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Al-Ghazali’s Book “Etiquette of Marriage”

By: M. Yasir Kayani

Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111 C.E.) discussed the question of marriage in one of his eminent books titled “Etiquette of Marriage” on very solid intellectual grounds. Al-Ghazali deconstructed the notion of marriage in itself, whether it is considered virtuous or whether it has any disadvantages as well as whether marriage is an aid in the fulfillment of religion. He quotes from the Qur’an “And, indeed, We sent Messengers before thee, and We gave them wives and children” [13:38 (‘Ali)] showing a praise of marriage in signifying excellence. But what if this is just implying that the prophets were social beings and lived among the people? Does it necessarily praise marriage in and of itself? Or is there something about marriage which allows a Prophethood to take place, a particular kind of social arrangement? Al-Ghazali also offers “As for Jesus, he will marry should he come down to earth and will have children” as evidence of the fact that Jesus will return to complete his Prophethood and part of that process involves marriage. But could this not also be interpreted as signifying the fulfillment of something he did not have a chance to do earlier, that is, that Jesus will return to participate in a particular society? Or to create a settled community? In other words, what if this connection between prophethood and marriage is not a praise of the later in and of itself, but a signification of some state of social relations. Especially given the saying of the Prophet later quoted by Al-Ghazali, “Marry and multiply for I will boast about you over other nations on the day of resurrection, even about the least among you.” This saying seems to imply marriage as an aspect of and tool for the strength of a community, and leads us toward imagining marriage as a means of the reproduction of social relations. Marriage cannot have had only one form throughout history, but rather shifts to reproduce the shifting economic and cultural relations. There are any numbers of arrangements of marriage that are entirely different from one another and all of which are acceptable under Islamic law. So when it is said “Whoever refrains from my sunna, he is not of me, and marriage is part of my sunna; whoever loves me, let him follow my sunna” this must mean that marriage is a role one should fulfill if one wishes to reproduce the sunna. But then what is the sunna? Is it imitation? Obviously the same questions which apply to the practice of sunna in general can be raised to the question of marriage, for example is it a question of blind imitation of one particular cultural practice (that of the first Islamic society) or is it a question of the objective, the function that a particular practice is designed to play, a tool which itself differs as the conditions of history unfold. “Marriage” has to occur within a particular social arrangement.

Another aspect of the question raised by Al-Ghazali is marriage as a spiritual task and as part of the disciplining of the self. The fact that enduring the burden of dependents, which is a form of exercise and struggle to provide for them and sustain them is an act of worship in itself. He writes, “However, only one of two types of men benefits from it: either a man who seeks striving, exercising, and character training because he is at the beginning of the Path or, a worshipper who does not pursue virtue through the path of the esoteric (sayr bil-batin), mental activity, and the experiences of the heart, but whose [virtuous] deeds are physical, such as prayer, performing the pilgrimage, and the like. His working to gain lawfully for his wives and children, maintaining them and bringing them up properly, is better for him than acts of worship which are imposed upon his body and whose benefits do not extend to others.”

The question then becomes, is the treatment of marriage categorically valued? Al-Ghazali concludes that in general, none of the sources has been quoted as discouraging marriage unconditionally. As for encouragement to marriage, it has been referred to both unconditionally and conditionally. Due to the lack of unconditional discouragement of marriage, he decides to explore the various pluses and minuses. He states, “There are certain advantages to marriage: procreation, to sustain lineages and to fulfill this reproduction.” One way of discussing marriage was in terms of waste, of viewing coitus interrupts as an act against nature, as a burial. “Everyone who refrains from marriage neglects tilling, wastes away the seed, does not use the prepared instruments which God has created, and is a violator of the aim of nature as well as the wisdom implied in the evidences of creation foreordained upon these organs by divine writ.”

Marriage is also a means of ordering the household, of being free from the concerns of household duties such as cooking and cleaning. In this case marriage is seen a division of labor, not an arrangement of desire. One of the most interesting parts of the reading was when Al-Ghazali quotes the Prophet as saying, “For every iradah (desire) there is a shirrah (eagerness), and for each shirrah there is afitrah (disposition). He whose fitrah leads to my sunna is guided.” This statement implies that desires lead to a particular disposition, subjectivity or life. So the goal is a reorganization of desires that leads to the sort of life which reproduces the ethos of the sunna, or to reorganize desire to according to divine will. This is objective of religion and the self-disciplining struggle of Sufi path. This is the task for the becoming Perfect Man. Marriage is just one tool that helps to reorient desire in this productive and preferable way. Seeking other means of self-perfection, such as knowledge can substitute for the advantages of marriage, as some individuals may have no need for the exercise. And indeed there are several forms of marriage which can be disadvantageous to the spiritual development, cases in which marriage could backfire. As Al-Ghazali mentions, these include being unable to gain lawfully (the amplification of attempts to provide for dependents through unlawful means), the failure to uphold their [wives’] rights, and that the wife and the offspring could “distract him from Almighty God, luring him to pursue the world and indulge in providing a comfortable life for his children through gathering wealth and hoarding it for them.”

Writer is a lecturer at Punjab University Law College (Jhelum Campus). He can be reached at  Email: yasirkayani1@gmail.com

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