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Interfaith marriage for Muslim women: this day are things good and pure made lawful unto you.


The issue of interfaith marriage in Islam is no frivolous question. It has long been neglected, even purposely occulted, inasmuch it touches upon two extremely sensitive topics in Islamic tradition, namely the close relationship with believers of other religions (specifically the Jews and Christians) on the one hand and the autonomous status and free choice of Muslim women on the other hand. Islamic tradition generally accepts interfaith marriage for Muslim men as lawful (halal), while it clearly prohibits interfaith marriage to Muslim women. This lack of reciprocity, Islamic scholars argue, would be supported by their interpretation of one Qur'anic verse (5:5) and by some ahadith (Prophetic sayings). The Sirah of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) also indicates that the Prophet of Islam married a Christian woman (Maria, a Coptic Egyptian) and a Jewish woman (Safiyya), which, instead of being interpreted as a sign of reciprocal openness, is traditionally understood as the confirmation of the permission given to Muslim men only, by analogy to the maleness of Prophet Muhammad, to the exclusion of Muslim women.

Now, some contemporary authors, Muslim thinkers, and exegetes of the Qur'an (such as Asma Barias (2007), Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan, Khaleel Mohammed based in the United States, Asma Lamrabet in Morocco, Amel Grami in Tunisia, Abdel Kader Merabet in Algeria, Kussay Fakhir Al-Mousawi in the United Kingdom, and many others) challenge the classical interpretation of verse 5:5 in the name of Quranic internal consistency and coherence, linguistics, and reason.

This is a burning issue as the disclosure of the Qur'anic meaning may have dramatic consequences on the lives of innumerable Muslim women today, all over the world, but especially in multi-confessional countries such as Western secular states as well as many African and Middle-Eastern countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Israel), but also in Asia and Indonesia, where interfaith marriages remain a sensitive topic. In many countries where national law is based on Islamic legislation, on such or such Fiqh, depending on the particular school of law this country adheres to, female nationals are formally prohibited by law to get married to a non-Muslim man, regardless of his other faith. In many Western secular countries, many Muslim women are being restricted in their marriage choice too, if not coerced into marriage, on the grounds of this religious formal prohibition, cautioned by most religious scholars, therefore also preventing them from socially and culturally mixing further into the society they live in and belong to. In the United States, such interfaith unions are still met with disapproval: In a 2007 survey (conducted by the Pew Research Centre), 30 percent of Muslim men and 46 percent of Muslim women said they oppose interfaith marriage. (1) Religiosity distorts the intolerance further: Many more devout Muslim men (70 percent) than Muslim women (54 percent) think marrying a non-Muslim is acceptable. Worse, in many majority-Muslim countries, cases of interfaith marriage often lead to the so-called honor killings (Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, and others) as Muslim family members and neighbors do not tolerate such unions for their female relatives.

Here is the verse at stake (Holy Qur'an, verse 5:5), in a standard contemporary English translation by Yusuf 'Ali:
   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
   anyone rejects faith, fruitless is his work, and in the Hereafter
   he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual
   good). (2)

Religious authority and the prohibition of interfaith marriage for Muslim women: the verdict of hegemonic patriarchal authority

Classical Qur'anic interpreters and commentators, in their vast majority, both Sunni and Shi'ah, stated the prohibition of interfaith marriage for Muslim women, while recognizing interfaith marriage for Muslim men. Most of them offered a most patriarchal interpretation of verse 5:5 and granted religious justification for the prohibition for Muslim women to marry non-Muslims, regardless of their other religion. Their interpretations (Tafsir) served in history as the legitimate foundation for the making of Fiqh, the Islamic legislation, which, in turn, ascribes legal authority to their patriarchal understanding of the Qur'an.

