In the Conference of the Books, each comes with their books in hand, from every time, place, and land. They proceed as if in a procession, presenting visions of God’s sovereignty and undeniable command. It is as if they are ejected-souls—ejected by their flesh to become unbounded words. Souls transformed by truth and time to transcend their human form, and to wed our present to our past. Now, they are papers and words, partly material and partly ethereal—a state between two states. Like the esthetics of beauty, its truth is its indomitable fate. Souls carrying books, books carrying books—an illimitable procession of wisdom and folly invigorated by the promise of words. I greet my nightly company, and wonder when will I transform? When shall my flesh eject me, and when will I become an ethereal form—a state between two states—a book of papers and words?
My God, it is not that I am hurrying my fate, but I must admit, I am restless in my present state. I exist in this ephemeral world agitated by what it gives and takes. I am flustered when it gives, and restive when it takes. But this world is like a journey in a dream; it carries you through emotions, but it delivers little that is real. Struggling with this world is like struggling with a dream, only when you deny its visions can you see what was obscured in your sleep.
When I open my eyes and renounce my present shape, I know I am about to awake. I rise and close my eyes to find You, my God, to find the Conference, and the promise of words. I find You, and I know I will transform. Often, at these moments of enlightenment, I combust with such uncontrollable power, I am tormented by my heart’s overwhelming fire. I burn to join the ethereal state, and ignite with ecstatic visions while I am fully awake. I ache to become a supernal vision on my own and to become one of Your seraphic servants and mates. Yet, I know my status and limitations more than any other. I know that if I become a book whose wisdom outweighs its follies, I will be satisfied with my contribution, for to be wedded to the truth of the word is to share in the beauty of the Lord. To share in the truth is an ethereal transformation.
* * *
I was lost in hope when the knock at the door pillaged my thoughts. Every visitor honors me, but also tests my transformation. From her anxious and tentative demeanor, I suspected that the issue must relate to marriage. Of all the offerings of this world, nothing is more mystifying than this institution. It commences with a covenant with God, but it is often lived in a deluge of pathetic delusions.
Like many before her, she asks her questions with stern facial control as if to conceal torrents of restless confusion.
“I am Pakistani,” she informs me, “and my parents are, sort of, pressuring me to get married. I love and respect my parents very much, and I trust them with my life. They, sort of, introduced me to a Pakistani medical student, and they are confident he would make a good husband. They say marriage is half of religion, and God would want me to marry. My parents are, sort of, religious, and I respect and love my parents very much, and I would trust them with my life. I am an observant Muslim, and it would mean a lot to my parents if my husband is a Pakistani and a doctor. So I want to know what are the rules for marriage in Islam—what are the rules for a good husband?”
Her question threatened to throw me in a spiraling harangue of endless orations, but I held my tongue. Why is it that we always speak in terms of rules instead of what would be beautiful? Do we worship a God of rules or a God of beauty? I understand the beauty of marriage or the truth of marriage, but the rules of marriage I cannot absorb. And, is a husband who is a Pakistani and a doctor part of the rules or part of the beauty or part of the truth? And, how can we approach such a fundamental decision while saying “sort of,” instead of with equanimity and resolution.
Instead of a harangue, I said with a stoic face, “Sister, I searched the Qur’an and Sunna. I am sure that a husband who is a Pakistani doctor is not to be found anywhere.”
Understandably, this annoyed her, and so she protested, “But my parents want me to have a stable and happy life.”
“My sister,” I said, “I am sure they do, and they are advising you according to what they know. But it is not a husband who will provide you with a stable and happy life—it is God.”
This did not persuade her, and so she argued, “But God expects us to take care of ourselves before He will take care of us.”
I thought to myself now is the time to test my transformation; now is the time to awake. “Sister,” I said, “that is true. God changes what is inside a people only when they change what is inside themselves (13:11). But what are the criteria? What are the criteria for God’s care? Does God’s care mean a secure financial life? Does God’s care mean a blissful equanimity of the soul? Isn’t it strange when we say that marriage is half of one’s religion, and yet we evaluate this half on purely mundane grounds?”
She looked at me as if searching what I said for a common theme. The test of transformation is often one of coherence, and so I adjusted my tone, “Sister, many scholars have criticized the authenticity of the traditions that claim that marriage is half of religion, and I don’t believe that it is a reliable hadith. Nevertheless, it comes from a culture permeated with Islamic morality. As individuals, we live this life seeking to build a partnership with God, and in marriage the members of this partnership become three. God is a full partner in a marriage that is why the commencement, the pursuit, and the termination of a marriage must be conducted according to the standards of beauty suitable for a partner such as God.”
