I broach the topic of marriage and divorce with a Kierkegaardian fear and trembling, partially because I’m vaguely familiar with the former and fairly cognizant of the latter and partially because of my own insecurities, psychological hang-ups, and racial paranoia. Normally, such dissonances in understanding don’t make me anxious – they are what they are and you learn to live with them, even revel in them. This one, however, has vexed me since my childhood and I honestly have trouble seeing an end to it.
As a kid, I almost never saw functioning, healthy marriages to the extent that I believed they were the stuff of dreams and fantasies made possible only for Hollywood or for those silly sitcoms on the Disney Channel. Most of my peers were of a similar ilk, having not known the ostensible beauty of this sacrament or agreement or whatever your religious affiliation – or lack thereof – might deem you to call it. (In contradistinction to Catholicism, marriage in Islam is more of a contractual agreement between two parties as opposed to a sacrament, not that this, of course, relegates marriage to an inferior realm of mere legalese and jurisprudence). This may sound a bit asinine, but it seemed to me back in those days people got married just so that they could get divorced, as if divorce proceedings were akin to Disney World jaunts, the best thing since sliced bread and butter. And perhaps for some, it was the best thing since Disney World or sliced bread, having endure years of unhappy and loveless marriages; but even so, I just didn’t get it: why put yourself through so much emotional, psychological, and even sometimes, physical turmoil? For sex? Does sex really feel that good? For “love”? If that’s what you call “love,” then I’d don’t to know what you call “hate.” If indeed there was beauty in marriage, like the adults assured me there was, then I never saw it. All I saw were lonely, scarred women; deadbeat, absent, and/or narcotized fathers; and fatherless, misguided – or even, unguided – children.
I’m no stranger to divorce and to the havoc it can reek upon children. From the perspective of a child, I have firsthand experience. As Chuck Palahnuik says in Fight Club (which is my second favorite movie of all time. The book is good too) I belong to “a generation of men raised by women.” I’m from a fragmented family, or as some prejudice Muslims might say, a “bad” or “questionable” family: I know next to nothing about my father’s side of the family, my paternal lineage, and I might be better off for my ignorance. I never knew my father, a derelict who vanished from my life when I was toddler and suddenly reappeared only once when I entered my twenties. (The conversation I had with him lasted all of five minutes. Just what do you say to your father whom you haven’t seen in twenty years?) Believing a boy should have a male figure to teach him the ropes, believing that a woman couldn’t possibly instruct a boy in all the proper ways of men, I searched in vain for father figures to fill the void left by my father’s absence. But you see, such figures are hard to come across in the ghetto, especially in the South. I had little to work with, and I doubt my mother would have wanted me to work with even that anyway. Thank God for reading and literature though! I found aspiration in Atticus Finch from Harper Lee‘s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. I read the book and saw the movie (this is my favorite movie of all time) as a sophomore in high school, and I was so impressed with Gregory Peck‘s performance as Atticus Finch that I decided to adopt him as my father figure, my model for what a father aught to be for his children, a status which remains to this very day. I thought that, were I ever to become a father, I should aspire to be something like him.
As for marriage, I’ve decided to jettison it for the time being, despite it’s importance in Islam as being “half the faith” and despite the wise injunction of the Prophet to marry young. I got discouraged some time ago while attempting it and I don’t think I can stomach going through the process again. At least for now. I won’t go into the details because I don’t want to fall into the trap of essentializing (read: stereotyping) any particular group of people and because I don’t want to give myself more reasons to lapse into cynicism, as if I don’t have enough already. I will say this though – and I’ll say this without any shame or personal approach – the whole affair upset me so much that I succumbed tears, and my mother, who herself wasn’t one to give into tears often herself, cried as well. The emotional laceration was deep, and though, al-hamdu’ilah, it has since healed, a nasty scar remains in its wake. Perhaps I took it too hard, too personal, but I can’t help it. Even the most stoic among us don’t always have control over how our heart handles certain situations. I’m only human, all too human. For those who might be inclined to make light of the situation, I’d like to impart a personal philosophy of mine: it’s always easier to view from afar someone’s tribulations and to rationalize their suffering and misfortune as a matter of alterity, of the being the other, the outsider or as matter of ignorance, of not knowing the truest extent of their vexations. Rationalizations abstracts the reality of their suffering, thereby trivializing them. It may not be a big deal to you, but it most certainly was to me.
