Seeking love, American Muslim style

No family network to help you find a spouse? Try chaperoned speed dating.

This Valentine's Day many couples throughout America will be receiving chocolates, bouquets of flowers, and creative gifts in a national expression of love. But what if you are single? What if you are single and Muslim? A double blow, since Muslims are prohibited from dating at all before marriage.

But American-Muslims have begun to move on from traditional forms of meeting their spouses to something more practical, more American. The latest trend in Islamic matchmaking is through halal dating.

Halal dating, like speed dating, has now become part of the American-Muslim social fabric. When done in a controlled environment, such dating is not expected to lead to a physical relationship until after marriage, since Islam prohibits unmarried, unrelated men and women from being alone together. Halal means "permissible" in Arabic.

So, in the Western sense of dating, practicing Muslims do not date.

One mosque in Silicon Valley sponsored a halal-dating service recently. About 50 men and women gathered at a community hall, arranged in groups of six - three men and three women at each table. The age range was wide, from 20 to 50 years old. Every group had one married chaperone, such as myself or my husband, to keep the conversation civil and fill in during awkward silences.

Sitting at my table of hopeful singles, I shared the unconventional way I had met my husband. While I was finishing my master's degree in Washington, a friend of mine was working in Japan. After a Friday prayer service in a Tokyo mosque, my friend turned to the man sitting next to him and asked if he was interested in getting married. When he said yes, my friend produced my e-mail address. It was love at first keystroke. We communicated this way for nearly six months before meeting in person. Two months after that, we were engaged to be married.

In the halal-dating room, the scene looked like a meeting of the United Nations. Participants came from various ethnicities. There were Pakistanis, Arabs, Africans, and American converts among others. Some women donned attractive, multicolored Islamic head scarves; others wore their neatly coiffed hair draped over their shoulders.

The young sheikh, or religious leader, wearing an untucked blue shirt, khaki pants, and sneakers, led the group discussion. He broke the ice by talking about marriage and single life. "A student of mine asked me why I'm still single," the sheikh said. "I said because I don't need another evil person in my life. So the student asked, 'You mean women are evil?' I said, 'No, but a mother-in-law is!'"

Giving participants 15 minutes to answer various questions, the sheikh asked the group to discuss whether each person would marry him/herself. One tall Lebanese chaperone loudly declared that he'd definitely marry himself, but couldn't because he was already "stuck with his wife!" The room broke out in laughter.

An Egyptian gentleman at another table said that when looking for the perfect wife, he follows the advice of the prophet Muhammad, who said to choose a wife according to four criteria: piety, beauty, financial status, and social standing. When the time ended, the men moved on to the next table of anxiously awaiting young women.

Later, the sheikh spoke of the challenges of finding love in America. Usually, in the Islamic tradition, families suggest potential spouses to their sons and daughters. The family asks questions about the prospect's personality, beauty, family, education, and finances. Then, they make a recommendation for a meeting. Islam prohibits marrying anyone against his or her will.

These types of arranged marriages still take place here and in the Muslim world. In America, however, many of the nearly 5 million Muslims do not have strong social or familial networks, making it difficult to find the perfect match.

This room was filled with chattering Muslims. Discussions diverted to other issues like the war in Iraq and politics. At one table, the conversation turned to food. One bachelor complained that he had woken up that morning to find no bread or eggs to eat for breakfast. The young married chaperone at the table chuckled at this. "Life doesn't change much after marriage," my husband said. "Our refrigerator has been empty for days."

When it came time to pray, the call to prayer filled the hall. A group of people stood to worship together. Others remained seated. But no one seemed to judge one another on his or her religiosity.

Some Muslims from this group may be receiving a bouquet of flowers Tuesday. Others may not have been so fortunate. One thing is sure, however: Today's Muslims are upholding tradition with a decidedly modern twist. Happy Valentine's Day.

Souheila Al-Jadda is a journalist and associate producer of a Peabody award-winning program, "Mosaic: World News from the Middle East," on Link TV.

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