The more we marry our cousins, the worse our genes are warped

Published: July 23, 2011
1 in 10,000 Pakistanis have microcephally.
1 in 1m Caucasian people have it.

COMPARISON: 1 in 10,000 Pakistanis have microcephally. 1 in 1m Caucasian people have it.


In cultures that are more conservative and private, people tend to stay close to what and who they know. It is no wonder then that intermarrying or consanguinity (marriages within close blood relatives) persists as a popular practice in Pakistan as well as among many Muslims worldwide.

In traditional societies, marriage is seen more as a union of two families rather than simply between two individuals. It is with this mindset that elders have for years married their children to relatives, with the most common choice being first and second cousins.

According to a study titled ‘The impact of consanguinity and inbreeding on perinatal mortality in Karachi’ by Dr Rafat Hussain, published in 1998, consanguinity is practised by about 63% of Pakistanis, of which over 80% are between first cousins. When looked at scientifically, first cousins share 1/8th of their genes inherited from a common ancestor. There are also unions between couples who are ‘double-first cousins’ – meaning they are related from their maternal as well as paternal side.

However, with the security of marrying within the family to preserve close ties and in many cases inheritance, comes the looming threat of adverse biological conditions for offspring. Among these are microcephaly and a further mutation, autosomal recessive primary microcephaly (ARP-MCPH) which is clinically described as a congenital neurological disorder. This means that the baby’s head is at least three times smaller than what it should be. Mild to severe mental retardation is also a risk.

Dr Abdul Hameed of the Institute of Biomedical and Genetic Engineering in Islamabad has been looking into this phenomenon with scientists from the Kohat University of Science and Technology. He and his colleagues, Shamim Saleha, Muhammad Ajmal, M Jamil and M Nasir found that this genetic mutation is surfacing in members of the Pakhtun pool at an alarmingly high level – 43% of families in northern Pakistan with microcephaly have autosomal recessive primary microcephaly.

According to a 2005 study, about one in 10,000 Pakistanis have microcephaly, compared to one in one million in the Caucasian (or white) population. “The high incidence should set alarms [ringing] for trends to change,” Hameed told The Express Tribune, adding that if consanguineous or in-breeding continues at the same rate, they will soon reach a “dangerous level”.

But surely, the Pakhtun are not the only ones who intermarry in Pakistan and by that reasoning the ‘underdeveloped head’ condition should surface in other genetic pools. “Of course, inter- marriages are practised by Punjabis and other communities as well,” explained Hameed. “However it is not as often as seen in the Pakhtun. This is why the severity of their situation is at a relatively higher level.” Some reasons include geographical proximity; tribes are settled in one area and do not want their daughters to move too far away from home.

Underdeveloped mental capacities are always a part of microcephaly but to varying degrees – from very mild to moderate. Very rarely is it more than moderate and accompanied by epilepsy or fits. “Usually the patients with microcephaly are easy to handle and they are able to learn several self-help skills depending upon the environment and economic status of parents etc.,” explained Dr Jawad Hassan, who is an assistant professor with the Department of Biochemistry at Shifa College of Medicine.

In some communities, the extent of consanguinity and inbreeding is so deeply entrenched that marrying within the tribe is also not recommended. While the mutation in either or both parent is not genetic, marrying a close blood relative will spread the mutation. If both parents carry the mutated gene, the child has a 25% chance of being affected. “If one parent is a carrier for the mutation or the defective copy of the chromosome and the other partner is ‘normal’, their children will be 100% ‘normal’,” Hameed explained. In short, the condition can be completely avoided if people with a family history avoid intermarrying.

An international expert added to the corpus of research by pointing out that the good news is that as family sizes go down, double first cousin marriages in particular will become increasingly difficult.

Anyone who is concerned can be easily tested for the appearance of the mutation free of cost at some centres in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2011.

