They’ve cried to me in hallways, classrooms, lecture halls and banquet halls, behind masjid pillars, and in empty parking lots. These horror stories — with few hopeful ones — which close friends as well as new ones have confided to me over the last two decades recount their difficult pasts, broken marriages, dysfunctional relationships, anxieties, fears, and their spiritual struggles.
Ever since I first began speaking publicly, I’ve had the privilege of visiting different Muslim communities across the country and meeting numerous men and women in the process. When I think back on my experiences, one thing I’ve gathered is that many of our problems are actually just symptoms of greater problems that never seem to get treated.
For example, the couple on the verge of a divorce after years of perpetual arguments and verbal/emotional abuse doesn’t just need to “be patient,” hold their tongues, and pray extra prayers. They are drowning deep in the waters of marriage toxicity and need professional help from someone with the experience and wisdom to help them overcome their communication problems and determine if their marriage is even salvageable. They certainly don’t need advice from people who are just shooting in the dark and looking for quick fixes, which is often the case with well-intentioned family, friends, and even spiritual leaders who haphazardly tell them their marital problems are spiritually related, i.e., their weak practice or lack of faith. When we give couples in trouble such poor advice, we’re putting all of our focus on possible symptoms instead of solving actual problems.
How many couples in our community are struggling through these destructive cycles right now? How many of them are given insufficient advice and told that they will resolve their differences by simply focusing on their spirituality? And how many of them find that while they may see some temporary minor improvements, simply increasing their spiritual practice without giving any direct attention to their communication problems may in fact cause even more distance between them in the long run?
If we all collectively looked beyond our long held cultural biases and antiquated beliefs, we would see that spirituality is the last leg of the race and not the first step towards couple’s counseling. Only after a couple has gone through the necessary work, with a trained professional, and is willing to invest in their relationship can they benefit from the mutual prosperity of spiritual focus and commitment. They must learn how to first see themselves as separate individuals, not just two parts fused together as a whole unit. This paradigm shift will help them to better understand themselves on a biological, emotional, and spiritual level and then learn to extend the same consideration to their partner. If we want to see our marriages succeed then we must strive to inculcate this type of emotional intelligence in all individuals before they even think about marriage.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
According to Steve Bressert, Ph.D., emotional intelligence is defined by five core traits:
- Self-awareness – How conscious you are of your emotions in the moment
- Self-regulation – How well you are able to manage your emotions under pressure
- Motivation – Your drive to transform negative thoughts or situations into positive ones
- Empathy – The capacity to recognize others’ emotions and respond to them sympathetically
- Social skills – The ability to interact well with others (good communication, teamwork, etc.)
Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced, digitally saturated, and highly competitive world, we’re making less personal connections than ever before, which has had a direct and negative impact on our emotional intelligence.
Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence” says, “To the extent hours are spent alone, relating to tech tools and shrinking the time young people spend in face-to-face interactions, it could lower their EI. The human brain is designed to learn these lessons in daily life, and if there are fewer opportunities, EI skill levels could go down.”1
So what’s the solution?
One of the areas that I believe needs more focus and attention in the Muslim community, especially with respect to the marriage crisis, is to increase emotional intelligence through early education in interpersonal psychology, social psychology, and sociology.
Ibn Arabi said, “He who knows himself, knows his Lord.” In other words, self-knowledge precedes knowledge of God. Thus, our young boys and girls need to learn basic lessons on personality differences, temperaments, and gender differences from an Islamic framework. These subjects provide a critical context to help shape the way young people perceive the world around them and understand their faith, thus they will prove useful for the study of important core subjects such as fiqh, hadith, seerah, and Qur’an.
Furthermore, as our tradition teaches us, the lifelong struggle for every Muslim is the rigorous pursuit of self-development or tazkiyaat an-nafs (purification of the soul). By teaching young men and women to look inward and to understand themselves on a deeper level we will help to facilitate this deeply intense spiritual process. Additionally, the skills and knowledge they acquire will help them in their future relationships once they are ready to marry.
