Part 1 of the debate: Muslim women should be able to marry non-Muslim men

“And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect” (30:21, Y. Ali). “I’m not against capture and convert,” a male Muslim friend of mine frequently provides this jocular rejoinder in discussions about finding solutions to the rising number of successful, accomplished, unmarried Muslim American women in their 30s.
As many families and Muslimah community members extradite the Huma Abedins of the world for marrying “non’s,” and as little to no Imams agree to perform marriages for these unions, we must ask ourselves, what is the appropriate recourse for solving the problem of a growing number of unwed Muslimahs with a proportionally dwindling stock of suitable (or even available) Muslim men? What is the solution? Should the Muslim community, with an overwhelming opposition to inter-faith marriages for Muslim women, reconsider its position in the matter?

As Ms. Mohammad mentioned, Islamic legal scholar Dr. Abou El Fadl “personally, finds the evidence regarding the prohibition to be weak and does not feel comfortable telling a woman she cannot marry a kitabiyya [People of the Book.] Although this may be the case, he also acknowledges, “I am not aware of a single dissenting opinion on this, which is rather unusual for Islamic jurisprudence because Muslim jurists often disagreed on many issues, but this is not one of them.” Since scholarly opinion has overwhelmingly established Muslim female marriage to non-Muslim men as haram [forbidden], it is incumbent for the “pro” side to prove otherwise. I, in return, offer three additional points to not just support an “against position” but also to add nuance to the controversial debate which has arisen in this age of an “epidemic case” of Muslimah singledom.

Although I am a person not interested in ideological conversion or searing into people’s private affairs with argumentative interventions, I am taking this position on three accounts.

Firstly, to argue in favor of a Muslim marriage as a source for the preservation and protection of a woman’s legal rights in marriage; secondly, to show that not Muslim women, but Muslim men have more restrictive marriage guidelines; and lastly, to explore the parameters of what a “Muslim” is and rigorously interrogate the meanings we attach to such historically evolving, morphing, and transformed terms as “Muslim”—in fact, let us ask ourselves, not just who is defined as a non-Muslim man, but who is defined as a befitting “Muslim” man to marry. This is not a legal or a scholarly intervention, as i am neither a lawyer nor an Islamic scholar, but one compelling further scrutiny of perceived axiomatic truths. I also do not take on popular sociological arguments that use the preservation of religious inheritance in a patriarchical society or continuation of the “ummah” to either support or justify their position. I find those arguments lacking in qualitative and quantitative proof.

Even though I personally subscribe to a philosophy of “live and let live,” am not a fan of cultural, racial or racially restricted endogamy, and really could not care if a Muslim woman decides to wed a goat or even a Gingrich, I am taking this position to demonstrate the need for vibrant debate on this issue and to enter into a more rigorous interrogation of perceived Islamic/Muslim community norms. So let us start:

1. “My Prerogative”: Muslim woman’s rights in a Muslim marriage:

This point can be summed up very quickly and is one that my opponent will probably concede. A Muslim woman is guaranteed certain rights in terms of dowers (4:4) (4:24) (4:25), one that cannot be taken back (2:229) (4:20). And her rights in divorce proceedings are well accounted for. The issue of whether these rights, or any of the like, are applied into social practice is a claim very few faith communities can make, that of abiding by the precepts of their scripture.

2. “Two Can Play That Game”

Upon investigation of the prohibitions on Muslimah-non-Muslim unions, I discovered more restrictions placed on a men’s prospective spouse than on a woman’s (not surprising, Ms. Mohammad had a similar finding). Both men and women are cautioned against joining into marriage with a mushrikin [simply defined as a polytheist or one who ascribes divinity to other than God] (2:221). But only men are specifically singled out when entering into a discussion about marrying a muminatin [believing women], and guarding THOSE women from returning to the kuffar [deniers of Truth] (60:10). In addition, lawful are the ones who a man has paid their dowers (33:50), and muhsanaat [chaste women] (5:5). Men are also instructed to “give them their due dower, and desire chastity, not lewdness, nor secret intrigues” (5:5). And forbidden to men are their father’s previous spouses (4:22), mothers, daughters, sisters, paternal and maternal aunts, nieces, mothers-in-law, step daughters (4:23), married women (4:24). No such prohibitions or advisories appear for Muslim women.

With such limits, provisions, supplemental instructions on lawful and prohibitive marriage, men appear to have more restrictions than women when it comes to choosing a lawful or desirable spouse. Certain madhabs [schools of thought] find it makruh [reprehensible] for Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women, including kitabis, in non-majority Muslim state settings. Some Maliki jurists even used the Haram card when describing such geography particular unions.

