Confessions of a Shaikh’s Wife: What Makes the Man?
August 8, 2022
I never thought that I’d be a shaikh’s wife. Somehow, even though I grew up with a passion for studying Islam, and made sure to marry someone who had that too, I never pictured myself many years down the line from getting married to be known as the ‘wife of Shaikh So and so.’
Shaikhs’ and imams’ wives, in my mind, were a unique set of people. They were devoted and selfless, perpetually well mannered, patient and good-natured. They filled their time with worship, taking care of their brood of children, or seeing to the needs of the vulnerable in the community. Little did I know that my own path in life would take me from being a young spirit-seeking globetrotter, who cared little for what other people thought, to someone put into that position and face to face with some of those expectations (whether I liked it or not!). In this series, I hope to share some personal stories and reflections on this role, and on the interesting perspective it gives me of dawah, our community, scholarship, and shaikhs/imams themselves.
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The Student Life
Like many others on this path, my husband and I started our journey of seeking knowledge as poor students living overseas. At the time we wanted to study, traditional Islamic studies programs were nowhere to be found in the U.S., aside from a few nascent programs such as Zaytuna. For this reason we decided to pack our bags, store away our furniture, set aside any career aspirations, and as a young newlywed couple we traveled and lived for many years in various developing Muslim countries. There we could find institutions of religious learning, scholars and teachers with whom we could study, and — we were hoping and seeking — an uplifting environment that would help us on our spiritual journey to Allah the Most High.
This experience was one shared by other young Western Muslims at the time, who went abroad seeking ‘ilm (religious knowledge) and spiritual renewal, and all of us, I think, to varying degrees, experienced a culture shock about the state of the Muslim world. Instead of a spiritual oasis free from worldly problems, we often found abject poverty and suffering, disorganization and stagnation in Islamic institutions, corruption and bureaucratic incompetence, along with many other real-life struggles and frustrations. There was a language and culture barrier, the real worry of getting swindled by anyone who caught a whiff of our Western background, and having to avoid the suspicion of local intelligence officers, who were always on a predatory hunt for anyone who may make political statements or gestures. These struggles and others were the costs of that education.
Most students like us lived within humble means. Some were there on scholarships, while others had the support of family members back home, or taught English or translated simple books for local publishing houses to make ends meet. These students’ true passion, however, was immersing themselves in scholarly books, sitting at the feet of seasoned teachers and enlightened scholars, reviewing Qur’an or taking classes, and getting together with other students, with whom they could talk shop about the finer points of fiqh or Arabic or usul as their studies progressed. These were the fruits and benefits that made the difficulties worthwhile.
Our community of students was often a hodge-podge of people from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds and methodological leanings, but there was a bond that we shared: we all had set out on a path that took us to a far away land, away from our families and the familiar, with the desire to learn more and make the best use of our time.
The Essential Ingredient
Living and seeking knowledge in a developing country as a Westerner, as you can imagine, takes a passion for what you are doing and a determination to persist against all odds. It is not an easy life, and to sacrifice what may have been a comfortable life back home for one of relative difficulty for years, for the sake of God, says a lot about a person. This student life was the first setting in which I saw first hand the making of many modern-day Western scholars, duaat and imams, and also saw the critical role a spouse has in pushing the other to progress in their development, or hold them back.
I saw a young student who, in seeking a wife, purposefully avoided marrying someone interested in studying Islam or who could be considered an activist — they were too opinionated and willful, in his line of thinking — while he wanted someone daintier. Unfortunately, his new young wife could not stand the difficulties of a life abroad, with a husband constantly absent in pursuit of his studies, and she alone in an empty apartment, away from family and friends, undertaking menial tasks the old-fashioned way. He had to cut his studies short and returned home shortly thereafter. I know another young couple who came as newlyweds, from an upper-class suburban lifestyle in the U.S.; they could not fathom lighting up an oven with a match or hanging clothes on a line outside to dry. They were unprepared and unready for this lifestyle in pursuit of knowledge, and they soon returned home to study in a more familiar academic setting. Others came and went, but the overarching quality of those who were able to stay for a long amount of time and really benefit from their experience was a combination of Allah’s grace upon them, and determination, patience and sheer stubbornness. The essential, shared quality, after tawfeeqfrom Allah, was grit. And while it was needed in many of the young men I saw who diligently pursued their religious studies, it was even more present in the wives of many of these men.
Know, dear reader, that before Shaikh X or Mufti Y was a well known speaker on the conference circuit, before he had a following on Facebook or Twitter, before he joined this particular respected institute or that esteemed PhD program, he likely lived years of his life in this type of environment as a humble student.
And while he is due tremendous respect for the sacrifices he made to achieve his level of knowledge, this is often even more so the case for his wife, who, perhaps not sharing in those same goals, persevered in that same difficult land, and in those same difficult circumstances, all for a greater good and for the sake of God.
I have countless stories and was witness to many inspiring moments by these women. These are women who supported their husbands, encouraging them and strengthening them, often giving up an array of their own rights over many years in order for their husbands to complete their course of study. Some of these women, who were keen to attend every class and lecture back home, lived for years disconnected from religious and spiritual discourse, as it was entrenched in a language they did not understand or a program they could not commit to as their husbands did. Some, who grew up in the wealthiest of lifestyles back home, lived just a few steps above poverty in pursuit of this knowledge. I remember a dear friend, the daughter of wealthy professionals, who would joke about ‘just what her mother would say’ if she saw the arrangements in her simple home (plastic furniture and floor cushions).
Some gave birth in countries in which they did not even speak the primary language, and raised their children for years away from the support of family or the comfort of friends. They are women who relied on an inner richness and connection to Allah to sustain them. These are not legends in books of saintly women of the past, but women of modern day, who struggled, and sacrificed, and did so seeking nothing but Allah. I know a woman who died from complications in pregnancy in that foreign land, and is buried there. What a tremendous sacrifice she made in support of her husband’s pursuit of sacred knowledge —not only in her life, in which she was away from her beloved family and homeland, but even in her death, her grave being in that faraway place that her family can rarely visit. This she did not for any person’s pleasure but, inshallah, seeking His Countenance. May Allah accept her as a shaheedawho died on the path of sacred knowledge, Ameen.
As I reminisce on those years, I can say that some of the women that I met and with whom I had the blessing of sharing time with had something of the spirit, the strength, and the light of our righteous predecessors. These women that we overlook in the masjid, often not even bothering to learn their names, known simply as “Wife of Shaikh X”, or “Imam Saab’s first wife” are some of the warriors in our ranks, who, if they did not sacrifice years of their life to be a source of nourishment for their husband and a pillar by his side, would perhaps be in the forefront of our community in any one of a number of roles. Instead, her journey, her sacrifices, and her struggles are often unknown to anyone except Allah, and that quiet sisterhood of others who have been through the same experience.
You see, what makes the shaikh, imam or scholar you know a great man certainly is what Allah has blessed him with of dedication, discipline, knowledge and wisdom — but also, commonly overlooked — what makes the man is his wife.