Marriage to a “Past”

Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood

One of the questions I was asked more than once while attending and addressing ISNA conferences on various issues concerning marriage, was this. Should a Muslim girl be allowed to (or even consider) marriage to a converted Muslim male, since he would have a past that included sexual experience before marriage?

Another related question was this. Should a married woman who converted to Islam then be divorced from her spouse if he was not a convert? Similarly, this could apply the other way round, for a married man who converted to Islam.

In considering these questions, I also had in my mind that we already have a great number of problems caused by inter-cultural marriages. There are a vast number of Muslim parents who become quite upset if their offspring wish to marry someone outside their culture, even though there is no question that it is allowed and even encouraged in Islam, so long as both parties are Muslims. For example, there are worries if a Sunni wishes to marry a Shi’ite, or if a Pakistani wishes to marry an Indian, or a Saudi wishes to marry anyone but a Saudi, and so on. Added to this, in some families there are even enormous worries if a family member wishes to marry outside that family! Since Muslim people tend to gravitate towards others of a similar type to themselves, I would have thought a marriage between, say, a Sufi and a Salafi stood slim chance of success. Allah knows best.

First of all, let us clarify out minds as to a few of these issues. It was not the Prophet’s (saw) sunnah to seek out a young virgin girl for his bride, (ie. someone who had no previous sexual experience), nor someone who was a member of his family. Since neither he nor Khadijah were Muslims at the time of their marriage, the question of being Muslim did not arise at that time. Our Prophet’s (saw) first choice was a lady who had been married at least two times before, and had at least four existing children, and had turned forty years old, whereas he was only twenty-five. After his marriage to Khadijah, which was monogamous until she died twenty-five years later, he never even considered approaching another woman, although all around him, his friends, uncles and peers all had more than one wife.

After Khadijah died, and our Prophet (saw) had turned fifty, in his last years he took at least twelve more wives, but the only two who were virgins with no previous experience were little Aishah, and Maryam Qibtiyah who was a Coptic Christian from Egypt.

Next, we should take note that only two of our Prophet’s (saw) wives were his direct cousins – Umm Salamah bint Abu Umayyah, who I believe was his sixth wife, and Zaynab bint Jahsh who was his seventh. Both of these ladies he had known since their childhood, and Umm Salamah came to him as a widow with three existing children and a fourth born almost immediately after her marriage to him; Zaynab came as a divorcee after a failed marriage to his adopted son Zayd.

When we consider whether a person should on conversion break up the marriage to an existing non-Muslim spouse, perhaps we should first take a look at what actually took place amongst those early converts to Islam. We discover that a vast number of the famous male companions were only converted some considerable time after their womenfolk. In some cases, it was many years later. For example, the wives of Umar, Hamzah and Abbas. Umar’s wife Zaynab was the sister of Uthman b. Maz’un, both Muslims. Hamzah’s wife was Salmah and Abbas’ wife was Lubabah (Umm Fadl), two daughters of Hind bint Awf by different husbands. In Abbas’ case, Umm Fadl claimed to have been the second woman to have converted to Islam, the same day as her close friend Khadijah. Officially, Abbas did not accept Islam until just before the fall of Makkah, twenty years later!

The Prophet (saw) certainly did not ask these ladies to divorce their non-Muslim husbands. Alhamdu Lillah – for in due course they followed them into the faith, when they themselves became convinced of its truth. Incidentally, it was not only wives who were signal in bringing their men into Islam. We could think of Umar’s sister Fatimah, Abu Sufyan’s daughter Umm Habibah, the Prophet’s (saw) daughter Zaynab with Abu’l As, and many more.

At the same time, we have the incident at the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, of Umm Kulthum the daughter of the Prophet’s (saw) enemy Uqbah b. Abu Mu’ayt seeking asylum with the Muslims, and being told after a special revelation that women who sought the Prophet (saw) did not have to be returned to their families and menfolk in the same way that male ‘escapees’ did. Their marriages could simply be voided.

Let us take a close look at the revelation in question, Surah 60:7-12. The bit picked out to justify divorcing non-believing spouses is verse 10b. ‘If you ascertain that they are believers, then do not send them back to the unbelievers. They are not lawful for the unbelievers, nor are the (unbelievers) lawful (husbands) for them.’ At first sight it seems crystal clear, and is the verse used by those who try to enforce the divorce of converts from non-believers.

