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.
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.
"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.
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.