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Reader Comments (32)

  • Bangash
    Jul 23, 2011 - 1:51AM

    This is why I firmly said “No” to any suggestion of arranged marriage in the family.


  • Max
    Jul 23, 2011 - 3:22AM

    Hindu tradition goes a mile further and marriages are not allowed in one’s own Gowt(sub-caste). The older religions were already forbidding that the modern research is showing.

    It is illegal to marry a cousin in the United States.


  • Ali
    Jul 23, 2011 - 6:35AM

    That’s why even the Prophet (PBUH) said it is better to marry outside the family some 1400 years before the scientists realized the possible complications of consanguinity :)


  • mawali
    Jul 23, 2011 - 6:50AM

    organized incest!


  • Jul 23, 2011 - 7:43AM

    Also something to do with wealth in family.


  • Mirza
    Jul 23, 2011 - 9:48AM

    I am surprised that the writers of this study have not been attacked by the rightwing attackers. This also explains the thinking like a frog in a well. I feel afraid to even point these scientific facts to Pakistanis because they get all bent out of shape. Don’t even want to hear the truth, let alone follow it.
    Thanks for the study to open some eyes. In the US, many states require blood test before marriage. Recommend

  • Anyways
    Jul 23, 2011 - 10:51AM

    My uncle is a senior doctor in a highly reputed hospital in delhi and one of his psychiatrist doctor friend in delhi told him that his most patients are muslims and also that some years back government of india carried on an analysis on development of psychological ailments and found that “if not all” most be may attributed to interbreeding due to muslims marrying off their cousins in general.
    But the government never published the report because of muslim minority votes.


  • Cynical
    Jul 23, 2011 - 2:00PM


    And exactly where did he (PBUH) said it?


  • Cynical
    Jul 23, 2011 - 2:06PM


    You are absolutely right. Our female cousins are a part of our family heirloom. We should keep them within the family.And the last time I checked with the local moulvi it’s not haram.

    West can learn so much from us.


  • Cynical
    Jul 23, 2011 - 2:39PM


    I completely agree with you. Our female cousins are a part of our family heirloom. All efforts should be made to keep them within the extended family. And the good news is, neither the religion nor the laws prohibts this.

    There is so much that the west can learn from us.


  • Jul 23, 2011 - 2:41PM

    This article is the perfect mix of comedy and tragedy.


    Jul 23, 2011 - 4:23PM

    In North India first cousins are considered as real brother and sister and she even ties rakhi on him during Raksha Bandhan, which is a traditional Hindu religious festival symbolising sisterly love for her brother who is duty bound to protect her. However in South India, in some states maternal uncle can marry his niece but this practice is now dying down.

    Ali has commented that Prophet(PBUH) had asked Muslims to marry outside, which would have avoided birth of many abnormal children.


  • Jul 23, 2011 - 6:50PM

    here you go my 5 year scientific study on exactly this subject.. just a small piece of what inbreeding is doing to this country


  • Secrecy
    Jul 23, 2011 - 7:52PM

    Exactly, My belief has always been to marry a girl from an entirely different family where you will tend to meet new people. Its not solely about husband and wife; two not familiar families are coming together.


  • Mir Agha
    Jul 23, 2011 - 8:59PM

    I’ll marry any attractive woman i get involved. No kids is the best way to go. They’re more than enough people on this earth.


  • Shaheer
    Jul 23, 2011 - 9:11PM

    @Cynical: Ok, so its not HARAM means we shud just do it no matter what biological effects it has?
    Lets see….slavery is not HARAM in Islam too, lets start that too, right?


