Q: Muslim men are permitted to marry pious women from the "People of the Book." Can a Muslim woman marry a man outside the faith of Islam? If not, what are the reasons for this apparent disparity, and what is done about the nikah ceremony between a Muslim and non-Muslim?
A: Before we get into this question proper, a fiqh rule should be explained. If Allah (s.w.t) wishes, He can forbid something generally, and then from it allow something specific. For example, polytheists and pagans are kafirs and/or mushriks - kafirs, because they disbelieve in Allah's final message (the Qur'an); mushrik, because of their polytheism or idolatry as the case may be. Now in the Qur'an, the Christians and Jews are classified as the Ahl al Kitab (People of the Book) for whom there are certain concessions, although among them are those who are trinitarians (click on Kufr and Shirk and People of the Book for more information). Allah (s.w.t) commands in the Qur'an: "And do not marry the polytheist women until they believe. A believing slave woman is better that a polytheist woman, even though the latter may please you. And do not marry your womenfolk to disbelieving men until they believe. A believing slave is better that a polytheist even though the latter may please you . . ." [Sura Al Baqarah/2:221]
The general rule here (as enunciated in the above verse) is that marriage to non-Muslims is forbidden. Any change to this rule then, must be specifically stated, and we can only act on the basis of that specification. Allah (s.w.t) in Sura Al Ma'ida (5:6) grants a concession: "This day all innately good things are lawful for you…Lawful to you are the chaste women from among those who have been given the Book before you. . . ." (i.e. Jews and Christians). The law specifically mentions muhsanaat -- chaste females (from the People of the Book); it did not say muhsaneen -- chaste males.
Since we noted above that the exception to the general rule can only be to the limit of the text that allows such exception, it follows then that this concession has been granted only to Muslim men. This means that a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a man outside of Islam (unless he believes). In addition, the scholars are unanimous in this verdict. We are also told: "And obey Allah and the Messenger and those who are in authority among you..." Again, those who do not know should ask those who know...! So the ijma' (concensus of the jurists) is binding. But even before considering this binding concensus, we refer now to the hadith concerning Zainab bint Muhammad (s.a.a.w) and Abul 'Aas bin Al Rabee'. Zainab had married Abul 'Aas bin Al Rabee' before the advent of Islam. After the true message came, Zainab accepted Islam. The Prophet (s.a.a.w) then ordered her to come over to the Muslims and to not give herself to her disbelieving husband [At-Tirmidhi].
In Sura Mumtahanah (60:10) regarding the refugee women, the Qur'an enjoins: ". . . And if you ascertain that they are believing women, then return them not to the disbelievers. They [believing women] are not lawful for them, nor are they [unbelievers] lawful for the believing women."
So far, proof has been presented from the Qur'an, the Hadith, and ijma'. We will now apply 'aql (reasoning). Whether we admit it or not, the woman is (generally) the physically weaker of the couple, and the Muslim man can more often than not enforce his will on his non-Muslim spouse by adhering to Islam. The unbelieving man denies Islam and the Prophet's message. Do you think he would allow a Muslim woman to freely practice her sacred devotion? A Muslim man, however, is required to respect the previous prophets and the scriptures of the Jews and Christians. He will therefore not oppress his non-Muslim spouse (if he follows Islam). A Jew or Christian woman married to a Muslim would have her beliefs respected. A Muslim woman married to a Jew or Christian could be maligned.
Traditionally, only in one case can a Muslim woman marry outside of Islam, and this is the case where the woman is guilty of sexual transgression, as denoted in Sura An Nur of the Qur'an: "The adulterer may marry only an adulteress or an idolatress; and the adulteress may marry only an adulterer or an idolater…" [24:3] As stated in this verse, this rule equally applies to the Muslim man who is guilty of this same offense.
There are, however, some new examinations of the subject. In the classical period, and the existing situations on which the jurists ruled, there was no law that guaranteed women's rights, as we understand them today. Some jurists opine that if a non-Muslim person of the book (male) is of such a character etc., that we can be sure that he will not enforce the wife to accept his religion, that conversely the woman is of such fortitude that she will not be swayed by falsehood, and that she makes it a part of the marriage contract that she will in no way be forced to accept a religion other than Islam, that the children will be brought up according to her beliefs, and that no negative image of Islam will be presented to her etc., then such a contract is allowable.
Of course, this causes problems for the classical interpretation. For, among other things, one of the precepts of fiqh is that if something has been agreed upon by consensus, it is binding for all time, and can therefore never be changed. This is a position from which most classical jurists will not budge -- even though the entire concept of ijma in itself presents problems. My personal view is that the latter "modernist" position may be seen as an exceptional case, and resorted to only in the most pressing circumstances.
Regarding the nikah ceremony, the whole aspect of what we know as the nikah is not obligatory -- not that it is useless; it is a legal formation by the jurists. In the Prophet's day, as far as we can see from the Qur'an, there is no ceremony stipulated. This means that the method of contracting a marriage was the same one as known in the community. What, after all, is a marriage? It is when a man and a woman get together in front of the community, or representatives of the community, and declare that they "belong" to each other.
Now why should a Christian woman go through the tedium of sitting through a ceremony wherein the Qur'an is being recited, etc. and she does not believe in it? Isn't that hypocritical? The Qur'an gives us permission to marry her, meaning that she retains her faith. There cannot be any force involved, and it seems dichotomous that at the ceremony, where their union is formalized, she is already being forced to listen to things which are alien to her.
They just sign the papers at the marriage registrar, as can two Muslims also, who, for whatever reasons of their own, may not feel good about the Imam. What matters, is that the marriage is seen as such in the eyes of society, and that the rights of both spouses are recognized by the State. This is exactly what a registrar marriage does, as opposed to a nikah, which in the USA does not do this according to the letter of the law.
In fact, the nikah is used by some people to step on women, where a man marries solely by nikah, and then when they have a problem, the woman has no recourse, since she is not legally married according to the State. In most states, the palimony clauses will give her rights, but that is not because of the nikah per se, but of conjugal habitation. The only way a Muslim woman, or man, gets rights is when there is in addition to the nikah, a registered wedding, as is done at the registrar.
Posted November 3, 1998. This question and answer was printed in the January 1994 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).