A Focus on Healthy Marriage
by Aneesah Nadir, MSW, PhD
Whenever we hear that a couple has been married for twenty or more years we can't help but praise Allah and be filled with joy for them. It is especially poignant to see such couples express happiness and sincere gratefulness for their marital longevity after so many years. It happened recently when my husband and I realized we had several friends in Arizona who have been married more than 30 years and when I met a sister in Detroit who reported that she and her husband had been married 40 years. It affirms that it is possible to develop healthy marital lives and to build upon one of the most important cornerstones of the Muslim community. We can't help but praise Allah and be happy knowing that they probably weathered some storms together. Allah tells us in a translation of Qur'an that our purpose as individuals is to worship and to serve Him. And in Sura Rum (30), ayat 21 He tells us "and among His signs is this: that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect". So, as individuals, marriage should help us reach the ultimate goal of heaven, and we should strive for married life filled with tranquility, love, and mercy.
Why then do we have so many broken marriages and consequently broken homes? Why, according to the late sociologist Ilyas Ba-Yunus, does thirty-three percent or approximately one in three divorces occur among Muslims annually? Why do we hear reports that as many as five out of six Muslim marriages end in divorce in the first two to three years of marriage? Why, according to the first national study of the prevalence of physical violence among Muslims in the United States, conducted in 1993 by the late scholar Sharifa AlKateeb, do 10% of Muslims experience physical abuse—a figure that is comparable to national statistics and other faith groups? Why do we hear of young people who can't describe a healthy married life and don't believe they need to get married, or if they do that they cannot expect peace, love and mercy in their Muslim home?
Sadly, reports of marital instability cut across every cultural, religious and economic level. The experience will vary based on the cultural nuances within each Muslim subpopulation. Although little research is available about U.S. marriages among immigrant and refugee groups, beginning reports do highlight many of the challenges facing IndoPakistani and Arab families. According to the African American Healthy Marriage Initiative, a program of the Department of Health and Human Services, studies show that while 35% of Americans between age 24 and 34 have never been married, that percentage increases to 54% for African Americans in the same age group. Additionally, married couples head 76% of our American families, while African American married couples head only 47.9% of American families. While the overall rate for single parent households in America has increased for all children, it is especially alarming among African Americans. Between 1960 and 1995, the number of African American children living with two married parents dropped from 75% to 33%. At this moment, 69% of African American births are to single mothers as compared to 33% nationally.
It is clear that something has to be done about the marital and family breakdown in the larger society as well as within and throughout the U.S. Muslim community. Throughout the country, marriage education programs are developing spawned by efforts in local religious communities and by a national healthy marriage initiative. Clearly a focus on healthy marriage is needed in the Muslim community. To that end the Islamic Social Services Association-USA (ISSA-USA) and the Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA) are collaborating to promote healthy marriage within the Muslim community.
The mission of MANA's Healthy Marriage Initiative is to promote healthy marital and family life among Muslims with a focus on African American and other indigenous Muslims in the United States. The goals are to provide a comprehensive marriage and family education and support program which includes a variety of services and programs in local communities along a continuum from prevention to treatment. Communities will be asked to adopt a philosophy of "healthy marriage" according to the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and to resolve that no marriages will be officiated without at least three 90-minute sessions of premarital counseling and that domestic violence will not be tolerated within the Muslim community.
Healthy marriage programs will focus on preventing marital breakdown by implementing marriage preparation programs, premarital advisement and premarital counseling, seminars on contract development, the importance of conducting reference and background checks, and the role and responsibilities of the wali and wakkil. It is important that we end the "drive-by" nikah that occurs at the last minute after Jumah, and the wali that comes in to witness the marriage and then disappears from the couple's life-unavailable to provide support and arbitration when and if it is needed. Additionally, many parents need guidance to help prepare and assist their children in marrying compatible mates and provide support throughout the marriage.
The Healthy Marriage Initiative plans on celebrating healthy married life, providing education, support and mentorship for one of the most important aspects of human life. InshaAllah we hope to shift the emphasis from planning for the wedding to preparation for a long, peaceful, healthy married life. Regular workshops will be conducted for single and married particpants that focus on building important family lifeskills in areas such as communication, relationship building, anger management, and financial management. Poor communication and financial problems are often blamed for major marital breakdown.
Communities will be encouraged to provide support, socialization and recreational activities for families and single Muslims. Parenting skill training and support groups are an essential component of the initiative. The likelihood is that most couples will give birth within the first two years of marriage. Parenting places stress on the couple that can be managed with education and support. Divorce counseling and arbitration are program components that will be needed to help couples who experience marital dissolution to resolve issues from the current marriage in hopes of preventing a repeat in their future married life. Also, developing a parenting plan and working out the best ways to parent the children will be important. Guidelines and forms to make it easier for local communities are also being compiled and will be made available.
The Healthy Marriage Initiative will be implemented through MANA's SHARE Centers around the country, but can also be developed in communities where no SHARE Center exists. A Healthy Marriage Committee may be developed to promote the initiative in the local community and focus on building healthy marriages and families. InshaAllah, if we begin now over the next five to ten years we can begin to reverse the negative trends while strengthening Muslim marriages, families and thus our communities.