Confessions of a Shaikh’s Wife Part 3: What Marriage Means

Part 1: What Makes the Man | Part 2: The Pedestal & the Pulpit | Part 3: What Marriage Means

By Umm Fudayl

Over the years, there have been times when I have been asked by starry-eyed young women about the idea of marrying an imam or shaikh. The thought of marrying someone so genuinely dedicated to the path of dawah, and so learned about the beautiful teachings of Islam, can certainly carry an appeal. However, I’ll be honest: being happily married in this day and age comes with difficult hurdles and challenges for everyone, but being married to a shaikh or daee often compounds them. The number of divorces we see among high-profile imams and duaat [preachers] is, in my estimation, not coincidental, but has much to do with the intense pressures and challenges of that family life.

Of course, being married to someone who is religious is generally a very good thing. Who doesn’t want a spouse who is God-fearing, who works on bettering themselves, who takes sacred knowledge seriously, and who tries to embody prophetic character? My warnings come not from any reservations about religious practice — which, when done sincerely, is a source of immense blessings and goodness, and is really the strongest ground from which a marriage and family can take root. They have to do with the extra challenges that come with marrying someone in the role of imam or Islamic ‘preacher’, which are two fold: one has to do with personality, and the other with the job itself.

Imam, Dissected

As someone married to a shaikh, and who has spent much time in the company of imams, shaikhs, soon-to-be-imams and their families, I will share a few observations. I have found that many imams and shaikhs are, by their nature, strong-willed and single-minded. Many have a resoluteness, that while great in a leader one would want at the helm of the community, can extend into inflexibility in personal relationships. Imams also often possess a rigorous self-discipline that can be be hard to keep up with, especially when expected from children or spouses who are at a different level of practice, follow different scholarly views, or have a more carefree nature.

These issues are intensified by the fact that imams have very few people to whom they can turn for personal advice and counsel. In most cases, Western students of Islam did not have a specific shaikh or personal teacher who took them by the hand and guided them through the process of learning. Even for those on the Sufi path, which emphasizes the importance of a personal relationship with one’s teacher, one finds that teachers are often very busy and have many students to whom they cannot devote much time. Who then, is this student-turned-authoritative shaikh to turn to, when he faces everyday personal problems in his relationship, or for guidance in his own self-development? The average person can turn to their local imam for religious help and guidance, but for the imam, his pool of advisers, who are knowledgeable and who can honestly and effectively give him counsel, is small. This is a huge con when it comes to marriage, in which having trustworthy people we can look up to, who can listen to our problems on a regular basis, give us practical advice, and can tell us frankly when we are wrong or being unreasonable, is a tremendous source of benefit.

Another commonality among successful imams is that they often have larger-than-life personalities. They possess a dynamism that draws people to them as natural leaders, and lofty goals and dreams that have to do with the betterment of the Muslim community and the ummah at large. While this visionary thinking and strategic planning is vital to our community, it can also leave a spouse feeling overshadowed. A spouse’s own ‘worldly’ dreams and needs can seem trivial in comparison, causing them to feel guilty for asking for support at the expense of such important work. This is compounded by the fact that imams and others serving the Muslim community are often not just overworked, but bled dry emotionally and intellectually by their work, and by the end of the day may have little left to give to their spouse in terms of time, support, and energy. Instead of husband and wife studying, worshipping, and spiritually growing together, which many romantically envision when marrying a shaikh, it can be a lonely experience, in which one’s spouse travels frequently, is busy at all hours of the day and busiest at the times others are usually free (in the evenings, on weekends, and on Eid.) Just as with other couples in which one partner has a high-stress job, the other regularly has to take on a larger share of the responsibilities towards family, children and other mundane tasks.

This is where having a spouse who supports one’s goals is very significant, and why I often ask young sisters interested in marrying a shaikh to think twice about their own expectations and needs. If one spouse has the philosophy that “family comes first”, and the other is a die-hard devotee to Islamic work, whose feelings are more akin to what powerhouse Egyptian activist Zainab al-Ghazali told her soon-to-be husband (“In the event of any clash between the marriage contract's interest and that of Da'wah, our marriage will end, but Da'wah will always remain rooted in me") then there will obviously be problems.

This is a point that I hope young soon-to-be imams and daees heed as well: that a woman who supports one’s goals, and in addition is mature (emotionally as well as in her Islamic practice,) and already has a support system of friends, family and mentors/teachers, would be best able to handle being married to a busy imam or shaikh. Marrying someone who is new to the country, new to the concept of dawah, or looks (adoringly) to you, who is soon to be extremely busy, to meet all of her needs, often leads to frustrations and problems.

Know, also, not-so-young imams and shaikhs, that I have seen, more than once, an increasingly popular imam divorce his first wife, only to deeply regret it later. The first wife, who had been there through the thick and thin of pre-celebrity life, in the days when one was a poor student of deen, or being paid a pittance as an unknown local teacher…who cared for one’s children, hosted one’s family and guests, with poise and patience and often words of support and encouragement. The glamour of being a popular shaikh’s wife rapidly wears off for her fresh-faced ‘replacement,’ who is often quickly overwhelmed, frustrated, and unhappy in her new role. Beware, because like an arrow from its bow some things cannot be taken back or returned to how they once were.

