In all societies and at all times marriage has been considered an occassion for great joy. The word most used with 'wedding' is 'celebration.' In fiction, which reflects our inner desires, they 'lived happily ever after.' Obviously seeking success in marraige has been a pre-occupation of all societies.
Today in the U.S. -- a society as advanced as human endeavour alone without Divine Guidance can make it -- the average length of 'ever after' is about seven years. That is the average period a new marraige lasts today. But even this period is not entirely a period of happiness. As the Surgeon General report indicated a few years ago, home had become the most dangerous place for the American woman. The leading cause of injuries to them is beatings by husbands and boy friends.
Obviously Science and the Age of Reason have not exactly delivered the happiest homes on earth. The secret to marital bliss eludes the Western civilization, although arrogance and conceit keep it from admitting fundamental flaws and looking elsewhere for solutions. Otherwise it would have found the solution in Islam.
Islamic prescription for success in married life is based on taqwa, fear and consciousness of Allah. Taqwa -- the basis for all aspects of Islamic life -- is especialy relevant to the household. That is why Sura Nisa, where many commands regarding rights and responsibilities of spouses are given, begins with repeated reminders of taqwa.
A hadith explains why. It descrbes a scene from the court of Iblis (Devil) where his assitants are reporting their achievements but he is not pleased. Then comes an assistant and says: 'I did not spare so and so until I sowed the seed of discord between a husband and his wife.' The Devil embraces him in joy saying 'Well done.'
To fight the Devil, one needs Allah's help and it comes with taqwa, that is living with the awareness that Allah is watching us and will hold us accountable for our actions. A direct and far reaching consequence of this awareness is that a fight for rights is replaced by a concern for responsibilities. One's rights are other's responsibilities. A Muslim husband and wife will be concerned with discharging their duties toward each other. Not a very atractive prospect for those itching to start a fight for rights. But it provides for a home that is a model of peace, love and harmony.
Islam emphasises organization and discipline, the five daily congregational prayers being a good reminder of that concern. If two Muslims travel together, they are required to choose one as the leader. Quite naturally the principle extends to the home as well, and husband is the head of the household. He is responsible for handling all outside affairs and providing finances, protection, and over all direction. Wife is his assistant in the home, responsible for taking care of the home and the children. A very famous hadith explains it: "Everyone of you is incharge and everyone will be accountable for those given in their charge. The man is incharge of the household and the woman is incharge of the home and the children." [Bukhari]. This hierarchy of authority and responsibility is key to the stability and proper functioning of the society.
Authority does carry risk of misuse. The solution does not lie in eliminating authority but in including suitable protections against the possible abuse. On the legal level this is achieved by delineating the boundaries of this authority. The basic ground rule in the Islamic society is that no one can ever ask for anything againt the Shariah. But that is not it. Actually a wife's legal obligation is very limited. In fact her only legal obligation is to stay in the home of her husband. She is not legally bound even to cook food, much less serve the parents or other relatives of her husband. The delicate balance between the legal and the moral here is very illuminating. On the moral plane she is expected to take care of household chores, but this is to be taken as a favor by the husband.
Too many husbands take these services for granted. Realizing this necessary function as kindness would call for greater kindness in return. And a heavy emphasis on kindness keeps the husband's authority in check: "The best of you are those who are best in dealing with their wives and I am the best in dealing with my wives." [Tirmidhi].
A problem may still arise between the husband and wife. No two human beings can always meet the expectations of the other. Human beings are niether perfect nor perfectly matched. What is a husband to do if he sees something in his wife that he does not like? Unless the issue of concern is an unacceptable behaviour according to Shariah -- in which case he should use appropriate pursuasion to change it -- the husband is asked to ignore the negative and focus on the positive. "No believing man should totally detest a believing woman [who is his wife]. If he dislikes something in her, there would be something else in her that he would like." [Muslim].
Most problems in domestic life begin as minor incidents that become magnified by taking exactly the opposite approach. On the other hand even the most trying moments in marital relations can be overcome by following this one piece of Prophetic advice.
Easier said than done? Well, what protects us from succumbing to our anger or frustrations in trying real life situations is taqwa and rememberance of Allah. He has more power over us than we have over those given in our charge. We remember His authority and seek His mercy. The success of our married life depends upon His mercy and not on our power or ability to fight or manipulate. This search for His mercy brings the best in ourselves. As one hadith says: "When a husband and wife look at each other with love, Allah looks at both of them with mercy." And that is the real secret to the marital bliss!
Critics will point out the many domestic problems in Muslim societies today similar to [but on a smaller scale than] the problems in the West. True. But that should not blind us to the key difference between the two. The problems in the West are a result of the value system adopted by it; those in Muslim homes result from deviating from their values. One is suffering by taking the wrong medicine, the other for failing to take the right one.