A good friend of mine recently forwarded an article my way with the intention of my eyes wandering down to the author’s bio, falling in love and somehow marrying him. While a thoughtful gesture that I surely appreciated, I was more intrigued by the topic of the written piece. The title caught my attention immediately: There Are Just No Good Muslim Women Out There.
Well, you clearly haven’t met me Mr. Sitte.
But the article continued:
I shouldn’t take this any further. Apart from not being true, it’s a diatribe that obfuscates something deeper (just as the parallel, but unnervingly more standard retreat, “Where are all the good Muslim men?” does). The degree of intelligent, sincere, socially conscious, and admirable Muslim women I meet is staggering, many of whom in a previous life I wouldn’t have hesitated asking out to dinner to get to know better. Yet, I find myself simply put off by Muslim women.
I need to be honest; it isn’t just Muslim women, but the whole relationship process in Muslim communities that utterly perplexes me. I can’t help but feel as though I am wandering aimlessly confused through two concurrent tempestuous storms – that of the normal bafflement that marks emotional relationships between people, and that of the Muslim relationship paradigm, the absurdities of both obscuring my ability to progress to something meaningful.
Please proceed to remove yourself from my head. Thank you.
Adam Sitte, a Washington D.C. based writer and a Muslim convert, provides a rather well-written and expressed exasperation of a young Muslim disillusioned and unsure about the process by which North American practicing Muslim youth are expected to, and usually do, approach the relationship process. And by ‘relationship’ we are obviously referring only to marriage here, thus making things a little more fun and complicated than the mainstream North American relationship process.
…More than the physical barriers that I learned to adopt, it is the emotional ones that have proven the most difficult. Charles Blow wrote an article for the New York Times last year on the demise of dating in American relationships, where he described the dissolution of traditional dating and the shift to ‘hooking up,’ where you “just hang out with friends and hope something happens.” Approaching relationships from this background, and then inverting it to fit the Muslim experience that, even when it involves dating seems to be primarily focused on practical matchmaking, is difficult. It takes what was a personal, intimate, organic process and changes it into something that feels hollow and decidedly detached. I miss how things used to be.
I miss being able to meet someone interesting and show that I am interested. It could simply be that I have a tendency to utterly strike out, but more often than not I get the sense from many Muslim women that it is an insult to be attracted to them, that it is some way an assault on their purity of character. I miss the openness to romance and acknowledgment of one’s own sensuality. Façade, reality, or a false impression on my part, it didn’t use to be like this.
I miss finding out what I want from companionship…
The dilemma is personal for the writer. As someone who has seemingly experienced the world of meaningful relationships with the opposite sex, he is aware of the good that comes from them. Emotions are thrust about and the intensity of such feelings of love and confusion are beautiful and real in their raw vulnerability. Thus looking for a life-long partner without that similar sort of process-where the emotional outweighs the physical – becomes a difficult obstacle with which he is forced to deal. And he is certainly not alone in experiencing such feelings of confusion and despair about the current state of Muslim relationships here in North America. The mainstream Islamic ethos for relationships does not really allow much room for any real substantial emotional (or physical) relationships prior to marriage. Relations between Muslim men and women are quiet and secretive, filled with nuanced eye-locking, awkward conversational pauses and unending idiotic, time-consuming speculation. This is the reality for millions of Muslim youth across North America who are trying to uphold basic values of modesty and chastity as prescribed by their faith while also trying to find sustainable long-lasting ‘love’ during a time where over 50% of marriages are ending in divorce.
And it is becoming increasingly hard to achieve an already fine balance. So what do we do?
I miss “emotions getting involved” being the whole point. The knowledge that defines a well-established relationship can’t be conjured out of thin air; it requires experience. And sometimes the pain that “emotions being involved” causes is a necessary part of that. Moreover, a lifelong partnership is based on an impervious emotional connection—yet, even ‘halal dating’ scenarios seem to grapple incessantly with the frightening prospect of getting emotionally attached to someone you may not end up marrying.
What I miss most is public relationships. In an article earlier this year, Zeba Iqbal fronted the proposal that we need a “dating dialogues” among Muslim youth. This couldn’t be closer to the truth. That some reformed notions of the pre-marriage process among American Muslims is needed is accepted vernacular and heavily discussed. Moreover, that many Muslims engage in some form of dating is a reality. Yet, especially for someone like myself who came in as an outsider, these relationships are all but invisible. And this is a problem.
I recognize that there are a number of both petty and serious considerations that have constructed this reality, one of the most prevalent being the danger of premarital sex and pregnancy. From my point of view, it is a rather silly logical leap to say emotional proximity will lead us from no physical relations to sexual relations. If we are going to commit ourselves to principles, we need to demand, expect, and have faith in a higher tenacity of consciousness from all of us. Why is it we have confidence that we can fight temptation in our abstinence from food and drink when we fast, or alcohol when we attend college or have dinner with coworkers, yet dwell on this slippery slope that any greater degree of emotional proximity will overthrow the entire community’s commitment to physical boundaries? We need to believe that we can step up to the plate and build constructive models while maintaining core principles of our faith.
