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Intermarriage in Islam

Professors Sami Shamma and Yahya Michot

A Jewish woman makes the best spouse. This saying is attributed to King Fuad II of Egypt, who, in 1976, married
Dominique-France Picarda Jew. Islam permits the intermarriage of Muslim men with the People of the Book
( Jews and Christians). By examining the history and traditions associated with this practice, we will seek its wisdom.
But first, we recall the three Islamic juridical rules relating to marriage in general and to intermarriage in particular.
First, Muslims (men and women) are not permitted to marry nonbelievers. The main source of this prohibition
comes from this Quranic verse:
Do not marry women who associate partners with God, until they believe. A believing bondwoman is
better than a woman who associates partners with God, however pleasing she may appear to you. Nor give
believing women in marriage to men who associate partners with God, till they have believed; a believing
bondman is certainly better than a man who associates partners with God, even though he may please you.8
A theological difference exists between the definition of a nonbeliever (kafir) and an associator (mushrik); but for our
purposes, they are interchangeable.
Second, an exception is given to Muslim men to permit them to marry Christian and Jewish women:
The chaste believing women and the chaste women of the people who were given the Book before you are
lawful to you, provided that you give them their dowers and marry them, neither committing fornication
nor taking them as mistresses. (5:5)
Finally, Muslim women are permitted to marry only Muslim men. This rule is also based on the Quranic verse 5:5
above. The exception given in this verse clearly permits Muslim men to marry females of the People of the Book.
No such permission exists for Muslim women. All nouns in Arabic are either feminine or masculine; therefore it is
very difficult to explain this verse as giving permission to Muslim women to marry men who are People of the Book.
The reason behind this last rule can be explained: believing in all the Prophets and revealed scriptures is essential
to Islam. There is no question in a Muslims mind about the divine origin of these other two religions. The reverse
cannot be assumed, as Jews and Christians neither generally accept the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) nor
believe that the Quran is a revealed scripture. Putting these facts into a marriage context, one can see how a Muslim
husband is obliged to respect the faith of his Jewish or Christian wife and to maintain his wifes access to her places
of worship and her scriptures. Conversely, a Jewish or a Christian mans religion does not oblige him to accept the
validity of a Muslim wifes faith. This could be a source of great strife in the family. God enshrined in the Quran
the importance of harmony in family life, and such strife would disturb this harmony.
Discussion Questions:
What message does the reasoning above send about a mans role versus a womans role in traditional Muslim marriages?
For Muslim readers: Does this reasoning still apply in the context of modern-day America, where gender roles are
often different from what they were in the past?
8 All translations in this unit are by Wahiduddin Khan, with some minor adjustments.


Examining verse 5:5 in isolation does an injustice to the understanding of these practices. To properly contextualize
verse 5:5 and its importance, we need to begin at verses 5:3 and 5:4. We will consider two aspects of this analysis:
first, the fact that these verses were among the last to be revealed and therefore they, like most final revelations, were
intended to polish and refine Islamic law and ethics. Second, we will analyze the chronology of these three verses,
Verse 5:3 reads in part: Today I have completed your religion for you and completed My blessing upon you and
chosen for you Islam as a religion. It is evident from the text above that the Lord brought the period of revelation
to an end, and by doing so, He said what needed to be said on theological issues. In light of this verse, we see how
God moved the discussion in the next two verses toward social harmony and coexistence between Muslims and the
People of the Book. In answer to a question posed to the Prophet (PBUH), God declares: If they ask you what
has been made lawful for them, say, All good things have been made lawful for you (5:4). In this declaration, God
frames the permissions that follow as good and lawful.
We read in the beginning of the next verse:
Today, all good things have been made lawful to you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful to you,
and your food is lawful to them. The chaste believing women and the chaste women of the people who were
given the Book before you are lawful to you. (5:5)
It is noteworthy that in these verses, there is no different ruling for Christians and Jews; they are treated equally. The
marriages between Muslim men and women of the People of the Book appeared from the earliest days of Islam.
The most famous case is the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself, who married Safiyya bint Huyaiy, a Jewish
woman. It is also reported that the second rightly guided caliph, Umar b. al-Khattabthe caliph who took Jerusalem and put an end to the Christian ban on Jewish presence thereinhad a Jewish wife. The sage Maimonides, in
his edict, declared that if a Jew is forced to convert, he should convert to Islam. All this points to the closeness of
Judaism and Islam. The Prophet (PBUH) also took a Christian wife named Mariya al-Qubtiyyah. Mixed marriages
between the offspring of Isaac and Ishmael began with the dawn of Islam and have continued until our time. Such
mixed unions nevertheless faced challenges that still exist today and are of two main types: scriptural and geopolitical.
Discussion Question:
What issues do you think would be most significant in a Muslim-Jewish marriage?
Scripturally, difficulties arise from a misinterpretation of the harsh language found in some places in the Quran,
particularly regarding the children of Israels early history and the relations of Arabias Jews with the Prophet
(PBUH). This harsh language should be understood as an admonition primarily directed at Muslims. Its purpose
is to give a lesson, a warning of sorts, to the Muslims, by making them aware of the pitfalls that recipients of earlier
scriptures had failed to avoid. Moreover, the Quranic authorization of mixed marriage between a Muslim and a Jew
is not affected, and in the Quran, as in the Bible, the Jews remain Gods chosen people: Children of Israel, remember My blessing, which I have bestowed on you, and how I favored you above all other people (2:47).
Discussion Questions:
Is the interpretation abovethat the Qurans harsh language with regard to the Jews is more of an admonition
to Muslims than a directive regarding how Jews should be viewed or treatedsurprising to you? How might this
interpretation move Jewish-Muslim relations forward?

