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L.A.’s Volunteer Muslim Matchmaker

Young Muslim matchmaker

Mohammad Mertaban, center, and father-in-law Kamal Serhal pray at Mertaban’s Fullerton home during Ramadan. At left is his daughter Layelle, 4. Mertaban, 30, has grown accustomed to urgent requests from friends and acquaintances since he began dabbling in matchmaking about eight years ago. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

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.

Los Angeles Muslims

Muslims gather for the special Eid ul-Fitr morning prayer at the Los Angeles Convention Center on August 30, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.

“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.

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Making Muslim Matches in New York

Sheikh Reda Shata, New York's Matchmaking Imam

Sheikh Reda Shata, New York's Matchmaking Imam

This story of Sheikh Reda Shata, New York’s matchmaking Imam, was published in the New York Times in 2006. This amazing piece of reporting actually won a 2007 Pulitzer prize for best feature writing:

Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam’s Future

By: Andrea Elliott
March 7, 2006

An Imam in America

The young Egyptian professional could pass for any New York bachelor.

Dressed in a crisp polo shirt and swathed in cologne, he races his Nissan Maxima through the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, late for a date with a tall brunette. At red lights, he fusses with his hair.

What sets the bachelor apart from other young men on the make is the chaperon sitting next to him — a tall, bearded man in a white robe and stiff embroidered hat.

“I pray that Allah will bring this couple together,” the man, Sheik Reda Shata, says, clutching his seat belt and urging the bachelor to slow down.

Christian singles have coffee hour. Young Jews have JDate. But many Muslims believe that it is forbidden for an unmarried man and woman to meet in private. In predominantly Muslim countries, the job of making introductions and even arranging marriages typically falls to a vast network of family and friends.

In Brooklyn, there is Mr. Shata.

Week after week, Muslims embark on dates with him in tow. Mr. Shata, the imam of a Bay Ridge mosque, juggles some 550 “marriage candidates,” from a gold-toothed electrician to a professor at Columbia University. The meetings often unfold on the green velour couch of his office, or over a meal at his favorite Yemeni restaurant on Atlantic Avenue.

The bookish Egyptian came to America in 2002 to lead prayers, not to dabble in matchmaking. He was far more conversant in Islamic jurisprudence than in matters of the heart. But American imams must wear many hats, none of which come tailor-made.

Whether issuing American-inspired fatwas or counseling the homesick, fielding questions from the F.B.I. or mediating neighborhood spats, Mr. Shata walks an endless labyrinth of problems.

If anything seems conquerable, it is the solitude of Muslim singles. Nothing brings the imam more joy than guiding them to marriage. It is his way of fashioning a future for his faith. It is his most heartfelt effort — by turns graceful and comedic, vexing and hopeful — to make Islam work in America.

Word of the imam’s talents has traveled far, eliciting lonely calls from Muslims in Chicago and Los Angeles, or from meddlesome parents in Cairo and Damascus.

From an estimated 250 chaperoned dates, Mr. Shata has produced 10 marriages.

“The prophet said whoever brings a man and woman together, it is as if he has worshiped for an entire year,” said Mr. Shata, 37, speaking through an Arabic translator.

The task is not easy. In a country of plentiful options, Muslim immigrants can become picky, even rude, the imam complains.

During one date, a woman studied the red-circled eyes of a prospective husband and asked, “Have you brought me an alcoholic?”

On another occasion, an Egyptian man stared at the flat chest of a pleasant young Moroccan woman and announced, “She looks like a log!” the imam recalled.

“This would never happen in Egypt,” said Mr. Shata, turning red at the memory. “Never, never. If I knew this boy had no manners I never would have let him into my office.”

The Imam’s Little Black Book

The concept of proper courtship in Islam, like much about the faith, is open to interpretation.

