sinful relationships

The Point of Marriage in Islam (and the Problem with Romantic Relationships Outside of Marriage)

In the Souk, Tunis by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

An essay on the question of whether romantic relationships outside of marriage are acceptable in Islam, and if not, why. Why is marriage such a big deal in religiously conservative societies? Why can’t people just enjoy themselves without involving everyone and their mother in their private affairs?

Islamic law does not have anything strict to say on the topic of romance. As religious scholars admit, falling in love is something we cannot help. But there are ways to engage in romantic relationships that fit within Islam’s framework of ethics and morality, and there are ways that conflict with it. Islam is not made to be applied in a vacuum. It is assumed that people who embrace Islam will, generation after generation, build their own culture around it, using its morality and ethical teachings to create their own standards of manners, etiquette and appropriate behavior. We see this in all Muslim societies. They often have a vast set of standards of behavior that cannot be found in any religious text. The reason for this is simple. Human life is so complicated that there is no way to define every single detail of their lives in a religious text. Rather, Islam provides general guidelines, people fill out the specifics, except in those rare cases where specifics are given (such as in the case of dividing an inheritance). If you were brought up in a devout Muslim family, you know that your parents will likely not think very highly of your being in a romantic relationship without their knowledge. To understand why there is a good reason for this taboo on romantic relationships outside the knowledge of your family and society, we have to talk about the point of marriage.

In Islam the appropriate, safe and socially integrated way for a man and woman to be in a relationship is through marriage. In many Western societies that have lost their religion and culture, marriage is just a silly formality, so that many people engage in intimate relationships without seeing a need for officially marrying. That is the primitive, natural way for humans to do things. Islam (and Christianity, and Judaism, and most sophisticated cultures) add an extra layer of formality to the relationships between men and women that greatly complicate matters. What is the point of that?

The point is that the formality enables the man and woman to relate to each other as socially integrated humans. A religiously conservative husband (assuming he is a relatively well-educated and civilized man) does not just see his wife as a piece of attractive flesh that can be treated however he likes. The solemnity of marriage, the fact that it involves so many people’s approval and attention, means that he is forced to look at her and see her not just as a body, but as someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece. She is not detached from her society and background. She is a great deal greater than her body and her personality. And that means he is forced to respect her as a person. He is beholden to dozens of other people who will all have something to say about it if he mistreats her. Through the constant interactions with her family, he is reminded over and over again that she is more than just a body, that she is a person with an honored social status. One could say that we can have such relationships without involving our families; we do not need our families to force us to be nice and considerate toward our spouses. But the reality is that human nature always “reverts to the mean”. At the beginning of a romantic relationship we can treat the other person with the greatest consideration. But once the honeymoon is over, the couple start to take each other more and more for granted and start to do less and less for each other. This is something that has been experienced by most people, who may have at first thought they would be the exception to the rule. The point of socially integrating a romantic relationship into society is to extend the honeymoon-level of consideration to the period that comes after the honeymoon. That is the magic that social integration achieves and that is almost impossible to achieve without it.

A wife, in a religiously conservative society, is not just a random woman who signed some paperwork. She has a defined and honored social status. It is similar to the way a queen is honored and respected by the virtue of her social status, without anyone caring what her body or personality are like. Just by being queen, she gets all kinds of rights and privileges. In a similar way, marriage in a conservative, religious society forces men to treat women as if they are more than their bodies, their beauty or their personalities. You can see this at work in classical English-language novels like Pride and Prejudice, when the West was still highly religious. Mrs. Bennet, the mother of the novel’s heroine, is an extremely ignorant and annoying person. But thanks to the institution of marriage, everyone around her is forced to treat her with great respect. This is respect that she does not “deserve” if we were to look at her personal qualities. That is the point of marriage; it integrates people into society, gives them a status and position, and in this way protects their honor and dignity. Today a person like Mrs. Bennet would be made fun of by her children for being stupid and ignorant. She would probably have to take antidepressants because no one will treat her like she matters. In a society like that of Pride and Prejudice or like today’s conservative Muslim societies, she will be treated like she matters, because the society’s values and the institution of marriage force everyone around her to treat her with great respect and dignity and to take her opinions seriously regardless of how ignorant or stupid she is.

That makes her feel like she is important, like there is a place for her in society. She feels appreciated and is happy with her lot in life.

Such a system has its own problems. But as a person who has experienced such societies in countries like Iran and Iraq, and their opposite in the United States, I can say that such a social system is far superior to the disintegrated societies of the West (of course, things are not bad everywhere in the West and there are still many happy families and societies). In secular societies a woman has to prove her worth to be respected and taken seriously. In a traditional society she does not need to prove anything. She is a wife, a mother, a sister, an aunt, and since these social roles are taken very seriously, they grant her all the respect she desires without having to do anything. She is like a queen who is born into a social position without having to work for it.

