Muslim Dating 101: If you’re a Muslim woman, don’t even think about falling in love with a non-Muslim. Despite the fact that Muslim men are, according to the Qu’ran, are permitted to marry women of the Abrahamic faiths (i.e. Jewish or Christian) and there is nothing that explicitly states that the same is forbidden for women, interfaith love is a total taboo for Muslim women, which makes dating in western countries like America a nightmare. Since we at MissMuslim believe in being a voice for the voiceless, this summer we’ll be featuring a series of stories highlighting the experiences of Muslim American women who are in or have been in interfaith relationships.
*Names & location have been changed for confidentiality purposes
She spoke to me in a warm, inviting, and particularly confident tone, multitasking as she put on her makeup and got ready for work on the other side of the phone while revealing the most intimate details of her life. It was the tone of a woman comfortable in her skin; a woman who had managed to find herself amidst an identity crisis that most first generation immigrants unfortunately know all too well. As she delved deeper into her experience as a Muslim woman in an interfaith relationship, it felt like I was talking to my future, more self-assured self. Born and raised in New York City to relatively devout parents from Morocco, Lina went to Arabic school from the time she could walk and talk until she graduated from high school. She knew the ins and outs of the Quran, the Five Pillars, the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) and everything in between. Her parents made sure she and her siblings prayed five times a day and fasted during Ramadan. As is often the case, children tend to share their parents’ interests and ideals, obeying them without a second thought and Lina was no different.
It wasn’t until she got into college that she began to reconcile her own beliefs and figure out who she truly was. At 21 years old, she fell in love with a Muslim Arab man and once her parents found out, it wasn’t long before the two got married. The marriage only lasted ten months and the tumultuousness of it all caused her to shun the idea of ever dating another Arab man. Still, she attempted to reconnect with her community and get back into the Arab world only for it to leave a terribly bitter taste in her mouth—many of the friends she thought she could trust ended up being two-faced and judgmental. “One minute, you’re out clubbing with them, and the next, they’re pointing a finger at you,” she explained. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is a common occurrence in one too many minority cultures.
Unlike her older sister, who she respects and looks up to, and younger brother who are more involved in their Muslim American community, Lina keeps her distance and is, for all intents and purposes, “very Americanized.” Somewhat of a black sheep—like me— Lina chose to follow her heart and be true to herself. In fact, she followed it all the way to California, miles from the Arab community she felt disconnected to, building a life for herself with the former altar boy she fell in love with back home.
Compared to her relationship with a Muslim man that was given the official seal of approval, Lina is much happier today. She and her born-Catholic-turned-skeptical boyfriend, Tommy, co-parent an adorable 9-month-old puppy that they rescued together. They have a beautiful apartment, love each other unconditionally, and support each other. In a selfless show of solidarity. Tommy even tried fasting with her this summer—despite working outside in the grueling California heat—and together they’ve put up decorations for both Muslim and Christian holidays on more than one occasion. Regardless of how secular she might be, Lina emphasized that she never wants to lose her religion or culture.
Nevertheless, while she has gained a healthy, positive sense of self and is comfortable with not only who she is, but also who she loves, a Muslim woman dating and living with a non-Muslim is extremely taboo and basically unheard of, even in the most supportive Muslim cultures and families. At best, families refuse to acknowledge the relationship if the man doesn’t [genuinely] convert or pretend it’s just a phase; at worst, they disown or abandon their daughters— in some cultures, scorned family members justify honor killings for this “sin” (even though they are infinitely more haram than interfaith relationships #hypocrisy).
While Tommy has met Lina’s parents twice, not exactly the worst-case scenario, the couple is far from getting their blessing. Her mom, acting as a peacemaker like most moms are apt to do, tried to bring everyone together. Not surprisingly though, she was quick to ask Tommy if he would ever convert—an all-around uncomfortable, awkward round-table discussion. Religion is meant to be personal, after all. Lina finds herself frustrated by her parents’ refusal to accept Tommy’s existence just because he wasn’t born into the same faith as they were. When she goes back home to visit, especially for the holidays, he can’t come along with her even though she would love nothing more than for him to celebrate and experience the traditions she still loves and wants to hold onto.