Blessing an Islamic wedding

For Mr. Shata, blessing an Islamic wedding like this one is a joyful occasion. But when it is a less traditional celebration, with women wearing revealing outfits and mingling with men, it can be challenging, too. (Photo credit: James Estrin/The New York Times)

Islamic law specifies that a man and woman who are unmarried may not be alone in closed quarters. Some Muslims reject any mingling before marriage. Others freely date. Many fall somewhere in between, meeting in groups, getting engaged and spending time alone before the wedding, while their parents look the other way.

For one Syrian in New York, a date at Starbucks is acceptable if it begins and ends on the premises: The public is his chaperon.

Mr. Shata is a traditionalist. There were few strangers in his rural town of birth, Kafr al Battikh, in northeastern Egypt. Men and women often agreed to marry the day they met, and a few made the deal sight unseen. It was rare to meet anyone from a distant province, let alone another country.

New York is not only the capital of the world, imams often joke, but also the crossroads of Islam, a human sampling more diverse than anywhere save Mecca during the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. Beyond the city’s five boroughs, Muslim immigrants have formed Islamic hubs in California, Illinois, Michigan and Texas.

At the center of these hubs stands a familiar sight in a foreign land, the mosque. What was a place of worship in Pakistan or Algeria becomes, in Houston or Detroit, a social haven. But inside, the sexes remain largely apart.

A growing number of Muslim Web sites advertise marriage candidates, and housewives often double as matchmakers. One mosque in Princeton, N.J., plays host to a closely supervised version of speed dating. And so many singles worship at the Islamic Society of Boston that a committee was formed to match them up.

Fearing a potential surplus of single Muslim women, one Brooklyn imam reportedly urged his wealthier male congregants during a Ramadan sermon last year to take two wives. When a woman complained about the sermon to Mr. Shata, he laughed.

“You know that preacher who said Hugo Chávez should be shot?” he asked. “We have our idiots, too.”

More than a matchmaker, Mr. Shata sees himself as a surrogate elder to young Muslims, many of whom live far from their parents. In America, only an imam is thought to have the connections, wisdom and respect to step into the role.

Mr. Shata began the service three months after arriving in Brooklyn in 2002, recruited to lead the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a mosque on Fifth Avenue.

Dates chaperoned by Mr. Shata — or “meetings between candidates,” as the imam prefers to call them — often take place in his distinctly unromantic office, amid rows of Islamic texts. As a couple get acquainted, the imam sits quietly at his desk, writing a sermon or surfing the Arabic Web sites of CNN and the BBC.

If there is an awkward silence, the imam perks up and asks a question (“So tell me, Ilham, how many siblings do you have?”) and the conversation is moving again.

Candidates are vetted carefully, and those without personal references need not apply. But instinct is Mr. Shata’s best guide. He refused to help a Saudi from California because the man would consider only a teenage wife. Others have shown an all-too-keen interest in a green card.

Those who pass initial inspection are listed in the imam’s version of a little black book — their names, phone numbers, specifications and desires. Some prefer “silky hair,” others “a virgin.” Nearly all candidates, men and women alike, want a mate with devotion to Islam, decent looks and legal immigration status.

Scanning the book, the imam makes his pitch with the precision of a car salesman.

“There is a girl, an American convert, Dominican, looks a little Egyptian. Skin-wise, not white, not dark. Wheat-colored. She’s 19, studies accounting,” Mr. Shata told a 24-year-old Palestinian man one afternoon.

“This is my only choice?” replied the man, Yamal Othman, who lives in Queens.

Such questions annoy Mr. Shata. An imam, he says, should be trusted to select the best candidate. Often, though, his recommendations are met with skepticism.

“It’s harder than choosing a diamond,” said Mr. Shata.

Sometimes, on the imam’s three-legged dates, no one seems more excited than Mr. Shata himself. He makes hurried, hearty introductions and then steps back to watch, as if mixing chemicals in a lab experiment. Love is rarely ignited, but the imam remains awed by its promise.

Mr. Shata discovered love 15 years ago, when he walked into the living room of the most stately house in Kafr al Battikh.