Naturally, the system also provides similar benefits to men. A wife has to treat her husband, even if he is not very intelligent or attractive or interesting, as a person who matters. In a class I was attending in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a woman side that her husband had “the most boring job in the world.” It was a funny statement, but it made wonder why a woman of my society would consider it extremely vulgar of a woman to say such a thing about her husband in public. The reason, of course, is that in my society a husband is not just any random man. A wife and her husband together rule their own little private kingdom where they are honored and valued, and it would be as foolish for her to make fun of her husband as it would be for a queen to make fun of her king in public. In a religiously conservative society, a wife does not treat her husband as if he is a random male, she treats him according to the demands and duties of the offices they both hold; the offices of “husband” and “wife”. It is similar to the way a company executive treats another executive; or one government official or minister treats another. They cannot treat one another as random humans who met on the street, they have to respect the office or rank held by the other person and treat them according to that.

Marriage as Election

If you think about it deeply, in a religiously conservative society a marriage is an election. The extended families on both sides are given a proposal and study it, until they cast their votes in favor of or against the marriage taking place. This process is sometimes taken as seriously as the cardinals take the process of electing a new pope. Once the marriage is approved, the husband and wife end up wearing the “robes of honor” that signifies their new offices or ranks that society has elected to give to the two of them through its approval. In a disintegrated society “walking down the aisle” does not have that much significance (although it can still be quite affecting), while in a religiously conservative society “walking down the aisle” is quite similar to the coronation of a new king or queen and just as serious and solemn. It is how society integrates these two new people into its future.

The Marriage of the Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Windsor, 10 March 1863 by William Frith (1865)

This extra layer of complexity and formality that religious societies have (and truly primitive societies lack) helps create a society where most people feel like they matter regardless of their personal qualities. By the mere virtue of being in that society they get a great deal of respect and honor. The society as a whole acts like an aristocracy where everyone hold some important position and has to be treated according to it.

Romance Outside of Marriage

The reason that a romantic relationship outside of marriage is not liked by religiously conservative societies is that it does not fit well within the above picture. It is perfectly fine to be in love with someone and to know that they love you back, and to work toward getting married through socially-approved methods. The problem is when two people in such a society try to bypass their society in order to enjoy the benefits that come with marriage without doing the hard work of getting the approval of their society. They want to enjoy the benefits of the office of marriage without bothering to get elected.

A man and woman who build a romantic relationship without involving their families are insulting both of their families. The pleasures of love are something granted by society to people who go through the process that society has designed for creating romantic relationships in a safe and integrated way. A religiously conservative society honors you, takes you seriously and treats you like you matter very much just because you were born into that society. You did not do any work to deserve being honored by your society the way they honor you. The honor is granted to you by the mere virtue of being born into that society. But in return for honoring you, society demands that you honor it back. The way that people take their relationship with you seriously, treating you as if you are a worthy and important human being just because you are a daughter/sister/niece and so on, you have to take your relationship with them seriously.

And that means that when it comes to a romantic relationship, you cannot act entirely on your own initiative. You can do so at first, for example you may love someone and think they love you back. You can act on this and find out if they are interested in marriage. If they are, then that is when you should involve your family. The longer you wait, the more you involve yourself romantically with them, the more insulting your actions become toward your family. Your family’s involvement and approval are necessary to integrate your relationship with your society. This ensures that the person you wish to marry will become beholden to their office and the duties that come with it. A husband cannot treat a wife in any way he likes, he has to treat her in the way that his socially-granted office requires of him. In the same way, the wife is beholden to her office. These offices force them to be nice and considerate toward one another and toward one another’s family even if they do not feel like it. They act according to their office, not according to their personal desires.

The worst cases of abuse that I have heard about in the Middle East have often involved a man taking a wife then separating her from her family, such as by moving to a different city or country. When that happens, when the woman is taken out of her social context, he no longer feels beholden to her family and society. He starts to treat her however he likes. If he is a good and kind man then she would be in no danger. But if he is not, then there is nothing forcing him to be kind and considerate. She is fully at his mercy. Even if there are laws in their country against domestic abuse, these laws rarely do anything until things get really bad, sometimes after years of abuse. Most cases of abuse will likely not involve the law, and emotional abuse, which the law largely ignores, can be just as bad as physical abuse. In a religiously conservative society, by integrating marital relationships within society, a woman gets a great amount of protection for her rights and dignity.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet cannot start beating or insulting his wife even if he feels like it, because he knows everyone around him will be seriously angry and upset with him if he does that. Any undignified treatment of his wife will bring upon him a great deal of negative consequences that have nothing to do with the law.

One of Mr. Bennet’s daughters (Lydia) tries to have a romantic relationship with a man without involving her family. Her family are naturally greatly upset and insulted by this. A modern reader might think their reaction illogical and unjustified, a silly and hysterical response to an unimportant matter. But within that religiously conservative society, they have every reason to be upset and insulted, because she is being disloyal to her society. Her action is similar to a minister making an important decision about his country without consulting the other ministers. It is also similar to an employee making an important decision about his or her company without consulting the other employees. It is a betrayal because she is making a decision that affects everyone around her without bothering to get their opinion, approval or involvement. It is also similar to your daughter deciding to sell the family car or the house without consulting anyone else.

