opp loveOpposites Attract: Experiences of Muslim-Non-Muslim Couples Seeking Civil Union

by Muhammad Faris Alfiq Mohd Afandi

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by AMP, January 2020, Volume 15, Issue 1

“You can’t choose who you want to fall in love with.” An interviewee shared this to reflect the realities of love and marriage.

Nonetheless, this ‘absence’ of choice may cause some issues due to differing expectations and requirements in a relationship and marriage, for example, when couples from different religious and cultural backgrounds come together.

It is difficult to quantify exactly the number of Muslims in civil marriages in Singapore. Marriages among Muslim couples are regulated under the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), while marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims fall outside the Act, within the purview of Women’s Charter. The Department of Statistics of Singapore does not classify marriages under Women’s Charter by religion, but by race[1].

As stipulated in Section 89 of AMLA, a valid marriage is where both of the parties profess the Muslim religion and which is solemnised in accordance with the Muslim law[2]. Whereas, the Women’s Charter stipulates that no marriage between persons who are Muslims shall be solemnised or registered under its Act[3].

These clauses mean that marriages involving a Muslim and a non-Muslim (for the purposes of this article, such marriages will be termed as Muslim-non-Muslim marriages) can still be considered legitimate by the State, but that according to the Islamic law, the marriage is considered invalid.

The nature of this issue is highly sensitive as it affects not only the individuals but also their family members as there are stigmas surrounding Muslim-non-Muslim marriages. In this view, the Karyawan team is appreciative of the Muslim-non-Muslim couples who came forward to share their experiences in being involved in a civil relationship.

Different couples experience different sets of challenges, or sometimes, even a lack of challenges, when it comes to the decision to be married under the civil law. Interviews of these couples in this article reflect their personal experiences and are not representative of other Muslims who are involved in interreligious marriages under the civil law.

A Second Civil Marriage In The Family

Undoubtedly, the first hurdle in any kind of marriage is the family’s expectations – more so when it comes to Muslim-non-Muslim marriages.

There seem to be varied responses from different families. One Muslim interviewee, Natasha (not her real name), shared with the Karyawan team that her family is rather accepting of her upcoming nuptials with her UK-born Catholic fiancé in February 2020.

In her case, her sister had already married a Catholic man so it was relatively ‘easy’ for her parents to accept when she told them of her intention to marry her fiancé whom she had gotten to know online.

“[My parents] were absolutely fine with it. I think it is easier as my sister paved the way for me,” shared Natasha.

Her fiancée, Ben (not his real name) and his family have been living in Southeast Asia for more than a decade. According to her, they really understand the different lifestyles and religions here. Even as a Catholic, Natasha shared that Ben decided he too did not want to have a religious ceremony following the Catholic tradition, and preferred a civil ceremony instead.

 “We both decided to have a civil marriage. He has his traditions and I have mine, so we came to a compromise. He definitely does not want to convert (to Islam) and I didn’t even ask him to do so anyway because it is not fair,” shared Natasha.

Interestingly enough, there are opinions which allow the marriage of a Muslim man to a non-Muslim woman but she has to be of the kitabiyah tradition, or the ‘People of the Book’[4], but not the other way around. The discussion on the marriage of a Muslim man and a kitabiyah woman was ever evident in a Singapore court in 1964. However, the ruling presented was that the marriage was considered to be invalid[5].

Nonetheless, then-Attorney General of Singapore, Professor Ahmad Ibrahim, was quoted as mentioning that it was a “regret” the Syariah Court had passed such a judgement. Prof Ahmad stated, “[I]n modern society in which Muslims and non-Muslims live together in fraternity as fellow citizens of the state with equal rights and responsibilities, it seems fair and equitable that men and women of full age should have the right to marry and have a family without any limitation due to race, nationality and religion.”[6]

“I Cut You Off”

Another interviewee, Ashikin (not her real name) shared that her partner contemplated converting to Islam, but only for the sake of the marriage. However, her family members were against this. For Ashikin, even if her partner converts, the disapproval of her family meant that she is still unable to get married.

“There’s no point in him converting,” Ashikin told the Karyawan team. “How am I going to get a wali?[7]

“I was heartbroken, my mum was crying, and my brother threatened to kill my partner and not attend my wedding. It’s basically, ‘You do this, I cut you off.’”

Thus, for Ashikin and her partner, the only practical way for them to get married was through a civil marriage.

“We are practical [about getting married] because we are getting our build-to-order (BTO) flat by the end of 2020. We would need to get our marriage certificate within one year or else they are going to take [the unit] back,” she shared.

Well-Accepted

It seemed that the interviewees whom the Karyawan team met gave different accounts on their experiences in getting married under the civil law as Muslims. However, there was one striking similarity – the families of their non-Muslim partners accepted them for who they are.

Natasha shared that her fiancé’s family is open and very much accepting and adapts to her needs such as her dietary requirements. She said, “We don’t eat pork because he knows I don’t.”

