L.A.’s Volunteer Muslim Matchmaker
His matches have sparks of tradition
Mohammad Mertaban is a volunteer matchmaker who helps observant young Muslims searching for a modern path to marriage that stays true to Islam.
By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times
September 23, 2011
The one-line email that greeted Mohammad Mertaban came straight to the point.
“Mertaban, find me a husband, k? I await your list of potential suitors,” wrote a woman who lives on the East Coast.
Mertaban was not surprised, although he knew the woman only slightly. “If it comes from a brother or sister whom I don’t know very well, I know that she would do it out of frustration, desperation or a strong desire to get married,” he explained later.
An information technology project manager who lives in Fullerton, Mertaban, 30, has grown accustomed to urgent requests — by phone, email and in person — since he began dabbling in matchmaking for friends and acquaintances about eight years ago. Those he helps are observant young Muslims searching for a modern path to marriage that stays true to Islam.
American Muslims regularly speak of a “marriage crisis” in their communities, as growing numbers of Muslims reach their late 20s and early 30s still single. Young religious Muslims tend to avoid Western-style dating, but many also reject the ways of earlier generations, in which potential spouses were introduced to one another by family.
Traditionally, in South Asia and the Middle East, older women — often called the “aunties” — and parents recommended matches by drawing upon their extensive networks of family, friends and acquaintances. Marriage criteria were typically limited to religion, ethnicity, jobs and looks. But in the U.S., their little black books of contacts are significantly thinner and many second-generation American Muslims see such methods as decidedly old-world.
So, many turn to young volunteer matchmakers like Mertaban, who have connections in their hometowns, college circles and vast online networks.
“The aunties don’t really know people very well and I think they’re just shooting in the dark,” said Mertaban, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon. “I think people have veered away from that.”
Amir Mertaban, Mohammad’s younger brother and a matchmaker as well, said the goal was “to keep this as close to Islam as possible. I’m trying to get people hooked up, but we’re trying to do this in a halal (permissible) manner.”
What is and isn’t allowed is debated within the Muslim community. But those who seek a matchmaker’s help tend to steer clear of anything resembling dating and to avoid meeting one another without a chaperone. And even though they may see their parents’ methods as too traditional, they are still more comfortable seeking help from a go-between than online matrimonial sites or singles’ events held at mosques under the guise of “networking.”
Mertaban, who is lively with a quick laugh and a wide, almost Joker-like smile, says he didn’t choose to be a matchmaker but fell into the role after he helped a number of friends.
He grew up in Diamond Bar and has lived in Los Angeles, Irvine and Fullerton — where he is now a youth mentor at the area mosque — which helped him establish a wide Southern California Muslim network.
In his senior year at UCLA, Mertaban was president of the campus’ Muslim Student Assn. and the following year he was president of MSA-West, an umbrella group covering much of the West Coast. With chapters at universities nationwide, it has jokingly been called the Muslim Singles Assn.
He was well-liked and known for making other students, especially freshmen, feel welcome. Many turned to him for advice about their problems.
“He’s a leader… everybody trusts Mohammad,” said Lena Khan, 26, an independent filmmaker who attended UCLA with Mertaban. “If you need something at 2 a.m., you know Mohammad is happy to help you.”
In a community that observes a certain level of gender segregation, Mertaban, because of his leadership roles, interacted regularly with both men and women. Soon, students began asking him for help finding potential mates.
His first attempt involved one of his best friends, of Palestinian descent, and an Indian woman the man was interested in. It didn’t work, partly because of their different ethnicities — a cultural lesson Mertaban now keeps in mind when suggesting pairings. He organizes his lists of single men and women by nationality.
The “Single Sisters” directory on his laptop begins with a 28-year-old Afghan woman and ends with a 25-year-old Syrian. In between are almost three dozen women, ranging from their early 20s to early 30s with details such as “Algerian only” or “wants to marry an Egyptian dr, mba or engineer.” Other notations include “not hijabi,” referring to women who don’t wear a head scarf.
His “Single Brothers” list, which is kept separate, is longer.