The result of her action is that her family lose their respect for her. They continue to treat her with the basic dignity that everyone gets in that society, but her action has proven that she is either foolish, disloyal and ungrateful. She has been treated with the greatest honor all her life even though she has done nothing to deserve it, yet instead of repaying that treatment in kind by honoring her parents and relatives and helping her society continue in a healthy way, she thinks she can make a decision that affects everyone without consulting them.

Now a person may ask why marriage has to be such a serious decision (it is like selling the family car like I said). Why shouldn’t it be her own business? The reason is that marriage is a fundamental aspect of society, similar to birth and death. It is how society creates new humans and integrates them into itself. Marriage, in a conservative society, is very serious business because it has everything to do with society’s existence, survival and continuation. Selling the family car is serious business because it affects everyone’s fate and happiness in the family. Marriage is serious business for the same reason. Everyone around you wants you to marry in a way that enables them to continue having you as a beloved daughter or son. Marriage should be about you entering a higher and better stage in society while everyone continues to love and appreciate you. They want to grant you the office and all the honors and respect that come with it. But if you bypass this, if you try to create your own happiness without regard for your family, this will break apart the way everyone around you relates to you; they could in fact lose you forever, and what you did could give them as much sadness as if you had died. It is quite similar to an aristocrat betraying his or her country. They lose their honors, their place in society, and their own families can no longer relate to them.

When we are young and desirous of love, we wish to avoid the difficulties society throws before us when it comes to love and romance. We wish to find a lover and go live in the woods together without anyone interfering with our lives. The young man will treat his lover like a queen, she will treat him like a king, and everything will be happy ever after. But those who are naive enough to actually go through with such a plan almost invariably end up suffering the greatest misery. All that it takes is a month or two for the honeymoon period of the relationship to be over. When it is over, the two start to take each other more and more for granted. Neither of them sees the other in a socially integrated way; he is no longer a king but a not-too-attractive male with all kinds of annoying habits and shortcomings. She is no longer a queen but a demanding or needy female with an anxiety problem. Neither of them is capable of being the other’s “everything”. They start to miss their previous, socially integrated lives that so effortlessly granted them so much respect and honor, and they wish to get that back. They will enviously look at those who “married right” and who continue to get the love and respect of their families, while they themselves are outcasts who have the tiresome task of being everything for each other.

The problem with romantic relationships outside of marriage is that such relationships have their own gravity that pulls people away from their families and societies, unless they quickly involve their families. As most classical fiction and poetry tells us, romantic relationships make demands on us that can break apart our families and lead to much misery. So an intelligent and pious Muslim girl will avoid romantic entanglements like the plague, knowing that despite the pleasures such relationships bring they can also do the greatest harm to her long-term happiness among her family and friends. Like a good girl in a Victorian novel, she finds it far beneath her to develop a romantic relationship outside of the knowledge and approval of her family. That is something done by low-class and uncultured women, it is not something she does.

If a man falls in love with her and approaches her, if she likes him then she will refer him to her family. She can introduce the matter to her parents, who may ask to see him. If they think it is too early for marriage (maybe they want their daughter to complete her university degree first) but they approve of the man, they can perform the nikāḥ ceremony for them without performing the wedding. This would officially engage them and make it perfectly fine for them, from the point of view of Islamic law, to become romantically attached to one another and to do whatever the typical engaged Western couple do before marriage. This is how marriages work in Iran, whether among Sunni or Shia Iranians. The nikāḥ ceremony makes their engagement official. During the engagement period the man and woman are given freedom to spend time together and go out together, they are considered to be dating. But it is culturally taboo for them to become sexually intimate until after the wedding. If they do become intimate, they do not break any Islamic laws because they have performed the nikāḥ ceremony and are already married according to Islam, they are merely delaying the consummation of the marriage.

In the above way, a man and woman can safely date and get to know one another in a way that enjoys society’s approval and protection. While in the West we often have boyfriends and girlfriends treating each other with the meanest and most disrespectful and hurtful attitudes, by solemnizing the relationship before dating can take place, the couple are forced to be nice and considerate toward one another regardless of how they feel. In the West we run into many people whose self-esteem has been completely shattered because of an abusive partner’s actions toward them. This solemn dating system helps prevent that. Since their families are greatly involved, they feel beholden to everyone around them to act responsibly and respectfully. To a Muslim woman who understands the benefits of this system, it would sound like utter madness to involve herself with a man without enjoying these protections. It would be like a queen going anonymous and getting into a relationship with man on the street who, of course, can treat her with the greatest disregard and disrespect. A queen, by going through the formal, socially approved methods for getting married, ensures that her husband will continue to treat her like a queen. In the same way, a self-respecting Muslim woman demands a husband who will continue to treat her like she is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece. The husband is forced to take her social status very seriously, and this ensures even if she has the most infuriating and annoying behaviors, he will tolerate her and not insult her. She, of course, is forced to have the same respectful attitude.

The above is how things work in many relationships in religiously conservative society. Of course, things do not always go perfectly and we have cases of the greatest disrespect and abuse. But the point is the nature of the average relationship in such a society compared to the average relationship in other societies. If 90% of Muslim marriages involve a husband and wife who respect each other greatly compared to 50% of secular Western marriages, then that is a great proof of the superiority of the conservative, Islamic system.