So a Muslim women cannot marry a mushrikin [polytheist] and a Muslim man has the additional provisions of marrying a woman who is a mumin [believer] (60:10) muhsanaat [chaste woman] (5:5)— provisions not outlined for women. Does that mean she won the argument, that Muslim women can marry muslim men? Not necessarily because I contend that non-mushrikin men are Muslims. So, since the category of “Muslim” under my definition is a much wider net than Muslims would feel comfortable casting, I will explain what I mean by Muslim and use that as grounds to endorse Muslim-on-Muslim marriages as a sort of protection of gender rights.

3. “One Love”?: Interrogating the socially popular definition of “Muslim”

This conveniently leads us back to a rudimentary question requiring clarification, “What is a Muslim?” Who is considered a Muslim by the Qu’ran? Religious Studies Professor William Chittick in a recent article for the Huffington Post, “Which ‘Islam’? Exploring the Word’s Many Meanings,” contends that historically, the identification with the term Muslim and Islam is an innovation, and the limited demarcations that term has metamorphized to, also is an innovation. Chittick and Sachiko Murata in “The Vision of Islam” argue for four different meanings for the words “Islam.” Those include: “(1) The submission of the whole of creation to the Creator; (2) the submission of human beings to the guidance of God as revealed through the prophets; (3) the submission of human beings to the guidance of God as revealed through the prophet Muhammad; and (4) the submission of the followers of Muhammad to God’s practical instructions” (6).

Being that I am the purveyor of this argument, I will subscribe to the second of the four to make my point. Examples of mentions of such an Islam, with such Muslims counted as its adherents, can be seen here (I have added the original Arabic words in those instances where it is relevant):

“And strive in His cause as ye ought to strive, (with sincerity and under discipline). He has chosen you, and has imposed no difficulties on you in religion; it is the cult of your father Abraham. It is He Who has named you Muslims (almuslimeena), both before and in this (Revelation); that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and ye be witnesses for mankind! So establish regular Prayer, give regular Charity, and hold fast to Allah! He is your Protector – the Best to protect and the Best to help!” (22:78, Y. Ali)

“When Jesus found Unbelief on their part He said: “Who will be My helpers to (the work of) Allah.” Said the disciples: “We are Allah’s helpers: We believe in Allah, and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims (muslimoona).” (3:52, Y. Ali)

“And dispute ye not with the People of the Book (alkitabi), except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).” (muslimoona).” (29:46, Y. Ali)

As was demonstrated by the above examples, the term “Muslim” was used to describe Jesus’s disciples, (who I have heard people refer to as distinctly different than us Mooz-lams), who are part of the “cult of your father Abraham,” and who include kitabis as those who bow to the one God they share.

Furthermore, as we see in Yusuf Ali’s translation, there is a distinction made between People of the Book and “the unbelievers,” or the kitaba and kafaroo, aligning kitabis with the mumins:

“And We have set none but angels as Guardians of the Fire; and We have fixed their number only as a trial for Unbelievers,- in order that the People of the Book may arrive at certainty, and the Believers may increase in Faith,- and that no doubts may be left for the People of the Book and the Believers, and that those in whose hearts is a disease and the Unbelievers may say, “What symbol doth Allah intend by this ?” Thus doth Allah leave to stray whom He pleaseth, and guide whom He pleaseth: and none can know the forces of thy Lord, except He and this is no other than a warning to mankind.” (74:31, Y. Ali)

And the mumins are grouped together with the Muslims:

“For muslim men and women,- for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in Charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise,- for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (33:35, Y. Ali)

So what is a Muslim? Based on the above examples that include kitabi in definitional explanations of mumins and Muslims, I argue that a Muslim can be a kitabi,[1] and thus that these kitabis, counted in my books as Muslims, are eligible for Muslim women to marry. So thus, a Muslim woman does not have to invent arguments demonstrating her legal Quranic ability to marry a non-Muslim since there is nothing to disprove, unless that is that she wants to marry a polytheist.

The underlying problem is the way we frame our understanding of the parameters of “Muslim-ness,” limiting a “Muslim” is to an ethnicized notion of Muslim performance. Marriage in a post-Christian West means that religious identities splinter off into ethnic identities and religious identities. As such, there is a development of different Muslim identities, that of an ethnic and religious nature. Herein lies a cultural transformation paralleling the process of development of ethnic Jewish and Christian communities, where we become an ethnicized or racialized Muslim who must fight for civil rights or cultural preservation, and not simply Muslims on a spiritual path towards submission to the Divine Noor. This convolutes and restricts notions of Muslim-ness that historically enjoyed more ideological flexibility.

