Importance of the Topic
Making sure that Muslims are well-matched to their spouses is one of the most important and potentially difficult functions in Muslim society. The individual seeking marriage must have his/her priorities straight and be clear on what characteristics are most important to be sought in a spouse in order to have a successful marriage. There are many characteristics that are important in a husband or a wife but some are much more important than others. Overemphasizing the wrong qualities can lead to disaster down the road just as being neglectful of certain considerations can do likewise. When we come to understand the goals and priorities of marriage in Islam, we may be guided to the Islamic methodology of seeking marriage in Islam and stop blindly following the disbelievers in their ignorant notions of the importance of "getting to know each other" and other such concepts which in reality contribute nothing to and more often sabotage a successful marriage.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us in many hadith about the various characteristics which one looks for in a spouse and their relative importance and which ones determine success insha'Allah and Allah's blessing on a marriage. Among those hadith:
"A woman is married for her deen, her wealth or her beauty. You must go for the one with deen, may your hands be in the dust! (if you fail to heed)" [Muslim]
"Choose carefully for your seed. Marry those who are equivalent (or "qualified") and give to them in marriage." Ibn Majah and others and it is sahih.
In the following sections, we will discuss insha'Allah, some of the most important characteristics that can be found in the Quran and the sunnah when it come to choosing a good spouse.
In the previous hadith, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned various characteristics that people, by their nature and custom, look for in a spouse. He did not advocate any of them, but merely stated them as facts of human nature except for the issue of "deen", i.e., a prospective spouses piety and practice of Islam - their fulfilling of the wajib and their avoidance of the haram. About this characteristic, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said "alaikum bi dhaati ad-deen" or "it is upon you to seek the one of piety". This is an order and quite different from the general statement at the beginning of the hadith which says "a woman IS MARRIED for..." and separates the issue of deen from the other mundane issues and puts it in a category by itself. Also, when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) says at the end of the hadith "may your hands be in the dust", invoking this negative outcome on those who disregard his order, it can only refer to the order to seen the spouse with piety, since that is the only order in the hadith.
We must be careful not to be superficial in this issue. The mere wearing of hijab or keeping a beard and praying in the masjid, while obvious requirements of piety, do not by themselves guarantee it. There are many people who at first glance appear to be abiding by Islam, but upon closer inspection have a twisted understanding of Islam and their practice in reality may leave much to be desired. 'Umar once told someone who had testified to the goodness of a person by the fact that he had seen him in the masjid that he does not know him as long as he has not had dealings with him that involved money, had lived with him or traveled with him.
The characteristic of piety applies to the groom just as much as to the bride. The guardian of the woman should make this his first and top priority just as the man looking for a wife should make it his. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
"If someone with whose piety and character you are satisfied with comes to you, marry to him. If you do not do so, there will be trials in the earth and a great deal of evil." [At-Tirmidhi and others and it is hassan]
Character and Behavior
In the previous hadith addressed to those in charge of the marital affairs of Muslim women and girls, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) commanded them to facilitate their marriage when they are satisfied with two issues: the faith of the suitor and his character.
Character is of extreme importance in Islam and goes hand in hand with faith and piety. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has even described it as the purpose of his mission to mankind as we can see from the following hadith:
"I have only been sent to complete good character." [Al-Hakim and others (sahih)]
"I am a guarantor of a house in the highest part of Paradise for one who makes his character good." [Abu Dawud and it is hassan]
"Righteousness is good character." [Muslim]
"The believers with the most complete iman are those with the best character." [Abu Dawud and it is sahih]
In An-Nur verse 26, Allah establishes the relation of this issue to marriage:
"Bad women are for bad men and bad men are for bad women. And good women are for good men and good men are for good women." [Noble Quran 24:26]
The word khabith translated as "bad" above means filthy, unclean and despicable. It is a very strong word. The word tayyib translated as good, connotes clean and pure as well as good.
One of the important issues of character in the spouses is the quality of wudd. This means kindness and lovingness and compassion. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
"Marry the loving/friendly, the child-bearing for I shall outstrip the other nations with your numbers on Qiyamah." Ahmad, Abu Dawud and others and it is [Sahih]
Therefore, the prospective spouses must ask and find out about the other person's behavior and manners. As a sign also, one may look at the other person's family's manners and behavior and many times (but no always) the behavior of people of the same family are similar. In other words, some characteristics tend to run in some families whether they be good or bad characters such as anger, politeness, stinginess, generosity, lying, truthfulness and so forth.
As we saw in the previous hadith, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) recommended men to marry those women who are child-bearing. This characteristic is related to some of the goals and purposes of marriage that were mentioned earlier such as procreating the Muslim Ummah, raising a pious family as a cornerstone of society and so forth.