Love and Duty

Sometimes we cannot help it and fall in love with someone our families do not approve of. In such a situation, we have to balance our responsibilities toward our family and friends on the one hand, and our desire for personal fulfillment on the other. It would be highly irresponsible of us to bypass our families and let the romantic relationship take its course (even if we desire to do this with all of our hearts). We should instead try to convince our families to approve of the relationship, and if they are adamantly against it, we should patiently wait. When they see that we are refusing all other marriage opportunities, then they may slowly, after months or years, change their minds. That is the price way pay for enjoying the honors given to us by our religiously conservative societies.

We are free to ignore our families and do whatever we want. But the costs of doing this are very high and very few romantic partners deserve this sacrifice. When your family sees that you are staying loyal to them and patiently waiting for their approval, that is likely to soften their hearts, compared to if you were to try to keep a romantic relationship going out of their sight and enjoying it regardless of what they think.

It is not always easy to be patient or to make the right decisions. But it should always be our goal to mend things between us and our families and friends. We should remain loyal to them and honor them as much as we can the way they honor us. If we make the error of engaging a romantic relationship without their knowledge, we should try to tell them as soon as we can. Our desire for the pleasures of love should be counterbalanced by our knowledge that we have many decades in front of us. The honors our religiously conservative societies grant to us are extremely valuable and we should not let them go to waste, we should instead work to maintain and improve our societies.

In the United States, you have homeless people who have rich family members and relatives who do not care about them. That is what things look like when a society has disintegrated. The reason why society gets in the way of your desire for casual romantic relationships is to prevent that from happening. Our conservative Muslim societies, despite of their myriad problems, are infinitely superior to a society where things are in such a state. Romantic relationships outside of our families’ approval almost always end up damaging our relationship with our families unless things go perfectly, which they rarely do.

Romantic entanglements often force us to make a choice between our loyalty toward our families and our loyalty toward our lovers. The wise and pious thing to do is to not put ourselves in such a situation. Our religiously conservative societies are not against our enjoying ourselves. What they want is for us to do this in a way that enables to keep enjoying society’s benefits, to keep the love and respect of our families and to contribute something back to their happiness. And the way to do this is through having our relationships critiqued and approved by them. Once we have their blessing, we can enjoy ourselves as much as we want in a way that adds to their happiness and to the health of our societies rather than causing harm to them. It is, of course, sometimes a great sacrifice to put our romantic relationships at society’s mercy, letting it decide whether it can go forward or not. But in return for this show of loyalty, we continue to enjoy the great respect and honor that such a society has for us and that we did not do anything to deserve them to begin with. By continuing to respect our religiously conservative societies and holding ourselves to the high standards they demand of us, we can continue to enjoy our Pride and Prejudice-like world.

As for those who have never enjoyed living in such a world (converts, for example), through following traditional Islamic values you can be the initiator of such a world (although it can take generations for it to fully develop and flower).

I should mention that I have never actually seen a Muslim society that lived up to the high standards of good manners and ethics depicted in Pride and Prejudice. It represents an ideal that we can aim for. I should also mention that when young Muslims engage in illicit relationships, their families and societies are often partly responsible. When our children do not get the love and respect they deserve, they seek these things from others when they grow up and get the chance, and a romantic relationship, by promising them a lover that truly loves them and cares for them, can appear as a highly attractive alternative to the lowly lives they currently suffer in their families. Some families treat their children, especially their daughters, as part of their home’s furniture rather than as proper humans to be honored and respected and treated as integral parts of the family’s life. The beautiful thing about Islam is that when everyone tries to follow it as best as they can, they naturally tend toward the beautiful society depicted in Pride and Prejudice. It is when we fail at following Islam’s values, whether through disrespecting our parents or neglecting our children, that we suffer the painful consequences mentioned above.

On reducing unnecessary physical contact with the opposite sex

Salam. I have a question to ask. I have a friend at school, who is a boy. We have been friends for 3 years, and our friendship has always been respectful and decent, but lately we’ve been having physical touch. For example, his hair was growing out a little, so he asked me if I could help him try tying his hair. I had to touch his hair plus a little bit of his forehead. He’s also held my hand during the cold recently to give me warmth. What should I do? Thank you.

You could politely inform him that you do not wish for any further contact because of your religious views. The things you mentioned are innocent enough. The problem is that as young persons, both of you will probably have a strong desire to keep increasing your physical contact and intimacy, until, like so many others, you end up getting in a situation that you deeply regret later.

On rejoining Islam after a sinful life

I am a Muslim but in my past, I have done terrible things. I have sex with multiple women, went to clubs, did drugs and drank alcohol. I have always wanted to repent and now I think I have found my calling. But, I don't know if I am still considered a Muslim after what I've done. What should I do?

In the Quran, God promises that He forgives all sins, as in the following passage which applies directly to your situation:

53. Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves: do not despair of God’s mercy, for God forgives all sins. He is indeed the Forgiver, the Clement.”

