Intercultural & Interfaith Marriages


Muslims in America represent diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds and this has lead to an increase in intercultural and interfaith marriages. Despite the taboo amongst parents in the Muslim community of marrying “outside” of one’s race, culture or religion, there is an emerging trend of young couples marrying based solely on religion, disregarding culture or race, and yet other couples choosing to marry a spouse of a different religion altogether. These types of marriages can have stresses and strains beyond those experienced in most marriages because they have “built-in” differences in areas that are particularly sensitive to the families of origin, and will at times require extra effort from the couple in building bridges in order to create a strong and lasting marriage.

Of course, all couples, whether of the same background or not, will encounter differences in their marriage. Individuals come from different “family cultures,” where roles and expectations were inherited and then transferred into their own marriage dynamics. Couples who were raised in the West may have similar cultural values even though their families of origin come from different cultures. Therefore, all couples must learn to manage and resolve their differences in a marriage even if they share the same cultural and religious background. However, when a relationship is interfaith and/or intercultural, couples must learn to be proactive because disagreements in their relationship may be broader as a result of their different inherited values.

Research has shown that three core areas have added challenges in intercultural and interfaith marriages. These three areas are: (1) Communication styles, (2) Extended family relationships, and (3) Parenting practices.

1) The Language Of Communication

A couple from different cultural backgrounds can face extra challenges when communicating and listening to one another. This is not necessarily because they don’t speak the same language, but rather because cultures tend to impact the manner in which individuals expresses themselves. Depending on the upbringing, people will differ in how loudly and quickly they communicate, even if both husband and wife communicate in English. In addition, each individual’s culture has shaped how she or he argues, teases, jokes and listens, as well as the idiosyncrasies and body language they use. Therefore, misunderstandings in communication because of varying language barriers or cultural nuances can cause conflict in marriages.

A couple must learn to be sensitive to their partner’s communication style as well as understand the influence their upbringing has had on how they communicate a message. Once a couple effectively learns their partner’s “language of communication,” they will be able to diminish conflicts in this area.

2) In-Laws/Extended Families

Sometimes interfaith and intercultural issues are apparent early on in the relationship, often emerging as early as the wedding planning and lasting as long as the in-laws are around. These differences can involve the expectations of couples’ families of origin about the wedding ceremony or even influence over decisions. Couples may have differing attitudes regarding the role of their extended family in their marriage. Cultural values may dictate that in-laws must have a say in every decision surrounding the wedding or the couple may be expected to spend a specific amount of time with the in-laws once they are married. On the other hand, in-laws may be so deeply committed to their cultural identity that they are unable to appreciate the ways in which their adult child has adapted to the spouse’s culture; therefore they may limit contact to the “foreign family” or never warm up to the spouse. When in-laws avoid the new couple for personal reasons, it can cause stress to the marriage and family. Also, when the couple has children they will need to determine the relationships the in-laws have with their grandchildren and consider wider cultural or religious values in their interactions with extended family.

3) Parenting Practices

Parenting practices can also bring friction for an intercultural or interfaith couple in making religious, educational or cultural decisions for their children. Generally, most married couples are surprised to learn that when they become parents they each have different ideas of how to parent. However, when a couple has added their diverse cultural or religious values, they may find very different perceptions of how they feel their children should behave and be raised.

Areas such as which ‘mother tongue’ or mainstream language the children will learn, which holidays will be celebrated, and how faith will be transferred to the child, must be discussed before having children or even before marrying in order  to reduce potential conflicts in the marriage. In addition, areas of discipline, expectations of appropriate gender behavior and teaching children manners are very much culturally derived, therefore couples need to compromise and determine what their own family vision will be once they have children. Conflicts can arise if a spouse feels their culture or religion is being devalued, or one spouse does not respect both their heritages nor share a mutual respect of their family backgrounds. Raising children with an appreciation for two cultures and two faiths can be enriching, but it can only happen if couples communicate their ideas and values with one another.

Problems and conflicts in intercultural and interfaith marriages are often because of assumptions and expectations that are made by the individual and couple.  These expectations are infused into a person’s identity through their life experiences and family background. Individuals preparing for marriage are usually not even consciously aware of their unrealistic expectations and any potential conflicts that can occur in the marriage because of their culture or religion. Before a couple can decide how their beliefs and values will mesh with one another they must individually explore their core beliefs and values in order to gain self awareness of their personal identity. Once an individual is aware of what is most important to them personally they will be able to communicate with their spouse what type of family they envision raising their children in and better compromise their cultural and religious backgrounds to enrich their family life.

