What to do when your spouse is less religious than you

A question I received recently:

I am in my early twenties and have married a woman who comes from a Muslim family. After marrying her, I have found that religion is not very important to her. I had wished to marry a woman who was my equal in faith, so that we could create a faithful family together. I feel like I have made a mistake in marrying her, and I don’t know where to go from here. Why did God allow me to marry her?

My answer:

It is normal to start having doubts after marriage when you have no previous experience with it. Many ideas and assumptions about the other sex will be proven false or inaccurate once you are living the reality of marriage.

Women are generally more liberal than men and laxer when it comes to religion. I come from a conservative Muslim family but I’ve had trouble convincing close female relatives to stop engaging in negative gossip about people (i.e. backbiting, ghaibah). I know a woman who is a civil engineer (so she is educated and intelligent enough to know better), and even though she went to an Islamic boarding school where they recited Quran every night and sometimes stayed up all night for prayer, she continues to think it is her every right to gossip about people.

When dealing with women, always remember Imam al-Shafi`i’s saying: “Be harsh on yourself, easy on others.” You shouldn’t hold your wife to the same standards as yourself, and if she does the minimum that is requested of her by religion, you should be thankful for that.

I grew up knowing many great men in my extended family, highly religious, kind and observant men. But almost none of these men had wives who could match them in faith, and some had wives who only did the minimum and didn’t care about religion at all. This hasn’t stopped them from bringing up good religious families.

In a household, men and women are not equal when it comes to authority. The Quran gives men a degree of authority over women (Quran 2:228, 4:34), and perhaps part of the reason for that is that men are, in general, more observant and more conservative, though a minority of women can be found who are like this too. It is a man’s duty to keep standards high in his household, preventing lax behaviors like not praying, not fasting or eating what is not halal, though he must do this with love and kindness, not with authoritarianism:

“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good advice, and debate with them in the best possible manner.”1

If your wife does the obligatory deeds (praying, fasting, etc.) and avoids haram (alcohol, interest, etc.), then this is the most you can expect of her, and leave it to her as a free-willed human being to make up her mind to do more if she wants. If she doesn’t do the obligatory deeds or engages in haram, then you have a clear right to give her an ultimatum, for her to come back to the Straight Path and do the minimum of what’s requested of her in Islam. If she doesn’t, then in effect she is refusing to do what the Quran asks of her, meaning that she is denying its truth, and in a way she is a non-believer. There is no obligation for you to stay married to her in such a case.

If she does the minimum required of her, then the Quran encourages you to be patient and to rely on God to steer your destiny for you. The Quran says in 4:128 that when a (devoutly Muslim) husband and wife are in disagreement, making peace is always the best option, and warns them to be wary of their ego’s greedy desire for better things.

One of the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) didn’t like his wife. The Prophet told him to fear God and keep her, this advice of the Prophet to him is recorded in the Quran in verse 33:37. The companion (Zayd, the only companion mentioned by name in the Quran) ultimately decided to divorce her. So, while Islam teaches that a man should hold onto his wife, a man’s right of freedom of choice is respected.

A man’s role in life is to acquire worth, marry a woman, have children, take care of his family, and in this way continue Islamic civilization. For this to be successfully done, it is not necessary for the woman to be as religious as the man. Ideally, of course, that’s what we want, but in reality, the nature of men and the nature of women is different, and you will have a very hard time finding women who cares about religion as much as you do.

It is better to be practical. To be thankful for what God has given you and to try to make the best of it. Do your best to be kind, generous, patient and forgiving, rather than judgmental and demanding. Some men mistakenly try to force their women to become what they want, only to give up after years of futile effort. You must learn to trust God and leave it to Him to steer your destiny. If you do separate in the end, you should be able to say “I did my best to make things work, but it didn’t work out.”

I am not saying to be like a feather in the wind, going wherever life throws you. You must rather always face God, working to please Him. You must not face your wife constantly trying to change her. She is only a small part of the big picture. You are a servant of God and you were made to serve Him. He recommends that you try to make your marriage work even if you are not pleased with your wife. Since you are facing God and aiming to please Him, you will be kind, generous and non-judgmental toward your wife as long as she does the minimum that Islam asks of her. Whether you think she deserves this lenient treatment or not, you are not doing it for her, but for God, and you expect your reward from God.

Having an unsatisfactory wife is a difficult test since you might be thinking that maybe this is how things will be for the rest of your life. You do not want to be stuck with someone who doesn’t live up to your standards. You probably wish to get in charge of your destiny, get rid of her and get a far better woman in her place.

The problem with this is that 1. It is not your job to manage your destiny and 2. No matter how good the imaginary new woman is, assuming you can find her and marry her, you could run into new and unexpected problems that could make your life with her miserable, she may develop an illness, she may suffer an accident and go blind, she may have a bad family who constantly interfere with your life.

As a Muslim, you believe that God is the King of the universe, and that He has the power to do anything He wills. He had the power to prevent your marriage from taking place. He had the power to make you marry the perfect woman. But He didn’t. And today He has the power to swiftly end your marriage with little effort on your part, and He has the power to give you the type of woman you desire. But He doesn’t.