54. And turn to your Lord, and submit to Him, before the retribution comes upon you. Then you will not be helped.

55. And follow the best of what was revealed to you from your Lord, before the punishment comes upon you suddenly, while you are unaware.

56. So that a soul may not say, “How sorry I am, for having neglected my duty to God, and for having been of the scoffers.”

57. Or say, “Had God guided me; I would have been of the pious.”

58. Or say, when it sees the penalty, “If only I had another chance, I would be of the virtuous.”

59. Yes indeed! My Verses did come to you, but you called them lies, turned arrogant, and were of the faithless.1

Start to read the Quran as if it was sent to you personally, as the Pakistani poet Muhammad Iqbal says his father taught him, and you will find everything you need in it.

If you renew your allegiance to God by accepting to obey His commandments from now on, then you are a Muslim. Repentance is sufficient to erase the sins of the past:

70. Except for those who repent, and believe, and do good deeds. These—God will replace their [past] bad deeds with good deeds. God is ever Forgiving and Merciful.

71. Whoever repents and acts righteously—has inclined towards God with repentance.

72. And those who do not bear false witness; and when they come across indecencies, they pass by with dignity.

73. And those who, when reminded of the revelations of their Lord, do not fall before them deaf and blind.

74. And those who say, “Our Lord, grant us delight in our spouses and our children, and make us a good example for the righteous.”2

Also see:

How to repent from zina (sex outside of marriage)

God has not abandoned you

A man who refuses to marry the woman he had premarital sex with

I’ve committed zina with this one guy and we promised to get married in future. Suddenly one day he told me that he wants to stop seeing me, and he wants to perform umrah. He said he wants to repent but never to be responsible for marrying me. Somehow i feel like i’m being cheated on, why don’t we repent, got married, and perform umrah. Why he seems to just leave me alone? Hope you can give me some good advise to calm my heart. Thank you.

The reason he is not eager to marry you is something that humans have probably known for thousands of years, which is that men are extremely eager to marry the woman they desire as long as she refuses to sleep with them, but if she gives in to their desires before marriage, they lose interest in marrying her. It is only men who have a strong sense of honor, in other words a small minority of men, who do not act like that and who consider themselves responsible for the woman’s welfare after sleeping with her.

I cannot tell you what is going through his mind. Perhaps if he has sincerely repented, the fact that the relationship was sinful may make him want to selfishly end it and start a new one without the negative associations. Perhaps he just wants to wait.

The best and most honorable thing for you to do would be to sincerely repent then go on with your life, maintaining only a formal relationship with him and leaving it to him to propose if he wants. If he does not have sufficient honor and maturity to take responsibility for his actions, he is probably not worth marrying. I know it will probably require superhuman strength to end the relationship and make things formal. You are in a difficult situation and there is no easy solution for it, and there is no way to guarantee what the outcome will be. The only solution is patience; leave it to God to take care of you while doing your best to improve yourself. See my essay The Road to Maturity: On Dealing with Life’s Unsolvable Problems for a guide on dealing with such situations.

You may also be interested in these other answers on sinful relationships.

On giving up a sinful relationship

I was and still am in a “friends with benefit” relationship with a senior in my uni, it wasn’t intimate one but making out and I fell in love with him but he doesn’t love me back. I’m a revert and he happens to be a Qatari. I know we both have sinned but we couldn’t stop each other. I’m attached and each time I want to say no, he kinda blackmails and I give in. It is damaging me and my soul because, he became my strength and I just can’t give up. I deeply love him. Please help

Your situation is similar to any addiction situation, where a person wishes to give up something but does not have the strength to do so. Continuing to be in contact with him would be similar to an alcoholic who wishes to give up alcohol but continues to regularly take a sip of alcohol every now and then, which makes it impossible for them to have the strength to give it up.

The best way to escape that situation would be to cut all contact with him difficult as it would be, telling him that he should either marry you or stop talking to you.

If you are too much in love to consider that, you should try finding a job in a different city or state.

When you are addicted to something sinful, it means it is impossible for you to control your impulses, therefore if you truly want to give up the sin, instead of trying to control your impulses, you should plan against the sinful behavior. By planning I mean coming up with creative ways of making it difficult or impossible for you to engage in the sin. Perhaps you can honestly tell God that you tried to stop sinning but as long as the sin was available you could not stop. But you are still responsible for staying in that situation when there might be alternatives, such as moving to a different town, state or country, which would put an end to the sin.

The Quran says:

Say, “If your parents, and your children, and your siblings, and your spouses, and your relatives, and the wealth you have acquired, and a business you worry about, and homes you love, are more dear to you than God, and His Messenger, and the struggle in His cause, then wait until God executes His judgment.” God does not guide the sinful people.1

Now, God does not ask us for more than we are able to give. Therefore if you truly cannot escape that situation, then complain of your weakness to God, and ask Him sincerely to help you and find a solution for you, and His help will come to you sooner or later inshaAllah. Also see these essays of mine:

Getting engaged Islamically without marriage

I have met this non-muslim guy who is willing to change his religion for me and always puts my happiness over his own. Now we both love each other but want to accomplish our personal goals such as uni first before we can marry and live together which would be in almost 8 years. My concern is that we won’t be able to not have sex until then.