Due to a locking effect of the circle of authority in Islam (text--tradition--public reason), as Asma Barias points out, "for virtually all our history, most Muslims have read the Qur'an as a patriarchal and, even misogynistic, text," thus "conservative Muslims (...) have barricaded themselves behind the bulwark of tradition, moving seamlessly from hermeneutical issues to historical ones." (3) Thus, contemporary non-patriarchal interpretations of the Qur'an face an army of shields from conservative male holders of religious authority. Asma Barias explains that attention was displaced from the Qur'an to traditional gender roles through an overemphasis on tradition:
   Thus, it is in the name of Tradition--in the singular and with a
   capital T--that they reject new readings of the Qur'an, specially
   by women, both because such readings unsettle the meanings ascribed
   to the text by male exegetes and because in doing so, women's
   readings also pose a threat to men's traditional roles as
   interpreters of religious knowledge. In this way, conservatives can
   dismiss women's interpretations without even having to read them.
   Tradition becomes more consequential than the sacred text and,
   indeed, is used to override it since it displaces attention from
   the Qur'an to traditional gender roles and interpretive practices.

What about classical scholars of Islam?

Both Sunni and Shiite, most classical scholars of Islam promoted a nonreciprocal view on interfaith marriage for Muslims. There was a general Sunni consensus on the lawfulness of marriage of Muslim men with Jewish or Christian women, but there was a simultaneous Sunni and Shiite consensus to ban any such marriage when it came to Muslim women. An exception to this consensus was made by the Shiite scholars regarding the specific case of temporary marriages (mut'a marriage) as opposed to permanent marriages: Shiite men are allowed to marry Jewish or Christian women only under such temporary marriages. Even though all classical Islamic legal schools agreed on the prohibition of interfaith marriage for Muslim women, it is significant though, that al-Qurtubi should specify that it is due to a consensus (ijma) of the community (Umma). (4) This means that even classical commentators felt embarrassed in front of the apparent silence of the Qur'anic text on the issue. It seems that in their analysis of verse 5:5, many of them made efforts to understand the actual meaning of "believers," even of "free women," of "virtuous/chaste women" (referring to muhsanat), but no classical interpreter tried to give any meaningful significance to the last part of the verse, on the reciprocity of lawfulness.

Upon verse 5:5, the 10th century Sunni interpreter al-Tabari focused on the meaning of muhsanat, and instead of understanding it as "virtuous/ chaste women," he interpreted the word as referring to "free women" (as opposed to slave women). So, according to al-Tabari, the main criterion for lawful women to Muslims is that they should be free women, regardless of their virtue or chastity. This would apply to the women of the People of the Book, while Muslims could also marry Muslim slave women. Therefore, Al Tabari did not mention the idea of interfaith marriage for Muslim women. (5)

Another example of classical tafsir (exegesis) is given by the 12th century Persian Mu'tazilite exegete Al-Zamakhshari (2007), who was of the opinion that al-muhsanat referred to the chaste women from among the Muslim community only, arguing that the verse would encourage Muslims to be highly selective in their choice of wife and exhort them to marry only the most virtuous women from their own community. (6) However, Al-Zamakhshari (2007) also mentions that Abu Hanifa viewed the marriage of Muslim men to free women of the People of the Book as lawful, while Al-Shafi'i and Ibn 'Umar objected to any interfaith marriage for Muslim men on the grounds that verse 2:221 instructed Muslims not to marry with any atheist and that Christians, according to 1bn 'Umar, should be considered as atheists. (7) Yet again, neither Al-Zamakhshari nor Abu Hanifa or Ibn 'Umar ever envisaged the option of interfaith marriage for Muslim women.

Patriarchal interpretations based on biased and patriarchal assumptions

These scholarly views commonly rely on a few biased and most patriarchal assumptions. Let us first give a tentative definition of patriarchy, which is a most controversial and moving concept in itself. Here is a definition offered by Asma Barias: "Patriarchy is a continuum at one end of which are misrepresentations of God as Father, and of fathers as rulers over wives and children, and at the other end, the notion of sexual differentiation which is used to privilege males while "Otherizing" women, (...)." (8)

Most significantly, this tentative definition makes salient both the issue of minorization of women at the end of a hierarchy chain from God to man as a father and husband and the issue of otherization of women throughout history. Indeed, some of the specific effects of patriarchy are the confusion between husbandhood and fatherhood and, as a consequence of the former, the leveling of wives and children, thus disempowering and minorizing women as un-autonomous and guarded wives. As for the issue of otherization of women, patriarchy sets male as a normative standard and allocates authority, power, and guardianship to males only. Consequently, in such a social setting, women are led to construct their own social identity as others, distinct from the central normative reference that is male identity. Therefore, they are brought to think themselves as other, off the center, pushed into the shade of social periphery. Both gender differentiation and the making of male as the social canon cause the artificial minorization of women, considered as under age and in need of tutoring all their lives. The minorization of women is both external and internal, inasmuch women are constantly reminded of their otherness by social and political institutions, family structure, language, and law, but they were also made to think themselves as minor and unrepresentative of the norm. Therefore, in a patriarchal society, women's self-image is problematic, in so far as they construct their self-conscience upon the very idea of otherness, hence otherized and off-centered from the start. Patriarchal societies thus create neuroses among most women and construct split-up personalities on a large scale.

