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