The traditional answer to this is a resounding no! A quick search on Google will reveal the same, countless websites and sources telling you no, it is haram (forbidden), not allowed under any circumstances. It does not make a difference if the man is Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Agnostic or Atheist, if he is not Muslim a Muslimah (Muslim woman) is not allowed to marry him. Even if she was married, then converted to Islam, she must divorce him, these sources say.
But what is the legal basis for this in Islam? Does it really say in the Qur’an that Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, while it is okay for Muslim men to marry women who belong to Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book, i.e., Christians and Jews)?
In the following section I am going to first take a look at the arguments that are traditionally given against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, before I will take a look at what the Qur’an says, and the views of modern scholars who disagree.
Traditional Arguments Against Muslim Women Marrying Non-Muslim Men:
There are two Ayahs (verses) of the Qur’an that address the issue of marriage to non-Muslims:
Do not marry Unbelieving women (idolaters), Until they believe: A slave woman who believes Is better than an unbelieving woman, Even though she allure you. Nor marry (your girls) To unbelievers until They believe: A man slave who believes Is better than an unbeliever, Even though he allure you. Unbelievers do (but) Beckon you to the Fire. But God beckons by His Grace To the Garden (of Bliss) And forgiveness, And makes His Signs Clear to mankind: That they may Celebrate His praise.
– Surah 2:221
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,— When ye give them Their due dowers, and desire Chastity, not lewdness, Nor secret intrigues. If any one rejects faith, Fruitless is his work, And in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks Of those who have lost (All spiritual good).
– Surah 5:5
From the first verse (2:221) we see that Muslim men and women are not allowed to marry unbelievers until they believe, but in the second verse (5:5) chaste women among the believers have been made lawful. This has traditionally been interpreted as only making it lawful for Muslim men to marry women of the Book, but not the other way around (Muslim women marrying men of the Book).
The justifications given are usually to do with: 1.) Religion of the children, 2.) Loss of marital rights and 3.) Issues of family law.
1.) Religion of the children:
Within Islam it has traditionally been expected that children who have a Muslim father, will automatically become Muslims themselves. Therefore, the argument goes, if the father is not Muslim, neither will the children be. (This is also used to support the mans right to marry non-Muslim women, as the children are still expected to be Muslim).
2.) Loss of marital rights:
Islam guarantees the woman certain rights amongst these her right to mahr (dowry), her right to be supported by her husband (and keep any personal income to herself), the right to remain in her own religion (as long as it is Islam, Christianity or Judaism), the right to keep her own name.
A Muslim husband is bound to honour these rights, whereas a non-Muslim man is not, and for example might force the woman to convert to his religion.
3.) Issues of family law:
Islamic law regulates issues such as divorce, child custody and inheritance. If a woman was to marry outside Islam, it is argued, these laws might no longer be followed. Since child custody within Islam, is usually awarded to the father, they reason that in the case of divorce the children would end up with their father and therefore not be raised as Muslims.
Arguments for the Permissibility of Muslimahs Marrying Non-Muslims:
Different Types of Non-Muslims:
As is clear from the above verses from the Qu’ran, there is two different kinds of Non-Muslims. The mushrikun (polytheists) and the People of the Book (monotheists, Christians and Jews). One might add that in modern society there is also a third group, the atheists/agnostics who do not believe in any god, but this group is not explicitly addressed in the Qur’an.
Equality of Men and Women:
Surah 2:221 clearly states that neither Muslim men nor Muslim women may marry polytheists. Surah 5:5 says that it is okay for Muslim men to marry women from the Book, i.e., Christians or Jews. It is very clear in the Qur’an that Muslim men and women are given the same rights:
For Muslim men and women,— For believing men and women, For devout men and women, For true men and women, For men and women who are Patient and constant, for men And women who humble themselves For men and women who give In charity, for men and women Who fast (and deny themselves), For men and women who Guard their chastity, and For men and women who Engage much in God’s praise,— For them has God prepared Forgiveness and great reward.
