Thoughts on Cousin-Marriage

Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood.

Virtually every day, in my postbag, I receive sad letters from young UK Asian women in a state of distress because their parents are piling on the pressure for them to marry a cousin from ‘back home’. Sometimes the young women have met and not been impressed by these prospective spouses, and sometimes they have never met them at all. Some of them have already formed hopes for a potential spouse here in the UK, but their parents are insisting that to marry a cousin is the best possible thing to do – it is not only sensible, but Islamic, and convenient to the whole family. The majority of these marriages involve a new male member of the family being brought over to the UK to join up with his existing clan already here.

In the Yorkshire city of Bradford, for example, most members of the very large Pakistani community there can trace their origins to the village of Mirpur in Kashmir, which was inundated by a new dam in the 1960s. Since cousin-marriages had been the custom in Kashmir for generations, it is hardly surprising that some 85 percent of Bradford’s Pakistanis still marry their cousins. It is estimated that three out of four marriages within Bradford’s Pakistani community are between first-cousins.[1] Most of these marriages are arranged by their parents, and there is a strong feeling that this is the best Islamic way of settling the young with their life-partners.

A very old tradition

To the People of the Book – whether Jewish or Muslim – marriage is a matter affecting not only the family, but in times past and in many present-day rural areas it can also affect the entire tribe, for it could have an effect on the strength of the tribe as well as its economy.

In Biblical times, for example, it seemed natural and necessary that the selection of a wife and the arrangement of all contractual and financial matters connected with it should be decided by the parents or guardians involved, though consent was usually sought and romantic attachments often accompanied the arrangements. The initial steps were usually made by the father of the young man, but sometimes by the father of the girl, especially if there was a difference of rank. (See Genesis 24.8, 29.20, Joshua 15.16-17, Isaiah 18.20,27-28). A man usually looked for a wife within the circle of his own relations or tribe. Thus, the nomadic Prophet Ibrahim sent to his relatives in his own country to get a wife for his son Yizhaq rather than take one from the daughters of the Canaanites amongst whom he was dwelling at the time (Genesis 24.3-4), and Ibrahim’s cousin Laban stated to Yaqub: ‘It is better for me to give my daughter to you than to another man.’ (Genesis 29.19).

Cousin-marriage in the Prophet’s own family.

Cousin-marriage was frequent and normal amongst the Arab tribes. The first lady the Prophet himself hoped to marry was his first-cousin Fakhitah (later better known as Umm Hani), the daughter of his father’s brother Abu Talib and the elder sister of Ali. To his disappointment Abu Talib refused permission, and Umm Hani was married off to a maternal cousin instead.

The Prophet went on to marry a non-relative, his wealthy employer the widow Khadijah, and not until after her death some 25 years later did he marry other women, including two of his own cousins, both daughters of his father’s sisters – Umm Salamah the daughter of his aunt Atikah, and Zaynab bint Jahsh the daughter of his aunt Umaymah. Umm Salamah was his 6th choice of wife, and Zaynab his 7th. The Prophet’s primary sunnah was to marry outside his own family, preferring to offer the shelter of his house to widows and war-captives – ladies in distress.

After the fall of Makkah in 630 CE/8 AH – he met Umm Hani again, and as she had divorced her husband by this time the Prophet proposed once more – but she asked for a delay as she was still involved with breastfeeding her youngest child. When she had weaned the infant she herself proposed to the Prophet, but by this time the revelation of Surah 33.50 had been made and she was forbidden to him. (See below).

The Prophet’s own daughters all married cousins for their first husbands. Zaynab married a maternal cousin, his daughters Ruqaiyyah and Umm Kulthum married the sons of his paternal uncle Abu Lahab, and his daughter Fatimah married her second-cousin Ali, the son of his paternal uncle Abu Talib.

What are the rulings actually given in the Qur’an?

In fact, Allah revealed the specific list of those relatives it was forbidden for a Muslim man to marry in Surah 4.22-24, and cousin-marriage was clearly allowed.

‘Do not marry those women whom your fathers had married – except what happened prior to this commandment. Surely it was shocking, disgusting, and an evil practice. Forbidden to you for marriage are: your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your paternal aunts, your maternal aunts, daughters of your brothers (ie. nieces), daughters of your sisters (ie. nieces), your foster-mothers, your foster-sisters, the mothers of your wives, your stepdaughters under your guardianship from those wives with whom you have consummated your marriage, but there is no blame on you in marrying your stepdaughters if you have not consummated your marriage with their mothers, whom you have divorced, and the wives of your own real sons; and you are also forbidden to take in marriage two sisters at one and the same time except what happened prior to this commandment; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.’ (Surah 4.22-23)

There is therefore no objection for a person to marry anyone from the remainder of the family relations, which includes cousins.

