I'm not a therapist, nor am I a counsellor. However, for whatever reasons, in my five years working at the university, I've had on a number of occasions, students who came to me for advice for various personal problems. These are young adults, and as can be expected many of their problems centred around the issues of marriage and romantic relations.
Sheikh Abdallah Adhami, a Muslim preacher in America, was once asked to deliver a talk on marriage in Islam. In preparing for the talk, he asked the organiser what exactly about marriage they want him to talk about. The organiser requested the sheikh to focus on what happens before marriage. To that, Sheikh Adhami said: "that will be a very short talk because in Islam NOTHING happens before marriage."
If 'nothing' here means no social interactions whatsoever between men and women, it certainly is a big challenge for youngsters today to adhere. Of course, in the past the situation was different. Both my grandmothers got married at the age of fourteen while my paternal and maternal grandfathers were eighteen and twenty respectively; both immediately upon completing their education (the former upon graduating from Tanjung Malim Teachers' College, and the latter after passing his Senior Cambridge examination). Needless to say, when my grandparents got married they hardly knew their spouses.
Allah SWT has instilled in the hearts of human beings the ability to experience love. To love and wanting to be loved is part of human nature. Hence, for a person to fall in love with another is something natural and in most instance unavoidable. The only question then is how does one manage and respond to this emotional experience?
Marriage is the natural solution ordained by both religious and cultural traditions. It is not easy however for people today to get married. Here in Malaysia, social-cultural expectations dictate that only those (men especially) who are financially stable can begin contemplating marriage. To be exact, you should have a stable job, a car and at least able to rent a decent house before you can think about getting married. All of these of course are in addition to saving enough money for the dowry, wedding gifts and expenses for a lavish ceremony. To meet all these requirements, a young man would need to work fulltime for at least a few years. That would mean pushing the age of marriage to the late twenties if not later.
Can a young man (or a young woman for that matter) wait that long? Of course, I'm posing this question in the context of the Malay-Muslim society here in Malaysia where conservative religious values are still largely adhered to (to be exact, the strict prohibition on pre-marital sex). Studies in developmental psychology have shown that humans develop romantic feelings and sexual desires from the period of adolescence. And it grows even stronger and remains strong during the entire period of young adulthood. Can we just simply expect young men and women today to suppress these feelings? Suppressing them entirely during high-school, throughout their years studying at universities, and a couple of more years of working life?
To me, the answer is quite simple: encourage early marriages! During my undergraduate studies, I once wrote a term paper on encouraging early marriages. And one of the earliest publication projects I worked on was to translate a book entitled 'Marriage in Islam' from English to Malay in which the propagation of early marriages is the thesis statement of the very first chapter. Of course, the call for early marriages would run directly against social-cultural expectations. One has to decide then which one is more important: marriage as a religious duty to preserve one’s chastity or adherence to social-cultural norms?
Without a doubt, anyone who decides to get married at a young age would face some serious challenges. I have never failed to caution students who have consulted me, about these challenges that they should be mentally prepared for. Certain sacrifices of course need to be made, but rather than making things more difficult, the society can and should facilitate young married couples. At IIUM, back in the 1990’s, married students received additional allowances for living expenses. In fact, family apartments for married students were part of the original design of the university’s main campus in Gombak. Such facilities should be reintroduced and offered by other social institutions.
What we have now is more cultural than religious. When religious values and socio-cultural expectations collide, religion values must and should always prevail.
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