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This paper explores the debate surrounding interfaith marriages in Islam by interrogating the different views of contemporary Muslim scholars who advocate for religious freedoms and fundamental Muslims who hold a conservative view on the issue. First, we explore the role of marriage in Islam to get a general understanding of what the institution of marriage means for its followers. Secondly, we investigate what the religion (Quran) says about interfaith marriages. These analyses provide the bedrock for comprehending the contemporary view of interfaith marriages in Islam and the implications of such types of marriages on the faith. These analyses outline the third and fourth sections of this study. The last section of this paper is a conclusion section, which recaps the main points of the study. The main arguments in this paper are primarily based on the teachings of the Quran about interfaith marriages. Similarly, in this paper, we explore different interpretations of interfaith marriages in Islam through different schools of thoughts in the faith. Complementarily, we use the views of Muslim scholars to inform our understanding of the research topic. For purposes of this paper, interfaith marriage will be assessed in the context of a union where one person is a Muslim and the other comes from a different faith. Therefore, we will use a general analytical context of marriage between Muslims and people of other faiths. However, before delving into these details, it is pertinent to understand the nature and role of Islam as described below.
Nature and Role of Marriage in Islam
Marriage is an important institution for different faiths around the world. The same is true for Islam. Islam defines marriage as a holy union between two or more people (Nurcholish 2015, 129). Legally, such unions are recognized under Islamic law. Similarly, in many Islamic societies, they represent the bedrock of the society (Nurlaelawati 2016, 89). While some Muslims believe it is ideal to marry within the Islamic faith, modernity and civilization have created situations where interfaith marriages could occur. This types of union are controversial for some followers because they oppose some of the traditional beliefs of religious preservation in Islam (Nurcholish 2015, 129). This controversy is more poignant across the varied teachings of different schools of thought in Islam. The controversy represents a clash between the views of traditional Muslim fundamentalists and contemporary scholars regarding religious freedom in marriages within the faith. Some Muslim scholars have investigated this issue under a wider debate of modernity and social change in Islamic countries.
What Does Islam say about Interfaith Marriages?
Although there is a clash between what postmodern and traditionalists say about interfaith marriages in Islam, generally, many Muslims believe the Quran is true for all times and places. In other words, the Quran cannot be outpaced by time. However, the holy book has different sections that could either be used to oppose, or support interfaith marriages in Islam. Those who are in favor of interfaith marriages believe that the Quran is sympathetic to the will of Muslims to marry people from other faiths (Riley 2013). For example, they say that the Quran does not openly oppose marriages between Muslims and Christians. The basis for this acceptance stems from the fact that most Christians take Jesus to be God. Islam considers this a good thing. In fact, the Quran calls this belief kufr, as opposed to shirk (Zahidul 2014, 36). The latter is a better term than the former because it symbolizes polytheism. Kufr means a lack of gratitude, or disbelief (Zahidul 2014, 36). This is a significant principle to consider in our understanding of interfaith marriages in Islam because in another verse of the Quran, it states that, Christians can still enter heaven, if they “do good” unto others (Riley 2013). Thus, there is a lot of ground for consensus between Christianity and Islam, which provides fodder for interfaith marriages among its followers.
Christianity applies the same rule for men and women when it comes to interfaith marriages. However, under the Islamic faith, men and women subscribe to different rules in interfaith marriages. Stated differently, there is often a gender bias regarding how and when Muslim men and women could marry non-Muslims. Generally, as Riley (2013) points out, the rules governing interfaith marriages for women are stricter than those that govern the same union among men. This contradiction has been observed by different scholars of the Islamic faith, including Zahidul (2014, 36) and Nurcholish (2015, 129).
Professor Khaleel Mohammed, an academician of religious studies at San Diego State University, California, said that the main issue underlying this selective application of religious principles across the genders is the perceived male dominance in interfaith marriages (Zahidul 2014, 37). The general understanding is that, if Muslim women get married to non-Muslims, they are more likely to suffer “religious dilution,” as opposed to Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women (Affi and Affi 2014). This fact is also evidenced in the book of Ruth, in the Hebrew bible (Zahidul 2014, 37-38). Relative to this issue, one researcher says,
“ In our day, since Quranic Islam (as opposed to the Islam of the male jurists) must acknowledge the radical notion that women are equals of men, that women have legal rights, and that those rights include placing conditions on the marriage (what you and I would term a ‘pre‐nuptial agreement’), then an inter‐faith marriage can take place on condition that neither spouse will be forcibly converted to the other’s religion. As long as that condition is respected, you and she have my blessing” (Zahidul 2014, 36).
From the above statement, clearly, some Muslims believe that interfaith marriages should be allowed without prejudice to any of the sexes.
However, some Muslim scholars disagree with this view by saying that interfaith marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims would compromise the Islamic faith. Those who hold this view say that allowing Muslims to marry non-Muslims would be exposing them to the danger of committing shirk. The outcome would be a compromise of the Islamic faith. The Quran speaks to this issue through a verse, which says, “Surely Allah will not forgive the association of partners (shirk) with him, but he forgives (sins) less than that to whomever he wishes“ (Zahidul 2014, 40). Traditionalists have used the above verse to explain why interfaith marriages should not occur between Muslims and non-Muslims.
