By Jamillah Karim
One of the greatest struggles that African American women face is the shortage of marriageable men. In our Muslim communities alone, we know countless African American women in their thirties and even forties who have never married. Also, we know ample divorced women, including those in their sixties who divorced in their thirties but never remarried.
Black women lead in the growing numbers of unmarried women in the US.. This is due to the effects of systemic racism, manifested in outrageously high incarceration rates and low professional job rates among Black men. Other factors in society, not race related, also contribute to decreased marriage rates. These include women’s financial independence, which no longer makes marriage necessary for women's and children’s economic survival, and our culture’s acceptance of extramarital sex, which gives people less incentive to honor and ennoble amorous relationships through the institution of marriage. Trends show that women of all backgrounds will find it harder to find companionship and marry, with African American women leading in this struggle, according to Ralph Banks, author of Is Marriage for White People?
If lived with beauty and sincerity, as demonstrated in the life of our Beloved Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him), Islam offers much promise and assistance to women struggling with singlehood. First, Islam requires that sex take place only within marriage. Second, Islam emphasizes that men take care of women and children. Together, this means that Islam holds men to a high standard of responsibility and commitment to women. Although this standard is not always met, the ideals inspire men to be responsible and marry, thereby increasing the number of marriage-worthy men in our community compared to communities without these ideals.
Third, Islam permits responsible, financially-able, God-conscious men the option to marry up to four women. While I do not see polygyny as the primary strategy for making marriage-worthy men available since only a very small group of men qualify for this privilege, a few single women will benefit from it. Even this select group of women profiting from polygyny grants a degree of mercy and relief to families and communities.
Perhaps the greatest advantage that Islam offers women is guidance to see the struggle of singlehood as any other struggle, that is, to test our faith in God, our patience, and our willingness to strive for His pleasure. “We will test you until We know the true fighters among you and those who are patient, and we shall test what is reported of you” (Qur’an 47:31). Also, the Qur’an states,
“Indeed, Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their wealth in exchange for the Garden. They fight in Allah’s path, killing and being killed. [It is] a promise binding upon Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur'an. Who fulfills their promise more than Allah? So rejoice in the bargain you have made. That is the supreme triumph.” (9:111)
Singlehood can be experienced as a sacrifice to rejoice and find blessing in. Women and men can benefit from this alternative way of seeing singlehood.
In this light, we resist the tendency to see singlehood as a deficiency. Too often it is suggested that Allah has yet to send a person a mate because they have more growing to do. This implies that those fortunate to have found someone have completed their growth, which is far from the truth. One’s singlehood indicates nothing for certain about a person’s maturity, beauty, desirability, spirituality, or intelligence. All that is certain is that singlehood is the particular struggle Allah has designed for some people.
This move away from figuring out how to fix oneself for a mate to embracing a struggle from Allah opens one up to a rich spiritual journey. Indeed, we grow closest to Allah in the moments when we realize that all assistance and success come from Allah alone and that there is nothing left to do but to turn our very selves over to Allah. The struggle of singlehood particularly lends itself to self surrender because singlehood requires waiting for the right person to come along. It requires patience.
Singlehood grants one the opportunity to master patience because waiting is a constant state until one marries. If we make the intention that our waiting be for the sake of Allah, then every moment of our existence will be for the sake of Allah. Just by being single, our very breathing and living will be for Allah. And when we make our waiting for Allah, Allah is always with us. “Indeed, Allah is with the patient” (Qur’an 2:153). Is not presence with Allah our highest aspiration?
To be sure, human companionship, especially with a spouse, is a gift from Allah and in all its grandeur, can bring us close to Allah in the most profound ways. Also, Allah has made our natural makeup such that it drives us to amorous love. That natural desire and need, of course, is what makes waiting a struggle. It is precisely this yearning, though, that makes singlehood an extraordinary path to Allah. What do we do with all the desire and yearning when Allah has closed the doors of marriage to us? We cannot suppress the yearning, but we can rechannel it.
But how? Our Blessed Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) advised the person who could not afford to marry to fast, “as fasting will diminish one’s sexual power” (Bukhari). This hadith proves that waiting is both expected at times and within our capacity. The Prophet does not deny our human desire, but rather he encourages us to overcome this desire with an act of sincere devotion to God. Extra acts of worship not only help us tame our passions but also place us on a path to constantly remember and yearn for God.
“We are living in this world, and we are surrounded by all of these desires. We know that our Origin is higher than these desires so we leave them and we come to a place that is a reminder of the Origin.” (Habib Husayn As-Saqqaf, “Obligatory Love,” Translation by SeekersHub)
Our worship constitutes the places that remind us of our Origin, Allah. It is human to love the places that remind us of “home” and to yearn for “home.” As we keep returning to these places, we find that our yearning is less and less for our desires and more and more for Allah. “Whoever loves to meet Allah, Allah loves to meet him” (Bukhari). Ultimately, our devotion, which fuels our yearning, gains us Allah’s love, which deepens our longing for and our devotion to Allah.
Indeed, we meet Allah in our yearning. Rumi wrote beautifully about the way that the yearning itself is a gift because it is both the cry for God and the answer from God:
One night a man was crying, “Allah! Allah!”
His lips grew sweet with the praising, until a cynic said,
"So! I have heard you calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?"
The man had no answer to that. He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls, in a thick, green foliage.
"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing you express is the return message."
The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.
The struggle of singlehood is the crying to Allah, and it leaves the believing servant no choice but to give herself over to God--to seize the bargain that the Qur’an describes, where Allah has purchased her very body and all its innate desires for intimacy and companionship. The reward is Allah’s love and gaze.
“Remember Me by fighting with your soul, I will remember you by watching.” (Hadith Qudsi)
“So remember Me, I will remember you.” (Qur’an 2:152)
Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse wrote,
“The sincerity of the elite is to put the religion into practice, not for the sake of reward, not for fear of punishment, nor for attaining a spiritual station (maqam). Rather, you worship Allah out of yearning ( for Him).
Worship (‘ubudiyya) means that you put the religion into practice for no other reason than the fact that Allah deserves to be worshipped, and you are a servant for whom nothing else is fitting besides service. So you act for His sake, and you do not perceive yourself deserving anything from Him. You give witness to the blessing, and He gives witness to your good deeds.” ("The Stations of the Religion," Translation by Zachary Wright)
The struggle of singlehood is Allah’s choosing. The yearning of singlehood is the servant’s sincere worshipping. The pleasure of singlehood is Allah’s witnessing.
Out of His mercy, Allah gives us family, companions, teachers, and even personal pursuits and passions to provide comfort, satisfaction, and pleasure as we aspire to give ourselves over to Allah. This is often described as keeping ourselves busy so that we are not consumed by our desires. Because singlehood can extend over years, this platonic or spiritual love is a mercy, and it offers another pleasure of singlehood.
Without amorous love in our lives, we are more likely to discover that intimate love can come from other places. Certainly, the devotee who has given herself over to Allah is promised Allah’s love, and Allah shows His love in tangible ways through others and through self love. When we are able to experience rich, fulfilling love from ourselves and others in the path of God, we are protected from the common mistake of rushing into romantic love. We are so full of love from Allah that we can patiently and wisely choose the right mate.
It is especially important for women to choose with patience. One scholar described the reason in a special message he imparted to women:
“O, Sister! This message is for you. Your heart is a jewel so protect it. The heart of a woman is not like the heart of a man. The heart of a woman is that if it loves, it loves something completely. So for this reason, do not give your heart to someone who does not deserve it.
So who deserves your heart? There is a man who loves you but not for your beauty, and not for your wealth, and not for your position or job, and not for your progeny, and not for your physique, but he loves you because he knows that you are a part of him.” (Habib Husayn As-Saqqaf, “Obligatory Love,” Translation by SeekersHub)
Surely, this is a high standard for a woman, and if she strives for such a sincere mate, she is more likely to find herself waiting. Because the hearts are different, men are not given the same advice. Rather, the Prophet (s) advises them to marry once they can afford it. This means that singlehood is divinely meant to be a struggle experienced more by women than men, which is supported by relationship statistics. The beauty and mercy in this for women, however, is that we are more likely to tread this lofty path of patience and yearning for Allah.
