The Proper Conduct of Marriage in Islam (Adab an-Nikah)

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  • Author: Al-Ghazali
  • ISBN: 9781882216147

5The Proper Conduct of Marriage in Islam (Adab an-Nikah)
by Imam al-Ghazali

This is Book 12 of Ihya 'Ulum ad-Din, the Imam's most famous work. In it are covered every aspect of the institution of marriage. In the words of Imam Ghazali, "Marriage comes to religion's aid, striking devils with dismay. How appropriate that one should study its occasions, preserve its sacred traditions and its etiquette, explain its aims and purposes, and detail the paragraphs and chapters of the subject.
 Its most important precepts will be expounded in three chapters:
1) The pros and cons of marriage;
2) The proprieties to be observed in respect of the contract and the two contracting parties;
3) The right conduct of conjugal life from the time of the contract until separation occurs."
Translated by Muhtar Holland.



In the Name of Allah, All-Merciful and Compassionate.

Praise be to Allah, Whose wondrous works are proof against the arrows of illusion, from Whose simplest marvels the minds of men reel, giddy and perplexed, and Whose tender blessings-be they chosen or unsought-abound for all creatures without cease.

His wonderful favors include His creation of man from seminal fluid (thereby giving rise to kinship and affinity) and His imbuing His creatures with a sexual appetite by which He coerces them to compulsive 'husbandry'1 and maintains their progeniture by force and constraint.

Moreover, He has attached great weight to ties of kinship and values them highly; for their sake He has declared fornication unlawful, going to great lengths to make it repugnant by sanction and deterrent, and has made the committing thereof a heinous sin and an odious offense. He invites and urges us to marry, by commendation and by command.

Glory be to Him, Who decreed death for His servants and so abased them by wrecking and shattering, then sowed sperm seeds in the ground of the womb, bringing forth new creatures to repair the destruction wrought by death: an intimation that the oceans of destiny flood the whole universe with benefit and detriment, good and evil, hardship and ease, winding and unwinding.

Blessings upon Muhammad, the Envoy sent with warning and good tidings, and upon his family and companions; blessings beyond count or reckoning, and many salutations.

Marriage comes to religion's aid, striking devils with dismay; it is a fortress firm against God's enemy, as well as a cause of the prolificity [of the Muslim community] in which the Chief of the Messengers will glory before the other Prophets [on Resurrection Day]. How appropriate that one should study its occasions, preserve its sacred traditions and its etiquette, explain its aims and purposes, and detail the paragraphs and chapters of the subject. Its most important precepts will be expounded in three chapters:

1. The pros and cons of marriage;

2. The proprieties to be observed in respect of the contract and the two contracting parties;

3. The right conduct of conjugal life from the time of the contract until separation occurs.


Merits and disadvantages of Marriage

The scholars hold differing views on the virtue of marriage: at one extreme are those who insist that it is superior in merit to devoting oneself solely to the worship of Allah; others, while acknowledging its merit, would give priority to divine worship, so long as the soul does not experience an unsettling craving for marital union and urge to coition; yet others hold it best to abstain in this day and age, although marriage had some virtue in former times, when there were legitimate ways of earning a living and when women's morals were not objectionable.

To discover the truth of the matter, we must first set forth the Prophetic and other traditions on either side of the argument, then proceed to discuss the advantages and the drawbacks of marriage. It should thus become clear whether marriage or abstinence commends itself to the individual, in the light of his immunity or vulnerability to those drawbacks.

The favorable view of marriage

a) Qur'anic Verses:

Allah (Exalted is He) has said:

Marry the unwed among you…. (24.32)

This is a positive command. He also said:

Do not prevent them from marrying their husbands. (2:232)

This put a stop to the practice of 'adl (whereby a father could keep his daughter from getting married), and made it unlawful.

When praising and extolling His Messengers, the Exalted One said:

And We sent Messengers before you, and We assigned to them wives and offspring. (13:38).

He mentioned that as a bestowal of grace and a mark of favor. Moreover, He has praised His saints for requesting it in their prayers of supplication, for He said:

And those who say, "Our Lord, grant us through our wives and our offspring a cooling of the eyes [i.e., solace]…." (25:74)

It is said that only those Prophets who married are mentioned in the Qur'an. Yahya [John the Baptist] (may Allah bless him and give him peace) did marry, they say, though without cohabiting (whether because his only desire was to acquire merit and to follow the noble precedent, or perhaps for modesty's sake). As for Jesus (peace be upon him), he will marry and have children when he descends again to the earth.

b) Prophetic Traditions [akhbar]:

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said:

Marriage is my exemplary way [sunnati]; those who are averse to my example are also averse to me.

