Consanguineous Marriage amongst Muslims

The issue of consanguineous marriage (marriage between relatives) in the Muslim community is, for obvious reasons, a rather sensitive one. There are many people in the community who are in such relationships and even more who are the product of these relationships. Indeed, we know that such marriages are permissable under the shariah because the Prophet (saw) himself married his cousin, Zainab bint Jahsh. We also know that first cousins are allowed to marry under Australian law. There is absolutely no argument about the the legitimacy or legality of such marriages.

Whilst Western culture might view consanguineous marriage as somewhat distasteful, these marriages have been a common feature of Arab and some Muslim societies for thousands of years. The marrying of one’s child to a family member was seen as a means of maintaining the wealth of the family within the family, and mitigating against the risk of marrying one’s daughter or son into a family with which one might not be fully familiar.

However, there is now some evidence that the children of consanguineous marriage face a hightened risk of developing a range of genetic disorders. Whilst the risk may be marginally increased with the first generation to be born from such a relationship, the risk increases down the bloodline with each successive consanguineous marriage. Physical deformities, heart disease, mental retardation, deafness, perinatal mortality, and blindness are reported as amongst the more common genetic fallout from these sorts of relationships. The results can be seen clearly in a country such as Saudi Arabia where, as one Saudi doctor put it, genetic mutations that occured 10,000 or 20,000 years ago have become genetic markers for specific tribes because of the inbreeding that has taken place over this period.

Unfortunately, some of these problems are now being seen amongst Australia’s Muslim community. The Sydney Morning Herald reported last week:

A study at Auburn Hospital found almost 20 per cent of pregnant women admitted to the maternity ward in one year were married to their first or second cousins.

The research found babies were three times more likely to be born with birth defects and six times more likely to die in the womb or in infancy than babies in the general population.

The Sun Herald went into more detail on the 28th May, 2006 with a piece entitled, “The Family Ties that Bind”.

It is almost two decades since doctors at Sydney’s Auburn Hospital began to research a devastating pattern of birth defects among babies bom to Lebanese families. Led by pioneering obstetrician Dr Caroline de Costa, the study showed significant increases in birth defects, stillbirths and miscarriages among women who were married to blood relatives, particulariy first and second cousins from families who came largely but not exclusively, from the Middle East. The study found that one in three Lebanese women were married to a cousin and, across the hospital’s maternity ward, one in 10 women had married a cousin. Even more alarming was the finding that babies bom to these women were four times more likely to be stillborn and eight times more likely to suffer serious birth defects.

Given the typical Western view of such marriages, one might expect that most of these people were first generation immigrants. However, it appears that this form of marriage is even more popular amongst the second generation.

Ten years later, maternity ward staff reported these marriages were on the rise. De Costa followed up her landmark study, interviewing every pregnant women who booked into the hospital’s maternity ward in one year. In 2001 she published her results,revealing that almost 20 per cent of women were consanguineously married. Of those, more than half were married to first cousins and almost 60 per cent were bom in Australia.

Fifteen babies bom to consanguineous couples – related by birth – at Auburn Hospital had severe defects, including heart, kidney and liver function problems. Among non-cousin couples there were five disabled babies – one with a cleft lip and two with club feet. Of those babies that died – six in total – all were bom to consanguineous couples. “What was interesting,” de Costa wrote at the time, “was that the proportion of pregnant women who were consanguineously married had risen from 11 per cent in the 1980s to 19.6 per cent in 1999. “In other words.. .consanguineous marriage is continuing to be commonly practised by the next generation. Accurate information about risks and non-judgemental genetic counselling need to be available.”

Australia is by no means unique in this regard. Around 55% of Pakistanis in the United Kingdom are reported to be married to their first cousins. The results are also largely the same:

British Pakistanis are 13 times more likely to have children with genetic disorders than the general population – they account for just over 3% of all births but have just under a third of all British children with such illnesses.

The increasing prevelance of consanguineous marriage amongst second generation Australian Muslims raises a number of very important and interesting questions.

Firstly, why are second generation Muslims marrying their first cousins in such numbers? Some have argued that this is due to the local Muslim community being relatively small, but it may also be a result of the immigration policies in countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom. Many of us will have heard stories, for example, of young Western Muslims marrying their cousins from abroad in order to bring the extended family into the country. Once the bride or husband receives Australian citizenship, then it opens up further opportunities for family reunion visas to branches of the family that would otherwise have been excluded. A cursory review of some recent cases heard by the Immigration Review Tribunal would suggest that this may be a possible reason.

Secondly, if the issue is as serious and as prolific as the report by Auburn Hospital would suggest, then surely this is an important issue for Muslim leaders to address. Assuming that people will continue to marry their cousins, then they should be encouraged to undertake genetic counselling before the marriage is contracted or, at least, consumated.