When I told my mother of my choice to set marriage aside and to pursue other things in the interim, she reluctantly agreed with me. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes when she gave me her verdict on the matter: she looked down, her eyes staring beyond the confines of the room we were in, staring into ravages of time and circumstances as manifested in phantasms and makeshift mercurial memories, those nonexistent faces and places which by some product of a profound entropy evinced her history as a woman and a divorcee and which brought into an inauspicious being her present reality, of being a single mother with three grown kids, of being alone herself despite her yearning for a man, of possessing a son unable to find a spouse or a even a taboo girlfriend because of cruel contingency.
“Don’t worry baby,” she said, not to me it seemed, but to the reconstructions of the past, to the phantasms in distant time, “marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.” She took a drag of a cigarette and blow smoke to the earth with a heavy exhale. “You can do bad by your-damn-self.”
So what brings these thoughts to fore, exhumed these anxieties from the sepulcher of my mind? I had buried them and resolved not to visit them again until the time was right, yet two conversations, both occurring on the same day, both unexpected, transpired this past weekend that roused them from their tombs. Both reanimated my apprehensions about marriage and about my particular situation as a Blackamerican Muslim convert. I’m forced to look at them once more.
The first was occurred between me and a woman nearly twice my age. I’m a friend of hers, having trained in the gymnastics gym she and her husband own. We crossed paths towards the conclusion of Open Gym (where the gym is open to the public for flipping, parkour, XMA, stuff like that), and we began to chat. The topic of their financial and hence business troubles came up, and she then seamlessly transitioned to her marriage problems, as the two, no doubt, are intimately related, for money is usually an issue – if not, the issue – when it comes to divorce.
I won’t reveal who my interlocutor was, or her husband, for obvious reasons. She confided in me for some reason and I promised her I wouldn’t divulge her identity. Crossed my heart and hoped to die. Zipped my lips. As her confidant, I’ll take her secrets with me to my grave, insha’Allah, and no one will be the wiser.
I’ll attempt to piece together the situation and conversation from my memory.
She admitted, almost with guilt, “I’m thinking about getting a divorce.”
My initial incredulous invocation, “Really?!”
“Are you surprised?”
I thought about her husband for a split second, looked at her, and smiled. “Not really. Not an at all in fact. I could definitely see that.”
She laughed, then continue, “I’m just tired of being abused and -”
” – What a minute? Is he physically abusive?!”
“No, no. Emotionally abusive.”
“Oh. I was about to say. ‘You don’t hit no woman.’ Well that’s just as bad, perhaps even worse. Is he – like – controlling and stuff like that?”
“He’s very controlling. And I’m just not happy.”
“You’re Mormon right?”
“How do divorce proceedings go in the Mormon church? I know in Catholicism you have to get the marriage annulled if you want a true divorce. Is it the same for Mormons?”
“Pretty much. We had the marriage recognized by both the state and the temple. It’s easy to get a divorce with the state. But when we married in the temple, we were married for eternity, you know?”
“Will they grant you an annulment?”
“Yeah, but they won’t like it.”
“And divorces are expensive, aren’t they, as if you aren’t having enough money troubles?”
“Yes they are. I found a lawyer that said she’ll do it for a thousand dollars.”
“Really? That cheap. She must be a saint.”
A brief pause, then I continued, out of curiosity, “I know with Muslims, there’s sometimes a stigma against divorced women, especially if they come from the ‘Muslim World,’ like the Arab world and the Indian sub-continent. It’s sometimes hard for them to remarry. Is that the case for Mormons too?”
Her face contorted to a frown. “Kinda. It’s looked down upon. But I can’t stay with him.”
She paused for a minute, then continued, “I just fell out of love with him.”
“How long have you two been married?”
“Divorce after twenty years of marriage?!”
“This has been going on for a long time. I stopped loving him years ago.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”
“Did you stay with him for that long for the kid’s sake?”
“Yeah. People say I shouldn’t divorce him, but I’m just not happy. I’m fed up with him.”
“There’s no point in making yourself unhappy. It seems like you’ve compromised your own happiness long enough. If you got divorced, would you take the kids?”
“Yeah, he wouldn’t want them.”
“Not surprised by that. You’ve got family, right?”
“Yeah, his brother said that I’ll always be family no matter what happens. I’ve got a brother that lives here, so maybe I can stay with him.”
“Good, at least you don’t to go through it alone.”
She said with a smile, “I’m seeing this other guy away, a Mexican.”
“Is he Mormon as well?”
“No. I think he’s Catholic. And he’s twenty-seven.”
“Damn! You got yourself a young one.”
She laughed, then said, “The church won’t like it, though.”
I replied, laughing, “Well, the church ain’t gotta know about it do they? I mean, you know what my mother told me? She said if fornication is only thing that stops people from getting into heaven, then there’s gonna be a whole lot of people in Hell. God is merciful after all. I think you’ll be alright.”
