By Layla Abdullah-Poulos
So, you’re thinking about getting married? Maybe not now, but some day? Many Muslims across cultures engage in the involved process of seeking a spouse at some time in their lives. In fact, Islamic teaching encourages adherents to focus on committed relationships. Allah commands:
And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them, and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed, in that are signs for a people who give thought. - Surah Al-Rum 30:21
And, the Prophet Muhammad (saw) said
Whoever Allah provides with a righteous wife, Allah has assisted him in half of his religion. Let him fear Allah regarding the second half.
In modern American Muslim cultures, the means to connect with potential spouses vary within communities and when navigating society at large. Beyond the traditional conventions, like arranged marriages, there are a growing number of Muslim matrimonial sites catering to Muslims from an array of backgrounds, as well as professional matchmakers who help to set couples up. “Muslim courtship,” which is to say getting to know someone with the intention of marriage, is also growing in popularity. This is where Zara J’s expertise comes in handy.
Zara J, the founder of a matchmaking society
, hosts The Courtship Code
, a podcast offering courtship advice, with topics like: “Time to Stop Repeating Tests in Relationships,” “Be Honest About What You Want” and “Did you Get Ghosted?” Although the podcast’s primary focus is single Muslims, married Muslims can also benefit by listening. Zara J. began her career as an urban fiction writer, launched a publishing company and started writing Muslim fiction novels to give the world a glimpse into Muslim courtship experiences in the West. She then took a sabbatical from writing and established a singles’ society in 2015. I spoke with Zara about her perspectives on Muslim courtship, dating and asking the hard questions of potential spouses.
Zara J, host of The Courtship Code podcast.
What is the difference between courtship and dating?
The best way for me to put it and - the easiest way to explain - is that dating positions intimacy before divine intention for a divine purpose. Courtship involves placing divine purpose before intimacy. So, if you are dating someone, you are not really concerned if the two of you are coming together for a bigger purpose.
Marriage isn’t necessarily the end game with dating. You’re focusing more on the intimate connection, whether that’s physical or emotional. You’re prioritizing that. The intention of courtship is to prioritize a divine purpose.
For Muslims, it starts with marriage and focusing on intimacy after. It’s not to say that while you’re getting to know someone that there won’t be intimate (especially emotional) connections, but both parties understand that the greater objective is coming together for something bigger.
What is a match coach, and how can one be of benefit before and during courtship?
A match coach or courtship coach is someone who is going to coach you through the process. Not everyone wants to be matchmade. Some people are perfectly fine with online matrimonial sites or meeting people in their community. They’re not interested in having someone find them matches, but they are interested in seeing their blinds spots.
The difference between you and someone else on the outside is that they’re able to see things you can’t and identify some problematic behaviors or mindsets you may have that are getting in the way. If you have been single for some years, newly divorced or have never been married, there may be some things you’re doing [that can move the process along] or not doing that can [hinder it]. A coach is going to be able to help you gain clarity, focus and offer you advice along the way.
Let’s say you are talking to and getting to know someone, and you need some help and real advice. Your [friends] aren’t always going to give you the best advice. They haven’t talked with tons of singles and married people. They don’t have the experience. They don’t have the information. Your family may not give you the best advice because they’re so protective over you. They don’t look at you as an adult or someone [with] certain needs. Having a third party can be [as] beneficial [as having] someone in your corner.
How long should people court before deciding to marry? Are there benefits to a short (under one month) or long (over six months) courtship?
I don’t think there is a time period on how long someone should court or not. It is entirely up to the individual. Everyone’s lifestyle and paths in life are so different. Age matters, location matters, family matters, personal needs matter. It’s really hard to put a finger on it and say, “Oh, your courtship should last this long.” Every situation is different.
I’ve seen people marry in less than a month and have been married for years, and people who courted for a few years, and they didn’t make it. [I’ve seen] the reverse [as well]. I think that you have to be aware of what you’re looking for and have discussions up front. Don’t be scared to have those conversations. Both of you have an idea of what this process and what the time frame looks like for you.
Check for milestones to see if the relationship is progressing or staying still. That will determine a lot about the length [of the courtship].
What are three important questions to ask?
There are probably a million important questions to ask in the courtship process. If I had to narrow it down to just three [that can] make a big difference:What are five of your core values?Tell me about your upbringing. What type of family were you raised in, and how did they view marriage?How do you visualize your married life? That can be a big picture that includes things like family size, location [where to live], lifestyle and how you want to interact with your spouse.