Ashikin also experienced similar acceptance by her fiancé’s family. She mentioned that her soon-to-be in-laws are staunch Buddhists and understand the requirements of Muslims.

From Marriage To Family

When asked about how their children will be raised, the interviewees had similar sentiments.

“Personally, I would like my child to believe in Islam because that is my faith,” said Ashikin. The educator, however, seems to have reached some kind of compromise when it comes to the religion of the child. She shared that her partner, who can be considered an agnostic, believes that it is unfair to force a religion on a child. Rather, he is of the view that the child should be exposed to the different religions and he or she can then choose one that is best suited for him or her.

For Natasha, it was her belief and her partner’s that their future child should choose a religion that he or she is comfortable with. According to Natasha, what is important to her are moral values and that the child grows up with.

“Our kids are going to learn both. They are going to learn about Easter and Good Friday. At the same time, I will teach them about Hari Raya, fasting and the prayers. [But] when they grow up and choose which religion to follow, it is up to them,” she shared.

While the religion of the child seems to be an open decision, the child’s status may present some challenges.

According to the Islamic law, the status of a child of a civil marriage is considered to be an illegitimate child. This will then bring about a slew of legal complications under the Islamic law.

In an interview with the Karyawan team, Associate Professor Noor Aisha Abd Rahman from the Department of Malay Studies of the National University of Singapore explained that the child may not be able to receive the rights of inheritance of her biological father in accordance with the fatwa issued in Singapore.

Assoc Prof Noor Aisha, who has a background in law, also mentioned that if the child is a girl and chooses to marry under the Islamic law in future, her biological father is unable to represent her as her wali. She shared her experience in dealing with one such case involving a girl whose father is married to a non-Muslim in Britain:

“The father divorced his wife, came back to Singapore and raised their two children. The elder of the two children was married [under the Muslim law]. The father became her wali. The marriage took place. Later on, one of her relatives [learnt] about this fatwa and came to explain to the father and told [him] that actually that [his daughter’s] marriage is not valid because he cannot be the wali of [his] daughter. So they went to the Registry of Muslim Marriages and actually conducted another solemnisation – this time, [with] the Qadi as the wali hakim.”

Ashikin is fully aware of the issues she might face in the future. However, she and her partner have discussed it at length to circumvent any problems from the legal perspective. According to her, they might engage a lawyer to protect the rights of the child when it comes to matters concerning inheritance.

In his publication, Interreligious Marriage: Perspectives from the Singaporean Context in Relation to Interreligious Dialogue, Associate Professor Paul Hedges stated that while interreligious marriage presents itself as a platform for dialogue, the case of Muslim-non-Muslim marriages under the civil law is not as straightforward as it may seem[8].

The issues and challenges that one may face when it comes to family, the legal status of the child, as well as the status of the marriage under the Islamic law may present a barrier to having a civil marriage. From the experiences shared, it seems that a great deal of compromise and understanding are needed for such a marriage to prosper.

 


[1] Department of Statistics Singapore. Statistics on Marriages and Divorces 2018. Accessed December 27, 2019. https://www.tablebuilder.singstat.gov.sg/publicfacing/createDataTable.action?refId=14145

[2] See Section 89 of the Administration of Muslim Law Act. https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/AMLA1966#pr89-

[3] See Section 3 of the Women’s Charter. https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/WC1961#pr3-

[4] The term ‘People of the Book’ is highly contested. Some scholars strongly object to this notion as there are no way to ascertain the authenticity of the group, thus limiting a valid marriage to only be between two Muslims. Other scholars are more accepting of religions beyond the normative understanding of People of the Book. See Hedges, P. and Juhi, A. “Interreligious Marriage: Perspectives from the Singaporean Context in Relation to Interreligious Dialogue.” Interreligious Relations, No. 1 (February 2019).

[5] See Abdul Razak vs Lisia Binte Mandagie alias Maria Mernado (SYC No. 42/1964) in Ibrahim, A. “Marriages of Muslims with Non-Muslims.” Malayan Law Journal, March 1965, xvi-xvii. Cited in Noor Aisha Abd Rahman, “Muslim-non-Muslim Marriage in Singapore” in Jones, Gavin W, Heng Leng Chee, and Maznah Mohamad. Muslim-Non-Muslim Marriage: Political and Cultural Contestations in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009, p. 296

[6] Ibrahim, A. “Marriages of Muslims with Non-Muslims.”

[7] Under the Islamic Law, a woman can only be married off by her wali, a male guardian. Typically, he is the woman’s father. In the event her father is dead, her closest male agnate shall be her wali. Refer to Djamour, J. (2004). Malay kinship and marriage in Singapore. Oxford: Berg. P. 67

[8] Hedges, P. and Juhi, A. “Interreligious Marriage: Perspectives from the Singaporean Context in Relation to Interreligious Dialogue.” Interreligious Relations, No. 1 (February 2019).

 

Muhammad Faris Alfiq is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He specializes in the discourse on Islam in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, sociology of Islamic law and political Islam. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Malay Studies from National University of Singapore (NUS).

 

Photo Source: The Karyawan

 
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