Christian-Muslim Marriage

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A talk given at the St Philip’s Centre, Leicester

26 November 2013 (part of our Inter Faith Week and SERIC programme)

Introduction

My colleague Heather al-Yousuf, who will be leading us later, mentioned the subject of inter faith marriage when she joined the Christian Muslim Forum five years ago. This is how I introduced Heather to colleagues:

‘She is married to a Shi’a Muslim and is one of the organisers of the Christian-Muslim marriage support group. She produced the Inter Faith Marriage Resource Pack (with Rosalind Birtwistle) which we have made available at a number of Forum events, though none of us are actually promoting inter faith marriage …’

This began to open up a whole new conversation for us. Should we, in order to preserve good Christian-Muslim relations, stay away from this issue? Looking back on those five years I am a little surprised to see that my response to this question fits exactly with where we have ended up and is consistent with our thinking throughout:

‘I think the main issue is helping our religious leaders to continue providing pastoral care and supporting people in their decisions. This could lead to couples feeling less isolated and families/communities less threatened. It raises many of the difficult questions that conversion poses. This is not to say that the Forum will set up any inter faith marriage initiatives, but it is a particularly sensitive area where, God willing, the Forum can be helpful to a range of people, potentially whatever their stance and involvement.
 
Looking back over the last year, I can say that Christian-Muslim marriage is not the most controversial issue that we have explored, but that’s another story!

The Guidelines

These are some of the issues that we sought to address in our guidelines:

  • Numbers of mixed relationships are increasing in the UK across all communities and will continue to do so {statistics}.  The law (of the land) allows them to do so and they are increasingly normalised in society.
  • Within both faith communities there is ‘a spectrum of concern’ about inter faith marriages. These range from outright taboo/prohibition to cautious toleration. Differences in perspective may reflect different faith rules and historical contexts but also different traditions of relationship formation.
  • Family crisis: where seen as forbidden, inter faith relationships may precipitate difficult emotions of shame or fear with some associated risks of family breakdown, violence, mental ill-health. 
  • A (religiously) legitimate marriage ceremony is often key to resolving the initial family and personal crisis over inter faith marriage.  However, this can mean decisions over conversion and identification of children is made in a context of pressure/crisis and competition between identities which couples find difficult and divisive. 
  • Treating marriage as an ‘internal’ issue for family/faith community tends to prioritise one partner’s faith rules over the other partner’s autonomy and authenticity. It sets up competition between the two partners’ faiths/identities, or causes dissembling about religion in order to tick the box.  
  • Inter faith-sensitive leaders, who can respond to nuanced and complex situations are desperately needed.
  • Evidence from inter faith couples seems to suggest that authenticity, reciprocity and real acceptance of difference are typical core values of successful long term marriages. 
  • Less successful IF marriages may be driven by community polarisation – faith becomes a point of conflict, there can be mutual fear of annexation and mutual hostility, or where they feel victimised and excluded by a faith community they may treat faith with ambivalence or avoidance (‘a curse on both your houses’).
  • Increasing number of IFMs mean increasing numbers of people of mixed and marginal identities who may identify with and draw meaning from one or more faith traditions, even those feeling excluded from the main community of faith.
  • IFMs are an area in which practical and sustained intimacy between the lived experience of faith traditions is disseminated through society.  At best such relationships are crucibles of practical theology and working solutions for the issues of ‘coexistence’ that society faces.  They create real bonds and unite people of both faiths in one family.

Thus the guidelines focus on:

  • ethical pastoral support
  • no forced conversion (including nominal conversions)
  • prioritising of the welfare of children
  • and being welcoming.

The last is a particular favourite of mine in our work, and of other inter faith activists, a welcoming attitude goes a long way.

