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.
Written by Anonymous
With editing by Hedya Chibane
My cultural and religious upbringing might be considered strange to most people. Born to a Brooklyn-raised Italian mother and an Egyptian-immigrant father, I was no stranger to intercultural love. Before my parents married they agreed that their future children would be raised Muslim. My non-religious Catholic mother couldn’t care less what faith her children were, and only hoped that we would be good people. Religion was much more important to my father, and although he married a woman outside his faith, he took on the cultural responsibility of raising his offspring Muslim.
My father was a complex man. He came to United States at the age of 17 and let’s just say that he took “let freedom ring” to heart in his first few years. My twin sister and I learned that our father had another daughter when we were fairly young. Before he married our mother he fell madly in love with a Puerto Rican woman — he got her pregnant when they were both in their early 20s. After their relationship ended badly she eventually moved back to Puerto Rico with their daughter, leaving our father heartbroken. We met our older sister when she was 14 and we were five – she stayed with us for several summers when she was off from school. Our sister’s mother raised her Christian and we never talked or thought much about it — we knew our father wished he could have raised her with Islam, but he loved her just the same.
Growing up with family members of different faiths and cultural backgrounds was both confusing and normal. My mother had blonde hair and blue eyes, and our father had the typical dark Egyptian features that my twin sister and I inherited. When we went places with our mother alone, people sometimes asked her which country she adopted us from. My twin sister and I knew we weren’t allowed to eat pork even though some of our family members could. And while our mother wasn’t religious, our grandmother enjoyed going to church. She took us with her a few times, and I remember being amazed as we sat in our pew, looking up at all the elaborate depictions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary (peace be upon them). The mosque we went to was depressing and my twin sister and I didn’t enjoy being there. We did, however, love watching our father pray. Although we knew minimal Arabic, we learned surahs (chapters) by hearing our father recite them. When he realized how fascinated we were with the ritual he began to teach us more and more. Within no time we were praying five times a day, and our identities as young Muslim girls had become important to us.
Learning about Islam became a bonding experience with our father. Aspiring to embody our faith, we spent a lot of time asking him questions. Eventually there was one thing that kept coming up. The conversation always went something like this:
“So Dad, if we fall in love with someone who’s not Muslim – are we allowed to marry him?”
“But why not? You married mom and she’s not Muslim.”
“Why is it different?”
“Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women but Muslim women can’t marry non-Muslim men.”
Of course the whys would continue and continue. Sometimes we were told that this rule was created for the sake of raising Muslim children — Islam is typically passed down through the father. Later in life, we were told stories of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, who divorced his newly Muslim daughter Zeinab from her non-Muslim husband when he failed to accept Islam (an example taken out of context 90% of the time). But most of the time our questions were met with a bemused smile and a “that’s the way it is.” This troubled me, because up until that time I had always viewed Islam as a religion of equality. How could Islam be equal if there were different rules for women than there were for men? And then there was another problem.
Growing up with family members of different faiths and cultural backgrounds was both confusing and normal.
Growing up on the predominantly Italian-Catholic south shore of Staten Island, I had met very few Muslims who were not my family. And to be brutally honest, I didn’t like the Muslim side of my family very much. There were rarely moments I felt comfortable around them — they often ignored my non-Muslim mother at family gatherings, making us all too aware that we were outsiders in their world. Too Muslim for our non-Muslim classmates and not Muslim enough for our family, we never quite managed to fit in. Regardless, I debated where I would find a Muslim guy who would accept a half-blooded, barely-Arabic speaking girl like me, especially in a country where we were a religious minority. Since I was a child and marriage seemed far away, I tucked this dilemma under my prayer rug and continued to practice my faith. But deep down I always knew that this so-called rule would become a problem for me.
As I got older things got even more confusing. People my age began to date and I knew that my twin sister and I weren’t allowed to — at least, according to our father. Our mother on the other hand, saw dating as an inevitable part of our lives. As my sister and I became teenagers our parents argued more about how to raise us, and we argued more with our father.
I had my first boyfriend at the age of 16, which to my non-Muslim friends might as well have been 30. He was a tall, dark, and handsome Dominican boy, and the relationship lasted only a few months. In my last year of high school I fell in love with my best friend, a black Christian boy who played the piano/organ at his Baptist church. He knew I was Muslim but we never felt the need to discuss religion. We both kept the relationship a secret from our parents – he didn’t feel comfortable telling his family that he was dating a non-black girl, and while my mother was aware of the relationship, my father didn’t want me to date anyone, period. An uncomfortable feeling set in whenever I was with my Muslim family members or people from my community. I felt like I had a secret life that they knew nothing about, and wondered what they would say about me if they knew.
College was a rude awakening in every way possible. My high school sweetheart and I broke up due to geography (he left for Chicago and I stayed in New York) and I was living at my new school about an hour and a half away from home. My faith had dwindled and I had developed a tumultuous relationship with my father.
I met my husband Joseph when I set out to avoid having a love life. A psychology major and aspiring therapist, he lived down the hall from me and was the first guy I noticed at my new school. Like me, Joseph was a mutt who had never quite fit in anywhere. Raised by a Chinese mother and Puerto Rican father in a majority-white town, he was very much a puzzle to most of the people he came across back home. He was baptized Catholic and considered himself Christian at the time (nowadays he is Agnostic). Faith was not an integral part of his upbringing but despite this, I realized that he was one of the most moral people I had ever met. While it would seem that we had little in common due to our vastly different backgrounds, it turned out that we had everything in common. Although our cultural identities were important to us, we both existed somewhat on the outside of the communities we were a part of. I was blown away by how easily we were able to talk, and by his ability to listen. From the outside looking in, it would seem unbelievable that we talked every night until five in the morning without becoming physical. At the time I remember wondering why my father and other Muslims I knew made dating sound so sinful — this was just about as innocent as things could get for a college student in 2008.
