LONDON — It took ten years for Shafiq and Sarah to decide to get married. The two met through friends while in college and developed a close friendship. But their respective religions — Shafiq is Muslim and Sarah is an evangelical Christian — held the pair back from romantic involvement.
“It took a long, long time because we both had our faiths and we had to reconcile that,” said the London-born Shafiq, whose parents came to England in the 1960s from Pakistan.
“I had big reservations,” said Sarah, sitting in the kitchen of her West London home. “I’d be lying if I said it was an easy decision.” (*Some of people interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.)
Yet four years and one son later, the couple says they have no regrets. Tolerant of each other’s beliefs, they live together, practicing different religions.
“What’s made it easy is that we are not from different cultures,” said Sarah, a smiling, blonde 34-year-old, who was born in Wales. “We have a lot of common ground.”
As Muslims become more integrated in the West, marriage to people of other faiths is becoming more commonplace. Nowhere is this more true than in London, perhaps the most cosmopolitan European capital. Muslims make up about 8 percent of the city’s population and neighborhoods are renowned for their diversity.
The 1960s and 70s Britain saw an influx of immigrants — a majority of whom were from South Asia – and their children attended British schools, speak with British accents and are active participants in the workforce. Interfaith marriages are almost a natural extension of their integration.
“London is a tolerant place that tends to turn everyone into Londoners,” said John Beckett, who has been in an interfaith marriage for 30 years.
There are no official statistics kept of the number of interfaith couples in Britain. Estimates by people involved in interfaith organizations run around 17,000, but that wouldn’t necessarily include couples in which one partner converted.
‘There are risks attached’
As integrated as British society may be, pressures on an interfaith couple — from family opposition, to differing expectations of how to raise children — can be great.
“Very often there is considerable pressure for [a non-Muslim] man to convert, even if it’s just token conversion,” said Heather Al-Yousef, the administrator of the U.K.-based Interfaith Marriage Network and the coordinator of the Muslim/Christian marriage support group.
According to Islamic law, a man is permitted to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but Muslim a woman is forbidden to marry anyone other than a Muslim.
“It can also cause problems later on if a man can’t live up to expectations. Conversions not done as matter of belief, well, there are risks attached,” said Al-Yousef from her home in Cambridge, England. She married a Muslim man 22 years ago and said that at the time she “felt [marriage to a Muslim] was something that was disapproved of in Britain by Christians.” However, over the years society has become more accepting, she said.
‘I became deeply troubled’
Neil, who was raised in the Church of England, converted to Islam in 2002, knowing that his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him otherwise. Born into a South Asian family, she became observant of Islamic traditions shortly after Sept. 11, and insisted that Neil adopt her religion if they were to wed.
“I was essentially swapping the one God I was brought up to believe for another, (surely the same?) although with an Arabic name,” wrote Neil in an email describing his interfaith relationship.
About a year after his conversion Neil began to doubt his adopted faith.
“Inside I became deeply troubled by this religion and my conversion,” he wrote. “I was not happy inside or felt true to myself.”
He finally discussed his uncertainties with his wife and two weeks later, she said she wanted to separate. The two have a 3-year-old son and Neil is reluctant to divorce on his account. But he predicts that their different beliefs will only drive them farther apart and create tension concerning their child.
“I can see a situation in a couple of years where [my son] starts talking to me about Islam and I will have to tell him my views,” Neil said. “I can even see a situation where I would like to go to court to get custody based on religious grounds.” Although he admits that it isn’t likely to happen.
As Neil’s situation illustrates, raising children is often the most sensitive issue in an interfaith marriage, according to experts in the field.
“You may both agree now that the children will be brought up solely in the faith of one parent, but will this cause the other parent to feel like a religious 'outsider', unable to contribute towards their children's spiritual nurture?” writes the Church of England in its guidelines to interfaith couples considering marriage.
Shafiq and Sarah’s son is already more influenced by his mother’s faith — he goes to church groups with her and she admits that she would be disappointed if he chose to practice Islam. However, both feel strongly that he has a strong understanding of his father’s religion.
Sarah only buys halal meat and doesn’t drink alcohol in front of Shafiq out of respect to his beliefs. Even their wedding was dry, much to the chagrin of Sarah’s guests.
On an everyday basis, religion is a peripheral issue to Shafiq and Sarah. “We don’t really think of ourselves as interfaith,” said Shafiq, 36.
‘Love will not conquer all’
By nature of their relationship, interfaith couples often do not practice a "textbook" version of their religion, choosing instead to take a little from one and bit from the other.
“We’ve ended up after 30 years doing a crossover – I’ve become Muslim, and she’s also a bit Catholic, Unitarian and Quaker,” said Beckett, explaining that his wife Tima often feels more comfortable in English church services than at Muslim events, which are mainly run by and for men, and are very often conducted in Arabic or Urdu.
The couple met in Mauritius where Beckett did a stint as a volunteer, and they married several years later. Religion played little role in their relationship until seven years ago when Tima started attending a Muslim prayer group with a friend. She soon dragged her husband along and several years later, after he learned more about the faith, Beckett decided to convert.
But despite their unconventional religious set up, conflict over religion doesn’t enter into the couple’s relationship.
“We conflict over more practical things like what time to go to bed,” said Beckett. “I like to go to bed early and she likes to stay up late reading the Quran and meditating.”
The most important advice that Al-Yousef offers to interfaith couples considering marriage is that open communication can head off many problems.
“Be mindful that there are practical things that need to be worked out, and love will not conquer all.”
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