She seemed to have been surprised by my tone because she softened her voice, “But does God enter a partnership with every marriage?”
I thought of the ugliness of many marriages, and I know that the wedding of ugliness with God is a simple impossibility. “Sister, you know the hadith that whoever migrates to marry a woman or conduct business, such is the moral value of their migration, and, whoever migrates to God and His Messenger, then to God is their migration?”
She nodded her head and so I continued, “If we marry to affect a divine unity, such becomes the state of our marriage, and if we marry for financial stability or security, such is the mundane state of our marriage as well. We enter every marriage by articulating a covenant with God. But either this covenant is a mere formality or it has actual meaning. Doesn’t God say in reference to marriage, ‘And, we have taken from you a weighty covenant’? (4:21). God uses this same language when talking about a covenant with Israel (4:154) and a covenant with the prophets (33:7). So is the covenant of marriage as serious as a covenant with the prophets, or does God speak in jest?
But what is the point of this covenant? What is the purpose of marriage? What is it supposed to achieve? Copulation is one of its purposes, but God emphasizes repeatedly that marriage is a sakan and sakina (serenity and tranquility), and uses the same expression to describe the blessings of a restful night and the gift of the Prophet’s prayers. Serenity and tranquility, my sister, are not entitlements of life, they are a divine blessing and gift.
But how do we attain this gift? How do we deserve it? We attain it when we enter into a partnership with God, when God is a part of the marital relationship, and when we uphold covenantal obligations. When we do so, God bestows upon us the blessing of serenity and tranquility in marriage. So, yes, God is a part of every marital relationship entered into in God’s name, but the quality of the partnership depends on the conduct of the parties. If we start our marital life, for instance, with a lavish display of material wealth in a wedding, one can hardly say that we are off to a blessed start. If we consistently discharge the obligations of the covenant, God bestows His blessings upon us.”
She surprised me when she quickly focused the enquiry on her parents, “But my parents would like me to have a serene and tranquil life. Why couldn’t that happen with the person they chose?”
I felt disappointed. I talk of a partnership with God, and she is interested in vindicating her parents. I said with an annoyed tone, fully restored, “Listen sister, we do not just happen to stumble upon a divine relationship. This is a matter that takes intent, diligence, and perseverance. I don’t know your parents, and I don’t know their focus. If we enter a marriage while adopting a mundane frame of reference or material criteria of evaluation, we are entering the marriage wishfully hoping for God’s pleasure while entirely focusing on our own delusions. With all due respect to your parents, they are not the ones who will have to sleep with this man every night. They are not the ones who will discharge the obligations of the Divine covenant, and they are not the ones who will have to answer for your marital decisions in the Final Day. You cannot stand before God in the Hereafter and say, ‘My parents told me so.’ You may consider the advice of your parents for all its worth, but it is your decision, your responsibility, your obligation, and your covenant. Furthermore, and with all due respect to your parents, many parents in this society focus on purely cultural criteria in evaluating the appropriate spouse. Many parents treat marriage as a purely mundane institution. But we must recognize that the emphasis on cultural and social considerations does not equip us to discharge our covenantal obligations or equip us to afford the Divine partner just consideration. Sister, this whole matter is not about your parents, this is about you, your God, and whether you will be able to discharge your covenantal obligations. This is also about whether your partner can help you build a partnership with God.”
“But,” she seemed to protest, “aren’t my parents the most able to identify a suitable partner?”
Perhaps I was wasting my words on what seemed like a parental fixation, but I continued anyway. “This depends on the parents. This depends on their conception of a proper marriage. Ironically, the parents who have been plagued by the most problems in their own marriage are often the most insistent on directing the marriage of their children. It is as if they attempt to compensate for their failures. As I said, I don’t know your parents, but if we are not permitted to blindly follow the most learned scholar, and the scholars are the inheritors of the prophets, I don’t know how we can blindly follow any parent! As I already emphasized, it is your direct and personal charge and responsibility. The direct and personal nature of this charge is emphasized in the well-known story of Mughith and Barira—do you know that story?”
“Mughith and Barira? No, I don’t know it.”
“Well, there was a woman named Barira who was married to a man who loved her madly, named Mughith. But Barira did not love Mughith and divorced him. Mughith would follow Barira around crying—with his tears flowing down his beard. The Prophet felt sorry for the love-struck fellow and asked Barira if she would take him back. Barira asked the Prophet if this was a Divine command, and the Prophet said no, it was simply a personal appeal. Consequently, Barira refused to take Mughith back.”
