What Hogwarts Can Teach Muslims

Actress Afshan Azad was allegedly threatened with death for dating a Hindu. Asra Nomani argues that women will suffer until intolerant Muslims absorb some of the values of Harry Potter .

07.04.10 2:26 PM ET

Actress Afshan Azad was allegedly threatened with death for dating a Hindu. Asra Nomani argues that women will suffer until intolerant Muslims absorb some of the values of Harry Potter.

Not long ago, when I watched British-Muslim actress Afshan Azad, 22 years old, glide into the Yule Ball at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as Padma Patil, a witch going to the ball with pasty, red-haired “Ron Weasley,” I thought to myself: Only in the world of fantasy could a Muslim proudly play a Hindu girl, learning magic and choosing a "non-believing" man from outside the faith so freely—and without censure.

Indeed, according to the BBC, Azad's father, Abdul Azad, 54, and his son Ashraf, 28, allegedly threatened to kill the actress this year, on May 21, in their Manchester, England, home, because she was heard talking on the phone to her Hindu boyfriend. At a hearing last Tuesday, the father and son were charged with the attack. Ashraf was also accused of assaulting his sister and charged with “assault occasioning actual bodily harm.”

Our choice is simple: Life, love, and tolerance over puritanical religious dogma that can turn violent.

The next hearing is scheduled for July 12, and the British media is reporting that the actress is staying with friends in London. There are also reports that John Wolfson, a defense lawyer for the father and brother, says the actress is trying to retract her statements in an attempt to keep her family from going to jail, but a spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service said it will continue to pursue the case.

To me, as a 45-year-old American Muslim woman who has struggled from my teen years until recently with the question of whether I could love outside my faith, the attack reflects a troubling intolerance in our community toward a Muslim woman choosing a partner who isn't Muslim, and it also reveals our very problematic relationship with Hinduism.

The attack on Azad underscores just how important it is that we honor the right of every woman to choose her own partner—and accept her fundamental right to love a man outside her faith. Ironically, Azad's name means "freedom," and, to me, she—like all women—has a divinely ordained freedom to choose whom she loves without fear of violence, persecution, or assault. And, as Muslims, it is critical for us to respect Hindus as people of faith, expressed differently but no less sincerely.

Our choice is simple: Life, love, and tolerance over puritanical religious dogma that can turn violent.

Since the birth of Islam in the seventh century, the "consensus of scholars" has declared that a Muslim woman cannot marry a man who isn't Muslim, and in the 21st century most families and women have accepted this ban as doctrine, causing great suffering of the heart to many. Men who are “People of the Book,” meaning Christians and Jews, have traditionally been forbidden to Muslim women, even though Muslim men have been allowed to marry Christian and Jewish women, on the flawed premise that children learn religion from their father.

But most anathema for Muslim women and men, according to the orthodox scholars, are people who are perceived to be “polytheistic,” such as Hindus.

There are many of us who are following a principle that the Prophet Muhammad is said to have declared, “Seek a fatwa from your heart.” Last year, I jetted to Doha, Qatar, to participate in the Doha Debates and argue for the motion, " This House believes that Muslim women should be free to marry anyone they choose.” The motion won the day 62 percent to 38 percent. To me, it was the young, bright-eyed Muslim women in the audience who carried the motion. After the debate, I published a piece in Marie Claire magazine, writing about my choice to marry a man who isn't Muslim in an article, “My Big Fat Muslim Wedding."

In response, I got letters of support from many Muslim women struggling with the same issue. Just last week, I received a letter from a Canadian woman who has converted to Islam, wondering if she had to now divorce her husband, a Christian, as some orthodox scholars have argued a convert must do. She worried about censure from inside the Muslim community. She wrote: “I am not concerned what Allah thinks, because I believe Allah sees into our heart and sees my tears.” I wrote to her: Prevail. There are interpretations by scholars today that allow a Muslim woman to marry anyone—including a Hindu man—if that is her choice.  

I got ugly reminders from many other Muslims that I was betraying my religion. On one blog, "Tahseen" called me "a whore." On, I was called “a witch.” One Muslim writer wrote the audience should be “lashed” for voting for the motion. And a Muslim man wrote about my debate partner and me: “May Allah freeze the blood in their vains [sic] and keep them alive to know how it feels like.” Just to explain himself, he added: “(I could not find any Duaa [prayer] against them that is softer than this.).”

To me, this violent response underscores just how important it is to some people to control women.

The situation of forced marriages is so bad that the British government had to establish a forced-marriages unit to rescue folks from unions they entered against their will. This is a problem throughout the immigrant community in the United Kingdom. But for even one Muslim woman to be forced into a marriage is testimony to the fact that we aren’t successfully unified around a simple idea: Women can’t be forced into a marriage.

Sadly, we practice a double standard when it comes to issues of love, sex, and marriage for Muslim women and men. A renowned 20th-century Syrian poet, Nizzar Kabbani, reflected on this double standard when he wrote, from the perspective of a woman: “My brother returns from the whorehouse proud and strutting like a cock. Praise be to God who created him out of light and us out of vile cinders and blessed be He who wipes away his sins and does not wipe away ours.”

This is what I say to women, burdened with this double standard: Rather than seeking permission from others, we have to internally reject the idea that we must live with shame. We must seek forgiveness for the mistakes we’ve made in deed or in action, and stride forward, strong and free, in the pursuit of goodness.

In her own way, Azad has challenged orthodoxy on many fronts. In the movie, her character practices sorcery, which is anathema to orthodox interpretations of Islam. Two years ago, in Saudi Arabia, Lebanese TV host Ali Sabat was arrested by religious police while in the country and charged with sorcery for "predicting the future" on his show. Last year, he was sentenced to death.

Part of the appeal of Harry Potter is that anything is possible (not to mention interracial dating) and that is a cue that modern leaders of religion need to understand, I believe: that religion should be a force for liberation, not repression. Science fiction and fantasy are again on the cutting edge of social convention. Padma Patil's cinematic romance follows in the footsteps of Captain Kirk's cross-racial and interspecies romances with women such as Lieutenant Uhuru, the black communications officer on the Starship USS Enterprise.

Interestingly, as Azad means “freedom” in Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, and other languages, "Uhuru" means "freedom" in Swahili. And the pursuit of freedom for women is timeless and universal from the world of Harry Potter to the streets of Manchester, England.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace .