US Muslim Marriages: Battle of Cultures

In the diverse American Muslim community, marriage and divorce could pose a real challenge to people wishing to keep their unions intact, owing in part to where they live and if they are part of a cross-cultural marriage, something more common in Western Muslim partnerships.
Fatima Zahra Assal is a Muslim American of Moroccan decent who lives in California. She recalls that when trouble arose in her marriage and she realized she wanted a divorce, although she agonized over the decision, in hindsight, she felt certain that her decision would have been different had she still been living in her native country.
In explaining to the difference between divorcing in the US and divorcing in a Muslim majority country, Assal stated, "In the states I know there's a chance I can get married again.
“But in Morocco it would never happen. No one would want me. Maybe my only chance [for remarriage] would be to [marry] someone much older, like 70 or 80, who needs someone to take care of him.”
Such a scenario, unattractive for obvious reasons, made Assal feel all the more liberated when she realized that remaining in a bad marriage was not her only option.
However, easier access to divorce is having its impact in more negative ways for some American Muslims, particularly converts who marry native-born Muslims, and especially among those who immigrated to America.
Although the exact divorce rate of among American Muslim couples is unknown, a study in the early 1990s concluded the divorce rate among this group to be 31 percent, while a Rutgers University study estimated the overall divorce rate within the US to be nearly 50 percent.
In 2012, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) reported that the divorce rate among American Muslim couples has risen sharply over the past 25-years.
Mixed Cultures
Many reverts to Islam who chose born Muslims as their partners, said they are not surprised by these numbers, as they have faced a myriad of challenges and difficulties not common to other couples.
As a result, when problems arose in their marriages, they grappled with how to solve them.
Dorothy Hayes recently divorced her husband, a man originally from Tunisia whom she met while he was a student in Georgia.
She said that although she is a Muslim herself and has knowledge of the Islamic faith, her husband would often use religion as an excuse for his bad behavior, claiming he was following Islam.
Recalling her experience Hayes added, “My ex-husband refused to change, even in the slightest way, if I thought he was acting badly.
“Sometimes he would say it was the Islamic way, and I would remind him it was only his culture’s way, not Islam at all.”
This is a common refrain from couples in similar situations, who reported fighting over everything from the food they eat, to how they communicate with their families about the couples’ problems, to language barriers causing one spouse to feel removed from gatherings with family or friends that are conducted in a language that one spouse doesn’t understand.
“Language barrier issues come up again and again with us,” complained Layla Fakhri, who hails from Texas.
“I don’t know Arabic and he talks in front of me all the time, excluding me from communication.”
Scenarios such as this breed mistrust and anger in a marriage.
Oftentimes the American-born spouse is in favor of counseling to mend the crises that may arise in their marriage, but the immigrant or native-born Muslim is reluctant or even refuses to discuss marital woes with anyone, even his or her spouse.
Unresolved marital issues leave a troubled partnership in even more turmoil, experts say.
Lack of Counseling
Those who study marriage amongst Muslims lament the availability of pre-marital counseling programs and solid prevention and/or intervention practices within the American Muslim community.
“Religious leaders like imams can provide counseling,” according to the authors of the ISPU study, including Amal Killawi, the study’s primary investigator and a clinical social worker and researcher at the University of Michigan.
“However, they tend to have limited professional training in counseling and mental health and may be more focused on spiritual issues,” she said.
Even when intervention options are available, some immigrant families feel they serve no purpose and actually discourage their children – many of them first-generation Americans with wildly different perspectives than t their parents – from making use of them.
One divorced man from Florida, who did not wish to be identified, said he and his ex-wife were practically laughed at when they confided to their families that they were considering pre-marriage counseling.
“A lot of times a young couple wants to see someone before they’re married, but everybody tells them they don’t need to,” he said. “They say that people have been getting married for years and they never did it so what’s the point.”
This type of attitude, along with the cultural stigma attached to counseling once a couple is married, is not only detrimental to repairing the husband and wife’s bond, but it also against Qur’anic teachings.
Islam teaches us to seek out help from our families when our marriages reach a critical point.
"If you fear a breach between them, appoint one arbiter from the people of the man and one from the people of the woman. If they wish to have a settlement then God will reconcile them, for God is all-knowing and cognisant." Surat An-Nisa' 4:35 [Ahmed]
This is clear guidance to seek help from others who might offer an outsider’s perspective, which can be beneficial, as those people can often see more clearly than two warring spouses whose judgment is clouded with anger.
The Quran further advises a cooling off period before a couple makes a final decision to divorce, encouraging time to reconsider such an important decision.
Allah says, “Those who intend to divorce their wives shall wait four months; if they change their minds and reconcile, Allah is the forgiver, merciful. If they go through with the divorce, then Allah is hearer, knower.”
Still, despite these Islamic directives, some Muslims choose to ignore this advice and, too often, pay the price with the demise of their marriage.
More than 1 million children each year experience their parents' divorce in the United States. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at all ages, children frequently have psychosomatic symptoms as a response to anger, loss, grief, feeling unloved and other stressors related to divorce.