Muslims Try to Balance Traditions, U.S. Culture on Path to Marriage

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

As imam of one of the Washington region's largest mosques, Mohamed Magid counsels married couples, including those with a problem he sees among Muslim Americans: husbands and wives who were virtual strangers before they wedded.

Islamic practice bans unsupervised dating, and in transient 2008 America, traditional Muslims may wind up far from families who once oversaw the connection of two single people. Many African American Muslims are converts and do not have Muslim relatives who can help with the process.

A few years ago, Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, started something new: required premarital counseling for people who marry at the mosque. His wife recently launched a singles program meant to honor modesty and cut to the chase: participants meet in groups to discuss scriptural problems, read stories, and make lists of what they think are the most important characteristics for a Muslim wife or husband in the United States.

Although premarital counseling and singles programs are common for some faith groups, they are new in U.S. mosques, placing Magid and his wife on the vanguard of a drive to update Muslim practices and institutions surrounding marriage. The movement stems from concern among many Muslim American leaders that families are not keeping up with cultural changes, leading people to divorce and marry multiple times, or become alienated either from Islam or from mainstream American life.

Key issues include what Islam says about interfaith marriage, how well Muslims can know each another before they marry, and what the modern version is of a "wali," or guardian, a figure in Islam who is supposed to help women pick the right husbands.

"Generation gaps, cultural differences when people from the United States marry someone from overseas, interfaith marriage -- the issue of marriage is one of the most important in Islam here right now," Magid said. "Anytime there is a program at the mosque about these things, it's completely packed."

A commonly discussed problem is the surplus of single Muslim women. This stems partly from Islamic practice's broader acceptance of men marrying outside the faith than women.

Daisy Khan, a New York activist who counsels couples with her husband, an imam, organized a Valentine's Day event for singles -- 15 men and 63 women attended. Although she used to feel torn about interfaith marriage, she is now concerned that women will either be left unmarried or leave their faith. She tries to connect Muslim couples but also thinks pious Muslim women should be able to marry non-Muslims who also are pious.

"It's my obligation to shift a little, to give a little because it's important for them to stay within the faith," she said. "You have to clear up the mandate of: What is God's mission? I see God's hand in this."

In a Pew Research Center poll of Muslim Americans released last year, 54 percent of women said interfaith marriage is acceptable, compared with 70 percent of men.

Marriage practices are a growing issue among Muslims in part because melding into the mainstream is increasingly their goal, experts said. This is true for many first- and second-generation Muslims and U.S.-born converts. It is a complex balance, however, testing relations between parents and children and within new couples.

Many Muslim dating and marriage traditions exist to promote sexual reserve, particularly among women, but in 2008, separation between potential mates has lost its cultural moorings.

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