Mertaban, who has been married since 2005 and has two young daughters, said he has become well known as a source of reliable information about single Muslims — perhaps too well known. “I’ll get random emails from people that I’ve met once,” he said. “And sometimes it’s just really overwhelming and I don’t want to take these cases on.”
At a recent Muslim conference, Mertaban volunteered at the information booth of a relief agency with projects in the Middle East and Africa. But some at the conference still wanted to talk matrimony.
A man from Northern California stood awkwardly beside Mertaban, saying, “Maybe you can mention potentials” as young women walked by. The man, whom Mertaban had previously tried to set up but without success, stayed at his elbow as conference-goers browsed through religious books and other materials. Too polite to mention his discomfort with the request, Mertaban escaped only when the call to prayer was made.
He had greater success with Khan, the filmmaker. On Valentine’s Day 2008, he called to say that a friend, Ahmad, was interested in her. For a few weeks, Khan peppered Mertaban with questions about her suitor.
Mertaban told her that Ahmad was devoted to his prayers and very involved in volunteer activities, both of which were important to her. He helped fill the gaps in a courtship that took place mostly over the phone, Khan said.
“Mohammad told me he was funny and it would have taken me forever … to find out because he’s not going to start busting out jokes on the phone with a girl he wants to marry,” she said. “If you want to know about a guy, you need someone like Mohammad.”
She and Ahmad were married 10 months later.
Twice previously, Khan’s parents had entertained suitors for her — young men and their parents — and both efforts ended the day they began. “It’s just not as fruitful,” she said.
Even though Mertaban is a new-style matchmaker, his methods are relatively conservative. He is wary of suggesting matches for couples of different ethnicities and he declines to help any man who doesn’t plan to approach the woman’s father first for permission.
“I mean guys and girls shouldn’t be talking freely,” he said. “If you have the intention of getting married, the parents need to be involved.”
Sounding not unlike an “auntie” himself, he says those interested in marriage need to decide if they are compatible as a couple before emotions get in the way. He was introduced to his wife, Ferdaus Serhal, by his older sister who had worked with Serhal at a mosque. The couple emailed and spoke on the phone for two months before their families met.
Now he often consults with Serhal to get her opinion on a young woman or a possible pairing. He has matched eight couples who married and has about half a dozen more in progress. Still, he says he spends too much time counseling men with unrealistic expectations.
Two days after he ran into a college friend, Mertaban got a call from the man. They spent time catching up, and then the man volunteered that he was struggling to find a wife. Mertaban asked what he was looking for.
“He said he wants a girl with beautiful hair, tall, slender body and he wants her to have really pretty eyes and on top of that, get this, he wanted a girl who would not talk back to him,” the matchmaker recalled. “I thought this is not worth my time, this guy needs a lot more maturing.”
But he felt obliged to say something. He told the man, a doctor, that his criteria were unrealistic and noted that the prophet Muhammad encouraged men to marry women for their faith and character. He tried to be sensitive, knowing that asking for his help can be a humbling experience.
The man seemed to understand, but at the end of the conversation he just reiterated his requirements.
Mertaban hung up feeling frustrated.
Is Marriage Through Email Allowed in Islam?
Marriage through E-Mail
Name of Mufti: Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi
Dear Sheikh, As-Salamu `Alaykum wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuh. Now, modern means of communication have made things much easier. I’d like to know whether it’s allowed to make Nikah (marriage) via the e-mail or not. Jazakum Allah khayran.
Wa `alaykum As-Salamu wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh.
In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.
Brother, we really appreciate your fowarding this question to us, and we commend your keenness on getting yourself well-acquainted with the teachings of Islam. May Allah help us all keep firm on the Right Path, Ameen!
Brother, first of all, you are to bear in mind the fact that marriage contract, in Islam, is so solemn that it should be concluded in certain way stipulated by Shari`ah so as to set it in order and remove any ambiguity in this regard.
Focusing more on the question in point, Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America, states:
“According to Muslim jurists, it is not permissible to marry someone by mail or phone. The same thing can be said about the e-mail. Marriage in Islam is a formal legal contract. It should be very clear who is marrying whom. The Shari`ah emphasizes the announcement of marriage and does not allow any ambiguity in this matter. It is for this reason witnesses for Nikah are necessary.
