Can a Muslim Woman Marry a Non-Muslim? is a chapter from the book American Muslim Agenda available at Amazon and Kindle
This chapter is merely an expression of what many American Muslims are thinking but are afraid to express. I am pleased to present some thoughts to reflect on. Ultimately, the decision to marry rests in the hearts and minds of the individuals marrying. It is their life, and it is God who puts love in their hearts for each other.
Some of us may not want to acknowledge it, but American Muslims have their own Islam that differs from others in other lands but precisely the same as what Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) practiced—a religion committed to building cohesive societies and caring for life and the environment.
Can a Muslim Woman Marry a Non-Muslim Man?
It is easy to stick to the traditions; on the one hand, we save the hassles and the agonizing process of thinking, doubting, and worrying about failed marriage or family. On the other side, the change is inevitable as evidenced by our eating, sleeping, communicating, housing, clothing, moving, romancing, and living habits that have changed steadily over one’s lifetime.
We have accepted the changes in all aspects of our lives over a period, and if it were not for the progressives, we would still be living in caves, and many of us would not have lived beyond fifty. We are doing what our grandparents could not have even imagined, and hopefully, we will prepare ourselves to accept what our grandchildren will do gracefully.
When God created the universe, the chief products were life and matter. He chose the thing to run precisely as he programmed it (Quran 55:5–11)—Earth is going around the sun with precision, the moon circumambulating around Earth, the change of seasons, and how a seed becomes food through a precise process. Jupiter, the moon, or the seed don’t make decisions (Quran 55:5); they act according to a well-defined program, and they don’t think, nor do they have a brain either (Quran 55:6) to work independently, except the built-in defense mechanisms.
Unlike matter, humans were not put on a trajectory; they were given the freedom to determine their equilibrium along with guidance. Remember, God did not compel Adam but gave him the choices and honored it. He could have stopped Adam from eating the fruit, but he did not. He probably told his angels, “Look, I gave them (Adam and Eve) a choice, and if I do not honor my word, who will?” Adam chose what suited him, and God decided to upload “freedom” into Adam’s DNA.
Indeed, the freedom to choose, freedom to believe, freedom to speak, and freedom to live his life with consequences for each action is an inalienable right of every human. You see that embedded in Quran 2:256—la ikraha fid-din (no one can force the other to believe against their will). This idea was beefed up again with another sage advice elsewhere in the Quran where God advised the Prophet to do his work and not worry if people would listen to him or not. God says, “Let me be the decider to put in their heart to listen to you or not.” It is purely because of the freedom clause God has incorporated into us. Islam is also called a deen of fitra, that is, human nature.
A few Muslims are conditioned to think in binary terms—halal or haram, zero and one, day and night, black and white—and they are comfortable with it. They need to stick to their belief if that works for them and let others go with what works for them. No one should be compelled to believe otherwise.
If God had said no to a Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man, it would have been told in the Quran; there is not even an inference. God does not make mistakes; instead, he empowers us to figure out our equilibrium.
This issue is not a religious issue but a cultural one and is common to all societies and groups. It is more of a man feeling he is superior to a woman and that he is entitled to her body, soul, and mind. That is not how the Quran communicates. No one is responsible for others’ deeds.
Entitlement is indeed a bad cultural value. The scholars were driven by the need of time and stamped their cultural understanding as religious values. Cultural values are time-sensitive, whereas religious values are immortal. Our needs are different today from the needs of times when Muslims decided on their own that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man.
It is time for Muslims to think and reflect instead of becoming judgmental. God would have made us into a piece of rock if he did not want to us to consider and make our own decisions.
Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri, a Muslim scholar, explains the idea of illah in her book An Introduction to Muslim Women’s rights that
Islamic law is usually based on an Illah—justification, and reason for an act. By agreement of scholars, when the Illah disappears, so must the law, unless there is another Illah for it. Much of our heritage of ijtihad, however, was formulated hundreds of years ago and has not been reexamined recently to determine whether ilal (plural of Illah) for the related laws are still in place. The latter observation is especially significant because systems of Islamic law have often incorporated customs of local communities within them, so long as such customs were not viewed as contradicting the Quran. This practice, incidentally, is part of the Quranic philosophy of celebrating, rather than obliterating or punishing diversity.
