Fatimah Mohammad sits for a photo in her home on April 20, 2007.  A retired Iowa City postal worker, she converted to Islam in 1999.  She says her second Muslim marriage has brought her happiness and love. Photo by Kimberly Merchant.

Marriage without Borders

The day after Fatimah Mohammad married a widowed, successful Muslim businessman from Illinois, his “dead” wife telephoned her from Egypt.

Mohammad, an American convert to Islam, soon discovered that she had been duped into entering a “green card marriage,” an illegal practice where non-Americans enter into marriages with American citizens solely to obtain permanent residency or citizenship in the United States.

“The [Muslim] community pushed me into my first marriage,” she said. “In Islam, marriage is half your deen, half your religion. They thought he was an outstanding, wonderful man. He pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.”

She had obeyed the rules of her new religion. In accordance with Muslim tradition, she had one chaperoned visit with this man prior to the marriage, two years after her 1999 conversion. Her religious zeal and tendency to “over-Islam,” which she said is common among new Muslims, kept her in the marriage for two years. Eventually, Mohammad, 50, was granted a religious and legal divorce.

On today’s bumpy road to marital bliss, American Muslim women strive to balance their Islamic traditions with modern phenomenon.  They use internet matchmaking services.  They grapple with gender imbalances.  They are opening the door to discussion of previously whispered topics such as domestic violence and homosexuality. 

And, marriage itself — whether difficulties are resolved by divorce, hope or love — is all a part of faith.

Mohammad used her unfortunate experience to warn others.  A retired Iowa City postal worker, she said she used to spend a lot of free time on the Internet chatting with and advising people on Islamic marriages.

“Too many American women come to Islam for a man,” she said, adding that women who are converting for marriage are usually disappointed and that about three-quarters of them leave the religion.

Ilyas Ba-Yunus, emeritus professor of Sociology at State University of New York at Cortland, said ex-wives make up the second largest group of the 75 percent of American converts to Islam who revert to non-Islam.

Mohammad, who was raised in the Church of Christ, says she is glad she came to Islam before considering marriage. “My faith will not be destroyed by a man. There are bad eggs out there,” she said. “I got a real doozy of a weasel,” she said, referring to her first husband.

Two years ago, she married Ousainou Keita, 34, from Gambia, West Africa. He was an imam and doctoral student in Akron, Ohio. “We have proven to the world that age is just a number, and cultures can be bridged if a couple is committed to each other,” she said. “We built the marriage on respect and faith first. Love came later.”

While e-mail helped Mohammad get to know her husband, Keita, without actually being with him, Lisa Zaynab Killinger skipped the chaperoned meetings.

Killinger’s husband of six years is an American Muslim. “We always met in public places,” she said, “which is usual these days. Islam’s guidance, in my understanding, is that it is best to get to know someone and to see them.”

She said arranged marriages where the woman has no choice in the matter or when the couple has no opportunity to meet prior to the wedding are forbidden by Islam. However, it does happen.

“Where illiteracy is high, this practice still occurs among Muslims and most other religions,” she said.

Killinger, 47, is a former Episcopalian who converted to Islam. “I was attracted to the purity of the Islamic faith and the comprehensive nature of its guidance.”

Three years after becoming a Muslim, in 1982, she married a Canadian of Pakistani descent. They were married seven years, had four children together and were divorced.

Killinger, a chiropractor and associate professor at Palmer Chiropractic College in Davenport, is also a lecturer on Muslim women’s issues at Mecca Centric Da’Wah Group. Her presentations include: “Women in Islam: Through Western Eyes,” “Men are From Marwa, Women are From Safa,” and “How to Find Your Soulmate the Islamic Way.”