“Say, if we do get married, do I have to convert?” he asks.
“Yeah, I guess.” Was my non-committal response.
“But I don’t believe in it though.”
“But – what would my friends and family think? People may judge!”
“I understand but I don’t believe in the religion, or any for that matter.”
“But- but- what would – If we want to spend our lives together, you would take this into consideration. It would be much easier!”
“Is this not something we can work on?”
“I… don’t know… No… I don’t think so…This is what my religion says.”
“Firqin, it seems like your love will never be unconditional. It will only be on the condition that I convert into Islam…” he said, defeated.
I fell for a person when I was 22. Naïve, young and a slightly practicing Muslim, I still held on to the idea that when I get married, me and my partner would form the heteronormative, traditional family. I imagined my future self to go back to the “righteous” path, where I would eventually be what a pious Muslim woman is supposed to be. My imagined marriage will be filled with good, pure love and healthy Muslim babies. My husband would be Muslim, not necessarily from the same ethnicity, but definitely a Muslim man. It would be blissful, perfect, easy, and filled with love.
But Max was not Muslim – celebrating Christmas was the extent of his religiosity.
At 22, I saw religion through a binary lens and I’m not sure how it came to be that way. Perhaps it was the rule-based doctrine I was fed during religious school. Perhaps it was the polarizing dichotomies (pahala and dosa, haram and halal, heaven and hell) ingrained in me that made me view the world as black and white. Or perhaps it was just blind obedience.
I had an overly simplified view of what Islam is, how it is practiced, and I was incredibly ignorant to the dynamic and diverse history the religion once had. When it came to my future and marriage, I was certain: my partner had to be Muslim. The culmination of stories I heard over the years did not help. Stories of Muslims and non-Muslims would always end in tragedy. The Malay-Muslim person gets ostracized from their family and their new partner would never be accepted, or there would just be a lot of family members crying. Although I knew that Muslim men are free to marry women from other Abrahamic faiths while Muslim women are not allowed to marry outside their faith, this was not something I questioned, though it did not sit well with me. Marrying a Muslim was normalized to become law. I did not question the law.
The Malay dramas were not helpful either. Successful romantic relationships were always based on the idea that both partners were working towards loving God or becoming an orthodox, conservative Muslim. There were no narratives that showed inter-religious marriages built on mutual respect, co-existence, partnership and commitment. If there were stories of inter-racial and inter-religious relationships, someone would end up converting into Islam. Hence, the idea of an inter-religious marriage seemed unfathomable and almost blasphemous to me.
Wisdom came to me only through time and after similar heartbreaking experiences. Max was right — my love was conditional. I was not able to love my partner for the person that they are, the values that they hold, or the principles that they uphold. How I understood religion became an obstacle that impeded my ability to fully experience love beyond my own community, culture and religion. I could never give love freely and love unconditionally without the dark cloud of conversion looming over my head.
My obsession with the minutiae of religion and how I would be judged by my community, family and friends consumed me. I was blinded to the clear reality that Max was a kind-hearted and loving soul. When I slipped into moments of doubt, he would patiently listen to my inane worries and irrational meltdowns. I was oblivious to the emotional stress I dragged him through and was not sensitive to how intense and difficult it might be for him to constantly have this dangling over our relationship. Yet, through all our arguments and difficult days, he would stay, despite knowing that his partner refused to love him unconditionally with the type of love he truly deserved.
We later went our separate ways due to other reasons, but I still think of how much I selfishly bullied Max into my religion. I was extremely unfair to him, and blinded to all his good deeds just because he was not Muslim. On hindsight, he did not come between me and how I practiced my religion. Throughout our relationship, he had never threatened to remove me from my faith. If anything, he tried his best to provide me with a safe space to practice it. He respected that I was religious, yet I am ashamed to say he was not afforded the same respect from me.
It was when I freed myself from the restrictions of what I thought was expected of me that I was free to love without worry. Life is temporary and death inevitable. So I decided to let go of my obsession with religion, and choose to love hard since I cannot love for long. I thought of how I would not have liked it if Max imposed his beliefs on me. I let go of my asinine fear that my future children would not grow up Muslim. Who’s to say I would even be able to have children? Who’s to say they would stay as Muslims even if they were brought up as one anyway? Also, what good would it be if they grew up Muslims but didn’t have values or a moral compass? I was worrying about things beyond my control.
As for my irrational worry about how others in my community would perceive me if I married a non-muslim? I did not think it to be too healthy to live my life dictated by the expectations of others. Furthermore, as a 27-year-old woman, they should respect my autonomy to choose whoever I think is best for me to build a marriage with.
This issue does not only affect inter-religious couples in the Malay community. It manifests differently in different relationships. It extends to intra-faith couples where they face external pressure from their family and peers to find someone not only of the same religion, but of the same sect. Even within the same religion and denomination, religion can still be a deal breaker if one partner thinks the other is not religious enough because of their lifestyle, sartorial choices, or thoughts. When I hear stories like these, I know I am not alone in my struggles.
Our community’s obsession with the monolithic practice of Islam and how it should play a significant role in our romantic life and partnerships restricts our ability to develop deeper connections with others. It becomes an impediment that has rendered us incapable to cherish others for their true character and worth. If we continue to impose this, and allow it to rule how we love those around us, we might just be on the losing end as we unconsciously build an insular community made up of the same people and mentality. Making religion a deal breaker places an expiration date on the relationship. It forces individuals to rush into the religion, when this is the single journey that requires the most time and patience. Sharing the same religion is not a testament to how much you love someone, nor is it the only path to a marriage filled with respect, love and peace.
It took years and a conscious effort on my part to get rid of my idealized vision of the future. I had to reprogram the way I approached relationships. It was also the realization that true love is understanding and respecting my partner’s boundaries, what he believes in, what he is comfortable with, and celebrating his freedom to live the way he wishes. Love cannot exist when we do not accept our partner’s boundaries, values, different upbringing and personal faith. Love cannot exist when we disrespect our partner’s convictions and spirit by forcing them to accept ours. We cannot expect them to honor ours, when we cannot honor theirs.
Now, I can safely say that religion is no longer my deal breaker. Although I do understand that it is a core part of someone’s identity and human experience, it is ultimately a personal pursuit that the individual has to take. It is not something anyone has the right to impose onto their partner. In Islam, we’re required to explore and challenge injustices—and the imposition of religion is an injustice that I recognize, because I am neither giving the other person equal treatment nor respect. Today, I look for patience, compassion, respect and kindness in relationships – the same kind Max had shown me. If we happen to share the same religion, good. If we don’t, it won’t matter to me.
Firqin Sumartono spends her days analysing speech sounds and conversations in a laboratory. She spends her nights reading nonfiction books that she reviews on her Instagram. Max and Firqin still keep in contact and remain friends.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu