Part 2: An interracial marriage: Over my dead body

Although it took many months of persistent coaxing on our and the community elders’ parts, my wife and I prevailed; even after we tied the knot though, I continued to feel burdened by the suspicion that we were only one among hundreds, if not thousands, of American Muslim couples who fought against families and communities opposed to their interracial marriage. Within the Muslim community, I realized the power of the unthinkable: When it came to marriage, some Muslims couldn’t even entertain the thought of marrying individuals from particular “groups.” The idea of a black Muslim man marrying an Arab Muslim girl was inconceivable. Joining an Indonesian and a Pakistani in holy matrimony…forget about it.
I’ve given these unspoken bans considerable thought and find only one defensible explanation for these suspicious prohibitions. The most plausible reason has nothing to do with racism. An Indian Muslim family living in the U.S. may argue that their preference for their son to marry another Indian Muslim reflects a cultural imperative; that is, a strong interest in “preserving” their cultural identities and practices through an Indian-only requirement. A union with an Indian spouse, the parents might reason, offers both cultural continuity and marriage compatibility. Fair enough. Many immigrant families feel a genuine concern over losing their cultural identity in the face of a diverse social context, so I can sympathize with the desire for one’s daughter or son to marry someone who shares her/his linguistic and cultural background; after all, the common ground can pave a smoother road for the couple, and the fewer bumps a marriage faces, the better.

Despite the force of the cultural imperative, there are some serious problems with this idea. The most basic issue is that the cloak of culture can easily hide a heart of racism. If we concede that parents deserve the benefit of a cultural consideration, we may be furnishing racist parents with a safe haven for their views. In short, the cultural imperative may allow racism to slip in unnoticed through the back door. Similarly, if a cultural imperative exists and is a “good” reason for precluding marriages between Muslims of different cultural backgrounds, then exactly when does that imperative end? How long will Pakistani culture in America, for example, continue through the exclusive union of two Pakistanis? Is one generation enough? Perhaps four? Perhaps ten? The point here is that the fear of losing or muddying one’s culture can persist indefinitely; thus, one can conceivably use the cultural imperative to justify marriages between Muslims of the same ethnic background across multiple generations and to no real end. Eventually, won’t U.S. cultural identity matter more?

The compatibility argument also falls short in this regard. Many Muslims today feel that the cultural ideas and traditions their parents’ generation carried over from the homeland are precisely the mindset they do not want in a spouse. Different ideas about family, work, education and child rearing may be an advantage for partners in a way that a common cultural background does not offer. Moreover, the more important cultural foundation two prospective spouses may need for a harmonious marriage is the American side of the coin. In the U.S., Muslims are increasingly adopting norms and traditions that are arguably more “American” than anything else. Why then rely on parental cultural background as the basis of potential compatibility?

Finally, there is the larger question of Islam— according to what Islamic source can one defend such restrictive marriage practices? As a convert, my own understanding of Islam was that the religion rests upon the principle of a common faith, not a common family, ethnicity, or race. A good Muslim marriage is thus between two good Muslims whatever their ethnic or racial origins. Certainly parents can offer their sagacious advice about the benefits of sharing a common culture, but advice is not the same as an order. We must always do our best to respect and consider their wishes, but ultimately the decision on who to marry is ours to make.

Racism is an ugly word and an even uglier experience. Islam has no room for such ignorance and we had better think more critically about its insidious presence in our communities. The best among us are those whose hearts reflect the sincerity of our love for God and our commitment to Islam. Fourteen hundred years ago, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) offered Islam as a solution to the rampant racism of his time, and it would serve us well to check our ethnic and racial preferences at the door and return to the rationale of our faith when we or our children consider marriage.
Michael Vicente Perez is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University and former senior editor of Islamica Magazine. He is currently a diversity teaching fellow at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania.

 

Photo Credit: :Salihan

12 Comments

  • edabdalghafur says:

    Michael ,

    I think you capture parents and children’s rationale for cultural exclusivity in marriage pretty well.  Parents and sometimes children want to maintain their cultural identities and also they might perceive marrying within as a means of avoiding particular problems related to interracial marriage. 

