Imam al-Qarafi said, “Whoever issues legal rulings to the people merely on the basis of what is transmitted in the compendia (law books) despite differences in their customs, usages, times, places, conditions, and the special circumstances of their situations has gone astray and leads others astray. His crime against the religion is greater than the crime of a physician who gives people medical prescriptions without regard to the differences of their climes, norms, the times they live in, and their physical natures but merely in accordance with what he finds written down in some medical book about people with similar anatomies. He is an ignorant physician, but the other is an ignorant jurisconsult but much more detrimental.” (taken from Umar F. Abd-Allah’s “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”)
The Muslim community’s fatwa-fixated discourse has recently resurrected the question of whether a wife’s medical bills are the obligation of her husband. That this question even arises is grounds for concern. Ours is a religion of practicality that contains the concept that “no soul is given a burden greater than it can bear.” People in situations of hardships are regularly given a concession…but rarely do we free people of the obligation on the account of a minority that cannot, for whatever reason, fulfill it.
Why is it then that paying a wife’s medical bills instead elicits lengthy (and defensive) arguments from medieval fiqh texts, some of which conclude that, literally, food and shelter is what is mentioned in Quran and therefore it is not his obligation? This explains why the devaluation of contemporary tafasir or contemporary vocabulary in traditionalist circles is problematic. We find that relying solely upon medieval texts results in a definition of marriage as the “purchasing of a woman’s private parts.” This application of opinions from a different social context has resulted in well-meaning scholars resurrecting another opinion as a sort of feminist counterargument: that a man should provide a housekeeper or pay her wages to do housework! We are even seeing the notion that a woman should receive wages for breastfeeding her own child crop up, even though I know of no woman who would accept such a wage. Ironically, when women jump on board with these opinions they are contributing to a paring down of the definition of female marital duties to that of a sex provider, thus reinforcing the conception of another era.
The more hard-hearted among the laymen have taken with gusto to the idea that a man is not responsible for his wife’s medical bills. Is this the end of muruwwa (chivalry)? Should fiqh be divorced from ethics? It dawned on me as my husband and I discussed divorce in his native country. He stated that it was normal for a man to allow his irrevocably divorced wife to keep all the furniture in the house, indeed to keep the house itself. ‘But isn’t she not entitled to anything according to Islamic law,?’ I asked. He stated (quite uncontroversially) that yes, according to the law, but not according to muruwwa.
The law is concerned with explicating the bare minimum of what is due between husband and wife in terms of rights. It is not a field of counseling and not a field of spiritual tazkiya. While it may be better for a man to forfeit some of his property, it is not legally required. But in the fatwa-based discourse of modern Islam, we seem to be highly preoccupied with what the court of law can extract from us, not what a sense of higher ethics would demand.
In truth, most men will pay their wife’s medical bills without blinking an eye. In truth, most women could not conceive of being paid for what seems to be their natural duty to feed their child and cook some meals here and there. So why are we making a controversy out of nothing?
Great things happen when we go above and beyond what is minimally required of us. We delight our spouses and they, in turn, exceed what is required of them. Allah says,
هل جزاء الإحسان إلا الاحسان
Is the reward of good anything but good?’ (55:60) Could it be that we are so fearful of mistreatment from our spouses that we hold back our love and generosity to see what the other side will offer up first؟ Marriage becomes a game of poker as we wait for the other person to reveal their hand. Is that what Allah meant when He called marriage a strong covenant, ميثاق غليظ (4:21)? There is a responsibility among the scholars to think for themselves, to look at the prejudices that plague every era, and to consider the detrimental ramifications of perpetuating such opinions. It is a testament to this that the scholars of many Muslim countries now consider medical bills to be among the duties of a husband. We thank them for taking a stand that is appropriate to their time, to the sensibilities of modern people, and returning us to the basic thrust of the merciful prophetic sunnah.
Tricia currently ministers to incarcerated Muslim women and is completing certification in Hartford Seminary’s Islamic chaplaincy program. Tricia participated in the Deen Intensive Foundation’s 2008 Rihla. A Master’s degree holder in Near Eastern Studies, she blogs in her spare time at The Civil Muslim and State of Formation.