“I’m not a scholar or anything…but I think that’s…like…haraam (prohibited)” said my friend, after telling her I was going out to eat with my fiancé. Having accepted Islam more than a year prior, this was the first time I was hit with the H-word. To hear that heinous word directed at me was dizzying at first. She went on further to explain that my fiancé isn’t my husband yet and that I shouldn’t be alone with him. Of this, we were both crystal clear. Even though our wedding plans were scheduled only a few months later, we knew that privacy was not yet our right. Our meeting spaces had always been public: the campus library, street festivals, and restaurants. My friend offered to join us that evening for dinner which was enjoyable, but the whole ordeal left me reflective, rethinking my approach to courting as a new Muslim.
Courting, as I understand it, is a process of getting to know a potential spouse. Some mistake it for dating, though the intention of dating is not necessarily marriage and may have varied levels of intimacy depending on the culture, context, and individuals involved. Courting as a Muslim, however, means different things to different people. The least arguable features include getting to know an individual as much as is reasonably possible without physical touch or seclusion. Necessarily, the intention should be transparent to both parties and ideally, their families and community members as well. In a traditional context, perhaps all of the footwork is done by one’s parents—identifying a spouse, researching their background, and determining compatibility. Even today some spouses have only to give a consenting nod before vows are exchanged. But for those of us who don’t have a Muslim family to consult with, nor have we witnessed Muslim matrimony behind closed doors, our path down the aisle may not be as simple. As myself and other convert Muslims can attest, we have an intensely strong need to feel certain about our spouse selection—the kind of certainty that can’t be attained passively. Sometimes our active role can be misinterpreted as liberality but many of us are sincerely trying to observe our faith while making the best decision possible. In my case, I had to be unwavering in my choice of a spouse because as soon as I introduced my family to a fiancé, not a boyfriend, there was no turning back.
Before getting married, my fiancé and I were acquaintances who happened to orbit in common circles. We shared a common love for culture and community and it wasn’t until a potluck dinner that we made a connection. I was not yet Muslim but “very respectful of their way of life.” My older brother had accepted Islam years prior and though his decision distanced us, I still wanted to connect to my West African sister-in-law and for this I needed to learn Arabic. Knowing that my fiancé was a seeker of knowledge and student of Arabic, I asked an innocent question. “Do you know a masjid where I can learn Arabic?” He stumbled through his response but was stuck on my use of the word “masjid” as opposed to “mosque”. This opened a very involved conversation about Islam, Africa, and how my brother migrated to study his newfound religion. In full view of our company, we talked at length and exchanged email addresses in case he heard of any local Arabic classes. According to my husband, on that night he knew I was the one.
Our discourse continued by email thereafter. I was oblivious to his special interest until he mailed me a handwritten letter while I was away for the summer. When I returned to my university that fall, a mutual friend confirmed that I had an admirer. Unfortunately, I didn’t share his feelings since I was still sorting out my own faith and had just started a long-distance relationship with a Rastafarian gentleman I had met that summer. After this admission, our conversations ceased and the brother charted a new course. It wasn’t until months later that I realized he was heading to Mecca for his Hajj pilgrimage. On the verge of becoming Muslim, I knew this was a big event and found my heart swelling for him. Necessarily, the Rasta and I parted ways and thereafter I was a bona fide Muslim woman, living on my own.
On occasion, the brother I had turned down would cross my mind. After accepting Islam, I had an adjusted value system and realized that I had miscalculated a person of great worth. Similarly, it felt unnatural to talk to him as freely as I used to, especially not knowing if he had moved on. On one day, just a week or so after my summer love and I parted, I received an enthusiastic email from the brother who I thought had long forgotten me. “As salaamu alaykum! Do you know how long I’ve been meaning to say that to you?” He was anxious to hear about the tipping point that led me to Islam and I was eager to share. With my every message, I found his replies timely and thoughtful but it was time to cut through the cordiality and talk straight.
“As you know, I’m a single Muslim woman and I can tell you’re putting a lot of effort into keeping in touch with me. So, what exactly are your intentions?” The brother, in his usual pensive manner, expressed that his admiration of me never waned, even in the face of his two other marital propositions. “Not to frighten you, but I’m interested in marrying you. Not necessarily next month or next year, but in general this is my intent.” I appreciated his honesty and invitation for us to get to know one another and discern if I felt the same. But more than anything else, there was one potent line that penetrated my heart. “I think we would make a great spiritual team if we were partners.” I was stuck on those words and played them over and over in my head. That statement could’ve sealed the deal but we wanted to evaluate if our life paths were as compatible as our personalities were. The difficult questions needed to be asked, like debts, career plans, and family planning. We also needed to see the wisdom of our decision reflected in the approval of our families, friends, and elders.
Over the months, we progressed from emails and handwritten letters to phone calls and meetings in public. Once we were settled about our decision to marry, we had to face the task of informing our non-Muslim families, which was much harder for me than it was for my husband. Obtaining my family’s consent to marry was more than an uphill battle–it was a prayerful and tearful struggle that wore me thin. My fiancé was empathetic and tried his best to support me over the phone, since his shoulder was not yet my right to cry on. Even still, his concern evidenced the extent of his compassion and emotional availability. Going through that pre-marital struggle together refined our perception of each other and strengthened our resolve to be married. Thankfully, my family’s acceptance came just in time for the wedding and it has been nearly nine blissful years since.
While my courting experience wasn’t as traditional as others, I would not have changed it. I don’t think I could’ve defended my marriage as hard as I needed to had we courted more distantly. Sometimes I imagine that having Muslim parents to consult would’ve made matters easier for us but far too often, I hear the opposite. Trailing behind character and piety, some parents make worldly matters prerequisite hurdles for young adults who want and need to get married. Raising a daughter ourselves, we hope that we’ll be a helpful part of her courting process and can coach her through an honest, open, and respectful journey to marriage that doesn’t compromise her faith and integrity. And if this seems irrelevant or impossible to her when she’s of age, we can relate our own experience as a precedent.
This article was originally published on Ethos International.