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date: 06 December 2023

Interfaith Marriage in North America and Abroadfree

Interfaith Marriage in North America and Abroadfree

  • Reeshma HajiReeshma HajiDepartment of Psychology, Laurentian University


Interfaith marriages involving Muslims and non-Muslims are increasing in prevalence in North America and elsewhere. Traditional and reformist Islamic perspectives differ in terms of the permissibility of interfaith marriages, their desirability, and the treatment of Muslim men and Muslim women. Traditional perspectives tend to allow for Muslim men to intermarry, but not Muslim women. There is some consensus that Muslims are permitted to marry “People of the Book,” or those who follow divine Scriptures that predate Islam, although there are differences in opinion as to which religious groups comprise this category. Reformist perspectives tend to emphasize the importance of ijtihad, or personal reasoning, in coming to decisions about interfaith marriage. They also suggest that the current context, including circumstances of Muslims living as minorities in the West, be taken into account.

In terms of experiences of persons who belong to Muslim–non-Muslim couples, various challenges and opportunities are recurring themes in research. Challenges include family and community acceptance and support, decisions over religious upbringing of children, and pressure to convert (normally exerted by family). Opportunities include decreasing stereotypes about other faiths and increasing mutual understanding, clarification of each partner’s religious identity, and children’s appreciation of diversity.

Research has also assessed attitudes toward interfaith marriage among Muslims living in the West. Stronger religious identity and other forms of religiosity (practice, belief, and fundamentalism) predict more negative attitudes. In contrast, identification with mainstream culture predicts more favorable attitudes. Generally, men tend to be more favorable to interfaith marriage than women, which is consistent with gendered interpretations of the permissibility of interfaith marriage.

Given demographic trends, interfaith marriages involving Muslims will become an increasingly relevant and timely topic, particularly in contexts like Canada and the United States, where Muslims are living as religious minorities. Research should be devoted to the experiences of interfaith families and how they can best be included within Muslim religious communities. Additionally, culture, in terms of culture of origin, mainstream culture, and global culture, is a multidimensional variable that research should further explore in association with interfaith relationships.


  • Islamic Studies


Interfaith marriage, or unions between persons of different religious backgrounds, is increasing in prevalence in North America and in other parts of the world. According to Pew Research Center, interfaith marriage rates are growing in the United States. Nearly 40 percent of those married since 2010 are in interfaith marriages, and most of these interfaith marriages involve a Christian person and someone of a different Christian denomination, or a Christian person and a person with no religious affiliation. Although interfaith marriages involving Muslim persons are markedly less common, with about 79 percent of American Muslims in unions with someone who shares their religious background, Muslim communities in North America and around the world are faced with the opportunities and challenges of interfaith marriages.1

This article provides an overview of the topic of interfaith marriages involving Muslims. This begins with a description of traditional and reformist perspectives on interfaith marriage and their roots in the Qurʾan and shariah law. A few prominent historical examples of interfaith marriage are discussed next, and their interpretations within the aforementioned traditional and reformist perspectives. Subsequently, there is a description of the main themes uncovered by research into the experiences of persons belonging to Muslim–non-Muslim interfaith marriages. This is followed by a description of the findings of research into attitudes toward interfaith marriages involving Muslims. Given that there is limited research on interfaith marriages involving Muslims within the North American context specifically, relevant research from other contexts is also discussed.

Traditional Perspectives on Interfaith Marriage

Marriage falls within the scope of shariah or Islamic law, which deals with both secular and religious aspects of life. Nikah refers to the marriage contract, and it is considered a legal contract. It is, however, recognized as a particularly important contract or strong covenant.2

Traditional Islamic perspectives on interfaith marriage can best be understood from Qurʾanic origins, and there are particular verses that are typically cited. These include the “verse of interdiction” (Sura Baqarah, verse 2:221) and the “verse of permission” (Sura Maidah, verse 5:5).3

The verse of interdiction is:

Wed not idolatresses till they believe; for lo! a believing bondwoman is better than an idolatress though she please you; and give not your daughters in marriage to idolaters till they believe, for lo! a believing slave is better than an idolator though he please you. These invite unto the Fire, and Allah inviteth unto the Garden, and unto forgiveness by His grace, and expoundeth thus His revelations to mankind that haply they may remember.4

This verse has been interpreted to suggest that Muslims should not marry from a group of non-Muslims referred to as mushrikeen, including atheists, polytheists, and idolators.5

The verse of permission is:

This day are (all) good things made lawful for you. The food of those who have received the Scripture is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them. And so are the virtuous women of the believers and the virtuous women of those who received the Scripture before you (lawful for you) when ye give them their marriage portions and live with them in honour, not in fornication, nor taking them as secret concubines. Whoso denieth the faith, his work is vain and he will be among the losers in the Hereafter.6

This verse has been interpreted to suggest that Muslims may marry from another group of non-Muslims, notably those who have been given divine Scripture.7

