In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
In earlier posts, we have made it clear that the Islamic sacred law (i.e. the shari’ah) requires wives to obey their husbands in all things possible and permissible.
We have demonstrated that this obedience is necessary, for both scriptural (naqli) and logical (‘aqli) reasons. Moreover, we have mentioned some of the positive impacts that a woman’s obedience to her husband has on the woman herself, on her relationship with her husband, on the proper upbringing of their children, and on the society as a whole.
In this writing, we shall focus on some of the wrong perceptions that many of us have regarding obedience and what it entails. At the outset, we are going to examine what obedience is not. What are some of the things that obedience does not or must not entail?
What Obedience Does not Mean
1) Obedience must not entail weakness or a lack of free-will
Many people think that an obedient person must be a weak person, a person who does not have a strong character, and one who lacks willpower. Before we examine the truth of this claim, let us note that the Arabic language distinguishes between two different types of obedience: one can either obey willingly (taw’an) or unwillingly (karhan).
Let us cite the following verse of the Qur’an as an example:
He (Allah) turned to the Heaven when it was smoke
He said to it and to the Earth: ‘Come, both of you,
Either willingly or unwillingly.’
They both said: ‘We will come in willing obedience.’
When you obey someone unwillingly (karhan) you do so because you have no other choice. A solider might obey the commands of his superior; but his heart is not present in what he does. He obeys his superior to escape punishment.
When you obey someone willingly (taw’an), the situation is completely different. You obey that person because you love him; because you see your happiness in his happiness; your pleasure in his pleasure; your well-being in his. This willing obedience is a perfect expression of willpower.
Allah expects married women to obey their husbands willingly, sincerely and wholeheartedly; which is why, in this context, the Qurán and the ahadith use the word taa’ah (willing obedience) rather than the word ikrâh (to obey with unwillingness).
A woman who obeys her husband willingly is neither weak nor in captivity. She is making a free decision.
True obedience is a choice; therefore, it cannot be forced. It is a will freely submitted out of reverence to Allah; either to Allah Himself or those He has placed as figures of authority in our lives.
Genuine freedom is the result of obedience. Obedience is the point of departure, and freedom is the destination. We are most free when we obey Allah, His Messenger, and those in authority.
2) Obedience must not entail an absence of love:
Genuine obedience is the result of love; as our Lord says in the Holy Qur’an:
If you love Allah, follow (obey) me;
Allah will love you
And He will forgive you your sins;
First, we love Allah. Then, we obey Allah and His Messenger. Then Allah will love and forgive us. Our obedience is situated between our love for Him and His love for us. True obedience issues from love. Its fruits are also love and forgiveness.
3) A wife’s obedience must not entail the dissolution of her personality.
The shari’ah requires a woman to obey her husband; it does not require her to agree with him in all things. A woman has the right to disagree with her husband, to express her opinion before him, and to argue with him.
Even though the Companions, May Allah be pleased with them, were the best of men, their wives still argued with them. Even the wives of the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, used to answer him back; and the Prophet never chastised them for doing so.
Let us recount here the following narration:
‘One day Umar, May Allah be pleased with him, rebuked his wife for something and she sharply answered him back. When he disapproved of her behaviour, she replied that the wives of the Prophet were also in the habit of answering him back; so why should she not do the same.
Umar immediately went to ask her daughter Hafsah, who was a wife of the Prophet, if this was indeed the case; and she confirmed that she spoke her mind to the Prophet without being embarrassed for this.
Umar rebuked her daughter; and went to visit his cousin Umm Salamah, who was also a wife of the Prophet.
‘Is it true that you speak your minds to Allah’s Messenger and answer him without respect?’
‘Yes, by God’, said Umm Salamah, ‘We speak to him our minds; if he suffer us to do so, that is his affair; and if he forbid us, he will find us more obedient to him than we are to you.’
This story illustrates very well the difference between obedience, as decreed by Allah and His Messenger, and the complete dissolution of self.
The husband must readily listen to his wife’s opinions; he must consider his wife to be his helper and his best counsellor. The Prophet, peace be upon him, used to consult his wives in important matters; and many of his companions also used to consult their wives. In an ideal Muslim family, the husband acts as the king of a nation; and the wife acts as the king’s counsellor or the country’s prime minister.
4) A man has ‘to rule’; not ‘to oppress’.
In the same way that Allah expects wives to obey their husbands, He also expects husbands to exercise this authority and to rule over their wives; however, ‘to rule’ is something and ‘to oppress’ is something else.
The shari’ah does not give men the right to oppress their wives; nor does it give them the right to deny them their rights and to neglect their feelings. A man is responsible before Allah for how he treats his wife and children. As a ruler, he has to rule with kindness and equity.
Allah commands justice and kindness.
Unfortunately, some husbands, who are not emotionally mature, misuse their God-given authority; and instead of ruling over their wives with equity and kindness, they oppress their wives and hurt their feelings.
Let us cite an example: The husband has the right to prevent his wife from going out of the house; and the wife has to obey him in this. However, a wise husband uses this right only when there is a need to do so. An unwise husband may childishly prevent her wife from visiting her parents or her siblings; thinking that the shari’ah is on his side. Whereas by doing so, the husband is restricting his wife’s freedom with no valid reason; and is in fact oppressing her.
Allah, Exalted is He, says:
Live with them (your wives) with kindness and equity,
Even if you hate them;
For it may happen that you hate a thing
Wherein Allah has placed much good.
If husbands are supposed to treat the wives they hate with kindness and equity, shouldn’t they treat the wives they love with even more justice and kindness?
5) A wife’s obedience to her husband must not entail her disobeying Allah.
We have already mentioned that the wife should not obey her husband, if he orders her to commit a sin. The Prophet of Allah, peace be upon him, has said:
Let there be no obedience in sin;
For (true) obedience is in good things.
He has also said:
One must never obey a creature
When it comes to disobeying the Creator.
Particularly, if the husband is not religiously committed himself, he may ask his wife to do things that contravene the Law of Allah; for instance he may ask his wife:
- To drink alcoholic beverages or to serve him such drinks;
- To remove her hijab or to dress immodestly in public;
- To refrain from fasting in Ramadan;
- To refrain from performing an obligatory prayer (without a valid excuse), and so on.
In all such instances, the wife must choose the Law of Allah above her husband’s command. She must obey Allah’s Commandments, even if that entails disobeying the husband.
Likewise, the Quran tells us that one must not obey one’s parents in sin, for it is to Allah that we all return. Allah, Exalted is He, says:
If they (your parents) strive to make you join in worship with Me
Things of which you have no knowledge,
Then, do not obey them;
Yet, consort with them in this world with kindness.
Follow the way of those who return to Me;
To Me will be your return;
Then, I will tell you the meaning of all that you did.