Pre-post: This is for those who believe that Muslim men are allowed to marry People of the Book while women are prohibited; because that means that the whole “shirk” of the People of the Book becomes relevant only when we’re talking about women but not when we’re talking about men (I address this below). If you believe it’s prohibited for BOTH genders, this isn’t for you.
According to most (Sunni) Muslims, and to the historical Islamic tradition, Muslim men are allowed to marry Christians and Jews, and according to all Muslim sects and schools, Muslim women are prohibited from marrying any non-Muslim. The Qur’an has a few verses that prohibit marriage to the mushrikeen (polytheists, generally), and since there’s little disagreement on this and since this prohibition applies to both genders, I’m not concerned with it. I’m interested in the claim that it’s “haram” for women to marry Christians and Jews.
Muslims popularly believe—and Muslim scholars/teachers of Islam falsely promote the claim—that the Qur’an explicitly prohibits women’s marriage to People of the Book. So I’ve been doing some research on this, and it turns out that the Qur’an actually does not prohibit women’s marriage to People of the Book at all. It merely allows men explicitly to marry them. So here’s some interesting stuff that I think people should know, especially Muslim women who are shamed and guilted for marrying People of the Book.
does the Qur’an prohibit women’s marriage to the people of the book?
No. It does not. Scholars — like Ibn ‘Ashur (in his tafsir of 5:5), Khaled Abou El-Fadl in a fatwa on women’s marriage to kitabis, and several feminist ones (see below for references, but especially Kecia Ali) — have already pointed out that the prohibition is not Qur’anic or in the Qur’an. The prohibition is based instead on ijma’ (consensus) of historical scholars. See for yourself in the verses relevant to this issue.
“Do not marry unbelieving women (idolaters) [al-mushrikāt] until they believe [ḥattā yu’minū]: A believing slavewoman [amatun mu’minatun] is better than an unbelieving woman [mushrikatin], even though she allures you [wa law a‘jabatkum – i.e., “even though she is more appealing to you”]. Do not marry (your women to) unbelievers [lā tunkihū al-mushrikīna] until they believe: A man slave [‘abdun mu’minun] who believes is better than an unbeliever [mushrikīn], even though he allures you. Unbelievers do (but) beckon you to the Fire. But Allah beckons by His Grace to the Garden (of bliss) and forgiveness, and makes His Signs clear to mankind: That they may celebrate His praise.”
This verse can easily be seen as disallowing marriage between “believers” and “mushriks” for both genders. But this is one of the most common “Qur’anic” explanation given for why women can’t marry People of the Book. Note that the verse has nothing to do with People of the Book.
Also, according to this verse, the reason the marriage is prohibited is that the disbelievers “call you to the Fire” whereas God does not. (This is I think what Yasmin Mogahed means in a video Al-Maghrib posted yesterday where she “explains why” Muslim women can’t marry non-Muslims. According to her, marriage should be based on a love for God, a suggestion that fails to explain why men can marry non-Muslims then, as though their marriages don’t have to be based on love for (the same?) God. More on this below.
“O ye who believe! When there come to you believing women refugees [al-mu’minatu muhajiratin] , examine (and test) them: Allah knows best as to their Faith: if ye ascertain that they are Believers [mu’minatin], then send them not back to the Unbelievers [kuffar]. They are not lawful (wives) for the Unbelievers, nor are the (Unbelievers) lawful (husbands) for them. But pay the Unbelievers what they have spent (on their dower), and there will be no blame on you if ye marry them on payment of their dower to them. But hold not to marriage bonds with disbelieving women [wa lā tumsikū bi-‘iṣami al-kawāfiri]: ask for what ye have spent on their dowers, and let the (Unbelievers) ask for what they have spent (on the dowers of women who come over to you). Such is the command of Allah: He judges (with justice) between you. And Allah is Full of Knowledge and Wisdom.”
Note that the category of people Muslim women aren’t allowed to is the kuffar (the earlier category was mushriks). Kuffar generally means people who disbelieve. The category is NOT ahl-al kitab, or People of the Book.
