Once while I was teaching high school to young women in Saudi Arabia, some my Arab students were explaining how they felt about marriage. “Nobody wants to marry a prince,” one of them told me.
“Really?” I said, a bit taken aback by her comment. “In America, many women see marrying a prince as the ultimate fairy tale.”
She shook her head. “Not here.” Some of the other Arab girls nodded in emphatic agreement.
“If you marry a prince,” she explained, “you have no life. And if anything happens between you, and he divorces you, you can never get married again.”
“Are you serious?” I said, shocked. “Is there a law against it or something?”
“No,” she said. “But no man would touch you after that. It’s understood that once you marry a prince, you pretty much belong to him forever. It’s like an honor thing. No man would want to disrespect a prince by marrying his ex-wife. And if he did try to, the prince would get really angry with him, so most men wouldn’t do it, no matter how much he wanted her.”
We All Have Manmade Honor Codes
I don’t know how accurate my Arab students’ perception of a prince’s honor is in their country. Like most cultures, I imagine that it’s true for some Arabs, but not for others. I can’t be sure. However, even if this honor code doesn’t apply to all Arab culture, the fact that it exists at all is heartbreaking.
Many years have passed since that conversation with my Arab students, and I no longer live as an American expat in Saudi Arabia. But I think on that conversation often, and every time I recall it, I feel a bit saddened. Initially, my sadness was due to feeling sorry for Arab women. I couldn’t imagine how it felt being forced to live in such a repressive environment that even your options for marriage were severely restricted. However, today my sadness is due to realizing that this form of repression is part of nearly every culture in the world, including the United States of America.
In non-Muslim American culture, freedom of choice is celebrated as a basic human right, so much so that indulging in sex before marriage, having an “open relationship,” or even engaging in sexual promiscuity is viewed as “personal freedom.” However, when it comes to a person freely choosing to live in a plural marriage, American culture views this personal choice as unacceptable and backward, from a socio-political perspective. This form of socially repressing freedom of choice for people whose lifestyle many non-Muslims find distasteful is a manmade honor code in American culture—similar to my students’ description of the Arab honor code that restricts the ex-wives of princes from marrying other men.
In truth, varying versions of manmade honor codes can be found in nearly every culture in the world, even those that pride themselves in “freedom of choice.”
Muslims’ Manmade Honor Codes
The manmade honor codes that are part of American culture are not exclusive to non-Muslims. Manmade honor codes have also permeated Muslim communities in the United States. These honor codes include men taking pride in the “honor” of never marrying the divorced wife of a friend, even if the man and the woman are compatible for each other. They include women taking pride in the “honor” of never marrying the former husband of a friend, even if the woman and man are good for each other. These honor codes also include both men and women taking pride in their refusal to ever participate in plural marriage, or to support anyone who does.
These American honor codes are little different from the Arab honor code that prevents certain women from ever having the opportunity to remarry or to get married at all if the man she desires is not from her tribe or social class. Moreover, these honor codes are in direct opposition to how Allah and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught believers to live and to how both the Prophet and his Companions actually lived.
In fact, inherent in the merciful, universal message of Islam is the dismantling of manmade honor codes, and the establishment of a soul-centered lifestyle that supports halaal freedom of choice for every child of Adam. Thus, it is nothing short of a spiritual tragedy that many Muslims today eagerly seek to reinstate repressive manmade honor codes while imagining this will bring about some greater good.
Had the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions supported these repressive honor codes that prevent men and women from marrying the former spouses of friends or that attach shame to plural marriage, we would not have the merciful spiritual guidance of Islam itself. And we would not have a faith practice that supports the right of every believer to choose what is best for his or her own life and soul.
It is important to note, however, that it is perfectly acceptable in Islam to have a personal preference for a certain type of marriage or to make a personal decision based upon what you sincerely believe is wisest and best in your specific circumstance. This right to a personal preference remains even if it means deciding to not do something that is permissible for you while choosing something else that is also permissible for you. However, there is a huge difference between having a personal preference in your private life, and assigning honor and nobility to refusing to participate in or support something that the Creator has allowed for all believers.