An abusive use of Qur'anic verse 60:10:

O ye who believe! When there come to you believing women refugees (muhajirat), examine (and test) them: Allah knows best as to their faith: if ye ascertain that they are believers, then send them not back to the unbelievers. They are not lawful (wives) for the unbelievers, nor are the (unbelievers) lawful (husbands) for them. But pay the unbelievers have spent (on their dower). And there will be no blame on you if ye marry them on payment of their dower to them. (...) (9) (HQ.60:10)

Commentators seem to use this verse, without taking into account the very specific context of its revelation, to support the idea that interfaith marriage is not open to Muslim women. Indeed, the verse referred to the women, like Umm Kalthoum, who had converted to Islam and, due to hostile environment, fled from Mecca seeking refuge in Medina while the pact of Hudaybiya was still binding. An exception to the pact was thus granted to these refugee Muslim women, while men had still to be sent back to Mecca. This verse guaranteed the physical protection of these women who would have had otherwise to face the retaliations of powerful Meccan polytheists. When considering the asbab, this verse corresponded to a specific context when women refugees in Medina, if sent back to Mecca against their will, could have been in danger of physical abuse, torture, or especially rape and forced marriage. However, this has nothing to do with an interfaith union that, in another time and context, can be preferable to her and to the household, such as, in Western countries today, a more intellectual, professional, equal partner, for instance.

A biased, assumption: Women as easy converts through marriage?

It seems that it is of general understanding within a Muslim context that women, as weak creatures under influence, would more easily than men convert to the religion of their husband (i.e., Islam) than the opposite. This assumption is based on the generally accepted traditional idea that a man should be responsible for his wife and act as both his tutor (waly) and mentor. Hence, it is understood that the husband holds a position of authority and leadership over his wife, financially, but also morally, intellectually and spiritually. Conversely, a wife is expected to internalize her position of follower and receiver with humility and obedience (ta'a). Within Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh), it is a husband's duty to provide religious education to his wife, because, it seems, his greater knowledge is implied. This assumption may be derived from the general Muslim psyche and conscience that arbitrarily constructed gender identities based on a number of ahadith (reported Prophetic traditions according to chains of selected transmitters) that portray women as vulnerable, weak, dependent creatures, easily manipulated.

An example of such hadith is: "All of you are shepherds and all of you will be asked about your wards. The ruler is a shepherd and shall be asked about his wards. The man is a shepherd of his family and will be asked about his ward. The woman is a shepherd of her husband's house and children and will be asked about her ward." (10) The metaphor of shepherds and wards is eloquent: A shepherd takes care of his herd, but he also guides and controls the cattle that would drift along, get scared, or get lost otherwise, without any sense of direction, responsibility or self-governance. By analogy, this metaphorical chain, from the ruler to the man down to the woman, gives a very vertical and hierarchical structure to society and appoints the man to the powerful position of head of family. Such a hadith, considered as authentic by Bukhari and Muslim (See Bukhari's reference in the first part of the bibliography), therefore, creates the conditions of male domination within his family and, as a consequence, of a husband over his wife/wives. In addition, by analogy, it associates women to cattle that needs guidance, turning them into unautonomous beings that need to be controlled and easily fall under the influence of their guardian. From such a social construct was derived the idea of woman's dependency, vulnerability, and lack of autonomy. Hence, they grew to be considered, in such a patriarchal setting, as weak creatures that need to be directed, conducted, guided, and watched by a man, as if man, as a pastor and shepherd, had the monopoly of both responsibility and governance. (11)

