Islam imposes certain duties on both husband and wife in return for certain rights which it assigns to each of them. The balance between the rights and duties of each is a perfect one Allah has guaranteed that the message of Islam will be preserved intact for all time because He wants it to be implemented in human life in all ages and in all communities. Therefore, He has made it adaptable to all situations, so that people cannot argue that the conditions prevailing in their community make it impossible to implement the divine message. This is one of the essential characteristics of Islam which add to its strength.
There is no doubt that social conditions differ from one community to another and from one period of time to another. We cannot compare a tribal or nomadic community to the social conditions prevailing in an industrialized society. Indeed, the conditions within the same country differ from rural to urban areas. How then, can one set of teachings be applicable to all communities in all ages? The answer is found in the fact that Islam provides certain guidelines and allows every community to conduct its life the way it likes, within the framework provided by its general guidelines and principles.
In the overall social set-up, Islam defines rights and duties. However, where it is possible for a human being to usurp the rights of others, Islam defines these rights very clearly. Moreover, Islam establishes a perfect balance between rights and responsibilities.
It is not acceptable from the Islamic point of view that a certain person enjoys certain rights without having to fulfill certain duties in return. Otherwise, if a person can require another to do certain things by way of duty, without giving that person certain rights, that becomes a case of exploitation which leads to much injustice. It goes without saying that exploitation and injustice undermine the very existence of any community in which they prevail.
A relationship which involves injustice is undesirable to Allah. He says in a Qudsi Hadith; “My servants, I have forbidden Myself injustice and I have made injustice forbidden to you. Therefore, do not be unjust to one another.”
With regard to family relations, Islam imposes certain duties on both husband and wife in return for certain rights which it assigns to each of them. The balance between the rights and duties of each is a perfect one. In this way, Islam secures a happy life for the family. When both husband and wife fulfill their duties, they will enjoy their rights.
According to Islam, a woman is not required to work in order to earn her living. Her husband is responsible to ensure a decent standard of living for her, according to his means. Even when a woman is richer than her husband, her wealth does not deprive her of her right to be supported by him. If he takes advantage of her wealth in order to leave his duty unfulfilled, without having first secured her consent to this arrangement, then he is accountable for his misdeed. It is open to her to seek divorce on grounds of her not being supported by her husband. An Islamic court will have no hesitation to issue an order nullifying the marriage if the husband will not honor his responsibility.
It may be useful to add here that an unmarried woman also does not need to work for her living. She is entitled to be supported by her parents or her immediate relatives, such as her brothers. However, if a woman decides to work, Islam does not stop her from doing so. It is important to know what rights and duties become applicable when a woman takes up employment. It is common knowledge that Islam considers a woman equal to man with regard to the rights of ownership and disposal of property as well as conducting her own business transactions and commercial dealings. Therefore, when a woman earns something from her work, her earnings belong totally to her. If she is unmarried, her father cannot claim her earnings as his own. Similarly, a woman’s husband cannot put any claim to her earnings. It may be suggested here that when a married woman goes out to work, she leaves her household duties unattended. Therefore, the husband is entitled, or so it is claimed, at least to a share of the salary or earnings of his wife.
We have to examine this argument a little more carefully. The duties of a wife toward her husband, according to Islamic law, are well defined. They do not include doing any cleaning, ironing, cooking or any other household work. Marriage is a contractual relationship which allows a man and woman to fulfill their desire in a legitimate way. If a woman takes an undertaking which prevents her from meeting that responsibility, then her husband has the right to prevent that undertaking.
Someone may ask at this point: Who is then to do the housework? The answer is twofold: If we are speaking strictly from the points of view of rights and duties, it is not the duty of the woman to do the housework in her husband’s home. If he wants that work done, he has to see to it that it is done. Life is not all about rights and duties. There is much more in the marital relationship than duties and rights. There is what Islam terms “companionship based on goodwill”. It is under this heading that the duties and responsibilities of the family are divided between the husband and wife.
When we ask for guidelines on this particular point, they are readily available. At a certain stage, there was some disagreement between Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter and her husband, Ali who was the Prophet’s cousin. They presented their case before him, requesting him to define their responsibilities for them. The Prophet (Pbuh) said to his daughter; “You do the work that must be done inside the home, and he does what needs to be done outside.” This division of the family work is both fair and practical.
What we may deduce from all this is that if a woman does not do the work that has to be done inside the family home, she fails in meeting the requirement of companionship and goodwill. It is open to her husband to divorce her if she persistently refuses to do it. She may argue there it is much more to family life than strict duties. When a woman wants to go out to work, her husband may prevent her from doing so if he feels that her job will seriously affect the family, especially with regard to the upbringing of the children. However, if she was working when they got married, and he has not indicated to her at the time of his proposal that he wants her to quit her job, this is taken as consent on his part to her working. He may not withdraw that consent after marriage.
It is not open to him then to ask her to leave her job. If she refuses, she is within her rights. This is absolutely fair, because the fact that he has not made his intention clear to her about her continued working is regarded as agreement to the situation which obtained before their marriage. As for the salary she receives from her work, or indeed her earnings, these belong to her. She may determine how she uses her income. If she wants to help her own family with part or all of her income, she is only being dutiful and she will be rewarded by Allah for being so.
The husband cannot take advantage of his wife. To claim that what she earns belongs to him is absolutely unjust. He cannot justify it in any way. If she does not agree to give it to him, he is taking it unlawfully. He may not treat it as his own money. He must obtain her permission before taking it. If she does not give him that permission, he must not touch it.
Some people may suggest that since both husband and wife are working, they should share the family expenses. The answer to this suggestion is that this is possible only by mutual agreement. What we have to understand is that the husband has no rightful claim to what his wife may earn or own. If she willingly gives him something of it, he is welcome to have it. If she refuses, he has no claim to it. If he hustles or pressures or cajoles her in order to obtain something from her, he is taking it unjustly and he will be punished by Allah for doing so.