Divine Mercy in Dismantling Manmade Honor Codes
In reflecting on our personal definitions of honor and uprightness, it is helpful to remember that it is Allah who defines nobility and honor, not the human being, no matter how convinced we are based on our cultures and emotions that something should or should not be done in a certain circumstance.
In the famous story of the divorce between the Prophet’s adopted son Zayd ibn Harithah and Zaynab bint Jahsh (may Allah be pleased with them), we learn how the believer should view any manmade honor codes that do not mirror the guidance of Allah. Regarding this, Allah says what has been translated to mean:
“It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any option in their decision. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error.
And [remember, O Muhammad], when you said to the one on whom Allah bestowed favor and you bestowed favor, ‘Keep your wife and fear Allah,’ while you concealed within yourself that which Allah is to disclose. And you feared the people, while Allah has more right that you fear Him. So when Zayd had no longer any need for her, We married her to you in order that there not be upon the believers any discomfort concerning the wives of their adopted sons when they no longer have need of them. And ever is the command of Allah accomplished.
There is no blame on the Prophet in that which Allah has made legal for him. [This is] the established way of Allah with those [prophets] who have passed on before. And ever is the command of Allah a destiny decreed” (Al-Ahzaab, 33:36-38).
When reading these ayaat and the historical circumstances of them, so many of us fail to fully comprehend the severe social pressure the Prophet (peace upon him) was up against in marrying Zaynab (may Allah be pleased with her) after her divorce from Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him). We also fail to fully appreciate the immeasurable mercy that Allah showed us by giving us in His Book this guidance and lesson from a very specific circumstance. In this divine revelation, we are given guidance and lessons to apply to our own personal circumstances, specifically when what is permissible and best for us is not culturally acceptable to our families, cultures, and communities because it violates their manmade honor codes.
Unfortunately, when looking at these circumstances of revelation, some Muslims seek to separate the life and choices of the Prophet (peace be upon him) from how we ourselves should live out our personal and social lives as Muslims. However, Allah says: “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who] remembers Allah often” (Al-Ahzaab, 33:21).
Moreover, Allah tells us that the entire prophetic mission is rooted in the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) teaching us divine guidance that is a mercy to everyone in the world: “And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds” (Al-Anbiyaa’, 21:107).
Therefore, it is clear that there is no difference between how the Prophet (peace be upon him) lived and how we ourselves should live, as his entire purpose on earth was to be an example to us and to share a divine message to be applied to our lives until the end of time. The only exception to this is in those matters that Allah made specific for the Prophet and the Prophet alone. However, it is well-known that the right to marry anyone that Allah has made permissible for us is a general permission to all human beings—even if this choice offends our respective cultures and honor codes.
Seeking Honor in Rejecting the Prophetic Teachings
It is deeply unfortunate that so many of us wish to reject both the prophetic example and the merciful teachings that Allah sent him with, when his example and teachings do not support our personal feelings, cultures, and manmade honor codes.
It is ironic, however, that so many of us eagerly enjoy the mercy and blessings of Allah in our own lives but seek to restrict or forbid this same mercy in the lives of others. This contradiction is most prevalent when other people’s halaal choices violate the manmade honor codes that are closer to our hearts than the Book of Allah and the example of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In this, we reject the truth of the divine guidance Allah has given us while looking down on people whose lifestyle does not align with our manmade honor codes.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “No one who has an atom’s weight of kibr (pride) in his heart will enter Paradise.” A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, what if a man likes his clothes and his shoes to look good?” He said, “Allah is Beautiful and loves beauty. Pride means rejecting the truth and looking down on people” (Sahih Muslim).
In American Muslim communities, we see this eager rejection of truth and looking down on others in our view of plural marriage and those who choose it. We also see this kibr in the widespread social shame attached to marrying the former spouse of a friend, irrespective of whether or not these marriage choices are best for the lives and souls of the people involved.