Dr. Joel Crohn explains in his book, Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic, and Interfaith Relationships the five basic patterns for managing cultural, racial and religious differences in a marriage intercultural and interfaith couples will go through any one of these patterns as they establish their family vision:

1) Transcendent: The couple adopts beliefs, traditions and rituals from multiple sources, including ones outside the cultures, races and religions of their origin. The couple’s spiritual practices may be nontraditional.  This pattern is usually found with a couple that was not raised with any strong religious or cultural background and so they seek to create their own.  This pattern is not typical of Muslim families as they have distinct religious and/or cultural values that they enter a marriage with and learn to compromise.

2) Secular: The couple takes a nonreligious approach to life and is minimally involved in the practice of cultural and religious beliefs, rituals and traditions.  This pattern is evident in Muslim families and can emerge with couple’s who do not have strong ties to their religious background and may have weak ties to their cultural background.  This approach does not encourage a development of culture or religion within the family practices nor in raising the children.

3) Bi-cultural: The couple tries to balance the beliefs, traditions and rituals from each partner’s cultural, religious and racial backgrounds. If there are two languages, the children will probably speak both.  This pattern is common in many Muslim families as they seek to incorporate both cultures and infuse the language, food, dress and traditions of both cultures to their children.  The couple appreciates and celebrates both spouse’s heritages. Within this pattern it may be difficult for families to balance both cultures and place an equal emphasis on both cultures indistinguishably.

4) Modified Bi-cultural: The couple adopts a single religion, either from one partner’s background or a mutually agreeable “compromised” religion and tries to honor the beliefs and traditions of both partners in a selective, but relatively balanced way. If there are two languages, the children may or may not speak both.  This pattern is most common in Muslim families, where the child is raised with the Islamic faith and the couple compromises on the cultural practices that the family adopts with mutual respect for their family heritages and traditions and openness to creating new traditions.  The balance that the couple strives towards, in this pattern, is practical as it is encourages the couple to compromise in developing their family traditions and a respect for culture is maintained.

5) Assimilated: One partner assimilates and converts to the beliefs, traditions and rituals of the other partner’s cultural, religious and racial background.  This pattern can also be seen in many Muslim families where one spouse lets go of their religious or cultural background and completely adopts their spouses traditions.  In the case of spouse’s that convert to Islam, there also is a letting go of their cultural background many times seeing it as “un-Islamic,” rather than adopting the positive cultural practices into their family traditions.  Other couples will negate one spouse’s culture completely and adopt the dominate culture into their family traditions through food, dress and celebrations. This pattern requires little compromise and lacks the concept of mutual respect for each spouse’s heritage nor does it give children an opportunity to celebrate both cultures of the parents.

All couples, despite cultural and religious convictions will negotiate differences when entering a marriage. This is because two individuals come from two different families, and as a couple they will develop their own family identity by choosing the traditions, habits and beliefs they value and want to celebrate in their family and with their own children. The process of forming a family is more complex for couples of different cultures and religions. Yet, despite these complex challenges, successful intercultural and interfaith relationships have many personal benefits. Couples who are willing to manage differences with each other and their respective families generally promote communities that have more integrated identities and a greater appreciation for diversity.

As Allah declares,

“O Mankind. Indeed We have created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know [become acquainted with, recognize] one another…” (Qur’an, 49:13)

This process however, does not happen automatically; a successful and diverse marriage takes personal work and sensitivity to self and others.  The rewards then are immeasurable.

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34 Comments

  1. Maryam says:

    jazakiAllahu khayran for this much needed piece! This is definitely a trend in our community and one I wish we addressed more!

  2. Hatem says:

    Salaam. I have a personal question regarding this article. Would it be possible to contact me via email? Thank you.

  3. Meg says:

    what about the argument that Muslim men should avoid marrying non-Muslim women in the Western context? Personally, I think it makes a lot of sense, especially if the Muslim man is serious about having Muslim children. While I have seen some cases where the children of these unions become strong Muslims, the majority retain barely a scratch of Islam in their lives, if any. Usually, it has to do with the fact that the Muslim father takes little or no interest in sharing his faith with his kids in the first place or Islam is a mere cultural identity for him.