This is where I disagree with the writer, especially with the last quoted paragraph. I do not think the slippery slope between emotional and physical relationships should be completely disregarded. Yes, I do believe it is a little condescending when someone simplifies professional, casual and sexual relations to: ‘It starts with a cup of coffee at Tim Horton’s and ends with pregnancy.’ Yeah, definitely. That’s condescending and by that logic I may as well open up my own mini-elementary school.
I agree that perhaps there is a sometimes suffocating fear about the ‘dangers’ of friendships between Muslim men and women. At the same time, as someone who has experienced an array of such casual platonic relationships with both non-Muslim and Muslim men, I see the that there is often that potential for the awkward and tense speculation. It is avoided for various reasons (i.e. discipline, annoying existence of girlfriends) but remains a part of the balanced relationship. The involvement of emotions is also dire; an emotional relationship is really no less a relationship than one which is physical. A physical relationship is the meeting of two bodies and an emotional relationship is the meeting of two minds and hearts. An emotional connection, much like a physical connection, creates a vulnerability that transcends the material.
The prescribed punishments (in this world and the hereafter) and admonishment of physical relationships in Islam should not force us to consider the alternatives as completely less. It is an easy frame of mind to fall into, without a doubt and one which can also unfortunately hinder our pursuit of meaningful platonic relationships for the sake of knowledge and professionalism. But it is important to remember that modesty in Islam is beyond simple dress – it is something which is a part of the Muslim’s daily existence, character and relations. Thus, a caution and awareness is required. There’s no foolproof approach to relationships, be they friendships or discreetly romantic. I certainly do not have an answer for the right approach other than to be aware of oneself and one’s interactions. As a friend recently put it, Islam does not provide convenience or a complete lack of restriction. It is a hard realization to accept but one which requires attention and thought. The discipline which permeates the practice of the faith at all levels is part of being one who submits to the will of God – it is a complete submission of the mind, the ego, and the heart. It is the acknowledgment of every action as a form of ibaadat under watchful omnipotent eyes. This is part of the very essence of being a part of the mutaqqin; of having taqwa.
But all of that is a lot easier said than done. So, I’m going to stop preaching. Regardless of these ideals that do exist and mustn’t be ignored or diminished in the least, the reality is, again, quite different.
The prevalence of John Cusak-clad expectations about love, ridiculous standards, sexual pressures and easy-fix attitudes and an increasing awareness and acceptance of a Western Muslim identity certainly do not make for an easy route for young Muslims to undertake. There has been an undoubtable resurgence of Muslim consciousness in the post-9/11 landscape: it is now completely possible to be a Muslim and a Westerner at the same time. There is no real conflict between the two for the generation of Muslims who were rather young – at the spritual and social formative age – during that fateful day in 2001. But this belief and practice, promulgated by the likes of the Zaytuna Institute, al-Maghrib and scholars such as Dr. Tariq Ramadan, is becoming increasingly tense; a tension which has been epitomized by issues regarding gender relations, most importantly relationships and marriage.
And this tension, in all of its various forms, is only going to increase over the next few years. We now have a generation or two of Muslims who are not going to “go back home” – unless home is Stoneybrook, Connecticut. We are ‘indigenous’ Muslims, born and raised here; this is our culture and our other cultures, related to ethnicity, parents, and heritage, become flavours with which we experiment and to which we pay the mandatory lip service. Because of this reality, that will fade quickly as the generations continue, we are going to see a far more deeply North Americanized practicing Muslim youth who relate less and less to their cultural heritage than they do with their country of birth and residence. This reality thus necessitates the emergence of such questions and debates as brought up by Mr. Sitte. Thus as a Muslim community we must be prepared to handle these emerging questions and debates. We must not shun or condemn those who come out and challenge age-old Islamic wisdom wrought with culture.
By ignoring such questions, we do the greatest disservice to our growing and flourishing Muslim community. Education has always been the best prescription to that which ails a society and community. In order to educate, we must raise questions and we must engage in their discussion. By not educating and engaging ourselves on these issues regarding our faith, our Western identity and our reality, we assist in the creation of fitna.
This issue in particular, regarding Muslim relationships, goes beyond the stated: it is part of the core and growing realization of some of the tensions that do exist between being Muslim and being a Westerner. Of course that begs the question as to whether such tensions really comprise a bad thing? Should complete reconciliation really be the end goal? Or must we, as Muslims, realize that regardless of our geography, we will always find some tensions between the practice of our faith and the cultures we call our own?
Yeah, chew on that for awhile. I’ll write about it next time I choose to procrastinate from writing ridiculously long term papers.