In traditional views of interfaith marriage, therefore, there seems to be some degree of consensus that it is permitted when it comes to Muslims marrying ahl al-kitab, or “People of the Book,” meaning those groups who had received divine Scripture before the time of Prophet Muhammad. There also seems to be some degree of consensus within the traditional perspective that Muslims should not marry from among the category of non-Muslims who are considered mushrikeen, i.e., atheists, idolators, and polytheists.8 Although taking a spouse from among ahl al-kitab may be permitted, this type of marriage is nonetheless regarded as undesirable or makruh.9 The makruh categorization refers to acts that are legally permissible but are disliked, and better to avoid.10 Importantly, differences in interpretation have arisen over the definition of ahl al-kitab. Those with very narrow interpretations have limited ahl al-kitab to Jewish and Christian persons exclusively. In contrast, others have interpreted this group to include anyone whose divine scriptures promote the oneness of God, including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, and others.11

Another difference in interpretation has been with respect to the permissibility of interfaith marriage for men and for women. Traditional perspectives tend to allow for interfaith marriage of a Muslim man to kitabi woman. In contrast, traditional perspectives have not allowed for Muslim women to marry a kitabi man. Various justifications have been offered for this gendered interpretation of what is permitted based on Qurʾanic scripture. One argument is that the verse of permission does not refer explicitly to Muslim women.12 Another argument is rooted in patriarchal family dynamics, where the husband is the head of the household.13 With the husband leading the household, there is a concern that a Muslim woman who is married to a non-Muslim man may be prevented or discouraged from practicing her faith.14 This is especially problematic since, according to certain Islamic legal perspectives, Muslims are not permitted to convert to another religion, and apostasy is considered by some as a punishable offense.15 Additionally, there are concerns that in a household with a non-Muslim father, the offspring will not be raised as Muslims.16

There is also a verse of the Qurʾan that deals with the issue of conversion in relation to an interfaith marriage. This verse is referred to as al-Mumtahana, “she that is to be examined” (60:10):

O ye who believe! When believing women come unto you as fugitives, examine them. Allah is best aware of their faith. Then, if ye know them for true believers send them not back unto the disbelievers. They are not lawful for disbelievers, nor are the disbelievers lawful for them. And give the disbelievers that which they have spent (upon them). And it is no sin for you to marry such women when ye have given them their dues. And hold not to the ties of disbelieving women; and ask for (the return of) of that which ye have spent; and let the disbelievers ask for that which they have spent. That is the judgement of Allah. He judgeth between you. Allah is Knower, Wise.17

The al-Mumtahana verse describes women who had converted to Islam and who fled the Quraysh tribe in Mecca for Medina, which was the Islamic state at the time. Discussion subsequently took place about the validity of their preexisting marriages to pagan husbands. This verse has been interpreted to mean that if the husbands did not also convert to Islam, they would be repaid their dowries, and the marriages would be considered null and void. In following this interpretation, these women, many of whom were refugees, came under the protection of the Muslim community in Medina rather than being sent back to Mecca. Some have argued that the al-Mumtahanah verse is grounded in a very particular sociohistorical context, and that the other verses cited deal with interfaith marriages more generally.18 Others, from the more traditional perspective, have offered this verse as further evidence for the prohibition of Muslim women being married to non-Muslim men.19

The permissibility of intermarriage may also be considered in the context of another contentious issue within the context of Islamic jurisprudence, that is, whether Muslims may live in a non-Muslim land, or a country that is not under Islamic rule. Related to this question is the extent to which Islamic laws and rights apply to Muslims living in other contexts (sometimes referred to as dar al harb, or abode of war).20 The various schools differed in their perspectives on Muslims living in dar al harb, and in some cases there were gray areas that were open to interpretation. Some early scholars had decisive views that Muslims should not live in non-Muslim contexts. The reasons, such as avoiding persecution and maintaining their faith and identity, are akin to those that have been provided as justification against intermarriage. Some Muslim jurists have determined, however, that marriage between a Muslim and non-Muslim in dar al harb is permissible, though undesirable. Still, it is worth noting that if Muslims avoided living in minority contexts, in line with the directives of some early scholars, then reformist arguments (elaborated in the section “Reformist Perspectives on Interfaith Marriage”) concerning a shortage of suitable Muslim marriage partners would not apply. Importantly, it has been argued that the decisions of early scholars on this issue should be regarded with an understanding of the social, political, and historical forces that existed at the time, and that these early rulings may not be applicable to modern Muslims.21

Further justifications have been suggested for preferring religiously homogamous marriages to heterogamous ones. These include claims that each spouse’s religious identity may be weakened,22 an expected lack of spiritual intimacy between the spouses due to different beliefs,23 the expectation of greater conflict between the spouses due to the differences in values and traditions,24 and tensions about the religious upbringing of children.25

These traditional perspectives still dominate in various parts of the world and among some Muslim communities. For example, in Indonesia, there was a fatwa (ruling) in 1980 that explicitly banned interfaith marriages.26 It has been noted that there are some differences between Shia and Sunni perspectives on intermarriage, with certain communities within the former allowing for interfaith marriage only for temporary marriages, or mutʿa.27 Additionally, one contentious issue has been the recognition (or lack thereof) of a marriage between a non-Muslim man and a woman who, after getting married, decides to convert to Islam. In certain parts of the world, this marriage would be considered null and void. However, various traditional perspectives do include the allowance for a waiting period to enable the husband to decide whether he wishes to convert to Islam.28

In sum, traditional perspectives tend to allow for interfaith marriage, although it is generally viewed to be undesirable. Further, the permissibility tends to be limited to Muslim men marrying from among ahl al-kitab. Reformist perspectives, in contrast, tend to take a more favorable stance that is also more gender egalitarian.

