A Response: There Are Just No Good Muslim Women Out There

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?

Sitte writes:

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.

7 thoughts on “A Response: There Are Just No Good Muslim Women Out There

  1. This is you procrastinating? I hate you and your smartitude. (jk)

    Wicked piece. Just unreal. Usually I have some sort of smart ass comment to make but all I can really say is that I found this enthralling.

    Although I have to say that nothing says “quality date” like 2 large double doubles and 2 donuts for under $5. A foundation that any relationship can rest on ;)

  2. Good post man! Firstly, this goes in my quote book, “”That’s condescending and by that logic I may as well open up my own mini-elementary school.” HAHA!

    But, two serious follow-up thoughts:

    You wrote, “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.” — I think your quote is key to this discussion. How to keep platonic relationships platonic is a completely different (and valid discussion) but I repeatedly feel that as Muslims we are not given enough information how to navigate romantic relationships, or a general idea of how many emotions can/do get involved in romantic relationships. Or how to assess when too many or too few emotions are being involved. Most importantly, we are never given ideas or tips on how to “fix ourselves” or how to heal if any such interaction doesnt reach the expected end (i.e. marriage).

    I fully acknowledge that there’s no single-digit answer to either of these questions, but as you wrote, the point is, nobody is asking these questions (at least not as freely or frequently as they should be asked).

    Secondly (and this is something that a very close convert friend convinced me of) — often, single muslim (especially those who don’t have much past experience with romantic relationships) don’t understand that considering somebody for marriage is a process — that you have to work towards falling in love with them (if that is your pre-requisite for marriage). Or that you have to at least interact with them to a certain degree to make a well-educated, balanced decision on whether the other person is somebody you want to consider. I guess I’m sort of re-iterating Sitte’s point that just sitting back and saying, “happen” won’t make us any closer to finding our right person.

  3. It’s interesting to see that this article has gotten very few comments.

    I personally don’t buy the idea that no good Muslim women or men are out there. I also completely disagree with Adam Sitte’s premise that you need to connect emotionally with someone to feel that they are “the one.”

    Islam is a very simple and straightforward religion. Its stipulations and rulings are meant to be easy to follow. You made a good point by pinpointing the fact that modesty or hayaa’ goes beyond physical barriers and lines, it also encompasses emotions. Anyone can fool themselves into thinking that they genuinely feel something for someone but we can all agree that that’s never an indication of whether this person is right for you.

    When you wait for a “spark” to happen, you place your reliance on your emotions and thus yourself and you completely neglect Allah’s role in guiding you to who is best for you. True, emotions can be a sign of Allah’s guidance but this comes when intentions are straight and the focus is on not transgressing the commandments of Allah.

    Having an emotional relationship with someone who is not your spouse is still a form of dating. More importantly, it completely works against the whole definition of marriage in Islam. The concept of love and feeling affection towards someone is sanctioned by Allah. Love in the Qur’an is recognized to be one of Allah signs but within the context of marriage: “And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in peace and tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): Verily in that are signs for those who reflect” (Quran 30:21).

    I think the verse speaks for itself. Feeling some sort of emotional attachment for someone is not a prerequisite to marriage, it is the outcome of it. Disciplining oneself by observing modesty on all fronts – physical and emotional while also being constantly conscious of Allah’s role in the process is the prerequisite.

    It’s time Muslims stop fooling themselves into thinking that an emotional attachment has to occur, or some kind of fireworks have to be ignited at the sight of a potential, before they proceed in the process. It’s all a dillusion and its clear in the fact that there are tons of single Muslims wandering around aimlessly not clear on what kind of person they are looking for cuz they’re waiting for some emotional explosion to happen.

    That said, many Muslims who do observe those boundaries often rush the process by making immediate judgments or assumptions about a potential. I don’t think one or two formal and often awkward meetings with someone is gonna give anyone a chance to be completely themselves. I mean, when you meet someone for the first time and they start asking you your opinion of polygamy or how many Qur’an verses you’ve memorized, how on earth is someone gonna be comfortable enough to talk about what they do in their spare time or be chill enough to show their personality? So I agree that there should be more discussion about this within the Muslim community because this is what eventually educates and instills confidence amongst Muslims especially confidence in the way of their religion. When you continue to neglect these issues and fail to provide a comfortable space, you indirectly encourage many single Muslims to compromise their values of modesty for the sake of finding a spouse or, you encourage fear and negative attitudes towards commitment that psychologically disables individuals to proceed further in the process.

    This isn’t an issue of extremes or “your definition of modesty is different than mine.” Modest behavior has been depicted to us in the best forms, through the Prophet pbuh. You can be modest and genuinely get to know someone, its just that the comfortable space for this to happen has to exist. And this space has to be fostered through the community, through discussions like these, and more importantly, through individual reflection and speculation of the attitudes that one holds and whether they are an obstacle in their search for a spouse.

    I say wise up, fear Allah and respect His guidelines, and give things a fair chance without compromising modesty.

  4. Fatima – you brought up something I didn’t even realize. In my own preoccupation with initiating relationships within the bounds of shar’iah, I totally forgot about the aftermath – dealing with failed interactions/relations. An extremely important and oft-ignored point: how do we deal (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually) with failed efforts at love? How do, indeed, Muslims deal with that (whether they are engaging in the mainstream approach to marriage or something slightly unorthodox).

    Rasha – you quote: “And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in peace and tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): Verily in that are signs for those who reflect” (Quran 30:21).