She smiled, and so I continued, “There are many reports that emphasize this point. For example, a woman from the family of Ja‘far worried that her father would force her to marry someone she did not like. She met with ‘Abd al-Rahman and Majma‘ Ibn Jariya, both companions of the Ansar, and shared with them her concerns. They told her not to fear because Khansa’ Bint Khudam was forced by her father to marry someone she did not want, and the Prophet annulled the marriage when Khansa’ complained to him. Furthermore, Thabit Ibn Qays’s (d. 12/633) wife came to the Prophet and demanded a divorce from her husband. She explained that she had no specific cause for wanting a divorce, other than she did not love her husband, and she feared that her feelings were bound to force her to treat him unjustly. She said, ‘I fear kufr—meaning, I fear the injustice and inequity. The Prophet asked her to return to Thabit his garden and gave her the divorce. All of this emphasizes the point that marriage is a direct and personal charge and responsibility.”
“Okay,” she rubbed her hands and inhaled, “but how do I know who to marry? How do I know?”
Encouraged by this friendly pause, I said, “First, know yourself. Marriage requires equanimity and balance, and without balance we transgress upon the rights of others. Without balance we are not just towards God or any other. Often in marriage, or any other relationship, we consume the other, we project our insecurities, fears, and anxieties upon the other. Without self-knowledge, it is impossible to know the other. Without self-knowledge, we cannot know if we are seeing the truth of the other person or seeing the projection of ourselves upon others. We do not know if we are seeing the true nature of the other person or simply the construct we invented and forced upon such a person. Of course, self-knowledge is a long and difficult process, but even the simple awareness of the necessity of self-knowledge will educate your choice, and commence the process of establishing a just and blessed partnership.”
“And, other than self-knowledge?” she asked rather amicably.
“You try your best to select a partner who understands the meaning of a partnership with God. I do not mean selecting someone who is simply a practicing Muslim, but someone who is committed to honoring his partnership with God—someone who is committed to a marriage that can ascend from the mundane to the divine, someone who will strive to ascend from suffering the tribulations of life to earning the gift of serenity from the divine.” I paused for a moment then said teasingly, “And, if that person happens to be a Pakistani doctor that is fine—we can’t count that against the man.”
She smiled, and my heart danced in response. Encouraged, I continued, “Now, let me ask you, who is the guide in our life? Which human being should be the example in our life?”
“The Prophet, peace and blessings upon him?”
“Sure,” I said, “We follow the Sunna of the Prophet, the Sunna of the beloved. Therefore, I always try to ask myself, ‘What would the Prophet have done in this situation? Who would the Prophet have married?’ When we marry, we should select the partner who loves the Sunna of the Prophet—the partner who would make the Prophet his model. Your effort is best spent on the person who resembles the Prophet’s morality and beauty or on the person who takes after the Prophet. This does not mean marrying someone who pretends to be the Prophet or someone who impersonates the Prophet, but someone who strives to personify the Prophet. I am not talking about someone who thinks that the Prophet was about external appearances or that the Sunna is a fashion show. I am talking about someone who struggles to model his heart after the Prophet’s heart.”
This remark elicited nothing short of an exclamation. “But,” she protested, “by that standard, I would never get married. There aren’t many who personify the Prophet.”
“Al-afdal fa al-afdal,” I exclaimed, “The best, then the second best. You search for the best, then the second best. I should say that if you purify and balance yourself, you will only fall in love with the person who reminds you of what you love. And, if you love the Prophet, you will fall in love with a person who loves the Prophet. Of course, loving the Prophet comes in degrees and measures—my sister, loving the Prophet is a journey through ascending levels. If you strive to know yourself, and work to purify yourself, you will sense the presence even of a fraction of the Prophet’s demeanor. Furthermore, we should remember that our choices affect the choices of society. If people want to marry doctors, you will find that the number of doctors will increase in society. If people want to marry those who personify the Prophet, you will find that a social incentive is created to study the Prophet, and the more we study the Prophet the more we personify him.”
She asked rather deliberately, “What if I find such a person, and he does not propose to me?”