Exposing a paradox: The biased assumption that children of interfaith mixed couple will automatically become Muslim if their father is Muslim, whereas that would not be the case if only their mother is Muslim. Less credential is being allotted to her ability to pass on Islamic teachings and values to her children. Once again, religious authority feeds and maintains hegemonic thinking on traditional gender roles, thus casting discredit on woman's authority, as if a mother would not be able to give a Muslim orientation to her children. Religious authority even manages to make most Muslims blindly believe this state of affairs to be natural, while simultaneously and without taking notice of the paradox it also maintains that the mother should be in charge of child raising and taking care of the home. So, in effect, she is ascribed the obligation to raise and educate her child, but she is not recognized enough influence, authority and responsibility to pass on Islamic values and teachings to her child.

Double standards on the concept of believers: a paradox exposing gender discrimination

Most classical and contemporary commentators of the Qur'an strangely understand believers as believers of the monotheistic revealed religions (Muslims as well as the People of the Book) when the term refers to women believers, while at the same time they understand believers as only Muslim believers when the term refers to men believers, See Susan Spectorsky (1993), Asma Barias (2005, 2012), Maududi (1983), Fatima Mernissi (1991) and Barbara Stowasser (1993). They rely on verse 5:5 to allow interfaith marriage for Muslim men, while they rely on verse 60:10 to forbid interfaith marriage for Muslim women. The faulty reasoning in the definition of the term believers reveals epistemologica! discrimination against women.

A conservative defensive outlook on mixed marriages

On the whole, if classical scholars were so reluctant to accept interfaith marriages, and especially for Muslim women, it is because women were historically viewed as the maintainers of Islamic tradition and social order. Indeed, mixed marriages for them would mean social disorder and a threat to the unity and cohesion of the Ummah (the Muslim community as a whole). Within Islamic conservative thought, women are the keepers of tradition and the pillars of family, therefore, also the pillars of the Ummah, often perceived as the Islamic nation, as opposed to the first meaning of the Ummah that referred to the political and social community in Medina and that included non-Muslims, especially Jewish tribes. By getting married to a non-Muslim, a Muslim woman would be perceived as a traitor to both her family and the Islamic nation.

In addition, the non-Muslim man, even though a member of the People of the Book, was historically considered with some contempt, as the status of dhimmi in territories under Islamic rule. (12) According to Classical scholar Ibn Taymiyya, for example, non-Muslims would not only be less intelligent than Muslims, but also impure (najess) and adulterous (zani). (13) As for Abu Hayan, he laid emphasis upon the non-Muslim's impurity on the grounds that he would eat pork and drink wine. (14) According to Ibn Hazm, the sweat and tears of the People of the Book would also be deemed impure. (15) The dhimmi was thought to necessarily be intolerant of his wife's faith.

A distrustful attitude toward the People of the Book within traditional Muslim consciousness seems to run through centuries dating back to the early Mecca and Medina time. From that time on, a feeling of suspicion was formed among Muslims toward Jews and Christians because they always suspected them to act as spies or covert enemies of Islam, ultimately wanting to ruin the Islamic religion and civilization. As Muslim male scholars did not trust women's strength and steadfastness either, they viewed such interfaith marriages as a dangerous threat to Islam, to the Islamic community and political power.

This feeling of distrust was revived due to recent colonial history. The loss of power and control of Islamic territories and populations meant that the distrust of the People of the Book, associated with Western colonizers, became severe. The colonial trauma revived identity sensitivities, expressed through what are perceived as religious rules and codes. Within such a colonial and post-colonial context, the idea that such interfaith marriages should be prohibited for Muslim women got reinforced.

Controlling women's body and sexuality

Regardless of the Qur'anic text, it is the Muslim community that condemns Muslim women entering interfaith unions. They are viewed as breakers of social norms and of the whole social system; they are considered as destroyers of the honor of the family, of the stability of the nation, and of the age-old values that support social structures. As Tunisian Amel Grami interestingly highlights, a strict code of honor regulates and controls women's sexuality in most Muslim societies. (16) In addition, within a most patriarchal mode of thinking, sexual intercourse is viewed as the actual domination of a man over a woman; therefore, that a Muslim woman should let herself be dominated by a Non-Muslim in this way would mean that the whole Muslim community would be equally "dominated" through the sexual metaphor. Indeed, as Amel Grami sees it, "marital sexuality in a Muslim society serves the whole (social) group," because "the body of a Muslim woman is not an autonomous totality," rather it belongs to the Ummah as a whole. (16) Imposing a prohibition on interfaith marriage for Muslim women is therefore also a way to control women's body and sexuality for the sake of the cohesion and self-confidence of the whole Islamic community and nation. It is symptomatic of an attitude of defensiveness and of a patriarchal social order and mindset.

