Why millions of Muslims are signing up for online dating
Arranged marriages are standard practice in many societies, but the introductions and screening process can be an ordeal for the young people involved - even if they are pleased with the eventual outcome. Some Western Muslims have concluded that online matchmaking can help reduce embarrassment.
"You don't like her? Why not? She got two legs, she got two arms, she's a professional. How can you not like her?"
Adeem Younis remembers all too well the trials of his family-orchestrated matchmaking. "Someone would be brought round for an evening meal and it was a really big deal. The samosas came out and the chicken and the chapattis… It was so highly pressurised."
Along with others in Europe and the US, Younis began looking for samosa-free ways to help young Muslims tie the knot, and Muslim online matchmaking was born.
Sometime in the last decade or so, online dating became a mainstream activity, in Europe and North America at least. These days everyone is at it, from the likes of Halle Berry and Adele - both say they have given it a go - to your aunt, my grandmother, and half the people swinging like coat hangers on the early morning commute.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Western Muslims adapted the idea to their needs. For many, online dating offers a low-stress solution to the daunting challenge of finding a partner for marriage in countries where few share their faith, and in communities where matchmaking is considered a family affair.
Younis's own matchmaking site, SingleMuslim.com, which he founded above a fast-food shop in Wakefield while still a lowly undergraduate, now boasts more than a million members.
However, as the young entrepreneur tells me, to call the practice "Muslim online dating" would be inaccurate. The goal of such sites is often far more ambitious than the average hook-up website. Instead of hazy morning-after memories and hopes of receiving a follow-through text message, sites like SingleMuslim.com aim to provide clients with a partner for life. It is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
"In Islam, marriage is equal to half of your religion," he says, quoting a saying thought to have been uttered by the Prophet Mohammed, "so you can imagine how important it is… Islam teaches us that marriage is the cornerstone of society as a whole."
SingleMuslim.com now claims a success rate of about four matches per day. But the site is just one example of a booming market serving Muslims of all ages and degrees of religiosity.
For example, there is Muslimmatrimony.com, which allows members to search for partners not only by sect, but by the particular doctrine of Islam that they follow and the languages they speak.
Another, HipsterShaadi.com used to market itself as the site for people looking for a partner with whom to "write poetry and dance in the rain" but of whom their parents will also approve. It has now changed its name to ishqr.com and says it is the place for feminists looking for a "bold, humble, feminist brother or a Rumi-and-granola-loving Muslim".
Muhammad met his wife Catherine through an online matchmaking site four years ago. Today he is happily married with two children. But his search for marital bliss wasn't always an easy ride.
"There isn't that scope to meet people," he says. "Devout Muslims don't go pubbing and clubbing. In typical Western cultures that's OK, but in Muslim culture it's frowned upon. So there are very few avenues, apart from family contact, for matchmaking to occur."
Muhammad had been on various secular dating websites before he decided to give Muslim online matchmaking a try.
"It was round about Easter 2010 when I first emailed Catherine," he recollects. "Things escalated very, very rapidly. Three or four months from initial contact we got married - we just knew really. When you meet the right person, you know."
Muhammad, who is of Bangladeshi origin, and Catherine, who is British and converted to Islam at university, may seem like an unusual couple, but in many ways their relationship exemplifies the kind of relationships that these websites seek to endorse.
"The identity of global Islam is not physical, it's more ideological - its constituency is a global constituency," says Mbaye Lo, professor of Arabic at Duke University and author of an academic paper titled Muslim Marriage Goes Online.
"That is why the websites often show an African Muslim man with an Indo-Pakistani girl, for example, on their main page. They portray themselves in a physical manner that postulates Islam's globality in order to engage people on a global level and give them more of a global outlook, a global citizenship."
According to Lo, the websites not only encourage global citizenship, they also allow young people in conservative countries to choose potential matches with greater freedom. "The status quo in many countries doesn't always favour women in making choices - the internet makes meeting easier culturally," he says.
Riad, who hails from the Tunisian capital Tunis, met his wife online in 2012. "I fell in love with her the moment I saw her," he recollects, "a real coup de foudre".
However, like many in the Middle East and North Africa, he has reservations about online dating. Despite his own positive experience, he would not necessarily recommend it to others. "The virtual world is a world of lies," he warns, "you just don't know who you are talking to."
Unlike in the West, where Muslim online matchmaking often appeals to young people with a strong religious identity, in Tunisia, Riad tells me, the opposite is true.
"Very religious families would prefer that their children meet future partners in the traditional ways, through the family. They take the view that meeting a partner online isn't natural and they are therefore very suspicious."
In the West, however, the industry is booming. Younis, who set up SingleMuslim.com in 2000, never imagined it would turn into a full-time career.
However, 14 years on, the website has given him more than one thing to be proud of. A few years after setting up the site, the young entrepreneur found a wife of his own online. He is now a proud father of four, his last child, a healthy little girl, having been born while this article was being written.
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