The governing principle for relations between the husband and wife is enshrined in two verses of the Qur’ân:
1. “And live with them on a footing of customary good dealings” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 19]
2. “And the women have rights similar to what you have, according to custom.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 228]
Customary good dealings cover all things that bring harmony to the husband-wife relationship and that foster love and affection. There is wisdom behind the generality and ambiguity of this injunction. People differ in their temperaments and needs. A fixed set of standards will never be possible for all people in all cultures at all times.
Therefore, Islam came with the principle of “customary good dealings” with its inherent flexibility. Islam requires from the husband and wife to behave towards each other in a good and appropriate manner that will strengthen and perpetuate a happy and harmonious marital life.
We also see that Allah placed the duty of providing for the wife squarely upon the husband’s shoulders. Allah says: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 34]
It is the husband’s responsibility to provide for the needs of his wife. It is his duty to guarantee her well-being. This does not mean only her material needs, but also her emotional, psychological, and social needs.
These needs and how to fulfill them vary form society from society. They were different in the past and they will differ in the future. Indeed, they do from individual to individual. What matters is to ensure that the husband and wife live in a happy, harmonious, and fulfilling marital relationship. This is one of the hallmarks of Islamic Law, that it has the flexibility to adapt to different times, cultures, and circumstances while retaining its essence.
We can see that this concept of “providing for and maintaining” the wife is expressed by the word “qawwâmûn”. This word is given in the emphatic form, indicating that carrying this out is one of the most important – if not the most important – duty of the husband. This duty is to be carried out expressly for the benefit of the wife. It is never meant to be a means against her. It is an assurance that her rights and needs are guaranteed.
The right of the wife to sexual gratification is also emphasized by Islamic Law. The husband must fulfill her sexual needs and thereby safeguard her from temptation. He needs to hearken to her needs in and fulfill them according to what is reasonable and according to his abilities.
Islamic Law does not define a required level of sexual activity. This is again because people are different. Women’s needs differ and what is expected of the husband is to fulfill his wife’s needs. The obligation of the husband in this matter corresponds to the needs of the wife. This comes under the general maxim: “And live with them on a footing of customary good dealings” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 19]
The same can be said for the right to maintenance, to clothing, and to housing. In all cases, the husband is required to fulfill the wife’s needs.
The right to sexual fulfillment, however, is a mutual right, owed by each of the spouses to the other. As Allah says: “And the women have rights similar to what you have, according to custom.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 228]
Islam seeks through marriage to provide lawful fulfillment for the sexual needs of both men and women. Therefore, the man is expected to make himself attractive for his wife in his appearance, in the way that he dresses and in how he takes care of himself. It is not just the wife who is expected to do so for her husband.
A Wife’s Legal Redress
There is some confusion among the general public about the “four month” limitation on abstinence. It does not mean, as some people misconstrue, that a man only has to engage in sexual relations with his wife once every four months. It is rather a legal limitation for the continuation of the marriage contract in the face of a man’s abusive misconduct.
There are men in the owrld who are vile in character, corrupt in their outlook. They take a sick pleasure in depriving their wives of sexual gratification. Some of these men find an outlet for their own sexual needs either in unlawful liaisons or in abusing the institution of polygamy.
Islamic Law supports the woman in such cases. If a man refuses to have sex with his wife for whatever reason, his conduct is allowed to proceed for four month before legal redress is forced upon him. If, within that time, he returns to normal conduct and fulfils his wife’s sexual needs according to what is customary, appropriate, and commensurate with her needs, then the marriage remains intact.
If he fails to change his conduct within that time, then the wife has the right to be legally divorced from him for his failing to uphold her rights. He will be legally compelled to divorce her.
Allah says: “For those who take an oath for abstention from their wives, a waiting for four months is ordained; if then they return, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. But if their intention is firm for divorce, Allah hears and knows all things.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 227]
Some people misunderstand this verse to mean that a man is only required to have sexual relations with his wife once every four months. This is not the case at all. This verse is clearly talking about the extraordinary circumstance of an oath of abstention on the part of the husband, and it brings the extreme remedy of divorce at the conclusion of four months to safeguard the wife from such abusive behavior on the husband’s part.
And Allah knows best.