Seeking Honor Through Social Acceptance
With regards to plural marriage in particular, a large part of our kibr—rejection of truth and looking down on others—is due to our desire to seek social acceptance amongst non-Muslims, or to make our religion appear more appealing to the elite power structure. A large part of our kibr is also due to a desire to live according to our own definitions of nobility and honor in marriage (i.e. uphold our manmade honor codes).
In defending this sinful anti-polygyny kibr that aligns with the disbelievers’ honor codes, we eagerly cling to the myth that a relationship that is not officially recognized in the United States for tax benefits and the like, is automatically illegal and criminal to choose in one’s personal life. In taking this kibr a step further, many Muslims align with the disbelievers as a united front against believers who have chosen the merciful option of plural marriage in their private life, thereby claiming that these believers do not represent true Islam or that they are violating the “laws of the land.” Yet Allah says what has been translated to mean: “Those who take disbelievers as allies instead of the believers: Is it honor, power and glory they seek among them? But indeed, honor belongs to Allah entirely”(An-Nisaa’, 4:139).
Sometimes the anti-polygyny “law of the land” argument by Muslims is due to a deep ignorance regarding legally permitted unofficial relationships in the U.S. (versus officially registered marriages), as well as the laws governing official contracts between individuals, in and outside of marriage. However, this “law of the land” argument amongst Muslims is most often due to a desire to attach honor, nobility, and “legality” to our own manmade honor codes—which are deeply rooted in our hearts, irrespective of how the United States or any other nation defines marital relationships.
Do You Accept Only Part of Islam?
In the Qur’an, Allah instructs us, “O you who believe! Enter into Islam kaaffah (completely and perfectly), and follow not the footsteps of Shaytaan (Satan). Verily, he is to you a plain enemy” (Al-Baqarah, 2:208).
The Arabic word kaffaah indicates an all-inclusive and all-encompassing submission. Thus, if we have entered into this merciful faith kaaffah, then we accept and obey all the rules, guidelines, and permissions of the religion, not just the parts we prefer in our own lives. Thus, anything short of a complete and all-inclusive submission to divine guidance—kaaffaah—is following the pathway of Shaytaan, instead of Islam.
Unfortunately, in our modern practice of Islam, many of us embrace the parts of Islam that bring us comfort, stoke our egos, and make us feel good about what we want and prefer in our own lives. However, we reject or trivialize anything in Islam that makes us feel uncomfortable, that offends our pride and egos, that threatens our social standing amongst disbelievers, or that causes us emotional pain.
For many of us, it is not enough that our Merciful Creator has given us the right to a personal preference of our own in our private lives; we become angry and frustrated that He has also given this same merciful permission to others. Thus, we seek to transgress His divine boundaries by attaching honor and nobility to only our halaal desires and choices, while attaching shame and wrongdoing to other believers’ halaal desires and choices. Sometimes this goes as far as outright forbidding what Allah has permitted and permitting what Allah has forbidden. Allah says:
“…So do you believe in part of the Book and disbelieve in [the other] part? Then what is the recompense for those who do that among you except disgrace in worldly life; and on the Day of Resurrection they will be sent back to the severest of punishment. And Allah is not unaware of what you do” (Al-Baqarah, 2:85).
Thus, there is no partial belief that is acceptable to Allah in this world or in the Hereafter.
What Happens to Our Hearts?
When we engage in any type of partial belief in Islam while fully committing our hearts to our own manmade belief systems, our hearts and souls begin to suffer, and the result becomes very noticeable in both our spiritual and social lives. Spiritually, our hearts begin to love our own “honorable” behavior codes and dislike those of the Qur’an and prophetic teachings, specifically when this divine guidance disagrees with our own behavior codes. Socially, we begin to use our tongues, friendship circles, and social media accounts to express commitment to our own codes of behavior, while expressing disagreement or distaste with any violation of our codes. In other words, our honor codes become a type of faith and spiritual lifestyle to which we commit ourselves kaaffaah.