  • Ali
    Jul 23, 2011 - 9:30PM

    This is all right….but what should i do if i am badly in love with my cousin and she loves me too :(


  • Anwar
    Jul 23, 2011 - 9:42PM

    The Quran said that marrying cousins is allowed but never said it is preferred. And herein lies the problem. Pakistanis and other Muslims have made it a PREFERRED practice. These cultures (against the Quran) also practice forced marriages. Herein also lies the problem. Their requisites and requirements for marriage are waaay wrong. The Quran says that we were created as different peoples and tribes to get to know one another not to avoid one another in marriage or otherwise. So whereas there is nothing wrong with marriage with a cousin. There is no reason this should be a preferred practice. Drinking arsenc isn’t haram either, but if you know there is a risk . . . Also if you know there is a risk for the child if two people with a similar mutation who are not related marry, you should leave i alone.


  • Pakistani Canadian
    Jul 23, 2011 - 9:50PM


    In the US, each individual state has its own laws in regards to marriage. Currently, there are only 6 states that outlaw consanguinity. 25 states allow it, while the rest have some limitations on consanguinity.

    An easy analogy to looking at the ill effects of consanguinity would be a photocopy machine. Photocopying a photocopy emphasizes the flaws in the photocopy. If you were to continuously photocopy using what is coming out on the other end, eventually the image will be longer be of quality where you can still decipher what is on it.

    However, that is only looking at the ill effects. Consanguinity also has the benefits of emphasizing the strengths. If both parents carry a certain trait, it will be passed down to the child. Even when some children are born with defects, that is not to say that they have not inherited some genes which are superior. However, clearly one has to keep the pros and cons in perspective. A child with birth defects is clearly a tragedy, and not worth any amount of inherited superior traits.

    All available research shows that consanguinity is not harmful when practiced as a one-off. The problem arises when it is done repeatedly, and unfortunately in Pakistan that does happen to be a problem. Genetic counseling, and tests should be carried out on all who wish to engage in consanguinity.


  • The Voice of Reason
    Jul 24, 2011 - 3:39AM

    If that’s how you feel about her and she about you, go ahead and marry her, just get a vasectomy or something and ensure that there is no possibility of you two having children… with the current population crisis adoption would be a great idea in any case. That’s the least-worst solution I can think of at the moment.


  • Mustafa
    Jul 24, 2011 - 8:09AM

    I disagree however, with actually making it illegal. This should be overturned.


  • Jul 24, 2011 - 12:38PM

    I know quite a few cousins who married and their children are perfectly fine.
    In Islam, cousin marriage is allowed so for muslims, this is a non-issue.


  • Tony Singh
    Jul 24, 2011 - 2:04PM

    Its not about Islam or any other religion, its about inbreeding and the chances of recessive disease causing genes coming togather in an offspring. The chance of that hapening is more in a marriage between individuals sharing a common gene pool (cousins for example) than between individuals coming from diverse gene pool. (it boils down to probability – common gene pool translates to more probability of it happening and vice versa)


  • Jul 24, 2011 - 2:38PM


    If you know a thing about Islam, then you should know that Prophet freed Hazrat Bilal from slavery and many companion of Prophet followed and freed slaves, now you can conclude if it is Haram or not.


  • Jul 24, 2011 - 3:38PM


    Your whole research is flawed, there is nothing written in Quran or Hadith that says you SHOULD marry your cousins, it is permissible but not mandatory. If an educated person made the argument that people do so and then go on bashing Hadith that I pity you. There are many Hadiths that have been proven scientifically like drinking water etc (which you through your narrow minded research has branded as ‘Strict Regimentation’). And Islam means subjugation not pick and choose! You do WUDU in a sequential way as said by Prophet not as you please. There so many other things in your so called research that are fundamentally wrong too. But the last slide where you suggested burning Hadith Books summed it up all as you are biased about Hadiths, so I dont think there will be any point in arguing with you anymore.