In that case you should perform the nikah/engagement ceremony now but put off the wedding. This would make your relationship formal and halal, it would allow you to be intimate without it being sinful, while also allowing you to continue living as you do now. This is done in countries like Iran where culturally the religious engagement ceremony (the nikah) and the wedding are considered two different things that can happen years apart.

I’ve messaged you already because of this non-muslim guy couple days ago and I agree a nikah would make sense. The problem is that in my culture you have a nikah the same day you marry. Therefore my parents wouldn’t agree.

This is a matter between you and God. It is up to you to decide whether God’s pleasure is more important or your desires and parents’ opinion. This world is a testing hall. God asks you to do certain things, but lets you have the freedom to act according to your desires and watches to see what you will do. If you do what you want regardless of His wishes, you fail the test like millions of others do daily.

If you want a blessed life under His protection, you have to put His desires before your own. And if you want to live according to your own desires, God will take His blessings out of your life and your life will become a long string of meaningless inconveniences and failures.

It is in the nature of this world to present us with temptations that go against God’s wishes. This is something everyone experiences almost daily, the point in them is to allow us to prove whether we are loyal to God or to our own desires.

This is your life and it is up to you what you make of it. No one else will be held responsible for your sins.

Good luck and I hope things will turn out well for you inshaAllah.

Dealing with the aftermath of a husband’s cheating

Assalamu Alaykum. I feel so helpless right now. I don't know what to do. I have a husband, and we are married for almost 2 years. We don’t have a child yet. But my husband has a baby who was just born last month from other woman. They committed zina. The girl secretly hide her pregnancy until she gave birth and now he wants my husband to marry her but my husband said he don’t love her but he is willing to provide for the baby. My husband is receiving death threats. What I should I do?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

That situation will have to be resolved by discussion between your family, his family and perhaps that woman’s. There is no quick solution to such a situation. We have to be patient and trust God to take care of us in the end.

There is the danger of your husband maintaining a relationship with that woman in secret, since he doesn’t have sufficient self-control to not sleep with other women while married. Islam strictly forbids you from staying with a husband who commits adultery and does not repent (who plans to do it again). The Quran says about such people:

The adulterer shall marry none but an adulteress or an idolatress; and the adulteress shall marry none but an adulterer or an idolater. That has been prohibited for the believers.1

Therefore the situation must be resolved one way or another, whether it is through divorce or his promising to never see that woman again. And if he breaks his promise, then difficult as it will be, you will be required to divorce him. There is no toleration in Islam in any way for staying with a cheating spouse.

May God ease your situation and grant you patience and consolation.

Question from a reader

What does it mean that the adulterer should marry the adulteress or the idol worshiper. Aren't these things entirely different? And if a person strives to become better (if that's the main goal of Islam) then why marry someone who errs Just like you do? Aren't they by the hadd law supposed to have a death penalty so how can they have time to marry? I'm really confused about the answer.

Regarding the first part of your question, the verse is defining the boundaries between the believers and the non-believers. It is saying that marrying or staying married to an adulterer is not something a believer would do, it is only something a pagan or an adulterer would do. It is basically telling Muslims to stay away from known (unrepentant) adulterers in their societies. If they strive to be better (if they repent), then the verse does not apply to them.

As for the ḥadd punishment for adultery, this is a matter for the authorities (the police and the courts) to implement. The Quran does not assume that such an authority would exist. The Quran assumes that there will be unrepentant adulterers living in societies that Muslims also live in.

The great Egyptian scholar of Islamic law Muhammad Abu Zahra (1898 – 1974) rejected the death penalty for adultery. He based his reasoning on various arguments, such as the fact that we do not know at what point in the Prophet’s career the stonings recorded in  hadith took place; they may have taken place long before the verses on adultery in the Quran were revealed, meaning that they may be narrating events that took place at a time when the Prophet had no guidance except Jewish law. InshaAllah I will write an article to translate his full reasoning.

But even scholars who believe in the death penalty for adultery say that this is a matter for the government to carry out, so that someone who commits it may repent and go on with their lives.2 So the husband dealt with in this article, since his case did not go to court, may repent and stay married to his Muslim wife.

How to repent from zina (sex outside of marriage)

How does one repent for zina? What if the man is someone who I’m planning to marry anyway since we are close to being engaged? Will the punishment be as severe, especially since we both feel guilt?

If you both truly repent (meaning that you ask for God’s forgiveness and intend to not repeat the sin), then it is the consensus view that the two of you can marry without issue according to the Egyptian scholar Khalid bin al-Mun`im al-Rifa`i (fatwa #43035 on islamway.net)

Before marrying (before nikah) you must wait one menstrual cycle to ensure that you are not pregnant. If you are, according to the Hanafi and Shafii schools, you two can still marry, while according to the Maliki and Hanbali schools you cannot marry until you give birth. The Hanafi and Shafii opinions are preferable since this is better for the two of you, the child and for the rest of society (to marry now rather than later if you have became pregnant). If you have your period like normal, then you can marry according to all the schools.

