A husband comes home from work. His wife is silent, giving muted, monosyllabic replies to his cheerful banter.
“What’s wrong?” He asks.
“Is it something I said?”
Still no reply. By now he is racking his brain, going over the events of the past week to fish out the possible reason for his wife’s mood.
After a few hours of self-critique, he asks her outright, “Why are you so quiet? Please tell me.”
No response again.
Later on, lying in bed, he wonders with an exasperated sigh, “What is it that I did wrong?!”
This is not a rare scenario in most marriages. Whether the ‘silent treatment’ is meted out by the wife or the husband, bottling up feelings and emotions, avoiding candid conversation, and deliberately turning a cold shoulder to one’s spouse in order to make them ‘pay’ for something offensive or hurtful that they did, not just creates an emotional and physical distance between both spouses, but also subsequently turns the atmosphere inside the home to one of icy awkwardness that even affects the children. Sadly, this is something that happens often in many family homes.
The question is, why? Why does someone become cold and aloof from their spouse, and refuses to talk to them?
“Punishment” for a mistake
Many a time, the silent treatment is given by one spouse to another in order to make the latter ‘pay’ for doing something that hurt or offended the former. This is especially true for younger, more immature couples who have been married a shorter time.
E.g. A wife might inadvertently forget to serve food or drinks to her husband first when the couple is visiting her parents’ home, unintentionally asking her parent or sibling to partake first from the tray of food.
In marriages that are still new, something so trivial might be enough for a husband to take offense at, mistakenly perceiving a minor slip of hers as a blow to his ego. He might ‘return the favor’ by giving her the silent treatment for a couple of hours or overnight, depending on the level of his maturity and the size of his ego.
As the years pass in a marriage, and a couple are able to establish a better understanding of each other’s intrinsic natures and personalities; of what ticks the other off and what hurts the other’s feelings; giving the ‘silent treatment’ to their spouse should ideally become restricted only to instances of absolute necessity viz. when that spouse consistently disobeys Allah and/or crosses the limits of Deen.
The Quran and sunnah of Allah’s messenger (peace be upon him) throw some light about when and how giving the silent treatment to one’s spouse becomes necessary and justified.
Husband “leaving his wife’s bed”
In one of the most debate-igniting verses of the Quran, Allah provides a 3-step strategy for Muslim husbands to correct their wives when the latter become consistently and willfully defiant, described in Arabic as “naashizah”.
First, Allah orders the husband to admonish, advise and educate his wife about the serious repercussions of her defiant actions upon her Akhirah, as well as upon the happiness and longevity of their marriage.
If this admonishment and advice does not work over time, then the next step that he must resort to, is what the ayah describes as “relinquishing her in bed”.
Anyone who has endured challenges in their marriage, will know what it feels like to be relinquished in bed i.e. when one spouse loses all interest in sexual intimacy, either by circumstance (e.g. forced physical separation due to employment, travel or immigration purposes) or by choice (e.g. one spouse totally stops loving the other).
A married, sexually active woman thrives on the loving words, sexual advances, and physical caresses of a doting, attentive, and caring husband. When such a wife is faced with the willful sexual indifference of her husband, it serves as a big ‘blow’ that is supposed to “shake her” into correcting her behavior.
When he forsakes her in bed for the sake of Allah, she gets a chance to experience the pain caused by his cold indifference or ‘silent treatment’, which should hopefully make her reflect very seriously upon her behavior and abandon her willful defiance.
Only for the sake of Allah
The most important point to remember here, is that neither spouse should use ‘the silent treatment’ to manipulate and punish the other just to seek personal revenge.
The only time the Quran allows a husband to forsake his wife in bed, is purely for the sake of Allah, in order to save his marriage from divorce and to give his wife a chance to return to righteousness.
This command of Allah should not be misused by any husband for the boost of his own ego, coupled with the misuse of his authority and higher status over her, in order to cause her undeserved pain or suffering without a cause that is justified in Islamic Shari’ah.
Lest any male reader of this article mistakenly think that Islam allows him to give his wife the silent treatment unconditionally, I’d like to point out something very crucial that our modern-day scholars have said: that, many a time, it is the husband’s own sins or bad attitude towards his wife that becomes the cause of her willful defiance (nushooz) towards him:
“The husband has to look for the causes of his wife’s willful defiance.. These causes may include the husband! Yes, you may be one of the causes of her willful defiance, either because of sins that you are committing – as one of the salaf said: “I see the effect of my sins in my mount and my wife”, in her bad attitude or refusal to obey him – or the husband may have a bad attitude towards his wife so her behavior is a reaction against the way he deals with her.” [IslamQA]
When Prophet Muhammad gave his wives the ‘silent treatment’
This incident is a prime example of when it becomes Islamically permissible for one spouse to give the silent treatment to the other. The Prophet took such a serious oath, and relinquished the company and beds of all of his wives, because of a demand that they had made upon him, which was against the conduct befitting the wives of a Prophet. For this, even Allah admonished all of them in the Quran. A famous incident that has been reported in authentic Prophetic traditions, describes how Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) once separated himself physically from all of his wives, and vowed to not visit any of them for a month.
Nevertheless, in this article, it is not my intention to go into the depth of what the Prophet’s wives did that made him relinquish them for a month, but rather, I want to just point out that he took the rather serious step of giving his wives ‘the silent treatment’, only once, in a case of dire necessity.
What’s more, the Prophet never gave his wives the silent treatment for anything done against his own self, but rather, only when the laws or limits of Allah’s Deen were crossed or undermined in any manner.
In such a scenario, while giving them all their due Islamic rights (such as obedience and sexual intimacy by the wife for her husband, and kind treatment and maintenance by the husband for his wife), the hurt or wronged spouse should sincerely and firmly advise their other half about the seriousness of their behavior in the light of Islam.
If this doesn’t work, they can give them the silent treatment without withholding any of the rights that Allah has made due upon them, as a means of bringing about reformation and correction of faith.
If not accompanied by clear, open communication and candid conversation about how the adverse behavior or attitude of one spouse is affecting the marriage, giving them the silent treatment becomes merely the cause of further dissension, distance and discord, and not the means of correction and spiritual reform that it is supposed to be.
Whether it is the husband or wife who is meting out the silent treatment towards their other half, they should ask themselves these critical questions:
– Am I giving him/her the silent treatment just to avenge the way I was mistreated, or to express my disapproval at the way Allah is being disobeyed?
– Will my giving him/her the silent treatment bring about correction, improvement and righteousness? Or will it just create a further distance between us?
– Will it please Allah, or Shaitan?
In the answers to these questions lie the keys to humility, self-correction and self-enlightenment for both husband and wife.
First published: May 2014