Nowadays, people often marry others from all over the world. This includes interracial marriages (between people of different ethnicity) and inter religious marriages (between people of different religions). This seems to be somewhat less within the Muslim community, so some people might wonder why this is the case and why cousin marriages are still quite common in many Muslim societies such as in many Arab countries and in the Indian Subcontinent whereas in some places such as the states of Oregon, Texas and Wyoming in the US, cousin marriages are illegal. Likewise, some people might wonder why Muslims generally marry other Muslims rather than people of other faiths.
Firstly, perhaps I should clarify that I am by no means trying to break up anyone’s successful marriages. Every marriage is different and people have their own personal reasons for marrying as it is a very personal choice. There are relatively few cases of people publicly discussing why they married someone, why they chose someone over someone else or why they chose to divorce someone. This is simply an attempt to explain a general issue from an Islamic point of view. As always, please feel free to read around the topic and do your own research.
There are many Muslims who marry cousins but sometimes this has more to do with culture than religion (such is in the Indian Subcontinent and in certain parts of the Arab World). Until fairly recently, air travel has been quite limited, making it hard for people to travel far, get to know others from very different backgrounds and cultures and get married. This was the case even in Western societies. There are many examples of famous people who married their cousins such as such as Queen Victoria of England, scientist Albert Einstein and author H G Wells.
Marrying cousins can have its merits as it can somewhat ensure that people know each other reasonably well as they have seen them grow up from when they were young. There is a certain level of security in knowing the person and their family that they are less likely to take advantage of the other spouse and /or lie about various things and betray them later on in the relationship. Like all things however, there are of course drawbacks. For example, if their lives are so similar, perhaps they are less likely to be open to /aware of other cultures, languages and lifestyles than people who marry someone who is very different from them. They are also somewhat more in danger of having other genetic diseases. You can find out more from here.
Having said that, the article above mentions: “And at least one doctor noted that “it was counter productive to single out a culture and that such an approach risked alienating the Pakistani community.” She added: “‘We know that the risk of Down’s syndrome increases with advancing maternal age, but we don’t see public education films [urge] mothers to have children younger.’”
From an Islamic point of view, there are various relatives who people are not allowed to marry. This is mentioned in the Quran:
حُرِّمَتْ عَلَيْكُمْ أُمَّهَاتُكُمْ وَبَنَاتُكُمْ وَأَخَوَاتُكُمْ وَعَمَّاتُكُمْ وَخَالَاتُكُمْ وَبَنَاتُ الْأَخِ وَبَنَاتُ الْأُخْتِ وَأُمَّهَاتُكُمُ اللَّاتِي أَرْضَعْنَكُمْ وَأَخَوَاتُكُم مِّنَ الرَّضَاعَةِ وَأُمَّهَاتُ نِسَائِكُمْ وَرَبَائِبُكُمُ اللَّاتِي فِي حُجُورِكُم مِّن نِّسَائِكُمُ اللَّاتِي دَخَلْتُم بِهِنَّ فَإِن لَّمْ تَكُونُوا دَخَلْتُم بِهِنَّ فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَحَلَائِلُ أَبْنَائِكُمُ الَّذِينَ مِنْ أَصْلَابِكُمْ وَأَن تَجْمَعُوا بَيْنَ الْأُخْتَيْنِ إِلَّا مَا قَدْ سَلَفَ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
Prohibited to you [for marriage] are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your father’s sisters, your mother’s sisters, your brother’s daughters, your sister’s daughters, your [milk] mothers who nursed you, your sisters through nursing, your wives’ mothers, and your step-daughters under your guardianship [born] of your wives unto whom you have gone in. But if you have not gone in unto them, there is no sin upon you. And [also prohibited are] the wives of your sons who are from your [own] loins, and that you take [in marriage] two sisters simultaneously, except for what has already occurred. Indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful. (Surah Al Nisa: 23)
While many people are against the idea of cousin marriages, many common relationships that exist today could carry far more risks (you can find out more from here. Some people also take matters much further. For example, a British person in 2016 left his wife because he wanted to marry his own mother and start a family with her (more details from here). Likewise, there was a case of a father who wanted to marry his own daughter (you can find out more from here).