Rejecting otherness and mixing, and praising sameness

Social codes with such closed Muslim societies aim to keep otherness and difference out. Such prohibition for Muslim women is symptomatic of the deep fear of the Other and the conservative desire to remain within sameness. Otherness is seen as a threat and as a potential evil. Within such a conformist social order, sexuality with the Other is utterly problematic. The very idea of mixed marriage means mixed sexuality and mixed-race, mixed-culture, mixed-religion children. Within such a closed patriarchal system, this mixing is viewed as a "betrayal" of social and religious values and it is felt as an assault and a defeat.

Challenging religious authority on interfaith marriage: a Critique of patriarchal interpretation

The issue of interfaith marriage has attracted new interest among contemporary scholars of Islam. The most traditionalist and conservative scholars have just ruled out the option of interfaith marriage for Muslim women, while accepting though not recommending such union for Muslim men. Among contemporary scholars who openly sided for lawful interfaith marriage for all Muslims, including women, attention should be drawn to Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, Abdel Kader Merabet, Asma Barias (2000, 2001, 2002b, 2005, 2006b,c, 2012), Riffat Hassan (1987), Leila Ahmed (1992) and Amina Wadud (1999, 2004, 2006, 2009) in the United-States, Ziba Mir-Hosseini (1993, 1999, 2003, 2004a,b, 2006, 2007, 2009) in the United-Kingdom, Amel Grami in Tunisia, Asma Lamrabet (2012) in Morocco, and Ahmad Subhy Mansour, an Egyptian scholar in exile in the United States. According to Merabet, for instance, the reasons of the prohibition are purely social and historical and the Muslim woman should therefore be allowed to enter a mixed marriage (Merabet even opens such marriages to all non-Muslims): "Islam allowed both Muslim men and women to freely marry the partner of their choice, without any constraint or compulsion." (17) In the wake of pioneering Fazlur-Rahman and his historicist and holistic methodology to re-read or un-read the Qur'an, many contemporary Islamic scholars, such as Fatima Mernissi, Asma Barlas, Ziba Mir-Hosseini or Amina Wadud, un-read patriarchal assumptions in Classical tafsir, introduced feminist Qur'an hermeneutics and opened the debate on interfaith marriage for Muslim women based on such holistic reading of Islamic sources (Asma Barlas, 2000, 2001, 2002b, 2005, 2006b,c, 2012; Mernissi, 1985; Rahman 2002).

A rational foundation

If one retains the conventional translation/interpretation as exposed above, one faces a number of problems, inasmuch some of its consequences run counter to rational logics. Some of these problems could be listed as follows:

1 Why would the verse be talking about reciprocal lawfulness on the food of the two groups (Muslims and the People of the Book), while it would be talking about non-reciprocal lawfulness on marriage between the two groups in one and the same verse?

2 Why would the Qur'an be addressing the obvious issue of marriage between two Muslim believers in that verse that also talks about food and the relationship with the People of the Book? According to the science of Qur'anic chronology, these verses seem to have been among the last ones revealed under the Madinan period.

3 If one accepts that the verse makes interfaith marriage lawful to men and not to women, that would mean that it is a special grace or gift granted to Muslim men, therefore we should expect some mention of the mercifulness of Allah at the end of the verse ("Allah is oft-forgiving or merciful", or "Allah is most merciful"), which is not the case.

4 The admonishing tone at the end of the verse (almost threatening) reveals that there is some moral heavy duty on Muslim people included in the verse.

5 If one accepts that interfaith marriage is lawful only for men, would this be valid for all times and places or only at the time of Islamic rule over populations of other faiths (Christianity, Judaism)? Such a question is raised by both Fazlur-Rahman (2002) and his historicist approach to Qur'an hermeneutics and Boormans' study of the Qur'anic perspective on Christians (Boormans, 2003, 2004).