The imam was tall, 22, a rising star at the local mosque. For months, Omyma Elshabrawy knew only his voice. She would listen to his thunderous sermons from the women’s section, out of view. Then, one evening, he appeared at her home, presented as a prospective groom to her father, a distinguished reciter of the Koran.

The young woman, then 20, walked toward Mr. Shata carrying a tray of lemonade.

“She entered my heart,” said the imam.

After serving the drinks, she disappeared. Right then, Mr. Shata asked her father for her hand in marriage. The older man paused. His daughter was the town beauty, an English student with marriage offers from doctors. The imam was penniless.

But before Mr. Elshabrawy could respond, a sugary voice interrupted. “I accept,” his daughter said from behind a door.

“I loved him from the moment I saw him,” Ms. Elshabrawy said.

They now have four children.

The family posed last year for a Sears-style portrait, taken by a woman in Bay Ridge who photographs Muslim families in her basement. A blue sky and white picket fence adorn the background. The imam sits at center, with the baby, Mohammed, in his lap, his three daughters smiling, his wife wrapped in a lime-green hijab.

Mr. Shata carries the picture in the breast pocket of his robe. It is as close as most people get to his family. At the mosque, they are a mystery. His wife has been there twice.

Their years in America have come with great hardship, a subject the imam rarely discusses. The trouble is the illness of his 7-year-old daughter, Rawda, who is severely epileptic. She has dozens of seizures every day and rarely leaves home. No combination of medicine seems to help.

“Rawda is the wound in my heart,” the imam said.

Mr. Shata offers long, stubborn theories about the value of marriage, but to observe him at home is to understand the commitment he seeks to foster in other Muslims.

The family lives in a spare, dimly lighted apartment two blocks from the mosque. Headscarves are piled over Pokémon cards. The gold-painted words “Allah is Great” are framed over a threadbare couch. In the next room, an “I {sheart} New York” bumper sticker is slapped on the wall.

Mr. Shata spends long hours away from his family, lecturing at mosques, settling disputes, whispering the call to prayer in the ears of newborn babies. On his walk home at night, he shops for groceries, never forgetting the Honey Nut Cheerios, a favorite American discovery of his children.

When he walks in the door, his face softens. Loud kisses are planted on tender cheeks. Mohammed squeals, the girls smile, sweet laughter echoes.

But then there is Rawda.

“My beautiful girl,” the imam says softly one evening, holding his limp daughter in his lap after a seizure has passed. He places one pill in Rawda’s mouth, then another. She looks at him weakly.

“There we go,” he whispers. “Inshallah.”

Her lids close with sleep. He lays her in bed and shuts off the light.

Hardship, the imam believes — like marriage, like life — is a test from God.

Foreign and Familiar

Drafting an Islamic wedding contract

While drafting a marriage contract, Sheik Reda Shata consults the pocket-size Koran he carries with him at all times. (Photo credit: James Estrin/The New York Times)

It is proof of the imam’s uncommon popularity among women that he is trusted with roughly 300 female marriage candidates.

The mosque on Fifth Avenue is a decidedly male place. Men occupy every position on the board of directors. They crowd the sidewalk after prayer. Only they may enter the mosque’s central room of worship. Only men, they often point out, are required to attend the Friday prayer.

One floor below is the cramped room where the women worship. On Fridays, they sit pressed together, their headscarves itching with heat. They must watch their imam on a closed-circuit television that no one seems to have adjusted in years.

But they listen devotedly. Teenage girls often roll their eyes at foreign imams, who seem to them like extraterrestrials. Their immigrant mothers often find these clerics too strict, an uncomfortable reminder of their conservative homelands.

Mr. Shata is both foreign and familiar. He presides over a patriarchal world, sometimes upholding it, and other times challenging it. In one sermon, he said that a man was in charge of his home and had the right to “choose his wife’s friends.”