– Surah 33:35
The Qur’an does not forbid women what it explicitly permits men. Furthermore, the general rule is that everything is halal (permitted) unless it is explicitly forbidden.
So, since the Qur’an explicitly permits men to marry Christian and Jewish women, and nowhere explicitly forbid women to marry Christian and Jewish men, it must be allowed.
Addressing the Traditional Arguments Against Women Marrying Non-Muslim Men:
So, as mentioned earlier there are three main arguments that are traditionally used against Muslim women marrying Non-Muslim men: 1.) Religion of the children, 2.) Loss of marital rights and 3.) Issues of family law. Generally speaking these arguments presumes we live in a patriarchal world where men are in charge of women, and men and women do not have equal rights. Although I am aware that there are many places int he world where this is still so, we are thankfully moving towards greater equality and this is the kind of society I am going to base my arguments on.
1.) Religion of the Children:
In modern day society most parents strive to raise the children together, and the children do not automatically receive the religion of either parent. Rather, religion is something you choose yourself, and even if you are raised as a Muslim or a Christian as a child, many children do not choose to follow their parents religion as adults.
Furthermore, if we accept the premise that the father passes down his religion because he is the head of the household, it also presupposes that the mother is the primary caregiver and nurturer of the children. This in turn means that the mother is the one who is spending the most time with the children, teaching them values, behaviour and, yes, religion as well. So in reality, this is more of an argument against Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women (since they would most likely teach the children their own religion), rather than against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.
2.) Loss of Marital Rights:
One of the beautiful things about Islam is, that at the time, it gave women marital rights they had not previously had. Since then however, these rights have become common place. In most societies today you can choose to keep your own name, a man cannot force you to convert to his religion, and he cannot take your personal income against your will. The right to mahr(dowry) can be discussed between the couple before the marriage takes place, and so can issues of who is going to pay for what.
Furthermore, this argument presumes that all Muslims are righteous men who will honour these rights and create an ideal marriage where each partner respects, loves and works with the other partner. This is ideal indeed, but it is not reality. If a woman finds a loving partner who respects and accepts her and her religion, why should she not marry him? Especially if she feels disrespected by the Muslim men around her, who might have more traditional and patriarchal views than her.
3.) Issues of family law:
Reality is that Islamic law is not static. The rights granted in the Qur’an are the minimum, not the maximum. The foundation, not the whole house. Furthermore, every couple will be subject to the laws of the country where they are married and/or reside. Which, amongst others, mean that the mother will often be more likely to be granted custody than the father. Again, this is actually more of an issue for Muslim men marrying outside their faith.
If a couple is concerned with these issues, one way to deal with it is to have the issues drawn up in their Nikah (matrimonial contract). This is how Muslim women are already advised to secure their rights, such as the right to work, take an education, prohibit her husband from taking anymore wives, etc.
Atheists and Agnostics:
The issue of whether it is permissible for a Muslim woman to marry an atheist or agnostic man is even less clear cut. He is not a mushrik (polytheist), but he is also not a Christian or a Jew, and as such do not belong to the People of the Book. It is a difficult issue, and I would leave it up to the individual woman’s consciousness and values what she thinks would be right.
Difficulties in Interfaith Marriages:
The following section will discuss the difficulties in interfaith marriages, whether it is Muslim men married to non-Muslim women or Muslim women married to non-Muslim men.
Marriage is difficult, especially when the partners are not from the same background, have different values, world views, beliefs etc. But the differences could be just as big amongst Muslims, as between Muslim and non-Muslim. I believe what is most important here is the genuine respect and acceptance of ones partners beliefs.
It is also questionable whether the biggest difficulties in marital life is between an interfaith couple, or an intercultural couple. As mentioned previously, if a couple shares the same cultural background, level of education, values and goals in life, but not the same faith, they might still find it easier to relate and make their marriage work, compared to a couple who shares the same faith, but has nothing else in common
These difficulties are the same for both men and women, but they might very well be exacerbated in a society where the majority is non-Muslim. This is why many school of thoughts consider it makruh (disliked) for men to marry non-Muslim women if they live in a non-Muslim country. Clearly, it will be much easier for us if we could all find a partner who shares our religion, values and beliefs. This would be ideal, but unfortunately the world is not an ideal place. Although marrying outside the faith is discouraged, it does not seem to be prohibited.
