The Concept of Marriage in Islam
Marriage is described in the Qur’an as a “solemn covenant”. It is a contract to which God Himself is the first Witness. It is concluded in His Name, in obedience to Him and according to His ordinance. Allah (swt) describes marriage as a sign of His Mercy that should bring peace and tranquility to the husband and the wife.
Allah says in the Qur'an:
“And among His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you may find peace in them, and He put between you affection and mercy. Verily in that there are signs for those who reflect.” [30, 21]
So, marriage in Islam, like in any other religion, is a union of love, affection, respect and sharing between the spouses. But in addition to that, and unlike other religions, marriage in Islam is a form of Ibada (worshipping Allah (swt)). That is because Allah (swt) has entrusted the married couple with the care of each other. So, when they fulfill this responsibility, they are performing Ibada. Marriage in Islam is intended to be a permanent relationship with continuous harmony not only between the man and the woman but also between them and God.
The concept presented in the above verse is fundamental to the teachings of Islam on how a married couple should treat each other, and particularly related to the common negative notion that in Islam the husband has more authority over his wife.
This verse states that the purpose of marriage is for each partner to find peace with the other partner. But it clearly does not specify any pattern of relationship between the spouses. It does not say, for example, that wife’s only role is to give birth to children and do nothing else in her life except taking care of them. It does also say that the husband’s only role is to supply income to the family. This pattern may or may not happen, depending on the specific situation of the family. The same verse does not force the couple to accept a certain pattern of relationship in marriage but it reminds them that any pattern they would like to pursue should ultimately fulfill the purpose of making their home a place of peace. It is also a reminder for the married couple to invest on the affection and the mercy that Allah (swt) put into their hearts towards each other.
Allah (swt) created us knowing the various strengths and weaknesses that exist in both genders. He knows that the husband, most often, because of his obvious physical strength, may tend to exercise more freedom and authority in marriage than his wife. That is why the Qur’an and the sunnah (Prophet Muhammad's sayings and deeds) do not need to insist that husbands should assume extra authority in the family. Instead, Islam proceeds to restrict the man’s authority and protect women from its abuse.
When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that men are shepherds (responsible) of their families and women are shepherds of their households, he was pointing to physical strength of the man. He wasn't introducing a new arrangement to endorse a higher authority of the husband in the family; he was only emphasizing obligations and responsibilities owed by both parties. So this hadith (what Prophet Muhammad said) does not grant any advantage to any side in marriage. It just reminds each side with the responsibility that he/she is more qualified for.
In a way of protecting women and at the same time giving a subtle hint to the believers to treat them with special care, the Qur’an always portrays women in a very positive character. Whenever there is a story about a woman in the Qur’an, she is always portrayed as a good believer and a noble person. This is not the case in portraying men. The Qur’an portrays men in a range of characters; from noble prophets to despicable disbelievers.
For example, Lady Mary, the mother of Jesus (pbuh), is portrayed as one of the most arresting examples to mankind. There is an entire surah (number of Verses of the Qur'an combined together making a Surah) in her name. Her mother Imra’t Imran (the wife of Imran) was a good believer she vowed to dedicate her daughter to the service of God.
Also the mother of Moses (pbuh) surrendered her son to the Will of Allah (swt). The wife of Pharaoh begged Allah’s protection from the oppression of her husband. The Queen of Sheba was an exemplary leader. Even the wife of Al-Aziz, who seduced Prophet Yusuf (pbuh), is portrayed at the end of her story as a good believer who turned to Allah (swt) in repentance and remorse.
But we should note here that this observation applies only to women who are presented with their stories in the Qur’an. It does not apply to women whose names are mentioned in one statement only (without any narration) as examples of disbelievers who deserve punishment in the hereafter; for example, the wife of Abu Lahab or the disbeliever wives of Noah or Lot.
This observation, as mentioned, should be taken as a reminder to the believers of the gentle nature of women, and therefore of the kind treatment they deserve, particularly in marriage relationship.
Returning to the marriage relationship in Islam, the Qur’an uses the word “zawj” to refer to a married person; male or female. So, a husband in the Qur’an is called “zawj” and a wife is also called “zawj”. This is a very interesting use of the word because it implies a very important meaning regarding the marital life in Islam.
The Qur’an stresses that Allah (swt) is One and the Only One. Every thing else has a dual nature. Allah (swt) has created everything else in pairs.
Allah says in the Qur'an:
“And from everything we created pairs, so that you may reflect” [51:49]
And also says
“Glory be to Allah, who created in pairs all the things that the earth produces, as well as their own kind (human kind) and other kinds that they do not know” in [36:36]
The word “zawj” is used in the above verses to refer to the pairs of opposite forces in nature. We see these two opposite forces in everything around us: in vegetable life and in animal life, in heaven and earth, in darkness and daylight, in sea and land, and in the positive and negative charges inside the atom. Therefore, the word “zawj“refers to two opposite items that are supposed to work together in coordination and harmony in order to serve the purpose of their existence.