Another day, to the consternation of his male congregants, he invited a female Arab social worker to lecture on domestic violence. The women were allowed to sit next to the men in the main section of the mosque.

The imam frowns at career women who remain single in their 30′s, but boasts of their accomplishments to interest marriage candidates. He employs his own brand of feminism, vetting marriage contracts closely to ensure brides receive a fair dowry and fighting for them when they don’t.

Far more than is customary, he spends hours listening to women: to their worries and confessions, their intimate secrets and frank questions about everything from menstruation to infidelity. They line up outside his office and call his home at all hours, often referring to him as “my brother” or “father.” He can summon the details of their lives with the same encyclopedic discipline he once used to memorize the Koran.

“Are you separated yet?” Mr. Shata asked a woman he encountered at Lutheran Medical Center one day last July. She nodded. “May God make it easier for you,” he said.

A Chaperoned Date

Sheikh Shata hugs his daughter at home

Mr. Shata hugs his daughter Rahma, 6, while his wife, Omyma, carries their baby, Mohammed. Behind him, his daughter Rawda, 7, rests after one of the many epileptic seizures she has each day. She is homebound, and her illness has brought hardship to the family. (Photo credit: James Estrin/The New York Times)

By most standards, the Egyptian bachelor was a catch. He had broad shoulders and a playful smile. He was witty. He earned a comfortable salary as an engineer, and came from what he called “a good family.”

But the imam saw him differently, as a young man in danger of losing his faith. The right match might save him.

The bachelor, who is 33, came to Brooklyn from Alexandria, Egypt, six years earlier. He craved a better salary, and freedom from controlling parents. He asked that his name not be printed for fear of causing embarrassment to his family.

America was not like Egypt, where his family’s connections could secure a good job. In Brooklyn, he found work as a busboy. He traded the plush comfort of his parents’ home for an apartment crowded with other Egyptian immigrants. His nights were lonely. Temptation was abundant.

Women covered far less of their bodies. Bare limbs, it seemed, were everywhere. In Islam, men are instructed to lower their gaze to avoid falling into sin.

“In the summertime, it’s a disaster for us,” said the bachelor. “Especially a guy like me, who’s looking all the time.”

Curiosity lured him into bars, clubs and the occasional one-night stand.

But with freedom came guilt, he said. After drifting from his faith, he visited Mr. Shata’s mosque during Ramadan in 2004.

The imam struck him as oddly disarming. He made jokes, and explained Islam in simple, passionate paragraphs. The bachelor soon began praying daily, attending weekly lectures and reading the Koran. By then, he had his own apartment and a consulting job.

Now he wanted a Muslim wife.

If the bachelor had been in Egypt, his parents would offer a stream of marriage candidates. The distance had not stopped them entirely. His mother sent him a video of his brother’s wedding, directing him to footage of a female guest. He was unimpressed.

“I’m a handsome guy,” he explained one evening as he sped toward Manhattan. It was his second date with Mr. Shata in attendance. “I have a standard in beauty.”

From the passenger seat, the imam flipped open the glove compartment to find an assortment of pricey colognes. He inspected a bottle of Gio and, with a nod from the bachelor, spritzed it over his robe.

The imam and the bachelor were at odds over the material world, but on one thing they agreed: it is a Muslim duty to smell good. The religion’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad, was said to wear musk.

The car slowed before a brick high-rise on Second Avenue. Soon the pair rode up in the elevator. The bachelor took a breath and rang the doorbell. An older woman answered. Behind her stood a slender, fetching woman with a shy smile.

The young woman, Engy Abdelkader, had been presented to the imam by another matchmaker. A woman of striking beauty and poise, Ms. Abdelkader is less timid than she first seems. She works as an immigration and human rights lawyer, and speaks in forceful, eloquent bursts. She is proud of her faith, and lectures publicly on Islam and civil liberties.