When our romance finally bubbled up it was a head-over-heels experience. My mother was supportive of the relationship from the beginning and for the next several years acted as a buffer between my father and me. It was difficult for me to explain to Joseph that while his mother kept photos of us at her desk at work, my father had no intention of getting to know him at all. While Joseph’s family and I got along beautifully, my father made it explicitly clear that he did not approve of our relationship. After each brief moment that he met Joseph (something he tried to avoid as much as possible) he always found something to criticize.
My father withdrew even more when he began to fear that Joseph and I were engaging in zinah (pre-marital sex). He cried and begged me to promise that we weren’t sleeping together, a possibility that made him feel like the ultimate failure as a Muslim father. This combined with a multitude of other issues caused us to stop speaking to each other for eight months. Even when I came home for college breaks, we ignored each other completely. Basic interactions like hello and goodbye were non-existent. Neither of us looked up when the other entered a room. This was difficult on everyone in our family, especially my mother, who was always in the middle. By this point I had pretty much stopped calling myself Muslim entirely.
Although the circumstances were hard for him, Joseph tried not to take my father’s feelings towards him personally. His most pressing concern was supporting me as much as he possibly could. And Lord knows I needed support. I was quite literally a nervous wreck.
When my father first spoke to me after those eight months had passed, his first words were:
I remember how strange it felt to finally make eye contact with him for the first time in so long. He told me that he wanted to support my relationship but felt like doing so would mean betraying his culture. What would his family and friends say? What kind of father would that make him? He asked me what I wanted him to do.
I told my father that all I wanted was for him to sit at a dinner table with the person I loved. I remember feeling elated the first time he shoveled an unreasonably large portion of my mother’s home-cooked food onto Joseph’s plate – in both Egyptian and Italian culture you basically stop eating when you’re dead.
By this point I had pretty much stopped calling myself Muslim entirely.
Years passed and although things still weren’t easy, there came a point where my father accepted Joseph and the fact that we were most likely going to get married. His health had deteriorated and deep down we all knew that he wouldn’t reach old age. By then I had moved into an apartment with my twin sister — something our more conservative family members judged him for. Our father had grown more liberal and experienced an evolution of his own. My twin sister was in a relationship with an Irish Agnostic guy at the time, and my father welcomed him into our home. Although the relationship ended after a few years, it occurred to me that Joseph and I had paved the way for them through our struggle. I realized how much my father’s views had shifted when a family friend asked him:
“Are your daughters thinking of getting married soon?”
His response was a quizzical smile and, “They have significant others.” I only wish I had been there to see the reaction.
He later told my sister and I, “You are doing nothing wrong.” We almost fell out of our chairs.
And while my father still had reservations about my relationship, they morphed into humorously different ones.
“Why hasn’t he asked you to marry him yet?”
At this point Joseph and I had been dating for six years and my father started to worry. I assured him that as soon as Joseph finished graduate school it would happen (we were living semi-long distance while he earned his Masters).
My father passed away from heart/lung failure at the age of 57 on December 29, 2016, a little over one year before Joseph and I got married. It was a small and beautiful affair, and only a select few of my Muslim family members were invited. I decided that the circumstances were emotional enough, and anyone who might not be supportive did not deserve to be there. I had my father’s blessing and that was all I needed.
My father’s brother, who was in and out of my life, called me a month before the wedding to warn me that if I married Joseph I would be going against my faith. Even though he liked Joseph when they met at the hospital during my father’s surgery and the events following his death, that didn’t change the reality of the situation – in my uncle’s eyes, I was going against the Quran. According to him and mainstream Islamic thought, if Joseph did not convert to Islam our marriage would be “illegitimate.” He assured me that Joseph would not even have to become a practicing Muslim – all he had to do was take the shahada and our marriage would be considered “halal”. Frankly, I had heard this idea before and found it to be ludicrous. While Joseph had previously proposed the idea of “converting” in order to make things easier, I didn’t see how it could possibly be halal to tell a lie before God and my family. What kind of foundation was that for a marriage? No one ever told my father that my mother would have to convert. Once again I was struck by how glaringly unequal that was. And besides, the people who mattered already supported me. I refused to cater to the prejudice of family members I wasn’t close to. I had always been the black sheep and that wasn’t going to change now.
I had begun to find Islam again after my father’s death, and told my uncle that while I respected his opinion, there was no Quranic basis for this rule that we had all been taught since childhood. There is a difference between culture and religion, I said, and it is important to learn that difference. I informed him that I had found a Muslim wedding officiant from Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) to perform our nikah. The arguments only became more hurtful — he told me that any imam who would conduct our wedding ceremony was “a criminal”, and if Joseph did not convert our children would be “bastards.” No matter how many times I had prepared myself to hear these things, I still felt as if someone had punched me in the gut. That was the last time we spoke, although his Italian wife (she converted to Islam) still attempts to keep in touch with us. I know that she wishes things weren’t the way that they are. I do too.
Navigating marriage as an interfaith Egyptian/Italian/Puerto Rican/Chinese couple might sound complicated. But if you abide by one principle it’s not — love. I honestly believe in my heart of hearts that Allah (SWT) loves love. Just because two people come from different cultural or religious backgrounds does not mean they are incompatible. Many people choose to marry within their faith for the purpose of making their lives easier — I have no problem with this. As a child of an interfaith/intercultural marriage I have no illusions about how hard it can be to reconcile customs and belief systems. But, I also know how wonderful it can be.
My husband may not call himself Muslim but based on his actions, he is more Muslim than most of the Muslims that I know.
And that is good enough for me.