When 18-year-old Nermeen Ileiwat first began college, she could not wait to get into a relationship – maybe even get engaged before graduation. But after one year, the rising sophomore realized she had no idea what she wanted out of life and was in no position to get into a relationship.
That decision didn’t last long. Only a few months after, Ileiwat met someone at a party, and their friendship quickly turned into something more.
However, dating was not that simple for the now 21-year-olds who are Muslim. They have religious restrictions that limit physical contact in premarital relationships. They chose to focus more on developing their emotional intimacy, with the occasional hug or kiss. Out of respect for their religious beliefs, Ileiwat and her boyfriend decided not to engage in any advanced sexual activity until they’re married.
For young couples like them, the idea of dating is common, and it means balancing their religious views with their desire for emotional intimacy. But the term “dating” still invites an offensive suggestion for many Muslims, especially older ones, irrespective of how innocent the relationship may be. Dating is still linked to its Western origins, which implies underlying expectations of sexual interactions – if not an outright preic texts prohibit.
Ismail Menk, a renowned Islamic scholar, argues in one of his lectures that love, within boundaries and with expectations of marriage, is an accepted fact of life and religion – if done the right way. This “right way,” he says, is by involving the families from an early stage.
Before the rise of a Western cultural influence, finding a spouse was a task almost solely assigned to parents or relatives. But young Muslims have now taken it upon themselves to find their partners, relying on their own version of dating to do so. Older Muslims continue to reject dating because they worry that a Western world will also create Western expectations of premarital sex in these relationships.
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Adam Hodges, a former sociolinguistics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, argues there is an added layer of culture and context to the term “dating” that is often overlooked. “We use language to give meaning to the world around us. So the way that we label events or phenomena, such as dating, is definitely going to provide a certain perspective on what that means for us,” he says. Therefore, taking on the dating vernacular to describe their relationship and labeling their significant other as “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” does put some couples at risk of falling into the physical expectations that come with dating, Hodges says. But, he adds, these fears can be allayed because “the most important connotation that is borrowed is the ability to choose your own mate,” which is also the main precept of dating in the West.
One way that some young Muslim couples are rebutting the idea of dating being offensive is by terming it “halal dating.” Halal refers to something permissible within Islam. By adding the permissibility factor, some young couples argue, they are removing the idea that anything haram, or prohibited, such as premarital sex, is happening in the relationship.
On the other hand, some young couples believe there should be no stigma attached to dating and, therefore, reject the idea of calling it halal. “My justification is that we are dating with the intention of one day being married and, I guess, that’s what makes it OK,” Ileiwat says.
Khalil Jessa, founder of Salaam Swipe, a dating app that caters to young Muslims, also believes that the negative associations attached to dating depend on the particular society. “This conception that dating necessarily implies physical touching is an assumption that people are making. When they take the word dating, they’re adding this connotation to it, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It’s up to each individual and each couple to choose how they wish to interact with one another,” Jessa argues.