Preparing for the Marriage, Not Just the Wedding

May 30, 2013

Campaign seeks to equip couples with premarital counseling to increase chances of a successful marriage.

Naim and Halimah stop into to the mosque’s office to speak with the imam’s secretary or office manager. They ask about scheduling their premarital education and advisement. This is required before the imam will perform their marriage ceremony. They are planning on getting married in a few months and would like to learn more about the premarital education and advisement program and how it can help their future marriage. They say, “We want to be prepared for the challenges that comes up in marriage, but we have no idea how these services will benefit us.”  

      Muslims are a marrying community. Prophet Muhammad declared that marriage is one of his most sacred practices and said, “Whoever dislikes my way of life is not of me” (Bukhari). Even though we value getting married as a community we are not doing well at maintaining healthy lifelong marriages. Increasingly, Muslims are experiencing marital dissolution at a rate of approximately 33 percent; that means that 1 out of 3 Muslim marriages are experiencing divorce. The consequences of divorce and marital dysfunction impact children, the couple, the extended family and the community.

      ISSA-USA’s (Islamic Social Services Association-USA) national campaign, the Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative, promotes healthy marriage among Muslims. As part of this campaign, each year, ISSA-USA hosts National Healthy Muslim Marriage Week the first week of Ramadan. This celebration provides the opportunity during Ramadan to remember what God says in the Quran (30:21 and 7:189) about a healthy marriage. This is also an opportunity to learn about and put into practice behavior the Prophet exemplified in his married life.

      As part of the Sakinah Initiative, ISSA-USA also encourages communities nationwide to implement premarital services. Efforts are underway in Detroit/Dearborn, Atlanta, Phoenix and D.C. to promote healthy marriage and implement premarital services where none exist as well as strengthen efforts that have existed for some time. ISSA-USA has worked with the Muslim Alliance in North America through its SHARE Centers, ACCESS in Dearborn and the Muslim American Society in Phoenix to increase awareness about the importance of the premarital education and advisement. Other efforts are taking place in southern California and other parts of the country.

      In the mosque office, Naim and Halimah wonder what premarital services are, what they can expect, who provides the services and how long they should expect to participate in the program. Sadia, the imam’s secretary, explains that premarital services are part of a continuum of marriage services that prevent, intervene and treat marital problems. Theyinclude matrimonial services, premarital services, newlywed and marriage services, and divorce services. Premarital services include premarital education, advisement and counseling.  

      The Central City Mosque, Sadia informed, requires at least six weekly sessions of premarital education and three sessions of premarital advisement. Requirements vary at mosques. The couple’s mosque has signed on to the Healthy Marriage Covenant because they support healthy marriage and want to contribute to improving positive outcomes for Muslims marrying in their mosque and throughout Central City. She goes on to say all Central City imams have signed the covenant and have agreed to require premarital services before the marriage ceremony.  

      Before implementing premarital services, couples would stop in after Jummah for the quick “drive-by nikah,” or they would spend months planning the wedding and at the last moment schedule the imam. Marriage education was not on their to-do list. By the time they scheduled the imam, the hall had been rented, the dress and the flowers were purchased and the aunties had their tickets to fly miles and miles for their favorite niece or nephew’s wedding. The imam didn’t know the couple. He didn’t have time to determine if theywere compatible and ready to marry. Nor did he have the opportunity to educate them about some of the basics about marriage in Islam or practical relationship-building skills to help them create a healthy peaceful marriage. Most of the imams in the community didn’t want to do anything to delay the couple’s marriage out of concern they would commit ITALICS zina (premarital relations).  

      Domestic violence and divorce were on the rise in the community. It was comparable to the nationwide statistic of 33 percent for Muslims and higher for newly married couples. No sooner than they wed, they were having problems and within the year they were talking divorce. Other imams were having the same experience, so they all agreed to sign on to thecovenant so that couples couldn’t go mosque-hopping to find a mosque that would marry them without premarital services.

      It’s only been a couple of years but already Central City is seeing a difference among the couples in the community, indicated Sadia. Central City Mosque also provides newlywed support and marriage education and enrichment for couples that have been married for some time.

      The premarital education classes are held at several area mosques and community agencies, led by a trained marriage educator. The imams assist with the classes by teaching segments on marriage in Islam and Prophet Muhammad’s married life. Each course includes core topics such as communication skills, problem solving, conflict resolution, emotionalintelligence, relationship expectations, anger management, conflict resolution, and domestic violence awareness.

      Course topics also include marriage in Islam, mate selection, rights, roles and responsibilities of each spouse, intimacy and sexuality in marriage, family finances and the legal aspects of marriage according to Islam and U.S. laws. Upon completion of the course, the couple receives a certificate of participation, a copy of which goes into their marriage preparation file.

      Additionally, each couple participates in premarital advisement that aims to help themassess their readiness for marriage and more specifically readiness for marriage to each other. In three to five sessions the premarital advisor—a well-trained marriage educatorwho often has his or her degree in social work, counseling, psychology, marriage and family therapy or pastoral care—assesses marital readiness. By asking them a set of questions and utilizing the results of the pre-marriage inventory, the advisor helps them determine their compatibility and readiness for marriage as well as the strengths and challenges they bring to the marriage.

      If there are challenges the couple needs to work on, the advisor may refer the couple for individual or premarital counseling. Some couples have challenges because they are blending their family, bringing children to this marriage from a previous marriage. Others come from different cultures and—though both parents agree on the marriage—one parent may not be as supportive because their future son- or daughter-in-law is not from the culture they preferred. Premarital advisement seeks to give each couple the chance for marital success. It doesn’t mean they won’t have challenges in their marriage but they will be better prepared to handle them. The advisor maintains their confidence by letting the imam know only that there are no unresolved issues remaining before marriage or that they still have unresolved issues to work through.

      Naim and Halimah feel more reassured of the benefits of premarital education and advisement and its value for their future marriage now that Sadia has explained it to them. They had read the recent McFarlane study which indicates that almost all of the divorcees in the study wished they had been offered more extensive premarital counseling. After Sadia’s explanation, they felt premarital education would better prepare them for a healthy marriage filled with the tranquility, love and compassion that God prescribes in Quran.    

      Premarital counseling and marriage/relationship education are not new. The Prophet provided education about every aspect of life to his companions, including married life. It is part of our religious tradition. The larger society and other faith traditions realized that couples preparing for marriage need education to stem the rising tide of divorce and marital discord. A paradigm shift that values prevention and the Islamic perspective of “tying our camel and relying on God” will take place. The Muslim community will include premarital services on their wedding and marriage planning list. 

      In the near future, couples will be heard saying “premarital education and premarital advisement. Check.” They will look forward to the time when it is available throughout the community. And community leaders and imams will agree to its importance by signing the Healthy Marriage Covenant and working with professionals in the field of marriage and family to implement the continuum of marriage services including premarital education, advisement and counseling.

 Note to the reader: The names and locations in this article are fictional, but based on experiences of the writer.

Aneesah Nadir, MSW, PhD serves as the president of the Islamic Social Services Association-USA and the director of ISSA-USA’s Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative.

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