By Sondos Kholoki-Kahf, Staff Writer InFocus Magazine
“Sunni Arab Muslim parents invite correspondence for their daughter, 23, beautiful, very fair skinned, slim, educated, religious. Prefer doctor/surgeon/dentist/MD resident. Non-physicians need not apply; lawyers OK. Send picture and resume to CaliforniaGirl@marriage.com.”
Faced with outrageous matrimonial requests like these, Jamal* believes he stands no chance in his mission to find a wife.
At 24, Jamal has already met two girls he thinks could have been “the one.” The first candidate’s parents refused Jamal’s request because they thought he was too young. From there, Jamal hesitated to approach the second girl because he only had a bachelor’s degree and had yet to find a job. That girl was married to someone else shortly thereafter.
“What those [experiences] did is give me a negative way of looking at myself,” Jamal reflects. “Now the first thing I think when I see a pretty girl is, ‘Man, I can’t talk to her. I’m sure her parents have some engineer or doctor picked out for her,’” Jamal says.
Now working a steady job in the IT field, Jamal keeps a wary eye out for a potential wife. Although he feels disenchanted by the worldly demands of most parents, Jamal insists that marriage will protect him from haram (unlawful acts).
“It’s very hard for young men to not dive into dating when it’s so much more accessible and easy to do,” he says. “We’re expected to live like monks, and not everyone can do that. I believe that if it’s this difficult to get married [now], then our kids and their kids are just going to give up on the whole thing and have relationships western style.”
Working hard for the money?
Most scholars agree that if a man exhibits good moral character and religious practice, he should be accepted for marriage despite his current income, as stated in a hadith sahih (saying of the Prophet). Yet many scholars also warn against using marriage for selfish reasons.
Dr. Mazen Hashem, sociologist and researcher on Muslim communities in North America, advises youth to view marriage as a heavy commitment, “not extended dating.”
“If you view marriage as just having sex in a halal way, this is not a good enough reason [to get married,.” Hashem says,
Ammar Kahf, a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at UCLA and assistant imam at the Islamic Center of Hawthorne, agrees that the need to quench physical desires is not enough for marriage.
“The Prophet directed another hadith to men, that if a man does not possess the bare minimum to get married — financially, socially, physically, and emotionally — then they should fast,” Kahf states. Fasting is a well-known technique to control one’s patience and physical desires.
Nevertheless, Hashem believes it is unrealistic for parents to expect a young man to be financially stable straight out of college, and that parents should look to the individual’s drive and potential instead.
“If a guy is just strolling in life, doesn’t know yet what to do and is still young, he is not ready to get married,” he says.
Accordingly, young men seriously studying journalism, education, and non-profit administration should have just as good of a chance of marrying from a respectable family as a medical student.
Imam Suhaib Webb, a scholar with the Santa Clara chapter of the Muslim American Society who is admired by many young American Muslims, is sympathetic towards this issue but offers realistic advice. “Today’s sexual explosion is very frustrating, especially for single young brothers,” Webb says. “Physical needs are an important part of marriage, but at the same time, next to physical needs come the bills. Sisters have the right to ensure that her future husband will be able to look after her and her children’s needs.”
For those college students who have a solid idea of where they would like to end up in five years and possess good faith and moral character, but are still refused on the basis of their career path, Kahf believes that the implications will be devastating.
“I strongly believe that fathers doing this are committing a major sin,” Kahf warns. “As the Prophet described it, it will be a fitna — a huge social problem that will never end.”
Hi, my name is…
Tarek*,23, has been searching for a wife since his first year in college. With his parents’ full support and a steady job under his belt, Tarek began meeting girls through relatives, friends, and online. None proved a match.
A few years ago, Tarek was perusing material in a masjid bookstore and saw a girl there he thought could be a potential candidate.
“She seemed to be waiting around the place almost as if she wanted me to say something, but I just didn’t know how to approach her,” Tarek recalls. “Was she interested, or was it just my imagination? I didn’t want to make it seem like I was hitting on her because it would probably turn her off. It was mind-boggling and disappointing because I didn’t know what to do.”
