. It is fundamental to how we organize our families and communities. When it’s done right, it helps us strengthen our iman, bring us closer to our communities and our loved ones. State definitions of words should not always be your guide to right and wrong.

It is appropriate that Muslims want to do the sunnah of nikah at the masjid, publicly and with friends and family watching.  We should recognize and celebrate every new couple that has done a nikah in our communities. Never mind the state has not sanctioned it.

The state statute book has its definition, we have ours.

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