Muslims need “dating dialogues” to open communication

GDC Online 2011_Show Sessions_Jesse Knish Photography for GDC Online

Young American-Muslims find themselves walking the tight rope between conservative Muslim traditions and liberal American culture. Because of this, Gen X and Gen Y Muslims are well-positioned to pave the way for change. Nearly all have “dated” vicariously through non-Muslim friends. Simultaneously many take their faith seriously and have a sincere desire to propagate it.

We have the Hijabi Monologues, I propose the introduction of Dating Dialogues. Dialogues between Muslims sharing candid stories of life, love, courting, dating and marriage. These individual stories exist and will undoubtedly tell a larger narrative: The story of American-Muslim cultural adaptation and assimilation, and the evolution of a very American Islam.

“Dating-like” options are evolving in the American Muslim community. Most courting couples take advantage of modern technology and communicate via text, email, chat and phone. Many also feel face-to-face interaction is necessary. Some couples seek parental approval up front to meet in chaperoned settings or have a nikah (legal Muslim marriage) soon after or in place of an engagement so they can meet and “date” before the civil wedding and celebration. Other couples meet independently and spend time on their own before speaking to their parents. A variety of permutations and combinations exist, and depending on personal situations, beliefs, and nature and nurture, they may all prove to be acceptable cultural adaptations.

According to Sheik Yassir Fazaga, we need to strive to “make Islam relevant” in America. Dr. Sherman Jackson echoes the sentiment, saying it is necessary to “create a new cultural matrix that can survive in the broader context of America. [Islam in America] has to change for the religion to survive.”

Can a social construct for dating fall within this matrix? If so, will it be both flexible and inclusive to suit conservative and liberal interpretations alike? Will it be broadly embraced or shunned? What might basic guidelines include?

Based on informal conversations with other single Muslims about dating and getting to know someone, several key points surfaced:

• Compatibility, compatibility, compatibility – To find someone’s whose personality, world view, interests and morals align with one’s own is critical, so much so that overall compatibiliity should trump excessive emphases on religious practice, culture and education.

• Dating with intention – Establishing intention up front is helpful. Casual dating can lead to promiscuity, and so the reason for Muslim dating should be because there is a mutual intention to seriously consider marriage.

• Honest dialogue – Attempting to replace passive and ambivalent behavior with honest and straightforward dialogue is necessary. Couples desire the freedom to communicate with one another openly and extensively before deciding whether or not to get married. Some Imams, like Imam Muhammad Magid of the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS Center), encourage the use of a pre-marital questionnaire to foster dialogue on important issues to be discussed before deciding to marry.

• Religion – For many, marrying a Muslim is a priority, but the level of practice is not always a top consideration. For some, “just a Muslim” or a “cultural Muslim” is good enough as long as the person “has a good moral compass.”

• Parental approval – Some seek it, some don’t. Parental sanction can add credibility to the interaction, but not everyone has or feels the need to seek parental approval.

• Intimacy– However you slice and dice it, pre-marital sex is off the table Islamically. Most people recognize this, but not all choose to follow it to the letter by doing away with all forms of physical contact.

• Taking one’s time– Suitors can falsely represent themselves. Observation and time are powerful tools. A person can ascertain a great deal by observing a person in a variety circumstances. Time reveals the layers of a person’s true character.

Before attempting to develop a construct for Muslim dating, two roadblocks need to be tackled: 1. Making dating the focus, not sex, and 2. Managing parental and community influence in decisions on dating and marriage.

Dating Minus Sex

The word “dating” is, in itself, a formidable challenge for the American-Muslim community. In 2006, Neil MacFarcquhar wrote a story in The New York Times on Muslim dating, or “Muslim Boy Meets Girl”. He wrote, “Many American Muslims…equate anything labeled dating with hellfire” because for conservative Muslims “dating is [considered] a euphemism for pre-marital sex.”

He crystallized the American-Muslim conundrum perfectly. More than a few American-Muslims equate dating with hellfire because of a well-known hadith (saying of the Prophet PBUH) which warns that when an unwed man and woman are left alone, Satan is the third person in the room (One counter comment from a friend was, “this belies each person’s sense of responsibility to think and act in a way that honors their beliefs and God’s expectations of modesty”).

American-Musilims find it difficult to decouple Western dating from pre-marital sex because the “dating-cum-sex” model is ubiquitous. Still, if we believe the concept of dating within the parameters of Islam has merit, there is value in delineating the terms and the acts.

