On a blustery weekend this past February, 26 people met at the Cenacle Retreat House in Chicago to reflect on the religious dimensions of marriage. Nothing unusual about that. What was unusual about this gathering was that it brought together Christians and Muslims who are married, engaged or seriously considering marriage. Attendees hailed mostly from the Chicago area, but also from Valparaiso, Minneapolis, Rochester, Minn., and Seattle. One man even cut short a trip abroad, at his wife’s behest, to be present.
“Mixed marriage,” the canonical term for marriage between a Catholic and a member of another Christian church, is a fact of life in America’s religiously plural society. But many may not realize how prevalent it is among Catholics. A study by Creighton University’s Center for Marriage and Family in 1999 indicates that today roughly 40 percent of all Catholics marry non-Catholics. Most of these unions involve Catholics and other Christians (a more ecumenically sensitive term is “interchurch” marriage rather than “mixed,” which has some negative connotations).
However, increasing numbers of Catholics are marrying Jews, Muslims and adherents of other religions (the canonical term here is “disparity of cult,” but “interfaith” or “interreligious” marriage are more user-friendly terms). Catholic-Jewish couples, because of their greater number and longer history in American society, have a growing list of resources, including books, Web sites and support groups like the national Dovetail Institute and the Chicago-based Jewish Catholic Couples Group. But there are practically no pastoral resources for Christian-Muslim couples in the United States, despite the fact that according to many estimates, there are now more Muslims in this country than Jews. The few print resources available to pastors and couples are either outdated or written for a non-American context. (The Canadian Centre for Ecumenism has just published an exellent document, Pastoral Guidelines for Muslim-Christian Marriages.)
The dearth of resources, combined with the reluctance of many imams and pastors even to broach the subject, has left Christian-Muslim couples at a loss. To whom can they turn for advice about the unique issues they face? Where can priests and campus ministers go when called upon to counsel the small but growing number of such couples?
And Christian-Muslim couples truly are in need of especially sensitive and informed pastoral care. Reaction to such relationships can be strong, and many couples fear vehement disapproval from their families, ethnic group and/or society at large. Muslim women wishing to marry Christian men face the additional worry of potential ostracism from the faith community, for although Islam permits Muslim men to marry “people of the book” (Christians and Jews), Muslim women marry only within the faith.
February’s conference, jointly planned by Christian and Muslim organizations in Chicago, was an attempt to meet the pastoral needs of these couples. It attracted a diverse group—Christians diverse according to denomination (Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist), Muslims according to ethnicity (Egyptian, Indian, Thai, American-Polish-Pakistani). Yet all wrestled with the same concerns: different religious understandings of marriage (sacrament versus sacred contract, divine versus human institution), greater family involvement in mate selection and marriage, Islam’s proscription of dating, potential legal problems in countries with sharia (Islamic law) in force, greater cultural differences (and more difficulty distinguishing the religious from the cultural). While addressing these topics with Christian and Muslim experts was necessary, couples agreed that one of the best aspects of the weekend was the chance to discuss their concerns with others in the same situation.
What follows is a brief exploration of three major challenges facing Christian-Muslim couples, and indeed most interfaith couples: negotiating boundaries, praying together and raising children.
On Saturday night, retreatants participated in an activity designed to get them thinking about boundaries. The couples were asked to split into four groups (Muslim women, Muslim men, Christian women, Christian men) to discuss and list negotiables and non-negotiables in the form of “I shall” and “I shall not” statements. They were also asked to list their fears, rational or not. Some fears: baptism of their children (Muslim men), moving to a foreign country indefinitely (Christian women); giving up the faith (Muslim women), being rejected by the husband’s family (Christian women).
In their lists of shalls and shall nots, the overwhelming response of the participants, no matter the religion, was: “I will maintain my religious and cultural identity; I will not convert.” One couple admitted that before they got married, each fantasized about what it would be like for the other to convert. “But in the end, neither of us was willing to give up our faith. It’s the core of our existence and identity,” they said. However, couples also indicated with equal vigor a willingness to learn about and from the other: “I shall learn more about the religion/culture/language of my partner.”
This exercise highlighted the importance of discussing negotiables and non-negotiables as early as possible in the relationship, so as to avoid misunderstandings later. However, even after going through the difficult process of negotiating boundaries, couples cannot presume that the initial lines drawn would be immovable. The married couples present agreed that all should expect to be changed in some way by the faith of their partners. “I have always deeply felt the need to fulfill my promise to raise my children Catholic, and before they were born I thought that if they ever decided to become Muslims as adults I would be crushed,” said one mother. “But now I know that if they did, I would be O.K. That’s how far I’ve come.”