As of 2019, there was even a case where one of the men in a homosexual relationship was expected to have a child with his own mother who was 61 years old at the time. You can find out more from here. This is a much closer relationship than a cousin relationship (a “cousin” is the child of a parent’s sibling, whereas the son in this relationship had a direct relationship with his own mother). This relationship is very complex and could potentially confuse the child as to how they have 3 parents (two males and one female); that the mother and grandmother are the same person and that the mother /grandmother is also the mother of one of the fathers. Still, all of this was perfectly legal and none of the 3 people in the relationship found anything wrong with this.
There are of course cases within the Muslim community of inter-racial marriages /marriages between people of different communities. The Prophet PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him) married Safiya bint Huyayy, who was from a Jewish background (she became Muslim and was one of the “Mothers of the Believers”) and also had a son, Ibrahim, with Mariya Al Qibtiyya (the Coptic) who was Egyptian. In modern times, some famous examples include British singer Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) who married Fauzia Ali from the Indian Subcontinent and British Somali athlete Mohammed Farah who married Tania Nell who appears to be of white European /mixed race origin.
So why do people marry from an Islamic point of view and what criteria are there for marriage? The reasons for why people marry women is explained by the Prophet PBUH: “It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that the Prophet said: “Women are married for four things: their wealth, their nobility, their beauty and their religious commitment. Choose the one who is religiously committed, may your hands be rubbed with dust.” (Sunan Al Nisai 3230)”. For clarification, in this context the phrase “rubbed with dust” refers to someone making a good decision. This phrase is not really used nowadays.
It is mentioned in the Quran:
وَلَا تَنكِحُوا الْمُشْرِكَاتِ حَتَّىٰ يُؤْمِنَّ ۚ وَلَأَمَةٌ مُّؤْمِنَةٌ خَيْرٌ مِّن مُّشْرِكَةٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَتْكُمْ ۗ وَلَا تُنكِحُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَتَّىٰ يُؤْمِنُوا ۚ وَلَعَبْدٌ مُّؤْمِنٌ خَيْرٌ مِّن مُّشْرِكٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكُمْ ۗ أُولَٰئِكَ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى النَّارِ ۖ وَاللَّهُ يَدْعُو إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ وَالْمَغْفِرَةِ بِإِذْنِهِ ۖ وَيُبَيِّنُ آيَاتِهِ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ
And do not marry polytheistic women until they believe. And a believing slave woman is better than a polytheist, even though she might please you. And do not marry polytheistic men [to your women] until they believe. And a believing slave is better than a polytheist, even though he might please you. Those invite [you] to the Fire, but Allah invites to Paradise and to forgiveness, by His permission. And He makes clear His verses to the people that perhaps they may remember. (Surah Al Baqara: 221)
People are therefore encouraged to marry on the basis of religion. That does not mean however, that religion is the only criteria and the other qualities need to present as well such as beauty. The Prophet PBUH mentioned: “Mughirah bin Shubah wanted to marry a woman. The Prophet PBUH said to him: “Go and look at her, for that is more likely to create love between you.” So he did that, and married her, and mentioned how well he got along with her. (Hadith 1865)”. Notice that although men and women are not allowed to freely mix and need to dress modestly, there are exceptions. Please do not take the wrong meaning here; there is a limit to how much the body they are allowed to see and that is a separate topic with different opinions. You can get an idea of this from here.