So, when the Qur’an uses the word “zawj” to refer to a husband or wife, it assumes that the couple works together in harmony to protect, support and provide peace and tranquility to each other. If these functions are fulfilled then marriage is successful and each partner deserves to be a “zawj” to his/her spouse. And that is exactly what the Qur’an uses.
One of the amazing observations about the precise use of this word “zawj” in the Qur’an is that whenever there is a mention of a wife, the Qur’an uses either this word “zawj” if the relationship between the married couple is healthy or the “Imra’a” (which means a woman) when the relationship is not healthy. If the spouses are in a union of love, respect and sharing, then Qur’an calls the wife “zawj”, If not, then the Qur’an calls her “Imra’a”. Let us examine a few examples.
The Qur’an uses the word “zawj” to describe the wives of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Allah says in the Qur'an:
“The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves, and his wives (azwaj) are the believers' mothers” [33:6]
When the Qur’an also describes Eve, the spouse of Adam, as a “zawj”
“And We said: O Adam, dwell you and your wife (zawj) in the Paradise and eat freely of everything wherever you are but do not come close to this tree or else you will be a wrong-doers.”[2:35]
On the other hand, the Qur’an uses the word “Imra’a” (woman) to describe a wife in a situation when there is no agreement between her and her husband. This is what the Qur’an uses in case of the disbeliever wives of Prophets Noah and Lot.
“Allah sets forth an example of those who disbelieve in Allah, the wife (Imra’a) of Noah and the wife (Imra’a) of Lot. They were under two of our righteous servants (i.e. married to them), but they both betrayed them (by rejecting their call to the faith. So they (Noah and Lut) availed them not against Allah and it was said "Enter Fire along with those who enter") [66:10]
Same example applies to the wife of Pharaoh, who was a believer but her husband was not. Therefore, their marriage was not a match. The Qur’an used then the word “Imra’a” instead of “zawj”
“And Allah has set forth an example of those who believe, the wife of Pharaoh, who said: “My Lord, build for me a home in Paradise, and save me from Pharaoh and his work, and save me from the people who are disbelievers in Allah” [66:11]
An interesting situation that further demonstrates the precise use of these two words appears in the story of Prophet Zachariah and his wife. The wife is once called “imra’a” and later called “zawj” in another verse. When the wife was barren, their marital life was not going well because the husband (Prophet Zachariah) wanted a child. So, when he made du’a (supplication) to Allah (swt) to grant him a son, the Qur’an used the word “imra’a” to refer to the wife in that dua" [19:5]
“And verily, I fear (what will happen to) my people after me, because my wife “imra’ty” is barren, so give me a son from your Favor”
Then the angles came to bring the good news that Allah (swt) answered the dua’ and Zachariah (pbuh) would have a son by the name Yahya. When that happened, Zachariah and his wife assumed a much better marital relationship.
The Qur’an then refers to his wife by the word “zawj”
“We answered his call, and We give him a son (John) and cured his wife “zawj” for him” [21:90]
Another interesting observation about the use of the word “zawj” in the Qur’an is mentioned in the context of the work of Satan in order to cause problems and eventually separation between husband and his wife.
“but the devils disbelieved, as they were teaching people magic …. And people learned from them how they cause split between the person and his “zawj” [2:102]
The word “zawj” is used here because the relation between the husband and the wife is going well with mutual love and care, and that is why the Satan wants to interfere to spoil this beautiful relation.
The last example is about a situation when there is sharp dispute between the spouses.
“And if a woman (imra’a) fears cruelty or desertion from her husband (ba’laha), there is nothing wrong if they make terms of peace between themselves. And making peace is better.” [4:128]
Here we note that the use of the words “imra’a” and “ba’l” to refer to the wife and husband, respectively, in this context. The Qur’an uses these two words, instead of “zawj” because they are not in a state of love and peace as the woman expects cruelty from her man.
We are told in the Qur’an that in marriage relationship men and women protect each other, and they are garments for each other’s need for mercy and love. This mutual exchange of love and care is a small part of a universal balance that runs through the entire creation "he lifted the sky and He set the balance" [55:7]. So we should all observe that balance and apply are the right measures in our relationships with others, particularly in marriage relationship.
The Qur'an informs us that everything is created in pairs, and it uses the Arabic word “zawj” to mean pairs. Therefore, in marriage we are pairs, like numerous other pairs in the universal creation of Allah (swt). If pairs work to preserve the balance of the universe, we should do our best to make our marriage works as well so that we will be in harmony with the rest of the creation.
Islam wants us to facilitate and harmonize and complement each other in marriage relationship. A married Muslim couple should offer their best giving to each other in the name of Allah (swt) as a form of Ibada (Worshipping Allah). Only then, they deserve to be “zawj” to each other as indicated frequently in the Qur’an.
By Mohammad Shokr