She was not always so outspoken. The daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Ms. Abdelkader, 30, was raised in suburban Howell, N.J., where she longed to fit in. Though she grew up praying, in high school she chose not to wear a hijab, the head scarf donned by Muslim girls when they reach puberty.

But Sept. 11 awakened her, Ms. Abdelkader said. For her and other Muslims, the terrorist attacks prompted a return to the faith, driven by what she said was a need to reclaim Islam from terrorists and a vilifying media. Headscarves became a statement, equal parts political and religious.

Women at the mosque

Women gather for a Friday sermon at the mosque. They will watch the imam on a closed-circuit television, one floor below the men. Despite the separation, Mr. Shata has developed a strong bond with women and often counsels them. (Photo credit: James Estrin/The New York Times)

“There’s nothing oppressive about it,” said Ms. Abdelkader. “As a Muslim woman I am asking people to pay attention to the content of my character rather than my physical appearance.”

The pair sat on a couch, awkwardly sipping tea. They began by talking, in English, about their professions. The bachelor was put off by the fact that Ms. Abdelkader had a law degree, yet earned a modest salary.

“Why go to law school and not make money?” he asked later.

Ms. Abdelkader’s mother and a female friend who lived in the apartment sat listening nearby until the imam mercifully distracted them. The first hint of trouble came soon after.

It was his dream, the engineer told Ms. Abdelkader, to buy a half-million-dollar house. But he was uncertain that the mortgage he would need is lawful in Islam.

Ms. Abdelkader straightened her back and replied, “I would rather have eternal bliss in the hereafter than live in a house or apartment with a mortgage.”

An argument ensued. Voices rose. Ms. Abdelkader’s mother took her daughter’s side. The friend wavered. The bachelor held his ground. The imam tried to mediate.

Indeed, he was puzzled. Here was a woman who had grown up amid tended lawns and new cars, yet she rejected materialism. And here was a man raised by Muslim hands, yet he was rebelliously moderate.

After the date, the bachelor told the imam, “I want a woman, not a sheik.”

Months later, he married another immigrant; she was not especially devoted to Islam but she made him laugh, he said. They met through friends in New York.

Ms. Abdelkader remains single. The imam still believes she was the perfect match.

That evening, the imam stood on the sidewalk outside. Rain fell in stinging drops.

“I never wanted to be a sheik,” he said. “I used to think that a religious person is very extreme and never smiles. And I love to smile. I love to laugh. I used to think that religious people were isolated and I love to be among people.”

The rain soaked the imam’s robe and began to pool in his sandals. A moment later, he ducked inside the building.

“The surprise for me was that the qualities I thought would not make a good sheik — simplicity and humor and being close to people — those are the most important qualities. People love those who smile and laugh. They need someone who lives among them and knows their pain.”

“I know them,” said Mr. Shata. “Like a brother.”

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One Critical Mistake A Single Muslimah Makes
 When Finding Her Mr. Right For Marriage

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Many Muslim sisters have no idea how to present themselves

By Sheikh Yasir Birjas and Sister Megan Wyatt, reprinted from MuslimMatters.org

A while ago, a father came to me for help with finding a potential husband for his daughter. So, I asked him to share her marriage resume with me.

A couple of days later, her father brought me a marriage resume.  After looking through her marriage resume, which was quite long, I told the father:

“I thought you wanted me to look for a potential husband for your daughter, not a job!”

What she described in all those pages could be summarized in two letters: MD.

So, how did she really need to describe herself?

That’s the focus of this article, and that’s just one of the three critical mistakes Sister Megan Wyatt and I shared with everyone very recently in this webinar.

From my years of teaching on the topic of love and marriage, and counseling singles, married couples, and their parents, I can tell you this:

By knowing about this one critical mistake, you will, in sha Allah, learn how to speak about yourself in a way that attracts the kind of brother you are searching for, allows you to keep at bay the brothers you do not want knocking on your father’s door, and prevents you from turning off the very kind of person you are seeking.