Reformist Perspectives on Interfaith Marriage

Gendered interpretations of the permissibility of interfaith marriage have been subject to critiques. A frequent argument is that there is no explicit prohibition on Muslim women marrying a non-Muslim who belongs to ahl al-kitab. For example, Dr. Khaleel Mohammad, professor of religion at San Diego State University, argues that verses of the Qurʾan have been subject to interpretation according to the patriarchal tribal context of the Prophet’s time. He has suggested that the permission to intermarry was there, and that no explicit mention was made regarding permission for Muslim women, as it would not have made sense within that particular sociohistorical context.29 Therefore, “if women have legal rights, which include placing conditions on a marriage, then an interfaith marriage can take place on condition that neither spouse will be forcibly converted to the other’s religion.”30

In a similar vein, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, has agreed there is no substantive evidence behind gendered interpretations of the permission to marry ahl al-kitab. He issued the following fatwa regarding Muslim women marrying Christian men:

This is the law as it exists or the legal legacy as we inherited it. In all honesty, personally, I am not convinced that the evidence prohibiting Muslim women from marrying a kitabi is very strong. Muslim jurists took a very strong position on this matter—many of them going as far as saying if a Muslim woman marries a kitabi she is as good as an apostate. I think, and God knows best, that this position is not reasonable and the evidence supporting it is not very strong. However, I must confess that in my humble opinion, I strongly sympathize with the jurists that argued that in non-Muslim countries it is reprehensible (makruh) for a Muslim to marry a non-Muslim. God knows best—I have reached this position after observing that the children of these Muslim/non-Muslim marriages in most cases do not grow up with a strong sense of their Islamic identity. It seems to me that in countries like the U.S. it is best for the children if they grow up with a Muslim father and mother. I am not comfortable telling a Muslim woman marrying a kitabi that she is committing a grave sin and that she must terminate her marriage immediately. I do tell such a woman that she should know that by being married to a kitabi that she is acting against the weight of the consensus; I tell her what the evidence is; and then I tell her my own ijtihad on the matter (that it is makruh for both men and women in non-Muslim countries). After telling her all of this, I add that she must always remember that only God knows best; that she should reflect on the matter as hard as she can; then she should pray and plead for guidance from God; and then ultimately she must do what her conscience dictates.31

Dr. El Fadl refers to his use of ijtihad in this fatwa, and others have emphasized the importance of ijtihad, or personal reasoning with respect to the issue of interfaith marriage. This is especially relevant for Muslim women living in the West. Nida Ali, for example, has argued that Muslim women, particularly those who have attained high levels of education, have a shortage of suitable marriage partners. This is further compounded by a gender imbalance that is created by Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women.32

From a feminist perspective, it has also been argued that the traditional perspective of putting the husband at the head of the household is actually in violation of the Islamic principle of tawhid (unity and incomparability of God). In this view, all persons are equal, and only God is above them. Exalting one gender has been thus likened to idol worship, and contrary to the principle of not associating any partners with God.33

Reformists have also drawn upon recent jurisprudence that deals with Muslims living in minority contexts, fiqh al-aqalliyyat. According to this legal perspective, Muslims, such as those in the West, who are living in minority contexts have particular circumstances and needs that must be taken into account. This legal perspective was originally articulated by Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani and Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who asserted that the unique circumstances of modern Muslims living in minority contexts warrant a different approach and distinct discipline of Islamic jurisprudence.34 “ 'Fiqh for minorities' is a specific discipline which takes into account the relationship between the religious ruling and the conditions of the community and the location where it exists. It is a fiqh that applies to a specific group of people living under particular conditions with special needs that may not be appropriate for other communities. Besides religious knowledge, practitioners of this fiqh will need a wider acquaintance with several social sciences disciplines, especially sociology, economics, political science, and international relations.”35 Concerning intermarriage, Qaradawi applies a strict interpretation that Muslim men may marry Christian women of faith (but not Jewish women while Israelis and Palestinians are in conflict).36 However, others from the fiqh al-aqalliyyat perspective have arrived at the more inclusive interpretation that in the West, Muslims are living among great religious diversity and that the pool of marriage partners of the same faith is relatively small, particularly if one takes into account the gender imbalance.37 Critics of fiqh al-aqalliyyat have been skeptical of the need for a distinct jurisprudence for minorities; and they have been concerned about the seeming leniency regarding some of the rulings, the potential secularization of Islam, and the antagonistic view of a minority-majority dichotomy.38

