I peak out from my blogging (here) hiatus to comment on the spate of articles that have surfaced at HuffPost Canada, giving Muslim women the permission to marry non-Muslim men. Minority juristic voices as well as a representative from Universalist Muslims, a progressive Muslim organization in Canada, produced articles in the last week encouraging Muslim women who do not have Muslim male suitors to consider dating men "of the Book."
I read this and I wonder what I would have thought about this when I was last single, before I met who is now my husband, this time 5 years ago. Would I be heartened? Would I be frustrated? Would I leave with a lot of questions? Would it have changed anything about how I did things?
Let me take a moment to be quite transparent.
Part of the reason I wrote so little during the last five years was not just about me being a busy resident. A lot of it was that I was actively in a relationship with a secular man, it was different from anything I thought I would experience, and I didn't have a space on this blog to share those experiences. Unfortunately for me, this blog had always been aspirational. It was a great place for me to express all the Muslimah I aspired to be while not dwelling on my shortcomings. I don't think I had more than the normal amount of shortcomings, but this place had fostered for a long time a Muslim community when I didn't have my own. It was a place to lay my thoughts down. It was not a place for me to ponder about the day-to-day realities of a relationship with a secular man.
Yes, he was a secular Muslim man, but that was an accident. I'll explain.
When I matched in Seattle for my residency, I knew I didn't want to spend another several years as I did in Boston. A couple of regrettable relationships later, I didn't want to enter residency in isolation, without working on my future. Marriage and family were the things I always aspired to more than my career, but, as I wrote about at the beginning of my relationship with my now-husband, my want for family felt at odds with my faith.
There was a very real possibility that I could be indefinitely single as an earnest, practicing Muslim sister who only looked for the practicing Muslim men. And in that moment of writing that piece--I decided that if I had to sacrifice part of what made me an earnest, practicing sister in order to marry, as ass-backwards as that sounded...then so be it! I would.
So I cast my net wide, signing up to Muslim dating sites and the standards--Match and OkCupid, and I wanted to see who would bite. Muslim dating sites yielded a man, 16 years my senior, divorced with children, as the only Muslim man in the Puget Sound region interested in me. Match and OkCupid yielded more. I was sure to pepper my profile with hints about my religion and my level of practice. I ended up with two men. One who was also Nigerian who seemed to be more fascination with my existence as an Igbo Muslim than anything else...and my future husband.
Just before Ramadan and after making up super late the part of my fast I missed for menses, I prayed istikhara about these men...and probably also about a classmate I had a crush on. I was surprised when the answer was my husband. I was like, really, God? But he's not practicing. He's very worldly. After bad experiences with religion as a kid, he doesn't think he'll ever be practicing. He's sexually liberal. This is the man I'm supposed to pursue?
And I struggled with it early in our relationship. There were times when I considered jumping ship, counting my losses and getting back on the straight way and finding a good, practicing Muslim man, and not a good secular one.
This only lasted for the first couple of months, but I spent the second year of our relationship doing damage control. He could tell I was distant. But honestly, it wasn't just my trepidation because of religious hangups. I was also a first-year resident and that reality was grueling.
Four and a half years after we began our relationship, we've married, amidst in-law problems, questions of race and other upheavals. And since those early days, I no longer question if it is OK that I am with him.
I don't need him to become more practicing. As long as he stays authentic to his values and continues to respect my clinging to the rites of Islam, then that's all I need. His practice may change over time, and insha'Allah I will support him through it. There is no compulsion in religion and we don't pressure each other from either side.
So when I read all of these articles telling Muslim women that they can marry non-Muslim men, my reaction is lukewarm. I mean, I got over needing to authorities to define what makes me more or less Muslim a long time ago. And besides, I was born of a Muslim woman and Christian man. I remember I had some commenter come and to say my parents' marriage was illegitimate. Rando Muslim man, what purpose does it serve for you? Did you rise in God's esteem by telling a random Muslim sister that her parents' marriage is "illegitimate, astaghfirullah"? What would you have my parents do? Divorce after nearly 35 years of marriage so my mother can find a legitimate spouse, insha'Allah. What is life?
