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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.

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"If you've grown up in this American environment and gone to high school here, then it's more difficult because you're used to seeing guys and girls hang out and meet each other that way, get to know each other, and fall in love, or whatever," says Begg-Latif, who grew up in Michigan. "But I think the Muslim context really doesn't need to be that different." Her own courtship, she says, was only different in that they had no time alone until after marriage.

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While the romantic attraction that provided the initial sparks may help them blend into the American cultural landscape, there's a negative stigma in the Muslim community that they married for love.

"People always say, 'Was it a love marriage or an arranged marriage?' " says Begg-Latif, trailing off as she searches for the right words.

"It has connotations in the community," interjects Latif. "So you really don't, sometimes, feel comfortable saying it was a love marriage, per se."

Just as the MSA provided a key social forum for the Latifs to negotiate their love connection, it has proved such a successful Muslim matchmaker that it's been nicknamed the "Matrimonial Student Association." It provides a place for single Muslims to meet without getting too personal and it's always under the safety net of working toward Islamic goals. On many university campuses, MSA members like Khatri ruffle conservatives' feathers by going out for group dinners or social outings after meetings.

While these informal meetings happen, the concept of dating for fun simply does not exist in Islam. Any potential match is judged, pursued, or abandoned based on marriage potential.

In the US, however, many Muslims – especially Arabs – have re-interpreted parts of the courtship process to allow for something closer to the American way.

"I think it's widely accepted now among Muslims in America that things are not the same as they were in their country of origin, whether it's Sudan, Pakistan, or Egypt," says Imam Mohamed Magid, the executive director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Va.

Still the cultural reinterpretations don't sit well with many conservatives, like Dearborn-area Muslim Yaqoub Al-Shamiri, a Yemeni who says many of the new practices are "just accepting the concept because the culture has superseded the religion."

Hanaa Soltan, a newlywed in her late 20s, is grateful for the new dating flexibility. Her family allowed her to take advantage of nikah, an old tradition that allows something close to American dating. Under Islamic law, nikah is a legal marriage that entitles couples to all the privileges of marriage. In practice, most using a nikah remain chaste until their wedding night. If the couple decides to break up during the nikah, there's far less stigma than getting divorced after the marriage ceremony.

"Culturally, it used to be tougher," says Ms. Soltan. "At least in America, Muslims have, kind of, eased up a lot on that stigma. People understand now ... that sometimes things just don't work out. They can be two really good people and they're just not compatible, and it's OK to break it off."

For Soltan, a nikah allowed her to spend time alone with her fiancé. Initially, when her Egyptian family set her up with a potential husband, she says that the two of them talked and spent time together in the family home. But once they got a nikah, they could go out to dinner alone and Soltan could even remove her veil in front of her husband-to-be.

"We have our religious beliefs and we have Arab culture to a certain extent, but at the end of the day we're all born and raised here ... and you don't have to stick to what your parents did," says Soltan, who's now happily married.