Funny story: do you see how this verse tells men “don’t hold on to marriage bonds with unbelieving women”? That part’s too often translated as “don’t hold on to the guardianship of unbelieving women”! In other words, while 60:10 is used to tell Muslim women they can’t marry “all non-Muslim men,” the truth is that the verse tells Muslim men, too, that they can’t remain married to the kuffar. Yet, not only is this portion of the verse not highlighted to the extent the earlier portion of the verse is, but it is also consistently invoked in the tafsīr tradition as well as in contemporary conversations on interfaith marriages for Muslim women as Qur’anic evidence against women’s right to marry kitabis.
There’s also context to this verse, like to all other Qur’anic verses. Here are some sources you can check out for this, because I don’t want to make this post longer than it needs to be: Asma Lamrabet, “What does the Qur’an say about interfaith marriage?” (this link doesn’t always work, though); and Asma Afsaruddin’s “Qur’anic Ethics of Partnership and Gender: The Concept of Wilaya in Qur’an 9:71.” (There’s more, but this should suffice for now.)
“This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time [al-muhṣanātu min al-mu’mināti wa al-muhṣanātu min alladhīna ūtu’l kitāba min qablikum] – when ye give them their due dowers, and desire chastity, not lewdness, nor secret intrigues [muhṣinīna ghaira musāfihīna wa lā muttakhidhī akhdānin]. If anyone rejects faith, fruitless is his work, and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good).”
This verse explicitly allows men to marry among the People of the Book. Note that it does not prohibit it to women, but that silence of whether women are allowed to or not is interpreted as prohibition in this case. It’s convenient that in this case, the text’s silence becomes a source of prohibition, despite the legal maxim that nothing is prohibited unless expressly written (lā taḥrīm illā bi naṣ). Because in most other cases, silence is NOT read as prohibition. Think about “female homosexuality,” for example. The claim is that the Qur’an forbids, through the story of Lot, same-sex relations among all people, even though the story of Lot is strictly about men. But basically, if even men are denied something, then of course so are women; but just because men are allowed something doesn’t mean women are, too. More about this hypocrisy another time.)
There are at least two misconceptions about this verse. 1) It’s used widely to “prove” that women are prohibited from marrying People of the Book. It does not prohibit women’s marriage to kitabi men but simply allows men’s; and 2) Muslims widely claim that, yes, the Qur’an allows men’s marriage to People of the Book “but only to chaste People of the Book!” Here’s the thing, though, if that verse is to be taken literally: 5:5 allows men to marry “chaste” women from among the believers (presumably Muslims) AND chaste women from among the People of the Book (“muḥṣanāt among the believers and muḥṣanāt among the people of the book”). In other words, neither an “unchaste” Muslim woman nor an unchaste non-Muslim woman is allowed to the presumably chaste male audience in 5:5.
Also, another important fact regarding 5:5: the Qur’anic word “muhsanaat” meant “free” women in earlier exegetical traditions. For example, Tabari tells us in his tafsir of 5:5 pretty clearly that the scholars disagreed over the meaning of “muhsanah,” with many saying that as long as this kitabiyyah (woman from the People of the Book) is free, it doesn’t matter if she’s chaste or unchaste – she could be a “whore” or “lewd woman” (fājirah kānat au ‘afīfah) they said, for all the Qur’an cares, just as long as she is not a slave. This debate makes sense because slave women were not presumed to be “chaste,” given their owner’s right to have sex with them; in fact, the root word ḥ-ṣ-n means “to be inaccessible” and thus “chaste.” Also, though, the debate wasn’t just about chaste vs free women; it was also about which People of the Book–e.g., those under Muslim rule or universally?
There’s something else that interests me about 5:5. The fact that the earlier part is commonly read as addressing ALL Muslims (men and women) but suddenly the audience changes with “muhsanaat.” in other words, if the word muhsanaat wasn’t there, we would assume it’s addressing everyone equally? Na, who’m I kidding.
And of course, there were individuals of authority from earlier on (like the caliphs Umar and Ali and Sulayman bin Yassar), who did not support Muslim men’s marriage to People of the Book. There are reports attributed to Umar where he orders men to divorce their Jewish or Christian wives. Tabari’s tafsir talks about these reports.
