Ruqayyah Waris Maqsood, an English author and educator, has written a hot little book called "The Muslim Marriage Guide" that is provoking discussion among Muslim couples and flying off the shelves of Muslim book stores. The book offers candid advice on the emotional, spiritual, and sexual aspects of marital life that speaks to Muslim needs--but that non-Muslims might find useful.
Written in an engaging style, "The Muslim Marriage Guide" combines a positive attitude toward sexuality and the body, a frank account of how marriages must function to fulfill both parties, and excerpts from both the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet to support her points. All three elements--positivity, frankness, and religious support--are refreshing and much needed.
"Sex is clean!" she exclaims in a subheading of chapter 9. Not without religious support, either, for she says that treating the human body as unclean or distasteful is tantamount to criticizing the way God created us. So kudos to Maqsood for reminding Muslim couples that sexual fulfillment is part of our religion.
Although the Muslim literary and religious tradition approaches human sexuality matter-of-factly, many Muslims today find it difficult and possibly impious to broach the subject. I have even encountered the occasional religious seminar teaching a message that human genitalia are distasteful, and that for spouses to gaze upon one another1s private parts is to be avoided.
Maqsood will have none of that.
But for all her openness on sexuality, Maqsood also follows many traditional roles set by authors such as John Gray, the relationship guru and author of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." In fact, Maqsood refers to the Mars and Venus dichotomy directly, favorably, and--possibly--a little to her detriment.
According to Maqsood, marriage is a relationship between two fundamentally different creatures: Men tend to be more logical than women, more goal-oriented, and less attuned to non-verbal cues. Women tend toward emotionality, are more communication-oriented, and highly attuned to even small bodily gestures. The truly Islamic marital relationship recognizes and celebrates gender differences, and each partner works constantly on improving communication between the two in order to overcome these gender differences.
Yet while this approach of absolute and traditionally defined gender differences may work well for some couples, there are many Muslims whose successful experience of married life is not based on these presuppositions of absolute difference.
Maqsood's own particular version of Mars and Venus is that men need to be respected and women need to be loved. In her ideal Islamic marriage, men are the providers and return to homes of peace and tranquility, which are to be sustained by homemaking wives who do not nag or bother their husbands with their mundane worries, but respect and boost their husbands' leadership position. Husbands, for their part, make sure to show appreciation and affection to their wives.
A marriage of harmony is one in which the basic hierarchy--husband as moral-spiritual leader and economic provider, and wife as caretaker of family who both respects and obeys her husband--is intact.
However, the reality for many contemporary couples is that both husband and wife have career goals, that men may actually be quite involved in rearing their children, and that women are not waiting at home all day and depend only upon their husbands for mature interaction. In many happy and practicing Muslim marriages, the two may conceive of one another as partners and equals, even if maintaining some traditional roles, as indeed is recommended in Islam.
Nor are the differences between men and women--and I do believe they exist--so easily defined as the rational-emotional split. As for her grand theme--that women need to be loved and men respected--she perhaps unwittingly implies that love is unimportant to men and that women care little for their husbands' respect, which is hard to believe and requires sounder support, either empirical or from the Qur'an and Sunnah, than the "experts" she cites.
But, if one reads her dichotomies with a softer, more flexible mind, then Maqsood's general interpretation of Islamic marriage is sound. While non-Muslims may find archaic and oppressive the idea of husbandly protection and maintenance of the family, and of wifely nurturing and support, Muslims trust that these roles are enjoined by God because He created us and knows humanity as a whole better than we do.
Maqsood stresses that fulfillment is only possible with love, respect, and commitment on the part of both spouses. She advises potential couples to look seriously at compatibility of values and goals, both social and spiritual. As sage commentary upon our times, when single men and women see constant media images urging sex outside of marriage, Maqsood reminds us that physical self-control before marriage is an indicator of character. Many find out to their cost that lack of self-control before marriage frequently foreshadows lack of self-control afterward.
Maqsood's handy manual is a worthy first step in delineating the ways--psychological, spiritual, and sexual--that men and women can secure for themselves a little bit of paradise on earth.