There is no punishment, that is only something relevant if the issue reaches an Islamic court (if people saw you during the act then went on to report on you in a country that follows Islamic law). Since what you mention appears to have been done in private, then it is sufficient for both of you to repent, and that is the end of it. This is the opinion of the Saudi fatwa council, mentioned in fatwa #47834 on Islamicqa.info.

In short, both of you should repent, then you can marry like normal (taking into account the complications mentioned above) and go on with your lives. Both of you should do extra fasts and worship to prove to yourselves and to God that your repentance is true.

Dating and Relationships in Islam: What is Allowed and What is Not

Is dating and having relationships totally forbidden in Islam?

I will start with a description of an example scenario of the way dating and relationships work in Islam, then will clarify the Islamic stance. If a woman works somewhere, and there is a man there that she likes and who likes her, and both of them want to enjoy a relationship with each other, Islam asks them to get their families involved and work toward getting married.

The time between knowing someone and marrying them could be years. When two people are interested in each other, Islam does not strictly prescribe how they should behave with one another. The two people are expected to get their families involved, and to have a polite and formal relationship with one another, until the marriage takes place.

Depending on the culture, the couple may be allowed to see each other often; for example the man may visit the woman’s family and see her there once or twice a week. This is how dating works among conservative Iranian families. Once the nikāḥ takes place (the official engagement ceremony), but before the wedding, they are allowed to spend time alone outside, going to cafes and restaurants for example, and it is accepted of them to be in constant contact with each other, such as through their phones. But they are not expected to be sexually intimate until after the wedding.

Therefore the Islamic way of dating is as follows. This is the Iranian solution (which is perfectly acceptable in Sunni Islam as well) which allows for dating before the wedding. Note that this is not a loophole, this is perfectly in accordance with Islamic manners:

  1. The man and woman know each other, either as family friends, coworkers or classmates, and both show interest in marrying the other (or the man is interested in marrying her).
  2. The man approaches the woman’s family in an official proposal ceremony. If the man doesn’t know the woman’s family at all, he may get her family’s contact information and set up an official meeting with them. The woman will tell her family about it, and in this way it is set up. The man visits the woman’s family accompanied by some of his own family, and in this way the two families get to know one another.
  3. If everything goes well, the man and woman maintain a formal and polite relationship, although it is not expected to be as formal as that between strangers. The man may visit the woman’s family occasionally. The two families work toward setting up a nikāḥ ceremony.
  4. The nikāḥ takes place. The relationship between the man and the woman becomes religiously officiated by a cleric. They are not married yet culturally. They are allowed to date and to be in contact, similar to a Western-style relationship (without sexual intimacy).
  5. The wedding takes place, after which they are a married couple.

There are all kinds of subtleties involved with this process, and Islam does not strictly prescribe the exact way it is carried out, as long as there is no intimacy before the nikāḥ.

Within the Islamic system, people are discouraged to become intimate emotionally before the nikāḥ, although there is no punishment for this within Islam, so it is not considered a crime, it is considered a breach of good manners and etiquette that could have harmful consequences, so that a person who truly fears God would avoid it.

Lovers in a Garden by Marcus C Stone (c. early 20th century)

For someone living in a different society, what they do could be different. Islam strictly prohibits physical intimacy between people before marriage, leaving emotional intimacy in a gray zone. If a young man and woman fall in love and become emotionally intimate before getting their families involved, their behavior may be considered sinful, or approaching sinfulness, but they have not committed a punishable crime. They are instead strongly encouraged to get their families involved and to maintain a formal relationship until after the nikāḥ.

For two Muslim converts in the West who get to know each other and who want to start dating, performing the nikah is as simple as getting the permission of the woman’s guardian (a male family member, such as a father, brother or other blood relative if they are Muslim, if not, some respect Muslim man from the community), performing a 10-minute nikāḥ ceremony in front of witnesses, then publicly announcing their nikāḥ / engagement (for example on Facebook). This can be done months before the wedding. Once this ceremony has been performed, they can start dating like any couple (if they want to date but not marry). In this ceremony the woman’s dowry is set. If they decide to separate before physical intimacy, the women receives half of her dowry, rather than the full dowry, she can also forgo the dowry if she wants.

And, if after the nikāḥ they want to start living together as a husband and wife (without a wedding ceremony), they can do that too, making the nikāḥ the wedding too. In Iran too, sometimes the nikāḥ and the wedding are on the same day, other times they are separated by long periods of time.

So, in Islam it is considered bad manners and a weakness in one’s faith if one tries to have an intimate emotional relationship (for example over the internet) with a member of the opposite sex before the nikāḥ, because this can lead to various sinful behaviors, as there can at times be an immense desire for the couple to take the relationship further, “sexting” and exchanging inappropriate photos. A couple who want to follow Islam’s guidance fully would avoid such a relationship. If they want to know each other better before the nikāḥ, they would get their families involved, or at least the woman’s family (meaning her guardian) should be involved.