    I don’t necessarily agree with your assessment of the verse. Allahu ‘Alim, I am certainly no where near qualified to really discuss the tafsir, but if we take that verse as it is – it does not really say at all that an emotional attachment is the outcome of a marriage, not the prerequisite. And it doesn’t deny that either.

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with having an emotional/intellectual *connection* with someone prior to marriage. Of course there are limits, certainly, but cannot I consider someone with whom I discuss and debate daily political affairs and someone for whom I happen to hold some level of affection based on interaction (however minimal) and character (thus have an intellectual and emotional connection with them) for marriage? Is that wrong for me to talk to someone of the opposite gender in such a manner? Especially if I am considering them as a life partner?

    I think you’re getting “love at first sight” confused with the idea of an emotional connection. An emotional connection IS, i believe, the manifestation of rahma.

    I think its rather natural to meet someone and obtain a connection with them if Allah SWT has placed rahma between the two individuals. I don’t think marriage necessarily is the first point of actualization of this rahma and we can certainly find examples of this in our own Prophet SAW’s life with some of his wives (in that there were some whom he ‘loved’ before marriage, for their character etc). While Allah SWT is indeed in charge of our lives, there is still quite a bit of Free Will there as well as agency. Like Sitte says, and Fatima above reiterates – we really just can’t always sit and wait for something to happen. The importance of self-agency is not lost in Islam – after all, does not Allah say in the Qur’an that He ‘will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts’ ? For me this verse says a lot about the importance of self-agency and effort – God’s will must always be taken into account and never forgotten, but we cannot completely forget ourselves in that. We cannot throw ourselves aside and believe that “God will take care of it.” We must be active and have reliance – tawakul – that God will lead us towards the best path; but we must pave our way first. The end result is in God’s hands, but our effort must be there first and foremost.
    .
    I think, especially in this day and age, to completely rely on a post-marriage connection in our society is a little too idealistic. We need to face reality. There is a growing problem within our own Muslim communities regarding the disintegration of marriage – that cannot be overlooked or ignored further. Yes, we must fear Allah SWT and respect the boundaries He has set forth – but we must remember that such boundaries are not necessarily guaranteed to be safe-guarded even with our current approach (generally speaking). We need to be constantly aware of our changing environment and norms and not be afraid of turning to our faith for assistance. The assistance is there – especially within our comprehensive and amazing, subhan’Allah, legal tradition.

    If I have said anything wrong, may Allah forgive me.

  5. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. Had a few comments to make…but I’ll keep it general and short:

    Check out Ibn Hazm’s beautiful work “The Ring of the Dove” (Tawq al-Hamama). He has some interesting theories on what Islam has to say about all the emotions that abound prior to marriage, and the concept of “falling in love” in general. The gist of it is this: you cannot help feeling affection for someone, and there is nothing wrong with that b/c that attraction is natural. It’s only when you act on that emotion, and take it into your own hands (spending lots of time alone, talking way into the wee hours of the night – phone, texting, online and what-have-you) that it infringes on haram. Men are men, and women are women. Even the most liberal of my friends (non-Muslim, too, btw) once said that friendship, in its purest sense, is impossible between a male and female. There’s no such thing. I actually expected her to say otherwise – given her views and lifestyle. I digress. My point is basically that because there are boundaries to observe, and because of the majority of ppl not being able to show self-restraint, they translate that to mean “love is haram.”

    While I see nothing wrong with every day interaction, and having a discussion of ideas, I think a lot of us fall into the trap of thinking that “it’s not gonna be any more than what I intend for it to be”. One has to keep in mind, however, that while we may have a good handle on our own selves, we can never be sure of how those words/actions/etc will be translated by another.

    I don’t think this is a general “Muslim” problem – but rather one for Muslims in the West: people “back home” seem to understand this getting-to-know (in their own cultural context) process prior to marriage a lot better than Muslims here. I was surprised that they were so laid-back about it, last I visited Pak. “Yea, he/she likes her/him… so put in a good word about him/her” – I’m talking about grandmas and aunties/uncles giving this advice haha ;) Luckily for them, they have that network of aunties and relatives who can have a hand in the process, and through whom they can find more about the person, etc. For us, because of the emphasis on dating as being the only means to “getting to know” someone else, we think of all avenues towards gaining insight into someone’s character/views/personality as invalid. Imam Zaid Shakir once gave an excellent talk about this…how getting married is a community responsibility, and not one that individuals can easily undertake entirely on their own – due to the structure of our communities… Allahu ta’ala a’lam.

  6. Sana, I agree with your comments. I did not necessarily refer to the verse to imply that an emotional connection cannot and should not happen prior to marriage. I was talking about emotional attachment – the unhealthy and irrational kind. Attachment and dependence is different than connection. What I meant was that when a connection is evident – whether its emotional or not – taking the necessary steps towards marriage is necessary for the type of love that was mentioned in that verse. This verse has been commonly referred to by shuyookh as something that is characteristic of the marriage institution and the bonds that Allah places between a husband and wife. We cannot de-emphasize the significance of this because although there may be people you may feel emotionally drawn to, in the end, love and emotions that are healthy and that are meant to grow and develop into something meaningful can only exist within the context of marriage because that is a boundary in and of itself. Dwelling too much on connections and attractions that we experience with several other individuals throughout our lifetime,whether it works out or not, defeats the purpose of comprehending the fact that marriage is a start and not an end of an experience. Most of the time emotional connections do not work out. Feeling that connection is not wrong but overemphasizing its importance and influence in your life inadvertently detracts you from comprehending the reward of love and mercy that develops within a marriage only. Allahu A’lam.

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