If the parties who want to get married are not present, they can appoint a wakil (representative). The person who is getting married has to appoint his/her wakil. It is permissible to appoint a wakil through telephone, fax or email. The wakil then should do the ijab (proposal) or qubul (acceptance), in person, on behalf of the person who appointed him. Two witnesses who also personally know the party that is not present are necessary for the contract of marriage.”
Allah Almighty knows best.
American Muslim Women Complain of Lack of Good Suitors
Southern California InFocus
First printed Saturday, 07 June 2008
A Few Good Men: American Muslim women bemoan lack of “good” male suitors
Afaf*, 25, has been searching for a husband for a solid two years to no avail.
“All my friends were getting married by the age of 22, so, naturally, I wanted to be part of the “wedding club,” she recalls. “And, of course, there was this romantic notion that it would be the love story of love stories.”
Afaf started feeling the pressure as her friends talked endlessly about wedding dresses, halal caterers and honeymoons, even though she had not been planning on getting married while in college.
“For whatever reason, getting married seemed to be the only, if not main, goal they strived for,” she says. “So, I felt I had to have this goal as well, and felt lacking among my friends that I was not married upon completion of my undergraduate studies.”
Thus began her search after graduating from college. When suitors came knocking, Afaf was surprised at the mediocrity of the suitors available and was left wondering, “Where are all the ‘good guys’?”
Afaf, now a first-year law student, is one of thousands of American Muslim women between the ages of 25 and 30 struggling to find a decent suitor. Educated, pious, beautiful and accomplished, these women should have a gaggle of like-minded men waiting outside their doors. Unfortunately, the few, if any, men who approach these women appear less than satisfactory.
“I tend to meet two types [of men],” says Maryam*, 28, who has also been searching for a mate since college. “The first is the practicing Muslim brother who has his act together, but unfortunately has some really incompatible ideas about women and gender roles. The second type I meet is progressive and open-minded and is truly looking for a partner in life, but is not a practicing Muslim.”
“For me,” Afaf says, “a good man is someone who lives a balanced life between Western and Eastern culture, giving precedence to religion.”
Being Seen as a Maid and a Cook
The lack of noteworthy male suitors is a topic frequently discussed between female friends. Muslim women are frustrated with the options left, and many are worried that their degrees and careers are getting in the way of meeting Mr. Right.
“We’ve been pushing young women to get educated and to get jobs, and now they’re being penalized for their ambition,” according to Munira Ezzeldine, author of “Before the Wedding: 150 Questions for Muslims to Ask Before Getting Married.”
“However, while these men are impressed with a successful and active woman, they do not consider her ‘marriage material,'” Ezzeldine adds. “Despite the elevation of women, many men have maintained traditional ideas as to the type of wife they seek. After all, they do not see anything wrong with the way their mother was.”
“I recently had a suitor who told me he would be willing to help me [around the house] by not making a mess,” Afaf recalls, adding he also told her she should not use her job as an excuse to ask him to help out at home.
“Furthermore, if he comes home from work hungry, I guess that would mean I would have to work part-time in order to have dinner prepared and ready when he comes home. I think that is the most frustrating aspect of being a female, only to be seen as a maid and a cook,” she says.
While Women are in University, the Men Move On
Dr. Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, agrees. “Men are being programmed by their parents to look for a specific kind of woman: submissive, comforting, shy, and obedient,” he says. “The reality is that women are educated and looking to be comrades in marriage.”
The marriage crisis materializes when these women in their late 20s and early 30s become settled in their careers or studies and seem like less desirable options to men because they will not bend into this traditional role. While these women work on their personal goals, young Muslim men appear to give up on them and marry from “back home” or marry non-Muslims, making the pool of suitors even smaller.
“Education is becoming a sore point for the girls because the guy moves on,” says Shaikh Sadullah Khan, executive director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Irvine. “Our immigrant community has this mentality that our kid must graduate first, and for the girl, we’re stressing graduation versus marriage.”
Indeed, a startling number of young Muslim women are finding themselves scrambling to find a husband before reaching their 30s and possibly never marrying. Many accomplished and educated young women end up lowering their standards for the sake of avoiding lifelong loneliness.