As Chittick points out in his HuffPo article, “The Quran uses the word islām and derivatives like muslim (one who has the quality of islām) about 80 times. A small number of these instances can plausibly be interpreted as designations for the religion that the Quran and the Prophet were in the process of establishing. Historians have pointed out that the word came to be employed as a common designation for the religion only gradually, a process that has intensified enormously in modern times.”

Similarly, so focused are we on the nominal line that is drawn between “Muslim” and “non-Muslim” men when it comes to marrying our Muslimahs, we have been distracted from the task of dissecting, as a community, what passes for an unsuitable Muslim who banks on the nominal association or exclusively wears Islam as an ethnic identity. It is possible for a Jewish man or a Christian man to adhere to and practice more Islamic values than a nominally Muslim man. As a minor example, in Surah Ahzab the munafiqeen [hypocrites], who can be Muslims, are grouped with the kafireen, opposite of mumin (the desirable spouses for men), as those who should not be given any counsel:

“O Prophet! Fear Allah, and hearken not to the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites: verily Allah is full of Knowledge and Wisdom.” (33:1, Y. Ali)

Oh parents, would you give your daughter off to a nominally Muslim hypocrite who is mentioned in an association with a kaffir, that denier of Truth, instead of a muslim Jew or Christian?

Concluding remarks:

By these guidelines Huma Abedin should not be publicly paraded around with a scarlet “H” (“H” for “haram”—I felt like a Sesame Street character for breaking that down). If her husband is indeed a believer in God and not a polytheist Jew, she entered into a marriage with a Muslim. So what is not the benefit for a Muslim woman to choose to marry a Muslim man or enter into a Muslim-on-Muslim marriage, if it confers certain rights and protections onto the women and includes kitabis in its definitional breadth? Utilizing a cost-benefit analysis, Muslim marriage adds benefit with minimal sacrifices in terms of “choices” and “options.” It is the community’s narrow-minded vision of an appropriate “Muslim” who in their eyes turns out to be more an ethnic Muslim, rather basing the criteria of Muslim on one who’s submission is predicated on a love for God, that misrepresents the permissible choices that are in front of Muslim women, and consequently creates a false perception of limited options.

And lastly, I would like to conclude by emphatically agreeing with my opponent:


Allah knows best.

*kufis off to the person who can guess the theme that ties the headers together

[1] And although I am not attempting to convince readers of this highly unpopular position and as uncomfortable as the following statement will make both Muslims and non-Muslims, (as a believer in Murata and Chittick’s (1) definition for Islam) for me, can also include Zorastarians, Hindus, Sikhs-those believers in monotheism who are not counted amongst the mushrikin.
This article was previously published at The Goatmilk Debates. A counter position will be published here on Friday.


Photo Credit: Parekh Cards


  • tucompay1976 says:

    Perhaps I missed something, but did this article skirt the central question: why are Muslim women prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men (whether “of the book” or not)?

  • OmarG says:

    The article failed to make its point, and completely errs in trying to redefine “Muslim”. Its very clear: you believe in the oneness of God AND the prophethood of Muhammad. Sure, Christian and Jewish men can be righteous and serve God, but without believing in Muhammad, they are simply not believers and followers of Islam = a Muslim.

  • mara says:

    OmarG has it.  Otherwise, why does the Qur’an even make a distinction in the first place?  With such a clear distinction, i see very little room for semantic argument.

  • tucompay1976 says:

    I agree but I’m wondering how one reconciles the statement “believes in the prophethood of Muhammad” with prophets who preceded Muhammad.  Was Ibrahim, for example, a Muslim in the sense you’ve described?  Did Muhammad’s predecessors know of and believe in Muhammad?  If not, then we might have to accept some sort of distinction between “Muslims” in the pre-Muhammad sense and post Muhammad sense.  This may not relate to marriage practices since we are all effectively post Muhammad. Nonetheless, the definition of “Muslim” may not be as simple as we like.

    Any thoughts?

    • aks says:

      yes they did , theymade it clear is called says of them when they said there will be other will come in the future and he will follow my message (islam ) as prophet ibrahim believed in one god with is allah in islam

  • Zai says:


    What’s the point really in discussing this, when the Qur’an is clear
    on this matter? And the Author is rather bold in taking such a position to say that it should be allowed – this is in defiance of Allah’s command. When one ponders on the reason why it’s not allowed, one will eventually appreciate why Allah has forbidden Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. Just look around and observe…

  • tucompay1976 says:

    Omar: “All the people who were Muslim pre-Muhammad are dead. For a very long time.”

