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Wifely Wisdom: Wielding a Wary Way with Words

When a woman gets married, she is often advised by experienced matrons to hold her tongue during the beginning years of marriage, when the husband-wife relationship is in its fledgling stage, lest they talk too much and immaturely say something off-putting that can anger their husband, or cause hatred or suspicion to develop in his heart.

Discretion in using the tongue is recommended for the entirety of marriage, because careless comments can be hurtful for the feelings of one’s spouse, whether it is the husband who makes insensitive statements, or the wife.

It is not uncommon for the well-meaning but inexperienced husband to fallaciously compare his wife’s novice cooking skills to his mother’s superior culinary expertise, or for the naive wife to compare her financially struggling young husband’s paltry income to that of her father’s burgeoned one.

Often spouses resort to deception, exaggeration, flattery, or outright lying to prevent angering their spouse, resorting to dishonesty to conceal their true feelings or opinions.

The trick lies, even when asked to give an honest opinion that could undermine the self-esteem, ego, love and confidence of one’s spouse, in expressing that opinion using words that are carefully weighed in advance. The result of this is that, even if truth has to be told, it is done in a manner that maintains, if not enhances, the admiration, awe and respect that our spouse has for us.

Choice of words, moderation in appreciation, and giving credit where it is due – these characteristics form the basis of the attitude, actions and words of a God-fearing Muslim wife, who is grateful to her husband no matter who he is, based on her focus of the unique qualities he possesses.

In this light, I will analyze an incident in the lives of a very noble Muslim couple from among the most esteemed companions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is quite admirable how common it was at that time for both, Muslim widowers as well as widows, to quickly remarry, and go on to give birth to more children from their subsequent spouses. This meant that quite often, these children grew up with a step-parent.

This also meant that Muslim women at that time had children from more than one spouse during their lifetime. Lastly, it is apparent from the narration quoted below, how families at that time possessed the requisite taqwa (God consciousness) and wisdom to get along amicably despite the underlying family dynamics that, in the modern world, give rise to friction, petty jealousies and rivalries.

Asmaa’s Wisdom

Asmaa’ bint ‘Umays was a female companion of the Prophet Muhammad, and one of the first Muslim women to migrate for the sake of Allah.

During her life, she was first married to Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib, who got martyred early in the history of Islam, then to Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, and finally, to Ja’far’s younger brother, `Ali ibn Abi Talib. She begot children from all of her husbands.

Asmaa’ had two sons named Muhammad, one with Ja’far and the other with Abu Bakr. On one occasion, when she was married to `Ali ibn Abi Talib, these two sons started competing with one another, each of them saying: “I am better than you, and my father is better than your father!”

`Ali said to her:

“Judge between them, O Asmaa’.”

She said:

“I have never seen a young man among the Arabs who was better than Ja‘far, and I have never seen a mature man who was better than Abu Bakr.”

`Ali said:

“You have not left anything for me. If you had said anything other than what you have said, I would have hated you!”

Asmaa’ said:

“These are the best three, and you are one of them even if you are the least of them.” (Al-Tabaqat al-Kubrah, 7/208-209)

This narration highlights many of Asmaa’s praiseworthy characteristics, not the least of which is that God chose her to have not one, not two, but three of the most worthy companions of Prophet Muhammad as her husbands, and to have children by all of them.

Secondly, just like all children do in any era, her sons from her deceased husbands got into a competitive argument about whose father was better. This narration also makes apparent the virtue of `Ali ibn Abi Talib in that he had taken Asmaa’s sons from her previous marriages into his foster care.

Further, it was undoubtedly his respect for his wife’s discretion and judgment that made him request her to come forward to solve her sons’ dispute, since she had been married to both their fathers in the past, and thus occupied a more ‘neutral’ position.

Any woman who has been married knows that comparing her husband to another man in front of him in a manner that makes him come out looking lesser, is seriously risky business, because this can instantly arouse a husband’s ghirah, or protective jealousy. This is true even if she praises her father, brother, or son before him in a manner that makes him wonder if she thinks more highly of them than of him.

The linguistic definition of the Arabic word “hikmah” is to “place a thing in its proper place”. Asmaa’ bint ‘Umaiys recognized the depth of the task she was being asked to perform, and hence, was able to appropriately give due tributes to not just her past two husbands, but also her current one.

Since Ja’far ibn Abi Talib was married to her when she was very young, who had been her partner in migration at a time when Islam itself was new; who was martyred at a young age and hence, possessed much fewer years of life than other companions, she called him the best among young Arab men.

Her second husband, Abu Bakr, was a mature man approaching middle age when he embraced Islam; who went on to be Prophet Muhammad’s aide and comrade throughout the latter’s reign as God’s messenger, as well as the first Caliph who succeeded the Prophet. She therefore called Abu Bakr the best among mature Arab men, those older in age, knowing that he belonged to the generation older than her current husband `Ali’s.

When ‘Ali said: “You have not left anything for me”, she responded promptly that he was one of the best three men of the ummah, implying that as his age lay somewhere between the flower of youth in which Ja’far was martyred and the grey old age in which Abu Bakr died, `Ali was now the best among all the living Arab men.

Asmaa’ bint ‘Umays thus inspires us to employ tact, wisdom and intelligence when giving our opinions, without lying even the slightest bit to please people or win their favor. During an era in which hypocrisy, two-facedness and blatant lies corrupt familial, marital and corporate relationships, her example of speaking nothing but the truth even at the risk of losing her current husband’s approval is a shining example of truthfulness based on sincerity to God.

To possess the ability to “see” things as they are, and to put everyone at their proper place, i.e upon the right ‘pedestal’, is indeed a gift that can make a person master the delicate art of handling human relationships:

{He gives wisdom unto whom He wills, and he unto whom wisdom is given, he has truly received abundant good..} (Quran 2: 269)