‘So, what about cousin marriage?’ R.K., my Facebook friend from Canada, recently asked during one of our frequent discussions on religion. ‘What about it?’ I asked him right back. ‘Well, it seems Islam forgot to tell its followers about its genetic dangers. Unless it was unaware of the problem before science uncovered the risks involved,’ R.K. retorted.
R.K. is a diehard fan of the Western way of life. In fact, having immigrated to Canada in his thirties, he is more Western than most born-and-bred Westerners. But unlike the typical Westerner, he is not content with the separation of church and state (or mosque and state). If he had his say, church and mosque would altogether disappear from the face of the earth. He therefore loses no opportunity to denounce religion.
With him, as with many others like him, cousin marriage is one of the go-to options when he does not have anything else to say. What the ‘argument’ lacks in soundness, it more than makes up for in simplicity. Islam is condemned by attacking cousin marriages on medical grounds. Interestingly, and I speak from experience, if someone were to respond by pointing out the medical hazards of alcohol, this enthusiast of the Western way of life is apt to shrug his shoulders and behave as though he does not understand a word of what is being said – the other person might as well be speaking Greek. In his heart of hearts, he is perfectly aware of the medical and legal implications of alcohol. Provided he is even moderately intelligent, he also knows that he is guilty of inconsistency when he passionately points out the genetic risks of cousin marriages but sweeps under the carpet the much more immediate dangers inherent in the consumption of alcohol. The poor man hardly has an option, for consistency is a luxury he can ill afford. Being consistent would mean attacking the very cornerstone of the Western civilization. He is way too deeply invested in what the West stands for to even contemplate that.
The fact of the matter is that teaching of medical science to mankind was never the stated goal of Islam. Like all prohibitions, the prohibition of liquor is based on moral, not medical, grounds. It is alcohol’s devastating effect on a man’s judgment, not on his liver, that makes it a religious issue.
Accepted in certain cultures and utterly unacceptable in others, cousin marriage is nothing more and nothing less than a cultural thing. For the record, far from enjoining it, Islam does not even recommend it. The most that can be said is that the Quran does not prohibit it. (Neither does the Bible for that matter.) To put things in perspective, Islam does not prohibit sugar either, which by all accounts is extremely harmful for the human body.
The philosophy of Islam in matters outside the domain of worship could not be any simpler: It only interferes in such matters if and only if there are moral implications involved. Even then, it merely defines the broad boundaries. Inside those boundaries, the individual is supposed to refer to experts of that field of inquiry and use his own judgment. Islam does prohibit marriage with certain individuals; but that is based on moral considerations, which alone are the business of religion. It leaves the medical aspects of marriage to medical science and its practitioners, and encourages the individual to exercise his best judgment while making his decision.
Physical health, though not a theme of religion, has no-doubt always been an important consideration for mankind, and rightly so. The concerned individuals should rest assured that Islam has never discouraged anybody from deferring to expert medical opinion on matters pertaining to health and physical well-being.
To come back to marriage: When you set out to select your life partner, by all means try and cover as many bases as possible: compatibility, health, looks, brains, background, etc. There are no guarantees of success, of course, but one must shirk nothing within one’s power. What is true of holy matrimony is also true of any other matter outside the ambit of worship. If Islam forbids men from eating certain foods or forbids devouring usury, it is based solely on ethical considerations. After specifying the four corners (only where necessary), it does not concern itself with the other details. The rest is for the individual (or the society) to sort out based on empirical evidence.
No religion or philosophy should be considered too ‘holy’ to be beyond criticism; but it is equally unfair to attack a religion on matters it has nothing to do with. Criticise religion all you want; but for your own sake if not for anybody else’s, be a little more reasonable than that. My message to R.K., and by extension to all like him, is this: I am sure you are better than this. It is high time you realized it as well.