  4. Sophia says:

    could this apply to a muslim female and a non muslim male? If not, why and where is the reasoning behind it?

  5. Hatem says:

    I would also be interested in the response to whether this could apply to a Muslim woman and non-Muslim man. Would you please respond publicly or privately? Thank you.

  6. Sarah says:

    I would like to know the same. Is your article gender specific meaning detailing Muslim men and Non-muslim women or you have the same thing to say about Muslim women and Non-Muslim men?
    Your reply is eagerly awaited as this is point holds more contention in our society than the former.
    Thanks!

  7. Sara says:

    Still waiting for a response to the question re whether it applies to marriage of a muslim woman to a non-muslm man, was always led to believe this was not allowed/accepted?

  8. Fatima says:

    No, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man.

  9. Sophia says:

    ok but where is the reasoning behind it?

  10. Fatima says:

    “… (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 any one rejects faith, fruitless is his work, and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good).” – [Quran 5:5]

    This ayah says “chaste women.” It does not say “chaste men.” If God had allowed Muslim Women to marry non-Muslim men, it would have been more general to say, “chaste people” but given that this ayah does not mention “chaste men,” it means that they are excluded. It is prohibited for a Muslim Women to marry a non-Muslim man because Allah did not allow it anywhere in the Qur’an or Hadith.

    Also, if you look historically, there has never been a situation where a scholar, sahahbi, or islamic theologian allowed a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim. It’s not even debated because it’s very clear from the Qur’an that it is not permissible.

  11. Hatem says:

    Honestly, it is not clear to me from the verse you quoted that it is prohibited for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. What makes more sense to me is that Muslim women marry Muslim men to save the Ummah. Also they do so to ensure their children are Muslim and are given the gift and strength of Islam. And there is the risk that the non-Muslim man may believe in shirk. But from what little I know, I don’t think anywhere in the Quran is it written as such. Allah forgive me if I’m incorrect. The article made me ask the question as I wanted to see maybe if Rima Suhaib had a response.

    • sunniswagger says:

      if you really want to seek ilm on this issue why dont you go to a local mosque or scholar and ask.. because you shouldnt just follow what anyone has to say but go toa scholar and ask then ask for proofs/reasoning… but it is haram for a muslim women to marry outside of this deen

    • International Brother says:

      I believe this should help clarify. Please read through the article in its entirety before dismissing.

      Praise be to Allaah.
      It is not permissible for a Muslim woman to marry a kaafir, and the marriage is not valid.

      Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning):

      “And give not (your daughters) in marriage to Al‑Mushrikoon[polytheists] till they believe (in Allaah Alone)”

      [al-Baqarah 2:221]

      “O you who believe! When believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them; Allaah knows best as to their Faith, then if you ascertain that they are true believers send them not back to the disbelievers. They are not lawful (wives) for the disbelievers nor are the disbelievers lawful (husbands) for them”

      [al-Mutahanah 60:10].

      The fact that she was forced into that does not justify her giving in and surrendering to this marriage. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “There is no obedience to any created being if it involves disobedience to the Creator.”

      This marriage is regarded as invalid, and intercourse with him is zina (fornication, adultery). End quote.

      • International Brother says:

        CORRECTION: In my first line, I did not in any way, shape or form, intend to imply that one should dismiss the article. May Allah Forgive me if anyone takes something evil from my words.

    • International Brother says:

      On a separate note Hatem, it is always strongly encouraged to seek knowledge about the Deen, and it’s one of the unique aspects about Islam. Islam only becomes more and more clear when one studies in depth. It is wonderful that you ask for proofs and evidence.

      Similarly, there are extremely stern warning in regards to speaking without knowledge. There is nothing wrong in asking a question, should the context demand it, but one should be very careful to correct his/her ignorance before speaking. The blind do not lead the blind in this Deen of Islam.

  12. Hatem says:

    I meant Imam Suhaib…..

  13. Arijul says:

    Inter-cultural marriages can be successful if both parties negotiate,and respect one another’s differences. But inter-faith marriages can never be successful, if at least one of the spouses is serious about his/her religion, as he/she will think himself/herself to be on the right path and will be worried that his/her spouse is one the way to destruction in the hereafter.
    However, what is allowed in the holy Quran and/or the authentic hadees is perfectly okay, and Allah knows what we don’t.