The scholars mention that a man can look at a woman's female relatives to get an idea whether she is apt to get pregnant easily and often or not. This attribute should also apply to the man. For example a man who say before Islam had a vasectomy would not be an appropriate husband for a Muslim girl getting married for the first time.
There are many hadith which recommend a man marry a virgin woman such as the following:
"Marry virgins for they have sweeter mouths, more productive wombs and are more pleased with less." [At-Tabarani and it is hassan]
Other narrations indicate that she is more likely to be pleased by a man and less likely to be devious and deceiving. Once, when Jabir married an older and previously married woman, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to him:
"Why not a virgin? You could have played with her and she with you."
The scholars have stressed that this good attribute applies to the husband just as it applies to the wife. One of them wrote: "Similarly, it is preferred for a person not to marry his daughter except to a virgin man if she has never been married before." 'Umar ibn Al-Khattab once heard about a woman who was married to an elderly man and he said: "O people, fear Allah and marry a man to a woman who is similar to him and marry a woman to a man who is similar to her."
This characteristic has a certain role to play since one of the purposes of marriage is to keep both spouses from sins. The best way to do this is to have a strong attraction between the spouses. Although this is something which surely grows over time, initial impressions can in come cases become an obstacle to a successful marriage. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) separated Qais ibn Shamas from his wife in the famous case of Khul'a and her stated reason was that he was exceedingly displeasing to her. There are many hadith which urge the prospective spouse to get a look at the other before undertaking the marriage. Once a companion told him (peace and blessings be upon him) that he was going to get married. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked if he had seen her. When the man said no, he (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
"Go and look at her for it is more likely to engender love between the two of you." [Ahmad and others and it is sahih]
'Umar ibn Al-Khattab once said: "Do not force your young girls to marry an ugly man, for they also love what you love." Ibn Abidin (a famous faqih from last century) said: "The woman should choose a man who is religious, of good character, generous and of ample wealth. She should not marry an evildoer. A person should not marry his young daughter to an old man and an ugly man but he should marry her to one similar."
Beauty has its role, but remember that it is way down on the priority list under piety, character and deen. When a person puts beauty above all else, the results can be disastrous. This is one of the big reasons that young people seeking to get married must be helped by more mature family members in making their choice.
Looking at a Prospective Spouse
As we have seen, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) encouraged men considering marriage to a particular woman to get a look at her. He (peace and blessings be upon him) said in another hadith:
"If one of you proposes to a woman and if he is able to look at of her that which motivates him to marry her, let him do so." [Abu Dawud & others (hassan)]
Note that this hadith does not abrogate the limits of what a woman may expose to non-maharim. She must continue to be well covered except for her face and hands in front of all of them and the prospective husband, even if he has proposed, is no exception to this. Even such a one is still only permitted to see what anyone else is permitted to see. The difference is that he is allowed to take a good look - if it were not for the proposal of marriage, both would be required to avert their eyes after the first glance. As the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to Ali about the look at a non-mahram woman: "The first is for you, the second is against you."
Also, it is clear that the purpose of this look is very specific: to help one determine whether or not they would like to marry that person. Once that has been determined and the decision has been made, it is no longer permissible for them to look at each other. If a man and a woman decide that they want to marry each other, this does not make it allowed for them to continue to see each other. Just the opposite, since the decision has been made there is no longer any need for them to see each other and they are no longer allowed to do so. This is because until the moment the offer and acceptance of the marriage have been pronounced, there is no relationship of any kind between them and all of the laws regarding strange men and women still apply to them.
There are a number of important points which pertain to this issue:
Some scholars say that this look is sunnah (i.e., recommended) while others say that it is simply permissible. The hadith would seem to favor the first point of view.
It can only be done if the person actually intends marriage to the person AND there is a real possibility of it taking place. Otherwise, such a look remains forbidden.
It cannot take place in private. In other words, it is not allowed for a man and a woman who are not married - even if they are "engaged" - to be alone together.
The look can occur more than once - if and only if the objective has not been accomplished.
There are several opinions about how much of the woman is lawful to be seen in this context as follows: He can see what anyone else can see i.e., he can look at her when she is dressed in the proper outdoor dress of a Muslim woman. This is the mainstream opinion, the safest one and the one which agrees with all of the evidence.
One opinion among the Hanbali school of thought which says that he can see her in normal indoor (around only her family) dress which would include the exposing of her neck, arms, lower legs, etc.
One bizarre and off-the-wall opinion from the Dhahiri (literalist) school of thought which says that he may view her entire body. Although they have linguistic arguments to extract this from the hadith, this practice is completely unfounded since it contradicts many verses of Quran and other hadith and is not supported by any known practice of the Companions or the first few generations.
The scholars recommend that this look take place when one has intended a proposal but before the actual proposal has occurred. Although the apparent of the hadith seems to indicate otherwise, this is regarded as better in order to avoid hurting the woman's feelings if the man changes his mind after seeing her.