Progressive Sheiks and Imams:
In Oxford, England, Dr. Taj Hargey performs ceremonies for mixed couples from all over Europe. As far as he knows, he is the only imam in England to do so openly. He says: “We do it because there is no prohibition in the Koran.” He furthermore states that they make the couple sign five non-negotiable conditions that protect the woman’s faith, and they have to agree to counselling before the ceremony was performed.
These sound like very reasonable clauses to me, and something that would be healthy in any relationship. Marriage tends to be strengthened when the couple openly discuss values and beliefs beforehand, instead of ignoring the issues thinking it will not be a problem.
Shaykh, Dr. Abou El Fadl, an accomplished Islamic jurist and scholar who has studied Islamic jurisprudence in Egypt and Kuwait, as well as a prominent Professor of Law at UCLA, with degrees from Yale and Princeton. He has issued a fatwa on the issue of Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men. In it he comes to the following conclusion: “In all honesty, personally, I am not convinced that the evidence prohibiting Muslim women from marrying a kitabi [Person of the Book, i.e., Christian or Jewish] is very strong. Muslim jurists took a very strong position on this matter–many of them going as far as saying if a Muslim woman marries a kitabi she is as good as an apostate. I think, and God knows best, that this position is not reasonable and the evidence supporting it is not very strong. However, I must confess that in my humble opinion, I strongly sympathize with the jurists that argued that in non-Muslim countries it is reprehensible (makruh) for a Muslim to marry a non-Muslim. God knows best–I have reached this position after observing that the children of these Muslim/non-Muslim marriages in most cases do not grow up with a strong sense of their Islamic identity. It seems to me that in countries like the U.S. it is best for the children if they grow up with a Muslim father and mother. I am not comfortable telling a Muslim woman marrying a kitabi that she is committing a grave sin and that she must terminate her marriage immediately. I do tell such a woman that she should know that by being married to a kitabi that she is acting against the weight of the consensus; I tell her what the evidence is; and then I tell her my own ijtihad on the matter (that it is makruh for both men and women in non-Muslim countries). After telling her all of this, I add that she must always remember that only God knows best; that she should reflect on the matter as hard as she can; then she should pray and plead for guidance from God; and then ultimately she must do what her conscience dictates.”
In conclusion, the issue of the permissibility of Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men is not so black and white, as it is normally portrayed. It seems reasonable to conclude, that at least in the case of a Muslim woman marrying a Christian or Jewish man, it is allowed, though possibly disliked if she is in a country where the majority of the population is non-Muslim. Ultimately it is up to the individual Muslim woman to follow her own conscience and do what she believes is right in the eyes of God.
And God knows best.
Transliteration: Wala tankihoo almushrikati hatta yu/minna walaamatun mu/minatun khayrun min mushrikatin walaw aAAjabatkum wala tunkihoo almushrikeena hatta yu/minoo walaAAabdun mu/minun khayrun min mushrikin walaw aAAjabakum ola-ika yadAAoona ila alnnari waAllahu yadAAoo ila aljannati waalmaghfirati bi-ithnihi wayubayyinu ayatihi lilnnasi laAAallahum yatathakkaroona
Transliteration: Alyawma ohilla lakumu alttayyibatu wataAAamu allatheena ootoo alkitaba hillun lakum wataAAamukum hillun lahum waalmuhsanatu mina almu/minati waalmuhsanatu mina allatheena ootoo alkitaba min qablikum itha ataytumoohunna ojoorahunna muhsineena ghayra musafiheena wala muttakhithee akhdanin waman yakfur bial-eemani faqad habita AAamaluhu wahuwa fee al-akhirati mina alkhasireena