RECONSIDERING COUSIN MARRIAGE

by Saleem Ahmed Ph.D.

The stimulating feedback I received from several readers to my article on “Cousin marriage among Muslims” inspires me to respond to some questions raised and present some new ideas.

Basic consideration: 

As we break some new ground in this continuing dialogue, it is important to remember that the Qur’an, compiled two years after the prophet died, is not arranged chronologically. Neither are several hadith. For example, what is considered as the very first revelation to the prophet, Read, in the name of your Lord, appears as verse 96.1, instead of 1.1. Obviously, chronology of revelations was not an important consideration 1,400 years ago when many of these events were fresh in the minds of individuals. 

Also, trying to understand the chronology of revelations on spiritual matters such as God’s attributes and wonders of creation, is inconsequential as the Qur’an’s posture on these did not change. But it changed significantly in verses dealing with temporal matters. For example, should Muslims befriend Jew and Christians, or not trust them? Should women be veiled, or not veiled but dressed modestly? Should people found guilty of adultery or apostasy be killed, or forgiven? It is in many such cases, where we find both reactive and proactive guidance in the Qur’an, with no hint of which one should Muslims now follow This challenge is exemplified by the following “opposing” messages regarding relations with Jews and Christians that the Qur’an carries:

Take not the Jews and Christians for your friends and protectors . . . (verse 5.51); and

The food of the People of the Book* is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them . . . (verse 5.5). (*The phrase “People of the book” refers primarily to Jews and Christians). 

Which of these opposing commands should contemporary Muslims follow? It is in such cases that the writings of 7th and 8th century historians Ibn Ishaq, Al-Tabari, and Al-Waqidi can be vitally important. For example, regarding the above two “contrarian” verses, Ibn Ishaq (p. 363) informs us that verse 5.51 was revealed after the Bani Qaynuqa expedition (624 CE) when a companion of the prophet, who had previously protected the Bani Qaynua Jews from being punished by the prophet, subsequently broke off his relations with them. That prompted the revelation of verse 5.51. And verse 5.5, I believe, was part of the last revelation the prophet received in 632 CE, a week before he died (Tabari 9/108). Thus, and following the Qur’anic axiom that “later guidance superseded earlier guidance” (see below), Muslims must regard Jews, Christian, and other “People of the Book” with camaraderie and love.

  Keeping in mind that several other such “opposing and contrarian” messages exist in the Qur’an, it is imperative that we adopt the following two principles in our interfaith and intra-faith dealings: 

1. Understanding the context and chronology of revelations

Without understanding the above context and chronology of verses 5.31 and 5.5, Muslims would have been at a loss regarding which of these two diametrically opposite verses should they now follow.

  2. Understanding that later guidance superseded earlier guidance.

  This is clarified by the following Qur’anic verse: None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten but We substitute something better or similar (verse 2.106). Once we understand Rule 1, we can, often, figure out which verse came later. And when even is not possible, just remember that the Qur’an became proactive during the last two years of the prophet’s life. Thus, the verse suggesting punishment was probably superseded by another verse suggesting forgiveness. The “golden rule”: verses suggesting forgiveness are to be followed.

  I suggest these two guidelines be considered as axioms as we move forward.

Expounding on my earlier comments 

Because of its vital importance, I first reproduce below verse 33.50 which plays such an important role in this discussion of first cousin marriages, and follow it up with a discussion of the comments provided by readers of my earlier article:

O Prophet! We have made lawful to you your wives to whom you have paid their dowers; and those whom your right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to you; and daughters of your [paternal] uncles and aunts, and daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts, who migrated (from Mecca) with you; and any believing woman who dedicates her soul to the Prophet, if the Prophet wishes to wed her. This is only for you and not for the believers (at large); We know what We have appointed for them as to their wives and the captives whom their right hands possess, in order that there should be no difficulty for you. [verse 33:50].

Comment: The prophet married his first cousin Zainab in 627 CE (apparently after the Battle of the Trench). Earlier (624 CE), he gave his daughter Fatima in marriage to her cousin Ali. Will the prophet have done these if these actions were prohibited?

My response: I suggest that verse 33.50 was revealed shortly after the prophet married Zainab. In fact, I suggest that the prophet’s marrying Zainab may have prompted the revelation of verse 33.50, which underscores that the permission to the prophet to marry his first cousin was an exception; that all other Muslims are prohibited from following the same. This prohibition must have had such an impact on the prophet that he did not marry the daughters of his foster brothers who had been proposed to him (Umm Habib, Fakhita, and Umama bint Hamza). (https://wikiislam.net/wiki/List_of_Muhammads_Wives_and_Concubines

Comment 1: The clarification in verse 33.50, This is only for you and not for the believers (at large)”, applies only to the last group mentioned in verse 33.50 (Any believing woman who dedicates her soul to the Prophet, if the Prophet wishes to wed her), and not to all groups mentioned therein.

