I Can’t Wrap My Head Around Idea of Being Obedient Servant to Husband

19 June, 2019
Q I’ve been reading a bunch of articles on your website, and they’ve been so helpful!!

To give you some background, my boyfriend (A Sunni Muslim from India) introduced me to Islam a while ago, and we’ve been discussing my conversion for a bit now (he wants me to truly believe in it and not just convert for him). However, it is a requirement for us to get married.

There are some questions he is unable to answer and some “requirements” he has stated that feel inherently “wrong” to me (I’m not trying to criticize the Quran or God, just explain how much certain things my boyfriend says deeply bother me). For example, I have been listening to the Quran, but I had not yet gotten to the Surah about The Women. He informed me that women in Islam are expected (as stated almost explicitly in this Surah), to be obedient to their husbands and ask permission (to go out of the home, etc.). I did look up this Surah after, but I am still struggling to understand how women, especially those raised in the west, apply it to their lives. I understand that there are certain rights that a wife and husband have in a relationship, but I cannot wrap my head around the idea that women always being obedient to their husbands is one of them. Of course I would consult my boyfriend on topics I believe really only affect me (and even defer the final say to him on joint decisions), not out of obedience, but respect for his opinion and wisdom. And I would expect him to do the same. The same goes for idea of permission. I’m fine with saying to him “hey is it cool if I miss dinner tonight to go out with my friends?” if he asks me the same thing in return. But when it is just me asking, I feel less like partners and more like a master and an obedient servant.

I trust my boyfriend, but I also need the right to make my own choices. How I interpret his statement is a request for me to give up my free will to another human being, something I would not give to anyone. I really care for him and want to reconcile this issue, but I cannot accept it as he as explained.

So I’m emailing you to ask for another opinion on how Muslim women (especially one in America) might handle this situation or how you think it should be applied. So much of Islam makes sense to me, but there are certain issues like this on which I can’t accept my boyfriend’s opinion. I was hoping for someone’s example of how they handle this in their day to day life, how they apply the specifications of the Quran to a modern existence in America.

Thank you so much for your help. I’m incredibly grateful. And I wanted to apologize for any misconceptions, unintentional insults, or incorrect information I have relayed in this email. I don’t pretend to know very much about Islam as I am still learning and looking for different perspectives.

Thank you again.

Answer

Short Answer:  Keep in mind, as well, that Islam does not prescribe blind obedience to anyone. The only being in this world that we are to obey without question is Allah. Some men seem to think that they may tell their wives to jump, and their wives must jump. But there is nothing in Islam that gives a man that right.

………….

Salaam alaykum, peace be upon you. Thank you so much for submitting your query to us. As I read through your concerns, I could hear the echo of my own voice in your words. Insha’Allah, God willing, I will be able to address your concerns.

To give you a little bit of background about myself: I am an American convert. I was born and raised in the USA and became Muslim when I was nineteen. I have been married to an Iraqi man for five and a half. He was born and raised in Iraq and lived there until his mid-twenties. He has only been in the USA for two years. He does not have the same cultural background as your boyfriend, but I want to offer these details to share the similarities between us: we are both Americans with significant others who have been Muslim all their lives and who are from different cultures.

The Concept of Obedience

I have long believed and have informed my husband that I do not think that the word “obedience” is a good translation for the concept that is being portrayed, when we speak of the obedience of a wife to her husband.

It is entirely possible – probable, even – that “obedience” is the best word for it. But as anyone who speaks more than one language can tell you, translation is not an exact science. Ask any Arabic speaker to translate the word “Rahman” (one of the names of Allah), and he or she will give you a paragraph of explanation in order to flesh out the nuances of the word.

I am not an Arabic speaker, myself, nor do I know the Arabic word that is being translated as “obey.” But I do know that in English, “obedience” has a superior-inferior implication. When one person “obeys” another, the person being obeyed holds power over the other. We do not struggle with the idea of dogs obeying masters, or children obeying parents. But one fully capable adult “obeying” another? It is insulting to our agency.

The Concept of Respecting Wishes

Muslims will often bend over backwards to explain how exalted women are in Islam and what a high status we have. But being a native speaker of English, I know that no one with such a high status would ever be expected to “obey.”

I tend to, in fact, agree with you that a better way of thinking of the concept is “respecting the wishes” of your partner. That is precisely how I operate in my own marriage. I do not “obey” my husband because he is not my master. He is not my superior. But I do respect his wishes because respecting your partner’s wishes is something that happens in a healthy adult relationship.

When you respect your partner’s wishes, all of the requirements for so-called “obedience” are met, without degrading yourself.

Keep in mind, as well, that Islam does not prescribe blind obedience to anyone. The only being in this world that we are to obey without question is Allah. Some men seem to think that they may tell their wives to jump, and their wives must jump. But there is nothing in Islam that gives a man that right.

In addition, once we address the issue of asking permission, I find myself in agreement with you. I do not have an issue with running things by my husband before I do them. But I, like you, expect that same respect in return.

Proceed with Caution and Know Your Rights

There are a few things in your question that raise alarms to me. It is all well and good for me, an American convert to Islam, to tell you, someone considering conversion, that I agree with you. But to make things work in a relationship, agreement must come from both sides.

I don’t know if you know this, but having a boyfriend/girlfriend is forbidden in Islam. I do not tell you this to try to shame you – you are not Muslim and you are not bound to our rules. However, your boyfriend surely knows this. It is alarming to me that he has no concern for the laws of relationships outside of marriage, but he seems very invested in having an obedient wife. Extramarital relationships are not a small rule either – it’s a major thing. So it is not logical that he would ignore one very important area of the faith, yet insist on a medieval interpretation of the concept of obedience. To me, this is a red flag.

If you do work this out and you decide to marry him, I strongly encourage you to know your rights as a wife. In particular, what I have in mind is the marriage contract. You can put anything you like in your contract. If you do marry him, I beg of you to spell out some guidelines of mutual respect in the contract. If it is important to you for him to ask before he goes out with friends, require it of him. It is not a strictly typical thing to put in a marriage contract, but anything is allowed and, with no disrespect intended, I would not trust your boyfriend on his word to give you the same respect he expects of you.

Even if you do not decide to proceed with your relationship with him, I do encourage you to continue learning about Islam. If you feel you would convert, you should do so whether or not you would be attached to your boyfriend. Islam does indeed give women a high status and we would be truly fortunate to have you as a sister.

Allah knows best.

I hope this helps. 

Salam and please keep in touch.

(From Ask About Islam archives)

Please continue feeding your curiosity, and find more info in the following links:

A Basic Introduction to Islam (Special Folder)

Real Talk: Is a Wife Obligated to Cook, Clean & Raise Kids?

Does The Quran Say Men Are Superior to Women?