Marital Relation and the Metaphor of the Garment
Reflections on surat –al-Baqara 2:187
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim
Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain. (Khalil Gibran, The Prophet)
Marriage is the oldest traditions known to mankind. It is a continuation of that holy communion that took place between our first parents Adam and Hawwa (May Allah (SWT)’s peace be on both of them) in the garden of al-Firdaws. Adam (as) enjoyed the bounties of his Lord in paradise. He knew no needs. However, as time passed by he yearned for human company. For love and warmth, for someone to share his thoughts with, to be intimate with, someone who can understand the beatings of his heart and deepest of his thoughts. Allah (SWT) created his wife Hawwa (as) for him and thus filled the void in his heart. Together they roamed around in paradise, eating from its many delicacies when and whatever they wished. However, due to a momentary lapse of judgement caused by the whispering of the devil, together, they violated the only one restriction that Allah (SWT) has commanded them to refrain from. As a result of this trespass divine Grace left them and they became acutely aware of their nakedness. It is then that both Adam and Hawwa felt a second need, the need to cover themselves up. They ran to the trees of paradise and started covering their innocence with its leaves. ‘Where can you run away from me Adam?’ said his Lord to him. ‘I’m not running to get away from you my Lord’, he replied ‘I’m running to hide from you out of shame and modesty’. (al-Tabari, Al-Araf: 7:22). The need for company and the need for clothes were two of the first needs that Adam (as) experienced in paradise, it then comes as no surprise that Allah (SWT) refers to the relationship between a husband and wife using the metaphor of clothes and garments.
‘They (your wives) are your garments and you are theirs’ says Allah (SWT) in the Qur’an. The metaphor of the garment is a very powerful one as it brings home the message. It creates in the mind a crystal clear picture of the relationship needed for a happy and healthy marriage. Clothes are a basic necessity for humans. They are used for warmth as well as beauty.
Clothes have many qualities and functions. One of its qualities is that it keeps us warm. The sign of a healthy marriage is when the husband and wife feel warmth in each other’s company. Their very presence brings tranquillity to the hearts of their spouse, and the whole world feels like a cold empty void without the other.
Our clothes are physically the closest object to our bodies. They trespass beyond the boundaries of what is socially accepted as ones comfort space. The husband and wife should be close to each other like the closeness of the garment to the naked body. They should be able to share the most intimate of thoughts with each other without the fear of being judged by the other. They should be open and transparent with each other and should be able to communicate their feelings, frustrations, desires physical, spiritual and emotional with honesty and without embarrassment.
Clothes are also a form of protection. They protect from harsh weather conditions as well as conceal physical imperfections such as a scar on our body. Here the analogy is three-fold: first and foremost the husband and wife should physically protect each other not only from outside threat but also from themselves. It defies all laws of human compassion and dignity that a man beats up his wife and then comes onto her like a beast for no other purpose than his gratification. He further adds insult to injury in the process by saying ‘I love you’.
Furthermore, it is the duty of the spouse to make sure that people are not bad mouthing their spouse, at least not in their presence and if they do then they should put them straight. That marriage is in a sorry state when one of the spouses is the centre of ridicule in the presence of the other and he/she does nothing about it. Even worse is when the spouse starts divulging intimate details and imperfections to others. It is in line with Prophetic practice that the spouse should conceal each other’s imperfections. Like the way our clothes conceal our physical imperfections, similarly we should conceal the imperfections of our spouse.
Similarly, our clothes function as a barrier from toxins and other harmful bacteria from coming on to our body. Marriage is about faith and trust, it is a commitment made in the presence of God and in the presence of the community. A couple should not let any third party come between them and pollute their holy communion. Indeed it is one of the devil’s greatest triumphs to cause a split between the spouse by casting doubts on their fidelity and honour.
Obviously being human one will have ups and downs in their marriage. There is nothing un-human about this. ‘Marriage is a bed of roses’ says sister Ruqayyah Waris Maqsood, ‘but a bed of roses with many thorns.’ However, it is a test of character as to how one rises up from these problems. Once in a while our clothes get dirty. We wash our clothes in order to clean them. We may also add fabric conditioners for extra softness. Conflict resolution is an art one needs to master. One needs to have an understanding for the other’s point of view, listen to them attentively and try to understand their grievance. It won’t do anyone harm if a dollop of love conditioner was added in the process. People wash their own clothes in their homes. Similarly the first call of duty should be to resolve any problems amongst themselves without resorting to any third party. A common problem amongst some women is that they get their families involved in every little argument that they have with their husbands. This at times will only make the situation worse rather than better. It is only when the stain is really stubborn or the blanket is too big that one needs to take it to the laundry. When all avenues of conflict resolution have been exhausted only then should one resort to close ones and elders for help. And if the argument is about who is to do the next laundry, just remember the fabric conditioner.
Remember our clothes are ours, they are made to fit us, even if someone else wears exactly the same clothes it’s still not our clothes. Couples should take great care that they don’t drag their parents in to their arguments. Husbands should not search for their mother in their wives and wives should not search for their father in their husbands. ‘My mother used to do everything for me’ or ‘my father used to treat me like a princess’ are common sledgehammers used against each other. If you really want to make a comparison with your parents [???], then it is better to make a horizontal comparison rather than a vertical one. How does your father treat your mother or vice versa? Accurate results will only yield when the comparison is being made between two husbands or two wives and not a father and a husband or a mother and a wife.
Many people boil down marital disputes to clash of personalities. However, unless the clash is severe, why should we see it as something detestable? Don’t we have differences and tensions in all phases of life? Shouldn’t we be celebrating our differences and respecting the other person’s likes and dislikes. Difference (ikhtilaf) in Islam is never seen as a bad thing, it is a part of the divine design of the cosmos to which we belong. What is abhorred is dispute (khilaf), antipathy and animosity. What is the joy of living in a monolithic world where everyone looks and thinks the same? Where is the challenge in this? A little bit of chilli and pepper brings out the kick in the curry and only enhances its flavour. The fabric in a cloth is made up by weaving strands of yarn vertically and horizontally. Although the fibres go in different direction they interlock at the intersection. Without the horizontal-vertical weaving the fabric will not exist. Their differences make the fabric. Without any differences there won’t be any spark in the marriage. Like the fabric our differences should be viewed as complimentary and not contradictory. As the Persian poet says: har gulera digar rang wa bu ast (every flower has a different colour and fragrance).
From time to time clothes need repairing. It’s the little stitches that keep the clothes intact. Presenting one’s spouse with a big present at valentine whilst being neglectful towards her the whole year round will not mend the already big hole in the clothes. It’s the everyday little appreciations, coy remarks and playful gestures that will keep the stitches of the marriage intact.
Despite being so close to us, we still need to take off our clothes and hang them in the closet at night. Similarly, despite being intimately close, we should give our spouse their own space lest they feel suffocated by our love. ‘Loving to death’ may not cause one to die, but it can result in a very unhappy spouse who needs time to herself. We need to understand that although we are bonded together as a couple, however we are individuals. And the sooner we understand this human condition the happier we will be in our marriage. As Gibran says: And Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music … stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart.
There now remains one piece of analogy which will throw the whole metaphor of the garment in jeopardy. What should one do when it is time to change their old clothes? If this is your case then it is high time that you buy your wife a new SAREE.
By Dr M Mansur Ali