Marriage is my exemplary way; whoever loves my character [fitrati] should follow my example.

Marry and multiply, then I shall glory in you before the nations on the Day of Resurrection: [in all of you,] even the miscarried fetus.

He who dislikes my example is not of me; my example includes marriage, so let those who love me follow my example.

He who abstains from marriage out of fear of impoverishment is not one of us.

(It is the pretext for abstention that is faulted here, rather than abstention per se.)

He who has means should marry.

He who can afford it should marry, for that is the best safeguard of modesty and chastity. Otherwise let him fast; the fasting will be a [form of] castration for him.

(This suggests that marriage is favored because of the danger of depravity in the eye or in the genitals. The word 'castration' [wija'] signifies the contusion of the testicles of a stallion to take away its virility; here it is used metaphorically in the sense of 'sexual impotence induced by fasting.')

If you find a newcomer commendably devout and trustworthy, then give him a woman in marriage; otherwise there will be discord and great corruption in the land.

(Here again the argument in favor of marriage is based on fear of corruption.)

One who marries for the sake of Allah, or gives in marriage for the sake of Allah, earns the right to Allah's friendship.

He who marries secures one half of his religion, so let him beware of Allah where the other half is concerned.

(This also shows that marriage is esteemed as a precaution against misconduct, providing security from corruption; for what most often corrupts a man's religion is his genitals and his belly, and by marrying he takes care of one of these at least.)

The work of a human being is all cut short, but for three things: a righteous child who prays for him, alms he has dispensed, and religious knowledge he has imparted.

(The first of these is attainable only by way of marriage.)

c) Later Traditions [athar]:

'Umar (may Allah be well pleased with him) said: "The sole obstacles to marriage are incapacity and immorality." (Clearly implying that religion presents no obstacle to it, since he confines the obstruction to two blameworthy factors.)

Ibn 'Abbas (may Allah be well pleased with him and with his father) said: "The devotion of the devotee is not complete until he marries." (Perhaps he would have it that marriage is both an act of devotion in itself and a means of perfecting one's devotion. More likely, however, we should take him to mean that only through marriage can one's inner feeling be relieved of the pressure of sexual passion, and that devotion remains incomplete unless the inner feeling is undisturbed. For this reason, he used to summon his young protégés when they reached puberty, telling them: "If you wish to marry I shall get you married, for if Allah's servant commits a sexual offense he tears his faith from his heart.")

Ibn Mas'ud (may Allah be well pleased with him) used to say: "If I had but ten days left to live, I would like to marry, so as not to meet Allah as a celibate."

Mu'adh ibn Jabal (may Allah be well pleased with him) lost two wives to the plague, with which he was also stricken. "Find me a wife," he cried, "for I would not like to meet Allah as a celibate."

(These last two sayings indicate that both men saw virtue in marriage for its own sake, not just as a precaution against the perils of passion.)

'Umar (may Allah be well pleased with him) married frequently. He used to say: "I only wed for the sake of having children."

A certain Companion was totally dedicated to the service of Allah's blessed Messenger, even sleeping at his house in case he needed anything during the night. "Won't you get married?" asked the Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), but the man replied: "O Messenger of Allah, I am a poor man with no possessions. Besides, I would have to give up serving you."

The question came up again later, to be met with the same response. Then the Companion pondered and said: "By Allah, the blessed Messenger knows more of what is conducive to my welfare in this world and the Hereafter, and of what will bring me close to Allah, so if he asks me a third time I will go and do it." When the question was indeed repeated, the man asked Allah's Messenger to find him a wife. He was told to approach a certain tribe, saying: "Allah's Messenger commands you to give me one of your young women in marriage."

Reminded of the man's absolute poverty, the Messenger told his Companions to collect for their brother a date-stone's weight of gold. They made the collection and escorted him to the tribe, whose people found him a spouse. The Prophet then ordered a marriage feast, whereupon some of the Companions got together to provide a sheep for the wedding banquet. (Such repeated urging suggests there is merit in marriage per se. It is of course possible that this particular individual displayed symptoms of needing to be married.)

