“Younger people move out of their parents’ home, after which parents are not that involved in their life. Youngsters are not super invested in the community anymore, so they don’t know who the eligible bachelors or bachelorettes are."Tahirah Nailah Dean, San Francisco Bay Area-based lawyer and writer
Approximately 3.45 million Muslims live in the United States, making Islam the third largest religion in the country. Compared to other faiths, Muslims ranked the highest at 45 percent in terms of never-married individuals, as per an earlier study by the Pew Forum. Dean says that there is a ‘marriage crisis’ in the Muslim community in the US.
Except for a few large hubs, the population is spread sparsely across smaller cities in many states, making it even more challenging to find suitors. Plus, dating has never been part of the culturally approved Muslim glossary.
Older, traditional avenues of meeting prospective mates including set-ups by relatives, mosque-based matchmaking, and matrimonial services aka ‘rishta aunties’ are still relevant but slowly being abandoned.
“For Muslims, the only type of romantic relationship they can have, is with people they marry. People end up together not because of compatibility. There is lack of pre-marital counseling,” Dean says.
Increasingly, the second and third generation immigrants wish to spend their life with practising Muslims who have a similar experience of growing up in the West.
Internet New Avenue for Finding Like-Minded Match
A few fortunate ones have found love around them, but many young Muslim Americans, aiming to balance tradition and modernity, are turning to the internet. “In the digital age, apps are the main way people are finding like-minded Muslims,” Dean posits.
Ohio-based Humza Qureshi, born in the US to parents who immigrated from Pakistan, found his wife via Muslim dating app Salams, an unconventional approach for a traditional Muslim family.
He had to convince his parents to get on board by telling them that despite the modern means of finding a life partner, his decision was rooted in the values imparted by his parents.
"We are merging our traditional values with our experiences of the digital world. They put a lot of trust in our decision,” shares Humza.
Mainstream dating platforms like Tinder and Match are not adequately suited for Muslim Americans looking for a life partner who shares their values. Instead of casting the net wide, they prefer exclusive platforms catering to Muslims, where the end goal is marriage. Salams and Muzmatch are among the popular Muslim dating mobile apps.
The Muslim-only platform projects itself as a ‘safe’ place for ‘halal dating’. Salams App’s Marketing Manager Basama Beyah explains, “Dating is halal when you involve your parents or representatives, do not use explicit or sexual language, and understand that marriage is the expectation."
"The authenticity of each profile and picture is cross-checked, not by an automated machine. We monitor language as per our guidelines and etiquette policy,” she adds.
A significant difference between Muslim-only and regular dating digital platforms is the concept of a ‘Wali’ – an Arabic word meaning guardian or protector – similar to concept of involvement of parents or relatives liaising in a traditional match-making process.
Beyah says that involving a ‘Wali’ or representative during online interactions is encouraged to “check for cultural expectations, marriage intentions, and character.”
"Along with personality traits like ambition, interests, career, we also have a section for Islamic traits – how often do you pray, which values matter to you, respect your parents. We give individuals options to swipe on profiles within certain matching priorities.”Basama Beyah, Salams App’s Marketing Manager
The platform’s success ambassador couple Humza and Amraha share that religion was important for both of them as they set out to find partners.
"In our religion, we are not encouraged to have a relationship before marriage. We weren’t on the app for quick dating. As soon as we found each other, that was it,” says Amraha.
Salams App: A Success Story
Eye-catching, trendy design interfaces, with constantly updating marketing campaigns involving young Muslim influencers from across the globe makes Salams popular with 3.8 million members across 100 countries.
Islam is the world’s second largest and the world’s fastest growing major religion. It has 1.9 billion adherents of numerous races, countries, languages, and ethnicities – they are a quarter of the world’s population. Faith being the main thread, West-based digital match-making platforms tend to attract members from all over the world.
However, a majority of Muslim youth in western countries wish to find life partners raised in their own country. Humza Qureshi says, “I wanted a person culturally similar. If they were raised in South Asia, I wouldn’t have felt that connect – not being able to share memes or local events with them."
Amraha chimes in, “Even my parents would have encouraged me to go for someone with the same mentality. Yes, we are from Pakistan, but we grew up in a different culture, had a different childhood than someone raised in Pakistan.”
Within the Muslim American community, culture plays a significant role – to find a match from the same ethnicity, race, language, and country of origin is preferred by most.
While the sect - Shia or Sunni - matters, caste does not play a significant role when it comes to marriages among South Asian Muslim Americans.
Beyah says that “success stories that couples share with us don’t imply caste.”
Dean agrees, and says she hasn’t encountered such issues.
“I'm not sure practising Muslims in America are still adhering to any caste acknowledgements when it comes to marriage. I'm sure socioeconomic factors play into a family's considerations for who their child should marry.”Tahirah Nailah Dean
Matches via Salams have resulted in 2,09,000 weddings since its launch in 2015. It was initially called Minder, a play on words Tinder and Muslim, but was rebranded in 2020.
“We went for Salams as it is the first greeting you make as a Muslim, exemplifying peace and connections during meeting online, as well as in a marriage. We wanted Muslims to have a dating app for serious marriage intentions without the less serious connotation, like Tinder,” Beyah explains.
Minder came about after Mokhtarzada heard eligible Muslim women complain about how tough it was to find partners.
“They had everything going for them and still they found it difficult," he says.
Ironically, the preferences of members on digital platforms also mirror those in society.
Even with serious marriage intentions and profiles on popular Muslim dating apps, not all find positive outcomes. Instant connectivity and wide net of digital interaction have not fully eroded the firm shackles of conservative preferences when it comes to finding love.
Tahirah Nailah Dean, who identifies as a Black Honduran American Muslim woman, calls the 'marriage crisis' in the Muslim community in the US a "multifaceted, complex problem."
“There are cultural inhibitors, including how parents and different generations influence decisions. There is ethnocentrism, sexism, racism, sizism at play. These predominantly impact Muslim women,” She elaborates.
Dean believes that these parameters are cultural rather than Islamic. During her conversations with Muslim counselors, youngsters, parents, matchmakers, and faith leaders, she realised, “Everyone knows it is happening, but there aren’t studies or data on it.”
Dean created the ‘Isms Project’, resulting in a photo feature, which portrays racism, colorism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and divorceism - global issues that become more frustrating for some Muslim women.
She speaks about the harshness of ageism, “Expiry is the term used – if you are over 25 years, you are too old. Men don’t face ageism, the pressure to marry young, as much. They don’t have to deal with bearing children.”
The project also depicts ‘ableism’ – the pool of options for a highly educated, career-minded woman is narrower, as most Muslim men want a wife who can take care of the home and family.
‘Western markers of beauty standards’ make race and size work against women. Among Desis, Dean describes colourism at play, “South Asian women are told to stand away from the sun as they need to retain a certain colour to be suitable for marriage.”
She strongly believes that Muslim women face more barriers, while for Muslim men, “the pull is wider as parents are a bit more flexible when considering marrying outside the community.”
It was the challenges Muslim American women faced in their hunt for a match and the lack of spaces for connecting that inspired serial entrepreneurs and angel investors Afghan American Haroon Mokhtarzada and Pakistani American Adeel Raza to launch the mobile dating app.
Wanting to be a part of the solution, Muslim dating platforms are running campaigns to highlight these issues and educate youth towards better practices.
Salams sponsored the second part of the Isms project.
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)