By Umm Zakiyyah
22 September 2014
Why He Can’t Marry Her: Sulayman’s Story
Sulayman met Aidah during a medical internship. They worked in the same lab and had the opportunity to talk a lot during the eight-week assignment. She had graduated as a pre-med major, as had he, and she would attend a medical school near his.
Aidah was attractive, easy-going, and intelligent. She had a sense of humour and was confident in herself. But what Sulayman liked most about her was her commitment to Islam.
Aidah covered in Islamic garb, even at work and school, and wasn’t afraid to tell the world she was Muslim. She had been the president of the Muslim Students Association on her campus and had spearheaded many Islamic functions at her school.
Sulayman communicated with Aidah mostly through e-mail and telephone, but he tried to keep the correspondence to a minimum. Although her parents liked him from the start, he didn’t feel comfortable taking advantage of that. He wanted to limit their e-mail and phone interaction to only that which was necessary to find out if they were compatible for marriage.
At times, Sulayman was so convinced that he should marry Aidah that he was ready to call her father and make a formal proposal. But there was always something holding him back, something he couldn’t put his finger on.
When Sulayman finally decided to propose marriage, Aidah and her father agreed, and Sulayman suggested that his and Aidah’s mother coordinate the details for the wedding. But Aidah reminded him that her mother was skeptical about them marrying so soon. But Sulayman soon learned that “skeptical” was an understatement.
Although Aidah’s mother approved of her daughter marrying Sulayman, she felt that he and Aidah should wait until they both finished medical school. Even Aidah felt that it was a good idea to wait at least a year. She had just begun medical school and her family was concerned about the feasibility of her marrying before she finished.
Aidah’s mother was firm in her belief that they should wait, but Aidah’s father was unsure if waiting was a good idea. Aidah’s father wanted his daughter to finish school, but he feared that, if they made her wait to marry until then, they would be pushing her in the same direction they had pushed her older sister, Jauhara.
The signs that Jauhara should have married in college were clear to both her father and mother, but they pushed her to finish school and worry about marriage later. When a respected Muslim brother from their local community proposed, they refused the proposal on the grounds that their daughter was still in school.
The refusal upset Jauhara, who was completing her second year of undergraduate studies at the time, and she began to slowly drift away from her family, first emotionally and then spiritually. She talked to her parents less and stayed in her dormitory room for school vacations although her campus was less than two hours from home. She even discontinued her involvement with the MSA, apparently, to focus on her studies.
Jauhara, Sulayman learned, was both Aidah’s rival and mentor in life, though Aidah wouldn’t describe it quite like that. Jauhara had seen the side of life no Muslim woman should have, and it showed on her face when Sulayman first saw her, despite her bubbly personality and reassuring smile. When Aidah told him that Jauhara had stopped practicing Islam for several years before she returned to the religion, he wasn’t surprised…
In the end, Sulayman and Aidah couldn’t get married because, even after what happened to Jauhara, to Aidah and her mother, the pursuit of a college degree was more important than, and mutually exclusive to, her marriage to Sulayman.
College or Marriage?
In the above excerpt from my novel A Voice, we learn of the story of Sulayman and Aidah, two people who seem perfect for each other. But there is only one problem: Aidah is still completing her university studies when Sulayman proposes marriage.
Like Aidah, many Muslim women face this same dilemma each day, and there are generally two responses amongst Muslims: “Marriage is most important!” or “Your education is most important!” But what is truly most important? Or the two even mutually exclusive at all?
The circumstance of each Muslim woman is different, so it’s difficult to say for certain how any individual woman should approach the possibility of marriage if she is still studying. However, regardless of the very real life circumstances of Muslim women who may or may not choose to delay marriage until they finish university, there remains one group directly affected by the ultimate decision: Muslim men.
Muslim Men Struggle to Find Mates
“People tell me there are plenty of Muslim women looking to get married,” one Muslim man said. “But where are they?”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been interested in a Muslim woman only to have her parents say no because they want her to finish school,” another man said. “And now people criticize me for talking to non-Muslim women!”
Today, many Muslim men, especially those who reside in the West or study in Western universities, are choosing to marry non-Muslim women. Though Islam allows Muslim men to marry Jewish and Christian women, many Muslims raise objections to this growing phenomenon. “Then who are Muslim women supposed to marry?” some Muslims ask. “They aren’t allowed to marry non-Muslim men.”
However, as can be seen in the situation between Aidah and Sulayman, addressing this issue isn’t as simple as a Muslim man choosing a Muslim woman over a non-Muslim. The marital process of most Muslim families, especially those from predominately Muslim countries, tend to be much stricter than that of non-Muslim families from the West. Whereas Muslim homes tend to have parents (and sometimes even extended family) heavily involved in the choice of a mate, non-Muslim homes tend to view the decision as resting entirely with the individuals involved.
Furthermore, in many Muslim communities in the West, opportunities for social interaction between unmarried Muslim men and women are rare. Masjids and Muslim student events are often dictated by such strict cultural codes that often Muslims themselves are unsure what, if any, socialization would be approved of. Though Muslim parents often try to find mates for their children, Muslim youth raised in the West often refuse these prospects, especially when the potential mate is from “back home” (i.e. from their home country).
However, even for indigenous Western Muslims, the search for a marital partner can be very daunting since there are no clear “rules” about how to go about this. Some Muslim communities are lax in the interaction between young men and women, and other communities are very strict. “I don’t feel comfortable talking to Muslim women,” one young Muslim man said. “I just don’t know what’s okay to say and what would offend them.”
Thus, often the only environments in which many Muslim men (and women, incidentally) feel comfortable interacting with the opposite sex are those disconnected from the Muslim community entirely. Naturally, this means that for many Muslim men, the women who are most likely to be potential wives are non-Muslim women.
“Muslim parents make you feel like marrying their daughter is this impossible process,” one Muslim man said. “Who wants to go through all that stress to get married?”
Of course, the circumstances are often different for those women who converted to Islam. However, even converts to Islam are not always actively involved in Muslim communities.
I Want a Muslim Girl, But…
In this environment, it’s not surprising that many Muslim men marry non-Muslim women, especially when these are often the only women they have the opportunity to talk to without cultural restrictions. Of course, Islam itself puts limits on male-female interaction, but many Muslim cultural practices go far beyond what even Allah requires.
Thus, if Muslim parents and communities would like to facilitate more opportunities between Muslim men and women for marriage, we have to be honest with ourselves about what is really making Muslim men say to themselves, “I want to marry a Muslim girl, but…how?”
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy and the novels Realities of Submission and Hearts We Lost.