A happy marriage is a wonderful foundation for a successful life. Conversely, the traumas of an unhappy marriage can ruin one’s life.
This page is aimed specifically at Muslim women in order to remain focused. In particular, I am conscious that when marriages break down, the woman often suffers far more than the man.
However, most of the advice is also relevant to Muslim men, and indeed younger people of any religious background.
What qualifies me to give marriage advice?
I married for the first time in 1978 and am still married to the same woman. Both of us hope to remain married until the first of us dies. My wife Tahara has also reviewed the advice below and concurs with it.
If you needed brain surgery, and the potential surgeon you were evaluating told you that he had only carried out one brain surgery operation in his life, you would be entitled to be concerned!
Conversely, if you were approaching someone for marriage advice and he told you that he was an expert on marriage, having married and divorced 100 times, you should doubt that person’s ability to advise on how to have a happy and stable marriage.
10 specific pieces of advice
The following are approximate chronological order.
1. It’s your life
Marriage is something you should enter into purely for your own benefit because your life will be better with a successful marriage.
You are not marrying for the benefit of your parents or other family members. The choices you make should be based entirely on your self-interest.
Selfishness is not a good character trait in general, but there are some matters where you are entitled to be absolutely selfish and making decisions about marriage is one of them.
2. What age?
The right time to get married is after you have completed your education and your personality has stabilised.
It is much harder to study when you are no longer single. Getting married when you are too young is also a mistake as your personality is still changing and developing. Couples who marry too young sometimes grow apart.
For women living in Britain who go to university and want a career, the right age is somewhere in their mid-twenties.
It is important not to leave it too late. Biological reality means that a woman’s marriage choices start to diminish around the age of 30.
3. Write down your “acquisition criteria”
Companies that regularly engage in mergers and acquisitions typically have written “acquisition criteria” to describe the kind of companies they are willing to contemplate buying. This avoids them wasting time and money investigating potential acquisitions that do not fit their strategy. A famous example is the acquisition criteria published by Berkshire Hathaway.
You should write down a description of the man you are looking for as a potential husband.
Why write them down?
The reason for writing down your criteria is that once you start meeting people, there is a risk of watering them down. This risk is much higher if the criteria are only in your head. If they are written down, you will have to think more seriously about whether it is right to deviate from them.
As an example, I decided early on that I wanted to marry a university graduate. (I had a degree from Cambridge and believed that too great an educational gap from my future wife would not be good.) As finding graduates from the right cultural background was so hard in the 1970s I became willing to interview women who only had A-levels. Fortunately, none of them “clicked” and I then was introduced to the university graduate who I married.
This is a description of the man you want to spend the rest of your life with. It is entirely appropriate to set high standards.
Marriage is a marketplace. The calibre of potential husband you can get is of course dependent upon the qualities that you yourself possess.
Accordingly, you need to realistically assess your own marriage marketability as part of setting your acquisition criteria.
You should only set criteria that really matter to you. Remember that every additional criterion narrows the pool of potential husband candidates. If you over-specify the criteria, you may find that nobody exists who can satisfy them.
4. Don’t marry your first cousin
First cousins who marry have a seriously increased risk of having a genetically damaged baby compared with a completely unrelated couple. The science is clear and unarguable.
The medical risks are so serious that no additional reasons are needed for excluding your first cousin as a potential husband. However, many years of observation have shown me that there is a second reason is well.
Sadly, some marriages don’t work out, and that applies regardless of whether you marry a stranger or marry your first cousin. However, when two people who are first cousins have problems within their marriage, it often poisons relationships within their extended family. The couple’s parents are, by definition, brothers or sisters. I have seen many occasions when such brothers or sisters have themselves fallen out because their children’s marriage failed.
Both of the above reasons apply, although less strongly, to marriages between people who are second or third cousins. Obviously the genetic risks reduce as the blood relationship becomes more distant but they never become zero. Similarly, the impact on family relationships weakens as the family connection itself becomes weaker, but does not disappear.
5. Your parents and siblings deserve a veto
It is completely wrong for parents or siblings to attempt to make you marry someone who you do not want to marry. Such “forced marriage” is completely un-Islamic and your free and unfettered consent is an absolutely fundamental requirement for a marriage.
However, your future husband will become part of your family, just as you will become part of his family.
If your parents or siblings have fundamental objections to a candidate husband, you should listen to them. Firstly, they may be evaluating this candidate more objectively than you are. Secondly, even if you are right about the candidate, if your parents or siblings cannot stand him, that will create serious pressures within your family and upon your future marriage. Such family stresses can often cause the marriage to fail.
