Marital life is a mutual and cooperative relationship between two spouses, in order to achieve tranquility and happiness in this life and the life to come. In addition, both spouses have rights and obligations towards each other. Almighty Allah says in the Qur’an ( And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness…) (Al-Baqarah 2: 228)
In his explanation on this issue, a great scholar, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani stated that ‘One should clearly distinguish between Islamic teachings and the general practice of Muslims. Unfortunately, we are living in an age when the majority of Muslims are not aware of the noble teachings of Islam and they do not practice these teachings in their daily lives. Instead, they are mostly influenced by the different cultures in which they live. Therefore, not everything the Muslims practice on the ground can be attributed to Islam.
Moreover, while evaluating the merits of Islam, one should not refer to the practice of Muslims today; rather, he should turn to the Islamic principles laid down in the Noble Qur’an and the Sunnah. Obviously, if the Muslims have abandoned the guidance of the sharia, it cannot and should not be taken in any way as a defect in the Sharia itself, rather, it is the fault of those who have deprived themselves of this guidance. Keeping this basic point in view, here are some guidelines regarding this issue:
It is evident from studying the relevant materials found in the Noble Qur’an and the Sunnah that Islam treats the relationship of marriage as a bilateral contract between a husband and wife, each of them having some rights and obligations. The Noble Qur’an is very clear on this point when it says: (And the women have rights similar to their obligations…) (Al-Baqarah2: 228).
It is clear from this verse that the obligations of a wife towards her husband are no less than the rights she enjoys. The Noble Qur’an has summarized the obligations of a husband towards his wife in a short phrase where it has made it mandatory for a husband to keep her with fairness. (Al-Baqarah 2: 229).
In another place, the Noble Qur’an instructs husband in the following words: ( And live with them (wives) in fairness.) (An-Nisaa’ 4: 19). Therefore, it is not correct that Islam has laid more emphasis on the obligations of a wife than on the obligations of a husband. Conversely, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) emphasized the rights of women in many of his sayings which are probably more than the sayings emphasizing the rights of a husband. To prove this fact, below are some evidences:
1) The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The best people from among you are those who are best to their wives.”(At-Tirmidhi)
2) Also, he said, “No Muslim should hate his Muslim wife. If he dislikes some of her qualities, he may find some other qualities that are pleasurable.” (Muslim)
3) And, he said, “Adhere to my advice about woman that you should treat them fairly.” (At-Tirmidhi).
These texts are sufficient to reveal the great concern the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had for the rights of women, so much so that he dedicated a substantial portion of his last sermon at the time of the Farewell Pilgrimage to explain, elaborate and emphasize the obligations of a man towards his wife.
It is worth mentioning that in some regions today, women are burdened with the housework like cooking meals, cleaning the house and raising children while their husbands seldom assist them in these matters. Here I would like to mention the correct Islamic standpoint with regard to the obligations of a woman concerning housework.
First of all, according to Islamic teachings, it is not a legal obligation of a wife to cook the meals or take care of the house, and if a woman chooses to refuse to undertake such work, the husband cannot compel her to do so. However, apart from the legal injunctions, Islam has laid down some moral instructions for both husband and wife according to which they are treated as life-companions who should not restrict themselves to legal requirements alone, but should join hands to develop a mutual life that is as comfortable and peaceful as possible. They are invited to cooperate with each other in solving the problems they face day to day. For this purpose, it is advisable that as cooperating friends, they should divide the necessary work between them according to their mutual convenience. The woman should look after the management of the house while the man should be responsible for outdoor economic activities. This division of work was the practice of the Muslims in the days of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
Even lady Fatimah, the beloved daughter of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to perform all the housework with her own hands, while `Ali, her noble husband, carried out the economic activities. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never objected to this; rather, he encouraged his daughter to perform all these tasks.
It is true that from a pure legal point of view, a wife may refuse to cook meals or do other housework, but on the other hand, the husband may refuse to give her permission to meet her relatives. And if both of them are restricted to such a crude legal relationship, an atmosphere of mutual understanding and bilateral cooperation cannot develop between them.
Therefore, a wife should not consider the housework to be a disgrace to her. In fact, her active contribution to her own housework is the basic source of strength for the family system within the society. It is a great service, not only to her family but also to the nation as a whole, because the betterment of the nation depends on a smooth family system. It is strange that when an air hostess serves meals to hundreds of strangers in an airplane, it has been taken today as a symbol of liberalism, progress and emancipation, but when a housewife renders much lighter services to her own family, it is considered a disgrace or sign of backwardness.
Today Western countries are facing the terrible situation of family breakdown. Their leaders are greatly disturbed because of this drawback, which is caused by the lack of mutual cooperation between husband and wife and their failure to determine the functions of the spouses according to their natural, biological and religious requirements.
In short, a wife is not legally bound to render the household services, however, it is advisable that she performs these functions as a means of cooperation with her family and an honorary service to the society as a whole, for which she deserves great reward in the Hereafter. At the same time, the husband should always remember that the housework undertaken by his wife is not a legal duty obliged on her; rather, it is a voluntary service she is rendering for the benefit of the family. Therefore, a husband must always appreciate the goodwill of his wife and should not treat it as a legal claim against her. Moreover, he should not leave all the housework to her alone. The husband should provide her with servants wherever possible, and should himself assist her in performing these functions. It is reported in a number of authentic hadiths that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), despite his great responsibilities, used to render many domestic services with his own hands, like milking goats and washing his clothes. We do not find anywhere in his Sunnah that he ever ordered any of his wives to do such work. However, his noble wives used to do these services voluntarily without any specific command from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
It is not correct that all the books or literatures written on this subject only stress the obligations of a wife. In fact, all the books of Islamic jurisprudence discuss the rights and obligations of both spouses simultaneously. The husband is required not only to provide maintenance, but he is also required to treat his wife “fairly” as the Noble Qur’an mentioned, so much so that Muslim jurists have observed that a husband cannot travel for more than four month at one time without the permission of his wife. However, unfortunately many Muslims are not aware of the teachings of their religion and, due to their ignorance; they commit errors in their behavior towards their wives.