What happens when Muslims and Christians tie the knot?

Two wedding rings

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When Heather Al-Yousuf, first met her husband of 28 years, they both felt a strong connection to their own faiths.

But their love was not straightforward as Heather is Anglican and her husband is Shia Muslim. However, Mrs Al-Yousuf thinks this is why so many inter-faith couples are drawn together.

Inter-faith marriage is on the rise in the UK. But as couples from different faiths fall in love, what are the challenges they face?

"There are quite a lot of Catholic-Muslim couples, and Catholics from quite a strong Catholic background meeting a Muslim from a strong Muslim background.

Heather Al-Yousuf in Blackburn Cathedral Heather Al-Yousuf is Anglican and married a Muslim 28 years ago

"It is almost like there is something they recognise about each other, there is an unconscious connection there - same kind of families, same kind of faith informing how they live life," Mrs Al-Yousuf says.

She believes each faith puts family at its core. However, inter-faith relationships also challenge both faiths. Where do they marry? In what faith do they raise their children?

According to figures from the 2001 census, more than 4% of married Muslims are in an inter-faith marriage in England and Wales.

Ethical guidelines for pastoral support

  • No forced conversion: ensure individuals are not forced or pressurised to convert in order to marry
  • Prioritise welfare of children and encourage family relationships across both faiths
  • Be welcoming: ensure people of the other faith are welcomed

But Mrs Al-Yousuf, who now lives in Oxfordshire, thinks this figure could be higher as there could be many more unmarried couples who choose not to marry due to the complications caused by selecting a ceremony.

'Gut feeling'

When two planes hit the World Trade Centre on 9/11 in 2001, Heather Al-Yousuf says she felt sick when her husband suggested they recite the opening Sura from the Koran.

"I had this gut feeling, no I don't want to go there, I feel sick at the whole thing about Islam.

"But then I connected it to my husband and our families, not to those people who did that.

"That was quite an important psychological moment for me to get through, that negative association with all things Islamic."

The family did recite the Sura, and Mrs Al-Yousuf also sang the Lord's My Shepherd.

Christian Muslim Forum

  • The forum is made up of members of the Muslim and Christian communities - Sunni, Shia, Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist and Coptic Orthodox - and includes various traditions, Evangelicals, Deobandis, Barelwis, Sufis
  • Its aims include "weaving a web of open, honest and committed personal relationships between leading Christians and Muslims"

"I suppose, when the chips are down, that's the religious experience that you want to hand on to your children, regardless of what else," says Mrs Al-Yousuf.

The Al-Yousuf's decided to bring up their children in both religions.

"We do both, if it's Eid, the children fast, but maybe not the whole of Ramadan."

'Horror stories'

Inter-faith couples can gain support from the Inter-faith Marriage Network, they meet every few months in London and also have a strong online community.

The Christian Muslim Forum, an organisation that promotes a better understanding between Muslims and Christians, has also recently produced ethical guidelines to help faith leaders give pastoral support. Heather Al-Yousuf has contributed to these and works to help many inter-faith couples.

"Very often, the couples I know, have been together for a very long time before they make that [marriage] actual choice.

Start Quote

It is not my place, to tell a Muslim woman, no you can not marry, obviously she knows in her heart as a Muslim woman it is forbidden in Islam for her to marry a Christian man... My job is to guide her ”

End Quote Imam Sahib Bastwell Mosque

"In fact the ones that have been together for a long time, have been agonising about how to tell their families, how to deal with the fall-out, how to deal with the fact it may be forbidden in their faith or their communities' interpretation of the faith."

'Best of our faiths'

While not promoting inter-faith marriage, the Christian Muslim Forum recognises the opportunity for the two faiths to have a dialogue about the subject.

Speaking at a recent inter-faith conference in Blackburn, Mrs Al-Yousuf told the audience: "There is a real duty to exhibit the best of our faiths, a tremendous amount of wisdom and discernment in dealing with people who are struggling, perhaps, with the issue of our times, which is this encounter between faiths."

Imam Sahib of Bastwell Mosque in Blackburn, Lancashire, believes his role is to advise as best he can.

"It is not my place, to tell a Muslim woman, no you can not marry, obviously she knows in her heart as a Muslim woman it is forbidden in Islam for her to marry a Christian man," he says.

"My job is to guide her and give her sound advice and not to antagonise her family, because family in any religion is very, very important.

"Islam is about peace, Islam is about family, family unity, Islam is about embracing different cultures and religions.

Imam Sahib, Heather Al-Yousuf and Anjam Anwar Imam Sahib, Heather Al-Yousuf and Anjum Anwar debate inter-faith marriage at Blackburn Cathedral

"My opinion is, if a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim man, you don't want to cast away that sister from the Muslim family, she will need support."

Cannon Shannon Ledbetter of Blackburn Cathedral also feels providing support is important but that a same-faith couple benefits by being able to share religious rites together.

"Within the marriage relationship it is hoped that Christians can live out their faith fully, together and it is for that reason, that one of Jesus' primary followers St Paul, wrote in biblical times in his letter to the Corinthians, 'we ought not to marry an unbeliever, a non-Christian'."

However, she adds: "Within the Christian context it is not for us to judge, but to offer compassion, guidance and support."

The number of people identifying with no religion is on the rise in England and Wales. Mrs Al-Yousuf believes because of this, it is important religious leaders support inter-faith couples, as they are trying to keep their faiths alive.

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"The whole notion of marriage is a little up in the air at the moment, we have all kinds of parallel systems of living, in a way those that choose to marry are those really old-fashioned traditional ones in either society and for us to be kind of tough on some of those who are choosing to marry, is counter-culture in a way."

Mrs Al-Yousuf fears if support is not provided the impact on the children could be particularly detrimental.

"It's pretty toxic when it doesn't work," she says.

Couples "whose religious differences become difficult to work out on their own and feel triangulated by faith communities on a wider level, it can have a very damaging impact on their relationships and their children.

"Isolation and mistrust can lead to relationship breakdowns and distrust in the other.

"Mental ill-health often follows when people are dealing with isolation.

"We all need community and family connections on one hand, but if that becomes problematic, that isolation can have profound effects."

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