The word “dating” has long been a taboo in the Muslim community. From an early age children are reminded that Muslims don’t date and that dating is “haram” (prohibited). I remember receiving these messages as a child from my own parents and as I became a teenager, I had to explain to friends that I couldn’t go out on “dates.” Having a boyfriend was not even an option and even receiving a phone call from a boy to get a homework assignment was met with interrogations from my parents. Like many of the youth today, I continued to abide by my parents rules and just held onto the dream that one day I would get married and everything would be perfect. However, exactly how I was going to get married was not discussed. My mother told me of her arranged marriage to my father and how it all just happened, reassuring me that my husband was “written” for me – “it is all in God’s plans so don’t worry, it will just happen.” I continued to believe in this magical destiny well into my college years. I finally met a young man I was interested in marrying, but I had no idea how to navigate the experience and found myself lost and confused. This type of idealistic thinking leading to confusion and even rebellion continues to be prevalent in our community. Every Muslim is raised with the idea that they will someday get married, but prior to that there can be no interaction with the opposite gender. Well, this makes meeting the person you are “written” for and getting to know him or her for marriage nearly impossible.
Out of a fear of western values that accept pre-marital sex, the Muslim community has become paralyzed when approaching the issue of dating. However, many Muslim youth have abandoned the notion of no dating and have chosen to date behind their parents back instead. Other Muslims have accepted that there is no dating and have completely abstained from interacting with the opposite gender. Yet, others are frustrated at how difficult it is to meet Muslims and instead choose to date and marry a non-Muslim because it’s easier to “get to know” them when so many restrictions are not in place. Today many youth are wandering around, feeling confused and discouraged about how to approach marriage and how to get to know others while simultaneously seeking to maintain their Islamic values. Parents and community leaders have established the boundaries between genders, yet they have not given practical advice. The lack of direction is leaving young people frustrated and susceptible to the western cultural norms all around them.
The Qur’an reminds Muslims to avoid fornication in Surat Al-‘Isra’ “And do not approach unlawful sexual intercourse. Indeed, it is ever an immorality and is evil as a way” (17:32) but it does not give specific instruction on how Muslims should go about finding a spouse. The wisdom we take from this is that our faith identifies the boundaries for us, but it is up to the individual to pave his or her individual path within those parameters. We, as a community, need to reconcile the best way to get to know others for marriage particularly in the times we are living in. Throughout history and the world, most marriages were arranged marriages and only in the past 100 years has the process of getting married changed into what today is called dating. “Dating” in today’s culture has become a frivolous activity with no intention of marriage usually leading to pre-marital sex, but it wasn’t always like this. Throughout history, with the exception of modern times, courtship was seen as a bridge to marriage. In the early 1830’s to 1900’s the U.S. evolved out of arranged marriages and developed the process known today as ”courting.” According to Webster’s dictionary, “courting is to engage in social activities leading to engagement and marriage.” It is a sexually abstinent relationship, with parental involvement, allowing two people to learn about one another for marriage within the context of honor and respect for one another.
According to this definition, courting may be a viable alternative for Muslims who do not want to go the route of an “arranged marriage” nor the route of modern “dating.” Of course, courting sounds completely old fashioned when placed in the current cultural climate. On the other hand, it may even sound too much like “dating” to many in the Muslim community who can only accept arranged marriages or a strictly controlled process. However, Islamic courting may be the natural progression that needs to take place in our community in order for Muslim youth to get married without engaging in frivolous or harmful activities as well as being keenly aware of their Islamic values.
I know there are readers who at this point may be astounded that I am suggesting a less restrictive alternative, but honestly I believe it is time for us to consider options. “Islamic courting” is not an arbitrary activity. It has a purpose – two people taking time to determine compatibility for marriage with the full awareness and support of their parents.
In order for young Muslim men and women to have the freedom to court within Islamic guidelines, there must be basic principles in place. First of all, only people who are ready to be married should consider courting. Islamic courting is not a frivolous activity and should only be engaged in by two individuals who are serious about and ready for marriage both emotionally and financially. Self-control and modesty in speech and actions must exist in order for respect to develop. If there is an intention for the relationship to be maintained, it is important to be aware of the consequences of immodest behavior and a lack of self-control. The Qur’an reminds us,
Tell the believing men to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do. (24:30)
And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed. (24:31)
Modesty for both young men and women has slowly eroded in today’s society and combined with a lack of self-control has led to pre-marital sex. Parents must reiterate to youth the virtue of modesty as a guard not only to their desires but also as a form of self-respect and how they want to be treated by others. It is immature to think that you can simultaneously show respect and a lack of self-control toward someone you may want to marry. The maturity required to engage in self-control is a prerequisite to the courting process. Yet, I am confident that this is possible because it already happens between young men and women on campuses and workplaces throughout the U.S. The same respect that is given in those settings to non-Muslim and Muslim colleagues can and should be easily carried over into a social relationship with a Muslim.
I believe that if our young men and women were raised with a view that the goals of Islamic courting are to determine compatibility for marriage through a relationship defined by respect and self-control, it would be successful. This would require that families are open to learning about and meeting possible suitors and having open communication with youth about the boundaries of a relationship as established by the family and Islam. Islamic courting would allow individuals to develop friendships as they learn about each other’s character and they would also understand the responsibility they have to guard each other’s hearts until the outcome of their relationship is known. Islamic courtship would encourage interaction and friendship between young men and women as well as the entire family. This shift in thinking would require eastern cultural customs to be accommodating and accepting of a new way to meet a spouse.
I challenge our community to be objective and consider being reasonable and realistic with our young men and women. Teenagers in high school should not be courting, however, college-aged and beyond are within the scope of an “appropriate” age. Parents should not create unnecessary hardships or frustrations by being overly concerned with temptation in situations where risks are low and both young people are on their guard. Parents should use discretion and maintain an open relationship with their children throughout the process. Specifics of when and under what conditions the couple will see each other are conversations parents and young people should discuss and agree upon. The couple should be able to speak privately, but in a setting where risks are lowered. This could mean in a public space like a coffee shop or in a home where parents are in the other room with the door open, but not intrusive or eavesdropping on the couple. Activities during courtship should also include family-oriented activities where the couple can have an opportunity to engage and interact within a family setting and get to know each other’s families better. This would allow the family members to develop a friendship with the potential spouse as well. Specific activities, such as going out together to public places, talking on the phone, chatting on the computer, etc. would be areas that parents and their children need to discuss and mutually agree upon based on their family values. Ultimately, keeping the relationship in the “open” is more beneficial to the couple as well as their respective families.
I challenge our community to engage in conversations around courting and dating. We must examine our fear of the word “dating,” and re-define the process for our Muslim youth. Dating does not need to mean frivolous outings that lead to pre-marital sex. Dating for Muslims can revert back to the original meaning of “courting” and it can evolve into “Islamic courting.” If our youth are taught from an early age that Muslims of marriageable age engage in courting, rather than dating; this will give youth a clear picture of how and when to navigate the road to a marital relationship. Conversations between parents and youth need to take place and need to be filled with love and understanding as they embark on the next step toward adulthood. My hope is that we as a community begin to realize that marriage won’t just “happen magically.” We must tackle these tough topics and provide our youth with a realistic process for getting married.