My response: Yes, one could adopt that attitude. But please bear in mind that those continuing to promote and practice cousin marriage would then bear full responsibility for all subsequent ill-effects resulting from this practice. On the other hand, if we believe that that this prohibition applies to all relations mentioned in verse 33.50 (including “ daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts and daughters of your paternal unless and aunts”– who are your first cousins), we are informing the world, in no uncertain terms, that the Qur’an, 1,400 years ago, knew of the adverse effects cousin marriage could unleash (see the Charsadda experience below).

Comment 2: If cousin marriage is prohibited, it would mean that the millions of such marriages that Muslims have undertaken over the past several centuries would have been incestuous and in sin.

My response: Such marriages would have been incestuous if the individuals involved had taken this step realizing this “sin”. I would suggest that Allah, with all His compassion, will realize that all these actions were taken primarily to honor the prophet’s supposed sunnah of marrying his first cousin, with no intention whatsoever, of transgressing any Divine command.

Comment 3: Cousin marriages have been taking place over the past several centuries, with no ill-effect being manifested. So, isn’t what you are suggesting only a hype?

My response: The Charsadda experience discussed in my article highlights the consequent grief of such marriages in one village. Whether these consequences will strike with the first such action or after 100 such successive actions, remains a mystery. So, prudence suggests that we follow the “prevention is better than cure” adage.

Comment 4: The special consideration given to the prophet was for marrying without dower, if a woman requested so.

My response: That is correct. Special consideration was given to the prophet for both, marrying without dower if the woman proposed it, as well as for marrying his cousin.

Comment 5: If a Shariah rule goes against science, we will consider science as false.

My response: Fortunately, there has never been a case that I am aware of, in which any Islamic law – after we take into account the above two axioms — was found against science. This, I suggest is, one of the beauties of the Qur’an. Thus, in cases where interpretations of any “Islamic law” can be either for or against science, I will opt for the one in line with science.

Comment 6: All four imams support cousin marriage.

My response: But does the Qur’an support cousin marriage? Also, I suggest those imams must have based their judgement on the basis of the Muhammad-Zainab marriage rather than on an objective discussion of the subject.

Comment 7: Give any authentic fatwa supporting your view which clearly says cousin marriage is prohibited for Muslims.

My response: We need a fatwa only when an issue is unclear. This is not the case here.

Introspection:

  Why did the Qur’an prohibit cousin marriage, in the first place? The scientific accuracy of this Qur’anic prohibition, articulated in the 7th Century, came to be fully realized only in the 20th century. Science now informs us of the many possible harmful effects that cousin marriage can unleash. This was brought home graphically by the report by Izhar Ullah, Deformities in Charsadda: Cousin marriages, and the heavy price children pay (https://www.dawn.com/news/1212811), which appeared in Dawn, on October 15, 2015, as summarized here: In a village populated by descendants of two families intermarrying for the past 40 years, almost every third home had children with birth defects such as blindness, cerebral palsy, mental disorders, thalassemia (genetic diseases affecting the body’s hemoglobin), physical deformities, and hearing and speech impairments. And, while the villagers were aware of this potential problem, they sadly continue with this practice due to “cultural norms.” Apparently, the prophet’s perceived sunnah of marrying his cousin looms larger in their minds than these possible dangers.

  A BBC report discussing Pakistanis in the UK found that 55% marriages were between first cousins, with many children coming from repeat generations of first-cousin marriages. Such children, it was found, were 13 times more likely than the general population to produce children with genetic disorders. In fact, one in ten children of first-cousin marriages among Pakistanis in Birmingham either died in infancy or developed a serious disability. Not surprisingly, Pakistani-Britons, who contribute only 3% to all births in the UK, produce about 30% of all children with genetic illnesses; and perinatal mortality in the Pakistani community, of 16 per thousand, significantly exceeded that in all other ethnic groups. Indeed, congenital anomalies accounted for 41 percent of all British-Pakistani infant deaths.

  It is also educative that, and in spite of having Divine permission to marry other closely related women, the prophet did not marry any other such relative subsequently, although some such ladies (Umm Habib, Fakhita, and Umama bint Hamza) had been proposed to him (https://wikiislam.net/wiki/List_of_Muhammads_Wives_and_Concubines).

  My final two points:

  (1) The Qur’anic prohibition against cousin marriage underscores the scientific validity of these verses. If, however, we argue that cousin marriage is OK, then we are showing that Qur’anic verses are unscientific in that these promote a practice that science has demonstrated to bring significant grief to society. Which position do we follow?

  (2) Of the prophet’s 13 wives, only one was his first cousin; his other 12 wives were not even remotely related to him. So, which sunnah do we follow: The one sunnah regarding his marrying his first cousin? Or the 12 sunnahs regarding his marrying women who were not even distantly related to him?

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