“Unless this crisis is addressed seriously, honestly and scientifically, it will lead to the disintegration of our community through a dilution of the next generation Islamically, a sudden revolt against marriage by women or a decrease in self-esteem among wives who lowered their standards just to marry,” Hathout warns.
One young Muslim bachelor still searching for a spouse shares his take on the seeming lack of “good guys” on his weblog, “Marriage & Islam: The Quest for the Sweet One.”
In the post, Quest, as he is called to maintain anonymity, states that the worthiest bachelors start looking for a spouse when they are in their early 20s to “satisfy their built-in, intense desire for women. … And this desire is always there, in the back of every man’s mind since puberty, like a ticking [bomb].”
These young, pious men begin looking for a wife, Quest reasons, who is closest to their age, basically, 19 to 21 years old.
“And what are these ‘good, smart ambitious girls’ doing when they’re in that age range?” Quest writes. “They’re also busy working on their education” and aren’t considering marriage. Or those who are considering marriage may be in a different location, so the two never meet, and the bachelors get fed up and marry from back home, he says.
Essentially, Quest emphasizes that the lack of a meeting forum is at the heart of the issue.
“I think that is the BIGGEST problem Muslims are scattered all over the country, and we’re not well connected. It’s hard to identify, know about, and meet the families of all the ‘good girls’ in a major metropolitan city, let alone the country,” he explains. “We put all these obstacles between faithful Muslim guys and girls, that I think even a Muslim Tom Cruise would have a hard time marrying!”
With the current circumstances at hand, Ezzeldine advises young women to plan realistically.
“You have to realize that you can’t have it all,” she says. “It’s not going to be a fairy-tale where you excel at school, work 40-hour weeks, and marry a perfect guy. If you want to focus on a job or a higher degree, know that you might not have time to meet people.”
Quest echoes this sentiment by clarifying that women shouldn’t have to give up their goals, but should realize that in doing so, they are taking a risk.
“The longer they delay marriage in favor of education, the less [number of ] eligible men they’ll meet once they’re ready for marriage,” he says. “And marriage and education are not necessarily conflicting. With the right husband, both can continue. It’s definitely a topic that should be brought up when considering a potential husband,” he adds.
Dr. Hathout also favors a path that allows for both education and marriage to flourish simultaneously.
“We need to change the current family model into one that builds the self, the family, and each other at the same time,” he says. “Think of marriage as a tennis match you want to play doubles, not singles, to win. In other words, struggle together and build your empire together. You are ready for marriage as long as you can get food on the table and a roof over your head, and there’s a potentiality for growth,” he stresses.
The Prophet’s (pubh) Marriage to Khadijah
Ezzeldine draws on the life of the Prophet Muhammad for guidance, specifically the example of his relationship with Khadijah.
“The Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, was an established career woman who was 15 years older than her husband,” Ezzeldine says. “Khadijah was a very confident and successful woman who actually proposed to the 24-year-old Muhammad. Yet, the Prophet was not intimidated by her nor found her “unmarriageable.” They maintained a strong marriage as she continued to be a businesswoman, as well as wife and mother.”
Ezzeldine goes on to remind Muslims that Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah were married for 28 years, the longest of all his marriages.
“Many Muslim women seek not to compete with men, but rather to establish a partnership with their spouse,” she continues. “Ultimately, these women want to be cherished and loved in the same way that the Prophet loved Khadijah. This type of partnership in marriage can only exist when both people are accepting and respectful of one another’s ambitions and priorities in life.”
Afaf has not given up searching for Mr. Right, but meanwhile uses school as a welcome distraction.
“I used to be obsessed about marriage until I entered law school,” she says. “Pursuing my graduate studies has really allowed me to learn a lot about myself and to focus on things that matter. It is very sad to see girls who are 22 and depressed as to why they are not married. I have no problem with a woman who chooses to be a wife and a mother, but I do have problem if she believes that is all she can be or doesn’t define herself as accomplished until she attains her MRS. Degree.”
* Names have been changed.
What do you think? Are you a Muslim woman who has had trouble finding a good man? Are you a man who has chosen a “traditional” woman over a career woman?
Comments are welcome!