Isn’t it interesting – and unacceptable – that although the Islamic tradition, Islam, Islamic law, and the Islamic legal schools are widely acknowledged to be diverse, nuanced, and certainly not monolithic, conversations on the subject of Muslim women’s marriage to non-Muslims (specifically to kitābis) often present Islam as a monolith on the matter? I have a lot more to add to this, as it relates to my current research, but I’ll discuss this in a separate blog post where I plan to summarize my research and results.
While none of the verses above (or other Qur’anic verses on marriage) explicitly prohibit marriage between Muslim women and kitābi men, the exegetes read the above verses collectively to prohibit such unions. They decided that 2:222 is an absolute guideline against marriage to all non-Muslims for all Muslims but that an exception was made later for Muslim men to marry People of the Book via 5:5.
Kecia Ali explains this really well, summarizing the issues that arise from the traditional interpretations of verses 2:221 and 5:5:
“The prohibition of marrying women off to mushrikin in Surah 2, verse 221 does not by itself foreclose the possibility of permission for women to marry kitabis. And although Surah 5, verse 5 does not explicitly grant permission for such marriages, there are numerous other instances in the Qur’an where commands addressed to men regarding women are taken to apply … to women.” (p. 21 of Sexual Ethics and Islam)
Are “People of the Book” believers or not?
It’s complicated, honestly. If you’re referring to Qur’anic verses 5:73 and 9:30, those who believe that God has a son (Jesus for Christians, an Uzair or Ezra for the Jews, these verses say), “some” among Christians and Jews are disbelievers. But the Qur’an on the one hand tells us that marriage with People of the Book is allowed, while marriage with “disbelievers” is prohibited.
But apparently and conveniently, from what the tafsir tradition shows, the answer to the question of the People of the Book’s status in the Qur’an depends on their gender: The men of the People of the Book are disbelievers but their women are believers. This is pretty much what Muslims mean when they invoke the disbeliever status of the People of the book *only* when the question is about why women can’t marry them but never about why men can. When you ask why men can marry them, the simple answer given is that “the Qur’an says it’s allowed to men,” and I think it’s unfortunate that this claim isn’t investigated. In fact, too many Muslims will even claim that the Qur’an explicitly forbids women’s marriage to People of the Book.
You see, while the scholars debated the status of the People of the Book in relation to Muslims, the Qur’an challenges the idea that the People of the Book are absolute disbelievers and that they are absolute believers. The scholars had the option to read 2:221 as inapplicable to People of the Book and 5:5 as applicable to both men and women, but they seem to have taken a route that works most in their favor. Thus, a conclusive point about the exegetical tradition’s view on marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is that the status of “disbelievers” depends on the disbeliever’s gender: for Muslim women, all non-Muslims are classified as disbelievers; for Muslim men, only polytheists/mushriks are disbelievers. (Lamrabet corroborates this conclusion of mine, too.)
Look, here’s the thing: I totally understand the claim that “the people of the Book of the Qur’an aren’t the same ones as those of today,” but a) how do we know that? b) what about 5:5? Are men no longer allowed to marry people of the book, then? c) does that mean that … the Qur’an isn’t for all times and people after all? Because if that’s so, can we then not argue that the prohibition on marriages even with the mushrikeen is no longer relevant? I mean, how far do we go with this claim, right?
the historical justifications for the prohibition: “marriage is a type of slavery.”
Now, note that while none of the verses above (or other Qur’anic verses on marriage) prohibit marriage between Muslim women and kitābi men, the (male) exegetes read the above verses collectively to prohibit such unions. Why? The short answer is that the prohibition emerged because of parallels that pre-modern Muslim scholars drew between marriage (milk al-nikāh) and slavery (milk al-yamīn).