Due to our kaaffah-commitment to our manmade honor codes, we instinctively attach goodness to our own codes of behavior, and evil to Allah’s codes of behavior when they do not align with our own codes. What this means for our hearts is this: If we hear, for example, of anyone participating in a marriage that fulfills Allah’s conditions but not our own, our heart’s default reaction is to assume the worst about the person’s motivations and intentions. On the other hand, if we hear of anyone participating in a marriage that fulfills our own conditions (irrespective of whether they fulfill Allah’s), our heart’s default reaction is to assume the best about the person’s motivations and intentions. This is no doubt a sign of deep spiritual sickness in the heart.
It is due to this sickness in the heart that we so quickly and easily accuse men and women who choose polygyny of marrying “only for sex” or of “home-wrecking,” even when we have no intimate knowledge of their personal circumstances that led to the decision. It is also due to this sickness in the heart that we so quickly and easily accuse men and women of backstabbing and betrayal if they marry the former spouse of a friend or family member.
For those of us who are suffering from this sickness but also wish to view ourselves as fully committed to Islam (particularly if we’ve assigned ourselves the role of spiritual teacher or imam), we use “evidences” from the Qur’an and prophetic teachings to prove that we do not have to accept the Qur’an and the prophetic teachings regarding halaal relationships we dislike. This becomes apparent in our use of part of the Sunnah (i.e. the Prophet’s marriage to Khadijah, and the story of Ali and Fatimah, may Allah be pleased with them) to “prove” that other (and more prevalent) aspects of the Sunnah (i.e. the plural marriages of the Prophet and the Companions) can be rejected.
In this way, we view our “selective submission” to Allah as a sign of piety, and even have “daleel” to support it.
Selective Submission Is Hypocrisy
Allah makes it clear that turning away from truth when it doesn’t favor you but accepting it willingly only when it is in your favor is a characteristic of the hypocrites. In the Qur’an, He describes this sign of hypocrisy:
“And when they are called to Allah (i.e. His Words, the Qur’an) and His Messenger, to judge between them, lo! a party of them refuse (to come) and turn away. But if the right is with them, they come to him willingly with submission” (An-Noor, 24:48-49).
When we are willing to accept the parts of Islam that support our manmade definitions of honor and nobility and right and wrong, but we reject the parts that force us to submit to the complete judgment of Allah, including when His judgment contradicts our own desires and opinions, we are suffering from a spiritual disease of nifaaq (hypocrisy) in our hearts. Allah says what has been translated to mean:
“Is there a disease in their hearts? Or do they doubt or fear lest Allah and His Messenger should wrong them in judgment? Nay, it is they themselves who are the wrongdoers” (An-Noor, 24:50).
For those with emaan (true faith) in their hearts, there is only the issue of becoming aware of what Allah or His Prophet (peace be upon him) has said on a matter and then accepting it completely and willingly. Allah says:
“The only saying of the faithful believers, when they are called to Allah (His Words, the Qur’an) and His Messenger to judge between them, is that they say: ‘We hear and we obey.’ And such are the prosperous ones (who will live forever in Paradise)” (An-Noor, 24:51)
It is this sincere and humble obedience to Allah that represents true nobility and honor in this world. In this noble and honorable lifestyle of true emaan, our personal feelings and manmade honor codes are completely irrelevant.
We Make Our Lives Unnecessarily Difficult
What we don’t realize is that when we begin to introduce our own definitions of honor and nobility and right and wrong, we are making life unnecessarily difficult for ourselves. We can already see this in how some cultural honor codes shame divorce so much that women (and men) feel compelled to stay in toxic and abusive marriages. Other honor codes prevent young men and women from getting married if they are from different cultural backgrounds, have a large age gap, have been previously married to a friend or family member, if the union involves polygyny, if the woman is older than the man, etc. …And list goes on and on.
