When a non-Muslim embraces Islam, it is very likely that some portion of his wealth has come from sources that Islam considers illegitimate. For example, the convert could have money that resulted from interest-bearing transactions and investment, selling or serving alcohol and so on. What should the new Muslim then do with such wealth that is already in his possession?
The general rule is that any wealth that one has in one's possession at the time of conversion remains the property of the convert regardless of how that wealth was gained, as long as it was gained in a legal fashion according to the laws the convert was living by. The individual is not held responsible for his lack of applying Islamic principles prior to his conversion. Thus, for example, Allah says, “Those who after receiving direction from their Lord, desist, shall be pardoned for the past” (2:275). This verse demonstrates that Allah overlooks the actions that one performs before the rulings reach him and he is obligated to follow such regulations.
Numerous people embraced Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) yet there is no record of him asking any of them about the wealth in their possession and how they obtained such wealth. Indeed, even marriages that took place before the conversion were not questioned or examined to see if their contracts met the Islamic standards. In fact, there are various reports that demonstrate that the Prophet explicitly approved of the converts keeping the wealth in their possession. Actually, the person earned such wealth believing that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. Hence, they are allowed to keep such wealth. Their case is different from a Muslim who knowingly deals in alcohol, for example. Such a Muslim, even after repenting from such an act, is not to keep that ill-earned wealth.
However, the situation is different if the convert has, at the time of his conversion, not yet received money that is from a source that Islam considers illegitimate. For example, the individual could have sold and delivered someone alcohol on July 1 but the agreement between them is that he is not to be paid until December 1. In the meantime, say in September, the one who sold the alcohol converts to Islam. It is possible to look at this and say that since the contract was concluded before his conversion, he is still entitled to this money, as this is wealth he earned before becoming Muslim.
However, the majority of the scholars state that he no longer has the right to that money. They quote,
Those who after receiving direction from their Lord, desist, shall be pardoned for the past
once again. Now, the admonition has come to him and he can only keep what he received earlier and must forego anything additional.
Allah also says
If you repent, you shall have your principle
Thus, for example, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) abolished all of the interest-bearing agreements during a speech in Makkah after many people had just embraced Islam. Hence, although those contracts were concluded before they had embraced Islam, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) clearly voided the forbidden aspect of the contract.
In sum, once an individual embraces Islam he should from that moment on forego and not accept any wealth that is earned through forbidden means, regardless of whether the contract for that wealth took place before his conversion. Actually, now the individual should believe that such money is forbidden and therefore he himself should no longer wish to receive it or benefit from it. Given the nature of contracts nowadays, he may not be able to cancel the contract. If he is forced to receive such money, he should give it away and free himself from it. (Many mosques have specific accounts for monies received through illegitimate means but which one is forced to receive, such as interest on deposits, and will use that money is very specific ways as recommended by the scholars.)
There is no question that Islam affirms the marriages that took place outside of Islam or before a person embraced Islam. The evidence for this is numerous. For example, in Soorah al-Masad, Allah refers to the wife of Abu Lahab, the Prophet’s uncle who vigorously opposed him, as well as to the wife of the Pharaoh. Numerous Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) were born before the advent of Islam and they were considered legitimate children of their parents. Indeed, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) never ordered married Companions to remarry within Islam. In fact, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) did not even ask them about the circumstances of their marriage contract, such as whether there were witnesses and so forth.
However, those relationships that were considered illegitimate by a convert's previous religion or law are also considered illegitimate in Islam. Thus, for example, one’s illegitimate child before embracing Islam remains illegitimate after one's embracing of Islam. On the other hand, any children born via a legitimate pre-Islamic marriage will be considered legitimate children and continue to be the children of the Muslim convert.
One exception to this general principle of affirming pre-Islamic marriages is where the husband and wife are within the prohibited degrees of marriage. Thus, for example, in ancient Persia, brothers and sisters could marry one another. Such a marriage would be considered void as soon as either of the couple embraced Islam. Furthermore, in a polygynous situation, if a man is married to more than four wives, upon embracing Islam he must separate from some of them and may have, at the most, only four wives.