Different Muslim cultures have differing practices. Islam does not expect people to act like robots, it acknowledges their humanity, which is why it leaves the pre-nikāḥ relationship in a gray zone, acknowledging that different circumstances require different policies. It is ultimately a matter of conscience between you and God. It is very easy for us to find excuses for our sinful desires and to say that our case is different. So we must be aware of our ego’s desire to always take a relationship with a person of the opposite sex further until it becomes sinful.

By having a relationship with someone before nikāḥ, you constantly create opportunities for you and the other person to act in ways that would be considered sinful by others and by God. Therefore you must do your best to keep your ego’s desires in check, and you must do your best to get your families involved at the first possible opportunity.

If you want to date before marriage, then have your nikāḥ ceremony, then start dating. In this way you can have a relationship, and if you end up not wanting to get married, you have the option of ending the relationship. If it is the woman who wants to end it, then she will get no dowry. If it is the man who wishes to end it, he must give her half the dowry, unless she says she does not want it.

If it is a long-distance relationship, it is sufficient to have a Skype session that involves the two of them, the woman’s guardian and two male witnesses. In this session, the woman’s guardian gives his agreement to the nikāḥ and the dowry amount, and this would be it. They would be considered engaged in Islam, and they can publicly announce their engagement, and from then on they can have an intimate relationship like any non-Muslim Western couple. Depending on their culture, however, physical intimacy may be considered highly inappropriate until after the wedding, although technically it is allowed.

Why should your relationship life be anyone else’s business?

Why can’t young Muslims simply get into relationships without having to involve other people? They mean harm to no one, and they are old enough to think for themselves.

The reason is that in Islam, marriage is an extremely serious business, because the survival of humanity depends on it. Islam creates a system that ensures above-replacement fertility rates, meaning that sufficient children are born and taken care of so that the the population does not start shrinking and slowly going extinct.

Why should anyone care about that when one’s fulfillment is involved?

For the same reason that a factory owner has to worry about not releasing contaminated water into the environment. It may bring him or her great fulfillment to do this, since it reduces costs and increases profits, but for humanity’s greater good, their desire is curbed. What they do isn’t just their business, it is also society’s business.

In Islam, relationships and marriage are equally society’s business. It may seem really fun to spend one’s youth “hooking up” with a dozen different people, having a different sexual partner every few months. This can be highly enjoyable, there is no need to deny this. The problem is that this leads to a society that does not value its future, and that considers having and bringing up children a nuisance that gets in the way of personal fulfillment.

The result is that the number of people dying ends up being greater than the number of people being born, so that the population starts to shrink, like it is happening in Japan. A person may say, “So what? They have 120 million people, let it become 10 million instead.” But if a population can go from 120 million to 10 million, it can go from 10 million to zero if the same trend continues.

You are free to think this is OK, that it is fine if humanity goes extinct by preferring personal fulfillment over the good of society and humanity’s survival. Islam says it is not OK. Islam wants humanity to survive, and it doesn’t make a difference in God’s eye whether it is a plague that may kill off humanity in a year, or an ideology of sexual freedom that does it in 2000 years. The result is the same; humanity dies out.

You could say that you personally shouldn’t have to sacrifice your fulfillment for the sake of some disaster that may happen thousands of years in the future. Islam says you must. It says you must not kill, you must not use legalized robbery (usury) to extract profit from society, you must not do injury to others, you must not abandon your children so that they starve. And you must not have casual sex, you must instead build families intended to survive for the long-term.

All of these commandments are there to ensure humanity’s long-term survival while also ensuring its short-term moral integrity, since one of Islam’s central teachings is that the end does not justify the means; you must never do evil for the sake of some good you wish to obtain. Even if you are made to testify, and your testimony harms those you love or harms the Muslim community, you must do it. You must give preference to truth and justice over worldly concerns. To a materialist this sounds like insanity, to prefer principles over one’s material good. But this is what we believe in, because we believe that by following principles, God will ensure our material good.

When it comes to relationships, Islam asks you to not be selfish, but to engage in them in a way that benefits society and humanity’s survival, rather than harming it. You are part of humanity and you have a responsibility to leave it in as good a state as you found it, and that, needless to say, means that you do not do what leads to its extinction, whether it is by releasing toxic waste into the water supply or by giving preference to your sexual desires over doing the hard work of building families and raising children.

Reader Questions

I thought nikkah was the wedding not the engagement because that’s how it’s done where I’m from. Is nikka interchangeable or ?

Legally once the nikāḥ is performed, the man and woman are married and there is nothing further to do Islamically. But some cultures treat the nikāḥ ceremony as an engagement ceremony and delay the wedding. This allows the couple and their families to know each other better and makes it easier to separate if they end up not liking each other. If the couple separate before the wedding (before the marriage is consummated), the man will have to pay only half the alimony they agreed upon, while the woman’s family are strongly encouraged not to accept any alimony (Quran 2:237).

Having the nikāḥ without a wedding is a great solution for young Muslims living in Western countries. It allows couples to date in a way that is ḥalāl and while enjoying the involvement and respect of their families and communities.

Other cultures perform the nikāḥ and the wedding on the same day. And in some cultures both practices are common, if the couple desire it they have their nikāḥ and wait for a while before they conduct the wedding ceremony, and if they desire it they do both on the same day.