For anyone who has ever watched a toddler who has just begun learning motor skills trying to put a puzzle together, you might relate to what I personally call “the mommy itch.” This is the “itch” you get watching your babies attempt new stuff: the one that makes you want to keep them upright when they are taking their baby steps and stumbling all over the place, the one that makes you want to sit in class with them on the first day of school and in this case, the one that makes your hand hover and itch to move your children’s hands ever so slightly so that they can fit the star-shaped puzzle piece into its right slot and stop trying to force it into the circle shape!
Well, I felt a real strong mommy itch when I read an article by Mariam Al Hakeem in Gulf News online (21 May 2005) called “Misyar Marriages Gaining Prominence Among Saudis.” Luckily, this time I get to indulge my itch.
What Is Misyar Marriage?
Misyar marriage seemingly is a new phenomenon in Saudi where, as in most of our Muslim Ummah everywhere, there is an alarming rise in the number of unmarried women. In her article, Mariam Al Hakeem wrote
Misyar is described as a form of marriage in which the wife gives up her rights offered under the religion, including the right to have the husband living with her in the same house and providing her with necessary expenses. In short the woman gives up the right to have an independent home. The husband may come to see her at her parent’s home at whatever time he chooses for himself, or at a time agreed by the two.
In Saudi Arabia, the dowry paid by most men is exceedingly high and, hence, many of them simply cannot afford to marry one, never mind more than one, wife. Dowries in Saudi Arabia are reported to be as high as a million riyals in the higher classes and 40,000 for the working class. Even for a country as rich as Saudi, these exorbitant dowries are making it impossible for men to afford marriage. I have heard of Nigerian men born and raised in Saudi going back home to marry and taking their wives back to Saudi.
In Nigeria where I come from, the amount of dowry varies from tribe to tribe but is usually not so high as to be such a discouraging factor for marriage. Yet this form of marriage also occurs here with the difference being that the couple still live together but the woman becomes maintainer of the home. In every way. Is this misyar?
The Qur’an says:
The above verse (2:235) is referring to widows in the period of `iddah, but I refer to it because Allah Most High clearly talks about approaching women with honorable intentions and terms. These terms have been stated in numerous verses in the Qur’an and expanded on in the Prophets Sunnah. The different but complementary roles of the man and woman in marriage are very clear in the Qur’an and Sunnah. The man maintains the home and the woman takes care of it and the family. History, though, has recorded that our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) married Khadijah when she possessed far more wealth than he. But they did not live apart. They shared a roof, a home, and a life until her death 24 years later.
It cannot be argued that times have changed and in numerous parts of the world women are economically empowered, more so than the men in many cases. In the West, if the woman takes on the financial responsibility of the family, then the man will usually adopt the role of homemaker. This arrangement affords a balance of roles and a continuation of the family unit itself.
Women Giving Up on Themselves
When we encourage women to give up the rights afforded them by Allah Most High, are we not in danger of doing far more damage to the Islamic family and our value system than we could ever foresee? My personal opinion is that we already have far too many seemingly “functional” families that are functioning dysfunctionally. The problems are numerous and would necessitate another article entirely, but they cut across the many geographical divides of our Ummah: absentee parents, consumerism, media and pop influences, and so on.
When we make it possible for a man to simply visit his wife when and if he pleases at either his or her convenience without any of the expected responsibility, then how are the man and woman to form a bond that is in the way of Allah Most High? When they have children, will he also visit his them only at times that are convenient to him? More importantly, at this point will the woman still bear the sole responsibility of sheltering, feeding, as well as rearing the children in the way of Islam?
There are, of course, many questions to be asked of this prescribed solution to spinsterhood, but the most important one would have to be whether it is legal in Shari`ah. I will not attempt pretence at knowledge of the Shari`ah that would qualify me to answer that, but I most certainly feel it bears serious looking into.
Al Hakeem’s article cites quotes prominent Saudi scholar Shaikh Abdullah Bin Sulaiman Bin Menie, who is a member of the Supreme Ulama Council, as saying that misyar is legal since it meets the requirements for a lawful marriage under Islam.
In Muhammad, His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, Martin Lings (may Allah have mercy on him) writes that the reason Sawdah (Souda) gave up this right was her age. She was old and, recognizing the Prophet’s fondness for `A’ishah, gave up her nights to `A’ishah willingly (272). The Prophet still maintained and took care of Sawdah in every other way, in his home.
Impact on Family
Doubtless, the issue of spinsterhood in our Ummah is one that bears scrutiny. But what of the issue of fairness, kindness, and the indisputable significance of the family in our quest to seek the pleasure of our Most Forbearing and Merciful Creator, Allah Most High? The learned Sheikh Menie says the woman in misyar may later demand her rights and the man may choose to divorce her if he cannot grant them; how can she come back to demand what she willingly gave up? Is Allah Most High not Most Wise in granting those rights in the first place and not making provision for this voluntary sacrifice?—which is only on her part, mind you.
In a situation where the man has fallen on hard times or the like, there is everything right in the woman easing his burden if she is able to do so. But I do not see this form of marriage as such, since the woman does not share a roof with him or enjoy his guardianship in any form right from the start.
Marriage today is truly difficult enough, even practiced as the Prophet’s Sunnah teaches. The first and biggest casualties when there is a problem, continue to be our children, our Ummah, and, by natural progression, our deen. Legalizing a variation on what Allah Most High has allowed and our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught has only ever led to the weakening of our Ummah. History has shown this and we continue to see it.
But Allah Most High alone knows best.
In satisfying my mommy itch, I beg the forbearance of my brothers and sisters. My hand still hovers over this puzzle and I humbly ask that I ever so gently shift the star towards its position on the board by suggesting the simplest beginnings of a possible solution: Let’s pay the dowries exactly as enjoined by Allah Most High and taught by our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).
Aisha Dahiru Atta is a mother and a wife, and the cofounder of an Islamic school. She runs workshops on parenting and Islamic education in Nigeria. She has a degree in sciences and is working on a master degree in teaching.
Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1983).