    This doesn’t answer my question.  Whether they are dead or not avoids the issue I’m raising, namely in what sense were they Muslims.  I did not offer this question as a defense of the author’s position.  Rather, I offered it as an attempt to understand the meaning of “Muslim” since we do claim that Ibrahim, for example, was a Muslim.  As I stated: “This may not relate to marriage practices since we are all effectively post Muhammad. Nonetheless, the definition of ???Muslim??? may not be as simple as we like.” 

    Zai: “When one ponders on the reason why it???s not allowed, one will eventually appreciate why Allah has forbidden Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. Just look around and observe??”

    I’m pondering but have not discovered the answer.  Exactly why is it prohibited for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man?  And, if men are permitted to do so (no matter how restrictive the rules may be), why is that so?

  • OmarG says:

    @tucompany: >>  If not, then we might have to accept some sort of distinction between “Muslims” in the pre-Muhammad sense and post Muhammad sense.

    All the people who were Muslim pre-Muhammad are dead. For a very long time.

  • edabdalghafur says:

    There are really major methodological problems here that really invalidate her argument.  This was not a well thought out piece at all.

  • OmarG says:

    Because, as much as some people may not like it, women follow men, they imitate men. No matter if we call it equality, its still women trying too hard to be like us. Is it nature or nurture, I don’t know. But what is, seemingly is.

  • ghina says:

    I think women do defer to men in traditional societies, especially where the women go to live with their husband’s family.  It would be interesting to find out if the dynamics change if they live in their own place, or you have two working adults etc etc.

  • Michael Elwood says:

    I agree with the author that those who think that nominal Muslims can marry People of the Book, but nominal Muslimahs can’t, will not find support for such a position from the Quran. The Quran basically gives us both the same command. Specifically, that they can’t marry Mushriks (2:221) or Kafirs (60:10).

    I also agree that the terms Muslim, Kafir, and Mushrik have been defined too exclusively. The popular definition seems to be that you are either a Muslim or a Kafir or a Mushrik. However, I think that the author went to the other extreme and defined them too inclusively. She implies that anyone who isn’t a Kafir or a Mushrik (like Jews and Christians) is a Muslim.

    The truth is that those words are not mutually exclusive, and the Quran has a more nuanced view. For example, The Quran describes some Jews and Christians as Believers (and therefore able to marry Muslimahs):

    22:17 Those who believe, those who are Jewish, the converts, the Christians, the Zoroastrians, and the idol worshipers, GOD is the One who will judge among them on the Day of Resurrection. GOD witnesses all things.

    3:113 They are not all the same, from the people of the book are an upright nation; they recite God’s signs during parts of the night and they prostrate.

    The Quran describes other Jews and Christians as Kafirs (and therefore unable to marry Muslimahs as per 60:10):

    9:31 They took their scholars and priests to be lords besides God, and the Messiah son of Mary, while they were only commanded to serve One god, there is no god but He, be He glorified for what they set up.

    5:17 Ingrates indeed are those who have said, “God is the Messiah the son of Mary.” Say, “Who has any power against God if He had wanted to destroy the Messiah son of Mary, and his mother, and all who are on earth!” To God is the sovereignty of heavens and earth and all that is in-between; He creates what He pleases. God is capable of all things.

    5:72 Ingrates indeed are those who have said, “God is the Messiah son of Mary!” Although the Messiah had said, “O Children of Israel, serve God, my Lord and your Lord. Whoever sets up partners with God, then God will forbid paradise for him, and his destiny will be the fire; and the wicked will have no supporters.”

    Some Jews and Christians proudly declare themselves to be Kafirs.

    On the cover of a book on Arabic tattoos, a man has the word Kafir in Arabic on his chest:

    A soldier in Iraq had the same tattoo on his back:

    A Christian, who goes by the name whiteboykaffir, had this to say about dating Muslimahs:

    “ive gone out with a couple of muslim girls now..
    the first was a palestinian girl and now im with an indonesian girl..
    i do it for my christian brothers around the globe.
    im sick of the intolerant attitutes whereby its ok if muslim men date our women but not ok if we date their women!!
    so i purposefully went about my way to use my good whiteboy looks and charm to swoon these forbidden fruits from the clutches of islam. i have to say, the palestinian girl was hot – i like arab girls.. the indonesian is too but there is somthing more satisfiying taking a muslim girl from the “holy land” haha!
    So i urge all my christian brothers around the globe to use their influence to bed as many muslims girls as possible.. perhaps if it gets serious she will ask u to convert – ridiculous right? all to please the family and community.. well what abt christian families and communities? if you are not lucky enough to get her to convert then do so yourself until after marriage – then convert back.. whatever you do, make sure the children will be christian..
    remember what Jesus said “love your enemy”… “