Consider this quote from Ibn Taymiyyah from his Majmu’ Fatāwa, for example:
“Milk al-nikah [the classical Islamic legal term for marriage, literally dominion of marriage] is a type of enslavement (nau‘ raq) and dominion over right hand possession (slavery) is absolute enslavement [wa milk al-yamin raq tām]. God allowed Muslim men [lil muslimin] to marry the People of the Book, but He did not allow the People of the Book to marry their [Muslims’] women. This is because marriage is a kind of slavery, as ‘Umar said: “Marriage is enslavement, so be careful, each of you, with regard to who will enslave his daughter [al-nikah raq; faliyandhur ahadkum ‘inda man yaraq karimatahu].” Zaid Ibn Thabit said, “The husband is master in God’s Book,” and recited the verse of God “and they found her master (sayyidihā) at the door” (Q. 12:25). And the Prophet said, “Fear God regarding women, for they are prisoners with you (ʿawān ‘indakum).” So it is permissible for a Muslim to enslave (yastariqq) a kāfirah, but a kāfir is not allowed to enslave a Muslim woman (muslimah) because Islam is superior and nothing can be above it, just as a Muslim can own (yamlik) a kāfir, while a kāfir can never own a Muslim.”
Ibn Hanbal (whom the Hanbali school is named after) had pretty similar ideas on the obedience and superiority logic.
Yohanan Friedman, in his book Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition, summarizes this dilemma as follows:
“A marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim woman would result in an unacceptable incongruity between the superiority which the woman should enjoy by virtue of being Muslim, and her unavoidable wifely subservience to her infidel husband. In terms of Islamic law, such a marriage would involve an extreme lack of kafā’a, that is, of the compatibility between husband and wife, which requires that a woman not marry a man lower in status than herself…. (p. 161)
(P.S. For more on the relationship between slavery and marriage, definitely see Kecia Ali’s books. Start with Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence. And continue on to Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam.)
So, historically, the prohibition was rooted in assumptions of male superiority over female and Muslim superiority over non-Muslim. (That Muslims are superior to non-Muslims was a pretty common view and some Muslims still believe this. Historical scholars used this claim to explain why non-Muslims receive no inheritance from Muslims while Muslims are totally entitled to receiving inheritance from non-Muslims. This idea was commonly expressed alongside this marriage issue, with the expression: المسلم يرث الكافر لا عكسه كما ننكح نساءهم ولا ينكحون نساءنا (a Muslim can inherit from a non-Muslim, but not vice versa, just as a Muslim (man) can marry a non-Muslim woman but a non-Muslim man cannot marry a Muslim woman).
Through circular logic (“our religion is better than non-Muslims’ religion because we’re allowed to marry their women and they can’t marry ours because our religion is better than their religion…” and “women are inferior to men because Islam does not allow them to marry non-Muslims while allowing men to do so because women are inferior to men”), the scholars reinforced and legitimated merely their own assumptions, ideals, and expectations about women especially but also about non-Muslims. That is, the scholars imagined the husband as his wife’s master and required wifely obedience to the husband just as they imagined that Muslims are superior to non-Muslims. From these premises followed other ideas related to marriage and sexual relations. Since the two ideas that Muslims are superior to non-Muslims and that a wife owes her husband obedience are inherently contradictory, it follows, they decided, that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man. Marriage between a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman is potentially the utmost form of male superiority over female, then, as the Muslim man is thus able to display his superiority over his wife on the virtues of both her gender and her religion. It simply made sense to the scholars that women would not, or should not, be allowed to marry outside the faith because such marriages would disrupt the gender hierarchy on which patriarchies have functioned historically, and so it made sense why they read their assumptions into the Qur’anic text – we all project our assumptions into the Qur’an.
Since this is the case — these totally unacceptable and (largely?) rejected assumptions — Kecia Ali asks this excellent question in Sexual Ethics and Islam: “If the Qur’an does not directly address the marriage of Muslim women to kitabi men, and if the presumptions about male supremacy and dominance in the home no longer hold …, what rationale exists for continuing to prohibit marriage between Muslim women and kitabi men in the first place?” (p. 21 of the 2nd ed) I’ll get to this question right after I discuss this idea of “kafa’a” (marital compatibility).
