For many Muslim couples who do not have family in the West, the Imam is one of the few people who has an Islamic background and is an authority figure, and therefore, can help them sort out their problems. As a result, a Muslim family may remain intact instead of breaking up to their own detriment and the Muslim community's.
Imam Muhammad Nur Abdullah of St. Louis, Missouri is a member of the North American Fiqh Council. He has conducted pre-marriage counseling in the U.S. for the last 20 years. He provides the following tips for Imams in the West dealing with marital conflict:
1. The Imam should get involved in the early stages
If you notice a Muslim couple at your mosque regularly arguing in public or who seem to be unhappy, see if you can indirectly talk to the husband about it. If there is a problem, encourage at least the husband to come and talk to you about it.
2. Insist on no physical abuse
If a couple has decided to seek your help with a marital dispute and you know that there is physical abuse or domestic violence in the home, insist immediately that this stop. Emphasize to the husband that if he abuses his wife he would be punished by Allah and the laws of the land. Mention this when speaking with him alone). This is Haram. One should not hit and even cursing his wife is Haram.
Tell the husband to leave the house when he becomes angry to calm down. Also encourage him to make Wudu. These steps will help him cool off before an attack can happen.
3. Show compassion for both
The Imam must show both the husband and the wife that he cares for them. If this compassion is there, it is more likely they will feel that he is not favoring one side over the other, and will give an impartial decision to sort out the dispute.
4. Keep their secrets
Know that the couple's dispute and private life is information that is an Amana (trust). Imams must fear Allah and not spread or share this information with others, including their own family members. Many people do not get help for marital disputes because of the lack of confidentiality they find about the issue.
5. Hear both sides of the story
Imams must listen to both partners' side of the story. Couples should be reminded that you are in the position of arbitration and you cannot make a final judgment without hearing both sides of the story.
6. Speak to each spouse separately
This step is important because there are things each spouse will say in private that s/he will not say in front of each other. Here they may be more willing to admit shortcomings and their own hand in the problem than if they are in front of each other.
7. Then meet with both of them
Following the separate meetings, hold a meeting with both of them together. One of the rules should be that there will be no personal attacks or insults of each other during this meeting. The couple should be talking to the Imam, not to each other. The point of this exercise is to let the couple get out what is in their hearts.
8. Remind them of these points
- Allah is always watching and they must be fair to each other.
- Especially if there are children in the family, remind the couple the kids need both parents.
- Remind them there is no perfect marriage. Even the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) had difficulties in marriage.
- Each human being has faults and weaknesses. No one is perfect.
- Encourage men to control their tempers if there is physical abuse and women to control their tongues (often something a woman says is used as an excuse for physical abuse). Both sides need to keep their weaknesses in check.
9. The Imam should not rush to make a judgment
Take your time and consider and weigh all of the factors and information you have received from the couple in both the individual and joint meetings. It is crucial that you be fair and just. And of course, problems are usually the fault of not only one person. Often, each party has a hand in the problem.
10. Refer the problem to others if it's serious
If, for example, there is a psychological problem (i.e. depression which needs medication) consult with a person who is a psychiatrist or a professional in that area, preferably in your community. Imams should work with social work professionals so they can get advice and help with cases anyway, but also to refer more serious cases to them. Consulting someone from the Islamic Social Services Association of the United States and Canada (ISSA) is one place to start.
11. In giving a judgment maintain compassion
You cannot legally bind a couple to your decision. But if your judgment is presented in a compassionate, fair manner, the couple is likely to accept it if they are really willing to work things out.
Photo Attribution: Adam Jones - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Couple_in_Imam_Square_(Naqsh-e_Jahan)_-_Isfahan_-_Iran_(7432989146).jpg