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Young American Muslims pioneer a new dating game

Creative reading of Islamic tradition makes the old-fashioned 'guy meets girl' love match less of an impossibility.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2008

Pioneers of American-muslim courtship: Farhan Latif (left) and Sofia Begg-Latif, a recently married Muslim couple, met through the Muslim Student Association at the University of Michigan. The MSA at campuses around the country is nicknamed the ‘Matrimonial Student Association’ because it’s an acceptable social setting for otherwise taboo meetings between singles.

TOM A. PETER

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East Lansing and Dearborn, Mich.

It was an all-American college moment on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing: Tosif Khatri was laughing and chatting with two fellow students – both women – as they walked to a local cafe.

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But the buzz of Mr. Khatri's cellphone popped the bubble. It was his cousin calling to invoke a bit of the family's old country Indian-Muslim traditions. "Not that it's any of my business or anything like that," the cousin said, "but are you, like, hanging out with girls right now?"

"I said 'Oh, no ... it's nothing silly or anything like that, it's just for the sake of a student event," Khatri recalls.

"Okay. I was just checking," signed off the suspicious cousin.

From an Islamic perspective, Khatri hadn't done anything wrong. He was hanging with two female colleagues to discuss organizational matters for the Muslim Student Association (MSA). But the line blurs when Khatri admits that the outing was also an excuse to socialize. Many Muslims would even call such a mixed-sex meeting haram, sinful.

Haram or not, outings like this happen increasingly among American Muslims as they integrate into the US. Reactions like Khatri's watchful cousin's illustrate the challenge young Muslim men and women face trying to interact, let alone "date."

The careful rules that dictate male-female interaction and courtship quite simply can't be applied in the US as they are in predominately Muslim countries. What's more, Islamic teachings lay out few undisputable guidelines when it comes to finding and meeting a mate; every Muslim tradition has its own interpretation. So, what an Indian Muslim might find permissible could be off-limits for an Arab Muslim.

The result: US Muslims are pioneering ways to read Muslim rules in ways that make sense in an American context.

While Muslim courtship rules vary around the globe – from arranged marriages (possibly never seeing your partner's face before the wedding night) to looser versions (spending time with each other in the company of family) – most Muslims would agree that a guy and a girl going out alone doesn't fly. A popular Hadith, or saying of the prophet Muhammad, warns that when an unwed man and woman are left alone, Satan is the third person in the room.

When Sofia Begg-Latif, the daughter of Indian immigrants, first met Farhan Latif, a Pakistani-American, the two were officers of University of Michigan at Dearborn's MSA. Often MSA leaders spent late nights together organizing events, and as will happen, the longer they worked, the less they talked about work. During these digressions, Ms. Begg-Latif, who wears a head scarf, started to notice that Latif seemed more interested in how she liked classes or how she fared on exams than he did about others.

When it became clear that both wanted more than a working relationship, Latif couldn't respectably just ask Begg-Latif out for dinner and a movie. Instead, he told her that he'd like to speak with her parents for permission to court. She agreed, and they began a traditional courtship in the presence of their families, never spending time alone or kissing until they were married.

Though it may seem old-fashioned in a US context, finding a partner without your family's help bucks most Muslim traditions.

But Latif never saw himself going through an old-world wife-search — the family setup and not knowing his partner in a real-world context until after the nuptials. Begg-Latif, a freshman when they met, always thought she'd finish college before finding a husband.

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