This principle of illah gets violated regularly. Here is an analogy to make the point. In the case of rape, witnesses are required to prove that the abuse happened. The emphasis here is on “proof,” and today the DNA test is the best proof one can get. In a fatwa given in 2016, the Pakistani ulema rejected the “proof” and insisted on witnesses. This is a classic case of getting stuck in rituals instead of understanding the essence of the ceremonies.
Moreover, the same illah for preventing a marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man does not exist anymore in American life. We have to do our ijtihad (reasoning), and justification must exist to prevent such a union.
This chapter is for those who are about to enter into a conflict zone, and this piece gives them information to make their own thoughtful decision.
The Scope of This Chapter
The scope of this article is limited to interfaith marriages and Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men. The follow-up article will address who are the believers and why limit it to people of the book. Accountability is the illah here.
The question “Can a Muslim woman marry a non-Muslim man?” has been around for a long time, and the answer has always been an emphatic no. Guarding the flock is a human trait, and no tradition wants to lose a member of their culture to the other, whether you are a Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jew, republican, democrat, libertarian, or new—indeed any tradition, for that matter. Muslims are no exception either, and there is no need to beat up on Islam for your comprehension deficiency.
I have dedicated twenty years of my life into learning and analyzing the role of religion in society. There isn’t a single religious group out there that allows interfaith marriages without hassle. The goodness and ugliness are universal.
The interfaith marriage problems that we see now may shortly not be an issue, and we have to deal with them now. The core belief in Islam remains the same, no matter which of the seventy-two denominations you belong to, but the cultural diversity ranges from group to group.
As a Muslim thinker, I have consciously chosen to remain within the bounds of Quran and explore the vastness and wisdom of God’s words.
The sole intent of this essay is to shape and preserve the future of American Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular. Here is another effort to make their lives comfortable and in the fold by expanding the fold to be reflective of Allah’s “unlimitedness” (Aalameen) and extending Prophet Muhammad’s mercy to the entire universe (Aalameen). Aren’t Muslims supposed to have a universal vision to embrace the whole humanity with its God-given diversity?
Please don’t forget—you live in the land of the free and home of the brave, and America loves everyone. She has her own culture that each one of us has subconsciously embraced and has lived by her. The first generation and the subsequent generation of American Muslims are an integral part of America in every way.
A new American Muslim culture is evolving while the layers of dust accumulated on the tradition are peeling off, and along the way, Islam is being restored to what it was meant to be—a common-sense religion.
Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri writes on page 53 of her book,
The Quran states that God created humans, male and female, from the same nafs so that they may find tranquility, mercy, and affection for each other. The Quran also states that male and female believers are each other’s walis (protectors, Guardians). These themes permeate the Quran and make it very clear that there is no metaphysical, ontological, religious or ethical primacy for the male over the female. The Quran also makes it crystal clear that divine will contemplate a relationship of harmony, consultation, and cooperation, as opposed to conflicts and domination, between the two genders.
One of the most enduring values of Islam is accountability. The Quran makes an individual acutely aware of one’s responsibility. “All people will reap the harvest of their deeds; no one will bear another’s burden. Ultimately, all of you will return to your Lord, and he will resolve your disputes” (Quran 6:163–164). Indeed, each one of us is responsible for our thoughts and actions.
Quran places equal emphasis on men and women. A woman cannot excuse herself on the Day of Judgment or day-to-day living. Men need to get this straight; a woman is fully empowered and responsible for her actions and not the men.
Prophet Muhammad was one of the first women’s liberators who restored their inalienable rights to them. He further beefed it up by advising women that if their husband commands them to do things against their will, they have the right to refuse and, if unbearable, the right to divorce. Such was the empowerment of women.
According to the Pew survey, nearly 40 percent of the marriages in the United States are interfaith marriages, including Muslims and Hindus. And among Jews, it is much higher; one out of two unions is outside their faith. The trend is gaining momentum and has no reason to stop or slow down.
For a long time, Muslim men married women of the book—that is, Jews, Christians, and Muslims—but the Muslim woman rarely married outside her faith. However, we are pushing boundaries further out to accommodate more inclusion of God’s creation. If that does not come through, the couple always has an option to marry outside the scope of their religious traditions with no consequences. Religious vigilantism has no place in America, nor will it ever gain ground. Islam is about freedom; it is in our ghutti (DNA).
Today with the God-given freedom, religious barriers are coming down. It may take two more generations for interfaith marriages to become a norm. Men and women become friends, fall in love with each other, and make their relationship to its ultimate—marriage. We cannot deny the fact that Bibi Khadija employed Muhammad (before he became prophet). She did not propose to marry him out of the blue; she knew him over a period and believed he would be the right partner. She did not send her parents to his parents either; it was one-on-one.
