On one occasion, I was giving a lecture to a group of my Muslim sisters and said: "Be sure to marry a man of good character and religion. The material trappings of life change and can be lost. A husband's religious character is the only assurance we can have of happiness in marriage. A religious man will be generous to you in times of prosperity and will be fair to you in hard times."
However, they were just not buying it.
Instead, they confronted me with a huge number of stories and accounts of women who married "religious" men who then behaved atrociously towards them. Those men exhibited every ignorant and unjust behavior imaginable, all the while fancying themselves to be "men of faith".
The sad fact is that we hear such stories all the time. It has become painfully clear that there is a real problem when it comes to the way we go about categorizing people as "religious". All too often, we classify someone as religious on the basis of appearances or superficial behaviors without really knowing the person's character.
A person's true character can only be known by learning how they conduct themselves. It is known through their actions. We learn about another person's character by being with them on a journey, by doing business with them, by seeing them acting under stress. Only then can we say we really know about someone.
This makes us realize that we must look more carefully at the Prophet's advice: "If someone comes to you whose religion and character pleases you, then marry him."
We must ask: Why did the Prophet (peace be upon him) make a distinction between religion and character? We know the Prophet (peace be upon him) was blessed with eloquence. He did not waste words. He never used two words when one would suffice. When he said "religion and character", he had a good reason for doing so.
Was the Prophet (peace be upon him) merely emphasizing the importance of religiousness by using two nearly synonymous words? Or was he saying something more –warning us that a man might be religious in some aspects of his life but still be of bad character due to shortcomings in his overall understanding? Or maybe he was telling us that we must pay attention to all aspects of religion – both inner belief and outward conduct – when choosing a husband?
It is easy for us to see where poor religious understanding can make a "religious" man go wrong. He might read in the texts that he has a "degree" above women and take this to mean his rights and not realize that he has responsibilities that go with those rights. Such a man becomes a dictator, not a loving husband, seizing upon his wife as narrowly as his understanding seizes upon the sacred texts.
By contrast, a man who is of overall good character, as well as being pious in his conspicuous religious observances, will be mindful of all of Islam's teachings, including where the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "The best of you is he who is best to his family."
Such a man will have a balanced attitude. He will feel acutely the heavy responsibility Allah has given him to be a good husband. He will not see his status as a husband a reason to push his weight around.