A man, for example, who understands well the differences in male and female patterns of behavior, communication styles, and brain structure, and is fully aware of the impact of a woman’s physiology on her physical form, her emotional state, and her overall disposition, is far better equipped to deal with the natural changes his wife may endure throughout their marriage.
Conversely, men who are unaware of or have very limited and superficial knowledge of these things may not know how to interpret the differences in mood, behavior, and physical changes in their wives, and may even become apathetic, resentful, or abusive towards them.
A woman, who thoroughly understands that most men communicate very differently than women, and sometimes even struggle to express their feelings, not for lack of having any, but for not knowing how, is less likely to misinterpret her partner’s silence or unresponsiveness as apathy and indifference.
Women who also understand the impact of male and female hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, on male behavior and physiology will also be better at navigating their spouse’s emotions during stressful situations.
The importance of these topics and how critical they are to fostering healthy relationships cannot be overstated. When we understand ourselves, we can better communicate what we want and how we feel. When both parties in a relationship can do this effectively then the lines of communication and empathy have a much higher chance of remaining open. Fostering this level of self-awareness, mutual respect, love, and consideration between two individuals may seem idealistic to some, but for Muslims we need to look no further than the Prophetic example.
Among the countless virtues of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) was his perceptive ability to be perfectly in tune with the people around him. He paid attention to everything, both verbal and nonverbal cues, and was fully attentive and present with everyone he interacted with. He listened to people’s grievances, he validated their pain, he remedied their anxieties and fears, he mediated their circumstances, and he offered them hope. This was true in every relationship he possessed, and especially so in his marriages.
Aisha (may God be pleased with her) reported that the Prophet ﷺ once told her: “I know well when you are pleased or angry with me.” Aisha replied, “How do you know that?” He said: “When you are pleased with me you swear by saying ‘By the God of Muhammad,’ but when you are angry you swear by saying ‘By the God of Ibrahim.’ She said: “You are right, I don’t mention your name.” (Bukhari)
Here, the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) clearly demonstrates how skillfully perceptive he was by identifying the nuances in his wife’s choice of words and her tone. He also validates her feelings by mentioning her pleasure and displeasure of him without any admonition whatsoever.
In another narration Aisha (may God be pleased with her) stated that when she was menstruating, the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) would remain by her side, sometimes offering her comfort by reciting Qur’an while his head remained in her lap. (Bukhari)
Sayyidina Ali (may God be pleased with him) said, “The Messenger of Allah ﷺ (peace be upon him) was always cheery of disposition, easy-going, and compassionate. He was not boorish, or coarse, or raucous, or vulgar, or critical; he did not over-praise or jest, and he would ignore that which he disliked. He would not dash the hopes of anyone who hoped for something from him, and they would not be disappointed. He withheld from himself three things: debate, excess, and that which did not concern him; and he withheld from the people three things, he would never criticise or disparage anyone, he would not seek to shame anyone, and he would not speak about anything unless he hoped to be rewarded by Allah for it”.2
These are just a few examples of countless traditions that show how in tune the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) was with the people in his company. He embodied perfect character in every way and personified what it means to be an emotionally intelligent and empathic person.
His example is the only example we need to follow, but it takes a certain degree of humility (another great quality of emotional intelligence) to let go of our prejudices, biases, and personal beliefs and admit that, as reflected in our poor marriages today, we’re not following his way as best as we could be. True change can only happen when we admit we have a problem and then look to resolve it.
To inspire a sincere change in our community we must admit that our youth, our men, our women, and millions of families impacted every day by broken marriages desperately need a paradigm shift. That shift begins and ends with a commitment to becoming more like the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) and more invested in increasing our emotional intelligence.
1. To find out more about Emotional Intelligence, please visit https://www.amplify.com/viewpoints/chat-daniel-goleman-author-emotional-intelligence
2. “Our Master Muhammad, The Messenger of Allah: Volume 2,” by Imam Abdallah Sirajuddin Al-Husayni
By Hosai Mojaddidi , 02 Feb 2017