It is said that in Islam, marriage is half the faith. Yet marriages are increasingly breaking down in divorce or marriage in name only, and examples of healthy marriages in keeping with our deen are becoming scarcer. I was curious to read Suzy Ismail’s When Muslim Marriage Fails–I wondered, do Muslim marriages fail for the same reasons as non-Muslim marriages? Before reading this book, I was inclined to say yes. This well-written book was a stark insight into marriage issues facing American Muslims and led me to challenge some of my own home truths.
The format of When Muslim Marriage Fails is quite unique. It isn’t loaded with stats and bibliography like a classic social sciences book and not filled with obscure textual references like a textbook on fiqh. However, the choice of format doesn’t mean that the book is lacking in sound research. Each chapter is a case study divided into three sections: a testimonial by the wife, a testimonial by the husband, and a closing with expert commentary. Rather than picking specific couples, Ms. Ismail’s case studies are amalgamations of the most common trends of relationship breakdowns she saw in her research. At a little less than 130 pages, it is a quick read, and the plus to this kind of format is that it lends itself well to different levels of readership and creates a good flow.
The case studies follow several trends. The first chapter, “Abuse and Power Struggle” outlines the rise and fall of an arranged marriage ending in abuse and ultimately divorce. The next chapter, “Unfaithful” tells the story of a couple whose relationship is doomed by “harmless friendships” on social networking sites. “Culture Clash” is the typical “save the convert” marriage story whereby the marriage falls apart as the couple’s views on religion take different directions. “Embers to Ashes” chronicles the slow burn of a marriage breakdown decades in the making. Finally, “Stress” documents a young couple’s journey through credit card debt, dual-income households and childrearing.
Each chapter outlines pertinent and common issues for married and divorced couples today and the case study format reduces the distance between the reader and the story.
One of the questions I kept asking myself after reading was “were the men patently wrong?” My one criticism of this book is that the female point of view was overrepresented. I found myself nodding along with practically everything the women said, and found very little to make me sympathetic to men’s points of view. As such, I found myself wondering how biased I must be towards the brothers.
Each chapter had a heartbreaking story of a woman who just wouldn’t be met halfway by her spouse. In one case, one sister was a victim of financial abuse, in several of the cases the men just shut down completely, and the chapter on physical abuse was particularly not justifiable from any point of view. One example of how I just couldn’t abide by the brother’s point of view dealt with the chapter on infidelity. He justified his extracurricular activities (which involved “just chatting”) as “getting his mojo back,” based on his wife’s morning breath and frizzy hair. While in Islam we are supposed to try to look our best for our spouses, I just don’t know how morning breath can be avoided. For this reason, the expert commentary at the end of the chapter, by Faraz Khan, rightfully cited that “The problem of ugly behavior is much more serious and harmful than unpleasant physique.”
Despite the natural sympathy I had for the women’s points of view, I think it is fair to say that each of the stories boiled down to communication breakdown and a lack of sacrifice and compromise on both sides. In every case, each failed marriage started out as something minor that wasn’t said, or wasn’t said properly. It was actually quite painful to read because the couples, who in three out of the five case studies started out as a “love match,” were like two ships in the night who never managed to find common ground. The “slow burn” marriage breakdown is an example of a marriage that lasted 20+ years, yet the couple stopped communicating very early on. What a sad way to spend the majority of one’s lifetime!
Finally, although an American Muslim by birth, my time as a Muslim has been spent in Europe and my experience in marriage has been with a European Muslim. On a personal level, this book gave me insights into marriage in the American Muslim community and led me to realize some truths about my own “Americanness.”
Maybe I haven’t understood what can be “hot buttons” in a cross-cultural relationship—things that seem like no big deal to me, where something I had said, or my spouse had said, may have been one of the mini-train wrecks which set everything off. I found myself particularly sympathetic to the wife described in the last chapter, who thought she was doing well by working hard and providing for her family, while at the same time putting “her” household tasks (e.g. what her husband thought was “her job” at home) on the back burner.
The greatest strengths of Ismail’s book are its readability and its personal testimony from a Muslim point of view. The unique format of When Muslim Marriage Fails makes it an accessible part of the body of scholarship on the subject.
Suzy Ismail’s When Muslim Marriage Fails: Islamic Chronicles and Commentaries, foreword by Mohamed Rida Beshir. Amana Publications, 2010.