Kafā‘a or marital compatibility as a historical justification for the prohibition
A woman’s compatibility in marriage is really important to Islam, especially in Hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence). It’s so serious that a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a man who’s not compatible with her. BUT the catch – and there’s always a catch – is that compatibility was understood as socio-economic compatibility: the woman is not to marry a man who is of a lower socio-economic status than she is. I’m a huge proponent of reclaiming and re-interpreting concepts such as kafa’a when they can help alleviate someone’s situation, and so I think we need to revive this idea more and apply it to Muslim women’s situation. By this, I mean that I suggest we reclaim the idea of kafa’ and carry it beyond (the classist, from a contemporary standpoint) view of socio-economic status (or religious status) and apply it to emotional, physical, intellectual, and other layers of compatibility as well.
I am reluctant to accept this concern for compatibility as rooted in a genuine concern for the well-being of the Muslim woman. Because, according to some schools and scholars, a non-Muslim man who marries a Muslim woman, is to be punished severely while a Muslim man of a low social standing who marries a woman of a higher social status isn’t punished (as far as I know). For more on the punishment that a non-Muslim man, especially if dhimmi, was to receive if he married a Muslim woman, see Yohanan Friedman’s book Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition (ch. 5 deals specifically with interfaith marriage. The book is expensive, and I have a PDF of Ch. 5, so if you’re interested, I’m happy to email it). I mean, we’re talking corporal punishments here – and not just for the non-Muslim, especially a non-dhimmi (dhimmi = a non-Muslim of a protected status living under Muslim rule), who married a Muslim woman but also for the person who facilitated the marriage. And, worse, in the case that a non-Muslim married a female Muslim slave, his entire community was to be punished along with him, at least according to Maliki fiqh. (More about this in Friedman’s book.)
That the community thought it worth asking if a dhimmi who marries a Muslim woman was to be put to death along with the woman’s guardian who consented to the marriage points to the possibility that this was not a question of marital compatibility but more so an infringement of Muslim male privilege.
Since much of this is either too unbelievable to most Muslims today to accept as Islamically grounded or we’re too unaware of the existence of these claims, the average Muslim doesn’t share these reasons at all to explain the prohibition. Which now brings me to the common reasons that contemporary Muslims give for the prohibition’s existence.
contemporary explanations for this (un-Qur’anic and I insist imagined) prohibition
Of course, there’s the inaccurate claim that the Qur’an prohibits women’s marriage to kitabis. But even if that were so, let’s be real here: the Qur’an says/appears to endorse or prohibit a lot of things that most Muslims today don’t pay much attention or think it’s no longer applicable or relevant. As I’ll discuss in another blog post, this idea of “relevance” is really, really crucial to what is allowed or not allowed to change with time. But for now, let’s stick to why contemporary Muslims think it makes sense to prohibit women’s marriage to kitabi men while allowing it to men.
love for God: you should marry someone who loves God like you do.
There’s the claim that Yasmin Mogahed makes when explaining why the Qur’an “prohibits” women’s marriage to non-Muslims. She claims that it’s because in Islam, a Muslim’s marriage is to be grounded in a love for God. All great and beautiful stuff, but also not exactly making sense. And also clearly not applying to Muslim men who marry non-Muslims. For all the holes in Mogahed’s arguments, please see here.
Okay, but there’s the highly recommended and there’s the utterly prohibited. We don’t get to make something prohibited so easily. Prohibition is a serious matter.
the Qur’anic verses (mentioned above) collectively prohibit such marriages.
Okay, re-read the above. This was especially something that an imam named Abdullah Ali promised his viewers that he’s going to talk strictly from the Qur’an but instead ends up saying, “Well, the consensus is that women can’t marry non-Muslim men, end of story” because none of the verses he was using were supporting his claim. Click here to see discussion on this imam’s incoherent argument.
men are dominant, so they may force their Muslim wives to convert to their faith.
