When Huma Abedin, aide to Hilary Clinton, married Anthony Weiner, New York Congressman, it sent tongues wagging in the Muslim community. She did the unthinkable, the ultimate taboo for a good Muslim girl from a good Muslim family – she married a Jew… and he did not convert. O-M-G. The question that makes even the most open-minded Imams squirm was revived – Can a Muslim woman marry a non-Muslim man? The answer in all the major schools of thought has traditionally been a resounding NO. Absolutely, not. Not ever. Haraam, sister.
The response only begs the next question, but why? It is not prohibited in the Qur’an. Few modern scholars feel comfortable forbidding it for that reason. Yet, few are actually willing to articulate this in an official forum. Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl is an example of a scholar who has openly and candidly addressed the issue of Muslim women marrying “men of the Book.” In his response he explains his dislike of the issue and his tendency to avoid answering the question. He describes the traditional thought and then goes on to mention that he, personally, finds the evidence regarding the prohibition to be weak and does not feel comfortable telling a woman she cannot marry a kitabiyya (person of the Book).
I am not a scholar, but Dr. Fadl’s response echoes the sentiments I have heard from other scholars as well. As such, the bases for this opinion are two ayats, the opinions of scholars I have questioned, and my own research. This opinion does not apply to marriages where one converts to another’s faith. Additionally, for the purposes of this discussion I recognize that we live in a patriarchal society and I am not contesting the traditional roles ascribed to men and women as per our cultural patriarchy.
What God Says: Qur’anic Law
The Qur’an addresses marriage to non-Muslims in two instances:
1. “And do not marry polytheistic women until they believe. And a believing slave woman is better than a polytheist, even though she might please you. And do not marry polytheistic men [to your women] until they believe. And a believing slave is better than a polytheist, even though he might please you.” [Qur’an 2:221]
2. “And [lawful in marriage are] chaste women from among the believers and chaste women from among those who were given the Scripture before you, when you have given them their due compensation, desiring chastity, not unlawful sexual intercourse or taking [secret] lovers.” [Qur’an 5:5]
There are several absolute truths we can establish from these two ayats. The first is that a differentiation is made between non-Muslim “People of the Book” (those of the Judeo-Christian faith) and non-Muslim polytheists. This distinction determines that both men and women are not permitted to marry anyone who associates another god with God. That is pretty straightforward and not to be contested. The next point is that men are permitted to marry chaste Muslim, Jewish or Christian women when certain duties are upheld. We generally accept this at face value as our right to marry. We also accept from this that though Muslim women are not directly addressed, if Muslim men are given permission to marry Muslim women then naturally, Muslim women can marry Muslim men. The Qur’an does not provide further guidance on whether Muslim women can marry men “of the Book.”
This leads us to the issue at hand – can we assume that the reverse is true for Muslim women marrying Judeo-Christian men?
- If not, can we forbid Muslim women from marrying a Christian or Jewish man?
- If yes, what does that mean in our patriarchal structure?
What People Say: Traditional Thought
Traditionally, the answer has been no, the reverse situation cannot be assumed for Muslim women. The argument is that if men are expressly given permission to marry women of the Book then women must also be given express permission in order to do the same. All major schools of thought accept this ruling. Many provide justifications as to why this traditional view has been upheld. The justification for this view fall primarily along these lines: 1) preservation of the Ummah, 2) the father establishes religion for his children, 3) loss of certain rights as a Muslim woman, 4) implications on family law.
- Preservation of the Ummah: Since we live in a patriarchal system there is a need to maintain a certain order under that system. The family lineage is passed through the father so if Muslim women marry outside the Muslim community this would, somehow, impede the growth of the Ummah as a whole.
- Religion stems from the father: Children are most often recognized by their father’s name, culture, traditions, customs, beliefs, etc. In most customs, a woman marries into a family, not the other way around. In many instances the woman will even move into the husband’s family home. In such scenarios, not only is the father’s beliefs and legacy passed on in a symbolic sense, the father’s family and culture also exert a great influence over the children. This view that religion stems from the father is also used to support the notion that Muslim men may marry a kitabiyya, while Muslim women cannot.
- Loss of rights: Islam ensures certain rights to women, which in an interfaith marriage cannot be guaranteed because the husband is under no obligation to ensure these rights are protected. This includes, but is not limited to, the right to freely practice her faith, the right to a mehr , the right to keep her name after marriage, the right to retain her earnings, the right to have her husband provide for her and their children, etc. Again, this is not thought to be an issue for Muslim men marrying outside of the faith because, the patriarchal household is accepted as the norm. Thus, as part of his duties, a Muslim husband is expected to provide for his family, uphold the rights of his wife and not prevent her from practicing her faith. He is also prohibited from forcing his wife to be Muslim. The fear, however, is that a non-Muslim husband heading a household would not be obliged to do the same, placing the woman at a disadvantage.