6 In practical terms, the problems and challenges arising from an interfaith union are the same whether it is the husband or the wife being Muslim. There will be the same issues in terms of potential family divergent views, conflicts, different ritual patterns, family festivals and issues on child raising, so why would the Qur'an have allowed such marriages in one direction and not the other?

7 Some might argue that the verse addresses only Muslim men on the grounds of the mention of the mandatory dower to be given to their wives, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian; however, it makes sense that nothing should be mentioned on the other side as then the Jewish or Christian marital protocol would then apply and the Muslim woman would have to be aware of that if she consents to many a Jew or a Christian.

Reciprocity of the lawfulness of interfaith marriage with the People of the Book: alternative Qur'anic hermeneutics

A linguistic foundation: In the wake of Izutsu's famous works on Qur'anic semantics and linguistics (Izutsu, 1959, 1964), contemporary scholars endeavor to focus more precisely and acutely on Qur'anic linguistics and stylistics in order to be able to understand its internal logics more deeply. The actual text of verse 5:5, if one reads it carefully, uses grammatical ellipse to convey the idea of reciprocity in the lawfulness of marriages of Muslim believers with virtuous believers among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), for both men and women. Indeed, the sentence structure repeats itself from food to marriage, as the main point of the verse is the full reciprocity of lawfulness for both food and marriage in-between Muslims and the People of the Book. Hence, the expressions of reciprocal lawfulness (hillun llakum/hillun llahum) are first used on the topic of food, yet, within elliptical style, they are not literally repeated on the topic of marriage, even though their understanding is implicit.
   Alyawma iihilla lakumu-ttayyibatu wa ta'amu-lladyna utu-lkitaba
   hillun llaktim wa ta'amukum hillun llahum wa-lmuhsanatu
   mina-lmu'minati wa-lmuhsanatu mina-lladyna utu-lkitaba min qahlikum
   (...) (2)

The elliptical structure here means that the first "hillun llakum" ("lawful to you") applies to "ta'amu-lladyna utu-lkitaba" ("the food of those who received the Book") and, elliptically, to "Imuhsanatu mina-lladyna utulkitaba min qablikum" ("the virtuous women from among those who received the Book before you"), while the second "hillun llahum" ("lawful to them") applies to "ta'amukum" ("your food") and, elliptically, to "lmuhsanatu mina-lmu'minati" ("the virtuous women from among the female [Muslim] believers"). Thanks to the elliptical sentence structure, the relation of reciprocity is made complete: reciprocity between Muslims and the People of the Book, and the parallel between food and marriage.

Alternative reading of verse 5:5:
   This day are things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of
   those who received the Scriptures (before you) is lawful unto you
   and your food is lawful unto them, and so are (your) virtuous
   believing women (lawful unto them), and so are the virtuous women
   of those who received the Scriptures before you (lawful unto you)
   (...) and whoso denieth faith, his work is vain and he will be
   among the losers in the Hereafter. (Q. 5:5)

According to this alternative understanding and translation from Qur'anic Arabic, verse 5:5 therefore makes both food and marriage reciprocally lawful to both categories (to the People of the Book and to Muslim, regardless of gender). This means that verse 5:5 regains its consistency and semantic sense and unity: Both food and marriage are considered on an equal footing within the same verse. Indeed, it makes food lawful between Muslims and the receivers of previous Scriptures and it makes virtuous Muslim women lawful to virtuous men from the People of the Book and the virtuous women from the People of the Book lawful to virtuous Muslim men. Finally, the verse threatens those who deny their faith and hinder the good relationship with believers of the People of the Book..

