For today’s young Muslims, traditional methods of finding a life partner are increasingly viewed as inapplicable.
London, United Kingdom – Arzo Kazmi has been looking for a husband for some time. But eight years of matchmakers, mutual friends, and dating websites have been futile in finding that special someone.
“It feels like for ever,” says the 33-year-old financial adviser from Birmingham who is of Pakistani-Kashmiri heritage.
As most of her friends are secular and white, she says she rarely meets single Muslim men.
For the past four weeks, she has been using Muzmatch, a smartphone app for Muslims to meet potential marriage partners. But unlike well-established dating apps, such as Tinder and Hinge, Muzmatch specifically caters to Muslims searching for a spouse – giving young Muslims greater influence in finding the right mate.
“For me to meet a Muslim man, I need to do something different, so that’s what I’m doing,” she says of her aim to find someone who matches her professional achievements, as well as her Western – and Islamic – values.
Dating is often prohibited in Muslim families. Traditionally, family members are often directly involved in seeking and vetting possible partners – and the couple’s respective families often meet to approve the marriage.
Nilima Thakur*, a 25-year-old teacher living in southeast England, says she has grown frustrated with this set-up. She has been looking for a husband for about a year, on and off. Finding little success, she recently began using the matchmaking app and, like Kazmi, says it’s a way of taking more control.
“I’ve gone through family and that was just a disaster,” says Thakur, who was born in the UK and is of Bangladeshi descent. “I think it’s a very peculiar way to get to know someone.”
“Although my family have my best interests at heart, only I know what I’m really after,” Thakur adds, noting that she’s interested in a combination of Islamic principles and an engaging personality in her future partner.
Many young Muslims around the British Isles are brought up in traditional households, but without a wider community with a shared cultural heritage.
Sana Ikram, 24, was searching for two years for a husband in her southwestern hometown of Swindon.
“Networks only extend so far and that doesn’t always provide a result,” she says.
After attending marriage events, asking religious leaders and rishta aunties – prominent women in Pakistani communities who help find partners – Ikram started using the app and found a pool of people who were more “relatable” than those she’d been introduced to, she says. This means someone who is compatible with her Islamic faith and her complex mix of British and Pakistani cultures – and someone she would want to spend the rest of her life with.
This union of modern local values and Islamic principles is a shift by young Muslims in countries as disparate as the UK and the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Indonesia, according to the author of the books ‘Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World’ and ‘Love in a Headscarf’, Shelina Janmohamed.
Janmohamed argues that internet access allows young Muslims to find like-minded individuals and those with shared identities, within or even across national borders, beyond the reach of more traditional methods of meeting a partner.
“Second, third, and even fourth-generation Muslims in the diaspora have grown up feeling very much part of the society they are in,” says Janmohamed. “If anything, they are asserting their faith more strongly, but in a way that will connect to the wider world around them.”
And while being religiously faithful, they want to drive their personal lives, not be a recipient of them, she explains.
While Ikram, who studied Egyptology and is looking for work in museums, wanted to fulfil her desires as a practising Muslim, she hoped the app would not provide singularly religious types.
Last January, she met 23-year-old business owner Hakim – of Pakistani and West Indian origin – using the app. They chatted on WhatsApp and met in person a month later. Iram told Hakim that if he was serious, then he would have to meet her mother. After several family meetings, Hakim formally proposed.
The couple were married four months after their first meeting.
The app markets itself solely to Muslims seeking marriage. It claims to have more than 120,000 users across 123 countries, about two-and-a-half years after launching. About two thirds of users are men. The UK, its home country, is its biggest market, followed by the US, Canada, Pakistan and Australia, but it also caters to singles in Indonesia, India, Morocco, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia, among others.
Muzmatch’s founder and CEO, Shahzad Younas, told Al Jazeera that he wanted to create a “serious, safe community” of “quality individuals” and hopes the app will break down barriers between Muslims of different cultural backgrounds.
“I think the new generation are more open to saying if you’re Muslim and I’m Muslim, then what’s the problem? We make life difficult for ourselves by putting barriers up between ethnicities.”
The 32-year-old British Pakistani says it’s working, with a couple of hundred now-married couples meeting on the charge-free network.
Muzmatch’s religious parameters, which members can check off, include the sect of Islam and things such as how often they pray. A wali, or guardian, can be nominated as a third-party moderator to monitor chats within the app, and photos can be made private.
Education levels are also delineated, and the app is conscientiously aspirational. Mocked-up promotional material presents two Yale graduates using its messaging service – Muzmatch says about 71 percent of its users are university-educated.
Globally, one in five relationships now start online, and the industry presents large economic potential. In the UK, for instance, between 2001 and 2011, Muslims were the fastest growing religious group – from three percent to 4.8 percent of Brits identifying as Muslim – to a total of 2.7 of the population.
The Muslim demographic in Britain is young, with with 48 percent under the age of 24, compared to 31 percent for the overall population.
Muzmatch is not the only one trying to get a share of that target market, with competitors such as Canadian-based Salaam Swipe and Minder from the US. Meanwhile, there are dating apps Jfiix and JSwipe for Jews, and Christians have Crosspaths, for example.
Ikram says, regarding Muslim-focused apps, that imams “have given their support to these websites and apps, saying they are inclusive of all of our [religious] requirements”, and many families and religious leaders are behind the idea of meeting a partner online, when it’s paired with Islamic conditions, such as the presence of a third party.
Ajmal Masroor – a 45-year-old imam born in Bangladesh but brought up in the UK, a broadcaster and a founder of the Barefoot Institute in London 15 years ago, which provides marriage advice and support for couples – says these young Muslims are the ABC1 – those with disposable income, an education, and an outward-looking view of the Islamic world.
“Their aspirations are bigger and wider. They are more inclusive in their approach; they are more British, perhaps more international,” as opposed to their parents who may have grown up in villages and towns in South Asia, for instance.
For Sana, her parents’ generation broke ground in a Western country, fighting for a space for their identity, while she has been permitted a greater understanding of various ways to live, identities to assume and cultures to be a part of.
Because of these achievements, she explains, the younger generation of Muslims know their options and “are more demanding”.
Masroor adds, “Of course, culturally [the younger generation is] different, and our aspirations are different, and our viewpoints are different [from our parents’], and therefore, our approach to different parts of our lives, including finding a suitable life partner, would be different for sure.”
*Name has been changed for privacy.