However, the rest of the section deals with great tact and gentleness on the subject, and rather alters the perspective. Verse 7 states: ‘It may well be that Allah will grant love between you and those whom you (now) hold as enemies, for Allah has power over all things, and is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who do not (actually) fight you for (your faith) nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them; for Allah loves those who are just. Allah only forbids you with regard to those who fight against you for (your) faith, and drive you out of your homes, and support (others) in driving you out, from turning to them (for friendship and love). It is such as turn to these (in these circumstances) who do wrong.’

What could be clearer than that?

So, when we consider all these matters, how would I answer the several who asked the first question given in this article? Firstly, I would say quite simply that a convert is a convert, and following the teaching given to Khalid (who had slaughtered so many Muslims before his conversion), that ON ENTERING ISLAM ONE’S ENTIRE PAST IS OBLITERATED. The slate is wiped clean. That day becomes Day One of the rest of your life. So therefore, there is no baggage of ‘the past’ for a Muslim convert. This is not to say, of course, that such a convert has not been affected and influenced by his or her past, or that they can simply forget it. This is no doubt why anxious parents are worried about their youngsters marrying such a person. If you think of the older age-group, there are many who marry with failed marriages and divorces behind them, with all their traumas, and widows or widowers who marry with all their memories. It is never simple to marry someone with ‘a past’. But, hey – what’s simple in life? And is that really worth cutting everything else out for? Take the challenge on the chin, but do it with your eyes open.

Secondly, I would say that our Prophet (saw) did not recommend being too picky. He said that if someone sought a girl in marriage, and that person was honourable and there was nothing ostensibly wrong with him, then his application should not be turned away hurtfully by the girl’s guardian. This should be taken alongside the rule that no girl or woman should ever be co-erced into marrying a person she did not want. The real point is that the choice ultimately would go to the girl, on being sought for marriage. It is not for the girl’s father to turn down the applicant without very good reason; and being a convert with a past is not a good reason to reject a suitor. Allah has already forgiven that man’s past.

Now, we could add a little analogy. Let us take the question of alcohol. Most scholars agree that it was actually prohibited to Muslims in the same year as Hudaybiyyah, that is 628CE or 6AH. The first prohibition was only that Muslims should not come to prayer with minds clouded by alcohol (Surah 4:43), and when Umar prayed for clearer guidance, the Prophet (saw) received Surah 5:90-91, that alcohol was an abomination, and the handiwork of Shaytan. On hearing that all the Muslims tipped away their alcohol.

But some asked – ‘Could alcohol be a real abomination even though it was consumed by some of the martyrs of Badr and Uhud?’ In response to this came the verse: ‘Those who believed and did good may not be blamed for what they consumed (in the past), inasmuch as they feared God, believed and did good works. God loves the virtuous.’ (Surah 5:93). I hope you can see the analogy – a suitor who is now a convert should not be blamed for ‘what he consumed in the past’ in the way of sexual experience either. Neither should a female convert.

So should the converted spouse divorce or leave the non-converted one? Personally, I think we should act with great compassion here. When our Prophet (saw) abandoned Makkah for Madinah, his daughter Zaynab found that she could not bear to leave her non-Muslim husband Abu’l As, and was not required to do so until some years later and other circumstances. The Prophet (saw) did not automatically divorce them, and this is an important sunnah, since it involved his own offspring.

I would like to think that the unconverted spouse is a potential convert, and suggest that the convert does his or her absolute best to give the best possible example in manners, effort, charity and so on. Don’t ram your theology down his throat, or, as Nabi Isa put it, ‘Don’t cast your pearls before the swine.’ It is your place only to warn, not to try to enforce. The best way is to give the best example, especially of love and compassion. Then, if it turns out that the non-Muslim becomes a Muslim, what a wonderful reward that will be. If it does not work out, and life with that spouse becomes instead increasingly difficult, then no doubt divorce would follow on the grounds that one spouse or the other would probably get to the point of considering the behaviour of the other to be unreasonable, and the marriage would break down. My advice would certainly be to give it every chance first – especially if there are children involved.

I am well aware that other scholars may differ from my opinion, but mine is practical, and is based on our Prophet’s (saw) actual sunnah.

God bless you,



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