Separating dating from pre-marital sex would require some critical thinking and analysis by Islamic scholars, as well as input from sociologists. It would be time and effort well spent though because Gen X and Gen Y Muslims seek reasoned answers on complex issues from people they respect and trust. “Dating is haram because I said so” rings hollow. Thoughtful, well-reasoned explanations of the halal and haram aspects of dating and why appeal to the sensibility of today’s young American-Muslims.

So why when the term is so loaded, does it need to be called “dating”? Acknowledging that the meet-and-greet cycle, currently called ‘assisted marriage’ or ‘matrimonial meetings,’ is indeed dating, removes its clinical façade. Deciding whom to marry is a deeply personal decision. Along the way, a person experiences a string of conflicting emotions: insecurity, doubt, anxiety, hope and excitement. Judging a person’s suitability when dating requires instinct and emotion, not just bio-datas. Thus by recognizing dating for what it is, the feelings and experiences associated with it will be validated and recognized as real.

Why is dating itself important? Dating can eventually lead to acceptance or rejection; and can be rough on the ego, heart and soul. However, if one is open to its lessons, dating can teach one a lot about onself; recognizing real and true love; and also the fragility and the tenacity of human bonds.

As a male friend, a convert to Islam, said to me, “I don’t think I would know [how to recognize] deep love if I wasn’t shaped by my experiences [good and bad] in the dating world…I think dating is an invaluable tool that every human needs to use to understand [themselves and the depth of] love [they can feel for another person] in ways they can’t without experience.”

Through dating, Muslims may be able to overcome some of the stunting of emotional development caused by gender segregation. Interacting with the opposite sex in a respectful, but very personal way, may foster a greater degree of comfort and ease between Muslim men and women, and may lead to normalizing gender relations.

Dating dialogues can humanize our stories, struggles and successes. Helping us move away from dead-end rhetoric on nomenclature, to placing the spotlight squarely on the desired product, namely a good strong marriage.

Dating Minus Your Mom

The community’s anxiety about pre-marital sex is valid, but MacFarcquhar’s article in “The New York Times” also highlights the level of influence parents seek to have on their children’s relationship and partner-related decisions. Don’t adult single Muslims have the right to make their own relationship decisions? Shouldn’t they feel empowered to make decisions using intuition, judgment and independent observation, not guilt? Independent decision-making is critical for personal development. No one is denying that the older generation should guide, but some parents hold their children hostage to their own hopes and dreams.

The voices of American-born Gen X and Gen Y Muslims were muted in MacFarcquhar’s 2006 article, but no more. There now exist active commentaries on dating, and the related topics of gender, marriage and sex. These commentaries can be found on blogs and online magazines run by and targeted to young American-Muslims. The interested reader can find thoughtful, honest and authentic content that is updated frequently, and propagated aggressively through the blogosphere via Facebook and Twitter. The result– thousands of hits, hundreds of cross posts and numerous comments – a valuable look-see into the minds and hearts of young American-Muslims.

This shift is critical. Gen X and Gen Y Muslim Americans are coming into their own on issues like dating and claiming ownership of dialogues they deem important. This effort alone will ensure they are in the driver’s seat (not their parents and community leaders) steering the path forward.

Young American-Muslims find themselves walking the tight rope between conservative Muslim traditions and liberal American culture. Nearly all have “dated” vicariously through non-Muslim friends. Simultaneously many take their faith seriously and have a sincere desire to propagate the true message of Islam through thought, word and action. Gen X and Gen Y Muslims are well-positioned to pave the way for change.

From online blogs and magazines, it is evident that young American-Muslims have proven that they are willing to discuss difficult issues including dating, at least in horizontal dialogue (within their generation). The tests that remain though are whether these dialogues can be both honest and welcoming of a variety of opinions; and whether these dialogues will attempt to reach up vertically (to the older generation) and bridge the generation gap, keeping everyone’s dignity intact. Ensuring that honest and diverse dialogue on American-Muslim dating is high on the online radar is the first step toward forcing a broader resolution among American-Muslims on Muslim dating.


Zeba Iqbal is the Vice-Chair of CAMP (Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals) and the conference manager for their 2009 Leadership Summit. She is an active social and community networker and an activist for the Muslim American community. She lives in NYC and currently works at Princeton University.


Photo Credit: Official GDC

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