    Can such exclusivity hide racism?  Of course it can.  You point this out.  Is that a reason to do away with it?  Well, I think it depends on the circumstances really.  Exclusivity can always hide xenophobia, but a limited exclusivity is always required for diversity to flourish.  Think about our religious exclusivity.  We are religiously exclusive in some areas to allow us to cultivate particular virtues and religious practice that would not otherwise be possible in an environment of diversity.  Religious exclusivity in marriage is one example that we think is justified. 

    Later you argue that in Islam there is no place for such cultural restrictions.  And I think to a large extent you are right.  Islam certainly does not prohibit interracial marriages, and given the record of our history as a civilization one might argue that its often encouraged it.  But I think the stance Islam takes is one of pragmatism and prudence rather than a single universal position.  So the appropriate answer is always particular, depends on the circumstances. 

    Lets compare many families hesitation for inter-racial marriage with another sort of hesitation that people have regarding marriage.  Age.  Many people, probably most think that the man should be older or at least not younger than the women he seeks to marry, such that many would not even consider a marriage partner whose age doesn’t fit this framework.  Now how do we approach this issue from an Islamic perspective?  In many ways I think Islam’s position is the same.  Its prudential.  It’s certainly not forbidden for a man to marry an older women, this was, of course, a practice of the Prophet (saw)!  So like, interracial marriage, we can never absolutize what might be our prudential hesitations about a particular practice.  In some instances, marrying younger or interracially is the right thing to do.  The Prophet’s (saw) marriage to Khadija (as) was his best marriage.  But at the same time, I don’t think Islam is out to deny those prudential hesitations either.  The age difference I think, has been stressed partly because it better allows for the husband to fulfill his leadership role in the marriage. The cultural similarity is often stressed to allow for easier communication and understanding.  I think this is why, for instance, the preference for men to marry younger, has persisted despite it being a sunnah. 

    In any case thats all theoretical discussion.  The question that we are dealing with is whether inter-racial marriage is something prudential in our context.  And I think the answer definitely is that in many cases it is.  We have mixed identities, a limited pool of potential spouses, and our future as a Muslim community is one of multiple cultures converging on a new emerging cultural identity.  Its a process of course that takes time, but I think its no doubt our future, even if many in this generation still prefer their own ethnic group.  But I think its important not to look at our older generation as somehow holding on to their arbitrary cultural preferences in opposition to Islam.  In some cases, it may come to this, as when a girl is unable to marry at all, because of unnecessary cultural restrictions,  but this shouldn’t characterize the preference for ethnic similarity as such.  This is because in the end its prudential.

    • “O Humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most RIGHTEOUS of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” 49: AL Hujurat

  • ghina says:

    Yes, but when the choice was to marry the person that was best religiously, the culture was not an issue, it was EXACTLY the same. 

    Another way to look at this is the culture of wealth.  The prophet (PBUH) recommended that people marry within their own wealth strata to support a good marriage.  I believe the purpose was to minimize differences and create harmony.

    I am not disagreeing that Racism has no place and that the cultural imperative can provide a cover for racism.  If you feel it, it is probably there.  I also believe that Americanization happens.  And that you can stay in your heritage and still marry an American (who is in your heritage).

    I don’t think I’m arguing for precluding interracial marriages.  Just that a lot (more) thought must go into this relationship, and so that people do not automatically attribute something nefarious to the elders in that family who have concerns.

  • OmarG says:

    Historically, inter-ethnic marriages in the Islamic world were almost the norm, especially in the cities. Travel and trade and war were “epidemic” which all caused large-scale movements of people. New arrivals often married into the native populations. Since they were all Muslim, it often mattered little. For example, take modern Turkey. The people are such a mish-mash of ethnic groups that the lines are almost completely blurred. There are families which are mixtures of Laz, Turk, Greek, Bosnian, Kurdish, Persian, Arab, etc.

