More Muslims find online dating a good match

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Setting aside the Muslim tradition of family-arranged marriages, Abdullah Yahya decided to choose a wife on his own. He went online and discovered a Muslim matchmaking service. Within months he met a woman from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, whom he planned to marry.

But in a clash of culture and technology, Mr. Yahya traveled from San Francisco to Dubai, only to discover that the woman's parents did not approve of him and wanted her to marry a cousin instead.

"It became a big mess," says Yahya, a computer programmer. "We just couldn't go through with it. I flew back to America."

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Still, the experience did not dishearten him. He began his own matchmaking service, muslimmatcher.com, and has helped more than 6,000 subscribers find other single Muslims to date, with the intention of marrying.

"It's hard to meet other Muslims, and personally, I'm not an advocate of going straight through the family thing," says Yahya. "I'd rather get to know the person first."

His website is one of several online Muslim matchmaking services that have sprung up in the United States and internationally in recent years. They are used by hundreds of thousands of Muslims worldwide, most of whom live away from families willing to arrange a marriage, or who prefer to find a spouse by themselves.

This is part of an ongoing shift in the way younger Muslims approach marriage. Influenced by their non-Muslim peers, many are dating and marrying outside their religion, without the consent of their parents.

But for those who want to marry another Muslim, the Internet can bridge a divide, allowing them to do things previously forbidden, such as communicate privately before marriage.

Distance an obstacle

"Living in this country forced us to go for alternative ways of searching for spouses," says Yousef Abdallah, director of public relations at the Mid-Hudson Islamic Education Center in New Jersey. "It's hard for [Muslims of various nationalities] to get to know each other or live in one area. That's why the Internet is a great way for them to find their spouses from the same cultural background."

The majority of subscribers to Muslim matchmaking websites are from the United States, Canada, and Britain, but large numbers hail from the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as well.

As with other online dating sites, those who place an ad answer questions about their personalities and their ideal mate, and they have the option of posting a photograph. But the Muslim services also include a range of religion-specific questions. Muslimmatch.com, in Britain, for example, asks subscribers about their favorite food (curry? couscous?); their most important Islamic issue; and their level of religious commitment.

After a man and woman have connected through a site, a period of e-mail and telephone conversation usually follows. Visits to meet each other's family can be made as soon as a few weeks after beginning communication, and then the man proposes.

These sites have altered some traditional practices. Women, for example, have the opportunity to initiate contact with a future spouse.

"It's less traditional, but more straightforward," says Zainab, a Muslim from New Jersey who asked that her last name not be used. She tried unsuccessfully to find a spouse through her mosque, and then turned to an online service, where she met the man who has been her husband for one year.

"It gives you more protection than approaching someone through the mosque," Zainab says. "Because when you're dealing with someone face to face, you may not feel comfortable asking certain questions. Through a website, it's more confidential."

For more conservative Muslim families, however, the idea of finding a spouse outside the family network is too radical.

"We are always sensitive to our daughters," says Muhammad Nur Abdullah, president of the Islamic Society of North America. "We don't want someone to talk to them without seriously thinking about getting married."

Ahmed Arsalan, of Birmingham, Ala., says that his family in Pakistan does not understand why he wants to find a wife on his own. For that reason he has not told them about the personal advertisement he recently placed online.

"They probably think it's a phase, but I don't think it is," says Mr. Arsalan, who has corresponded with a few women, but hasn't gotten serious about anyone yet. "They don't need to know unless I do find somebody."

In an attempt to uphold traditional practices in a foreign society, some families place advertisements on behalf of their sons or daughters. Others let men initiate the e-mail communication and some refrain from placing a photograph online.

Another reason some Muslims reject the online matrimonial services is that they're skeptical of men and women who might seek marriage as a means of living in the United States and obtaining a green card, only to flee later.

Keyvan Salehi, creator of matrimony.org, knows firsthand the risks of finding a spouse online. About six years ago he met a girl from Indonesia through an online site. They corresponded for six months and then decided to marry.

Salehi says he spent about $10,000 bringing her to Toronto. Then he discovered she was still posting personal ads on websites, in a quest to marry someone else and move to the United States.

"I told her she had to leave," says Mr. Salehi. But like Yahya, Salehi says his own disappointments didn't stop him from continuing his online matrimonial site. "I always tell the people, they have to be careful, they have to be patient. They don't have to fall in love right away."

Good experiences, too

Salehi insists that the positive stories far outweigh the negative ones. He recalls a Jordanian couple who met at a university and fell in love but were forced to separate when the woman's father disapproved. She married a cousin, and her boyfriend left the country.

The woman was divorced within a few years and went to study in Britain. One evening she was randomly searching the Internet when she came across Salehi's website. There was an ad posted by her old flame. Soon they married.

Salehi is often invited to weddings all over the world that his service helped arrange. "A lot of people don't believe it," he says of online dating skeptics. "But I know that I see so many people getting married. It's working for some people."

As for Yahya, creator of muslim-matcher.com, he says he only occasionally browses through the ads these days, but has not given up hope for others.

"People are succeeding with the online way of meeting people," he says. "I think it's changing the way other Muslims end up marrying other Muslims."

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