Islamic Social Services and the Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative

An Interview with Dr. Aneesah Nadir

3321741550_9937e6b725_bDr. Aneesah Nadir is a social worker, author, speaker, consultant, diversity trainer, mediator and marriage and family life educator, with a career that spans more than 30 years. Dr. Nadir obtained her Bachelor’s in Social Welfare from Adelphi University and her Masters and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Social Work from Arizona State University. She is a founder and past president of the Islamic Social Services Association-USA and Canada, and currently serves as the president of the Islamic Social Services Association-USA. Today, she coordinates ISSA-USA’s Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative, a national effort to promote healthy marriage among Muslims throughout the United States. She is also a writer and member of the editorial board of Marriage Today, an E-newsletter published in collaboration with and ISSA-USA, and is authoring two upcoming books on marriage titled So You Think You’re Ready for Marriage? and Now that We’re Married.

Recently, WebbAuthor Amal Killawi had the chance to interview Dr. Aneesah Nadir about her work with ISSA-USA and the new Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative.

Can you tell us about ISSA and how you became involved?

I believe that Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – glory be to Him) called me to social work because it was the same year that Allah called me to Islam, alhamdulillah. I have had the opportunity to serve in the larger community and more specifically in the Muslim community. I am grateful to serve as the president of ISSA-USA.

ISSA is an organization that was established in 1999 to address the social service needs of Muslims in America and Canada.  We realized that there was a need to focus on each country, so in 2003 we separated into an ISSA-USA and ISSA-Canada. It has been ten years now, alhamdullilah. Allah (SWT) has blessed ISSA with its continuous growth.

In 1999, about sixty-six of us who had been working in the field met at a preliminary ISSA conference. Our community was not aware of social service issues; we were like lone soldiers. We thought of ISSA as an organization that could advocate for and bring awareness to the Muslim community about the need for social services. ISSA is not a direct service provider, so we don’t provide services directly to people who are affected or have a particular issue or problem. Instead, we provide technical support and training by working with the masjid or a local service agency to help develop or strengthen social service programs and make them more culturally competent for various segments of the Muslim community.

We also realized that whenever our colleagues in the fields of social work, psychology, counseling, and so forth had the chance to work with Muslims, they were not very familiar with our traditions, customs, or worldview. It was important to increase their awareness and provide them with culturally competent training so that their work would be more effective and Muslims would have a better experience.  Thus, we developed the Muslim Culture and Faith Initiative to provide diversity training and cultural competency seminars. We also publish handbooks that provide information about working with Muslims to various segments in the human services, including social services, healthcare, education, and law enforcement.

What else does ISSA do?

As part of ISSA’s Children of Adam Project, we also work with Muslim social service providers and community leaders to increase awareness about the diversity within our own community. Our goal is to more effectively address the varied social service needs among the many cultural, age, and interests groups within the American Muslim community.

Additionally, we work on addressing, promoting, and supporting research with relationship to social services in the Muslim community, and we want to encourage more young people to come into the field. Finally, one of ISSA’s major initiatives is the Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative.

What is the Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative (SHMI)?

SHMI is a national campaign to promote healthy marriages and families within the Muslim community in the United States. At the heart of the initiative is the Healthy Marriage Community Covenant. Community Leaders and Imams are urged to sign the covenant, thereby making healthy marriages and families a top priority in their local community.  Their signatures symbolize their pledge to:

  • Require couples to engage in at least three 1.5 hour sessions of premarital advisement prior to officiating the marriage ceremony;
  • Organize efforts on a regular basis aimed at premarital preparation;
  • Establish a policy for zero tolerance of domestic violence and steps to ensure its adherence;
  • Organize efforts on an annual basis aimed at marital enhancement;
  • Train masjid leaders in marital education, and advisement as well as establish a system of marital education and counseling.

So far, we have witnessed the signing of the Covenant amongst imams and community leaders in Atlanta, Detroit, and Phoenix. Also, during the Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA)’s first conference in 2008, many people from around the country signed this pledge, including Imam Mohamed Magid, Imam Siraj Wahaj, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Dr. Ingrid Mattson. ISSA looks forward to collaborating with and assisting additional national and local organizations so that this campaign reaches all corners of the country.

Why is this initiative so important?

It is important because marriage is the cornerstone of any society. If we don’t have healthy marriages, we don’t have healthy communities and societies.  We are a marrying community, and with the couple being a basic unit, the health of the community depends on the health of its parts.  The literature is bearing out the benefits of healthy marriage for individuals, their extended families, and the community.  How is it that we as Muslims cannot support this?