Verse 5:5 in the light of verse 2:221: Qur'anic internal consistency or re-contextualizing verse 5:5
   Do not marry unbelieving women until they believe: a slave woman
   who believes is better than an unbelieving (pagan) woman, even
   though she allure you. Nor marry unbelieving men until they
   believe: a man slave who believes is better than an unbelieving
   (pagan) man, even though he allure you. Unbelievers do (but) beckon
   you to the Fire. But Allah beckons by His Grace to the Garden (of
   bliss) and forgiveness and makes His signs clear to mankind: that
   they may receive admonition. (18)

This verse prohibits marriage--for both Muslim men and women-with mushrikin (polytheists/idolaters); yet the line seems to be clearly drawn between believers and unbelievers, regardless of sexes. On the contrary, as the Moroccan researcher Asma Lamrabet highlights it, if the interpretation of the term believers remains open to debate, the egalitarian injunction means that "what is valid for Muslim men is equally valid for Muslim women." (19)

Now verse 5:5 should be read in the light of verse 2:221 if we are to be consistent in our approach to Qur'anic hermeneutics. The fundamental principles that can be drawn out of the verse are gender equality and reciprocity in terms of marriage prohibition and pattern, social justice (encouraging believers to marry believing slaves), and the preeminence given to faith. These three principles should be respected also when reading verse 5:5. Indeed, verse 5:5 also insists on the primary importance of faith, virtue, respect, and the sense of responsibility ("virtuous believing women/men"; "all things good and pure"; "if any one rejects faith ..."), on the spiritual kinship of Muslims with those who received the Scriptures before them, and on gender equality when it comes to interfaith marriage.

Women's free will, autonomy, and independent agency within marriage in Islam

Feminist Qur'anic hermeneutics on interfaith marriage, which is nothing more than an understanding of the Qur'an freed from any patriarchal filter, entails some consequences upon women's autonomous status, independence within marriage, mental strength, authority, and responsibility in Islam.

Mental and spiritual Autonomy

The reciprocal understanding of the 5:5 verse entails a new vision on the status of women in Islam, suddenly considered as mentally and spiritually autonomous and capable of free-thinking, independently of her husband, on spiritual and religious matters.

Mental strength

Another consequence of the alternative interpretation of verse 5:5 is the emphasis laid on the implications upon women's moral character. Being able to resist her husband's intellectual and spiritual influence means that she would be recognized mental strength, backbone, inner determination, moral and psychological stability, and moral tenacity. This means, when it comes to rituals, for example, that she would be recognized able to regularly perform her prayers independently, to sustain the Ramadhan fast by herself at home, or to independently pay her Zakat (mandatory alms).

Moral and spiritual authority

Another implication would be the recognition of women's moral and spiritual authority over their children. This interpretation means that she would be viewed as equally responsible for her children's spiritual and religious education. In the sight of God, if she is the sole Muslim parent (in the case of interfaith marriage), she will then be considered by God as responsible for passing on Islamic education, ethics, values, and rituals to her children. As this is a heavy responsibility, that means she is considered by God as worthy of that responsibility and mentally and spiritually strong enough to carry it successfully and fulfill her parental duty.

Shared parental authority

A much related consequence would be the need to reconsider family structure and the distribution of parental responsibility. Indeed, shared parental authority also means shared parental responsibility. This implies a shift of attitude toward children's upbringing and family education. Shared parental authority between wife and husband on children should then apply not only in terms of feeding, caring and looking after children, but also in terms of educating their minds and souls. As a consequence of shared parental responsibility, a Muslim woman should be able to have enough knowledge and pedagogy to guide her children in their first intellectual and spiritual explorations, giving them the right support and feedback when shaken by existential fears, enquiries, and interrogations.


As Qanta Ahmed points out, "Muslim women living in non-Muslim majority nations frequently lack intellectually and professionally equal Muslim partners. Instead [they] are eschewed by |their] male Muslim counterparts for younger, less career-advanced Muslim women, often from countries of parental heritage. These forces drive Muslim women to either select suitable marriage partners from outside the faith or face unremitting spinsterhood. This is already reaching a crisis in Britain, as reported in the Guardian recently." (1) And when they do enter an interfaith wedlock, they are being chastised by their Muslim community and family or, at the least, constantly reminded of their capital sin.

However, this is a crime being committed against Muslim women in the name of Islam while the Qur'an allowed marriage between Muslims and any believer of the People of the Book, man or woman, as long as it is motivated by honest and truthful intentions.

Indeed, the non-patriarchal interpretation of the verse, which equally allows interfaith marriage for both Muslim men and women, supports the principles of reciprocity and gender equality. Such principles are in tune with central Qur'anic ideas and principles, such as gender equality in Creation, on the Day of Judgment, in the Hereafter and so forth, while the classical interpretation causes injustice and discrimination and blatantly runs counter to the fundamental spirit of equality that the Qur'anic message conveys.