- Implications on family law: Islamic law provides guidance regarding various topics within family law. This is of particular significance in regards to interfaith marriages as it includes matters of divorce, child custody, and inheritance. A concern for some scholars is that if Muslim women marry outside the faith, not only would they lose their God-given rights, but also, Islamic family law would not be able to address the issues that may arise.
Come On, Really…?
The notion that the Ummah is somehow preserved through the offspring of Muslim men is culturally archaic. The spread of Islam has been through its message, and its growth is maintained through the belief of its followers. A man’s family name, traditions and faith are passed to his children only in a symbolic sense. Their decision to follow or not follow his ways stem from a number of factors, and is ultimately governed by their personal choice. There are further inconsistencies in the reasoning given by those who purport this rule in light of patriarchal tradition. If we maintain that men are the head of households and carry on family legacy, then we also support the notion that women are the primary caretakers and nurturers. Thus, religion and culture are more likely to be passed through the mother. This is especially true of the common nuclear family in America, where the children are solely under the care and supervision of the mother, not the father’s extended family. It simply does not make sense that a practicing Muslim mother would not raise her children as Muslims. It makes even less sense that a non-Muslim mother could be expected to raise her children as Muslim.
The aforementioned justifications speak to an Islamically ideal situation – a marriage between a Muslim man and Muslim woman where both care for and respect each other and live in wedded bliss for the sake of Allah in a Muslim majority country with his upstanding Muslim family. It assumes that by marrying a kitabiyya a Muslim woman is forgoing this wedded bliss. It also assumes that if she marries a Muslim man she will be in an Islamically ideal situation. Both assumptions are just not realistic. If a Muslim woman finds a practicing man of God who respects her better than the Muslim men around her and with whom she connects with better as well, why should anyone stop her from marrying him? Even if we are to presume that all the single available Muslim men of America are Islamically ideal men and a Muslim woman would be crazy to reject all these potential Muslim suitors – if she chooses to marry a kitabiyya, she does not lose any wifely rights in this country, at least. The beauty of Islam is that it guaranteed a minimum standard for women at a time when there was no standard. We are fortunate enough to live in a society where these basic rights and more are upheld by law.
The concern that a shift in traditional thought will have implications in Islamic law is understandable, but should not be considered a threat to our Islamic traditions. Islamic law is not divine and it is not set in stone. It is a man-made interpretation of divine doctrine and tradition. It is a living body of law and should be treated as such. Implying that the fear of readdressing Islamic family law is enough to forbid all Muslim women from marrying outside the faith is just lazy. A body of law requires constant thought and analysis in order to develop. There are many Islamic scholars who recognize the need for development in Islamic legal theory, and are uncomfortable upholding traditions that are not prescribed in the Qur’an, yet few are willing to voice that opinion. When it comes to the rights of women we need to remember that Islam provided a floor, not a ceiling, and we must be careful of twisting something into haraam that is not expressly prohibited.
Ideally, most of us want and expect to marry a Muslim. It simplifies a lot of complications in our minds regarding marriage and family. But the reality is that in our society we have an increased chance of meeting and marrying a non-Muslim. Huma’s choice may have made the news. But men do it all the time. We accept their decision, as it is their choice, their right. We don’t analyze all the possible outcomes it may or may not have on the future of his children and the Ummah. So why are we prohibiting women from observing the same right when it is not prohibited in the Qur’an? And why are we prohibiting it with outdated justifications?
At most, the traditional justifications provide evidence that marrying kitabiyya is discouraged, not that it is forbidden. The choice is left to the believer.
Renowned scholar Tariq Ramadan said it best. When asked how he would react if one of his children married a non-Muslim, he replied:
“I would naturally prefer someone to share the principles of being a Muslim. But it’s their choice. Look, by then, I will have done what I have had to do [as a father]. I have transmitted my principles to them. So I say to them, know who you are and your values. When you know this, then you are free. “
Allah knows best.
Growing up as a Pakistani-South African Muslim in suburbia New Jersey, Nadia Mohammad spent much of her childhood thinking she was Desi until she moved to Pakistan and learned she was American. Returning to the U.S. with this new perspective and a defiance of social stereotypes she delved into the world of South Asian and Muslim American media and activism. A Loyola University Chicago law graduate, she continues to believe in the values of justice and equality with cupcakes for all. An earlier version of this article was previously published at The Goatmilk Debates.