I said without hesitation, “You propose to him! Culturally, men propose to women. Islamically, this cultural practice is a form of vanity. We have the precedent of Khadijah (d. 3 years before hijra/619) and other women who either proposed to the Prophet or one of the Companions. No doubt, to do what is culturally uncommon tests our sense of dignity. But you must weigh your sense of dignity against your belief in the beauty of the person you are considering. It is true, the dignity of modesty is beautiful, but the dignity and modesty of seeking the truth is even more beautiful. For instance, a woman once proposed to the Prophet in the presence of Anas Ibn Malik (d. 93/711) and his daughter. Anas’ daughter remarked that this woman lacked shame and dignity. The Prophet promptly corrected her, and praised the uprightness of this woman. Therefore, the jurists al-Bukhari, Ibn al-Munir (d. 733/1333), Ibn Hajar (d. 852/1449) and Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, among many others, held that there is no sin or shame in a woman proposing in marriage to a man.”
She appeared to be getting tired, but she smiled, and nearly whispered, “But do we have to get married?”
Puzzled, I inquired, “What do you mean?”
“I mean do people have to get married? Is it a religious obligation? My parents always tell me that it is a sin not to get married, and to be married is always better than not being married. Is that true?”
“Sister, the Prophet is reported to have said that whoever is able to marry should do so. But the emphasis here is on the ability, the readiness, and the capacity to be married. Marriage is a basic building block in society and so it is strongly recommended, and in some cases, even required. But this obligation is not absolute. We cannot for example marry a mass murderer, and say God told us to do so. We cannot marry if we are not equipped to fulfill our obligations towards our partner and family, and then claim that God commanded us to do so. Marriage is an institution entered into within the context of obligations and rights, and we must be ready and willing to discharge those obligations and rights. Marriage must become a means to obtain God’s blessings—not a means to violate the rights of others, and earn God’s displeasure. So, for instance, there are pious and learned jurists such as the Hanbali Ibn Taymiyya or the Shafi‘i al-Imam al-Nawawi who never married. I am sure they did not marry because they felt that they could not do justice to their partners, and so they chose the lesser harm. To stay unmarried and not commit injustice against other people is better than to marry and treat your family unjustly. In fact, Ibn Taymiyya insistently rejected his mother’s attempts to find him a bride saying that the circumstances of his life would not permit him to treat his spouse justly. So if the question is: Is any marriage better than no marriage? The answer is clearly, no. If the question is: Is marriage a Sunna of the Prophet and one should exert an effort to qualify himself or herself to enter into such a blessed institution? The answer is clearly, yes. The Sunna of the Prophet should never become an excuse to commit spiritual or intellectual suicide, and the Sunna of the Prophet should never be used as an excuse to enter into just any partnership even if this partnership will not be equitable towards God.”
She smiled again and was quiet for a long time to the point that I thought she was getting ready to leave. Instead, she suddenly said, “Okay, but I must admit that I am not sure what a partnership with God really means.”
“The Arabic expression,” I explained, “is tu‘amilu Allah fi ma ta‘mal, which means that you deal with God in whatever you do. As married partners, you ask yourselves, ‘What would God think of the way you spend your time or money? You ask yourselves, ‘How would God want you to expend your energies? What would God think of your conversations, your debates, and your arguments? How would God want you to love each other?’ We know that if you smile at each other, you earn God’s blessings, if you make love, you earn God’s blessings, if you joke and laugh together, you earn God’s blessings. If there is care, compassion, and mercy towards each other, you earn God’s blessings. If you help each other, you earn God’s blessings. If you even greet each other, you earn God’s blessings. In other words, you live your lives fully engaged with God in whatever you do. You constantly strive to create beauty in your life—the kind of beauty that acknowledges God as a full partner in the marriage—the kind of beauty that deserves the gift of serenity.”
Shortly after this statement the sister left. She inhaled, thanked me, and prayed to God to bless me and left. I prayed that my wisdom outweighed my follies. I don’t know what impact my words had on her. I don’t know what decisions she made. I don’t know if she heard me while awake or asleep. I don’t know if she thought that the words she heard were a truthful vision or a delusional dream. What I do know, as a matter of certainty, is that we choose our own reality. We choose to descend into the mundane or elevate to the ethereal. We choose our partners and company in our journey.
I prayed for insight and forgiveness as I turned off the light and prepared to leave. But I felt weighed and heavy in my seat as I remembered the burdens of the transformation. God, I know we are human beings. But I also know that when we partner with You, we undergo the transformation. We become neither purified angels nor a decrepit temporality, but we share the ethereal and become a state between two states. God, I beg of You, accept my partnership, aid my transformation, and help me reach for Your heavenly essence.