The majority of scholars say that her foreknowledge or permission is not needed - especially since he is merely seeing her in public and in a way that anyone else can see her. The Maliki school of thought says that it is disliked to look at her when she is unaware since evil men may use this as an excuse to look at women all the time and when told to stop would say "We are thinking of proposing to one of them."
Women Looking at a Prospective Husband
The woman also has a right to look at her prospective husband. Many scholars have stated that "The women like the same things we like." Some have even said that it is MORE important for the woman to see the man. This is because the man holds the right of instant and unconditional divorce in case he is displeased with his wife. It is not so easy for the woman to get out of a marriage and so she must have priority in this issue.
Being Alone With (Khalwa) a Prospective Spouse and Other Questions
Can a Man be Alone with His "Fiancé"?
Again, no matter what words, promises, commitments, etc. have passed between the parties, until the marriage contract has been transacted and a man and woman are actually married, there is no relationship at all between them and they are to each other as any other strange man and woman.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has forbidden for a man and a woman to be alone together. This ruling applies to a "fiancé" just as much as it applies to any other unrelated man and woman. One of the hadith which make this clear is:
"A man cannot be alone with a woman except along with a male relative [of hers]." [Bukhari & Muslim]
Obviously, since those "engaged" to be married have no legal relationship beyond any other strange man and woman, obviously any form of touching between them is not allowed. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
"For one of you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle is better for him than to touch a woman who is not permissible to him." [At-Tabarani - Sahih]
All the scholars have pointed out that it is not proper or acceptable for "fiancés" to be alone together or to have numerous encounters for the purpose of "getting to know each other". In fact, this is a horrible innovation that has spread among the Muslims. It must always be remembered that until they are married, they are like any other unrelated men and women to each other and their actions must reflect that fact.
Obviously, it is not allowed to be alone with, have telephone conversations or internet "chats" with unrelated men or women in order to "get to know each other". Those intending marriage but as yet unmarried are in the exact same position. Such disobedience in the very course of seeking an act of obedience (marriage) very much in need of Allah's blessing can have serious and long lasting effects in the destruction of the marital relationship after that. This is clearly the result of the similar "experiment" going in western societies over the last decades: the more they "open" these kind of issues the more disastrous their marriages become. Recently, the success rate of marriages in the U.S. dropped below 50%. This in spite of complete freedom of the couple to "get to know each other" in EVERY way and for as long as they wish before marriage. Muslims - most of whom are heading down this same road - need to wake up and take heed. The Prophet (peace be up on him) said:
"You will follow the ways of those who came before you foot by foot and yard by yard and even if they go down a lizard's hole, you will follow them."
Difference Between "Engagement" and Delaying Consummation
In many Muslim countries, people transact the marriage contract, but agree not to actually begin the marriage until after a certain period of time. There is nothing wrong with this custom with two conditions:
The time period is not excessively long.
All parties understand that the two are legally married, their agreement to delay being together is not binding and there is nothing wrong if they change their mind and decide to be together before the appointed time.
This is quite different from the imported custom of "engagement". The only parallel to this western custom which many Muslims have adopted is what is called "khitba" which is the time between the beginning of discussions and the acceptance or rejection of the offer. In short, this has no legal validity of any kind and does not change anything about the relationship between the man and woman. Extending this to very long periods of time or worse, violating the Shari'ah during that time in the ways we have discussed is a horrendous innovation (bid'ah) which has spread among the Muslims.
The following are important steps not only for those interested in getting married but also for any others involved in the process of facilitating a marriage. The entire process, in order to be successful with Allah's blessing, should be proper and consistent with the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah. All other endeavors will lead to misery and discord.
Both spouses should seek to get married purely for Allah's pleasure and in order to fulfill the purpose of marriage in Islam.
Both must put full trust in Allah that if they do everything properly and in accordance to the Shari'a that Allah will bless them with a good spouse and that any other approaches are falsehood and will not lead to Allah's blessing and success in marriage.
They should make du'a to Allah for a pious spouse who will aid them in their Islam and worship.
They should be very patient. The process of marriage may take a long time especially in areas where Muslims are a small minority.
If a person has Muslim parents, they should seek their help in finding a spouse. If not, they should seek help from married Muslim men and women.
When a person is found, they should seek advice from various parties familiar with the person.
They should see the prospective spouse and perhaps speak with them (not alone).
One should ask relevant questions and make clear the Islamic foundation of the marriage.
Both should pray istikhara to seek Allah's counsel.
Before the marriage contract, all dealings should be with the wali, and no attempt should be made to strike up a relationship with the future spouse before the marriage.
They should avoid all of the innovations surrounding marriage which are so widespread among the Muslims.