Computers facilitating traditional courtships
WASHINGTON – Mukarram Shah wants to get married, but finding a spouse has been a challenge. The 32-year-old resident of Gaithersburg, Md., has a demanding job that leaves him with little time to socialize – he works 60 hours a week as a computer database engineer.
But the biggest obstacle to meeting eligible women is his religion. As a Muslim, Shah is not allowed to date. Islamic law forbids any kind of physical intimacy between a man and a woman before marriage, as well as any rendezvous that could lead to such contact.
So how will he find love? Shah is pinning his hopes on Zawaj.com.
The Web site is one of dozens offering matchmaking services to Muslim men and women. For a monthly fee, the sites provide chat rooms where Muslim singles can get to know each other without violating the teachings of their faith.
“Without these Web sites, what are my chances of meeting people? None,” Shah said. “It’s just a way to come across people with the (same) religion and culture. … It makes it easier. And obviously, you are not going to do any physical stuff.”
Like other online dating services, the Muslim Web sites ask their members to post photos, biographical profiles and descriptions of what they are looking for in a spouse. But instead of moving quickly to the dating stage, the user of a Muslim site typically spends weeks or months exchanging comments online with a potential mate before deciding whether to seek a meeting.
The next step is for the couple to meet in the presence of family members, friends or the leader of a mosque. If that goes well, they will set up other chaperoned meetings that could lead to an engagement. They are not allowed to be alone together until after they are engaged.
Shah has met four women in the two years he has been using Zawaj.com and other sites. The first three relationships did not work out, he said, but the fourth woman is someone he would like to see again. He started Internet contact with her in October and flew to Los Angeles last weekend for their first meeting, spending six hours with her and her parents.
“It’s a very good prospect. I made a follow-up call, and I’m waiting to hear from them,” Shah said last week.
Not all Muslims interpret the rule against social interaction with the opposite sex in the same way. But there is wide consensus among U.S. Muslim clergy that Western-style dating is forbidden, and many even disapprove of a social telephone conversation between a man and a woman, because “the voice can be sexually arousing,” said Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam at Georgetown University in Washington.
The matrimonial Web sites, however, are quickly gaining acceptance – even among conservative Muslims, according to Islamic scholars and Washington-area imams.
Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, said he has received many requests to be an intermediary for Muslim couples who have gotten to know each other through the Web, and he has rarely heard anyone in the Muslim community object to the online courtships.
“There are few other ways to be intimate without being inappropriate, no doubt,” he said. The Web sites “give opportunity for people across the spectrum from all backgrounds, from all locations to meet and engage in an open, honest discussion without violating what they believe would be the rules of Islam.”
Zawaj.com, based in Oakland, Calif., is one of the oldest of the Web sites. Its founder, Wael Abdelgawad, said 30,000 Muslims have signed up since he launched the service in 1998, and about 6,000 use the site on any given day.
Abdelgawad said about half of the site’s members live in the United States, and a significant number are in Canada and Britain. But the site also has members in predominantly Muslim countries, including Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Mideast, he said.
Zawaj means “marriage” in Arabic. Another popular site is Naseeb.com (naseeb means “fulfilling one’s destiny.) The Internet conversations, by putting the emphasis on a love interest’s personality and mind rather than on his or her looks, are very much in tune with Muslim culture, Abdelgawad added.
“It’s not about falling in love; it’s about meeting someone who is compatible and has the same goals in life and then getting married,” he said. “Love grows, if you have things in common and you have the same goals in life. The whole concept of falling in love and the romantic whirlwind, it’s a Western concept, and it’s a concept that doesn’t necessarily exist in the Muslim world.”