Key Issues

The primary issue is ‘pastoral care’ or, as I slowly realised last year, having pondered for years over an Islamic equivalent, ‘khidmah’ (service) or possibly ‘shepherding’. In recent years our work has developed a pastoral focus. Initially with our ‘Christmas’ Statement (It’s OK to say ‘Happy Christmas’!), then Ethical Witness Guidelines (yes we have ‘missionary’ impulses but it doesn’t stop us having dialogue or encouraging good inter faith relations) and then these current guidelines which we launched exactly a year ago at Westminster Abbey, you may have even seen us on the BBC. ‘Pastoral’ is only rarely a component of inter faith initiatives, but cannot be far away for an organisation which is built on friendship and committed inter faith relationships. We would all be better placed if inter faith engagement was an active and positive part of pastoral care and discipling (or nurturing - ‘tarbiyah’). If inter faith itself should be on the pastoral care menu then support for romantic inter faith relationships is even more vital. If it is not there it leads to individuals or couples finding themselves in a religious no-man’s (or no-woman’s) land, unsupported, and perhaps criticised, by both communities.

Then there is conversion, it can be said that conversion can solve all your problems, in fact I’m sure that I have heard something similar from both Christians and Muslims! If one partner converts there is no longer any concern about an inter faith marriage. However, we should have ethical concerns about whether people actually wish to convert. While some people are only too keen to share the religion of their partner, for others it is a step too far, however much they respect their partner’s belief. Although neither Christianity nor Islam prescribes conversion as an essential ingredient for marriage and are against coercion, in practice there is pressure, of various kinds, from family and religious community for people to change their faith identity. There is no glory in conversions which are forced or fake, some people convert ‘on paper’ in order to get married. Why should a marriage ceremony be seen as more important than a fully thought out step of faith?

These issues and others, especially hospitality and being welcoming, are highlighted in the seven varied case studies in our report and, I am sure, in the examples that Heather will offer us later.

Some Questions

Inter faith couples and families are often where we learn about how our religions fit together at a deep level. We don’t always know how they will fit, but we do know that we don’t have to agree on everything. This has certainly been our experience in the Christian Muslim Forum as we have worked together on issues which are potentially divisive, whether it is evangelism and da’wah, or inter faith marriage.

Muslim Reactions

‘I did not take to this issue like a duck to water. My gut reaction was – are we going to start promoting inter faith marriages? After some very reserved initial changes I began to feel more comfortable as we dialogued. However, there was no negativity from Muslims following the launch of our inter faith marriage guidelines. I had to clarify some misconceptions, largely because one news outlet spiced up the initiative. I am delighted that our guidelines have been well-received. I raised the topic with 30 to 40 scholars who were accepting of it, though they did raise some concerns – would this diminish the (theological) ‘dislike’ of inter faith marriage and make it more acceptable, is it opening the floodgates?

Personally, my experience of this initiative has been an eye-opener. It is also a very live issue, while at the meeting I described above I was very aware of an inter faith family living a few doors away from the meeting venue.’

Another imam said: ‘a Christian woman has the same rights in Islam as a Muslim woman. Shari’ah has the objective of marriage succeeding. A woman cannot be forced to become Muslim, there is no obligation at all. Ignorance is the enemy, not the faith.’

It’s also worth noting a response, for which I am grateful to Batool al-Toma at Markfield, on the question of whether women converting to Islam were required to leave non-Muslim husbands. The eventual ruling from the Fatwa Council of Europe, with much help from Mufti Judai, was that this was not correct. This confirms what we would have expected, that Christianity and Islam support relationships (the Apostle Paul gives much the same guidance in 1 Corinthians 7, as highlighted in our report).

So where does this leave us? At the beginning of a journey of exploration, just as Spock says in a recent re-run of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, ‘Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not its end’, urging a misguided friend to reflect with the heart. I expect, and hope, that you will have some questions but let me get in first with these:

  • How might faith leaders work pastorally with couples and families, including those whose relationships are not able to be sanctioned by religious marriage?  
  • What about pastoral care of partner/family members of different faith?
  • How might faith leaders better rise to the challenge of reconciling faithfulness to the integrity of traditions, with promoting the needs of families and welfare of children in the real world, recognising the fundamental importance of supporting children’s secure attachment to both their parents and ancestral communities?
  • Is there scope for consultation in our communities on developing best practice?
  • How might our faith leaders cooperate?

And finally, at one of our discussions a request was made for examples of wise counsel to be added to our report, i.e. case studies of particularly supportive imams and priests, which illustrate best practice on how to deal with inter faith couples.

Thank you.

Julian Bond
Director, Christian Muslim Forum

#whentwofaithsmeet

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