In his beautiful counsel to sisters in this struggle, Habib Husayn continued:
[He loves you] because Allah has created him for you and you for him. This is why it’s called a partner, a zawj. The word spouse in Arabic means that one completes the other. So for this reason, if your heart wishes to be connected to someone, then it should be connected to someone who would see you as a spouse and as someone who completes you. You should ask that Allah gives you someone like that so that through him your religion will be completed, and you experience that feeling and that compassion.
And what if a sister finds herself falling in love with a man who is not right for her? Habib Husayn addressed this common occurrence:
And you should create around your heart a protection from loving someone just for the sake of desire (shahawat). And have no doubt that if you have this protection, someone will come to you who will really respect you and be the one who is really worth it.
True, you might love all the believing men and all the believing women in general. For instance, you may love someone who has served you or helped you, but that love is not a love of desire (hawa) [and that type of love for the sake of Allah is encouraged].
But if your heart is connected to a man or woman without any purpose or any reason, then do not respond to this connection; do not reply to it. You should take this feeling that you are feeling (mayl, attachment) to the Prophet (s), [in other words you should shift your attachment and redirect your heart towards loving the Prophet (s)] because he is the most worthy of this feeling (mahabbah).
You should ask Allah to remove this connection from your heart, or if he is good as a spouse for you, then ask that Allah bring him to you as a spouse.
Habib Husayn’s counsel to shift one’s attachment from a person unworthy of your heart to the Beloved of Allah (s) profoundly captures the blessing of singlehood. The highest form of human love is loving the Best of Creation (s) above all creation. By redirecting attachment, love, and longing to the Prophet (s), single women do not have to be deprived of the heavenly gift of being in love. Rather, they will experience the greatest love, for certainly the Prophet (s) is our door to Allah, and meeting Allah (swt) is our highest aspiration.
This alternative way of seeing the struggle of singlehood as a blessing from Allah, and particularly one for women, helps us to work for better marriage rates in our communities without losing ourselves in despair or rushing into unhealthy marriages. Allah knows our condition, and is certainly Perfect and Wise and Capable of all things. If it is His choice, He will change this condition for single women. “Oh Allah! Make us love what You love and make our choice Your choice. And do not make us need anyone other than You” (Dua of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse).
Shaykh Mahy Cisse advised that we encourage single women and men to be patient and to pray for them. Indeed, his is a reminder that this is Allah’s choice and that we all have a part to play in this struggle: patience for those single and prayers from all of us. “And seek help through patience and prayer” (Qur’an 2:45).
I wrote this piece from the collective perspective (my use of “we”) because I too face struggles relieved through patience, yearning, and prayer, I too waited many years to find my spouse, and I too embrace the reminder that my single sisters’ struggle is my struggle and deserves my dua.
I end with reminders from our beloved Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him, and beautiful duas:
“Patience is a light.” (Muslim)
“And whoever remains patient, Allah, will make him patient. Nobody can be given a blessing better and greater than patience.” (Bukhari)
“O, Allah, no one can prevent from me what you grant or give me what you deprive.” (Bukhari)
May Allah aid and comfort
and guide and support and uplift
our single sisters.
May He make this test
a means of sweet nearness to Him.
May He make their duas
steps to Him.
May He bless them with the absolute
best of mates,
giving in ample abundance
as He always does.
May our duas reach Him
and may He accept and forgive
All this and more. Ameen.
O, Allah! Protect our hearts.
O, Allah! Grant every righteous woman
a righteous spouse who respects her
and gives her her right,
who loves and protects her,
and does not harm her,
and who takes her by her hand
to the highest Paradise.
O, Allah! Give us a true purpose,
love of the Prophet (s),
and love of Allah
in the beginning and end,
make us taste this love,
unite us in Paradise,
and remove from our hearts
all love for desire in this world.
(Habib Husayn As-Saqqaf)