God has created all species in pairs and has made one for the other, and when that union takes place, harmony is restored. God is about balance, and marriage is a step to bring peace between two people, and some even consider it to be a form of worship.
And among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your kind so that you might incline toward them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think! (Quran 30:21)
A few concerns are addressed here, and ultimately, the couple has to make their own decision.
Head of the household. The resistance to a Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man is based on cultural practices even though it has a religious tone to it. An assumption was made that because the man was the provider, he will direct which way the household runs and how children are raised. That is not the truth in America and perhaps in Canada and other democracies anymore. Women today are equal partners and frequently contribute more to the household than men.
Harmony. If the man and woman are from different races, religions, or regions, it will create problems for the couple. How would they raise their children? What religion would they follow? Will society look down upon them? How would they celebrate their festivities or bury their dead? How will they handle divorce and their children? It is still a problem with many societies but not in the United States and Canada; we have figured it out.
There is a load of wisdom in the Quran. The Prophet’s nurturer and uncle did not become a Muslim and died as a pagan. It is God’s design to set an example of learning to live and care for one another despite different religions. The Prophet married Maria and Safia, Christian and Jewish women, respectively, and he did not compel them to become Muslims either, but they did it on their own.
The questions are endless, but the answer is a powerful one, and that is accountability. In the traditional societies, parents rightfully feel responsible for guarding the happiness of their offspring, whereas parents in North America are learning to believe that their kids are independent and know what they want in their lives and will find their happiness. Ultimately, they have to live their own lives; you cannot babysit them forever. American Muslim parents trust their kids to do the right thing and let them run their own lives. Please note that this comparison is made with Muslims living elsewhere in the world.
There is one segment of single Muslim women that is reaching an enormous percent of all the single women. These women are in their late forties and fifties and are divorced and certainly not looking for a provider, nor do they entertain having children. They are merely looking to have a friend and a companion in their marriages and live their own lives. A friend of mine puts it crudely, “Look, no one in the family or workplace would ever question the rituals you follow on the toilet seat. Why should anyone question how one prays?” In a pluralistic society, religion is increasingly becoming personal in nature, applicable to the believers of that faith, just as it happened during the times of the Prophet with the Madinah treaty. To you is your religion and to me is my faith, and together, we can live in harmony.
Dr. Gail Saltz, a New York–based psychiatrist and the author of The Power of Different writes, “In every marriage, there are plenty of issues that can divide couples, from differing cultures and religions to their stance on children, money, and sex.”
Gwendolyn Seidman, associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Pennsylvania, adds that two individuals from different social strata will potentially face conflicts.
This could create conflicts where one partner thinks the other is not ambitious enough or one partner disapproves of the other’s scheming . . .So if one partner is conservative and the other is liberal, but neither is particularly politically active, this difference is less likely to be a problem than if both partners are strong partisans . . . An omnivore and a vegetarian can happily coexist if the omnivore is content to cut down on meat. . . . But if he needs meat at every meal, there is going to be a problem.
Seidman concludes, “The more alike you are, the less there is to fight about . . . But the good news is that as couples spend more and more time together, they start to become more similar, both because of their many shared experiences and because of deliberate efforts to get along.”
This is the reason Muslim parents (Hindu, Sikh, and Jain parents too) take charge of finding the “suitable” husband for their daughters. They want their daughters to be happy. However, the time has come now for you to trust your daughter to make her own decision; after all, it is her own life.
A couple’s happiness is based on how they take care of themselves and each other. Lack of communication is one of the reasons for divorce, whether they are from the same religion or different religions or races. No one wants to hear this, but Islam, the doctrine of common sense, has made room for divorce, so the individuals can continue to live on with their lives with least misery. Acknowledging this fact may strengthen the relationships and become an antidote to divorces.
Remember, God does not prefer disharmony but would accept if the harmony of each is preserved by divorce. Balance is a mental attitude. If the couple has enough love, the issues become stepping-stones to figure out how to live with harmony. Dr. Abdul Hamid Abusulayman writes, “There is a clear distinction between doubts and problems. Doubts provoke obstruction, frustration, and discouragement, whereas problems inspire motivation, action, and diligence,” and solutions. To this, I will add, “Whatever you do in life, do it wholeheartedly. There is joy in it for everyone around including ourselves.”