Another reformist perspective on intermarriage is rooted in the redefinition of what it means to be Muslim. It has been argued that traditional definitions of “Muslim” are too narrow and need to be broadened. It has been suggested that the prohibition to marrying non-Muslims referred only to the Quraysh tribe, who were at the time of the Qurʾanic revelation in direct conflict with the growing Muslim community.39 According to this more specific definition of non-Muslim mushrik, there is a correspondingly more inclusive definition of Muslim as articulated by Abduh and Rida, two prominent Egyptian scholars: It has been suggested that a Muslim is anyone who has a pure belief in God and who abstains from associating any partners with Him.40 Essentially, this definition would extend to anyone who has monotheistic beliefs. If this type of inclusive definition of Muslim is adopted, many marriages that may otherwise be considered exogamous become endogamous.

The question of the legality of interfaith marriage has also been addressed from the broader perspective of human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights “permits every person to marry without any limitation to race, religion, or nationality.”41 This has been used as a legal justification for interfaith marriage for Muslims, irrespective of gender.42

In sum, reformist views of interfaith marriage tend to be more favorable. Interfaith marriage is seen as an option regardless of gender. Moreover, suitable marriage partners may extend beyond ahl al-kitab, and there may even be more inclusive views of who belongs to the Muslim community.

Historic Examples of Interfaith Marriages

There are numerous examples of interfaith marriages from Islamic history. A couple of prominent ones that are often linked to interfaith marriage debates are described here.

Prophet Muhammad’s eldest daughter Zaynab was one of the early converts to Islam. At the time of her conversion she was already married to Abu al-As, who was a polytheist. This example of a Muslim woman being married to a non-Muslim man, and a polytheist in particular, has been a challenge to explain within the traditional gendered perspective on interfaith marriages. Zaynab’s husband was not from among ahl al-kitab and actually belonged to a tribe that was at odds with the growing Muslim community of the time. Nonetheless, the Prophet did not object to his daughter’s marriage. Moreover, Zaynab and her husband remained married for many years, despite their religious differences, before Abu al-As eventually converted to Islam. This example has been cited in favor of reformist perspectives on interfaith marriage involving Muslims.43

During the time of the second caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab; a Muslim governor, Hudhayfa, married a Jewish woman. The caliph Umar sent a letter to Hudhayfa in which he was instructed to divorce his Jewish wife. This was met with resistance, and Hudhayfa responded that he would do so only if the marriage was impermissible. The reply that he received was that it was not impermissible but was counter to the interests of Muslim women.44 Umar was concerned that Muslim men may prefer non-Muslim women to Muslim women, and this could then affect marriage prospects of Muslim women.45 This argument sufficiently convinced Hudhayfa to move forward with a divorce. Those with a more traditional perspective on interfaith marriage have also used this example to illustrate that although interfaith marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is permissible, it is nonetheless undesirable.46

Other examples of interfaith marriages from Islamic history have involved male Muslim leaders married to Christian wives. These leaders included Umayyad caliphs, Spanish amirs, Ottoman sultans, a Moghul emperor, and others, and one source includes a list of at least twenty-seven such persons who married Christian women.47 Various outcomes of these marriages have been described, including conversion of the Christian wives to Islam, improved relations between Muslims and Christians of the time (and decreased tension), improved mutual understanding of the other’s faith, development of hybrid or fusion culture, decrease in consanguineous marriages, and genetic diversification of offspring.48

Even though there are differences in opinion over the desirability of interfaith marriages involving Muslims, it is clear that there are numerous historical examples of such marriages. In the 21st century, such marriages are only increasing in frequency. Therefore, it is relevant and timely to understand the experiences of persons involved in marriages involving Muslims and non-Muslims.

Experiences of those in Muslim–Non-Muslim Interfaith Relationships

There is limited research on the experiences of persons belonging to Muslim–non-Muslim marriages. The few studies to date have mostly used interviews and have been conducted in different cultural contexts, including North America and beyond.

Nida Ali interviewed various persons connected to interfaith unions involving Muslims. Participants in this research included an imam based in Toronto who performs interfaith marriages, a therapist who provides counseling to interfaith couples, members of interfaith couples in which one partner is Muslim, and persons whose parents had an interfaith union.49 Members of intermarriages tended to describe certain challenges and opportunities related to being in an interfaith couple. The majority encountered resistance from their parents and, in many cases, extended family as well. In some cases, there was pressure for the non-Muslim partner to convert to Islam. This was particularly the case when the non-Muslim spouse was not considered by the family to be among ahl al-kitab, for example in Muslim-Hindu marriages. Given the family resistance, some participants reported a lack of social support, and some surmised that they would have received greater family support if they did not belong to an interfaith couple. A number of those in interfaith unions sought out other interfaith couples for support, including through online communities and blogs.

