The author of this article is Areti Dimosphenos, Professor of the Department of Turkish Studies of Cyprus University (Nicosia). The article first appeared in Greek in the Cypriot periodical Prasini aspida, November 2002, and in Russian on Pravoslavie.ru, February 19, 2004.
Mixed marriages between Christians and non-Christians began to be permitted on Cyprus after the sanctioning of marriages registered by government agencies, for which, as opposed to church marriages, differences in religion do not serve as an obstacle. Mixed marriages are registered based upon a special document called the Matrimonial Causes Act, accepted in 1950.
After it came into effect, the Cyprus government lit a “green light” for unhindered registrations of mixed marriages. This important event for a country where members of different religions and nations meet and where this “green light’ was turned on can bring many different problems for Christian women. The majority of these women who enter into marriage with Muslims are completely uninformed about the particulars of Islamic traditions and customs of family life. It all often ends with the husbands demanding that their wives accept Islam, or what’s more, that they move to the husbands’ historical homeland.
I will not speak of the “dangers hidden in Islamic marriages for Christian men” because Muslim law forbids women who confess Islam to enter into marriage with men of other religions. Such limitations in Muslim law formulated in the Koran are explained by the secondary position of women with respect to men in Islam and the necessity of preventing them from changing religions. On the other hand, the stronger sex, male Muslims, are allowed to marry Kitabiya women, a Christian or a Jewess, because first of all there will be no threat of the woman pressuring the husband to change religions, and secondly, the children will in any case be raised Muslim. Also very important is the fact that in Islam the idea is rapidly gaining popularity of the man being obligated to apply constant pressure on their wives to accept Islam.
In recent years, marriages between Muslim men and Christian women have ceased to be a rarity. According to the statistics produced by the Cypriot Ministry of Finance, the number of such marriages is growing every year. Naturally, such marriages, which are forbidden by Church canons from ancient times (canon No. 14, Fourth Ecumenical Council), is still not recognized today by the Church of Cyprus (article 220b of the by-laws). Mixed marriages are only accepted, according to Church canons, after the Muslim has been baptized Orthodox.
In order to understand the problem of mixed marriages between Christians and Muslims on Cyprus, we have to not only know the statistics, but also have a precise understanding of what Muslim marriage is, and how it is dissolved. I will briefly talk about those aspects of Muslim marriage that a Christian woman should know about before entering into Marriage with a Muslim man.
Marriage in Islam is the official registration of agreement of mutual exchange, in which the husband is obligated to provide the wife with a dowry and financial support in exchange for the right to enjoy marital relations, which are forbidden outside of marriage. There is no talk of a religious agreement as it is understood in Judaism or the Christian sacrament.
Regardless of the fact that at the wedding of a young couple permission from Allah is received during a religious ceremony at the reading of the Koran, in recent years a tendency can be seen toward regulating the marriage agreement by laws of private governmental acts.
One has to take into consideration, a Muslim man may have four lawful wives at one time, but the woman cannot have more than one husband. Polygamy is illegal only in Turkey, Tunis, and the Ivory Coast. In Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, and Syria, in order to have more than one wife a man has to have special permission. This permission is granted only if the husband has the material resources to support a larger number of wives. Nevertheless, this repugnant institution of polygamy is not rarely abused in Islam. Muslim sources colorfully describe various right-believing Muslims and their harems.
Divorce in Islam usually takes the form of “estrangement”. “Estrangement” is when a husband expels his wife from the home and dissolves his marriage with her. The spouse is not obligated to give any explanation to the wife about this, and she must leave the home within three months after the “estrangement”. The husband may inform his wife of her “estrangement” orally, in writing, or even through intermediaries.
Dissolution of marriage through “estrangement” is characteristic of a society that follows a strict, patriarchal order. This vestige of that order presents a danger not only to a Muslim women, but also to any woman married to a Muslim. It is no coincidence that precisely Muslim law commands an enormous portion of the globe. In our country, new trends among the young are appearing, which view Islam as the more modern and diverse philosophical system of awareness of the world. Its followers lean toward acceptance of Islam and following Muslim laws. In those same Muslim countries where Islamic laws are not written into the civil codex, they are nevertheless alive in the hearts of Muslims, and in their traditions and customs of everyday life.
Turkey is one of the few countries that has secularized its laws. Incidentally, even in that country there have been recent tendencies to revive religious life and create an atmosphere of rigid intransigence in many spheres of everyday life, because people have remained essentially Muslims who apply traditional religious laws to their family norms. Conflicts arising out of contradictions between civil and religious legislature, as well as the necessity to register children born to a religious marriage that is illegal from the governmental point of view, force the government to pass special laws. A significant number of citizens prefer to enter marriage according to Islamic ordinances.
In Cyprus, as in other European countries, Muslims who come to earn money register civil marriages with Christian women, and after a few years of life in that country, want to take their families to their historical homelands.
But what happens if the Christian wife does not follow her husband to his Muslim homeland? What problems may she encounter in Islamic culture? In what faith will their children be raised? Can she be certain that she will not be faced with the problem of polygamy?
These and many similar questions are worth studying for every Christian woman thinking of marrying a non-Christian, and she should also simply think about the particularities of social norms and customs in Muslim culture.
A woman is obligated to heed her spouse and give him complete obedience, except in cases where he demands something that is forbidden by Islam. The woman comes into the husband’s family. Without his permission she cannot leave the house, or have a profession. This prohibition is formulated in modern legislature in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, for example.
The wife has the right to visit her parents and close relatives, although the husband can forbid her to meet with her children from a previous marriage. In some Muslim countries a husband can limit his wife’s meetings with her parents to one per week. The wife has a right to refuse marital relations with her husband only in if he has not contributed the dowry settled in the marriage agreement, or during the fasting period [Ramadan]. A groundless refusal by the wife would lead to her “estrangement”. This would be the same consequence of her using contraceptives.
The Muslims’ holy book, the Koran, calls upon husbands to punish their wives for non-submission, disagreement, or simply for purposes of improving their character. In the Koran it is written that “God has appointed men in their essence as higher than women, and furthermore, husbands pay the marriage dowry… Rebuke them, frighten them when they do not obey… beat them. If the wife is obedient, then be condescending toward her.”
The great Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali calls marriage a “variation of slavery for women. Her life becomes total obedience to her husband in everything, if he does not transgress the laws of Islam.” The upbringing of children is the husband’s exclusive right, even if the wife belongs to one of the “revealed religions”, that is, if she is a Jewess or a Christian. Muslim law forbids raising children in another religion. Modern legislature does not provide for any change or exceptions to this rule. In the civil codex of Egypt, in article No. 124, it states: “Children born in a marriage to a Jewess or Christian shall take the religion of their father.” In Lebanon, in article 12 (dated November 18, 1938), it is written that “Children shall be raised in the father’s religion,” that is, in Islam. In Turkey, according to article No. 266, a “marriage agreement that permits the free religious education of children must be dissolved.”
The absolute claim of the father to the right to raise the children in Islam becomes understandable only if we take into consideration that the everyday life of a Muslim is permeated with religion to a much greater extent than that of the European, and this religion encompasses all areas of his life, from family to public life.