In fact, there is no end to this list at all, because it is based on arbitrarily insisting that the Qur’an and Sunnah are reinterpreted or redefined to submit to what we desire in our lives. In this, adherence to our manmade honor codes is what we desire, instead of us seeking to purify our hearts until we find beauty in the faith as it is—and until we find hateful anything that opposes this beautiful faith (even if that hateful thing agrees with our cultures and honor codes). Allah says:
“And know that, among you there is the Messenger of Allah. If he were to obey you (i.e. follow your opinions and desires) in much of the matter, you would surely be in trouble, but Allah has endeared the Faith to you and has beautified it in your hearts, and has made disbelief, wickedness and disobedience [to Allah and His Messenger] hateful to you. These! They are the rightly guided ones” (Al-Hujuraat, 49:7).
May Allah write us down amongst the rightly guided.
Seek Understanding By Focusing on the Hereafter
In closing, it is relevant to share this reflection from my journal, which is a personal reminder to myself and other believers to stay focused on the Hereafter, as opposed fixating on the temporary comforts and types of happiness we seek through our pride, ungratefulness, and manmade honor codes in this world:
Understand this. If your heart and mind are not focused on the Hereafter, almost nothing that our Creator says will make sense, especially in times of trial. There is deep wisdom in Allah over and over again mentioning belief in Allah and the Last Day as a basic, foundational sign of emaan (true faith) in the human heart. Without this focus on the Last Day—the time of our ultimate Judgment and recompense in the Hereafter—we will live a life of self-delusion, hungrily chasing “dreams” and wealth and fleeting happiness, and become really confused when we suffer pain and loss in this world.
During times of ease and happiness, almost everything seems to make sense, because in these moments our hearts are focused on the life of this world. Thus, we bask in the blessings of Allah and might even tell the world that we received all of these worldly enjoyments due to our faith and patient trust in our Lord.
But when painful trials befall us, we become sad and confused, and some of us even become frustrated and angry, feeling as if our Lord somehow abandoned or betrayed us. However, for the believer, it makes no sense to rejoice in worldly blessings, enjoying what we feel Allah promised us by answering our du’aa, and then become frustrated and angry when we experience the other side of that same divine promise—loss of the fruits of our labor, loss of wealth, loss of loved ones, and other painful trials. It’s all part of what we are promised in this world—as a preparation for our ultimate reality in the Hereafter.
These worldly experiences (of both ease and hardship) are to test the human heart to see whose claim of faith is true. Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Do the people think that they will be left to say, ‘We believe’ and they will not be tried?” (Al-‘Ankaboot, 29:2).
In Surah Al-Kahf, Allah tells us, “Wealth and children are the adornment of the life of this world. But the good righteous deeds that last, are better with your Lord for rewards and better in respect of hope” (18:46).
Unfortunately, even with repeated divine reminders, our hearts still fixate on what we want in this temporary life, while largely ignoring the reality of the Hereafter. Though we express on our tongues belief in the Last Day, this claim is often completely disconnected from how we actually live out the details of our personal lives in this world.
Some of us go as far as to seek out imams and spiritual teachers who will forbid for us what Allah has allowed and allow for us what Allah has forbidden—if this allows us to enjoy a bit more worldly happiness in our wealth, marriages, and personal choices.
Undoubtedly, this spiritual tragedy exists only because we have turned this religion on its head, such that we prioritize this world over the Hereafter, instead of the Hereafter over this world. Thus, we feel we can sacrifice certain requirements of emaan in the Last Day if it means a more comfortable life in this world—instead of sacrificing certain worldly comforts and enjoyments if it means a more comfortable life in the Hereafter. And if anyone reminds us to fear Allah and prioritize the Hereafter over the worldly enjoyment we are fixated on at the moment, we argue with them and even use the religion of Allah to defend ourselves.
SubhaanAllah. Allah has certainly spoken the truth when He says, “And indeed We have explained in detail every kind of example in this Quran, for mankind. But, man is ever more quarrelsome than anything.” (Al-Kahf, 18:54).
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.
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