I have been having an exchange with a young man in Europe who is from mixed faith background. Kamal is 19. His father is Belgian and his mother is Moroccan. They met and fell in love in Belgium. Kamal was born in Belgium and was raised as a Muslim for the first 14 years of life. These days Kamal is not officially affiliated with any faith. Yet he is conflicted between the faiths of his parents, and there is a significant pain in his story.
“Some members of my mother’s family did not accept the marriage of my parents,” Kamal told me, saying his maternal family’s argument was “that Islam does not recognize women marrying outside of the faith.”
Then Kamal asked me if this was true. The following is part of what was my response to him:
Thank you for writing and providing me some background information about your family. As you indicated, and over your 19 years of life, you had seen and experienced the tug-of-war that sometimes occur when there are interfaith marriages. Some families would prefer to go through the tug-of-war with their child rather than face the criticisms of their family and coreligionists in their community. This is, of course, not unique to Muslims alone; whenever there are interfaith marriages the couple breach an unspoken “rule” that one should marry within their own faith. It is very similar to interracial marriages, where families of different ethnic backgrounds are challenged with integrating their lives with the lives of their children. Thankfully, some who are challenged with such a situation – whether religious or racial – come to realize that they can either be supportive of the couple, or they can continue the animosity that they have promoted prior to the actual marriage of their coreligionists in their family.
Sadly, members of the Muslim faith – as in your particular situation – are strongly linked to their traditions. Although they considered these cultural traditions as part of their religious faith, the two are not synonymous with the Islamic faith. From a Progressive Islamic viewpoint the Islamic faith encourages marriage, but it does not limit to whom a person should marry, i.e., their particular faith, race, and even sexual diversity. What the Qur’an requests from the believers who wish to marry is to (1) marry from the single among you, and (2) be amicable towards your spouse and all things that you do, even in divorce.
The demands of the couple are specific assurances related to age, mental health, understanding the type of contract they are entering for marriage, verbally articulating their acceptance of the marriage contract, and not being coerced into the marriage by a relative for personal gain. When a couple meets those minimum standards, the couple generally announces to the community that they are a married couple and puts the community on notice that they are contracted and uphold the responsibilities of their contract to each other, their families, and their communities.
Therefore, Kamal, it is not true that the Islamic faith would promote such limitations on humankind. What you are facing are human limitations that were originally limiting property rights of family and tribal groups. This was a method of agrarian and pre-modern societies where one’s security was based upon their tribal associations. Therefore, intermarriage between the tribal groups established the diversity of interfaith marriages, but also highlighted the reasons why such marriages were supported and maintained. As we moved through Islamic history, however, the reasons for marriage have changed significantly.
In modern times, husbands are not fully responsible for their wives – frequently due to the change in economic stability within the household because women are better educated and sometimes earn more money than their husbands – and men are taking on different roles in how their households and family lives are carried out. What is so important from this aspect, and has a more positive reflection upon modern families, is that gender role models have changed and our attitudes towards them must also evolve, for men who are house-husbands are just as capable and supportive of raising their children as would traditional mothers at home could do.
One additional thing that is very important for you as a teenager to understand, although your parents are your mother and father, at this age you should recognize that your parents were adults before they became your parents. This means that your parents were a man and woman prior to your birth, and had all of the possibilities of greatness and weaknesses of being human. As we grow older and are able to see our parents as human beings, we come to understand that our parents usually tried their best – even when they were not successful – and their intentions were for the best outcome, at least we can always accept that fact even if in actuality it was not that clear cut.
What is very important, and is stuck out in your conversation, is that you are challenged that your understanding of Islam, and what you’ve come to understand as being standards that you admire as a human being, are not being met by Muslim standards either demonstrated in your family, extended family or community. But what I can encourage you to do is to become more familiar with the Islamic faith and its diverse of opinions – for it is never been a monolithic faith – and come to understand that one has an array of opinions from different schools of Islamic theological thought from which to choose to follow, or utilize ijtihad (individual thinking) in assessing your particular situation.
Daayiee Abdullah is the Executive Director of MECCA Institute and the author of the forthcoming book A Dialogue With the Muslim Youth. He lives in Washington, DC.