“I thought I could handle it, but I can’t!
He is just impossible to deal with!
I can’t handle the “backwardness” of his family and culture anymore!”
This statement is not uncommon in the world of new Muslims. Many people think that inter-cultural relationships will be easy to manage, but in reality, it can be a true test of faith. Not only are you marrying someone from another culture, but you are in the process of learning and implementing a new way of life according to Islam, and when you couple them together, it can be very stressful, and demanding on both spouses.
So what are some of the most common issues new Muslims encounter in these types of marriages?
How can they approach these issues to come to a solution to prevent major conflicts in the marriage?
In this article series, I will provide some examples of the most common marital conflicts that can occur when people of two different cultures marry, while one of them is a revert.
When you enter into an inter-cultural marriage, language barriers follow soon after. It doesn’t matter how fluent a person may be in the other’s language, they will still make mistakes, or use the wrong word to discuss a point.
Although their grammar and pronunciation may be correct, they may have a misunderstanding on the meaning and appropriate way to use a word. I’ve seen arguments flare up over simple misuse of words regularly in instances like this. It can escalate very quickly. Just take a moment to ask them “what did you mean when you said….?” This is something easy to do, and prevents an issue from escalating, and will also prevent them from making the same mistake in the future with you or others.
A few examples of language blunders: I was in a restaurant once asking for a specific spice and the waiter thought I called him a curse word and got upset with my husband, wondering how my husband dared to allow me to insult him like that! The name of the spice was a curse word in his language!
One example that is used in the western countries that doesn’t sit well with Muslims is to say “Don’t shirk around your duties”, meaning – don’t be lazy or avoid them, but a Muslim would take serious offense to that, thinking you were accusing them of committing shirk.
There are many words that have an innocent meaning in one language, and a completely different meaning in the other’s language that may come off as being offensive. So, don’t be too quick to make assumptions, give them the benefit of the doubt! Stay calm and figure it out. Don’t get lost in translation.
“What Kind of Muslim Are You!?”
I can’t even count the number of times new Muslim sisters have messaged me depressed about the fact that their husband, who has good knowledge in Islam, doesn’t make the effort to teach them, after repeated requests. Typically it stems from an argument where the new Muslim is ignorant on a matter from an Islamic view, and commits an error.
The spouse would say something like “What kind of Muslim are you!?” to show their disapproval of something they said or did. However, they all say the same things to me…. they want their spouse to teach them about Islam instead of ridiculing them about what they don’t know. When they ask their spouse to teach them, they face common replies such as “ask someone else, or search for it online, I’m tired!” or something similar.
Many new Muslim sisters think that marriage is the solution to their education. Although it is ideal, it isn’t realistic. When we become close and comfortable with our spouses, we tend to become “lazy” in these matters, with teaching the other something that takes time, at the top of the list. We should take more effort in this regard to helping our spouses learn and implement more in the deen to make a strong marriage that pleases our Creator. Also, remember that even though a person may be well educated in Islam doesn’t mean that they know how to teach it to another person.
For the spouses of new Muslims: Try to dedicate a regular time each day for a “mini-lesson” about a topic, whether it be learning Arabic, or learning tafsir, or any other topic. It doesn’t have to be long, but everyone can usually find 30 minutes in the day to spend with their spouse discussing Islam. Turn the TV or the computer off and spend that time together. It will bring you closer together in many aspects.
For the new Muslim: Don’t be lazy if they are offering this to you! They are doing it because they love you and want to see you be a strong Muslim. Gaining knowledge also helps break the cycle of cultural barriers!
The Prophet Muhammad told us that:
“All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock.” (Al-Bukhari, 7138)
“You Expect Me to Eat What?!”
Culture can really play with a couple if one spouse only wants to eat foods from their culture. This can cause many fights around the question of “What do you want for dinner?” Usually, people are open to trying new things, but some people are afraid to venture out of their dietary rut. They like what they like, and they want to stick to what they know and like, and there is no compromising about it.
My husband loves fish common in Egypt called ringa and feseekh, and I HATE it. I won’t even allow it to be brought into my home because it smells like it died, rotted, and then baked in the sun for a week. He knows that when he wants this, to buy enough for his friends, and to go to his friend’s house to eat it, and I will cook something for myself that he doesn’t like. It is a compromise that we are both happy with and works.
“My Way or the Highway!”
Although your mother may have rolled your socks instead of folding them, or cleaned a raw chicken with lemon juice before cooking it, or cleaned a particular way, doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a must, or wrong, if your spouse doesn’t do it that way. Don’t insist that it is “My way or the highway!”
Listen to suggestions, and don’t pout about it, because you might actually find it to be the better option. You never know unless you hear them out and try! If you try, at least you can say that you tried, and found your method better.
There is nothing that irritates a woman more than a husband telling her “my mother did it this way!” Brothers – Your wife is not your mother. Remember that! This goes for every culture, none are immune to it, and it goes for both the wife and the husband, because we naturally tend to do things as we saw it being done by our relatives growing up.
Just because it is a different way of doing something, doesn’t mean that is the ONLY way to do something. So, lighten up! As long as the task gets completed and has the same results, who cares! Save your sanity and let things like this slide. Pick your battles, because this is not something worth wasting time and energy over arguing about.
You are establishing your own lives, and family traditions, and household systems, and there is no rule that it must be the same as yours was when growing up.
Dress for Allah, not Culture!
I remember a new Muslim sister from America that was planning to meet a man from Saudi to discuss marriage. She showed up wearing shalwar khamis (long baggy shirt over very loose pants), which she received from a Pakistani sister because she didn’t have any modest clothes or have money to buy any.
Due to the cultural norms of dressing modestly from Pakistan to that of Saudi, the sister was left hurt and embarrassed about how she was dressed because the brother told her “You are not allowed to dress like that if you marry me!” She was left feeling confused because she didn’t understand why he said that because she was dressed very modestly, and he simply didn’t like that style of dress.
I also met another American new Muslim sister that was having conflicts with her husband because she refused to wear the “turban-style hijab” that is common in her husband’s culture in Africa, that covers only the hair, leaving the ears and neck exposed. She felt “it wasn’t for her” because she didn’t like how it exposed so much. Neither of them would budge on the matter. The brother made such a fuss over it, that he divorced her because he refused to have a wife “looking like an Arab”, because he was not Arab!
This can be a very touchy subject, especially at the beginning of a marriage for a new Muslim sister. While there are many ways of dressing modestly from one culture to another, there are differences that can make the spouse feel uncomfortable.
Be tolerant! That is the only advice there is. As long as the spouse is dressed modestly, don’t be rude about it. If you don’t like it, you can offer/suggest to replace the clothes with new ones assuming that both parties agree to it.
Women convert to Islam, they did not convert to a culture to become “Arab”, or “Desi”, or “African”, etc. Know the difference!
Read Part 2