    And just so there’s no misunderstanding, our pasty friend added this gem:

    “well to be honest – i just want a more level playing field..
    and i’m trying to get a sense of comradery within our religion.
    you often hear muslims cry abt their “brothers” in palestine or kashmir or even chechnya.
    we don’t stick up for each other! do you ever hear christians talk about the suffering of their coptic brothers in egypt?! of course not!
    i’m not so much trying to convert ppl to christianity but rather stem the flow of muslim men taking our women while we do nothing – absolutely nothing..
    we should do the same – which is what i’m doing! besides once muslim women see what life is like in the christian way – they much prefer how they are treated! they actually have a say in matters and have far more respect..
    islam is the fastest growing religion in the world for all the wrong reasons – some of which i’ve mentioned already..
    i only want to stop the spread of this ..disease.. how else do you describe something that is malicious and multiplies at an alarming rate?”

    Is it really that hard to imagine why God would forbid Muslimahs from marrying these kafir klowns?

    The Quran informs us that “Muslims” can be mushriks too (6:121) if they follow someone other than God in matters of religion (6:114) or uncritically do whatever the majority of the people are doing. These nominal Muslim can’t marry Muslimahs (2:221).

    That said, my problem with Muslimahs who promote interfaith marriages is that they define “suitable”. The author wrote:

    “. . . discussions about finding solutions to the rising number of successful, accomplished, unmarried Muslim American women in their 30s.”

    I may be too blue collar to qualify as successful and accomplished in the minds of some hifalutin Muslimahs, but I’m unmarried and just turned 30 last month. And there are a lot of other unmarried Muslims in their 30s. So, it’s hard for me to take seriously the claim that there is a dwindling stock of available or “suitable” Muslims to choose from and that interfaith marriage is the only solution. Muslimahs need to examine what constitutes “suitable” and how they needlessly disqualify many Muslims from consideration. A lot of Muslimahs subscribe to what I call the fallacy. The notion that suitable partners have to have everything you can think of in common (including “race”, class, and age). Ironically, the most celebrated romances in Muslim history seem like mismatches. Khadijah had a different class and age than Muhammad. Jafar as-Sadiq (whome shia consider the sixth Imam) belonged to a different “race” and class than Hamidah Khatun. Razia Sultana (the sultaness of Delhi) belonged to a different “race” and class than Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut. I’m not saying marry the brokest dude you can find to prove how noble you are , but to broaden your definition of what suitable is. 

    Because American Muslims are so diverse, Muslimahs who insist on strict compatibility will erroneously believe that there are no suitable Muslims.

    Interfaith marriage isn’t the “solution” to this “problem”. As Pamela Taylor points out in her well balanced article on the topic, couples in interfaith marriages are “three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.”

    This includes ones that are portrayed by the media as ideal like the one between Meriam al-Khalifah (Kuwaiti princess) and Jason Johnson (American soldier and certified douche):

  • may alhassen says:

    Upon subsequent readings I realized was not nearly as well written as I had intended. For me, these issues are more questions than answers. I do not have the answers, what I do see are interesting ayat and Qu???ranic concepts dedicated to describing a faithful worshiper that bring up questions as to how we even define the appropriate ???Muslim??? man for the Muslim woman. Who is that non-mushrikin that would be compatible with Qu???ranic summons? Maybe it was a stretch and over-reaching to cast my net so wide in this discussion and with so little background and training I have. It was not my earnest conviction on these points, but my voracious precocity that motivated these statements that should have been phrased in question format. Why are there ayah in which the noun ???muslimoona??? is used, are the kitabis included? Am I decontextualizing the ayah? What is the socio-historic contextualization and the textual contextualization (that was so grad school of me right there)?
    But, what I am also wondering, is Muslim, in this supposed moment of ???modernity??? becoming or splitting off into two paths (maybe not exactly divergent ones) of ethnic/cultural Muslim and spiritual Muslim, in which we are more concerned about ethnic/cultural markers of a Muslim our daughter, niece, cousin, sister, etc is going to marry, and not the worship of the man?
    Sorry the poor stylistic packaging of these points have obfuscated and detracted from the main concerns.

  • NadiaM says:

    May brings up some excellent questions and points to ponder. For even more on the main issue at hand, my perspective in an article and addendum in the comments:

  • Muhammad Ali says:

    May why do so many conver women particularly white femlaes. and its almost always women, try to come into the Musli mcommunity and change it to the very same liberalism that destroyed their families and societies? No thank youa

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