  14. Thoriq says:

    I need advice. My girlfriend is a Christian and now she is asking about what of we get Andries and stuff. And I’m new to this site so I really don’t know where to post this. I really need advice.

  15. Thoriq says:

    I meant married. My autocorrect on my iPod on my iPod is making problems

  16. Aisha says:

    Assalaamu alaikum. Thank you so much for this much needed article! I wish more people would write about the issues in an intercultural marriage–we need these issues to be known and discussed more widely.

  17. yakub says:

    Assalmu3laikum!

    Bismillallah,
    I heard in a lecture regarding to why a Muslim woman can’t marry Non Muslims besides the Quraanic ayats.

    When a man and woman get married, it is custimary for the woman to change the surname/religion to the husbands. Usually it is the woman who is more willing to “change/follow” the man in these two things.

    So in the case of the Muslimah its harder for her to impose islam on the non Muslim husband.

    This is just the jist of it. Whatever Allah has revealed it has a tremendous amount of good and saves the Believers a lot of trouble and grief. Allah will only tell us what is good for us. Allah is the All Knowing.

  18. Ninveh says:

    I have a question. When we say a Muslim marrying a Non-Muslim it seems like we not only look at the religions being different but even .culture
    Now my question is what if a Muslim marries a non-Muslim from the same region. Lets put this into a scenario. What if a Muslim Middle Eastern-American decides to marry a Christian Middle Eastern-American. They both come from the same region, have the same culture, same traditional values and same customs.
    How is this looked upon? is it forbidden? What if they decide to marry and have an Islamic household. Does Allah accept this?

  19. Binty says:

    I’m Asian and my husband is Arab. Despite the fact we are both Muslims there was a lot of hostility from our communities when we got married. Alhamdulillah my parents are so open-minded and welcomed this suitor-hubby! In Asian culture it is rare for a woman to marry a man who is not from the same country as her let alone a different continent! This may seem stereotypical but speaking from personal experience I think our Muslim community needs more inter-racial marriage! Its a beautiful thing. My children are multi-lingual, the different cultures provide amazing cuisine and clothing. Its about time the Muslim community-especially that of South East Asia-looked to the Qur’an and Sunnah and see that the Ummah is one and race shouldn’t be a barrier but rather a door to a greater community-greater understanding.

  20. B says:

    Assalamualaikum,

    Lovely article here, Can I share this on a blog?
    of course, I will provide the link as “http://www.suhaibwebb.com/relationships/marriage-family/spouse/intercultural-interfaith-marriages/”

    Let me know..
    JazakAllah khair.

  21. Lynn says:

    I found all the comments interesting and very informative. I would like to pose my situation to the forum. I am a Afro/Latina American female, I met a a man that I have been interacting with for three months long distance we have expressed a deep desire to be with each other.

    But culture is causing conflicts in how we communicate and understand each other. Due to religious and cultural norms as a Palestinian male. He is difficult to express himself with emotion. I find myself feeling internal conflict which causes distrust. We have been having spats about trivial things such as holding hands and hugging.

    I believe that he is experiencing the stress that he knows will come to fruition. Currently I am unknown to his family due to cultural and religious reasons. The idea of us marrying is forbidden. I read numerous horrible experiences of western women who are often white or asian with muslim men. I would like to hear any comments related to a person of my ethnic and cultural background.

    • Wendy says:

      @ Lynn, I am engaged to an Egyptian Muslim and his family knows about me and my family knows about him. Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women, so I am not really sure what his issue is with his family. I am American by the way. I have found that cultural differences do not have to lead to arguments as long as there is compromise on both sides. I also believe that trust goes a long way.

      There are a lot of horror stories about Egyptian men and Western women as well, but I think there were a lot of red flags that were ignored in a lot of those cases. For example, if you are a 50 year old woman and your man is in his 20′s…that would be a huge red flag.

      I have had to make some changes for my fiance, well I should say for our relationship, but it is well worth it to me. He has also made concessions for me. I guess my only complaint would be that he is very stubborn, but I am willing to deal with that.