Now, let’s get into the details of that one mistake. When Sister Megan Wyatt was conducting interviews with single Muslim sisters ages 25-30, she asked them to do the following:

“Describe yourself in a few sentences so I could in turn describe you to a brother who I think may be a potential suitor.”

Almost every sister told her what she does not want in a marriage; the kind of brother she does not want to meet. Hardly anyone actually answered the question. The few sisters who did answer gave short, one-liner responses.

The realization was this: many sisters have no idea how to present themselves.

You may be trying to get married in a way that worked in the past, while you are not like the women of the past.

Sixty to seventy years ago, even in this country, a woman’s role in marriage was clear.

Today, at the age of 19 or 20, most Muslim women expect to complete at a minimum a college degree before getting married.

Along with that degree, there is the question of whether or not you want a career, or perhaps just to dabble in the workforce for some time. Do you want to pursue grad school, and if so, who will take care of the kids, if you have any?

We are looking at this without judgment — however, there is something essential to be understood:

The majority of practicing Muslim men in the West, based on our interviews, blogs, and personal conversations with them across the country, despite growing up here are looking for a wife who will fill a more traditional role, that of a stay at home wife; and at the least to be home with future children, in sha Allah.

And we have also learned that many of you want to do just that: get married, and eventually, be there for your family and children in a more “traditional” role.

Now, many brothers are willing to be flexible to a point, but if you ask most of them their preference, this is what they want…

…leading us to that critical mistake:

Not knowing how to describe yourself for marriage.

What happens when the first thing you say about yourself, or your friend says about you is:

“She is 26 years old, and has a degree in chemistry, and she is currently in grad school.” Or, “…is working in a lab called xyz.”

From the brother’s perspective, he hears a description that says little (or nothing) about what he is looking for in a wife, aside from “educated.”

Let’s take another example:

“She is strong and active in Da’wah, is working on memorizing the Qur’an, has a degree in journalism, and teaches in her local Sunday school.”

Again, excellent qualities. It says a bit more about you, but still, for a brother: what is it that he is seeking?

The difficult reality is that brothers are looking for specific qualities, and when they hear them, it alerts them that this is the kind of sister worth considering.

But what happens if no one is describing you in a way, on your behalf, that speaks his language — that highlights the qualities he desires?

The idea of sitting around and waiting for others to find you someone is an option, but it is not necessarily the most proven option, especially these days.

Many brothers are asking other sisters to help them find a wife, because their families may be abroad, or their parents don’t share the same kind of values as them in terms of the deen.

The fact is that today both men and women are taking more of an active role in searching for a spouse on their own, which means that you may need to learn how to represent yourself to some degree — to explain who you are, and what you want in a husband.

So you need to think: How can I describe myself in a way that is truthful, while also telling him about me in a way that interests him?

So many sisters write about themselves as if they are looking for a pen pal! Seriously.

We sifted through the marriage resumes and bio-data of many sisters that we found online. (That’s another point altogether — having full access to a sister’s photo and her details available to complete strangers, without even having to log in!)

Let’s share two examples:

Words that women use to describe what they are looking for

Many personals ads sound the same

“I currently work as a Respiratory Practitioner and I intend on pursuing my Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. My hobbies include spending time with family and friends, taking road trips, and traveling the world. I love music and cooking ethnic cuisine! I come from a very loving, understanding, and supportive family.”

“My sister is 26 years old. She is a graduate of ABC University. Currently she is working as a chemist in a big name company. She is a great person with an open mind and a great heart. I am so glad that Allah (swt) blessed me with such a great sibiling. I love her and inshallah if you choose her you will know why she is so great. My sister, XYZ, enjoys reading and going out. She is slim and tall with a great smile. She is not a TV person. She is independent. We are 2 brothers and 2 sisters. XYZ is no. 3 in our little family. I am the older, married sister and I want to help my sister also get married so she can enjoy life like I am doing.”

