In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Interfaith marriage is becoming more common as the world expands and people come into closer contact with each other. However, it is not permissible for a Muslim woman to initiate a marriage to a non-Muslim man. This rule protects the integrity of her religion as well as her children. But what does a new Muslim woman do if she is already married to a non-Muslim husband?
One case encountered by the early Muslims was of a Christian woman who accepted Islam in a Muslim land but her husband did not immediately convert as well. Can they still be married? Umar ibn al-Khattab judged that she had the choice to wait for her husband to convert or to leave him.
Abdullah ibn Yazid al-Khatmi reported: A woman from Al-Hirah accepted Islam but her husband did not. Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, wrote to them:
أَنْ خَيِّرُوهَا فَإِنْ شَاءَتْ فَارَقَتْهُ وَإِنْ شَاءَتْ قَرَّتْ عِنْدَهُ
She has a choice. If she wishes, she can separate from him. If she wishes, she can settle with him.
Source: Muṣannaf ‘Abd al-Razzāq 10083
In this case, the new Muslim woman can wait for her non-Muslim husband to consider converting to Islam, but she needs to be assured that she can freely practice her religion. Ali ibn Abi Talib and others allowed her to wait for him on condition that he would not take her away from Muslim lands.
Al-Sha’bi reported: Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
هُوَ أَحَقُّ بِهَا مَا لَمْ يُخْرِجْهَا مِنْ مِصْرِهَا
He deserves her as long as he does not take her away from her land.
Source: Muṣannaf ‘Abd al-Razzāq 10084
And Ibrahim al-Nakha’i said:
هُوَ أَحَقُّ بِهَا مَا لَمْ يُخْرِجْهَا مِنْ دَارِ هِجْرَتِهَا
He deserves her as long as he does not take her away from her place of emigration.
Source: Muṣannaf ‘Abd al-Razzāq 10085
The priority is her ability to practice her religion, to pray, to fast, to visit the mosque, and so on. As long as her religious rights are secure and he does not compel her to do anything against Islam, she can wait for her husband to consider whether or not to convert to Islam.
Ibn al-Qayyim commented upon the judgement of Umar, writing:
وَلَيْسَ مَعْنَاهُ أَنَّهَا تُقِيمُ تَحْتَهُ وَهُوَ نَصْرَانِيٌّ بَلْ تَنْتَظِرُ وَتَتَرَبَّصُ فَمَتَى أَسْلَمَ فَهِيَ امْرَأَتُهُ وَلَوْ مَكَثَتْ سِنِينَ … وَهُوَ اخْتِيَارُ شَيْخِ الْإِسْلَامِ
It does not mean that she resides under his authority while he is Christian. Rather, she waits for him and when he accepts Islam, she is his wife, even if it takes years… It was the preferred opinion of Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah.
Source: Aḥkam Ahl al-Dhimmah 2/650
There are, in fact, as many as nine different opinions as to what a new Muslim woman should do in this situation. Ibn al-Qayyim mentions them all and concludes by writing:
فَيَجُوزُ لِلْإِمَامِ أَنْ يُعَجِّلَ الْفُرْقَةَ وَيَجُوزُ لَهُ أَنْ يَعْرِضَ الْإِسْلَامَ عَلَى الثَّانِي وَيَجُوزُ إِبْقَاؤُهُ إِلَى انْقِضَاءِ الْعِدَّةِ وَيَجُوزُ لِلْمَرْأَةِ التَّرَبُّصُ بِهِ إِلَى أَنْ يُسْلِمَ وَلَوْ مَكَثَتْ سِنِينَ كُلُّ هَذَا جَائِزٌ لَا مَحْذُورَ فِيهِ
It is permissible for the Imam to expedite their separation. It is permissible for him to present Islam to the second spouse. It is permissible for her to remain with him until the end of her waiting period, and it is permissible for the wife to wait for him to accept Islam, even if it were to take years. All of this is permissible and there is nothing forbidden in it.
Source: Aḥkam Ahl al-Dhimmah 2/650
Hence, it is allowed for a new Muslim woman to remain with her non-Muslim husband in hopes that he will eventually embrace Islam, although some scholars said they should not have sexual intercourse until the matter is settled. In some situations, this might be the best course of action.
The matter is more complicated if they already have children. It is a serious violation upon the rights of children for anyone to separate them from their mother.
Abu Ayyub reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَنْ فَرَّقَ بَيْنَ وَالِدَةٍ وَوَلَدِهَا فَرَّقَ اللَّهُ بَيْنَهُ وَبَيْنَ أَحِبَّتِهِ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ
Whoever separates a mother from her child, Allah will separate him from his loved ones on the Day of Resurrection.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1566, Grade: Hasan
If there are already children from the marriage, the mother needs to consider the impact a divorce might have on her ability to raise and care for her children. She should not simply leave her husband if that would harm her children, but rather they can raise their children in an interfaith household if necessary. She should be a good example to her husband and her children, that perhaps they will eventually embrace Islam alongside her.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.