    I think forbidding inter-ethnic marriages in multi-ethnic communities is un-Islamic and merely highlights the cultural insecurity of the forbidder. Why don’t they ever think that cultural influence flows both ways? The partner from the “Other” may well adopt some of the spouse’s culture and vice versa. If thier culture has any merit, it will spread. Perhaps they are so insecure and have such a low opinion of themselves and their culture that they fear it will be swept away at the first chance? Then WHY DID THEY COME HERE!

  • ghina says:

    Is anyone talking about forbidding anything?

    All cultures come here, and follow the same basic pattern (except for AA of course).  If they came without a critical mass of fellow cultural folks, they assimilate very quickly.  If however there are enough of their folk, they stick to themselves and grow in size.  Eventually they succeed and tension arises as they begin to interact to a greater degree.  Finally some move out and then assimilate into the larger culture.  Then another culture comes in behind them and does the same.

    It may be that muslims are just beginning to reach this point.

    But another issue is that older cultures mostly had the same expectations whether you were Persian or Turk. They were traditional-based communities with similar expectations for work, child-rearing, familial tribal loyalty etc. It’s in well-individuated societies that tradition and community become less important.  That kind of individuation happens with wealth.  So the dichotomy can be individual vs group.  Whereas the ethnicities you mentioned above were group oriented.

    So here we are, as the first group of people venture outside their culture the previous generation will be concerned.  That’s normal.  The next generation will be less so because they have become more sophisticated about it and seen the fallout from it. 

    Seriously everyone comes here for their selfish reasons, economy, political stability, personal freedom etc.  No one comes here and says “Man I can’t wait to defend to my death your right to say whatever you want to!”.  History shows that previous cultures WERE swept away for the most part, with a few signs here and there.

    Again why the blame for going through the same process as all cultures go through here?

  • Zumar says:

    I agree with you Ghina. While I feel that religion is of paramount importance when it comes to selecting your spouse and culture shouldn’t necessarily play a role BUT I do think we should heed the Prophet’s (pbuh) advice when he recommended that we marry within our own economic strata. Apart from conflicting family/religious values, disagreements on bills and spending habits are among the top reasons for discord in a marriage.

  • OmarG says:

    Blame? Because real people are being hurt by it. Because real lives are being ruined by it. Perish parochialism, perish it!

  • ghina says:

    Yes I grant you OmarG it’s not fair.

  • OmarG says:

    @Zeshan: right, because a great number of people see Islam as an identity, something that distinguishes “their tribe” from the West and Westerners. I mean, Islam is the last great thing they have left: their civilization had fallen, Colonialism took their independence, Modernity took their Traditions and Science overtook their ancient books. Islam was the one thing the West didn’t want, but now that’s changing ever so slightly with conversions. *We* are the agents who are “taking away” the very last thing they can boast about, the idealized Golden Age which they think only they produced. Yet, they conveniently forget that the globalized culture which fostered Muslim innovations and the open minds that Muslims now lack were crucial to that Golden Age. Muslims and the so-called Islamic world will never prosper so long as it is so insular and closed off. By rejecting us, they speed up their own doom by irrelevance.

  • Zeshan says:

    Apart from the cultural uneasiness, there’s also the suspicion that reverts are not as Muslim as those who are born Muslim. There is a fear that they won’t stay true to Islam since they don’t have the familial support and cultural upbringing to anchor their faith. Which is kinda stupid, no amount of upbringing is going to help someone who’s imaan in weak.

    Muslims in America frequently see their community as those with similar ethnic roots and don’t really take the idea of an ummah based on faith to heart.

  • ghina says:

    Interesting because all the con/reverts I’ve met have been more true to Islam then those born into it.  I suppose at least because they can more easily delineate what is religious from what is cultural.

    It does seem that a community is needed to reinforce faith, it’s hard to do it all yourself.  But there’s no reason it should be any particular community…except of course if one person comes from a particular culture then you have easy access!

    But if you can roll your own, more power to you.

  • Milana says:

    You did well. This will help you write my essay

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