Marriage and family in Islam

In this slightly flirtatious dialogue, our heroes give thought to whom they can and cannot get married to, and come up against topics which at present are very important, e.g. the status of women in Muslim societies or the question of interethnic marriages.

  • What is...?

Family: In Islamic culture, the family is one of the core values, being the basic element and foundation stone of the community of Muslims (“umma” in Arabic). For this reason, questions related to family, marriage, divorce, inheritance rights, etc. are given a lot of space in the normative sources of Islam, i.e. in the Koran (the revelation of the founder of Islam, Mohamed, by means of the angel Gabriel), in hadises (collected traditions on the activities, fates and statements of the Prophet Mohammed), and in legal science (“fikh” in Arabic), i.e. in the interpretation and application of the norms of the Koran and hadises in individual life situations.

Man and woman in Islam: The social and cultural environment from which Islam was born (pre-Islamic Arabia) were organised along strongly patriarchal lines. The women were seen more or less as the property of the men, i.e. first of the father, later of the husband. For this reason, the “laying aside of girls” was practiced: the birth of a girl represented an economic burden for the family, and so the family would sometimes get rid of them by leaving them in solitude and allowing them to die. In light of this cultural context, Mohammed’s conception of the status and dignity of women was very revolutionary. He forbade the laying aside of girls, and banned unrestricted polygamy. It is known of him that he urged Muslim men to be kind and considerate to their wives, and himself behaved with the highest respect for his first wife Khalida and his daughter Fatima. In the Koran, woman is placed on the same level as man, as being created by God. She is also highly honoured as a mother, the person who raises children, and the person who watches over the family hearth. Nevertheless, relationships between woman and men in traditional Islamic societies are not equal from a modern European perspective.

Social status of a woman: In traditional Islamic societies, the woman is associated above all with the domestic family environment. (In extreme cases, this means that she is prevented from receiving education and undertaking civil employment; however, this is very isolated.) The public space is traditionally understood as being the male domain. However, this cannot be explained as an attempt to keep women locked at home, but as a prudent distribution of labour and social roles on the basis of the various skills and dispositions of men and women. A woman is to be protected but not restricted. Chaste and abstemious attire is also interpreted above all as protecting the women (the Koran does not speak of the veil or of clothes, this is a later interpretation; the Koran speaks only more generally of chaste and inexpressive clothing and covering up the sensitive parts of the body). Woman is perceived as a delicate, more vulnerable and easily impressionable being. This explains the rule, for instance, that the testimony of two women in court has the same weight as the testimony of one man. Likewise, the woman in inheritance proceedings has half of the share of a man in the same relationship to the deceased. Because they can be more easily influenced, the punishments derived from God’s law (Sharia law) are milder for women than for men, e.g. apostasy in the case of men is punishable by death, whereas a disciplinary punishment is recommended in the case of women. A man therefore has the dominant status from the point of view of authority, and therefore has greater responsibility.

Marriage: Traditional Islam allows men the institution of tetragamy, i.e. a Muslim can have up to four wives. However, in the Koran it says that the man must love all his wives equally, which is, as the Koran says at one point, basically impossible. This forms the content of the 4th sura (a sura is a chapter of the Koran, which has a total of 114 sura, with the 4th sura concerned in detail with the status of woman), which some have taken to imply that the Koran actually commands monogamy.

Tetragamy in Islamic societies is basically a marginal and infrequent phenomenon, and the vast majority of Muslims cannot permit themselves it for economic reasons. However, a woman may only have one man. Given that their function includes motherhood, Islam does not approve of long-term bachelorhood or celibacy (this goes for both men and women). In traditional Islamic societies, marriage is to this day understood as a contract between two families. The parents provide the initiative in this regard, not two young people in love. The blessing of the families is in any case of crucial importance, and marriage is not a private matter between two young people. In traditional Islam, the family is to this very day regarded as an expanded family, i.e. as a multi-generational group of relatives (including uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.). Even when the young people themselves take the initiative, the groom discusses the conditions of the marriage with the parents of the bride. Since authority within the family belongs clearly to the man, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim (as long as they belong to the “people of the book”, i.e. they are Jewish or Christian). In this case, the wife does not have to convert to Islam. The same is not true the other way around – a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim. The condition of such a marriage would be that the groom must convert to Islam.