A Critique of the Traditional Interpretation of Verse 5:5 in the Qur'an on the Lawfulness of Marriage with the People of the Book.


(1.) Ahmed, Quanta A., "<<Column: Islam, Interfaith Marriage Go Hand in Hand>>," (2012).

(2.) The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an, trans. Yusuf Ali (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications, 2003), 5:5.

(3.) Barlas, Asma, 2006, "Qur'anic Hermeneutics and Sexual Politics." Cardozo Law Review 28(1), 144.

(4.) Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami'li Ahkam al-Quran, Tafsir Al Qurtubi. Vol. 3 (Beirut Lebanon: Dar Al Fikr, 2008), p. 72.

(5.) See Al-Tabari on verse 5:5: Tafsir al-Tabari : al-musammri Jami' al-bayan fi ta'wil al-Qur'an. New edition published in 12 volumes (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyah, 1997).

(6.) See Al-Zamakhshari on verse 5:5: Al-Zamakhshari, Al-Kashshaaf ("the Revealer").

(7.) Ibn 'Umar said: "I do not know more atheist than the one who says that Jesus is his Lord."

(8.) Barlas, Asma, "Believing Women" in Islam (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002), p. 204.

(9.) The Meaning of the Holy Quran, trans. Yusuf Ali (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications, 2003), Al-Mumtahinah, 60:10.

(10.) The Prophet (SAwS): "Kullukum raa'in wa kullukum mas'oolun 'an ra'iyyatihi. Al-imaamu raa'in wa mas'oolun 'an ra'iyyatihi wa ar-rajulu raa'in tiy ahlihi wa huwa mas'oolun 'an ra'iyyatihi." (Sahih Bukhari)

(11.) For more information and analysis on these patriarchal assumptions on women's character, see: Eissa, Dahlia, "Constructing the Notion of Male Superiority over Women in Islam: The influence of sex and gender stereotyping in the interpretation of the Qur'an and the implications for a modernist exegesis of rights." WLUML Occasional Paper No. 11 (November 1999).

(12.) Dhimmi were members of the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) who lived among Muslims within the Islamic Empire under Islamic rule; they had a special status and special rights, such as freedom of worship, and special obligations, such as paying the jizya tax.

(13.) Ibn Taymiyya, al-fatawa, vol. 32, 114.

(14.) Abu Hayan, al-Tafsir al-kabir, vol. 2, 165; and Al-Baydawi, anwar at-tanzil, vol. 1, 40.

(15.) Ibn Hazm, Mu a jam fiqh, 865.

(16.) Grami, Amei, "L'interdiction du mariage de la musulmane avec le non-musulman: une forme d'exclusion" (GRIC Tunis, 2006), p. 6.

(17.) Merabet, Abdel Kader, "Le mariage de la musulmane avec le non-musulman," Algerie Actualite no. 1062, 29.

(18.) The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an, trans. Yusuf'Ali (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications, 2003), Al-Baqarah 2:221.

(19.) Lamrabet, Asma, "Ce que dit le Coran quant au mariage des homines et des femmes musulmans avec des non musulmans." GIERFI Paper: 2.

Worked Cited

Qur'an, Tafsir and Ahadith

2001/2003. Vie Meaning of the Holy Qur'an, trans. 'Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali. Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications.

Al-Baydawi, Anwar at-Tanzil, vol. 1, 40.

Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari. Spirit Website, accessed on 31/12/2007.

Abu Hayan, Al-Tafsir al-Kabir, vol. 2, 165.

Ibn Hazm, Mu a jam Fiqh, 865.

Al-Jami li-Ahkam al-Qur'an. Tafsir Al Qurtubi, 10 vol. 6B5, HB, Beirut Lebanon: Dar Al Fikr, 2008.

Tafsir al-Tabari: Al-Musammd fami' al-Bayan fi Ta'wil al-Qur'an. New edition published in 12 volumes. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyah, 1997.

Taymiyya, Ibn, Al-Fatawa, vol. 32, 114.

2007. "Zamakhshari," in C.H.M. Versteegh, ed.. Encyclopedia of Islam, Brill.

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