Always remember that “there are other fish in the sea” and have some confidence that eventually you will find someone who your parents and siblings also like.
It also helps to discuss your acquisition criteria with your parents. However, do not accept the imposition of acquisition criteria by your parents; it is your life.
6. Due diligence and serious interviewing
Once you have a candidate (whether by word of mouth introduction, a marriage website or a chance encounter) try to investigate that candidate as much as you can before progressing any further.
Such “due diligence investigation” can include internet searching and should definitely include discussion with mutual acquaintances.
If the preliminary investigations are satisfactory, you need to meet the person in an appropriate environment. That is an environment which provides a good opportunity to talk while being safe in terms of your personal security and your reputation.
It is essential to treat this as an interview, as it is far more serious than any job interview you will ever engage in. After the initial “chit chat” you should talk about the things that really matter to both of you with the aim of ensuring that your backgrounds, interests, beliefs and hopes for the future are compatible.
When my parents and I visited Tahara’s family in 1978, she and I had 1 – 2 hours to talk to each other in their garden. We discussed key issues such as how many children each of us wanted. An interview with a potential spouse is not a casual chat.
7. Avoid long engagements
After all the searching and interviewing, you now have someone who you want to marry and who wants to marry you.
Many people then get engaged but schedule a marriage a long time away, or don’t schedule the marriage at all. This may be because a large amount of organisation is needed for the wedding itself or because they are postponing marriage until they can buy a home together etc.
However, having a long engagement period is a serious mistake. It enables scope for second thoughts and potential distractions.
Instead, once you have decided he is the right man, you should get engaged and then married as quickly as is logistically possible. As an example, my wife and I met for the very first time as described above. Our second meeting three weeks later was to get formally engaged. Our third meeting, three weeks after the engagement, was the marriage.
This approach puts the serious thinking and decision-making where it belongs, which is the decision about whether this candidate is the right person to be your husband. If he is, get married as quickly as possible!
8. Civil wedding first
In Britain, America, and indeed all other countries where Muslims are a minority, a nikah (Muslim religious marriage) conducted within that country has no legal force. For you to be legally married to your husband you must have a civil marriage.
That civil marriage gives you the right to claim alimony in the event of divorce, has implications for property rights, tax benefits etc. None of these apply unless you have a civil marriage.
Sadly, I have met women who have had a nikah and then find that their husband never wants to get around to a civil marriage, or argues that it does not matter, or argues that “having a civil marriage makes you less of a good Muslim” etc.
If you have a nikah and start living with your husband, you have lost your negotiating power and will find it much more difficult in the future to persuade him to have a civil marriage.
9. Read the nikah contract
In Islam, marriage is a contract and the detailed terms can be negotiated and agreed between the parties.
When you or your parents arrange a nikah and engage a Muslim imam or other such person to carry out the nikah, he will always arrive on the wedding day with a pre-printed nikah contract. By then it is too late for you to start looking at the details.
Instead, when booking the imam, ask him for a copy of his standard marriage contract and read it to ensure that you are happy with it. If you are not happy with it, ask for it to be changed or better still give him a printed copy of the nikah contract that you want.
There are two critical terms that you should want to have in the contract:
- The contract should prohibit your husband taking a second wife while he is married to you.
- The contract should give you the right to divorce him in exactly the same way that he can divorce you.
The key point about (2) above is that standard Islamic law gives him the right to divorce you very easily just by telling you three times that he is divorcing you.
This often leaves Muslim women trapped because getting a civil divorce is not enough to allow them to enter into a nikah with a new husband. She also needs a religious divorce and in practice needs a Shariah council to give her one. Otherwise in the eyes of Muslims, without a religious divorce they are still married to their first husband. Shariah councils can often be a problem.
If your imam’s standard nikah contract is unsuitable, insist on using the 2008 Muslim Marriage Contract.
If your fiancé will not agree, that is a serious issue and you should ask yourself why he will not agree to such reasonable terms and whether this is really the man that you want to marry.
10. It’s not about the wedding day
Weddings are fun occasions and it is nice to get family and friends together. However, you should avoid obsessing about the day and in particular avoid overspending on it. That can be the start of a bad habit for the future.
Having a successful marriage depends on what you and your husband do every day of your lives after the wedding day. The most important thing is to remember that once you are married, he must be the most important person in your life, ahead of your parents, ahead of your siblings, and vice versa.
Problems arise in all marriages. The key to making marriages work is a mutual commitment and a determination to discuss openly and honestly any issues that arise between you with the intention of reaching a mutually satisfactory conclusion.
What is unacceptable and will cause your marriage to fail is to say about any problem “I don’t want to talk about it.” Whatever the issue, you must talk about it with your husband.