The situation of women in the Islamic family and society is therefore not desperate or hopeless. However, the status of men can easily be abused if they do not behave towards women as their religion commands.

Divorce: The right to divorce is enjoyed above all by the husband, although in justified instances divorce proceedings may be initiated by the wife. In principle, it suffices that the man express the divorce formula three times consecutively. Nevertheless, in Islamic society divorce is perceived very negatively. It is said of Mohammed that he was very critical of divorce, which is why it does not happen as frequently as it might seem. In reality, Western society has a divorce rate many times higher than that of Islamic countries. The husband is recommended to leave at least a month in between each of his three expressions of the divorce formula, in order to ensure that the divorce is not the result of recklessness. A wife can turn to a judge (in the case of domestic violence, madness or infidelity) who may declare the marriage null and void, though overall the possibilities for a woman to initiate divorce are considerably fewer than a man’s.

The current situation: The situation in modern Islamic societies is very varied. Traditional religious legislation (Sharia) is interfused with local common-law, which is not derived from Islam, and also with the legislation of the governing political regime, which supports or combats common-law and Islamic law to various degrees. Countries with a secular constitution (e.g. Turkey) restrict and correct both religious and cultural customs and norms, while countries attempting to apply Sharia as their constitution do not recognise the principles of liberal democracy and endeavour to apply strict norms derived directly from the Koran and the hadises. In every country with a majority Muslim population, there is a constellation of cultural and custom-based law, law derived from religious norms, and the general rule of law of the governing regime, and these are often in a state of mutual tension. In many countries, for instance, the police will prosecute crimes using law based either on culture or custom or law derived from the Koran. This relates, for instance, to the cruel traditional punishments of women found guilty of infidelity, etc.

  • Topic

In the conversation, Jami says: “But it’s not easy for me”. (i.e. if he wanted to marry Magda). And he’s right. Not because as a Muslim he could not marry a non-Muslim. As has been said, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman because as head of the family he will have the decisive authority and will designate the religious identity of the entire family, including the children. Given that traditional Islamic societies are patrilineal (as opposed to Jewish families which are matrilineal), this means that as far as the religious, ethnic and cultural identity of the children is concerned, the father is decisive. A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim and she does not have to convert to Islam. This is not possible the other way around (c.f. above).

Nevertheless, because in the traditional Islamic conception of the family the voice of the parents in the choice or designation of a life partner is extremely important, Jami could come up against not a religious ban, but the intransigence of his parents. From the point of view of Islam, the ethnic origin of the married couple is completely irrelevant, though the parents might want for their child a partner from the same ethnic origin. However, for the Koran, ethnic differences do not exist, or are negligible in comparison with the question of religion.

In immigrant communities, the traditional family links are weaker, and the young people are sometimes more emancipated and more independent (and deracinated). However, sometimes the opposite is the case: in Europe, face to face with majority society, there is sometimes a strengthening of family and religious links as protection against the dissipation of a culture’s own identity. And so Jami really is not going to have it easy if he falls in love with Magda or Olga. But maybe he will.

