For Muslims, Finding a Mate is a Family Matter
By Vera Lawlor, Staff Writer
"Unlike my non-Muslim friends, I don't have the pressure of having to find a date, and finding a life partner doesn't rest on my shoulders alone," said Farooqui, of Ridgewood.
This sentiment is shared by many young Muslims in North Jersey. Why? Quite simply, according to Islamic law, they are not allowed to date. Men and women are allowed to interact, but they are not supposed to form friendships unless for the intention of marriage.
Idle talk is discouraged
"When we speak with the opposite sex [on a day-to-day basis], it's to discuss education, business, or to further our knowledge of religion," said Sameera Iqbal of Paramus, a senior at Rutgers University. "Anything else is considered to be idle talk and is discouraged."
When the time comes to marry, it's typical for Muslim family and friends to act as matchmakers. And then, Islamic law requires that meetings between potential partners be held in public or in the company of family or friends.
Restrictions on how potential partners interact can vary according to culture, said Dr. Karen Prentiss, a professor of comparative religion at Drew University.
"While you can't generalize about any one culture, I would say Muslims in Pakistan, Iran, and now Yemen, would tend to be more strict," Prentiss said. "In these countries, families would be more likely to arrange marriages."
In India, many Muslims follow the local tradition in which "you only meet your life partner on the wedding day," the professor said. "In Saudi Arabia, Muslims would be more on the medium side, meaning couples would be discouraged [not forbidden] from meeting except through family."
Muslims in Turkey and Egypt might tend to be more liberal, Prentiss said. "Families would be more flexible in allowing children to choose marriage partners. The family would give final approval but wouldn't arrange the marriage."
When relatives do the matching it's usually members of the immediate family, according to Misbahuddin Mirza, an engineer who teaches at Dar-Ul-Islah Islamic School in Teaneck.
"Sometimes parents have spoken with one another as the son and daughter were growing up, and it's been suggested that the children might get married in the future," Mirza said.
Relatives investigate prospects
In other cases, mothers and sisters look into the background of a potential bride's family while fathers and sons check out a potential groom. This investigation could involve meeting the prospective bride or groom's friends, colleagues, and supervisors. Mirza said Islamic tradition teaches Muslims to look into the prospective spouse's religion, family background, and financial stability. And the future partner's looks are not to be ignored either, he pointed out.
"These are not forced marriages. They are arranged marriages -- and there's a big difference," Mirza said. "The woman and man have the right to say yes or no to the marriage."
Mirza's mother and sisters helped him find a bride.
"I actually thought I might never get married because my mother and sisters could not agree on the right woman for me," Mirza joked.
Among the prospects his mother and sisters found was the woman he eventually married, the daughter of an aunt's friend. Mirza's mother and sister traveled to India to meet her and her family. In turn, Mirza's prospective father-in-law came to the United States to meet him. The couple exchanged photos and eventually saw one another in person at a family wedding.
The Qur'an teaches that physical attraction between a husband and wife is very important, according to Imam Omar Baloch.
Despite the restrictions on sexes intermingling, the rules for finding a potential spouse are flexible, said Baloch, a guest lecturer at the headquarters of the Tanezem-E-Islam Organization in Teaneck and the Muslim Community Center in Manhattan.
They allow a couple to speak in person and via telephone or correspond via e-mail as long as the conversation is brief and appropriate, the imam said. However, he added, too much intermingling is discouraged.
"Freud made it very clear that sexual instinct is very powerful and this is what Islam wants to control," Baloch said.
Comfort in Islamic rules
Leyla Amzi, president of the Muslim Student Association at Ramapo College, finds comfort in these laws.
"People think because Islam has so many rules it's too restrictive," Amzi said. "But it's not like that at all. These are guidelines that are very helpful in living a good and successful life."
Hina Lodhi, a computer information science major at Rutgers University, agrees.
"In many Muslim countries, it's easier for them to totally separate the sexes. It's different here. You learn to adapt, but you don't compromise your beliefs," Lodhi said.
The Paramus native married Murad Lodhi, her brother's friend and fellow Rutgers student, last year.
"I was very much interested in his religious beliefs because I knew if he had a good basis in his religion he would have a good basis in everything else," said Lodhi, who lives in North Brunswick.
Omar Toor of Lodi and his wife, Safia Baloch of Raleigh, N.C., met through their mothers, who had been raised in the same house in India.