We got bored reading through these. If we were searching for our own brother, we would think: “Forget this! Everyone sounds the same. Everyone likes to travel, shop, go to the cinema, eat, and everyone says they are a nice and caring person.”

So, what makes those two examples bad?

Reading through thousands of ads like that, here are just a few qualities that we found common in all of them:

  • Vague
  • Too long (too many details)
  • Not to the point
  • Confused or overconfident
  • Too personal
  • Too professional
  • Too flirtatious
  • Too good to be true
  • Too girlish
  • Too picky (race, culture, qualities etc.)
  • Confrontational (expecting a war for rights and obligations)
  • Suspicious

On the other hand, what are the qualities that are common in good descriptions or marriage resumes?

  • Very realistic in self description and in spousal demands (sounds real)
  • Balanced in personality and professionalism
  • Family first
  • To the point
  • Very clear language (Accurate spelling and good choice of words)
  • Natural flow of thoughts

If you’re serious about really getting this concept, we’d like you do a quick exercise (without anyone’s help, just by yourself).

First part of the exercise (three questions):

1) Write down 3-5 sentences describing yourself.

2) Write down 3-5 sentences about what kind of man you are looking for.

3) Write in only one sentence what you will not consider in a man.

It is important that you know how to speak about yourself confidently.  It is not humility to be unable to describe yourself, and just smile and fumble over words.

Oftentimes, when we think we are acting humbly we are actually attempting to hide our lack of self-esteem and lack of recognition of the qualities that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) has given us to share with others.

Remember: you are not going around praising yourself; you are describing yourself for marriage. Think about it.

Now, for the second part of the exercise:

Go back and re-read your answers and ask yourself the following:

1) How true are the things I just wrote down? Is this really me? Is this how my friends and family would describe me?

2) What have I said that would be interesting to the kind of brother I am looking to meet?

As you think about the words, phrases, feelings, and qualities that you would choose, you will find that you may have some of the qualities your ‘Mr. Right’ will like and you may have some qualities your ‘Mr. Right’ will not like.

Being too personal is not a good idea.  Same is true for being too professional.

Whatever the case is, the keyword you need to remember is: “balance.”

Here is the key concept, the bottom line: Learn how to speak about yourself, learn how to describe yourself in a way that allows you to be confident, and beautiful in your modesty, that will connect with the words and thoughts in the mind of your Mr. Right.

Flirtatious woman (cartoon)

Some Muslim sisters add inappropriate, flirty photos to their profiles, which sends the wrong message and attracts the wrong kind of man

Think about how you want to present yourself — the qualities you want to highlight which matter a lot to him, not what makes you fall in love with your own self!

After all, you are looking for a husband, someone from the opposite gender (not a female friend or a buddy).

Just a side note: if you do use a picture in a marriage resume (with permission from your wali!), please do not try to look like America’s next top hijabi model like the ones you see online, and particularly on the infamous Facebook.  Too many sisters try puckering their lips, looking over their shoulders with some sultry pout, etc. which turns off the kind of practicing man you are really seeking.

So, stick to a photo that has hayaa in the image; something normal and natural.

While you are searching for your Mr. Right, remember that in these moments there must be hidden gifts. As Muslims, we are to believe that there is an advantage to every situation in which we find ourselves.

Look at the time that has elapsed, and ask yourself:

“I’m not married, although I’ve been trying for a long time. What is it that Allah wants me to learn? What message, what lesson is waiting for my heart?”

We ask Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) to bless you with sabr, first and foremost, because Allah loves those who have patience, and He is close to those who have sabr.

We ask Allah to bring into your life the kind of husband you are searching for, and to allow your journey from start to finish to be a means of growing closer to Allah, finding His rahmah, and leading you to ever-increasing levels ofeman.

*******

Yasir Birjas is originally from Palestine. He received his Bachelors degree from Islamic University of Madinah in 1996 in Fiqh & Usool, graduating as the class valedictorian. After graduating, he went on to work as a youth counselor and relief program aide in war-torn Bosnia. Thereafter, he immigrated to the U.S. and currently resides in El Paso, Texas. He is also an instructor at AlMaghrib Institute, where he teaches popular seminars such as Fiqh of Love, The Code Evolved, and Heavenly Hues.

