Are you a Muslim convert planning to marry? It’s not always easy
Finding the right partner and settling into matrimony within the Islamic faith can be fraught with challenges and dangers
Jane Morris felt the pressure to get married almost immediately after she converted to Islam by taking her Shahadah. In her first few weeks as a new Muslim at 25, she was inundated with proposals. Women at the mosque would surround her after prayers, sharing the names of potential suitors, sometimes putting their own family members forward.
Meanwhile, mosque leaders misconstrued a well-known hadith and urged her to take a husband quickly, warning that her faith “would not be complete” until she got married. “They implied that if you weren’t married, part of your faith was missing,” Morris, 50, recalls. “This was a really dangerous mindset to impart on somebody who is so impressionable, because at that stage all you want to do is make Allah happy.”
There is no data available on the number of convert Muslims in the UK and research around converts is limited. One small-scale study, published by Leicester-based charity Convert Muslim Foundation in 2019, found that 46% were either single or divorced.
Experiences vary from person to person, but converts seeking marriage face unique challenges that stem from a lack of education about Islam and stigma within Muslim communities. In an effort to counter this, London-based charity Solace UK is launching a service this month dedicated to helping convert Muslim women to find a suitable partner for marriage. The initiative, named Solace in Marriage, will aim to educate women about their rights and responsibilities, match them with a spouse, and provide a wali.
The absence of a wali — a guardian, usually a brother or father — to safeguard women throughout the marriage process and assess potential suitors is a common issue among convert women. Aisha Rosalie, 25, met her husband Sultan Akhtar on a Muslim matchmaking app during one of the Covid-19 lockdown periods.
As a convert with no Muslim family members — nor assistance from her mosque, owing to pandemic restrictions — she attended each meeting with Sultan and his family alone. “I remember constantly wishing I could have had someone to vet Sultan,” Rosalie said. “When you really like someone, it’s easy to miss warning signs and I worried that I could have missed something — an indication of an anger problem, or a bad history.”
Rosalie was fortunate to have found a good partner, but for other women converts like Morris, not having access to a wali can have devastating consequences.
Morris was introduced to her first husband, a Syrian man, through her local mosque. While he seemed pleasant at first, she had raised concerns with her mosque teacher about how compatible they were, given their vastly different upbringings.
“I remember my teacher saying to me, ‘Your compatibility is Islam, what are you talking about?’,” Morris said. In hindsight, she believes that the mosque was trying to get her married as fast as possible. “There is pressure to get married because the community doesn’t want to take care of us. They know they have this duty of care to new Muslims, but it’s much easier if you can delegate the burden to one person.”
The marriage soon became abusive, and Morris later learned that people within the mosque had been aware of her husband’s anger issues. “Before we got married, he was living in a shared house with some other brothers, and he was constantly having fights with them,” Morris said. “I did what I thought was due diligence, but nobody told me he had a temper.”
Cultural stigma within Muslim communities can also pose problems for converts seeking marriage. Gareth met his wife of eight years while they were studying at university. Though he had been a Muslim two years before marriage, his wife’s Afghan family still had their reservations.
For months, Gareth was called into conversations between his wife’s parents and religious elders who could vouch for his character. At times, the process strained his wife’s relationship with her family. Gareth believes that their marriage now has an additional pressure to succeed.
“My wife could have been kicked out of her family,” he said. “It’s an honour and a blessing that she would go up against her parents for the sake of our relationship, but if that relationship now fails, it’s a much bigger loss for her.”
The Qur’an states that when a person converts to Islam, their past sins will be forgiven. Owing to this sense of a fresh start, coupled with a convert’s conscious decision to turn to Islam, their background is often overlooked in the marriage process.
In its 2019 report, the Convert Muslim Foundation, which provides guidance and counselling to new Muslims, identified the immediate period following conversion as the point of heightened vulnerability for new Muslims. It found that most converts grappled with trying to “exit a state of turmoil” and reach a comfortable middle ground between their lifelong culture and their newfound religion.
Batool Al Toma, the founder of the charity and an author of the research, says that if this isn’t taken into consideration when forming relationships, it can cause problems further down the line. “While born Muslims were brought up with their religion, and their religion formed their values, perspectives and beliefs, a convert Muslim shapes their understanding of Islam and implements it in their lives, based on their upbringing and culture,” she explained.
In some instances, this fundamental difference in the ways both groups understand Islam can create an unfair power dynamic in a relationship between the perceived “inferior” convert Muslim and the “superior” born Muslim.
Morris says that when she initially converted, she felt “fetishised” by the community for her new Muslim status and whiteness. These suspicions were confirmed when one woman told her: “I would love you for my brother, because — mashallah — look at your skin.” People would often ask her to repeat the story of how she came to find Islam, but showed little interest in other aspects of her life.
“It didn’t feel like people cared about who I was,” Morris said. “They had this romanticised idea of this compliant convert who they could teach their version of religion to and mould her into their perfect Muslim wife.”
As a new convert, Morris trusted that her husband understood the faith better than she did, but this allowed his abuse of her to go unchecked. “He was very controlling, and I agreed to it because I had no real idea about the status of women in Islam. The narrative being pushed on me all the time was: ‘You’re a wife now, so you have to obey your husband’.”
In instances where convert Muslims are allowed time to settle into their faith and encouraged to learn on their own terms, relationships between born Muslims and new Muslims can flourish. While Sultan was raised in a Muslim family, Rosalie says he has always encouraged her learning. “When I ask him about something, he’ll say: ‘I think Islam teaches this, but I could be wrong. Why don’t you do some research into it?’ When you form your own understanding of religion, you know your rights, and the more comfortable you feel.”
While services such as Solace in Women will help to counter some of the challenges converts face, charities such as Convert Muslim Foundation have called on mosques and local communities to provide greater care and protection for new converts. “When a convert comes to Islam, the Muslim community is supposed to step up and be the family,” Morris said. “But right now, we’re failing.”
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