Some other important issues related to conversion to Islam must be touched upon. If a husband and a wife both embrace Islam at approximately the same time, then their marriage remains in tact and there is no need for them to take any further steps. If a man who is married to either a Christian or Jewish woman embraces Islam, the marriage also remains in tact and there is also no need for any further steps. Those cases are clear and non-problematic. The problematic cases are: (1) a male convert married to a woman who is not Christian, Jewish or accepting of Islam; (2) a female convert married to a non-Muslim husband.
The pertinent verses of the Quran related to these issues are as follows:
O you who believe! When believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them, Allah knows best as to their faith. Then if you ascertain that they are true believers, send them not back to the disbelievers, they are not lawful (wives) for the disbelievers nor are the disbelievers lawful (husbands) for them
Allah also says
And do not marry polytheistic women till they believe (and worship Allah Alone). And indeed a slave woman who believes is better than a (free) polytheistic woman, even though she pleases you. And give not (your daughters) in marriage to polytheistic men till they believe (in Allah Alone) and verily, a believing slave is better than a (free) polytheistic man, even though he pleases you. Those [polytheists] invite you to the Fire, but Allah invites (you) to Paradise and Forgiveness by His Leave, and makes His signs clear to mankind that they may remember
According to ibn al-Qayyim, when a woman married to a non-Muslim converts to Islam, the marriage becomes suspended and non-binding. In other words, she no longer is his wife in the sense of having marital relations or him being financially responsible for her. However, the woman is free to choose between ending the marriage (thereby being free to marry somebody else but only after her waiting period is finished) or suspending the marriage in the sense of waiting for her husband to embrace Islam. In the latter case, whenever the man embraces Islam, the woman automatically returns to him as a wife with no need for a new marriage contract, even if the husband's conversion took place many years after that of the wife.
The strongest evidence for this conclusion is the case of the Prophet’s own daughter, Zainab. She embraced Islam but her husband, Abu al-Aas ibn al-Rabee, refused to do so for many years. Then, finally, after six years, he came to Madinah and the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) reunited the couple without a new marriage contract or dower.
If a man embraces Islam and his wife is not a Muslim, Jew or Christian, then his retaining her as a wife will be harmful to her, as he will not be allowed to have marital relations with her or treat her as a full wife. Thus, in this case, the marriage comes to an end if the woman refuses to embrace Islam.
“Likewise hold not the disbelieving women as wives”
- For more details on this issue, see Abbaas al-Baaz, Ahkaam al-Maal al-Haraam (Amman, Jordan: Daar al-Nafaa`is, 1999), pp. 121-134. Al-Baaz’s work is the main reference for this section.
- Cf., Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr ibn Qayyim al-Jauziyyah. Ahkaam Ahl al-Dhimmah (Damam, Saudi Arabia: Zamaadi li-l-Nashr, 1997), vol. 2, pp. 764f.
- This is based on the verse, “Made lawful to you this day are all good things. The food of the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) is lawful to you and yours is lawful to them. (Lawful to you in marriage) are chaste women from the believers and chaste women from those who were given the Scripture (Jews and Christians) before your time, when you have given their due bridal money, desiring chastity not committing illegal sexual intercourse, nor taking them as girl-friends” (5:5).
- Although there is a great deal of difference of opinion concerning some of these issues, the author is following the conclusions reached by ibn al-Qayyim in Ahkaam Ahl al-Dhimmah (vol. 2, pp. 640-695). Ibn al-Qayyim has discussed these questions in great detail and has supported his opinion with strong, conclusive arguments.
- He is not financially responsible for her because she is the one choosing this option while at the same time she is not making herself available to him as a wife.
- Ibn al-Qayyim (vol. 2, p. 650) also presents a story in which Zainab’s husband was coming to Madinah and she asked the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) whether he could stay at her residence. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) told her, “He is your husband but he cannot be in [physical] contact with you.” This demonstrates that the marriage is suspended. It is neither a full marriage nor are the two completely separated. Unfortunately, though, this author was not able to trace this story through any other sources besides this reference.