Speaking of the status of women in traditional Islamic families, Olga says “They lock them up in the home, they throw a scarf over their heads and don’t let them work.” As has been said, restricting women to the space of the home is typical only for an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism, and in most Islamic countries is unthinkable and illegal. Nevertheless, in traditional societies there is still a certain restriction on mutual contact between men and women in public: schools are divided by gender (unmixed), during medical examinations it is preferable that women examine women (if this is not possible, then a third person must be present, etc.), and social, sports and leisure activities (e.g. swimming) are restricted (as they were until recently in traditional European societies). However, in many Islamic countries women are these days involved in politics, the media, etc. “They throw a scarf over her head.” As has been said above, in the Koran it says that a woman should dress soberly and non-provocatively. They should not tease men with tight-fitting clothes. Of the scarf, not to speak of the “veil”, there is no mention, this is a later interpretation. These days, disputes over the headscarf tend to be more symbolic in their significance, and some Muslims (e.g. in Turkey) fight for the right to wear clothes as an expression of their religious beliefs. The veil (in Arabic the hijab, in Persian the chador, in Turkish the turban) is supposed to swathe the hair and neck, and in Europe’s past it was fairly customary as a mark of married, virtuous women. There is a mention of this in the New Testament (1. Corinthians 11).

Jami says of Olga (on the topic of cosmetics): “I don’t even know what she looks like under all that make-up.” It should be pointed out that women do not wear the veil at home, a woman should be beautiful and attractive to her husband, she may and should adorn herself, use perfumes, jewellery, etc. However, the beauty and attractiveness of woman in the Islamic concept belongs to the private and intimate life of the married couple, and not to public life.

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
Mr T. V. (a Catholic born in Europe) has been working for many years as a humanitarian worker in the Palestinian territories in the state of Israel. He told me that he arrived ten years ago, fell in love with an Arab girl, got married, and settled permanently. To my question as to whether his wife was Muslim or Christian, he looked strangely at me. She is Christian, of course, he replied. I apologised, because I thought that I had offended his faith, i.e. that as a faithful Catholic he would not marry anyone but a Catholic (and that I should have known this). He smiled and explained that his surprise was related to something else completely. He thought that I knew that for him, as a European Christian, it would be unthinkable for him to marry a Muslim, since her family would never allow such a thing.

Story 2
At a recent conference in Bethlehem on Palestinian education, there was a short theatre performance whose plot concerned a family conflict in a traditional Muslim family: a young girl wanted to be educated and was very clever. The family had nothing against education, but concluded an agreement with a family with whom they were friends, that their daughter would get married to the young man from this family. The girl had nothing against the family, and she quite liked him, but yearned to complete her education and wanted to postpone marriage for several years. However, the family insisted that she abandon her studies and get married. They insisted that she did not need a university education to be a housewife and to look after her children (the girl was 18 years old).

Story 3
The traditional covering up of the head is often perceived as a symbol of the unequal status of women, as an unwelcome and degrading duty. In countries which have secular legislation (Turkey) and in countries where Muslims live as immigrants (France), there has been considerable media attention given to cases in which women defend their right to wear traditional clothing, including the headscarf (at school and at work) as an expression of their cultural and religious identity. They do not perceive the “secularisation from without” as a liberating emancipation from religious duty or family tradition, but as an unwelcome intervention into their privacy and their freedom to display their cultural and religious identity in public.

Story 4
J.L., an American woman, worked for many years with her husband in a humanitarian organisation in Afghanistan. When she walked along the street, she and her husband would spontaneously look into the eyes of passers-by in order to offer a greeting if eye contact was made. However, Muslim women usually looked toward the ground. The first thing that occurred to J. was the naďve idea that they were looking for dropped coins. Only later did she learn that they lowered their gaze in order to avoid eye contact with her husband because this was how chaste women behaved according to tradition. She herself had problems with this for a while (not looking men in the eye). Finally, a friend advised her to wear mirrored sunglasses which disguised which direction she was looking in.

  • Sources


Denny, F. (2003). Islám a muslimská obec. Praha: Prostor.

Pavlincová, H. a kol. (1994). Judaismus, křesťanství, islám. Praha: Mladá Fronta.

Kropáček, L. (1996). Islámský fundamentalismus. Praha: Vyšehrad.

Kropáček, L. (2003). Duchovní cesty islámu. Praha: Vyšehrad.

Šajch, F., H. (1997). Základy islámu. Olomouc: Votobia.

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