One other verse in the Qur’an mentions cousin-marriage, Surah 33:50:

‘O Prophet! We have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have given their dowers; and those ladies whom your right hands possess (from the prisoners of war) whom Allah has assigned to you; and the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts, and the daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts, who have migrated with you;[2] and the believing woman who gave herself to the Prophet if the Prophet desires to marry her – this permission is only for you and not for the other believers; We know what restrictions We have imposed on the other believers concerning their wives and those whom their right hands possess. We have granted you this privilege as an exception so that no blame may be attached to you. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.’

This passage is usually linked by commentators to the time when the Prophet married a fifth living wife – Zaynab, his cousin, whereas ordinary Muslims had been limited to a maximum of four. However, Surah 33.52 then adds: ‘It shall be unlawful for you, O Muhammad, to marry more women after this or to change your present wives with other women, though their beauty may be pleasing to you.’ (v52). This leads some to feel that the verse cannot have been revealed before 8 AH, by which time the Prophet had taken eleven women into his household. It could then be linked to the Prophet’s hopes to marry his cousin Umm Hani – which can be dated to after the fall of Makkah in 630 CE/8 AH. This revelation specifically put an end to any further marriages, but allowed him to keep the wives he already had from the various categories, which included ladies who were his cousins, either from the father’s side or the mother’s side, so long as they had made their hijrah along with him. The timing of this revelation therefore prevented him from marrying Umm Hani, who had not made her hijrah when he did.[3]

Is it better or preferable for a Muslim to marry someone he is not related to rather than a relative?

The answer to this question must vary from case to case. We have to distinguish between what is permitted and what is advocated. Some clans restrict marriages to amongst their kin only – a practice far from what is advocated.

By permitting cousin-marriages Islam does not encourage them. On the contrary, Islam is generally keen to widen the circle of social bonds. It advocates the cementing of social relations through marriages between totally unrelated families.

The Islamic view is that while marriage between cousins is permissible, it is preferable to choose a marriage partner from outside one’s family if one aspires to form new social ties or bonds. (I have seen a hadith reported in which the Prophet once told one of his Companions to choose a wife from a tribe different to his, and then to choose for his son a wife from a third tribe, and to seek for his second son a girl from yet another tribe. I am sorry, I did not find the source for this).

Why should anyone wish to marry a cousin?

The USA is virtually alone among developed nations in outlawing marriage among first-cousins. European countries have no such prohibition. Even in the USA laws forbidding the practice are not consistent. In 24 states cousin-marriages are deemed such a threat to mental health that they are illegal, but in 19 states there is no objection whatsoever to them. Seven states allow first-cousin marriage but with conditions. Maine, for instance, requires genetic counselling. Some states allow cousin-marriage only if one partner is sterile or if there is no chance of procreation. North Carolina prohibits marriage only for double first cousins.[4]

The practice remains so popular within today’s UK and USA Asian community because it finds, or believes, there are still real benefits to marrying within the family, and they have traditionally chosen inbreeding as the best strategy for success. It does offer several highly practical benefits.

· It is genuinely thought to generate more stable relationships, since the family, background, character etc of the spouses are already well known.

· Such unions are seen as strong, building as they do on already tight family networks.

· Cousin-marriages make it more likely that spouses will be compatible, particularly in an alien environment. For this reason, such marriages might be considered to be even more attractive for Pakistanis/Bangladeshis in the UK than ‘back home’.

· Such marriages make it much likelier that a shared set of cultural values will pass down intact to the children, and the loss of those values is a great cause of worry to the older generation.

· Cousin-marriage helps to keep money, wealth, property and inheritance within the family group, and minimizes the need to break up family wealth from one generation to the next. (Of course, it is not only the Muslim rich who have frequently chosen inbreeding as a means to keep estates intact and consolidate power).

· Intermarriage decreases the divorce rate and enhances the power and independence of wives, who can call upon the support of familiar friends and relatives if they feel they are being wronged. It is much harder for a husband to behave badly towards a wife who is his cousin than one who is a ‘stranger’ from outside the family, for the errant husband will not mind offending her relatives so much as he would his own.

· ‘Good’ blood and genetic characteristics are consolidated. Humans are perfectly comfortable with the idea that inbreeding can produce genetic benefits for domesticated animals. When we want a dog with the points to win prizes in Canine Competitions, the usual procedure is to take individuals displaying the desired traits and ‘breed them back’ with their close kin. (But remember, the practice – which is artificially organized as opposed to leaving the animals to make their own choices of mates – can also breed bulldogs with noses that cannot breathe.)

· Some people have objected to cousin-marriage on the grounds that many become so familiar with each other as they grow up, it prevents a romantic or sexual attachment between them. This is not always the case. In one long hadith the Prophet spoke of a case of desire between cousins. The story told of three men blocked up in a cave who were recounting their good moments in life which had been rewarded by Allah. The second man’s story was that he ‘had a cousin who was the dearest of all people to me and I wanted to have sexual relations with her but she refused. Later she had a hard time in a famine year and she came to me, and I gave her one-hundred-and-twenty dinars on the condition that she would not resist my desire, and she agreed. When I was about to fulfill my desire, she said: ‘It is against God’s law for you to outrage my chastity except by legitimate marriage.’ So, I realised it was a sin to have sexual intercourse with her and left her, though she was the dearest of all people to me. I also left the gold I had given her. O Allah! If I did that for Your Sake only, please relieve us from the present calamity.’ And the rock shifted a little, but still they could not get out of the cave.’ (Bukhari 3.472 et al).

· It is seen as being a normal part of Islamic practice. It is usually not realized by non-Muslims how seriously the rules and commands of Islam are to Muslims. With the vast majority of Muslims the faith is taken very seriously indeed, and if a matter or course of action can be seen as going against the will of Allah, there will be enormous pressure to encourage the wanderer back into the fold. Sometimes, though, the things generally believed to be the teachings of Islam do not have their basis in the faith at all, but are from traditional culture – and may even be the opposite of what Islam actually teaches.

An examination of the aspects of the issue which are specifically regarded as Islamic

These are the key beliefs shared by most Pakistani/Bangladeshi families, and by many Muslims of other cultures also.

· Parents have a prime duty to arrange decent marriages for their offspring. A parent who did not do so would be lacking in responsibility, and held by Allah to be at fault. (In Islam, this is true).

· Parents are supposed to seek out the best possible and most compatible partner for their offspring. (True. But a girl’s cousin may not be the best possible or most compatible partner at all, and parents who try to insist upon this link and reject other more compatible partners are doing their daughters no service, but are actually going against Islam).

· Girls are expected to be virgins up to their wedding days, and a father has a strong duty to protect the virgin status of his daughters. (True).

· A girl’s honour is of vital concern, and any lack of honourable behaviour on her part can shame the entire family. (This is culturally true. However, when ‘preserving the family honour’ results in a murder, then Islam has been abandoned. Islam teaches unambiguously that no one person will ever be held to blame by Allah for the sins of another – the father is not to blame for a shameful daughter, and any person who murders another will face judgement here on earth and in the Life to Come).

· Boys are also expected not to ‘sleep around’, but there is less surveillance over boys than girls. (The requirement of chastity is the same in Islam for both boys and girls).

· Young Muslims, especially girls, are not expected to marry anyone without their parents’ consent. This can also apply to women well past the first flush of youth.

(This is a matter of politeness and for the sake of family peace. It is expected in Islam for youngsters making their first marriages; it is not expected for older persons, who may arrange their own marriages).

· Virtuous youngsters will respect the judgement and good intentions of their parents and accept their will without making a fuss, even if they have never seen the prospective spouse until the actual wedding. (This does still happen, more frequently than non-Muslims realize – especially amongst Arab cultures. It may be acceptable for a shy girl or boy who has lived a very sheltered life, but in Islam, the prospective spouses have the absolute right to refuse each other, and the parents do not have the right to insist on an unwanted match. The Prophet annulled forced marriages).

· Many parents will ignore fuss and fears as merely natural in a modest girl, things that will soon pass once the marriage is up and running. (This is not a matter of Islam – just luck).

· The best form of marriage will be one between cousins. (This is not a ruling of Islam, but a matter of culture).

Examples of force or coercion

However, in spite of the rights of young potential spouses (especially the young women) in Islam, there are many sorts of coercive comments made to girls who refuse to go along with their parents’ plans. They combine to give the girls the impression that they are bad daughters, and will inevitably damage any other prospects of marriage if they turn down this one, because they are being:

· Unkind and hurtful to the hopeful relative back home, plus entire family

· Ungrateful, especially if the family ‘back home’ has helped their parents get on in life, or assisted them in reaching the UK

· dismissive of Islam

· rebellious and disobedient

· dismissive of their family values

· don’t care if they shame their parents

· don’t care if they make their parents look stupid

· don’t care if they drive their parents to an early grave.