It is God who manages your destiny, taking you from one stage of life to another, testing you, helping you learn, helping you grow in wisdom, understanding and kindness. Your focus should be on God, He can take your life anywhere He wants, and He has the power to do it this instant if He wanted to. Since He is not doing it, that should tell you something. You must do your best in the current test you are in, you must follow His advice that trying to make your marriage work is better than separation, and the Prophet’s advice to fear God and hold onto your wife, and leave it to God to change your situation if and when He wants. You must expect only from God and ask only of Him.

You could of course ask, “What if this test is not intended for me? What if I will needlessly suffer for nothing?” If you put your focus on God, since you know that He has the power to take you out of any unwanted situation, then you will know that there is no such thing as needlessly suffering. If you keep your wife for the sake of God, God will reward you for it, both in this life and the next. And if He doesn’t want you to keep her, He will make it easy to separate.

If your marriage somehow naturally falls apart, with both of you, or at least you, trying your best to keep it together through non-judgmentalism, forgiveness and generosity, and you reach an agreement to separate without any negative emotions, without guilt and without fearing that you might be doing the wrong thing, then you can take that as a sign that God approves of the separation.

But if things go along normally, if things are good enough, if the thought of separation contains tremendous amounts of uncertainty, guilt and fear, then that is your sign that it is not time to separate, that if you were to work toward separation, you’d be going against the flow of the destiny God has chosen for you. You can do it, like Zayd did, since God respects your freedom. But it is better for you to accept it and do your best, constantly asking God for forgiveness and betterment. If you reject this test, God will give you an equally demanding test, because God will never stop testing you.

Until the day you die, if God loves you, He will constantly give you new opportunities to prove your patience, your generosity, your worth. If He gave you the perfect life, you’d have no opportunity to prove these things.

What I would do in your situation is this: I would do my best to improve myself as a Muslim, reading as much Quran as I can, praying tahajjud and constantly asking for God’s forgiveness. I would do my best to be kind and forgiving toward my wife no matter how distasteful I find her behavior. I would do more than what is strictly necessary to make the marriage work, for God’s sake, even if it displeases me to do this. I would always try to be the bigger person. I would put my focus on God, recognizing His power to change my wife and my life in any way He wishes, recognizing that all good things come from Him, not from my own efforts.

And if after all of this, I receive a clear sign that my marriage should end (she decides she wants divorce and is intent upon it), then I would do what is necessary in that situation. Maybe you will stay married to her for the next ten years, and after that separate to enjoy the type of life you desire. Or maybe in some years she will change into someone with as much faith as yourself, and then you may be glad that you stayed with her.

So my advice is the Prophet’s advice, peace be upon him: Fear God and keep her.

And leave it to God to take care of your destiny. Trying to steer your destiny is a heavy and exhausting burden. Free yourself from that burden. Enjoy the life that God has given you, do your best, constantly ask for God’s forgiveness, and know that God can put you in a better place anytime He decides. If you want to speed this process up, you can do it through worship, asking for forgiveness, and avoidance of sin.

To improve your situation in life, raise your status in God’s eye, and He will do it for you better than you ever could. Trying to improve your situation in life through your own efforts, rather than through God, will always lead to new situations that are as equally difficult as the one you left.

Patience means to go against your desire for the sake of God. If you patiently keep your wife despite your wishes, you will be rewarded for your patience. Patience might possibly the greatest virtue of a believer. The angels commend the believers on their patience when they are about to enter Paradise, as the Quran describes in Surat al-Ra`d:

22. And those who patiently seek the presence of their Lord, and pray regularly, and spend from Our provisions to them, secretly and openly, and repel evil with good. These will have the Ultimate Home.

23. Everlasting Gardens, which they will enter, along with the righteous among their parents, and their spouses, and their descendants. And the angels will enter upon them from every gate.

24. “Peace be upon you, because you endured patiently. How excellent is the Final Home.”

And do not try to push your wife to change for the better, or to buy her Islamic books, forward her Islamic articles or make her go to lectures hoping she will be better guided. Calling people to Islam should never be inflicted on people. They must seek Islam themselves.

It is God Who guides people, it is not people who guide people. Therefore no matter how hard we try or wish that someone was guided, our efforts and wishes may never come true.

You cannot guide whom you love, but God guides whom He wills, and He knows best those who are guided.2

God will not leave all the tests to you and neglect your wife. He will continue testing her too to help her grow and to guide her, but the stage she is in could be very different than yours, and the types of lessons she needs could be nothing like you imagine.

Leave it to God to guide her, He will do it in the best way possible.

Footnotes

  1. The Quran, verse 16:125.
  2. The Quran, verse 28:56.

One thought on “What to do when your spouse is less religious than you

  1. Anonymous

    “Women are generally more liberal than men.” SO TRUE! That’s why once “women got the vote” government worldwide went WAY more left wing towards socialism / authoritarianism.

    Reply

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