A tale is told of how a devotee in one of the nations of yore surpassed in worship all the people of his epoch. The excellence of his worship was mentioned to the Prophet of his age, who said: "How good the man is, except for neglecting part of the exemplary way." The devotee was grieved to hear this and he asked the Prophet about it. "You omit to marry," he was told. "It is not that I hold it unlawful to do so," he replied, "but I am poor and dependent upon other people." The blessed Prophet then promised to give him his own daughter in marriage, and he was as good as his word.

Bishr ibn al-Harith said: "Ahmad ibn Hanbal is my superior on three counts: he pursues lawful gain for others as well as for himself, whereas I seek it for myself alone; he has an expansive approach to marriage, whereas my style is cramped; he has assumed the role of spiritual leader of the masses…."

It is said that Ahmad (may Allah have mercy on him, took a new wife on the second day after the death of the mother of his son 'Abdu'llah, saying: "I hate to spend one night in celibacy."

As for Bishr, when he heard that people were discussing his failure to marry and were calling him neglectful of the exemplary way, he said: "Tell them that he is preoccupied with absolute duty [fard] to the exclusion of what is but highly commended [sunna]." Rebuked on another occasion, he said: "All that keeps me from marrying is the word of Allah (Exalted is He): 'Women have rights equal to their duties, in fairness.'" (2:228). This was mentioned to Ahmad, who exclaimed: "Bishr is incomparable! He keeps me in place like the point of a lance." Be that as it may, it is related that he appeared to someone in a dream and was asked: "How has Allah treated you?" He replied: "I was accorded exalted rank in the Garden of Paradise, and allowed to look down upon the stations of the Prophets, yet I never attained the ranks of the married."

(According to another version of the story, his reply was: "Allah said to me: 'I would have preferred you not to meet Me celibate.'") When asked what had become of Abu Nasr at-Tammar, he said: "He was raised above me by seventy degrees." This evoked surprise: "How so? We should have thought you his superior." But he explained: "He earned that by his patience with his little daughters and his family burdens."

Sufyan ibn 'Uyaina said: "Having many wives does not constitute this-wordliness. 'Ali (may Allah be well pleased with him) was the most ascetic of the Companions of Allah's blessed Messenger, yet he had four wives and seventeen concubines. Marriage is exemplary conduct from of old, and an innate disposition of the Prophets."

A man once said to Ibrahim ibn Ad'ham (may Allah have mercy on him): "How fortunate you are, to have dedicated yourself to worship through celibacy." But he rejoined: "Just one anxiety you suffer because of your family is worth far more than everything I am involved in." When the man asked him what then prevented him from marrying, he explained: "I feel no need of a wife, and I do not wish to be a disappointment to a woman."

It has been said that the merit of the married man exceeds that of the celibate as the merit of the holy warrior surpasses that of one who sits at home; also that one prayer-cycle performed by a married man is worth seventy performed by a bachelor.

Traditions unfavorable to marriage

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said:

The best of men, two centuries hence, will be one who is lightly burdened, who has neither wife nor child.

There will come a time for people when a man's downfall will be at the hands of his wife, his parents, and his children: they will reproach him with his poverty, and by demanding of him what is beyond his means they will get him into situations where his religion departs and he comes to perdition.

A small family is one of the two forms of affluence, while a large family is one of the two types of poverty.

When asked about marriage, Abu Sulaiman ad-Darani said:

"Patiently doing without women is better than patiently enduring them, but to endure them is better than enduring the Fire."-"The single man experiences delight in work and tranquillity of heart unknown to the married man."-"I have never seen any of our companions marry and still maintain his original status."-"Three activities betray an inclination toward this lower world: pursuing a career, marrying a wife, or transcribing traditions [hadith]."

Al-Hasan (may Allah have mercy on him) said: "When Allah wishes a servant well He does not trouble him with family or wealth."

Ibn Abi'l-Hawari said: "Many have debated this saying, concluding eventually that it means not that one should do without these two things, but that one should possess them and not be obsessed with them." This echoes the words of Abu Sulaiman ad-Darani: "To be distracted from Allah by family, property, or children-that is disastrous for you."


From no authority is disapproval of marriage reported in absolute fashion, without qualification. Arguments in favor of marriage, on the other hand, have come down to us both unconditional and qualified. It remains for us to unveil the subject by listing the drawbacks and the benefits of marriage.

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