      My advice would be, just be open and honest with him and discuss everything together. Relationships are difficult at best and need an open line of communication.

      Good luck to you!

  22. ayesha says:

    Salam,

    I would like to know what about caste for example, in Pakistan it is very important to marry in the same caste how important is it in Islam. I would like to know from Islam perspective.

    Thank you

  23. K. says:

    Salamu alaykum everybody.

    I was recently questioned about the validity of the widely known idea that muslim men are allowed to marry ahl al kitab (the believers) while the Muslim women are only allowed to Marry Muslim men. I looked it up in the Quran and did not find any verse that clearly states this idea. Can you please explain to us the reasoning behind this idea?
    Also, if the couple agrees to raise the children following the Muslim faith, is it still forbidden for Muslim women to marry non Muslims?

    Jazakum llahu khayran.

    P.S: a brother posted a verse from Surat al baqa ra which clearly states that both men and women should marry the other person until they believe. Al Baqara 221 (2:221)

    It seems to me that we are either allowing men to do something wrong or we are providing women to do something good ???

    • Kirana says:

      it’s one of those things that are hard to understand in theory, but i can tell you from the benefit of acquired knowledge and personal experience, that there’s a difference between the two situations, sufficient to explain why neither are preferred, but the risk to the family may still be tolerable if the husband is muslim, but not if the wife is. it’s not easy to explain in a comment box, and maybe also unless you experience or watch it directly, you won’t get it. suffice to say that Allah has shown me He does know humans better than we do.

  24. K. says:

    I apologize for my typo. “we are preventing women to do something good”

  25. MaKhumalo says:

    Salam.
    I’m a black Christian South African in a relationship with an Indian Muslim man.
    He is married. I have black children from my prvious marriage. We have a child together. His family knows about me and the baby.
    We want to get married and in SA we can legally; his religion also allows it.
    My culture requires him to pay lobola (like a dowry) but the process is a bit more complex. He strongly feels against lobola and wants to get married under Islam law. Are we setting ourselves up for failure?

  26. Hydee says:

    This article does not elucidate the matters of Muslim women marrying non-muslim men. And by elucidating, I meant denying them.
    (But then again, we live under Islam 2.0…and have a gay imam marrying homosexual muslims, so I would not be surprised ?)

  27. Renee says:

    I am an Catholic Italian-American and I have been in a long committed relationship with a Pakistani Muslim man. We feel organized religion has caused so much hatred around the world. Each religion of course thinking they are right about everything and their way is the only way. There are 6,000 religions in the world, how can any one of them be 100% correct? My boyfriend and I believe that love is the foundation of every religion, and religious communities often lose sight of that foundation. Every person on the planet wants to argue and spew hatred at others who do not believe the same things, and it is not our job to judge others and condemn them. It is our job to love them and pray for them. I hope when I die, wherever you believe you go after death, I see those of all different cultures, races and religions.

    My boyfriend and I have spent the past 2 years learning about each other’s cultures and religions. I feel very strongly about not wanting to raise my children Muslim and not necessarily wanting to raise them Catholic either. I will not convert for him and I would never ask him to convert for me. We are both well educated and have all the same morals and values and standards for our lives even though we were raised in different parts of the world and with different cultures and religions. We believe we can create a beautiful family and raise children to be open and knowledgable about the extraordinary diversity in the world.

    It is sad to have experienced the close-mindedness and negativity from the older members of the Muslim community his family belongs to. The younger generation has been wonderful and open. Many of the younger generation is/has been in inter-racial relationships as well, and most of the youth are very Americanized and are interested in many aspects of our way of life. It is the duty of the husband and wife to set the standards for their life together. If those standards are different from their parents, well at the end of the day your parents are not living your life, you are. You are the one who comes home to your spouse and has to be that person’s partner in life.

    There are wonderful aspects of both cultures that if shared could improve the lives and perspectives of populations of people. No one is right or wrong, each way is just different and we both have much to learn from each other. BUT… it all comes back to loving other human beings.

    • Hyde says:

      Nice…boyfriends and girlfriends; not exactly Islamic to begin with but then you made it clear you abhor organized religion.
      Under the guise of “love human beings”, liberals have capsulized many assaults on religion particularity Islam, which in days and age is not quite surprising.

      But it is what it is; we shall see indeed what it is at the end.

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