Our comfort zone is directly proportional to the predictability of our environment; the greatest conformity produces maximum comfort, greater security, and minimal conflict. It is in this context that I am addressing the issue of a Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man.
On the face of it, it sounds like a discriminatory practice that a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, whereas a Muslim woman cannot do the same. It is not only discouraged but also declared to be wrong, and some have gone on to say that you are out of the pale of Islam and even against Islam.
This discriminatory practice is cultural and has worked in societies where women are economically and socially dependent and thus are subservient to men. However, our women—the American Muslim women—are neither financially nor culturally reliant on men, and nor should they be subservient to men. We are all created equal.
Any culture does not bind God. He sees it differently and says that a man and a woman are equally accountable for their actions; they are each other’s garments (protectors, friends, defenders, secret keepers); and the relationship is not that of subservience but that of partnership with responsibilities and duties to each other with full dignity.
A woman is as independent as a man is. Indeed, our women—the American Muslim women—live the life of Hazrat Khadija, the Prophet’s wife, who had her own business, her wealth, her own home, and her comfort zone. Our women are blessed to live the life of Hazrat Khadija, and we thank God for that. Shouldn’t that help us knock out our security concerns and comfort zone issues?
Quran on a Muslim Woman Marrying a Non-Muslim Man
There is no specific verse in the Quran that bans a woman from marrying a non-Muslim man. How can it be? Islam is a religion of common sense. God says we are created into many nations and tribes from the same single couple—Adam and Eve. Thus, we are all one large family of humans. Then he says, “The best ones among you are the ones who learn about the other, and when we do, conflicts fade and solutions emerge.”
No other couple follows God’s advice more than the interfaith and interracial couples. Their union is a declaration to the world, “Look we are different, but we can live in harmony. Why don’t you do the same?”
There are two layers to this issue—the people of the book (Jews and Christians) and, the other filter, the mushrikoon, those who do not believe in the oneness of God.
Sheikh Khaled Abou El Fadl, a scholar of Islam, writes,
This is the law as it exists or the legal legacy as we inherited it. In all honesty, I am not convinced that the evidence prohibiting Muslim women from marrying a Kitab is solid. Muslim jurists took a solid position on this matter—many of them going as far as saying if a Muslim woman marries a Kitabi she is as good as an apostate. I think, and God knows best, that this position is not reasonable and the evidence supporting it is not very strong. However, I must confess that in my humble opinion, I strongly sympathize with the jurists that argued that in non-Muslim countries it is reprehensible (makruh) for a Muslim to marry a non-Muslim.
I think that would be a political consideration in most other nations but not in America. What we have witnessed in January 2017 is incredible; the whole country stood up for Muslims, a teeny-weeny minority. We are the nation of laws, and our rules will guide us to be a just society with occasional digressions. As Americans Muslims, we have placed our trust in our constitution and will defend it with our lives if we have to. This is the best nation on Earth, and we have to preserve it for every one of us.
The fear of losing the members of the flock to others drove the jurist to make that call, which may not be valid anymore. In an article “Seven Things You Don’t Know about Interfaith Marriage,” author Naomi Schaefer Riley offers the following information: “Children of interfaith couples are more than twice as likely to adopt the faith of their mother as the faith of their father,” provided the mother follow a particular faith.
Two out of five Muslims marry someone from other faith. This seems to be a significant driver of the integration of American Muslims. Furthermore, she adds that this number increases to 67 percent for people in the age group of thirty-six and forty-five.
Despite the passing phase of political chaos now, the young Muslims believe Islam is not a divisive religion but an all-embracing religion of the Aalameen, and it accepts the otherness of others through God’s own words lakum dinakum waliaddin (to you is your faith as mine is to me). It is a mutual acknowledgment of the otherness of others. They believed in freedom and did not believe in pushing others to think into your way. The Quran calls la ikraha fid-din (there is no compulsion in matters of faith). Indeed, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are the values Islam cherishes. Remember, it is a common-sense faith.
Verses from the Quran
Do not marry women who associate [others with God], until they believe [in God]. A believing maidservant [amah] is better than a woman who associates [others with God], even if she allures you. Do not marry men who associate [others with God] until they believe [in God]. A believing male-servant is better than a man who associates [others with God], even if he allures you. (Quran 2:221)
The illah, or the cause of reason, for discouraging marriage between two different people is to prevent disharmony, considering several sociocultural and economic factors. Illah becomes discretionary here as the couple is determined to live in harmony and not let the other elements affect their relationship.
