Marrying in the faith: Not so simple an answer

Recently, Nausheena Ahmed wrote a piece entitled “Hard question, simple answer,” in which she claimed that if we wish for our children to find and marry Muslim spouses, we must integrate them into the local Muslim community from an early age. While I too would want my future children to marry partners who share their faith, and I understand that we tend to marry within the groups we are most entrenched in, I would argue that this end goal demands a more rigorous examination.
Before jumping in, I should clarify that my circumstances and experiences stand in stark contrast to those of Ahmed. I am single and don’t have children, so my reflections stem largely from witnessing my younger siblings’ development in environments where Muslims are the minority.

Now, I agree with the crux of the author’s statement: we must proactively keep our youth engaged in the Muslim community if we wish for them to practice their faith. We are accountable for how we frame life’s priorities to them, and if the list does not include significant amounts of time with practicing, conscientious Muslim peers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when our children grow into adults who are apathetic to Islam, so much so that they marry outside the faith.

There are some major caveats, however, in taking this stance that are worth noting.

1. Circumstances versus Desire

Ahmed writes her article with the assumption that finding a Muslim spouse is a worthy end in itself, a checkmark of sorts affirming that an individual has satisfied the expected and appropriate level of “Muslimness.” I am not denying the importance of an intra-faith marriage when it comes to both parents giving children a consistent set of religious values and thereby increasing the chances of future generations continuing to practice Islam. I do wonder, however, if we are not overly fixated on this particular milestone. The point isn’t just to make sure that for every non-Muslim who catches our child’s eye, there are five other Muslim potentials to consider. The next generation has to genuinely want to marry within the faith. And in order to sincerely desire a Muslim life partner, the youth must feel a love for Islam and want it for their children and grandchildren. According to Muslim tradition, good company is one of the most important ways a believer can maintain his/her relationship with God. However, at the end of the day, having friends with whom one can commiserate about the long summer fasts is not the same thing as a deep understanding of Islamic tenets and an abiding love for the God and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

2. Where do the ones with non-Muslim spouses go?

By constantly reiterating the message that Muslims need to marry other Muslims, we ignore the growing number of interfaith marriages and reinforce a framework that has no room for such unions. Like it or not, the Qur’an explicitly allows Muslim men to marry Christian or Jewish women, and an increasing number of Muslim women are tying the knot non-Muslim men. Many assume that individuals who have married outside of Islam have all but discarded their religion (and that the children of these unions are lost causes as well), but there are Muslims who, even after choosing a non-Muslim spouse, continue to try to practice their faith. These believers sometimes find themselves unwelcome at the local mosque; ironically, it is the cold, aloof hellos of other Muslims at the mosque that might distance such people from Islam, rather than their non-Muslim spouses at home.

3. Are the best values always found in Muslim-majority settings?

It seems reasonable to think that the Muslim community will be nothing but a positive influence for our children, but, in truth, it can also spread misinformation and inculcate ignorant thinking at both an infrastructural and cultural level. Many mosques, for instance, are not only hostile environments for women, they also hardly qualify as accessible spaces for those with impaired mobility. Muslim community centers also have a poor record of providing special needs programming. This is not to say that there are not efforts underway to amend these problems in our still nascent Muslim American community, but, in the meantime, spaces that are designed with unIslamic, exclusionary values play an important role in shaping our children’s experiences—for the worse.

Space design goes hand in hand with the culture children are exposed to in mosques. A Muslim girl, for instance, might grow up in a close-knit circle of Muslim families, but if she has the misfortune of attending a mosque where women enjoy little, if any, governance role, then she might assume that is the natural mode of things in Islamic societies. As a result, she might feel deterred from aspiring towards leadership goals in secular, and more importantly, religious settings.

4. Why “second shifts?”

I am also troubled by Ahmed’s comparison of her children coming “home” from school and transitioning into a different mode of being, “like a woman who comes home from her day job only to begin a second shift of work at home.” Expecting our children to feel more “at home” during this second shift seems to me a prescriptive and unviable model for social growth. It implies that the only meaningful place to feel acknowledged, seen, and heard is in a Muslim community. At its worst, this mindset might reinforce an “us-versus-them” attitude, the kind that needs to be undone with interfaith programming later on.

I earnestly hope and pray that my future children and subsequent generations will uphold Islam by marrying Muslims. Like Ahmed, I want them “to own their Muslim identity in a way that will translate into comfort with Islam as a faith and themselves as Muslims,” wherever they are. Perhaps many of my critiques will fall away once I become a parent and develop a more realistic, pragmatic approach to all this. But I know this: although it is ideal that our Muslim children marry other Muslims, this alone is not a guarantee that our Ummah will thrive in a spirit of inclusivity and compassion. Children should desire Muslim partners not just out of binding duty, but loving devotion; we should include and address the needs of those who have married outside their faith; our communities should be worthier than our secular ones in all aspects; and the sense of community should pervade throughout the day, not just in shifts.

Sarah Farrukh is an Associate Editor at Altmuslimah. She blogs about faith and books at A Muslimah Writes.

Photo credit: amrufm.

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