The most common type of interfaith marriage that has been disputed by traditionalist Muslim fundamentalists is that involving Muslim women and non-Muslim men (Affi and Affi 2014). Some Muslim scholars term such unions as Haram (Nurlaelawati 2016, 90). They say this type of union is forbidden, regardless of whether it is with a Christian man or another type of non-believer. Those who support this view base their assertions from the holy Quran, which says,
“Nor give (your women) in marriage to idolater men until they believe; and certainly a believing servant is preferable to an idolater (free man), though he may please you. Those are invited to the fire, while Allah invites to paradise and forgiveness by his will, and he makes clear his signs to people, so that they may take heed” (Zahidul 2014, 36).
Yusuf al Qaradhawi, a renowned Muslim scholar, also expressed his reservation with interfaith marriages involving Muslims and non-Muslims by citing the above verse of the Quran (Zahidul 2014, 36). He contends that it is haram for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, but the reasons for such prohibitions are unambiguous, at best. Here, the general thinking is that such prohibitions are meant to protect the Islamic faith, and if interfaith marriages are allowed, the common understanding is that it will jeopardize the faith of the Muslim woman, and possibly her children.
Fundamentalists also hold the view that interfaith marriages would not only impose non-Islamic practices on the woman, but also prevent them from carrying out their religious duties (Nurcholish 2015, 133). Again, here, the understating is that husbands are generally more dominant in marriages and their will (religious inclination) is likely to prevail in their families. Relative to this fact, many traditionalists and fundamental Muslims oppose interfaith marriages because of one verse of the Quran, which says,
“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. Those invite [you] to the Fire, but Allah invites to Paradise and to forgiveness, by his permission. And He makes clear His verses to the people that perhaps they may remember” (Zahidul 2014, 43).
Partially, Muslim fundamentalists oppose interfaith marriages because of other reasons that are not outlined in the Quran. Evidence of this fact does not only exist today, but also in the traditional Islamic context of religious practice. For example, Prophet Mohammed encouraged Umar al-Khattab (a senior Sahabi of the Islamic prophet) to divorce his Christian wife because he was afraid many of his followers would follow the same example and neglect Muslim women for beautiful Christian women (Affi and Affi 2014). In another instance, Umar al-Khattab encouraged his companions to divorce their Christian wives, as a military strategy (the prophet feared that their military strategy would leak to the enemy) (Zahidul 2014, 43). Ibn Umar also shared the same sentiment. In fact, he made no difference between idolaters and polytheists because he believed interfaith marriage is absolutely forbidden in the Islamic faith. To support his action, he said interfaith marriage among Muslims is akin to shirk, which, in his view, was among the biggest sins in the faith. The Zaidi school of thought supports this view (Zahidul 2014, 43).
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Contemporary View on Interfaith Marriages
This paper has already shown that Muslim women are often subjected to harsher laws concerning interfaith marriages compared to their men. However, a growing number of contemporary Muslim scholars and believers see no need for applying these selective laws on the sexes. Proponents of this school of thought say that the laws and principles described in the Quran are not gender sensitive. However, according to Riley (2013), jurists believe that the issue is not simplistic because we have to acknowledge what the Quran says about the issue. In his view, he believes that the Quran is approving of marriages between Muslims and people of the scriptures. The term “people of the scriptures” simply refers to Christians and Jews. To support this view, he cites Surah Al-Maidah, verse 5, in the Quran, which deems such unions as valid. Surah Al-Maidah, verse 5 also exemplifies the view that interfaith marriages between Muslims and Christians and Jews are permissible. The excerpt also shows that marriage between Muslims and Ahl al-kitab is permissible (Nurlaelawati 2016, 90). Here Ahl al-kitab refers to the people of the scripture. However, Surah Al-Baqarah, verse 221, forbids marriages between Muslims and Musyrikah (people of other faiths other than Christians and Jews).
An analysis of verse 221 and verse 5 shows that the latter qualifies the former. Similarly, an evaluation of the same two verses shows that verse 5 of Surah Al-Baqarah is a general exception to the principles outlined in verse 221 of Surah Al-Baqarah. The differences in the analysis of interfaith marriages between Muslims and people of the scripture, and those of other faith, also manifest in verses 1 and 6 of Surah Al-Bayyinah. Verse 5 says, “Those who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists were not to be parted [from misbelief] until there came to them clear evidence” (Zahidul 2014, 42). Comparatively, verse 6 says, “Indeed, they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell, abiding eternally therein. Those are the worst of creatures” (Zahidul 2014, 42).
Here, we find that the Quran draws a distinction between musyrikiin (polytheists) and Ahl al-kitab because it mentions them separately in the above-mentioned verses.