Do I really need to explain this totally flawed claim? Why marry a man who’s going to be so insecure that he has to prove his dominance by forcing you to convert to his faith? And are Muslim men any less likely to be “dominant”? What do you do about marriages between Muslim men and women who have very, very different understandings of Islam? Who “wins” and how do they decide how to raise their children? Oh, never mind – I guess as long as they believe in one God, it’s all good… Oh, wait…
Also, we need some empirical research that responds to this claim that a non-Muslim husband will force his wife to convert. Because all the Muslim women I know who are married to non-Muslim men, their marriages are pretty solidly based on the idea that neither will force the other to believe any way.
children take on the religion of the father.
Ok. Don’t let them then. Again, the interfaith marriages I know, the couple tells me, they agreed in advance about the children’s faith, so they can decide mutually.
But, really, can we think about this some more? Are men really the ones who pass their religion down to their kids? Is a mother’s role that insignificant in childrearing?
And actually, according to Judaism, the children take on the mother’s, NOT the father’s, faith. So according to Judaism, when a Jewish woman marries a Muslim man, her kids are by default Jewish, whereas in Islam, they are by default Muslim.
But also, what if the couple isn’t planning to have any kids or can’t have any kids? Can they marry each other, then?
What is also interesting here is that people will claim, on the one hand, that it’s the mother’s job to raise the kids, while, on the other, that the kids take after their father. Which one is it? Both of the above explanations presume that the children are being raised by the father and the mother plays little to no role in rearing them. This is, uh, not sounding right at all.
And anecdotally speaking, I’m tempted to recount here the cases of my friends who are children of interfaith marriages (with Muslim father, usually Christian mother), and very few identify as Muslim themselves. Because, really, the mother plays a far more important role in practice than patriarchy will have us believe.
(historically) when a woman marries, she marries into the man’s family and moves into his community.
If that’s not the case anymore, can we talk about this? And what exactly does “community” mean here? Because interfaith marriages occur especially in the West where Muslims are a minority – though they’re also currently and have historically been common among Muslims and Hindus in India (where Muslim women do marry Hindu men, despite the “prohibition”).
Muslim men would honor their wives’ rights more than non-Muslims would, who may not even be aware of their Muslim wives’ rights.
Wait, what? According to what or whom, exactly? Muslim men and non-Muslim men are equally prone to being total misogynists and destroying their wives’ lives. Muslim men aren’t inherently better husbands for Muslim women, and Muslim men aren’t inherently more aware of our rights as Muslim women than are non-Muslim men. If anything, Muslim men have “rights” that actually infringe on Muslim women’s rights (like unilateral access to divorce), so …
fine, fine – then the People of the Book of the Qur’an aren’t the same ones today.
Okay, see above, under the heading “Are ‘people of the book’ believers or not?”
what about the hadiths? they certainly don’t allow women’s marriage to non-Muslims!
Yes – hadiths where people like Umar literally say “marriage is like slavery, so be careful who you marry your daughter to” and “non-Muslims aren’t allowed to inherit from Muslims, but Muslims are totally allowed to inherit from Muslims; just like non-Muslims can’t marry our women, but we can marry theirs.” If you find this convincing or legitimate, go for it. But at any rate, I’m more interested in the claim that the Qur’an prohibits these marriages, and that’s not true. (And when that’s not the case, then the hadiths are talking about marriage with the mushrikeen. Which, interesting fact: the Prophet’s daughter Zaynab was married a mushrik for a some time after Islam, and the Prophet didn’t declare their marriage as void. And that was a mushrik we’re talking about, not even a person of the book.)
And also, the authenticity of these hadiths need to be called into question as well.
omg, are you saying that if the Qur’an does not explicitly forbid something, it’s allowed?
Wait, you don’t believe that? Can a non-Qur’anic source really be the source of a prohibition? That’s disturbing.
the Qur’an doesn’t forbid polygamy for women, either; does that mean you think it’s allowed? Astaghfs.
Astaghfs your face. But anyway, so, many Muslim scholars argue that the reason that Muslim men can marry multiple wives is the higher number of women in the world; when there are more women than men, men can marry multiple women to balance things out. This logic can extend to contexts where there are more men somewhere than men (China is a great example), and so in THOSE cases, can women marry multiple husbands? Might it be possible that the Qur’an was trying to say something by not forbidding polyandry? But I’m more concerned that you’re so troubled by the possibility that the Qur’an may not be hating on polyandry like you do … what’s the issue, dear?
well, after the Qur’an and sunnah, we have ijma’, so if the scholars say it’s haraam, it’s haram.