“I’ve done and accomplished so much in the past few years and it’s like no matter what, my parents are basically like ‘we can’t be proud of you because you’re not following the Muslim way,’” she confessed. “Our parents just don’t see past the religion aspect,” she continued. #OurStruggleIsReal
Traditionally, Muslim culture puts a great deal of emphasis on parents—especially mothers. Growing up, I heard, “God comes first, second, and third. And after that? Your mother and then your father.” As a result, in our community and families, unconditional love is more like 80-percent-unconditional-20-non-negotiable-conditions love. While society is changing and becoming more progressive, many Muslims cling to the traditional collectivism and filial piety that are believed to be at the core of Islam. For Muslims (even non-Muslims who are more conservatively religious) —even when they’re modern, Western ones—true, unconditional love and acceptance is a Western, liberal disease.
But while Lina’s parents are adamantly against the union, maintaining instead a separate relationship with their daughter without mention of Tommy, his mother has welcomed her in with open arms. It’s almost hard to believe that she maintained a strict, Catholic household growing up or that Tommy went to Catholic school until high school. In fact, he not only completed all his sacraments, he was actually an altar boy. Given that Tommy’s mom used to be so religious, Lina wasn’t expecting her to be happy that her son didn’t bring home a nice Catholic girl.
“I asked his mom one day if she really didn’t care that I was Muslim…. She literally turned to me and said, ‘you could be a green-headed alien with three fingers and two toes and as long as you make my son happy, I don’t care.’”
…Unconditional love is more like 80-percent-unconditional-20-non-negotiable-conditions love.
While Muslim parents—like all good parents—want their children to be happy, Lina accepts that it’s hard for first generation immigrant parents to accept that their children’s happiness might not always be in line with their views.
“To them, it’s a new world—it’s not something they’re used to or that they ever imagined,” she said. “They don’t get how they could have raised me Muslim, given me all the tools to become a good Muslim, and still I became this other person that’s living in sin.” Lina’s parents, like mine, believe that they will have to answer to and be held accountable for her sins.
Fortunately, Lina and her boyfriend are able to find some comfort and solace in her siblings. While her older sister and brother might be more religious, and her oldest brother is in a relationship with a Muslim woman, they don’t judge her or treat her any differently because of how she chooses to live her life. Her brothers have a close bond with him and even her sister, who leads a much busier lifestyle as a working mom, has hung out with him a few times. As the oldest of the four—and therefore second mom—and most religious of the group, she understands her parent’s perspective and hopes her sister is making the right decision but loves Lina and ultimately just wants her to be happy.
While her siblings are a part of her family with Tommy and she has no regrets about her relationship and move, it still gets under Lina’s skin that her parents act as though he doesn’t exist. “Sometimes I feel like it bothers him, especially with my dad, because he would love to ask for his blessing,” she said. “But at the same time, he always tells me: ‘as long as you’re happy, I’m happy; I don’t need all these other people to like me.”
Lina wishes that her parents would truly see him for who he is – someone kind, genuine, and fiercely supportive. Even though he may have never uttered the shahada, he’s a moral, compassionate person—core tenets of Islam. In between working full-time and making people laugh as a comedian, he takes time to do selfless things for other people who are less fortunate. She longs for them to love everything she loves about him. Regardless of how challenging their situation is, Tommy stays positive and focuses on continuing to build a better life for their little family with her. And she loves that about him.
Without looking back, Lina chose to live her life authentically—she chose love and happiness. The most important thing, she believes, is to be a good person.
“At the end of the day, you can’t please everybody,” Lina wants to remind other readers who may be in a similar situation. “When you sit down with your parents, try to be understanding and if they can’t see where you’re coming from, don’t turn it into a huge argument,” she maturely advised. “Find what makes YOU happy and if that’s a Muslim guy, cool! If not, then whatever… Just live.”