There is a powerful saying attributed to Hazrat Abu Bakr(ra) as follows, “I wish I were a tree that would be cut and done away with”.[i] At other times, he would say, “I wish I were a blade of grass, whose life ended with the grazing by some beast”[ii]. He also said, “I wish I were a hair on the body of a believer”.[iii] Once he went to a garden, where he saw a bird singing. He sighed deeply and said, “O, bird! How lucky you are! You eat, you drink and fly under the shade of the trees, and you fear no reckoning of the Day of Judgement. I wish I were just like you”.[iv]
These sayings demonstrate the importance of accountability that directs the actions of a believer. Even the knowledge that a person will be held accountable for their actions should motivate them to act in the best manner. In some cases, it is such a big responsibility that a person would gladly relinquish their responsibility and look for a way out. This is especially true if they know that failure to fulfill the requirements of the given responsibility will result in severe punishment, and that too from Allah, as He says, “Know that Allah is severe in punishment” (Holy Quran, 5:99).
In Islam, men and women have been charged with responsibilities for which both will be held accountable. Although they share equal rights, the responsibilities and their accountability is different based on the physical, emotional and psychological capacities and inclinations of each gender. A wise man once said, “It is more important to treat one fairly than equally because not everyone is equal”. Sometimes treating someone equally could be unfair. Islam adheres to this rule and gives a fair and just responsibility to men and women.
Concerning the question under discussion, the Holy Quran states, “And they [the women] have rights similar to those [of men] over them in equity; but men have a rank above them” (2:229). In this verse God tells us that as far as personal rights are concerned, women and men are equal. But in some matters a husband has the final say because of the responsibilities that men have. A man is not only the breadwinner of the house, but he has to help the wife take care of the internal matters of a house as well. In addition to this, a man is the guardian of a woman and is responsible for protecting her. In light of all these responsibilities, a man has been given a final say in certain matters and such situations where things might get out of hand and can ruin a family. But a very important point that needs to be understood is that immediately after granting this right to men, God warns men and reminds them that He is Mighty. This reiterates the fact that the husband is not free to use the authority as he pleases but he will be held accountable for any unjust actions.
If the husband misuses this authority, God will deal with him accordingly. This thought, that God Himself will punish any man who does not carry out his responsibilities with justice is enough to shake any man to the core. The fact that a man has been given this slight authority is not a matter of gender inequality or a matter of celebration for men. This is a grave misunderstanding. This authority only puts the man under greater scrutiny and accountability with God Almighty. Even in general terms, Islam does not see authority as a matter of pride and arrogance. For all leaders, Islam gives the beautiful advice in the words of Prophet Muhammad(sa), “The leader of a nation is their servant”.[v]
In the case of the husband and wife relationship, the husband is like a leader and has the final say on a few things which means that he should act and decide matters in service of his wife and family. The Prophet Muhammad(sa) has said, “The best of you is the one who is best to his wife, and I am the best of you to my wives”.[vi] Hence, men should see the commandment of Allah in regard to their authority in a few matters as a warning that, if they possess any faith, they should care for their wives responsibly, and remember the fact that Allah is Mighty, before making a decision.
Taking everything into account, in accordance with the commandments dictated by Allah the Almighty, it can be concluded that although all things should be mutually decided, the man has the final say in a marriage due to the differences in their assigned responsibilities in Islam. That being said however, men have the added duty of ensuring that matters relating to their wives and the protection of their family are dealt with in a fair and morally proper manner. For those unfortunate men who are granted the responsibility of the final say and abuse this privilege, Allah the Almighty will designate for them a dreadful punishment.
[i]. Al-Kitab al-Musannaf fil Ahadith wal Athar, Ibn Abi Shaybah, ed. Kamal Yusuf al-Hut, 1989, Beirut: Dar at-Taj, vol. 7, p. 91
[v]. Al-Amsalu fil Hadithin Nabawiyyish-Sharif, Dr. Muhammad Jabir Fayyaz Al-‘Alwani, p. 372
[vi]. Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitabun Nikah [The Chapters on Marriage]; also narrated in Jami‘ At-Tirmidhi, vol. 1, Book 7, hadith 1162: http://sunnah.com/urn/1262960