Okay, but the scholars also agreed on a bunch of seriously problematic and disturbing things (like the validity of child marriage and slavery) that you no longer accept as legitimate or Islamic, so …
And also, whose consensus? From what time period until what time period? Were women a part of the conclusion the consensus arrived at, since, you know, this is pretty real and relevant for women? Is following consensus obligatory on us at all times in all circumstances, or can we change it? If so, who decides and how–and are women a part of that re-negotiation?
wait, are you saying that all the scholars of the past came to an erroneous conclusion? Astaghfs!
Again, astaghfs your face. But 1) who said “all the scholars of the past” came to this conclusion? Only the ones whose writings survived or made it into the texts. And the way tradition writing and preservation works, for all we know, the ones who disagreed prolly didn’t even make it into the tradition because they weren’t going with the status quo. 2) there were no women who contributed to this “consensus” so it’s by definition not consensus. 3) it’s absolutely possible for the majority to agree on something that’s incorrect, wrong, or even immoral. An excellent example is, again, slavery: who exactly stood among all the scholars to challenge the idea of owning another human being? None. The reason you don’t think slavery is allowed anymore (right?) is that humans had to fight to make that happen.
yes, but that’s because Islam laid the basis for slavery to end! It promoted the idea that all humans are equal.
Yeah, that’s what everyone tells me, but you know what? Those same people also say that Islam brought about some serious, revolutionary changes for women’s rights, and it promoted women’s rights, too. Why is it that we freeze the idea of “women’s rights” in the 7th century or a few centuries later, but when it comes to human rights more broadly, and social justice more broadly, we look for bases in Islam? Do you not see how this is actually about the desire and work to maintain gender hierarchy?
all right, fine – show me one scholar who believes women are allowed to marry non-Muslims.
Oh, I will. See below for more than just one. But we know you’re going to challenge these scholars’ legitimacy – ultimately only because you disagree with their conclusions and not because they’re not knowledgeable. No one ever questions Yasmin Mogahed’s authority to speak on Islam, only because she maintains and promotes the status quo, despite the fact that her background is actually in Psychology and Journalism and not in anything Islam-related. Yet, she’s the only (oh , wait, now among two! TWO!) female teachers at Al-Maghrib. Mogahed isn’t the only person whose Islamic authority needs to be questioned. A bunch of male “scholars” and other celebrity shaikhs, like Nouman Ali Khan, also need to be questioned. Somehow, a person’s authority becomes questionable only when they challenge mainstream ideas of what’s Islamic and un-Islamic.
all of the above justifications are “cultural,” not “Islamic.”
This discussion has been really popular among my friends lately, and so when a close friend and I were discussing this recently, she asked me for “Islamic” reasons behind the prohibition. I could only recount what the popular reasons are. She dismissed each one and then blew my mind with the statement: “These are all cultural reasons. I want something that’s Islamic, something theologically grounded.” The truth is that there’s no theological reason behind the prohibition because the prohibition is not theological, from God, or from the Qur’an, or from Islam. It’s from men’s perceptions of non-Muslim men and Muslim women.
Cultures are constantly evolving, as do our understandings of religions (and arguably thus religions themselves). If the main reason on which this prohibition stands is tied to children, or to male superiority over female, we can see how weak the argument is. Yet, strikingly, despite the weakness of the argument, it’s one of the strongest, most widely adhered to belief in Muslim tradition, and one of the fewest things on which Muslim scholars came to an agreement – that is, that women are not to be allowed to marry any non-Muslim men.
Muslim scholars who support women’s marriage to People of the Book or challenge the prohibition
– Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf: he recognizes that Muslim women’s opportunities to find and marry Muslim men are reduced when Muslim men marry non-Muslim women simply because the latter are permitted to do so while the former are not. Relying on the legal tool of dharurah (or necessity), he believes Muslim women are allowed to marry non-Muslim men. (See his book Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America, esp. p. 131.)