Marriage is a very personal choice and even when the above criteria are met, that does not mean that everything will be perfect as sometimes some of the greatest people cannot live together. People can understand this themselves if they consider how two people might be great individuals but might not be able to live together (such as if a man only speaks Amharic and he wants to marry a woman who only speaks Mongolian; how will they communicate?). There was an example of incompatibility between Zaid ibn Al Haritha, a companion of the Prophet PBUH who was also his adopted son (before the ruling on adoption was removed) who married Zainab bint Jahsh. They eventually divorced and the Prophet PBUH married Zainab bint Jahsh who went on to become one of the “Mothers of the Believers”. This incident is mentioned in the Quran:
وَإِذْ تَقُولُ لِلَّذِي أَنْعَمَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَأَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِ أَمْسِكْ عَلَيْكَ زَوْجَكَ وَاتَّقِ اللَّهَ وَتُخْفِي فِي نَفْسِكَ مَا اللَّهُ مُبْدِيهِ وَتَخْشَى النَّاسَ وَاللَّهُ أَحَقُّ أَن تَخْشَاهُ ۖ فَلَمَّا قَضَىٰ زَيْدٌ مِّنْهَا وَطَرًا زَوَّجْنَاكَهَا لِكَيْ لَا يَكُونَ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ حَرَجٌ فِي أَزْوَاجِ أَدْعِيَائِهِمْ إِذَا قَضَوْا مِنْهُنَّ وَطَرًا ۚ وَكَانَ أَمْرُ اللَّهِ مَفْعُولًا
And [remember, O Muhammad], when you said to the one on whom Allah bestowed favor and you bestowed favor, “Keep your wife and fear Allah,” while you concealed within yourself that which Allah is to disclose. And you feared the people, while Allah has more right that you fear Him. So when Zayd had no longer any need for her, We married her to you in order that there not be upon the believers any discomfort concerning the wives of their adopted sons when they no longer have need of them. And ever is the command of Allah accomplished. (Surah Al Ahzab: 37)
Regarding the case of interfaith marriages, some people might wonder why Muslims usually marry other Muslims. Apart from what was mentioned earlier regarding marrying for religion, great emphasis is placed on the importance of children and to give them a good upbringing. The Prophet PBUH mentioned:
“When a human being dies, all of his deeds are terminated except for three types: an ongoing sadaqah, a knowledge (of Islam) from which others benefit, and a righteous child who makes du’a for him.” (Muslim and others). For reference, “Sadaqah” is a charity /ongoing charity such as building a well, giving money to the poor or other than that.
One of the 3 things mentioned are righteous children who can make Dua /supplicate for their parents. This is might be an issue then if for example someone is Muslim and wants to achieve this aim but is married to someone who comes from a very different religious background. If religion forms a strong part of someone’s life, it came be difficult to marry someone from another religion and potentially lead to conflict between them and /or confusion among the children.
Some people incorrectly think that if someone converts to Islam at the time of marriage, that means that they were forced to accept Islam. However, many people change their religion out of their own free will. It is also very common for someone to take an interest in their spouse’s interest. For example, if someone marries an Italian, they might very well take an interest in travelling more to Italy, learning more about the culture and might even take Italian lessons. If someone marries a Muslim, is it not possible then that the person would have an interest in learning more about the religion? There is no compulsion in religion so if someone wants to marry another person that does not mean that they should be forced to convert to the religion if they do not believe in it. Incidentally, Zainab, the daughter of the Prophet PBUH was married to a non-Muslim, Abu Al As ibn Al Rabi, before the revelation and remained married to her for some time after the revelation. He did not accept Islam then for a while although eventually accepted Islam.
There are some famous cases of Interfaith marriages with Muslims such as with American stand-up comedian, Dean Obeidullah sometimes mentions in his comedy how his father is a Palestinian Muslim and that his mother is Sicilian (he sometimes also mentions things such as attending “communion”). Likewise, various Indian actors such as Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have been married for many years and have children but their wives are Hindu.
As I mentioned earlier, marriage is a very personal choice but I hope this has given you some insights. If you would like to find out more about the Islamic ruling regarding marrying people of other faiths, perhaps you can find more information from here.