Inter-Cultural Marriage: Social Norms Or Religion?

Question and answer details
As-salamu Alaykum. First I would like to thank you for your beautiful and well-organized site! I know for sure that when it comes to Islam the boundaries of nationalism are broken down, and especially when it is based on marriage. Islam does not stop us from marrying a Muslim from different countries. Yet some Muslims are being pressured to marry from their own specific culture, being told that it would cause less problems in their marriage, even though the Prophet himself married an Egyptian woman. As a Muslim, personally I believe that it's based on the character of a person, not their culture or language. Our parents still say that Prophet Muhammad was a unique person, and it would take us hundreds of years to find a person like him to marry. They also say that most of the people who married from different races divorced soon afterward. I believe that is not true, since I have many friends who are mixed, and living a good life with their partners. Please help us, the Muslims who would like to marry from different cultures, so we could give good reasons to our parents about it, about how Islam does not care about national boundaries and etc. and please give historical or modern examples if possible.
Sahar El-Nadi
Salam Dear Zahra, 

Thank you for your interesting question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

You raised many key points: the importance of marriage in Islam, spouse selection criteria, the Islamic concept of equality, the parent-child relationship, and Prophet Muhammad as a practical role model for all, despite his superiority.

I encourage you to read more on each of these topics to gain insight into the Islamic social system, as I can not cover all of them in details here. Let's start by explaining the goal of marriage in Islam to be able to understand the selection criteria, and whether nationality is a relevant factor.

Marriage in Islam as a Social Institution

Islam regards marriage as life's most valuable institution and offers detailed guidelines to help it succeed as a lifelong commitment, with specific goals to be considered when choosing a partner.

The focus of life for a Muslim is fulfilling one's duties towards Allah; oneself; the Ummah; and humanity, within the system of Allah, in order to attain contentment and happiness in this life and the next. Consequently, marriage should help reach this objective through providing a stable, affectionate relationship, and a peaceful home. Allah says what means:

{Among His signs is that He created for you spouses of your selves in order that you may repose to them in tranquility and He instilled in your hearts love and affection for one another; verily, in these are signs for those who reflect (on the nature of the reality).} (Ar-Rum 30:21)

Islamic Criteria for Selecting a Spouse

Marriage is a case-specific human interaction, each case is unique. We cannot generalize failure or success based on individual cases. Many couples of the same race or culture divorce every day, and many others are happy in inter-cultural marriages.

The key factor for success in relationships is compatibility: healthy communication, personal traits and social conditions acceptable for both partners, and a similar focus for the relationship. Compatibility is based on character, intellect, faith, and general orientation in life. Within this context, race and culture have a minor effect on the bonding of two human souls and minds.

Islam abhors discrimination, since diversity is one of its principles as a universal religion. The Qur'an teaches that taqwa — righteousness — is the factor for preference:

{Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.} (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) instructed Muslims to choose their spouses based on level of piousness. You can see this clearly in the following traditions:

- A woman is married for four things, i.e., her wealth, her family status, her beauty, and her religion. So you should marry the religious woman; (otherwise) you will be a loser. (Al-Bukhari)

- If someone with whose piety and character you are satisfied comes to you, then marry him. If you do not do so, there will be disorder in the earth and a great deal of evil. (At-Tirmidhi)

- The whole world is pleasure, and the best pleasure of the world is the righteous woman.    (Muslim)

Logically speaking, as Islam allows marriage to a non-Muslim woman, it certainly has nothing against marrying a fellow Muslim from a different race. Islam — in its early days — encouraged freeing slaves and marrying them to elevate their status. The Prophet himself — as you noted in your question — married into families of other races and faiths. This must be a very clear lesson for all of us: that the measure of preference is piety, and other traits follow in importance. The question is: how do we determine if someone has taqwa?

Prophet Muhammad as a Role Model for a Perfect Spouse

Comparing a future spouse (male or female) to Prophet Muhammad is actually essential for making a good marriage decision. The Prophet's biography is not just a nice story, but an eternal inspiration. His life is meant to be a comprehensive manual in exemplary Muslim behavior. His being a prophet of God should actually encourage us to look for partners who love his traits and follow his model.

We should use his example as a blueprint for future spouses if we want our homes to be as happy as his house was. Consequently, a prospectful spouse's taqwa is determined by checking their behavior against the Prophet's Sunnah.

Islam: Religion vs. Tradition

Some Muslims regard Islam as just a religious system of rituals and worship, so in social matters, they adhere more to their local traditions than to their Islamic system. Yet, Islam is in fact a complete "culture"; a lifestyle covering all aspects of daily life.

Muslims worldwide — regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, whether they realize it or not — share a unique common identity, based on Islam's core values. So Muslims who practice Islam are supposed to have a lot in common and to choose it above all else.

This is the solution to your problem Zahra: if Muslims in a society apply Islam as a whole, in every aspect of their lives, within the context of the Muslim global community called the Ummah, there will not be much emphasis on local traditions as bases for critical decisions such as marriage.

Tradition will maintain its local identity in colors, food or building style, but life decisions will be based only on Islam, and in such a mature cultural environment, no one will care much about the race or cultural background of a good Muslim spouse.

Parents Role in Marriage

Parents enjoy highest esteem in a Muslim family, second only to God's. Yet, Islam also grants each adult, sane individual freedom of choice, particularly when it comes to setting up a new family, and provided Islamic rules are followed.

The duty of parents is to help search for a suitable Muslim prospect using their expertise in life and unconditional love for their children; their opinion is essential and to be highly respected and considered. However, acceptance or rejection of a spouse remains up to the person involved. Contrary to common misconceptions, Islam doesn't teach parents to choose spouses "on behalf" of their children, nor to force them to marry without their consent.

Importance of Communication in Inter-Cultural Marriages

Successful relationships need effort. Good communication becomes doubly important in an inter-cultural marriage. Communication is not just about conversations, but many other factors, so I advise couples considering such a marriage to seek in-depth training and counseling in effective communication skills and conflict resolution.

Good communication is especially important in disputes, when two sides of each person's psychology would influence the reaction: on one side, their native culture and their education level, and on the other side the universal Islamic culture with its timeless humane values calling for restraint and wise judgment, and for turning the negative energy of anger into a positive reaction.

Each one of the couple also has two channels of communication to manage: with their family to help them accept the marriage (if it fulfils Islamic requirements) then with the partner to discuss differences and learn together about their common culture of Islam. The more their intention is to please Allah, the higher their chances of long term success.

I hope this answers your question, please stay in touch.


Useful Links:

Distinguishing Culture from Religion Concerning Marriage

A Closer Look at Mixed-Faith Marriages

Marriage Is the Prophet’s Sunnah

Parents Opinion in Marriage

Settling Cultural Differences Between Spouses