New CSLR Book Reveals Surprising Findings about Muslim and Non-Muslim Marriage

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By Mary Loftus

Emory Law Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im’s new book reveals a surprising fact about most about marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims around the world: they work.

“People manage to negotiate,” says An-Na’im, a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR). “I had expected the question of children and how to raise them to be one of the main issues. What we found is that children often become the unifying factor. Resistant relatives came to accept the marriage once the first child was born. It was a point of reconciliation, not conflict.”

Inter-religious Marriages Among Muslims: Negotiating Religious and Social Identity in Family and Community Global Media is the result of An-Na’im’s work on the CSLR major research project, “Sex, Marriage, and Family and the Religions of the Book.” The Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory and an internationally recognized expert in Islamic law and human rights, An-Na’im serves as the book’s editor.

Published in India and full of anecdotes, personal interviews, statistics and census data, the book is meant to have a global circulation and broad-based appeal. Rohit Chopra conducted the background research and analyzed the data for the Bombay chapter, and served as the primary assistant senior researcher in coordinating all the studies and editing the book as a whole. Together Chopra and Jyoti Punwani, a Bombay-based journalist and activist, wrote the Bombay chapter. Codou Bop, of Senegal, who runs a women’s rights organization, and Somnur Vardar, of Istanbul, a researcher/journalist who produces documentaries, wrote the other sections.

Punwani recounts, for example, the story of Asghar Bandukwala, a Bohra Muslim married to a Sindhi Hindu in Bombay, who told how participating in the unfamiliar rituals of another religion can be an act of kindness: “Roshni’s grandmother must have been shocked that she married a Muslim, but she’s fond of me. That’s because I give her the respect I should. I touch her feet whenever we meet. I know that’s a big taboo among Muslims, but I can’t understand why. Her grandmother’s 80 years old, she can’t see. Why can’t I bow before her with respect? I’m not too rigid about these things.”

This may be the very reason inter-religious marriages work, says An-Na’im—the spouses must be of strong character, willing to take risks and certain of their selection in a spouse.“Ironically, precisely because of the difficulties and the odds being against them, this seems to work in favor of the marriage,” he says. “When the marriage is a deliberate choice, the investment is stronger.”

Advice from a Christian woman quoted by Bop supports the idea that a marriage only grows stronger in the face of such adversity. “I feel like saying to all women who want to try it: follow your heart and marry the man you truly love no matter which faith he follows. Because once the couple overcomes the one thousand and one challenges, the least of which are the daily attempts to break the union, then an inter-religious marriage becomes a wonderful experience. Because each spouse is so eager to show the family and the community that our union is stronger than the others, that he or she does whatever possible to please each other and to avoid frictions,” she said.

In general, Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women, but Muslim women are not supposed to marry non-Muslim men. This raises the question of the extent to which gender is considered and reinforced in such relationships. Of the spouses who choose to convert to their partner’s religion, researchers found that the majority were women, the “carriers of family traditions, customs, and religion.”

Exploring inter-religious marriages in Bombay, Istanbul, and three cities in Senegal instead of in more rural areas was by design, says An-Na’im. “Cities are organic communities where for centuries people have lived together,” he says. “You find in cities lives unfolding, instead of politics.”

A portion of the book also deals with marriages between members of different Muslim communities, such as a Shiite married to a Sunni. “Intra-Islamic marriages are as instructive as inter-Islamic,” An-Na’im says. “In fact, there is sometimes more tension between different sects of Muslims.” The commonality, he says, is that both inter- and intra-religious marriages show how religion plays out as a marker of identity within the broader culture and community.

Some spouses were straightforward about choosing personal fulfillment over familial or cultural expectations, such as this Jewish man who married a Muslim woman from Turkey: “My family has always been more concerned about the reaction of the community . . . my brother was telling me that I should not dare to break 4,000 years of tradition. Have I been living for 4,000 years? I live only once. How can I ruin my future for a history?”

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