  • Jul 24, 2011 - 3:58PM

    The banning of cousin marriage was the topic of discussion in Norway as well. A lot of Muslim immigrants especially from Pakistan bring their partners from the home country and they usually are cousins or other family members. This has resulted in many Pakistanies having a lot of health problems. I have plenty of examples about innocent children suffering from diseases since their parents are related. I think this is severely unfair to the child and not the least also gives psychological stress to these individuals. Cousin marriage is looked down upon in the Western cultures, and many children and individuals feel guilty and shy to openly say that they are result of a cousin marriage or that they are married to their cousin. This problem is high among Muslims. I was in States and an Indian American Muslim girl (born and raised in Chicago), got married to her cousin. When being asked who she is marrying her answer was: “My mother’s sister’s son.” She felt ashamed to say she is marrying her own cousin. I personally think people need to stop getting married only in their families, cast or ethnicity. Look at the health statistics of Pakistanies in Europe and USA, specifically the people from Mirpur. People who advocate only getting married in the families utterly disgust me. I think it is a form of racism when you think your cast, family or ethnicity is superior and only worth getting married to.


  • Salman
    Jul 24, 2011 - 5:00PM

    Being doctor have ample research on it :

    the simple funda is ,

    Marrying with your cousin Do increase chances of some problem in child which is around 4-6% but 95% of times its safe.

    the above 4-6% risk is also equal to couples who have a baby after the age of 35… so it dont mean they stop having baby

    However it is also worth to mentiond that even if you are not cousins still der is 2-3% chances of such problems.

    so the equation is simple that risk is Greater but Not that greater that you simply declear it Taboo

    if your cousin is gud and you feel you can spend a happy life with him/her go for it Otherwise dont but dont keep this factor for rejecting.


  • Shaheer
    Jul 24, 2011 - 6:27PM

    @Moderate: Oh yes I know about that. But do you know WHY he did that? Its because Hazrat Bilal’s master was very cruel to him!
    And lets see…u asking me if i know a THING about Islam, do you know that it was Hazrat Usman Ghani (RA) who freed Hazrat Bilal (RA), not Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

    In Islam, slavery is not haram, but at the same time it is not preferred either. The Quran asks us to be kind to our slaves (when we had them).

    Do you know that breaking an oath or killing a fellow muslim is to be atoned by freeing a slav? So what’re ure gonna say now is that “Oh, lets bring back slavery so we have slaves to free”? Cuz that’ll be just silly and idiotic. (before asking me to cite sources, google it and check for yourself).

    Marrying cousins is ALLOWED, but not preferred. We don’t have to keep on doing it if it is resulting in mutation. Everyone saying that they know lots of people who married cousins but are fine should know that they are right, but do we all have to act when everything is at its EXTREME?. The same way we are ALLOWED to take equal revenge if someone hurts us doesn’t mean we HAVE to, because we can just forgive and forget too.


  • farooq
    Jul 24, 2011 - 8:45PM

    @Salman 100% agreed… may be the writer be kind enough to point to the research paper in question so one can read in-depth about the issue and may be look at if other genetic conditions such as autosomal dominant, chromosomal abnormalities, are also evident in the research study population.


  • M. Salik
    Jul 24, 2011 - 10:10PM

    The Caliph Umar Al Khattab (R.A) also forbid cousin marriages, sighting weak-offspring as the reason.


  • Peros Graham
    Jul 25, 2011 - 1:56AM

    This bickering over an issue of intermarriages is useless.
    Those bent on marrying cousins would do it no matter what
    the stake is. Marrying cousins in Islam is not forbidden but is
    not declared preferable either. If medicine indicates that
    intermarriages are causing genetic mutation. They have been saying
    this for ages.
    Majority of educated Pakistanis deliberatly choose to remain blissfully
    ignorant they are convinced that intermarriages has been a traditional
    practice it has never produced a mutant child and it never will.
    I would let them sleep over it.
    We are trying to change norms, it won’t happen overnight.


  • Ali Akbar Khan
    Jul 26, 2011 - 1:01AM

    This is blasphemy and an attempt by the author to foist un-Islamic values on us. Consanguinity is encouraged in Islam and the very fact that Islam is now the world’s premier religion only proves how modern science can be wrong. Even the Prophet (PBUH) encouraged marrying between cousins.


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