Marriage and Islamic Conversion

Nikah in Thailand

Marriage and Islamic Conversion

Marriage and Islamic Conversion

In both the Muslim-majority countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, the continuous issue regarding irreligious marriages between a Muslim and a non-Muslim revolves around the questions of religious conversion. In Indonesia, the issue debated is whether or not such marriages should be allowed. In Malaysia, where they are not allowed, the primary contestation is over issues related to conversion out of Islam.

In Thailand and the Philippines, the main issues of the Muslim regions are those regarding poverty, marginalisation, identity, autonomy and separation. Nevertheless, so far Muslim and non-Muslim marriages are registered separately and recognized, the issue on religious conversion will no doubt be an important aspect of irreligious marriages at the individual level.

For a couple with different religious backgrounds contemplating marriage, the options are that one spouse can convert to the religion of the other, both can maintain separate religions, both can convert to another religion, or one or both can drop out of any religious involvement. Actually, it could be that neither had much religious involvement in the first place, but the realistic options that are opened to the couple will depend very much on the legal and social context in which they are placed.

The legal requirements placed on Muslims to marry according to Syariah regulations in effect imposes an asymmetrical condition – which the non-Muslim partner converts, rather than the other way around. And leads to many “conversions of convenience” by the non-Muslims, as the only way to marry the person they love. It is an important issue amongst Muslims that the non-Muslim party embrace Islam. This leads to complication if the marriage does not work out and the spouse who have converted wishes to leave the religion after the dissolution of the marriage.

Although the issue of religious conversion is actually independent of marriage issues, the reality is that these two sets of issues are linked for persons who wish to contract marriages across the Muslim-non-Muslim divide. There is also a gender dimension layered onto these issues. It has been observed, for example in Thailand, even though women play a central role in daily religious observances, they also convert out of their religion for marriage more frequently than men do. In the case of Islam, even where the interpretation allows for irreligious marriage, it is Muslim mostly men who can marry certain categories of non-Muslim women, and not the reverse. The condition underlying this allowance is for the Muslim male head of the family to bring his wife to his religion, while it is assumed that it just could not happen the other way around.