Proponents of interfaith marriages between Muslims and other faiths base their views on the two verses described above. More importantly, they demonstrate that interfaith marriages between Muslims and people of the scriptures are valid. Some examples also exist of notable people in the Islamic faith who married people of the scripture. Researchers have mostly used the example of Prophet Muhammad S.A.W (a Muslim) who married a Christian woman, known as Maria al Qibtiyah (Affi and Affi 2014). One of his companions called Uthman bin Affan also married a Christian woman by the name, Nailah binti al-Farafisah (Affi and Affi 2014). These examples show how some Muslims justify interfaith marriages, especially with people of the scripture. However, different schools of thought in the Islamic faith have finer interpretations of interfaith marriages between the two groups of believers. Particularly, the Hanafi School of thought prohibits Muslim women from marrying Christians, or Jews, who are aggressors to the Islamic faith. It also prohibits them from marrying those who try to cause instability in the Islamic faith. However, their views are widely spread and far-between. Thus, the consensus among proponents of interfaith marriages in Islam is that unions between Muslims and Ahl al-kitab are permissible under most Islamic schools of thought (Nurlaelawati 2016, 93).
Implications of Interfaith Marriages on Islam
The contemporary view of interfaith marriages in Islam is that of openness and liberty. It is supported by notable figures, such as Yusuf Qaradhawi in the book titled, “Hadyul Islam Fatawi Mu’ashirah,” who have studied the faith (Zahidul 2014, 43). They say that the original rule pertaining to interfaith marriages is approving of marriages between Muslims and an Alh al-Kitab. However, Umar al Khattab, who was one of the most influential Muslim Caliphs, did not support such types of marriages (Zahidul 2014, 42). Comparatively, Yusuf Qaradhawi, another influential Muslim Caliph, believes there should not be a problem with interfaith marriages, especially if the woman to be married professes a faith that promotes oneness in God and in humanity (Riley 2013). Nonetheless, today, it is difficult to find other religions that promote oneness in God, as outlined by the concept of Tawhid. Here, it is also important to point out that even in the contemporary understanding of interfaith marriages, both genders are forbidden from marrying Christians and Jews who are opposed to the faith or who wage war against Islam.
Broadly, many contemporary philosophers in the area of interfaith marriages, such as Egyptian-based jurist, Sayyid Sabiq, believe there is no problem with interfaith marriages in Islam (Zahidul 2014, 42-44). However, they are not oblivious to the fact that although such marriages may be permissible under Islamic faith, some Muslims usually detest them. Indonesia is perhaps one place where such marriages are openly detested because the Indonesian Ulama Council, which has a lot of social power in Indonesia, forbids it (Nurcholish 2015, 129-133). Comparatively, Malaysia (another Islamic country) considers interfaith marriages between Muslims and people of other faith (especially Christians) valid, provided the non-Muslim fits the criteria of Ahl al-Kitab (Nurcholish 2015, 132-133).
Generally, we find that the difference between the views of traditional Muslim fundamentalists and the views of modern Muslim scholars about interfaith marriages comes in the form of varied views about two types of unions – Muslims and Christians (people of the book) and Muslims and other types of religions. Based on our analogy, we believe that interfaith marriages between Muslims and Christians seem to gain more acceptance in the contemporary world, compared to marriages between Muslims and people from other faiths. In fact, the prohibition between Muslims and non-Christians is clear and unequivocal in many schools of thought in Islam. Another issue that has emerged in this study is the selective application of laws and principles about interfaith unions when it comes to men and women.
Broadly, Islam is more accepting of Muslim men marrying Ahl al-Kitab as opposed to Muslim women being married to men from other faiths. The reasons for the selective application of this provision are wide and far-between. However, there seems to be a consensus among many Muslims that men are more dominant in marriages. Therefore, interfaith unions are detested less if Muslim men marry non-Muslim women. Generally, it is possible to find evidence that supports both traditional and contemporary views on interfaith marriages in Islam. Thus, the different applications of these teachings seem to be largely contextual, as we have pointed out in the Indonesian case, where all forms of interfaith marriages are detested, and in Malaysia where interfaith marriages between Muslims and Ahl al-Kitab are allowed. Thus, we find that interfaith marriages are possible in the Islamic faith, but context often plays a significant role when interrogating whether they will be fully accepted, or not.
Affi, Ahmed, and Hassan Affi. 2014. Contemporary Interpretation of Islamic Law. New York: Troubador Publishing Ltd.
Nurcholish, Ahmad. 2015. “Interfaith Marriage in the Constitution and the Islamic Law Dynamics in Indonesia.” Al-Mawarid Journal of Islamic Law 15 (1): 123-142.
Nurlaelawati, Euis. 2016. “For the Sake of Protecting Religion, Apostasy and its Judicial Impact on Muslim’s Marital Life in Indonesia.” Journal of Indonesian Islam 10 (1): 89-112.
Riley, Naomi. 2013. Til Faith Do Us Part: The Rise of Interfaith Marriage and the Future of American Religion, Family, and Society. New York: OUP USA.
Zahidul, Islam. 2014. “Interfaith Marriage in Islam and Present Situation.” Global Journal of Politics and Law Research 2 (1): 36-47.