Truly, Muslim men and women — especially those in the West — are missing opportunities to get to know one another in informal, yet religiously acceptable forums. With unplanned socializing out of the question, youth are scrambling for an alternative that will allow for careful interaction between genders. Often times, men and women are completely separated to the point where they find it awkward to interact on a basic social level.
“We in southern California pride ourselves on our big Muslim community, but young singles don’t interact much,” Tarek said. “Isn’t it strange that one friend of mine got married to a girl from Canada, and the other got married to a girl from the UK?”
Kahf acknowledges the absence of a social forum in current times.
“Traditionally, there was a forum facilitated through mothers, sisters, cousins, friends of the family, and was conducted in a healthy environment,” Kahf says. “Many men here don’t have such connections. Even a young college student who attends the MSA or a masjid once a week still does not find a healthy medium to find the potential wife.”
Amazingly, one of the biggest complaints among Muslim women and men is finding quality within the quantity of available candidates for marriage. As one anonymous Muslim male puts it, “Lots of times I felt like there were too few sisters to marry. The same four or five sisters would get recommended to me all the time. Sisters complain there are too few brothers, but I know so many brothers who want to get married. There are a lot of good sisters and brothers out there, but for whatever reason they’re not connecting.”
The lack of a social forum may be the biggest hurdle Muslims in America have to jump. Webb places the bulk of the responsibility of creating a forum on the current generation.
“I’m not thinking about finding a wife; your generation is living that narrative,” Webb says. “Come up with ideas on how to find a spouse, and then ask community leaders, ‘Can we do this?’ These things need to be covered by the younger community, but with guidance from pastoral scholarly figures.”
Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match
With all the challenges facing young men and women in their pursuit of a spouse, Nasreen Khan of Irvine understands the sheer importance of her role. Khan has been serving as a matchmaker for the Muslim community for more than 30 years
“There are girls and boys who may be suitable for each other, but they may not be aware so ‘someone’ has to introduce them,” she says.
Fielding an average of four to five calls a month, Khan sees a trend among parents’ requests: “Most parents want doctors, engineers, lawyers or computer experts who have very high incomes,” Khan says. “The girls mostly want someone tall, handsome, good looking, or guys with charisma.”
Khan is also dismayed at the worldly attitude towards marriage. In her experience, parents are the ones demanding more, thereby limiting the already waning spousal pool for their children. For example, according to Khan, about 90% of parents want their daughters to marry within the same culture, even though the girls themselves hardly care where the young man comes from.
In addition to maintaining that a potential spouse come from the same culture, parents make the process of finding a mate difficult for their children by “having extremely high worldly standards, not giving importance to religion and character, not willing to marry their children until they complete college, and refusing to accept the choice of their children,” says Khan.
Khan estimates that 10% of couples she introduced to each other resulted in marriage. While that may seem like a small number, Khan reveals that many men and women reject proposals based on astonishingly trivial matters. For example, one girl refused an otherwise wonderful proposal because the boy was not tall enough. In another instance, a boy’s mother refused a girl because her complexion was too dark.
“Most people perceive marriage to be just a social obligation rather than a religious one,” Khan says. “I feel that our girls and boys, as well as their parents, need to be more aware and educated about the status of marriage in Islam, and take it seriously.”
The long road ahead
Webb emphasizes that after identifying the problem, the Muslim community must make a joint effort to move into the solution phase.
“Our community has become indicters instead of inviters,” he says. “If you look at any problem in the life of the Prophet, there was always a communal solution to a problem. We need to function in that way of a support group.”
“Rhetoric has to be created by active people in our communities,” Webb continues. “We can’t give one khutbah or speech and expect a solution. We need opportunities like workshops or town halls that, for example, enlighten parents how difficult it is to get married.”
Little doubt remains that many “good” Muslim men and women exist, but the obstacles involved in finding Mr. or Mrs. Right currently seem insurmountable. Between pressure to marry within a specific nationality and parents who require their future son-in-law to have a certain salary, Muslims — especially American Muslims — face a long road ahead.
* Names have been changed.