LONDON – With a rising population of Muslims in the UK, the number of interfaith marriages deviating from the faith’s traditional norms has surged in recent years, increasing concerns over an unlikely bonding between Islamic culture and British identity.
"We hear over and again: 'I've met this non-Muslim guy at university or work who I feel compatible with and he's not going to stop me from practicing my religion'," Heather Al Yousuf, a Christian married to a Shia Muslim, told Al Jazeera on Friday, December 28.
"None have told me: 'I'm giving up my faith,' because they do not feel their identity would be under threat by marrying a non-Muslim."
Getting married to a Muslim, Al Yousuf decided in the late 1990s to launch the Interfaith Marriage Network, a support group for Muslim-Christian couples.
Approached by an average of 100 couples per year, the couples were mostly Muslim men and non–Muslim women at the beginning.
Now about half are Muslim women with non-Muslim partners.
The growing phenomenon reflected a third generation independent Muslim women who appear to be challenging their cultural and religious boundaries.
Salma and Pim, who did not want their last names used, are an example of the growing interfaith couples in the UK.
"When I started falling in love with Salma, who I knew was Muslim, I realized that me being Christian was a potential conflict," Pim, a Dutch Christian, told Al Jazeera on Friday, December 28.
Unwilling to convert to Islam, Pin decided to marry Salma, a British Muslim, due to what he describes as his "respect for Salma as a person and her religion".
Their marriage ceremony was performed by Imam Taj Hargey of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford.
"I felt really sad that they were too upset and depressed to talk to me openly. There was so much happiness in my heart for being in love. I wanted them to come with me on this journey."
When imam Hargey married them, he provided the comfort that Salma could still carry on being a believing Muslim.
"It meant a lot to me," she says.
"It's made me closer to God and has taken that inner conflict away."
Contradicting the opinion of almost all religious scholars, Imam Hargey has conducted marriage services for Muslim women without their Christian or Jewish partners converting.
"There is no verse in the Holy Quran that bans Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men," Imam Hargey told Al Jazeera.
"Almighty God would have revealed explicit directives if Muslim women were not allowed to marry outside the faith.
"As Muslim men are entitled to marry women from the People of the Book who are not Muslim [Surah al-Maidah 5:5], the same right must be afforded to Muslim women as Islam is a gender-equal religion."
British Muslims are estimated at nearly 2.5 million.
The 2001 census suggests the number of interfaith marriages at 21,000, but demographers believe the figure is considerably higher.
Most religious scholars agree that Islam permits Muslim men to marry "women of the book" - Christians or Jews - thus expanding the number of potential partners to choose from.
Muslim women, on the other hand, are forbidden to marry a non-Muslim unless her partner converts to Islam, say purists. Some men nominally convert to Islam in order to appease their partner's family.
Tackling the problem, a new initiative by the interfaith organization Christian Muslim Forum, led by senior Muslim imams and Christian ministers, have recognized the rise in such marriages.
After consulting with hundreds of couples, they have listed a series of guidelines calling for a softer approach to interfaith marriage.
Although stopping short of endorsing interfaith marriage, the religious figures of the Christian Muslim Forum, have encouraged counseling for such couples and oppose forced conversion as a condition for marriage.
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