The Microscope

The wife of an imam also faces intense scrutiny in almost every aspect of her life; her manner of dress, how she carries herself, how she raises her children, chooses to runs her household, or do any one of a number of things is often under the microscope and subject to evaulation. While being the wife of a religious teacher obliges one to represent Islam in a beautiful way – as one is deeply connected to sacred knowledge, and as a way of honoring that sacred learning — I have found that there is a certain flat, Stepford-wife-like image that we impose on the wives of shaikhs and imams and expect them to live up to. I veer between amusement and offense when someone exclaims, “Oh, you are the wife of Shaikh X?” — wondering which aspect of that idealized image I do not match up to!

In addition there is a strange deference given to the wife of a shaikh. I always strive for composure when someone who was dismissive of me beforehand becomes overly attentive and cloyingly polite when they realize who I am married to. Suddenly, instead of a cold shoulder, invitations are extended and smiles are given, a seat is available when a few minutes ago it was reserved for someone else, and my children are shown affection when they were beforehand glared at for their antics. While for some it is an expression of their reverence for sacred knowledge, I feel that I was certainly your sister in Islam before you knew whose wife I was, and kind treatment should be given to all in our community, whether wife of pauper or preacher.

The Poison of Fame

I have written thus far about some of the general challenges of being married to someone devoted to Islamic work and in the role of imam, shaikh or daee. However, there are certain tests that become increasingly difficult as a shaikh rises in popularity. These fitan [tests] seep into family life and personal relationships, and I have seen how in their worst form, they can directly lead to marriages breaking, trusts being betrayed, and at times an imam or preacher compromising his own ethics, blinded by the light of being centerstage. When we see the real, harmful consequences of fame on the one who is meant to be a living legacy of our Prophet ﷺ, and who carries the immense trust of being a teacher of Islam, we realize why the Prophet ﷺ said that the one who praises a man has killed him [Sahih Muslim]. Indeed it is a poison the effects of which we see across the dawah scene today.

As an up-and-coming preacher or imam is increasingly in the spotlight, and gains a larger and larger following, they find themselves being paid attention to, being appreciated and being praised in a way that they never were before. Constant adoration and blind devotion from others inflates the ego, and can put blinders on the heart. The harmful spiritual consequences are numerous, the worst of which is a feeling of self-sufficiency and arrogance. One pulls away from working communally — why should you, when your name can draw a crowd to your own organization or institution? — thus removing one from the natural checks and balances that comes with working with others, and making one less likely to listen to criticism, correction or rebuke, and with less opportunity to hear it.

One of the tests a popular imam or daee faces, which cannot be overstated, is one of the most lethal for the religious scholar and that is in worldly desires. Fame transforms a once simple student of deen to an entrepeneur with lucrative financial assets, and from a humble teacher to a dashing figure in the eyes of some women. Here is where the mettle of the man beneath the title, and under the turban or kufi, is often tested - as to whether he will remain steadfast, with dignity, morality, and modesty, holding himself to the high standard of ethical conduct that befits a teacher of Islam, or fall short.

The stories of young preachers and shaikhs who have stumbled here, either in behavior that clearly contravenes Islamic teachings, or in questionable behavior unbecoming of a person of knowledge, are unfortunately becoming more common. Since such stories have become a common trope these days, I will share a few stories of shaikhs of a different variety.

Once in my student days, there was a sister who was very committed to learning and sought to specialize in one subject in particular, and would often attend the courses conducted by a specific shaikh who was something of an expert in the topic. As she progressed in her studies, and her questions and understanding became more advanced, she began communicating with him on a more one-on-one level. Eventually she would be given regular assignments, followed by direct instruction from the shaikh in which these more nuanced topics were discussed. After some time, he excused himself from these sessions, and essentially cut off contact, citing obligations towards his wife and family as the reason he was no longer available. She was left understandably frustrated and puzzled, but I could clearly see what she did not - which is how such a lovely sister, an eager student of like interests and brilliance, could spark something in her teacher, especially when his wife, preoccupied with the mundane tasks of rearing children and running a household, may not be able to connect with him in the same way. Perhaps sensing something in himself, he chose to step away from those interactions, protecting the sanctity of the role of teacher and student.

In another incident during my student days, I would regularly attend classes by an shaikh who was widely popular, and in one class he touched on a topic that I found particularly interesting. I peppered him with a number of questions during the class, and afterwards, I sought him out to share some of my personal thoughts and get his feedback. In his response he mentioned his wife several times, which I found odd, but it was only until later — in one of those moments of sudden clarity — that I realized why he did so. Perhaps there was something in my earnestness that caused him to feel the need to establish his boundaries, and after the initial embarassment I was deeply impressed.

These small stories are snapshots, in my opinion, of something so critical for a teacher of religion and one who dons the mantle of knowledge - a fear of God, an awareness of the heaviness of the amana [trust] of being a teacher or daee, a distrust in the self and the ego, and a sense of loyalty and commitment to one’s family.

May Allah help each and every one of us, in or connected to the “dawah scene”, to fulfill our roles to the best of our ability. May He make us sincere to the knowledge, committed and faithful, drawing hearts to His Path by our beautiful conduct and example. May He bless us and bless our families, protect us, and guide us, make us firm in faith, heavy against our own selves and wary of the huge responsibility and level of accountability that comes with this path. Ameen.


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