The nature of marriage has been a subject of much discussion and debate over the last decade. Receiving somewhat less attention are the differences between religions over marriage, particularly the differences between Islam and Christianity. In many respects, Islam and Christianity share a common view of the importance of marriage, but there are some significant differences that all Christians should understand.
The Catholic faith teaches that marriage is an unbreakable bond between a man and a woman. The foundations for this understanding can be found in both the Old and New Testaments:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”… Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen. 1:27-28, 2:24).
[H]usbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:28-33).
The Catechism builds upon God’s call to this fruitful, loved-filled, and unbreakable bond:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament (1601)
Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help (CCC 1605a).
To Catholics, marriage between baptized persons is a sacrament, which has the meaning of oath, or covenant. This covenant bond is a lifelong exchange of persons with God as witness. This exchange forms the basis for a community of love that reflects the sacrificial and holy love God has for his people and is ordered for the good of the man and woman and toward the begetting and education of children. We heed Christ’s words in the Gospel, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9), so after a baptized couple consummates a validly contracted marriage, it is impossible to break that union except by death. (Non-sacramental marriages, where one or both spouses are unbaptized, are also ordinarily indissoluble except in certain rare cases.)
Like Christianity, Islam values marriage as an important institution for the building of family and society, and an integral part of salvation. Various hadiths (traditional religious sayings) bear this out; for example: “There is no foundation that has been built in Islam more loved by Allah… than marriage… Allah loves no permissible like marriage, and Allah hates no permissible like divorce” (Mustadrak al-Wasa’il) and “Whoever gets married has safeguarded half of his religion” (Wasa’il al-Shia).
The Quran and tradition give further guidance and reasons to marry:
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. And let those who do not find marriage hold back until Allah grants them of his generosity. (Quran 24:32-33)
O young people! Whoever among you can marry, should marry, because it helps him lower his gaze and guard his modesty, and whoever is not able to marry, should fast, as fasting diminishes his sexual desire” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Whoever chooses to follow my tradition must get married and produce offspring through marriage (and increase the population of Muslims), so that on the Day of Resurrection, I shall confront other Ummah (nations) with the (great) numbers of my Ummah (Wasa’il al-Shia).
Marriage is so important within Islam that no other option is recognized as praiseworthy. Unlike Catholics, who view celibacy for the sake of the kingdom as a high calling, Muslims see the permanent celibate life as unnatural, given men’s sexual needs and the community’s need to grow. Muslims are encouraged to marry early in life in order to avoid forbidden sexual relations (known as zina in Islam).
The Arabic word most often associated with marriage is nikah, which means “contract.” A widely quoted definition from influential Salafi cleric Ibn ‘Uthaimin states that marriage 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.”
Now, a contract is a promise regarding an exchange of goods. A Muslim marital contract is brokered between two men—the husband-to-be and a representative for the wife-to-be. The contract stipulates the exchange of a mahr, or “bride price,” in exchange for the woman’s hand. It dictates that married life be conducted in accordance with the Quran and requires consent by the woman and two witnesses.
The first and most common category of marriage is the nikah between one man and one woman. A second category, though, is called a nikah mut’ah, or temporary marriage. This type of “marriage” is common in Shia Islam and is designed to make otherwise illicit sexual acts licit by a short-term legal arrangement. Although most Sunni Muslims reject nikah mut’ah, they accept nikah misyar, in which both prospective husband and wife agree to give up certain normal marital rights, like living together, equality between wives, rights to income, rights of homekeeping, in order to be married. This can be understood as a middle ground between a nikah and a nikah mut’ah.
In addition to these different types of marriage, in Islam one man can have multiple wives and contract several different types of marriages at the same time. “And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four” (Quran 4:3) This verse and others like it condone polygynous relationships (between one man and multiple women—but not one woman and multiple men). Men are allowed to marry up to four women, provided that they can treat them all equally (see Quran 4:129).
Classically, Muslim men were also allowed to conduct sexual relations with their female slaves, a practice that was brought back recently by ISIS and is found in the Quran: “And they who guard their private parts except from their wives and those their right hands possess (concubines), for indeed, they will not be blamed” (23:6)
Divorce by either party is allowable within Islam, though it is discouraged. “And when you divorce women and they fulfil their term [of their ‘Iddah, or post-divorce waiting period], either keep them according to reasonable terms or release them according to reasonable terms, and do not keep them, intending harm, to transgress [against them]” (Quran 2:231).
If either party violates the conditions of the signed marital contract or if they have irreconcilable differences, they can obtain a wide variety of types of divorces: from khul’ (mutual contractual divorce initiated by the wife), to talaq (a variety of simple ways for the husband to repudiate the wife, usually requiring a waiting period before the divorce is finalized), to three different types of divorce oaths and finally judicial divorce. Historically, this last right was given to men only but recently, in some places, women have been given the right to divorce as well.
So although from a distance Christian and Muslim marriages may look a lot alike, there are major differences. Marital contracts within Islam elevate marriage above the mundane while allowing for the reality of man’s frailty, but its allowance for multiple wives, temporary sexual arrangements, and partial forms of marriage expose a baser nature of a contractual view of marriage that falls far short of God’s plan for lifelong covenantal relationships.