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Muslims put on the spot over marriage

07 December 2012

Challenging: participants at the interfaith-marriage discussion last week

Challenging: participants at the interfaith-marriage discussion last week

PRECISELY what scripture permits women to do was the subject of an impassioned debate in Westminster last week.

"This needs to be explored very quickly and very deeply," Julie Siddique insisted.

"Intense discussions are going on," Dr Usama Hasan replied. "This is very, very controversial . . . and people get very, very angry."

If the launch of the Interfaith Marriage Guidelines by the Christian-Muslim Forum underlined anything, it was that internal tensions about gender were not confined to the Church of England.

Introducing the guidelines, which explain ten "ethical principles" for ministers, imams, and other faith leaders, Julian Bond, director of the Forum, emphasised that they were "pastoral rather than theological". Heather Al-Yousuf, a family specialist in the Forum, and part of the Interfaith Marriage Network, said: "Whatever our theology . . . these relationships are happening. . . When presented by people whose lives are being severely damaged by bad advice and harmful interventions, at a crisis point in their lives, we have to think in terms of the best of our traditions and somehow bring those to bear. . . Caring for people is the ethical bottom line."

The 2001 Census indicated that there were just over 21,000 households in England and Wales with an interfaith marriage. The Forum believes the number to be now much higher. Dr Hasan, an imam and former lecturer in science, engineering, and astronomy, estimated that, out of 100 marriages he had conducted, "about 20-25 per cent involved somebody from another faith."

Toufik Kacimi, president of the Christian Muslim Forum, and CEO of Muslim Welfare House, one of two mosques near Finsbury Park, said that the need for the guidelines was "increasingly there".

Despite the initial focus on pastoral matters, the discussion quickly turned to theology and questions of gender, perhaps foreshadowed by the comment by Rosalind Birtwistle, an Anglican in an interfaith marriage, that: "Faith has a way of somehow bubbling up and presenting itself."

The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, Bishop Angaelos, said that he hoped that, "in the euphoria of this gathering", it would not be forgotten that "there is a very fluid movement when it is a Christian woman being married to a Muslim man, but not so much the other way."

Mrs Al-Yousuf suggested that "the context of power is important when talking about interfaith marriage," and that "tolerance of individual independence and autonomy" was "something that maybe we can share with the rest of the world".

Mrs Siddique, director of the Islamic Society of Britain, said: "It is standard that what people would say to us is that it is OK for a man to marry a woman who is not a Muslim, but it is not the other way around. . . I do not think we would have been mature enough to bring Muslims together to go beyond that one-liner."

Amra Bone, a member of the Birmingham Central Mosque's sharia tribunal, who provides advice to couples on interfaith marriages, gave examples of the challenges they faced. The guidelines include case studies of couples that illustrate these, as well as examples of successful unions. She spoke of a "minority opinion" among Muslims that the same guidance applies to both women and men, citing a fatwa by Hassan al-Turabi, a religious and Islamist political leader in Sudan.

Dr Hasan said that the "overwhelming view, perhaps 99 per cent", was that Muslim women could not marry outside the faith, but said that "intense discussions" were going on, and pointed to a fatwa issued by leading theologians stating that women who converted to Islam could remain married to a non-Muslim.

By the end of the day, Humera Khan, a founder member of the An-Nisa Society, an organisation managed by women working for Muslim families' welfare, was feeling "quite beleaguered as a Muslim today".

She argued: "The Muslim community is in a crisis. We cannot expect things to be logical, as pastoral services in the Christian community may be. . . Not enough has been said about what is constructive in the community. Muslims are doing many, many good things."

Akeela Ahmed, a Muslim family specialist in the Forum, concluded: "There are so many good things about the Muslim community, and one is that we are able to talk about [the guidelines] today, when perhaps ten years ago we might not have been able to."



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