Sometimes the pressure goes to the lengths of:

· withdrawing the girl from school, often in her GCSE year (Year 11)

· confining her to the house or her bedroom

· physical punishment or abuse

· death threats – someone in the family will ‘do the right thing’ to ‘avenge’ the upset parents.

I have this week counselled one highly educated and gainfully employed young woman in her twenties, who has seven sisters and a brother, who faces horrendous disappointment and wrath from her parents because she does not wish to marry a cousin from their home village but a British-born Pakistani man of her own choice. Her parents are devastated and embarrassed by her refusal, the mother’s dead mother will never rest in peace etc, because promises had been made. Is it so much to ask that one daughter out of the eight will accept the cousin whose family wish him to come and live in the UK, so that he can help their family out financially? The poor young woman feels they have actually been trying to lay curses upon her, and her brother has threatened to kill her.

Health alert?

Apart from the issue of forced marriages, a second issue is now ringing alarm bells – the fear that cousin-marriage could be the cause of major health and inherited genetic problems. The great hazard of inbreeding is that it can result in the unmasking of deleterious recessives, to use the clinical language of geneticists.

The variant genes that cause recessive genetic illnesses tend to be rare. In the general population, the likelihood of a couple having the same variant gene is 100-1. But in cousin-marriages, if one partner has a variant gene, the risk that the other has it too is more likely to be one in eight.

Doctors in areas where there is much cousin-marriage are indeed seeing a big increase in the number of children born with serious genetic disabilities. Each of us carries an unknown number of genes capable of killing our children or grandchildren – an individual typically has between five and seven. These so-called lethal recessives are associated with diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia.

Most lethal genes never get expressed unless we inherit the recessive form of the gene from both our mother and father. But when both parents come from the same gene pool, their children are more likely to inherit two recessives.

One couple, for example, was recently raising two apparently healthy children. Then, when they were 5 and 7, both were diagnosed with neural degenerative disease in the same week. The children are now slowly dying. Neural degenerative diseases are eight times more common in Bradford than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Some thought-provokers.

· A report on the impact of genetic risk on Britain’s Pakistani/Bangladeshi families published by the Wellcome Trust in 2003 found that infant mortality and childhood morbidity rates were higher in this ethnic group than in any other groups, although marrying relatives did not always result in the birth of children with recessive disorders.

· An investigation by BBC Newsnight recently claimed that the British Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, in which at least 55% of those married were married to a first-cousin, were at least 13 times more likely to have children with recessive genetic disorders than the general population of the UK. This group accounted for only 3.4% of all births in the UK, but for 30% of all British children born with recessive disorders (which include cystic fibrosis), and had a noticeably higher rate of infant mortality.

· Dr Peter Corry, a consultant paediatrician at Bradford royal infirmary, disclosed that his hospital saw a disproportionately high rate of recessive genetic illnesses. He and his team have identified some 140 different autosomal recessive disorders among local children, whereas a typical district would ‘only’ see between 20 and 30.

· Birmingham Primary Care Trust confirmed that recessive genetic illness is one of the main reasons for admission to Birmingham’s children’s hospital. In fact, the Trust estimated that one in ten of all children born to first-cousin marriages in the city’s Pakistani community either dies in infancy or goes on to suffer serious disability as a result of recessive genetic disorders.

Ann Cryer, the outspoken Labour MP for the Pakistani-populated Yorkshire constituency of Keighley, has now called publicly for British Pakistanis/Bangladeshis to consider putting a stop to their cultural practice of marrying their first-cousins. Speaking to the Guardian, Ms Cryer said: ‘I’m not calling for a ban or a change in the law. I’m simply calling for an enlightened debate. We’ve avoided discussions on this subject. People are being politically correct. It’s not racist. It’s a challenge, but not to the Pakistani culture. It’s an opportunity to improve the lot of communities that still have this tradition. It’s time they discussed it and asked if it’s a good thing.’ Ms Cryer said Asian communities had to adopt a different lifestyle and look outside the family for husbands and wives.

Are the dangers of cousin-marriage exaggerated?

In fact, throughout history moderate inbreeding has always been the rule, and not the exception, for humans. Robin Fox, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, concluded that it was likely that some 80 percent of all marriages throughout history have been between second-cousins or closer.

Until very recent historic times families tended to remain living in the same area for generations, and men typically went courting no more than about five miles from home – the distance they could walk out and back on their day off from work.