In terms of opportunities associated with interfaith marriages, there were reports of greater clarity of religious identity among some participants. Further, some participants described a greater appreciation of religion and valuable discussions with their partner as a result of being in an interfaith union. There was also some evidence to suggest the breaking down of stereotypes associated with Islam and Muslims for the non-Muslim partner and also for the partner’s family. An additional opportunity suggested by the interviews was the high degree of tolerance and appreciation of pluralism among those who had been raised by interfaith parents.50 Indeed, interfaith marriage has been described as an index of positive interfaith relations and a high degree of social inclusion by other scholars, and at least some of Ali’s interview data support this.51

Other research on experiences with interfaith marriages involving Muslims has come from India. A study was conducted with members of Dhanak, an organization whose members consist of interfaith and intercaste couples. Participants of this research included those in Muslim-Hindu marriages, and they belonged to what are known in the Indian context as self-arranged or love marriages. In India as elsewhere, interfaith marriages are on the rise. Indeed, themes uncovered by this research are likely to resonate with Muslim–non-Muslim interfaith couples elsewhere. Specifically, the themes that were noted were the issue of conversion and protection of religious identity, appreciation of diversity, children’s upbringing, and family and community acceptance (or lack thereof) of the union.52

One particular issue in Muslim-Hindu marriages is the history of conflict between the two religious communities, particularly in the South Asian context. Beyond the issue that Hindus are not considered by many Muslims to be ahl al-kitab, these historical and ongoing tensions are likely to contribute to resistance by families and communities to these particular marriages. Additionally, different levels of acceptance may be encountered from different family members. For example, some research suggests that mothers tend to be more accepting of the interfaith unions than fathers. And, for reasons elaborated in the section “Traditional Perspectives on Interfaith Marriage,” based on traditional understandings of Islam, there may be greater family acceptance of Muslim sons intermarrying than of Muslim daughters. In extreme cases, disapproval of daughters’ interfaith unions has been associated with honor killings. Other penalties for interfaith relationships may include accusations or charges of kidnapping or rape, or claims that the female partner is under age. Additionally, in India, there is concern about a possible “Love Jihad” in which Muslim young men may attempt to marry Hindu young women with the agenda of converting them to Islam. Contextual factors and cultural norms may therefore contribute to the potential opposition to Muslim-Hindu marriages in the South Asian context.53

In India, the Special Marriage Act of 1954 created a pathway for civil marriages for those belonging to different religious affiliations. Moreover, the Indian Supreme Court has ruled that an adult is free to marry whomsoever they choose, provided there are no forced conversions. Participants in Indian research tended to emphasize the importance of the civil marriage ceremony for them, rather than religious and cultural rituals (which often did not take place).54 In a similar way, among research participants from Canada and Europe who belonged to Muslim-Hindu couples, most, by choice or necessity, had a civil marriage ceremony. Only one of the four Muslim-Hindu couples in that research was able to negotiate a truly interfaith marriage ceremony involving both Muslim and Hindu ceremonies. Contrastingly, the interfaith couples in the latter research who involved a spouse who was ahl al-kitab seemingly had an easier time solemnizing their interfaith marriage in the context of religious rituals and ceremony.55

It is worth noting that interfaith marriages involving Muslims are not always strictly civil marriages. Depending on the context and on the local community, there may be an option for a nikah ceremony. Indeed, interfaith marriage ceremonies have taken place in Islamic community centers in North America, for example in the Noor Cultural Centre and in Ismaili Jamat Khanas. Additionally, in contexts where interfaith marriages involving Muslims are not legally supported, alternative pathways to achieving a legal marriage have been suggested.56

Importantly, despite the legality of interfaith marriages in India and elsewhere, social approval by families and the surrounding community may be low. Even when there are no legal repercussions of reported crimes or no physical violence, interfaith couples may experience ostracism and can be socially cut off by their families and networks. Research has noted the importance of social support, and this may be a culturally universal need for interfaith couples. The Dhanak organization, for example, provides support for interfaith and intercaste couples. In the absence of local organizations, interfaith couples may find support through online communities or groups.


Raising children with an appreciation of diversity is a recurring theme in research that involves interfaith couples. Children of interfaith couples often observe rituals from both parents’ religious and cultural traditions. For example, in a Muslim-Hindu interfaith family, it would not be unusual to celebrate both Diwali and Eid. Along similar lines, Muslim-Christian interfaith families are likely to celebrate both Eid and Christmas. Even when spouses are not religious, the cultural observances may be important to their sense of identity and identity maintenance.57 Some couples opt to expose children to both parents’ religious traditions so that they can decide their religious path when they are mature enough to do so (and this was the norm among the Dhanak members studied by Verma), whereas others agree on raising the children within a particular religious tradition.58 In these cases, where it is a choice of one religious tradition for children to follow, it is usually the more religious spouse whose tradition is followed.59 Contrary to rationalizations for the gendered traditional understandings of Qurʾanic scripture, research suggests that often the mother’s religious tradition is followed when only one prevails.60