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Matchmaking in Egypt Under an Islamic Banner

Poster for an Egyptian matchmaking service
Poster for an Egyptian matchmaking service

In a matchmaking office in a poor Cairo neighborhood, Mohamed Essam, a divorced cook sat for the first time this week with Gehan, a divorced accountant.

The meeting was not meant to break the ice for a potential couple. It had to be short and to the point. Both were upfront about their desire to get married and their expectations.

“No exchange of phone numbers or addresses is allowed,” Hany Hassan, the matcher, said in a strong tone.

In no more than 20 minutes, Essam and Gehan were introduced to each other and discussed financial arrangements related to their potential marriage.

Essam and Gehan are among hundreds of people who resorted to Hassan’s office after failing to find a suitable partner by conventional means.

In a hesitant voice, Essam said he could just barely furnish a bedroom and a living room.

“Do you have any further questions?” asked Hassan.

“I have another question which I feel very embarrassed to ask in your presence,” replied Essam.

Eventually, he spoke out, addressing the potential bride.

“Did you get divorced because you had any problems with giving birth to children?”

Gehan replied in soft low voice, “No, not at all.”

Number of Single Men and Women is Rising

According to Hassan, Egyptian society became acquainted with matchmaking services no more than six years ago.

Explained Hassan:

“There is a dire need for such offices now because young people should get married and have a stable life. We are trying to surmount the poor economic conditions and low salaries. When someone who earns only US$90 a month comes to me, I try to fix him up with some girl who works and can help him in sustaining the family.”

Several studies suggest that the number of single men and women is on the rise due to falling incomes in a country where nearly half of the population lives in poverty.

“When a girl’s father comes to me and asks for a groom who owns a house and can present a LE30-thousand diamond ring, I tell him stop it,” Hassan said. “How can a young man afford all that?”

Using “Islamic Thinking”

Hassan’s office is an Islamic version of matchmaking services in the West. Accoridng to the ads, which circulate in the Cairo subway, the office uses “Islamic thinking” in bringing couples together.

“What we mean by Islamic thought is to bring together people who can suit each other, facilitate marriage and prevent the couple from staying in private before marriage,” said Hassan.

He continued.

“The idea was strange in the beginning but even from a religious perspective, Islam says that marriage should be facilitated. Unfortunately, people do not facilitate marriage anymore and tend to exaggerate with the financial requirements of marriage such as the apartment, the dowry, the furniture…”

The Islamic impratur encourages some girls, like Gehan, who covers her hair with a yellow head scarf in pious Islamic fashion and wears little makeup.

She explained:

“I felt relieved when I read that they follow Islamic principles because most young men don’t want religious or veiled wives but seek easy-going girls that wear makeup. So here I felt I would have a chance to find someone,”

However, the service is not limited to veiled girls, Hassan said.

A Modern Version of the Traditional Matchmaker

Such offices stand as a modern turn on the traditional go-between women who used to match couples in popular neighborhoods. Each applicant is expected to pay US$13 in application feeds. If the match goes well, the couple pays US$54.

By applying to such an office, Gehan, 35, has already rebelled against the norms of a traditional society that deems it inappropriate for a woman to express her desire to get married.

However, Gehan could not find another way

“In the family or at work it’s hard to get to know people, so you find yourself forced to seek such an option,” she said.

The office’s services are not restricted to men with limited resources. Hassan also helps rich businessmen find exceptionally beautiful girls who come from distinguished social backgrounds.

Hassan, a former clinical pathologist, says that his office has matched more than 500 couples in the last two years.

— Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo
Photo: The ad for Hassan’s office appears in a local advertising booklet. Credit: Noha El-Hennawy

Reprinted from the L.A Times Online

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