In the case of the Christians, theological differences are mainly concentrated on the Trinity and the divine nature of
Jesus. The Quran is critical of Christian claims that God fathered Christ and their declaration of the triune nature
of God. The language is still harsh but not to the extent used with the Jews. Again, these verses are addressed to the
Muslims, not the Christians.
In the early Islamic period, mutual agreements influenced the relationship between the Muslim and Jewish communities. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) signed with the Jews of Medina a city-state constitution, calling its
Muslim and Jewish inhabitants one nation apart from all others. This constitution guaranteed the mutual defense
of the city by all its inhabitants and established that aggression against any side would prompt the support of the
other. This period of cooperation deteriorated over time, ending with the expulsion of the Jews from Medina by the
Prophet (PBUH) for violating the covenant between the two parties. Nevertheless, large Jewish communities lived
for centuries in Muslim countries as protected minorities. Many of their daughters contracted happy marriages with
In the later prophetic period, the Prophet (PBUH) signed a major and important covenant with the Christians of
Najran.9 This covenant enshrined guarantees and freedoms for Christian communities, granted by the Muslims.
The covenant protected the religious freedom of Christians and banned Muslims from interfering in their religious
affairs, as well as banned Muslim armies from entering their lands. It expanded these protections to Christians
Today, Jewish-Muslim relations are often stretched thin because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result, many
Jews see enemies in Muslims, and vice versa; hence an animosity that may weigh heavily on Muslim-Jewish marriages. A stigma might even be attached to such unions; consequently, the marriage is kept secret from neighbors
and friends. The children of such mixed couples seem to suffer the most from this geopolitical conflict. While they
bear no responsibility for the conflict, their identity can be affected by it. This is especially true in a school setting:
while most students identify with one religion, these children are unable, or unwilling, to disclose their mixed heritage. Furthermore, once they reveal their mixed heritage, they are often bombarded with questions regarding their
position, or that of their parents, on the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Some may therefore decide to identify themselves with one religion and to hide the otheror, in some cases, completely deny their other heritage.
Christian-Muslim relations cover the spectrum from animosity and war to understanding and harmony. These
relations have fluctuated throughout history. The highest tensions took place during the Crusades (which ended in
1199) and, most recently, in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. However, relations were good during the centuries when the
Arabs ruled Spain, as well as in the early twentieth century, when Arab Muslims and Christians stood shoulder to
shoulder resisting foreign occupation following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
Between husband and wife, some similarity of worldviews is essential. Between Muslims and Jews, such similarity
exists in at least three aspects. First, Islamic and Jewish ideas of God are very close. Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our
God, the Lord is One (Deut. 6:4) is a pillar of the Jewish creed. For Muslims, the Quranic verse 112:1,Say, He is
God, the One also affirms the Oneness of God. Convergent understandings of the absolute being can contribute
to the success of a Muslim-Jewish marriage.
Second, the dietary laws of the two religions have much in common. Although the laws of kashrut are stricter than
the halal rules, they derive from similar basic principles. The prohibitions on eating the flesh of the swine and the
methods of slaughter have a great deal in common. This situation surely makes the daily life of Muslim-Jewish
couples easier.
9 Najran was a Christian town in northern Yemen at that time. The Martyrs of Najran are acknowledged in both Christianity and Islam.


A third aspect relates to family structure. Both religions traditionally have encouraged a predominantly patriarchal
model and favor unions between people raised within similar social and cultural backgrounds.
Muslim-Christian marriages present their own unique challenges. They are by far the most common mixed marriages in Islam. Again, we recall that the Prophet (PBUH) took a Christian wife. This practice continued throughout the early centuries of Islam, especially in the Levant. Islam remained a minority religion in Muslim lands well
into the third century of Hijrah (Muhammads move from Mecca to Medina and the date that marks the start of
the Muslim calendar). This and other factors contributed to the phenomenon of traveling Muslim men marrying
indigenous Christian women.
Christian-Muslim marriages also differ in terms of social acceptability. In the early days of Islam, they were more
common, simply based on population distribution and numbers. In modern history, the Arab Christians were not
seen as the enemy despite the Christian European colonization of most Arab and Muslim lands. The Arab Christians and their Muslim counterparts fought side by side against these colonizers. Interestingly, the majority of Arab
leaders during that period, especially in the Levant, were Christians.
Islam usually takes a strict and exclusive stance on theological issues; yet when it comes to marriage with non-Muslim female believers ( Jews or Christians) it promotes an open and inclusive approach. This enables Muslims to hold
firm to their theology and to simultaneously be good husbands to their Jewish and Christian wives. As for politics,
the most difficult geopolitical problem in the world today is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; yet Muslim-Jewish
marriages take place even in Israel, providing a glimmer of hope for a just and lasting peace.
For a happy marriage, what a Muslim husband and a Jewish or Christian spouse can share is indeed far more important than what might divide them.
Discussion Question:
Why do you think that Islam, with its strict approach to theological issues, takes a more open stance when it comes to
marriages between Muslims and Jews or Christians?



A Resource Guide for
Jewish-Muslim Engagement
A Project of The Jewish Theological Seminary,
Hartford Seminary, and the Islamic Society of North America

Kim Zeitman and Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, Editors