The dilemma I am a 30-year-old woman of Indian ethnicity. I am a doctor and living alone, away from my family. Two years ago I met a wonderful man and we now feel it’s time to tie the knot. I have never been particularly religious, but my family is Muslim – though quite liberal. My parents have yet to meet my boyfriend, but I am sure they will love him. My problem is that in Islam a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man – any marriage which takes place is invalid. My boyfriend is Christian and 100% sure he does not want to convert. I fully respect his decision, but it means that we could only marry legally and not religiously. This is bugging me, as I strongly feel I would like a religious wedding blessed by God – or at least the God I understand there to be. I feel like a fanatic for having these thoughts, as I don’t do anything that a Muslim woman is expected to do. Should I ignore my conscience and marry him legally, or is this a sign to break up?
Mariella replies I wonder if it’s conscience or your sub-conscious that’s at play here. Either way, you may be asking the wrong person. If I was apathetic about religion when I was younger, I’m fast becoming radicalised against it. I never felt stirrings of faith – apart from when faced with natural wonders such as the multilayered celestial splendour of a night sky, my newborn babies, an epic coastline – so I embraced tolerance and tried to remain open to the multitude of organised belief systems I don’t share.
In the past I’ve argued with career atheist Richard Dawkins about the hypocrisy of presuming dogmatic anti-religious rhetoric to be any improvement on the sermonising of those attempting to instil faith. Such one-dimensional depictions of the negative side of belief ignore the kindness, moral ambition and generosity of billions of people who have been inspired to lead a religiously upright life.
Yet I’m edging towards a hardline approach, as the nutcases of Isis and the American far-right show the end product of free speech and religious tolerance. I say all this to confirm my sympathy for belief, if not my embrace of it. I’m not convinced this is a faith dilemma, but a tangible way of voicing deep reservations. Let’s dig around a bit in the dark, shall we?
It’s true that an enduring partnership is difficult to sustain and will require positive influences to keep it afloat. Cultural connections are helpful but can come from a shared era in pop music and political fervour.
You say you’ve met the right man and you want to get married, so you could just be faltering in fear at the final hurdle before such a huge commitment. The ambition of entering into a lifelong union is fuelled by rampant romance, but that doesn’t always silence the practical doubts from our minds.
Hitching ourselves to another for our duration on this planet is a human folly. The ideal has only thrived because at its best it provides a supportive framework from which to build our lives and bring up the next generation, not because it’s our natural inclination.
You can – and must – think hard about all the eventualities, but you won’t be able to conjure them all. Religion may be the issue that comes between you, but it’s just as likely to be bathroom habits, or competitive parenting, or financial problems, or the evolution of your working lives.
You say you “don’t do anything a Muslim woman is expected to do”, so you’re not obvious marriage material for a committed Muslim man, which is what you’re suggesting as an alternative.
A religious marriage isn’t just about the ceremony but about the promises and expectations that come with it. Handpicking the vows you take seriously is the sort of thing that gives believers of all creeds a bad name. Ultimately you’re the only one who can decide how much your inherited religion matters to your future life. Judging by how you’ve lived to date, I suspect the embrace of your family and the virtues of the man himself should and will be what you base your conscious choice on.
If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mariella on Twitter @mariellaf1
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