I have long crossed the threshold of feeling the need to get permission for what I do or do not do as a Muslim. This is and has always been between me and God. Is my submission perfect? No, but neither is anybody's. This was my path. Was this the best way? Was this actually what God intended for me? Did I misinterpret the answer to my istikhara and if I had been just a little bit more patient, my actual husband would have come along?
No, my actual husband is here, at my feet, working on a presentation. We have a home and insha'Allah we are building a life. We've done it, it's done, and so God willed it.
And in terms of answers for the single Muslim women who are waiting, as I once did, or searching, as I also once did, for their Muslim mate, I say...I don't have answers. I thought that, whenever I did find love and finally marry, that this would be the thing that defined my faith for the rest of my life. I wasn't wrong about that. But it is less definitive than I imagined. I thought that, from this, I would be able to outline for other women "the way" to do things, but I'm not. My way was highly personal and individual. But, having dated/talked to both Muslim and non-Muslim men, this is what I would say to sisters who may be considering it for the first time:
1) Don't hang around with someone intent on converting you: Nope and nope. I've experienced everything from a Nigerian dude who was intent on trying to sleep with me while saying to my friend, "Ahh, she seems open to Christianity," (and I'm thinking, show me where in the Bible is you trying to sleep with me before marriage OK?) to a pastor friend who was interested in me. In spite of my parents working out, I was generally like, dudes, what are you thinking? My dad is Christian but he's not a pastor and has never tried to convert my mom. My mother tried to convert my dad in the early days and gave up pretty quickly. After having a father who tried to convert me for a while, I decided as a young 20-something, "Nope--only one man in my life is going to try to convert me." Not only is it tiring, but in your spouse, you don't want someone who is not satisfied with you unless you believe and pray as they do, as if your beliefs are less legitimate. That is demoralizing.
2) Find out early where you both stand on sex: I was going to write "where he stands on sex," but it really is a decision for both of you. And when I say sex, I mean everything--sex in premarital relationships vs. waiting until after marriage, and not only that, how you both think of sex. Is sex an act of worship, is sex essential in a relationship, how frequent an essential part of the relationship...? Many "religious" guys of other faiths have a lower threshold for scandal with premarital sex. And, quiet as it's sometimes kept, many Muslims have a lower threshold, too--we're just more tight-lipped about it. If it is important for you, or essential for you, not to have sex prior to marriage, then be upfront about that. Will that weed out a bunch of guys? Yep, because that is no longer a norm for our society. But there are plenty of men who will understand and honor your wishes and be in it with you. ...or, conversely, if you decide, upon thinking about it, that your threshold is lower as well, then think about what that means for your relationship. We are not always the gatekeepers--maybe he's the more conservative one.
3) Talk family planning early and often: If you are planning an interfaith marriage and interfaith family, talk about your kids. Everything is going to be super theoretical until actual little people arrive, but still--talk about how important it is for your kids to follow either faiths. And once the kids arrive, keep talking about it. I am the product of never talking about it, and things got awkward for me as a young adult. Will kids get a taste of both faiths/traditions? Will they be primarily be raised one or the other?
4) Be with someone you can be your authentic self with: I think this was the biggest thing. I had dated Muslim men where I tried to up my practice to a level I was not yet at, because I thought that was what he wanted for me. That was so anxiety-provoking. I was afraid of feeling judged by these men. In my relationship and now in my marriage, I am free to be wherever I am in faith. I had space to figure out my misgivings about my practice. He did not pressure or judge me in one way or the other as I traversed my path.
Mmm...there are probably other things, but these were the big four for me. I think number four was number one for me. Could I have found this in a practicing Muslim man? God knows best. But for where I am right now, authentically--this is where I best am.
Our paths are individual. I pray that we all find the partners best suited for us without sacrificing the essence of our faith. Ameen.