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