“Hidden Heart” is a ground-breaking documentary by Zara Afzal and Christopher Hird, which I am the Executive Producer of. It offers a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the backlash that heritage Muslim women often face when marrying outside their ethnic communities. Will he convert or won’t he? Even if he does convert, to what extent is it a real conversion? Won’t someone think of the children? Family politics starts to show some of its uglier incarnations (Asma Barlas acknowledges in Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qu’ran, that marriage in Islam is “located at the juncture of the private [individual] and the public [communal], the religious and the social”).
Of course, the taboo attached to inter-racial marriage within British Muslim communities is nowhere near as severe as that attached to inter-religious marriage or gay marriage. However, intersectional discrimination is often an issue, particularly when it comes to male partners of heritage Muslim women (both those who convert to Islam and those who do not).
It is clear that the stigma of marrying outside one’s heritage community applies to Muslim women more acutely than their male counterparts. Civil society responses to this problem have partially grappled with this distinction. In November 2012, the Christian Muslim Forum launched its Interfaith Marriage Guidelines at Westminster Abbey, in co-operation with the Inter-Faith Marriage Network and the Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group. They featured case studies of Muslim women who are married to men from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. They also reproduced statistics from the 2001 census, which recorded 17,163 Christian women married to Muslim men and 4,233 Christian men married to Muslim women.
The Forum’s guidelines ‘When Two Faiths Meet’ can be seen here . You can also view this excerpt of Heather al-Yousuf (Inter Faith Marriage Network and Christian Muslim Forum) and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra commenting on pastoral support and the mainstream Islamic position on inter faith marriage here.
While the guidelines provide a strong framework for the pastoral care of men and women in inter-faith and, to a lesser extent, inter-racial marriages, they could do more in my view to specifically address the Islamic jurisprudence which generally states that Muslim women should not marry non-Muslim men. Jerome Taylor, Religious Affairs Correspondent at the Independent, quotes (from ‘When Two Faiths Meet’) the case study of a Muslim woman marrying a Catholic man while writing about these guidelines in November 2012: “While we came from different faiths, we approached them in similar ways. Although I was in my 30s and well educated, I was treated as though I was a silly little girl who had got herself into an irresponsible situation which could only be solved by my fiancé converting.
It was also assumed that although my fiancé was Catholic, his religion was less important and that he likely did not believe in it to the same degree Muslims believed in their religion. We were not asked what drew us together, how we met, how we managed differences. Instead we were judged harshly and told off. We had discussed the option of one of us converting but decided this was not for us.
Eventually, however, this was resolved:
‘Ultimately, we found a Muslim cleric who saw things the way we did. The counsel he gave us was excellent, focusing as we did on what made us similar. He eventually conducted our Islamic marriage with a basic marriage contract that was very flexible in its content. In it we agreed to talk about any obstacles that came up, rather than making agreements about how things would be done. From the Catholic side, we were blessed with supportive priests who focused on our strengths as a couple and did not make us make promises about our children. It has … been helpful that from both the Muslim and Catholic sides we were given permission to engage with each other’s beliefs and practices that did not compromise our own. Over five years on, ours is a happy marriage with plenty of space in it for two faiths.’
At times, this opprobrium can turn into outright violence and intimidation against couples and / or family members. One of the most frequently reported cases of a British Muslim woman marrying outside her community was that of Zena Briggs, who set up the Zena Foundation to help forced marriage victims after she escaped one herself, having eloped with white Englishman Jack Briggs. They were chased by a private investigator and ended up with a £9,000 bounty on their heads. After 16 years on the run, the couple split up. However, their book Runaways was read out by Ann Cryer MP in the House of Commons, eventually leading to the creation of the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit in 2005.