– Hasan al-Turabi (and here as well), for whom the consensus of the past scholars is always open to question, argues that with changing contexts, you gotta change the rules. (This is actually what ALL Muslims do, whether they admit it or not. More on this another time.)
– Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im (see Inter-Religious Marriages Among Muslims)
– Khaled Abou El-Fadl: believes that neither Muslim men nor Muslim women should marry non-Muslims. Also that the Qur’an does not forbid women’s marriage to kitabis and that therefore at worst, such marriages are makruh (discouraged, not prohibited).
– I had a discussion about this with Jasser Auda recently, and he agreed that the Qur’an does not prohibit women’s marriage to kitabi men–and he does not think there’s a silence: the Qur’an is never silent on something; it’s always saying something even when it’s not speaking.
– Ibn ‘Ashur, while still not allowing women to marry non-Muslims, at least acknowledges that the prohibition is not Qur’anic but based on consensus.
– Imam Yahya Hendi of Washington, D.C. (he officiates Muslim women’s interfaith marriages)
– Imam Abdullah Antepli (also officiates interfaith marriages)
– most (all?) Muslim feminist scholars have at least questioned the prohibition if not downright allow such marriages because of the invalidity of the prohibition – but for some reason, the topic of interfaith marriage is one of the most understudied topics in history! I’m not sure why, given its relevance and significance in Muslim women’s lives today.
– more Muslim scholars who endorse such marriages listed here
Also, there’s a documentary called Hidden Hearts that’s currently in production on Muslim women’s interfaith marriage in Britain.
If all this is still unclear, here’s how the logic works (literally how every conversation on this topic goes with Muslims who think it’s “clearly” not allowed):
Are women allowed to marry Christians/Jews?
“No. 2:221 forbids it.”
But 2:221 forbids all Muslims, women AND men, to marry the mushrikeen.
“Yeah, Christians and Jews are declared disbelievers in 5:73 and 9:30 for believing that God has a son.”
Oh, interesting … can men marry Christians and Jews, then?
“Yeah, 5:5 says men can marry them. God made an exception for men.”
Wait, so are People of the Book disbelievers or not? How can God say simultaneously that no marriage with disbelievers and yes marriage with Christians/Jews if they’re disbelievers?
“Ugh, God made an exception for men! We wouldn’t be allowed to marry them if God hadn’t allowed us.”
Ha, that’s convenient. It must be so hard having that privilege. So let’s say that men ARE allowed to marry *the correct kind* of Christians and Jews, not the “disbelievers” among them (I mean, after all, 9:30 and 5:73 acknowledge that only SOME of the People of the Book are disbelievers, not all of them. The same kind of women of the People of the Book that Muslim men are allowed to marry, can Muslim women marry that same kind of men?
“No. Because 5:5 doesn’t apply to women.”
What? How does it not apply to women? It just doesn’t mention that women can do it – it doesn’t say women can’t.
“No, silence in this case = prohibition. ALL of the respectable scholars of the past and the present hung out and made this decision together. [By the way, they were all men.]”
Okay, so the scholars made that decision – not the Qur’an.
“Yes, the Qur’an made that decision. Read 2:221.”
But basically, the prohibition has no grounding in the Qur’an but in questionable cultural/historical assumptions that most Muslims don’t even accept today (like male superiority). It reflects only the (all-male) scholars’ own opinions and preferences instead, and aren’t we always being told that Islam isn’t about our personal whims? It’s therefore not a theological or divine edict and more a cultural idea that made its way into the Islamic legal and exegetical traditions and continues to impact Muslim women’s lives today. However, there are scholars and lay Muslims who have been challenging the claim and are demanding for at least a re-evaluation of the supposed prohibition, and others pointing out that the prohibition isn’t valid to begin with.
So if you’re a Muslim woman and are being spiritually shamed and blackmailed into accepting the prohibition as valid, understand that you have nothing to feel guilty about if you’re questioning or doubting it.
May God forgive us and protect us from attributing claims to The Creator that came actually from the mouths of men and that are rooted not in Islam but in fallible human cultural understandings of gender.