She looked down, then looked at me again. “You don’t think this is weird, me telling you all this?”
“In truth, no. Most of the important women in my life were or are divorcees. I’m used to hearing such things because of it. I kinda have a soft spot in my heart for divorced women and single mothers, just because my mother and my grandmother were single divorcees. I can’t I know what you’re going through since I’m young, twenty-something year-old a male who’s never been married – much less divorced – but I think I can understand.”
There’s a Muslim tradition that says the angels wail at the severance of a marriage. I could believe it, as my heart sank at her admissions – yet another marriage down the way side.
Later that evening, I went to eat an at Mediterranean restaurant with my two of training buddies, a talkative Christian and a taciturn agnostic, both older than me, both single. We ordered our food and sit down, chewed the fat, spoke about the women, as single guys are oft to do.
My Christian friend asked me, “So, you meet any Muslim honeys up in Charlotte?”
“So, I’m confused. How do you meet Muslim women anyway? Do you, like, go to functions and stuff like that?”
“I sometimes go, but I usually lay low. I don’t deal the broader Muslim community too much.”
“What, are they like racist or something like that?”
“Uh. Kinda. To some extent. There’s definitely a racial hierarchy and Blacks are usually at the bottom. It’s more covert though. Sometimes the issues are more about tribalism than race: you know, like, ‘I’m from such-and-such village and you can’t marry my daughter ’cause you’re from such-and-such place.’ Sometimes it’s class. Stuff like that.”
My taciturn agnostic friend chimed in, “Yeah, that’s like a problem everywhere in the world.”
My Christian friend, once again, “Yeah, that’s definitely a human problem.”
I retorted, “I know, but it seems Blacks get it the worse. I had discussion about this with a Senegalese shaikh once. A shaikh is like an – um – scholar and a paragon. I mean, if you think about it, the Europeans colonized everybody. So it’s no surprise the people wouldn’t have this inferiority complex or this color complex. You watch a Bollywood film and all the actresses and actors look like they belong in a Brittany Spears music video on MTV.”
My Christian friend replied, “Yeah I don’t watch Bollywood films.”
“Yeah, neither do I.”
“No, I agree though. But didn’t Islam come to – you know – get rid of stuff like that?”
“Yeah, it did. That’s one reason why many Blacks flocked to Islam so readily.”
“And didn’t you leave Christianity to get away from that stuff?”
“Yeah, I did.”
He replied, “It looks like you really didn’t get anywhere.”
I laughed, even though it wasn’t funny. “Well, I had some issues with Christian theology, the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, Original Sin. That was the main reason why I left. The racism was secondary, just the icing on the cake. The Europeans racialized Jesus and God, making them White, right?”
“But they shouldn’t have done that.”
“Right. And Muslims shouldn’t be racist either.”
“But still, you’re in exactly the same position now as you were when you were a Christian, maybe even worse. Outta the frying pan and into fire.”
“Yeah, I was definitely disillusioned by the whole thing. It’s not Islam though. Islam and the Prophet, peace be upon him, are innocent. It’s Muslims for sure.”
He took a bite out of his sandwich. “I don’t know man. You must really be digging this Islam-thing because you seem to be going through a lot of trouble because of it.”
“Yeah, it definitely isn’t easy, but just because something isn’t easy, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I believe in Islam, so I should act accordingly, regardless of how difficult it may be.”
During the drive back to Charlotte, I engaged in a conversational marvel with the steady “hum” of my tires hitting the road, regarding how I would deal with this mammoth issue, wondering, if somewhere down the line, I would admit to the years of attempted piety and perseverance in matters concerning marriage in Islam as utter, youthful foolishness. So much of my journey as a Muslim thus far has been alone, and were community and marriage not so heavily stressed, I wouldn’t necessarily have any qualms with the loneliness; but monasticism and perpetual celibacy are not practices Muslims endorse since we are to be in the world and not renounce it. It seems that marriage, for all it’s pulchritude and utility, is one of the greatest test in life; and yet, so many of my peers, Muslim and non-Muslim, male and female, treat it with such an immature, dismissive levity. I shutter when I think of how my conversation with God will go at the end of time when I’m force to recount how I treated my spouse, assuming of course, that one is written for me.
Maybe my childhood ruminations are manifesting themselves in my adulthood. As the famous Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Asbar – also known as Adunis – once said, “the man grows up to become the boy.” Maybe I’m making too much of it. I have a tendency to that. In any case, I’m content for now to just bask in my bachelorhood. The world still spins on its axis and life goes on. My time will come. If not, well, I won’t be the first…nor will I be the last.