In interfaith couples, there are sometimes pressures on one of the spouses to convert. An anthropological study of interfaith couples conducted in South Africa, where more than a quarter of Muslim men and women living in the Cape Community of Mekaar were intermarried, found a high frequency of conversions particularly by the non-Muslim partner.61 Detailed accounts included the case of one person who had converted to Islam from Christianity and another person who converted to Christianity from Islam. In the former instance, the husband converted to Islam many years after the marriage to his Muslim wife. His motivation was primarily concerned with the religious upbringing of his children, and he felt that this would help them to better formulate their religious identities. It took time for him to feel comfortable practicing in public in the mosque, as he was concerned about making mistakes in the performance of rituals. Indeed, it has been suggested that some converts to Islam may be more knowledgeable and more regular in practice than those who are born Muslims. In the latter instance, the wife converted at the time of her marriage. Her husband was devout, she learned about Christianity, and it resonated with her. A major theme in her experience was ostracism by her family and the surrounding Muslim community. It is noteworthy that in the case of the husband converting to Islam, fear of family disapproval was initially a deterrent. Both these accounts are of persons who apparently converted of their own volition.62

Other research that involved interviews with persons in interfaith marriages in Western contexts (North America and Europe) also described accounts of conversions, although they were considerably less frequent. A few of the conversions appeared to be motivated by a genuine interest in Islam, including both religious and cultural aspects. In a couple of the cases, the husband converted to Islam for the marriage, but was no longer practicing. This research found that there were multiple instances in which parents of the Muslim partner exerted pressure for the non-Muslim partner to convert, and this was particularly the case for Muslim-Hindu marriages.63 Interestingly, there are officiants of interfaith marriage ceremonies who explicitly address and discourage attempts at coerced conversion.64


Although there may be an expectation that interfaith couples experience greater conflict than intrafaith couples, some research suggests that this may not be the case. Interfaith couples report that they experience the ordinary struggles that other couples experience. And some research suggests that divorce rates are low among interfaith couples. One interpretation is that interfaith couples are particularly motivated to demonstrate that their decision to marry was “right” and therefore work harder to maintain the marriage. However, some contend that this is less of a rebellion and more of a diligent effort to move forward as an ordinary couple and to reintegrate within families and communities.65

In sum, there are a number of themes that are common to research on the experiences of persons belonging to Muslim–non-Muslim marriages. These include resistance and rejection by family and community, questions about children’s religious upbringing, and pressures for conversion. Nonetheless, spouses and children in interfaith marriages report benefits of being exposed to more than one faith, including clarification of their own religious identity, appreciation of another tradition, and breaking down stereotypes. Religious identity, along with other aspects of religiosity, has also been studied by those interested in attitudes toward interfaith marriage.

Muslims’ Attitudes toward Interfaith Relationships

It has been suggested that interfaith marriages are an indicator of positive relations between the communities involved. In social psychology, for example, social distance is a concept that refers to the closeness of the relationship that a person is willing to have with another person, typically someone who belongs to another group. Spouse or intimate partner is normally the closest relationship that is evaluated on a measure of social distance.66 Indeed, Ata and Morrison (2005) state: “Intermarriage implies the crossing of ethnic, linguistic, religious, racial or national boundaries by a woman and a man in life’s most intimate union.” Additionally,they suggest that intermarriage may be the most telling sign that an immigrant group has acculturated and been accepted into a host society. Arguably, the rate of interfaith marriage may be indicative of positive relations between faith groups.67

In Western contexts, such as in Canada, the United States, and Europe, Muslims are living as numerical minorities. Intermarriages may be more likely than in contexts in which there are larger Muslim populations, simply due to the shortage of same-faith marriage partners. Of course, other factors contribute to the likelihood and frequency of interfaith marriages. One aspect that has been studied is Muslims’ attitudes toward interfaith relationships.

Psychological research that used online questionnaires to assess Canadian young adult Muslims’ views of interfaith marriage revealed a few key findings. One was that denominational groups within Islam significantly differed in their attitudes in terms of the acceptability of interfaith marriage and their own openness toward this type of marriage. Another key finding was that individual differences in religiosity predicted attitudes and openness toward interfaith marriages even better than denominational affiliation, such that those who were higher in religious identity and religious practice tended to be less supportive of interfaith relationships than those who scored lower on these dimensions. This research also distinguished between support for interfaith relationships (between persons of different religions) and interdenominational relationships (between persons who belonged to different denominations within Islam). Those who were higher in religious practice also tended to be more opposed to interdenominational marriage.68 Other research with a Muslim young adult sample in Canada also found that religious identity predicted less openness toward interfaith marriage. Religious fundamentalism, or the tendency to see one’s own religious tradition as the one and only correct one, was a particularly strong predictor of negative views of interfaith relationships.69

Research with Canadian Muslim young adults has also evaluated family connectedness as a predictor of attitudes toward interfaith marriage. Interestingly, family connectedness did not directly predict attitudes toward interfaith relationships. Rather, family connectedness predicted religious identity, which in turn predicted more negative views of interfaith relationships. Additionally, the same research assessed the role of identification with mainstream Canadian culture and found that stronger identification with Canadian culture predicted more openness toward interfaith relationships.70