Quran 5:5 expressly allows a Muslim man to marry any believing woman, regardless of religion. No argument about it. The poem, however, remains silent about whether a Muslim woman is free to marry a believing non-Muslim man as suggestive in Quran 2:221, which predates Quran 5:5 in the revelation calendar. Please look at this from an American cultural perspective, and American Islam is gaining its own identity.
The issue is that of compatibility.
When the Quran talks about believing women over polytheists (mushrikoon), a contrast is drawn to highlight the compatibility part of the relationship. God has created a mate for everyone, and he is happiest when that union lives in harmony. God is within us; he is closer to us than our jugular vein, meaning he is aware of what goes on with us. As our conscience, he reminds us to consider someone who is compatible over someone who is not. At one time in history, the mushrikoon and muminoon (Muslims) could not live with each other, but that is not the case today in America.
Likewise, compatibility is the critical factor in the verse to marry someone who is close to you (believing) than someone who is not (mushrikoon).
Furthermore, a strife existed between the tribes. The ones who believed in the prevalent customs hated the idea of accountability that Islam was talking about. Here, the issue of trust was in play, particularly when the phrase “charming, bewitching, allurements” were used. “Don’t be beguiled with charms” was the caveat.
Someone sent the following two paragraphs, and I cannot trace back, thanks to whomever it was.
This allusion to “slaves” (men and women) is quite indicative of the moral values that the Quranic Revelation tended to inculcate in people. On the one hand, the Quran showed ‘Tolerance’ toward the fact of slavery that was universally common at the time; on the other hand; it sought to break the first chains of social hierarchy by preferring these “poor” believing slaves to those wealthy people who formed the elite then.” The relationship is suggested based on relatability.
Furthermore, the new believers needed to be protected from polytheists’ abuse who considered this new religion of Islam as a threat to their interests. The Quran urges Muslim men and women to get married to believers who had, like them, such faith awareness and were conscious of justice on earth. The purpose was to entirely avoid the marriage of Muslims to polytheists who made every effort to stand against a religion that was defending the most vulnerable people on earth.
Thus, the said verse stipulates that Muslim men and women be allowed to contract marriage with believers and prohibited to marry polytheists. Here, the Quran takes an egalitarian approach in addressing both men and women on an equal basis.
The “proof” item in case of rape over “witnesses” can be applied here as well. We need to understand the essence of God’s wisdom rather than the words as words expand and shrink in meaning.
The rejection of polytheist has to do more with the specific people who are harassing and making the lives of Muslims difficult than polytheists in general. That is not the case anymore. Everyone is a believer, whether you are a pagan, Hindu, Wicca, or Buddhist; you do believe in accountability of your actions, and that is the key to nurturing harmony in the world, which is an Islamic value. The Sikhs, Baha’is, and a few others are indeed the people of the book and the so-called monotheists that need to be included. Even the people without papers are accountable and responsible. That is how the society works now. I always welcome the cautions in our holy books. Creating a better world is our duty.
It is disappointing to the potential brides and grooms that their clergy or parent invariably insists on the other person to convert to their faith tradition. Some do, some fake it, and some are not comfortable with the idea at all.
When a couple is deeply committed to marrying, they go ahead and get married but sorely miss out on the ceremony. Over the years, I have seen too many couples miss out on the joy of that additional sense of completeness that comes with a religious service. Marriage is between two individuals, and their families and friends ought to be supporters and cheerleaders to celebrate and complete their joy.
God Bless the Interfaith and Interracial Couples
Despite their religious, racial, or cultural differences, they are setting the new standards of civility by showing the world how to live in harmony. We have to cherish and honor the couples who embrace genuine humanity by accepting each other’s uniqueness.
When people are showing extreme intolerance toward each other, the interfaith and interracial couples are showing the way to live in harmony and are contributing to the idea of one nation. They are indeed exemplary patriotic Americans.
You are who you are, and I am who I am. Let’s acknowledge that and live in peace. As long as we don’t mess with one another’s space, sustenance, and nurturance and respect one another’s uniqueness, we all will do well. If we can learn to recognize the otherness of others and accept the God-given uniqueness of each one of the seven billion of us, then conflicts fade and solutions emerge.
As a society, the least we can do is acknowledge them for their contributions toward the idea of one nation that is America. God bless them!