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.

She credits aspects of Islam for the success of her second marriage. “My husband chose Islam and then later asked me about marriage,” she said. “We have commitment to the concept of marriage, willingness to work at it, respect for each other and treat each other with kindness and patience. All are encouraged by Islam.”

Concerns such as domestic violence and sex and sexuality among Muslims are gradually being addressed, according to Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, in her book Muslim Women in America.  Haddad is a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

A much-discussed issue is the Islamic law stating Muslim men can marry women who the Quran calls “People of the Book,” meaning Christians and Jews.  But Muslim women can only marry Muslim men. 

Killinger said there are reasons why Muslim women must marry Muslim men. “It places great difficulty on a woman who marries outside of the faith,” she said. “She loses the protections offered a Muslim woman, such as a man who doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t gamble, must support all children 100 percent, must provide for all financial needs of the home and family, and who must respect her right to pray and fast.”

Kecia Ali, assistant professor of religion at Boston University and author of Sexual Ethics and Islam, said there are a range of opinions on what is appropriate in a Muslim marriage, due primarily to interpretations of the Quran.

She explained that some Muslim women in North America and Europe consider it acceptable to marry Christian or Jewish men in civil ceremonies. In addition, she said, some women question whether instead of Muslim women being restricted to Muslim men, it should be Muslim men who are restricted from marrying non-Muslim women, since women are usually in charge of raising children.

“The main issue for many Muslims today in interfaith marriages is whether the children will be raised Muslim,” said Professor Ali.

Shams Ghoneim, a lifelong Muslim from Egypt, who has been in Iowa for 40 years, said it is best for Muslim women to marry within their religion. “If they marry outside of the faith, they may be forced to embrace the men’s religion,” she said.

However, she does not think it will always be that way. “As Islam, as countries and cultures evolve, women’s rights do, too,” she said. “Therefore, as women become more confident, secure and supported in decisions to marry outside of Islam — yet retain their faith — they will.”

Ghoneim, 60, a pathology researcher at the University of Iowa, has been married to her Muslim husband since 1966. They have two adult children, both practicing Muslims: a daughter, living in Los Angeles; and a son, who lives in Chicago and is married to a Catholic.

“They are on their own personal journeys,” Ghoneim said of her children’s decisions about Islam and marriage.

Interfaith marriages are not unusual in her extended family in Egypt, Canada and the United States.  She said in her family’s experience, those decisions are respected.

But, she points out that a common religion among spouses can help. “As in any marriage,” she said, “the less conflict, the better.”