A friend of mine remarked the other day that although the world is becoming increasingly globalized, with people from different cultures and religions spread across the planet, it seems that more and more often those same individuals manage to find and consort with their fellow kin. Unfortunately, he is correct. The world may appear more diverse. Walking into a café in Beirut, Cairo, Washington D.C. or almost anywhere there are usually people of different faiths and ethnicities present. But, they are sitting separately from one another. The Muslims at one table, the Christians another, the Jews at yet another table and so on.
The people we choose to associate with are usually the ‘same.’ This is true also of those we consider dating or getting ‘involved’ with. This applies to almost every walk of life. It doesn’t matter where you live or what faith you come from, it happens. In the Muslim world, men are allowed to marry a non-Muslim because Islam is passed to the children via the father. However, female Muslims are forbidden from marrying a non-Muslim – assuming he doesn’t convert, at least on paper – because the faith cannot be passed to the children via the mother.
Ironically, in an Australian study conducted by Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a lecturer on shari’a (or Islamic law), Muslim women who married non-Muslim men – it must be noted that inter-faith marriages are acceptable under Australian law – 79% of the children considered themselves to be Muslim compared to only about 50% of Muslim men who married non-Muslim women. This makes one wonder what is more important, the legality of marriage under the state or faith.
Many Muslims quote the Qur’an as saying the marriage between a non-believer and a believer is haram (forbidden), yet the social context of the verses must be understood when dealing with any religious text. Verse 221 of Al Baqarah is often cited as prohibition of inter-faith marriages:
“You shall not wed idolatresses, unless they embrace the faith. A believing slave-girl is better than an idolatress, although she may please you. Nor shall you wed idolaters unless they embrace the faith. A believing slave is better than an idolater, although he may please you.”
It should be remembered that at the time of the Prophet, Islam was trying to break people away from worshipping a myriad of Gods and thus, by issuing such a proclamation to the followers of the early faith, this was a way of maintaining unity in the early beginnings of the new Religion. However, it does not forbid marriage with someone who believed in God. There were Jews and Christians during the time of the Prophet in Medina – where the sura was revealed – thus making it apparent that the prohibition was to be applied to ‘pagans,’ not followers of other faiths.
In today’s world, believers of different faiths meet and interact with members of diverse faiths on a daily basis. Is it all right then for a Muslim man to have no qualms about marrying a non-Muslim while a Muslim woman is unable to under Islamic law? In most Middle Eastern nations this is not even up for question. A Muslim woman cannot even think about marrying a non-Muslim under the law of the state.
To illustrate this point, let us take an example of how this may play out in a conversation. When a non-Muslim asked a friend of a girl he was interested in what her deal was, the friend replied, “if you are thinking of relationship, you have no chance … you aren’t Muslim and she doesn’t date non-Muslims.” It might be hard to swallow for non-Muslims, but this is the reality of the world that Muslim women live in.
Family restrictions and social traditions are as much responsible for the prohibition of non-Muslim men and Muslim women from getting together, but this does not mean that this is the way things must be. There are hundreds of cases in Egypt where Muslim women have fallen in love with a non-Muslim man. Some ended in disaster when the parents put pressure on the woman to end the relationship, while others have worked out like any other marriage. Mind you, a non-Muslim man must ‘convert’ in Egypt in order to marry a Muslim woman under state law.
The most important construct of a relationship should be love, respect and compromise. It doesn’t matter what Religion you have. That would be something the couple would have to discuss when the topic of marriage arises. With the success of inter-faith marriages across the globe in recent years, it seems more than likely that the couple will be able to sit down and discuss the issue at hand in a harmonious manner that allows their love to grow.
Religion is important. That is not being debated. What is being debated is the idea that simply by being a card carrying member of a similar religion does that the ‘other’ not suitable for a relationship? Many would argue that it is, Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. It is the opinion of this observer that by denying the chance that two people could come together for a fruitful relationship despite being of differing faiths, racism and hate for the ‘other’ are the only possible outcomes.
*Note: Parts of this piece will soon be published in Egypt and the US, thus abide by copyrights, please.