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Marriage: Goals, Purpose and Definition

The Definition of Marriage (Nikah)

The original meaning of the word nikah is the physical relationship between man and woman. It is also used secondarily to refer to the contract of marriage which makes that relationship lawful. Which of the two meanings is intended can be determined by the context in which it is used.

As for the definition of marriage in fiqh, the simple definition would go something like this:

"A contract that results in the two parties physically enjoying each other in the manner allowed by the Shari'ah."

Since this only focuses on one aspect of the marriage contract, Muhammad Abu Zahrah (a modern scholar) defines it like this:

"A contract that results in the man and woman living with each other and supporting each other within the limits of what has been laid down for them in terms of rights and obligations."

Ibn 'Uthaimin ('Uthaymin) takes an even more comprehensive view of the institution of marriage in his definition of it as:

"It is a mutual contract between a man and a woman whose goal is for each to enjoy the other, become a pious family and a sound society."

The Purpose and Goals of Marriage

Like anything a Muslim does, marriage should only be undertaken after gaining an understanding of all that Allah has prescribed in terms of rights and obligations as well as gaining an understanding of the wisdom behind this institution. Nearly all peoples and all societies practice marriage in some form, just as they practice business (buying and selling). 'Umar ibn Al-Khattab used to expel people from the marketplace in Medina who were not knowledgeable of the fiqh of buying and selling. Likewise, a Muslim should not engage in something as important as marriage without having understanding of the purpose of marriage in Islam as well as a comprehensive understanding of the rights and obligations which it brings about.

One of the principles of Islamic Jurisprudence says that: "The default state of all things is lawfulness until some evidence shows otherwise." Based on this, if new foods are discovered, they are considered lawful, unless there is some specific reason or attribute which would make it forbidden for example if it is causes intoxication. Relations between men and women do not follow this general principle and in fact are opposite to it. The principle is that: "Relations between men and women are forbidden until some evidence shows otherwise."

Procreation (Children)

One of the most important purposes of marriage is to continue and increase the population of the Muslims. Clearly, this goal could be achieved without marriage, but when actions are undertaken in disobedience to Allah, they do not receive the blessing of Allah and the whole society is corrupted. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

"Marry, for I will outnumber the other nations by you on Qiyama." [Ibn Majah - Sahih]

It should be stressed that the goal is not simply to produce any child that will live in the next generation. It is to produce righteous children who will be obedient to Allah and who will be a source of reward for their parents after they die. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) will NOT be boasting before the other nations on the day of Qiyama with children of Muslim parents who left the path of Islam. Thus it is the responsibility of Muslim parents to seek the means of giving their children the training and education they need not just to grow, but to succeed as Muslims worshipping and obeying Allah. This obligation may include migration (hijrah), establishing of Muslim communities and schools and other obligations. As the scholars have said in another principle of fiqh:

"That without which an obligation cannot be fulfilled is itself obligatory."


Islam is the religion of the fitrah - the religion which is consistent with the natural instincts and needs of mankind. It is not like the man-made (of modified) religions which set unnatural constraints on people whether self-inflicted prohibition of marriage (nuns and monks, etc.), prohibition of divorce or monogamy. Men are inclined toward women and women are inclined toward men. Marriage is the institution which fulfills this desire and channels it in ways pleasing to Allah Most High. Allah mentions this attraction:

"The love of the desires for women, sons, ... has been made attractive to people." [Noble Quran 3:14]

The Messenger of Allah himself made clear that the attraction between the sexes is something natural and not something to be denied or suppressed - only channeled in the ways pleasing to Allah Most High, saying:

"Women and perfume have been made beloved to me of this world of yours and my peace of mind is in the prayer." [Ahmad & others - sahih]

The desire of men and women for each other is an urge which needs to be fulfilled. If it is left unfulfilled, it will be a source of discord and disruption in society. For this reason, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) ordered all men who are capable of meeting the responsibilities of marriage to do it:

"Whichever of you is capable should marry for it will aid him in lowering his gaze and guarding his body (from sin). As for the one who is not capable, fasting is his protection." [An-Nasa'i - Sahih]

The Ruling Concerning Marriage

Different Rulings for Different Cases?

What is the status of marriage in the Shari'ah? Is it obligatory or merely allowed? Some of the Hanafi scholars have broken this question down into different cases:

If a person feels certain that he will commit something forbidden if he does not marry and he has the financial ability to marry, then marriage is in his case fardh (the highest level of the obligatory in Hanafi terminology).

If a person has the ability to marry and treat his wife properly and fears (strong probability) that he will engage in unlawful acts if he doesn't, then marriage in his case is wajib (obligatory).

If a person does not have the financial or physical means to marry or feels certain that he will not treat his wife properly then marriage in his case is haram (forbidden).

If a person has the means to marry, but feels strongly that he will not treat his wife properly, marriage in his case is makruh (disliked).

If a person has the means to marry and has no fear of mistreating his wife or of committing the unlawful if he doesn't marry, then marriage in his case is mustahab (preferred).

This last opinion is widely regarded as the "default" (al-asl) ruling in this question i.e., marriage, generally speaking is the preferred but not obligatory way and only becomes obligatory, forbidden, etc. in the exceptional cases.

Since the man is normally the one who goes looking for a spouse and proposes to her family, etc., these discussions normally focus on him. Every point in the above discussion, however, applies to women equally as it does to men.

The Dhahiri (Literalist) Opinion

In the Literalist school of thought, marriage is considered fardh 'ain - an absolute and individual obligation. Among the evidence they cite are the following verse from the Quran and hadith of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him):

"And marry off the single among you and among the righteous of your male and female slaves. If they are poor then Allah will supply their needs from His generosity. And Allah is expansive, knowing. (32) And let those who do not find marriage hold back until Allah grants them of His generosity." [Noble Quran 24:32-33]

The following hadith of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) seems to be a blanket "order" to all those with the capability to get married:

"O young men, whoever among you has the ability, let him marry." [Bukhari & Muslim]

Conclusion Concerning the Ruling of Marriage

The opinion that marriage is - overall - preferred (mustahab) seems to be the strongest opinion. Ibn 'Uthaymin further points out that if a person desires to be married, it becomes even more important. He said: "Marriage in the case of desire for such is preferred over superogatory acts of worship, due to the many good results and praiseworthy effects it has."

Also, it is clear that there is a collective obligation (fardh kifaya) on the Ummah as a whole to promote, defend and facilitate the institution of marriage. If marriage suffers from neglect or, for example, unreasonably high dowries which force people to postpone marriage too long, it is a collective obligation on the Ummah to come to its aid and to ensure that as many people as possible live within the context of a marriage. Also, if the Muslims come to have too many single women because of the abandonment of polygamy, it become a collective obligation on the Muslims to address and correct this situation. This is all clearly based on the command of Allah in the verse previously cited which starts out:

"And marry off the single among you..." [Noble Quran 24:32]