The sad thing is that today, one out of three Muslim marriages are ending in divorce.  We’re creeping up to the national average of one out of two marriages ending in divorce. There are many folks staying together, and they’re not happy.  The imams are spending so much of their time trying to do marriage counseling, but they’re not well equipped to address it.  I think that we can be better off if we can help our imams by providing them with the education that they need and helping them to understand the importance of prevention and early intervention.

What are some of the challenges you face in promoting this type of initiative?

I think that one of the big challenges is that our community does not see pre-marital services as necessary. We are going to have to do a lot of education about the importance of prevention.  Unfortunately, we have this mentality that “if it aint’ broken, don’t fix it.” We operate in crisis mode. If we get the kind of information we need ahead of time, we will be more prepared, and we will not need the really serious interventions that come later on.

What do you say to people who deny the importance of prevention services?

The reality is that our deen is a deen of prevention. Allah (SWT) and His Messenger ﷺ have given us information and tools ahead of time so that we don’t get into problems. One of the things that we see is that if people don’t get pre-marital education, they’re going to have problems in a very short time, and some of those marriages aren’t going to last for even a year.

Pre-marital counseling is really part of our religion. The Prophet ﷺ was educating people before they got married.  He was helping them to build their relationship with Allah (SWT) and to develop their inner taqwa, so that they would be in a better place when they got married. And when they got married, he was there to give them naieha, guidance, basically marriage counseling.

So when someone says to me that they don’t need it, I would say to them: would you start your career in medicine without getting educated? Would you try to operate your car without getting instructions on how to operate it? Marriage and family life are some of the most important things that we will ever do, but no one expects any education for it.

What is the role of the community in marriage education?

We really need to promote marriage education, and as a community, we need to make it a pre-requisite before folks even get married, so that they’ll have the basic tools when they get married.  We can take an example from the Catholics who have done a very good job of requiring pre-marital education prior to performing the marriage ceremony.

We also need to become trained in marriage education so that we can provide the services.  That’s going to be key.  If services don’t exist in our community, we have to identify resource within the larger community.

Are there other challenges you face?

I think another big challenge is that some imams are concerned about this requirement because they believe that some people will accuse them of making it more difficult to marry, thus resulting in a greater likelihood of committing zina. I don’t think that’s a very good argument because the reality is that people are going to do what they’re going to do. We don’t need to be held hostage or blamed for them not getting the education that they need ahead of time to have a healthy strong marriage.

Sounds like an excuse for ‘drive-thru’ marriages…

It does, and it absolutely is an excuse for drive-thru marriages – you know the ones that occur five minutes after Friday prayer. As religious leaders or community leaders, we have such an important responsibility towards the couples we marry, even after they get married. We can’t be marrying folks today and then just leave them tomorrow. People need support and mentorship. We really need to dig our heels in and advocate for pre-marital services.

Is ISSA organizing any other marriage initiatives?

Yes! ISSA is excited to announce that Muslim Marriage Week will be the first week of Ramadan: August 11th-18th.  It will be a wonderful opportunity to bring national attention to the importance of healthy marriages. We decided to hold it during Ramadan because that is a time for renewal.  While we are renewing and strengthening our relationship with Allah (SWT), we are also striving to improve our marriage and family relationships.  Stay tune for more information insha’Allah.

Finally, what is your advice for single Muslims and for married Muslims?

For single Muslims, two things are important: 1) Do a personal self-assessment and spend time getting to know yourself and what you want out of life, and 2) Develop your personal relationship with Allah (SWT). That basis will provide you with the foundation for a healthy and happy marriage. Choose a spouse that is going to help you get to Heaven.  Once you’re married, you’re going to have to continue to develop that relationship that will help the both of you get to Jannah insha’Allah. I realize that many of our single folks are having difficulty finding compatible spouses.  Allah (SWT) knows. As a community, we haven’t done a good job of preparing to help single people find compatible spouses. Don’t give up on yourselves. Recognize that there is so much work to be done and so much you can contribute to the community even as a single person. Continue to call on Allah (SWT) and to serve Him, and He will provide for you.

For married Muslims, we have to realize that getting married does not mean it’s all over. Marriage isn’t easy. Marriage takes work. It’s important to seek ongoing marriage education and marriage enrichment opportunities. Always remember that marriage is for the sake of Allah (SWT).  We marry each other because we want to get to Heaven together. And if you no longer believe that, then perhaps it’s time to assess your marriage.

Where can people learn more about ISSA and about the Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative?

You can learn more at the ISSA website or you may contact us. We are calling on other organizations and communities to work with ISSA in supporting these initiatives.

May Allah (SWT) strengthen and bless our marriages and families.

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