Opportunities for prayer were provided at several points during the weekend: a room was set aside for the five daily Muslim prayers, there was Catholic Mass and an ecumenical morning prayer. Mirroring contemporary American society, couples differed greatly in their degree of personal and mutual religious practice. One married couple hadn’t prayed together “because we never had the chance.” Another couple (engaged) hadn’t prayed together either, but because of a conscious choice. In this case, the Christian woman felt she needed to go to church alone, so she could pray without constantly worrying about how her partner would react to the crucifix, the Eucharist and so on.
Some couples tried to find a common language that would allow them to pray together. This is often accomplished by the Christian agreeing to adopt Islam-friendly language in prayer—which is not difficult, since Christians and Muslims believe in the same God and both call God merciful, just, compassionate and omnipotent. Compromise is more complicated in the other direction, for a Muslim cannot agree to pray in the name of Jesus, or even to “God the Father.”
It’s not just the language of prayer that can be tricky, but postures too. One Lutheran-Muslim couple said that they did not pray salat (ritual prayer that includes specific movements) together because doing so may be considered a credal affirmation of Islam. But privately in the morning and evening they are learning to pray side by side, each using their own prayer forms and postures, including prostration, but always praying the du ’ a (supplicatory prayer), which allows for petitions and more freedom in structure and language. The couple sees praying together as one way of binding their lives together.
Several couples, fearing a “lowest common denominator” compromise, chose not to pray together. They felt more comfortable praying in their own tradition, but in the presence of the other—e.g., a Christian wife would say the Our Father at the same time her Muslim husband recites al-Fatiha (first chapter of the Qur’an). This method of being together in prayer is commonly known as the “Assisi model,” after the method used by Pope John Paul II and leaders from various religions during the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi in 1986.
Still other couples preferred to pray separately, to preserve a “safe place” for their own beliefs and practices.
When Children Come
One of the most emotional sessions of the weekend, “When Children Come,” was led by Anne and Mohammed, a Catholic-Muslim couple married seven years who are the parents of two. They decided to raise their children Catholic, but with a deep appreciation for their father’s Muslim faith. Reaching this decision was difficult enough, but living it out has been a constant challenge, even painful at times. Anne recalled that just as she was bursting with joy at the baptism of their first child, she looked over at her husband to see tears streaming down his face.
Anne’s story demonstrates how sensitive an issue baptism can be for interfaith couples. Emotions about the sacrament run deep for both Christians and Muslims, and most people do not realize how visceral their reaction to the mere word may be. A sacrament of Christian initiation, baptism is no mere nicety, easily negotiated. Baptism means becoming part of the Christian community, and Muslims are very aware of this fact, sometimes more than Christians. The Muslims—mostly men at this retreat—felt that allowing their children to be baptized meant they had somehow failed in one of their most important duties, to raise their children as Muslims (in Islam, the faith and all it entails is transmitted through the father).
Anne and Mohammed continue to struggle with the challenges of their choice. They emphasize that they are not attempting a synthesis. They have intentionally chosen to raise their children in a single, coherent system of belief, rather than raising them as bireligious or as “nothing” and then letting them choose later. They feel that this is the best way to help their children become adults of strong faith.
Another area of difficulty for these couples is how to teach their children about Jesus. Muslims revere Jesus (’Isa) as a great prophet, but do not believe he is divine. Knowing this, does the Christian parent shy away from describing Jesus as Son of God, or praying in Jesus’ name, even when the couple has agreed to raise their children Christian? If it had been decided to raise the children as Muslims, wouldn’t they be taught the doctrine of tawhid, the absolute oneness of God, and the Muslim belief that Jesus is a prophet but not divine? Do Christians in interfaith marriages feel they must downplay certain aspects of their faith for the sake of harmony? Are their Muslim partners even asking them to do so? On the other hand, many couples feel that focusing on beliefs held in common increases family unity.
Anne and Mohammed’s children are still young (five and three), and they know that more difficult questions are sure to come. “But right now, our children are not confused,” says Anne. “They are being raised Christian, but we do say both Muslim and Christian prayers at mealtimes. Practically speaking, I don’t think that day-to-day, living a Christian or a Muslim life are so different.”
Although the retreatants were concerned about the possibility of making too many compromises and relativizing faith, they did note a distinction between objective theological concepts and the lived experience of faith, a distinction that can make life together possible. Some would argue that the two cannot be separated—and those who believe this may eventually decide against marriage. But for the rest of these highly educated, moderately to strongly religious couples, while theology is important, it does not have the last word. They are concerned about objective truth, and do live with the tension. But they are also concerned about living their daily lives in love, and they trust that God will continue to guide them on the challenging path they have chosen to forge together.
“Marriage is about compromise,” says Anne. “In an interfaith marriage, there are definitely hard sacrifices to be made. No question about that. And sometimes it’s lonely being pioneers. But I believe God brought Mohammed and me together for a reason. There must be a purpose. I believe it is to bring us closer to God.”