As Boston-based imam Suhaib Webb says, “Marriage is the easiest chapter in the books of fiqh, but the hardest chapter in our society today.” Fortunately, there are imams and theologians who take a more empathetic and pragmatic approach to inter-faith marriage. Dr Usama Hasan, a former imam at the Tawhid Mosque in Leyton who now works for the Quilliam Foundation, is one of these. He is one of the theologians featured in the “Hidden Heart” film, and actively officiates Islamic wedding ceremonies between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. A fatwa on Dr Hasan’s website outlines the thorny issue of Muslim women who convert, yet are already married to non-Muslim men. It provides a refutation of certain opinions – most notably of the European Council for Fatwa and Research – that such marriages should be annulled after a three-month waiting period if the husband refuses to convert. One of the examples Dr Hasan cites is that of the Prophet’s daughter Zaynab who remained married to Abul-‘As for six years after she converted to Islam and before he did so.
In terms of theological support for inter-racial marriage specifically, the Quranic verse that is often cited is Surah Ah-Rum (30:22): And of His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Indeed there are Signs in this for the wise.” The other one is Surah Al Hujurut (49:13): “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”
On top of this, the Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) also encouraged interracial marriages among the Sahabah (companions), including the marriage of Bilal the muezzin (may Allah be pleased with him) to an Arab lady from Bani Bukayr. The biological benefits of interfaith marriage were recognised, alongside the Islamic ethic of diversity in general. “It is narrated that Omer Ibn Al-Khatab, the second khalifa, noticed that the progeny of the tribe of Bani Assayib had become weak and unhealthy because of intermarriage of cousins. He advised the tribe to avoid close-cousin intermarriage and to seek wives and husbands from tribes further afield, saying: “Marry from far away tribes, otherwise you will be weak and unhealthy.” This explicit theological support for inter-racial marriage has not fully filtered down to the grassroots.
It is safe to say that the multitude of religious interpretations on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men has not filtered down to the grassroots either. Even if one were to follow the mainstream opinion on this, it must be recognised that attraction and compatibility cannot be number-crunched via some precise formula, and that the Human Rights Act expressly promotes the right of choice in marriage. While some Muslim bloggers – Tariq Nelson being one of them – supported inter-racial marriage as one of the conduits towards a singular American Muslim identity, I would go a step further than that. Muslim women should be able to marry outside their faith communities as well, and feel confident in doing so, without that neurotic voice in the background telling them they are necessarily doing something wrong. This is particularly the case if they have exhausted other options within their own faith communities. It is time to make a distinction between actual wrongdoing – based on the fitra or the innate predisposition of human beings to do good – and guilt that has been induced by trying to do the hula with different community-based “rings of expectation” all at once. One by one, the rings will eventually fall down.
Dr Khaleel Mohammed, associate professor of Religion at San Diego State University, addresses the patriarchal “ring of expectation” in his fatwa on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men on the Project Ijtihad website: “In our day, since Qur’anic 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.
On the question of children, certainly there will be some religious confusion. But as a Muslim scholar, I can tell you that the Qur’an advocates the use of the heart and mind in forming opinions. If both parents are faithful to their interpretations of the Creator’s will, then the children will make informed decisions when they come of age.”
Finally, there is an acute demographic issue within diaspora Muslim communities where men have more freedom – in practice – to either marry women from outside their heritage communities or those from their countries of origin. It is neither just nor compassionate to allow this state of affairs to continue unabated, while at the same time increasing the social restrictions on women to the point where they are unable to find partners at all. Since I am such a strong believer in Islam as an enabler of human dignity and perfector of human character, I don’t think it was ever the intended state of affairs to prevent Muslim women from marrying people who possess strong character traits, yet lack Muslim names. As Cambridge University’s “Contextualising Islam in Britain II” report states: “Many hadith attest to the fact that the Prophet refrained from applying legislative or penal codes in resolving personal matters of morality, preferring to leave private relationships to be worked out between the parties concerned on the basis of broad ethical advice and practical common sense. He also showed compassionate awareness of human limitations and loving concern that people should not oppress themselves with unsustainable spiritual burdens and disproportionate self-criticism.”
This is why I am proud to announce the crowd-funding launch of “Hidden Heart” this week. It is a film which humanises these challenges, and will hopefully make them more relatable to people who might otherwise be inclined to oppose the marriage of their female relatives on religious or racial grounds.
British Muslims for Secular Democracy