What is left to be said about marriage that has not yet been discussed abundantly in all our gatherings? Clearly, very little - and yet the topic remains elusive. There are just so many factors which play into our marriage narratives, it’s hard to keep up; high divorce rates, increased societal pressure for independence, Love vs. “love,” family expectations, and the list goes on. As such, this article has no intention of discussing marriage issues in their entirety – you’ll find enough books and videos on that – rather it seeks to examine a mentality which appears to gain more and more prominence, especially with regards to marriage: the means are taken as ends. Let’s look at two stereotypical examples, one of brothers and one of sisters, to highlight the fallacy.
Carl Jung, a famous psychologist once stated: “nothing is sacred.” His wise words, in my understanding, allude to how every single concept that once carried a transcendental, other-worldly significance has become corrupted. Following that line of thought, it’s fascinating how eagerly we’re willing to recognize that concepts such as love, passion and friendship have been distorted by modern culture, to the detriment of all Western Muslims who’d be foolish enough to believe in them. However, when it comes to marriage – even if they acknowledge its corruptibility – they still speak of it as the holiest of holy, gently placing it on the pedestal that “half our deen” rightfully deserves.
No, marriage, much like the human soul, is corruptible like everything else. Perhaps, then, the source of our problems isn’t marriage itself, but rather the reliance on a corrupted understanding of marriage as if it were sacred.
What is this corrupted image of marriage then? Marriage: the saviour.
To highlight the fallacy of this image, I will discuss its proliferation among both brothers and sisters as an end, rather than a means. Although I’ll be highlighting the need for fitnah-protection and social status among brothers and sisters, respectively, none of this is to say that one doesn’t apply to the other. Indeed, the very essence of my blogposts, which forcibly forfeits complexity for the sake of clarity, is in complete contradiction with my philosophical outlook on the complex and dynamic nature of human beings and social interactions. Thus, I’ll quickly iterate that brothers may very well conceive of marriage as a form of social status, and conversely, sisters may find solace therein from the fitnahs of society as well.
Brothers: marriage, the saviour of one’s desires
Declaring abstinence in today’s world isn’t easy; even if one were to cut off all forms of entertainment that gratuitously employ sexual themes, a simple walk outdoors will have you bombarded with an arsenal of sexual imagery – billboards, store fronts and, of course, people. We often blame the imagery, but it’s much more than that: we know that the post-Renaissance era is marked by the sexual liberation of men and women from the suppression imposed of a ‘higher power.’ As such, it’s not necessarily the imagery that creates the tension for people of abstinence, but rather it’s the atmosphere of society’s stance towards sex - as a common pleasure - that renders everyone anxious to succumb to their innate desires.
Now brothers enter the picture, many of whom are well-versed in sexual imagery since elementary school. Puberty then hits hard in high school, and the blow is extra powerful; uncontrollable hormones in a setting of sexual experimentation make for a challenging blend. Naturally, in the heat of pubescent adolescence, they’re told that Islam doesn’t prohibit sex, only pre-marital sex. Bingo. All of a sudden, it becomes explicitly clear what must be done: get married, save yourself from hellfire.
Here, and as we will later see with sisters, the fallacy is that marriage is perceived as an end, rather than a means. Ideally, marriage – and abstinence – is to be understood in a framework in which one’s seeks nearness to Allah.
It must be said that there’s nothing wrong with this approach, if not for the simple contradiction that boys become sex-ready men must faster these days than they actually mature. In other words, the fallacy of marriage-saviour is that it becomes an end, rather than a means; marriage is seen exclusively as a resolution of sexual frustration, readily dismissing any maturity and personal development needed to sustain a relationship beyond the availability of sex. And why would there be a need to mature? If marriage is conceived as an end in-and-of-itself to unleash the raging powers within, and really the only real-world prerequisite for marriage is an income, then the result is what we see today: every post-pubescent male having one and only one ambition in their lives – make money. Naturally, even a pre-pubescent child selling lemonade on the street corner makes money, so maturity – or any form of self-development, really – never comes into play. “Make money, get married” is the only rule they live by. Sooner or later, however, the marriage-saviour will fall as all earthly saviours ultimately do, for there is life after the end of sexual abstinence. At that point, the man still carries all the responsibility of having entered in a relationship, but is left wondering what it actually takes to lead one.
Sisters: marriage, the saviour of one’s status
Another example of ‘marriage-savior’ can be found among sisters. Here, marriage is construed as the hallmark of one’s development as a Muslim woman, so its absence is perceived as a deficiency or a fault. Of course, I’m exclusively referring to the social script in the Muslim community which dictates the anxiety-provoking rhetoric of marriage; this anxiety can be summarized as succinctly as “I’m not married, and I’m already (insert age here).” Even as I was writing this article, I noticed a blogpost gaining popularity on Facebook regarding “the six most annoying statements to say to a single woman.” Whether a person agrees with the centrality of marriage and spends all day discussing the issue with their friends, or one disagrees vehemently and encourages other women to fight the requisite of ‘marriage’ to focus entirely on themselves, the narrative remains the same; the hurricane of opinions only signifies that the topic of marriage still remains in the epicenter. We can obviously elaborate quite extensively on social expectations (having a job, spouse, kids, etc.) which affect both men and women, but the focus here is primarily on the marriage-saviour.
How many sisters reading this don’t feel even the slightest pressure to get married? For some it’s humiliating, as they feel their worth as a viable marital object decrease as their body slowly decays (notwithstanding the fallacy in such thoughts). For others, the implicit and explicit social demands sprouting from their families, friends and Bollywood movies is enough to prick them every once in a while, as a reminder that, try as hard as they might, they can’t escape the inevitable “shoot, am I still single?” But really, the significance of marriage, as a social status for women isn’t difficult to explain: women are raised with the main goal in life to be supportive wives and mothers. The end.
What is there to criticize? Is there anything wrong with this sentiment? I’m sure alarm bells were already going off in the previous section, with many men raising their voices in protest: “Hey! There’s nothing essentially wrong with marrying to relieve one’s sexual frustrations!” But there is – and the problem can be found in the placement of “the end,” not in the statement preceding it. Women, of course, should be raised to become much more than just wives and mothers; indeed at the very least, the purpose of man and womankind – the real end – is one’s connection and return to Allah. Here it’s relevant to refer to Rollo May, a great non-Muslim existential philosopher, who argues that modern man has lost awareness of their existence, precisely because we’ve reduced it to mere functions (i.e. means, labels and roles). In other words, May argues one does not fully exist as an individual anymore, but rather a derivative thereof; as a mother, a husband, a professor, a graduate student, a psychologist, a warrior.
Closeness to Allah, however, as I mentioned in several previous articles detailing the significance of the cans and shoulds, is an idiosyncratic process which necessitates each person to examine their ability to come closer to Allah based on their unique characteristics and blessings, as a function of their entire existence. This self-reflective process should, ideally, discourage limiting one’s being into roles such as ‘mother’, ‘son’ or ‘engineer,’ but rather appreciate oneself as a singular, holistic entity that strives it upmost to fulfill its life’s potential which may – but does not necessitate – being a mother or a father along the way. But that self-examination process is now gone, and so is Allah’s removal from His rightful position of ‘the end.’ In His place, we placed a false idol whose popularity is undermined only by its prevalence:
The idea that everything is going to be OK once we find that significant other or, if we were to clothe this idol in popular Muslim rhetoric, marriage.
Of course, all saviours (read: all ends) other than Allah shall fall - even marriage. What’s left, then, are countless men and women in perpetual states of anxiety, holding on to this fallen saviour.