"In our case, there were a lot of questions they didn't have to ask about the families," said Baloch, a Georgetown University law student. "They knew, for instance, that both families were religious."
The couple broke the ice via e-mails, said Toor, who sits on the advisory board for young Muslims for the Islamic Circle of North America and belongs to the Dar-Ul-Islah Mosque in Teaneck.
"Then we asked each other's permission to speak on the phone," Toor said.
Their first face-to-face meeting took place in the company of both sets of parents at Baloch's apartment in Georgetown.
"It was pretty intense because our parents were so eager for us to get along," Baloch said. "I was apprehensive and anxious about the meeting."
Toor said the pressure was like a "blind date times 10."
Parents' backing vital
However, both agree that having their parents along was vital to the success of the meeting.
"In Western culture, the families are given consideration only after a couple start getting along," Baloch said. "But in Islam, the family is of great importance; a couple's family has to get along. They have to like one another."
Imam Baloch explained that the union between both sets of in-laws strengthens the bond between husband and wife.
"If problems do occur in the marriage, the couple will go first to their parents, and it is the parents that make the difference in resolving any problems," he added.
Toor said seeing how well their parents interacted helped them relax on their first meeting. They were engaged shortly after and spent a year getting to know each other in social settings. They tied the knot earlier this year. Baloch spends college semesters on campus and lives with her husband in Lodi during school breaks.
Not all North Jersey Muslims find marriage partners through family or community networking. For those, Mirza said, personal ads in Muslim publications, including Islamic Horizons and The Message, can prove helpful. And a growing number are finding partners through matrimonial Web sites geared to Muslims. Among the most popular are wwww.matrimonials.com/MML/ and www.Zawaj.com.
Most of the postings on these sites are placed by parents or siblings seeking mates for relatives. However, a few are posted by the seekers themselves.
Finding mates on the Web
"A lot of young adult professionals from India and Pakistan are working in this country and don't have family or friends to help them find a spouse," said Wael AbdelGawad, administrator of Zawaj.com and a resident of Oakland, Calif. "The Internet makes this search a lot easier."
AbdelGawad sought guidance from Islamic scholars before launching the site three years ago.
"They said it was acceptable as long as conversations between people using the site were maroof [open and proper]. Everything had to be above board and users had to post personal information for honorable reasons [with intentions of marriage]," AbdelGawad said.
A few Islamic scholars have objected to the Zawaj.com Web site.
"They believe a woman who has never been married and uses the site must have a wakeel [male protector] to represent her interests," AbdelGawad explained. "I have seen some sites that will require this. They ask for the woman's name and the name of her wakeel before signing her up."
The Webmaster said he doesn't require this of women using his site because many American-born women and converts to Islam don't have male relatives willing to act as wakeels.
Imam Baloch said he does not object to women using the Internet to find husbands. It's even acceptable, he said, for a woman to propose to a man.
"Even the Prophet got married through a woman proposing to him," Baloch said.
However, according to Islamic law, a woman who has never been married before must have a wakeel present the first time she meets with the man, the imam added. Often women will call on an imam to fulfill this role, he said.
"A Muslim woman would not marry a man if her wakeel didn't approve," Baloch said. "But there has to be something really wrong for the wakeel to say no to the marriage."
Male protectors play key role
Sitting in a lobby at Rutgers University on a recent evening, about a dozen Muslim students -- some from the New Jersey Institute of Technology -- spoke favorably about wakeels.
"A wakeel is responsible for finding out everything he can about a potential groom. It's easier for a man to do this," said Anila Joher of Nutley, a third-year student at NJIT. "He is her guardian in every sense of the word."
The students said their quest for a Muslim spouse in this country differs from that of their foreign-born parents. For instance, they said, most of their parents' marriages were arranged, and most were paired with people from similar cultures.
"That was OK for them. My parents weren't in love when they got married," Farooqui said. "It's wonderful to see them walking hand in hand after 35 years. I'm amazed everytime I see that. But that may not be right for us."
The concept of arranged marriages is steeped in culture and not based on the laws of Islam, the students said. Farooqui and his fellow students believe their generation benefits greatly from growing up in America, where they "meet Muslims from many different cultures."
The Zawaj.com site has resulted in many cross-cultural marriages.
"Young people are more interested in getting to the heart of Islam, a brand of Islam that breaks down religious and cultural barriers," AbdelGawad said.