Other research from the Canadian context has suggested that “post modern Muslim identity” is predictive of support for interfaith marriages. This identity has been described as a pluralistic, global identity that may be adopted by Muslims in the West. For some, it may be more cultural than religious, in the way that Jewish identity may be primarily cultural for some Jewish persons.71 In a related vein, research with Jewish young adults has shown that those whose affiliation with Judaism is primarily cultural rather than religious, or both religious and cultural, may be more supportive of interfaith marriages.72

European research on Muslims’ attitudes toward interfaith marriage has uncovered some themes that resonate with the findings from North America. Research conducted with data from the large EURISLAM survey involved a comparison of Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia, where governments vary in terms of their dealings with religious affairs (and the implementation of shariah law) and degree of secularization . The Muslim survey respondents resided in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. These countries differed in terms of their policies that accommodate Muslims, with the United Kingdom being the most accommodating and Switzerland being the least accommodating. Interfaith marriages were most common in the UK and least common in Belgium, and there were various complex differences between the countries.73

An overall finding from the analysis of the EURISLAM survey was that men tended to be more favorable toward intermarriage than women.74 A similar gender difference has been observed in Canadian research.75 Also, like the Canadian research, identification with mainstream culture was an important factor. Specifically, there were also a number of differences between Muslims who were born in European countries (natives) and those who were migrants. Among natives, education level did not predict attitudes toward interfaith marriage, whereas among migrants, higher education predicted more favorable attitudes. Among natives but not among migrants, younger adults were more favorable toward intermarriage than older adults. Different aspects of religiosity were important in predicting attitudes of migrants versus natives. Among migrants, religious identity and adhering to religious rituals predicted less favorable views of intermarriage. In contrast, among natives, prayer frequency predicted less favorable views of intermarriage. Among migrants, more negative views of premarital sexuality also predicted less favorable views of intermarriage. Parental involvement in choice of a marriage partner was associated with less favorable views of intermarriage. Finally, in contrast to other research described in the subsection “Conflict,” this research suggested a positive association between intermarriage and likelihood of divorce among both natives and migrants.76

Some of the aforementioned themes have also been identified in research that assessed attitudes toward interfaith marriage in Muslim-majority countries. Attitudes were more negative toward Muslim women intermarrying than toward Muslim men intermarrying. Again, religiosity, which in this case was measured as strength of religious belief, tended to predict more negative attitudes toward interfaith marriage. Interestingly, attitudes toward Muslim-Christian marriages were more favorable than attitudes toward interfaith marriages of other types, and were most favorable among persons who perceived a high degree of similarity between Islam and Christianity.77 This is perhaps not surprising, as Christians are considered to be ahl al-kitab.

In sum, attitudes toward interfaith marriage do seem to be linked to religiosity, but this relationship is complex. Religious identity appears to be an important predictor of less favorable views of intermarriage across different contexts. Additionally, religious practice predicts lower probability and less favorable views of interfaith marriage, although different aspects (prayer frequency, observance of rituals) may be more important in some contexts and in some groups than in others. Acculturation is also an important factor. Those born in Western contexts tend to be more favorable toward interfaith marriage than those who are migrants, and this may be related to a more pluralistic, postmodern Muslim identity among these individuals.


Research on interfaith marriages involving Muslims appears to be in its infancy. As these marriages are increasing in frequency, so should empirical efforts to better understand their implications for the persons involved. These persons include not only the spouses themselves, but their children, their extended families, friends, and the surrounding community. There are diverse legal perspectives on interfaith marriages involving Muslims, including those that are more traditional and less favorable and those that are more reformist and more favorable. In terms of interpreting the permissibility of interfaith marriages in 21st-century Western contexts, such as North America, it has been argued that individuals should exercise ijitihad.

Views of interfaith marriage in North America and other Western contexts may be the result of a complex interaction between the context, including the minority experience, and dimensions of religiosity, such as religious identity. Generational differences are important to take into account, and it is expected that future generations will be even more open to interfaith marriages. This may be linked to the more global, pluralistic identities that are becoming prominent among younger generations, and what has been referred to as a postmodern Muslim identity.

A more comprehensive understanding of interfaith marriages involving Muslims should also take culture into account. An interfaith marriage may involve persons from cultures or religions that are both in the numerical minority. Additionally, an interfaith marriage may involve persons who belong to a similar ethnic group (e.g., South Asian) but different faiths. These marriages may thus be endogamous in one dimension but exogamous in another. For those born and raised in Canada or the United States, particularly third and fourth generations, interfaith marriages may be endogamous with respect to culture, especially when generational status is taken into account.