When should couples ask each other hard questions like partner roles, polygyny and sexual preferences?
I don’t think you should railroad someone with a bunch of questions in the first three-to-five conversations. You need to build trust and rapport.
So, you can weave questions in while getting to know their personality. Bombarding them with questions takes away from the connection you are trying to establish to even see if this person is going to be a good fit.
Anyone can answer questions well, but you don’t just want someone who answers questions well. You want someone who answers them truthfully and with transparency. They’re not going to do that if they don’t trust you or are open with you. For some people, [forming a trust] can take longer than others.
When should someone introduce any children from a previous marriage to their intended?
I can’t say what’s good for everyone. Courtship is not so black and white. What I would say is to wait until you feel confident that the relationship is going somewhere. It could still possibly not go anywhere.
Those who have children have to move a lot more carefully and intentionally than those who don’t. Feel out the temperature for the other person. See how that man or woman is opening up to you in regard to their children [if any]. One thing I’ve noticed is that men tend to be a lot more protective over their children. Women may be more open to introducing their children to a potential husband, but men shy away from it a lot of times.
Go with the rhythm, and ask questions like, “When would you be comfortable meeting them?” or “How would you like this process to go?” Especially for women, see how a man treats the situation. Is he trying to arrange to meet your children [or] for all of the kids [his and yours, if you both have children] to meet? Is he showing an interest in your children or in you getting to know his children? How are the discussions happening around children? See how the conversation is led to make sure both parties are open.
In some circumstances people don’t introduce their spouse to the other children. You might have two adults who are ready to get married but are not quite ready to bring the children together, because they’ve known this person for only a few months. They know they like and want to marry the other person but don’t know about the longevity. They need to feel more secure. So, they decide to do the nikkah, get married and gradually blend their families once they feel the relationship is solid. [This often occurs when] they’ve been married a few times, or their children witnessed a bad divorce. They may want to be sensitive about how they approach the situation.
The implementation of blending families depends on the needs of those families.
How much influence should relatives and friends have in the final decision to marry?
When you’re dealing with the youth (under 25) and it’s their first marriage, family influence should matter to an extent. Parents are going to want you to marry someone who fits into the culture of the family. That can mean different things, like education, class, status, religion, ethnic culture [etc.]. So, I think the family should have some influence.
I don’t think your friends should have any influence over who you marry. A lot of times people try to keep up with their friends, and your friends are going to go through stuff in their marriages as well.
Finding a partner who fits into the culture of your friends and family is important. However, how much influence your friends have [over your relationship] should be little. Your parents should have some influence, but not so much that it hinders you. You have to be clear and discerning.
How does one determine if they are being strung along?
One thing for sure is if there is no progress in the relationship.There are no milestones being met, or you’ve been talking to this person for a while, and they haven’t placed intentions. They’re not trying to set a date or are avoiding meeting your family or you meeting theirs. If they’re trying to keep the relationship just between the two of you, you’re probably being strung along.
They may avoid more intimate questions or may be vague about certain aspects of their family, life, history or background. If you do proceed with the marriage, you have to be prepared; this person is not going to be vulnerable and is probably hiding some things out of shame and guilt.
Trust your intuition and gut instinct. I can’t stress this enough, especially for women, to become more intuitive. You know when the relationship is reaching its expiration date. You know when you feel like the person is not taking the relationship seriously. So, trust the instincts Allah gave you.
What are some things one could do if a courtship doesn't work out?
If the courtship doesn’t work out and you’re really into and feel connected to the person, it’s okay to grieve the relationship. I think sometimes as Muslims we are so focused on marriage and meeting a goal that we don’t slow down enough to sit in those feelings. If you’re hurting or need a break, that’s okay. It’s okay to be angry or upset. Don’t let anyone tell you, “Oh, but you guys weren’t married, so it shouldn’t be that big a deal.” Your heart was attached to that person and probably to the outcome. You have to give yourself the opportunity to detach and grieve.
Take time for yourself. I created a 30-day detox program to rewire and re-program some subconscious beliefs that you may be bringing into a courtship that might be affecting you. [It’s a chance] to dig deeper within and become clearer and empowered to move forward and do things differently the next time around.
Check out an episode of Zara J's podcast!