Inbreeding is also commonplace in the natural world, and contrary to our expectations, some biologists argue that this can be a very good thing. It depends in part on the degree of inbreeding.

19th century research, which greatly exaggerated the dangers of imbecility, blindness, etc, among children of close kin, was in fact bad research. The formerly high incidence of congenital defects, specifically haemophilia, among European royal families, which was traditionally believed to be a classic demonstration of the perils of inbreeding, is also now admitted to be incorrect. Haemophilia is an X-chromosome-related characteristic, transmitted through the female line, and any children of royal female carriers would have been at risk no matter who their mothers had married, whether cousins or not.

First-cousin marriage does not necessarily result in congenital defects. An argument can be made that marriages of first cousins descended from strong stock can actually produce exceptional children, and increase their strengths. A founding couple could pass on advantageous genes.

Among animal populations, generations of inbreeding frequently lead to the development of coadapted gene complexes, suites of genetic traits that tend to be inherited together. These traits may confer special adaptations to a local environment, like resistance to disease. The evidence for such benefits in humans is slim, but this could be explained by the fact that any genetic advantages conferred by inbreeding have been too small or too gradual to detect. There is a general dearth of data on the subject of genetic advantages or disadvantages. Not until some rare disorder crops up in a place like Bradford do doctors even notice intermarriage.

A team of scientists led by Robin L. Bennett, a genetic counsellor at the University of Washington and the President of the National Society of Genetic Counsellors, announced that cousin marriages are not significantly riskier than any other marriage. The study[5] determined that children of first cousins did face about a 2 to 3 per cent higher risk of birth defects, and a little over 4 per cent greater risk of early death, than the population at large. But putting it another way, first-cousin marriages entail roughly the same increased risk of abnormality that a woman undertakes when she gives birth at 41 rather than at 30. Banning cousin-marriages therefore makes about as much sense, critics argue, as trying to ban childbearing by older women.

Conclusions on the health issue.

· The consequences of inbreeding are unpredictable and depend largely on what biologists call the founder effect. If the founding couple pass on a large number of lethal recessives, as appears to have happened in Bradford, these recessives will spread and double up through intermarriage. But whereas it is true that marriage among close kin can increase the chances of pathological recessive genes meeting up in some unlucky individual with dire consequences, the problem is not that of cousin-marriage per se, but rather how many such genes are floating around in that particular family’s pool. If the pool is pretty clean, the likelihood of genetic defects resulting from cousin-marriage is low. If the founding couple hand down a comparatively healthy genome, their descendants could safely intermarry for generations – at least until small deleterious effects inevitably began to pile up and produce inbreeding depression, the long-term decline in the well-being of a family or a species.

· Any danger can these days be minimized easily with genetic testing. Science is increasingly able to help people look at their own choices more objectively. Genetic and metabolic tests can now screen for about 100 recessive disorders. In the past, families in Bradford rarely recognized genetic origins of causes of death or patterns of abnormality. The likelihood of stigma within the community or racism from without also made people reluctant to discuss such problems. But new tests have helped change that. So, for example, when two siblings in Bradford were hoping to intermarry their children despite a family history of thalassemia, a recessive blood disorder that is frequently fatal before the age of 30, after testing determined which of the children carried the thalassemia gene, the families were able to successfully arrange a pair of carrier-to-noncarrier first-cousin marriages. Such planning may seem complicated, but the needs of culture, medicine and the family’s intentions to carry out what they perceived as proper Islamic procedure, were satisfied.

· It would be good practice to have a blood test before marriage. If some hereditary disease or any other problem was suspected then the advice of a medical expert in this field should be sought.

May Allah bless us, and lead us to use our knowledge and intelligence wisely, for the good of all future generations. Wasalaam, Sr Ruqaiyyah.


[1] A first-cousin is the son or daughter of your mother or father’s brother or sister. A second-cousin is a child of your cousin. Your own children would be second-cousins once removed in their relationship to your second-cousin. There’s more…..

[2] In normal Arabic practice this would actually include any ladies of his father’s or mother’s tribes – the Banu Quraysh or Banu Zuhrah.

[3] Incidentally, the later date adds evidence against those Muslims who believe the Prophet was allowed to have intimacy with concubines, slave-women or war-captives without marriage, whereas the earlier date would leave the subject ambiguous.

[4] ‘Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage’ (1996), a dissertation by anthropologist Martin Ottenheimer.

[5] Published in the Journal of Genetic Counselling in 2002.


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