With interfaith marriages on the rise within Muslim communities in North America and elsewhere, it will become increasingly important to understand the experiences of the persons involved and how to promote and maintain their inclusion within families and communities. Failure to do so will risk alienating members of the religious community, including the partners in the interfaith marriage and their children. Indeed, some Muslim communities in Canada and the United States are already taking a more inclusive approach by opening up celebrations and rites and ceremonies to family members of other faiths. One practical line of inquiry is how best to foster the inclusion of interfaith families within local communities of North American Muslims. It is well established that bringing different groups into contact with each other decreases prejudice, and this is particularly the case when there are close relationships between the members of the different groups.78 Therefore, the inclusion of interfaith couples and families may help not only to retain congregational members, but to increase interfaith understanding and reduce stereotypes and barriers.

Discussion of the Literature

The scholarly literature on Islam and interfaith marriage falls into a few categories: (a) analysis of the legal and theological perspectives on the permissibility of such marriages, including gendered understandings of this; (b) limited research on the experiences of those in interfaith unions involving Muslims, including the opportunities and challenges faced; and (c) prediction of Muslims’ attitudes toward interfaith marriages.

The first and most prolific category of research comes primarily from scholarly literature in legal studies. In order to follow the complexities and controversies in opinion on the permissibility of interfaith marriage in Islam, a basic understanding of shariah law is helpful. A concise overview has been provided by Leeman. The bases of shariah law are hierarchically organized, with the most authoritative source being the Qurʾan, which is viewed by Muslims as a direct revelation from God to the Prophet Muhammad. The second-most authoritative source is the Sunnah, which comprise the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad and the actions that were done in his presence to which he did not object. The third source is ijma, the consensus of a community of Muslim scholars. This is followed by ijtihad, personal reasoning, and qiyās, personal reasoning by analogy. Although some believe that ijma allows for interfaith marriage of Muslim men to women who belong to ahl al-kitab, or People of the Book (but not interfaith marriage of Muslim women to kitabi men), reformists tend to be skeptical about ijma. Specifically, there is debate about the veracity and the verifiability of consensus, particularly in modern times.79 Therefore, the main traditional and reformist perspectives on interfaith marriage seem to be rooted in a few key verses of the Qurʾan, and to some extent on the emphasis on the ongoing necessity for ijtihad.

Two relevant verses in the Qurʾan have been referred to as the “verse of permission” and the “verse of interdiction.” Traditional interpretations of Qurʾanic scripture allow for interfaith marriage of Muslim men to ahl al-kitab women.80 Nonetheless, there is disagreement on the meaning of ahl al-kitab, and definitions range from very strict (Jews and Christians only) to much more liberal, including Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and virtually anyone whose divine scripture refers to the oneness of God.81

In terms of ijtihad, some believe that the door to this area of Islamic law is now closed. In contrast, others believe that ijtihad is relevant and necessary for coming to one’s own interpretations of faith in current times.82 A number of scholars have emphasized ijtihad in coming to an understanding of the permissibility of interfaith marriage, particularly as it relates to Muslim women.83

There is limited research on the experiences of those within Muslim–non-Muslim unions. Nida Ali’s master’s thesis research involved a diversity of participants from North America and Europe.84 Other examples include Bangstad’s anthropological work in South Africa85 and Verma and Sukhramani’s study in India.86 Research has been primarily qualitative, and a few common themes have emerged. One theme is that of family and community acceptance or intolerance of the union. A second theme is that of negotiating religious practice and customs as a couple. A third theme is the religious upbringing of any children. An additional theme is the enhanced appreciation of diversity by interfaith couples and families.

Quantitative research on attitudes toward interfaith marriage has revealed that they can be predicted based on certain dimensions. For example, research based on the extensive EURISLAM dataset demonstrated that the factors that predict interfaith marriage attitudes differ between migrants and those who are European-born.87 Additionally, research with Canadian Muslim young adults showed that attitudes toward interfaith marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims and interdenominational marriage between Muslims of different sects could be predicted by religious identity and religious practice. These psychological dimensions of religiosity were stronger predictors of interfaith marriage attitudes than denominational affiliation within Islam.88 Other research with Muslim young adults found that religious fundamentalism predicted more negative views of interfaith marriage, whereas identification with Canadian culture predicted more favorable views.89

There are a number of interesting avenues for future research. There is a paucity of research on interfaith marriage involving Muslims in the West. Based on the present review of the literature, research on LGBTQ+ marriages involving Muslims seems virtually nonexistent. These marriages can and do take place in North America and elsewhere through civil ceremonies, even if a nikah is unavailable. How Muslim communities adapt to these unions will become a topic of timely relevance. Additionally, there is limited research on interdenominational marriage, and interestingly, there may be greater opposition to these types of marriages than interfaith marriages between persons of different religions.90 Finally, culture is a complex variable that needs to be taken into account. Mainstream culture, culture(s) of origin, and global culture are all relevant for Muslims in the West, and are likely to have their own distinct relationships to openness toward interfaith marriage.


Thank you to Shelina Jaffer, Sabrina Merali Jean-Baptiste, and the reviewers who provided feedback on earlier versions of this article. Thank you also to Riaz Charania for copyediting assistance.

Further Reading