Mukarram Shah wants to get married, but finding a spouse has been a challenge.
Like many Washington area singles, the 32-year-old Gaithersburg resident has a demanding job that leaves him with little time to socialize -- he works 60 hours a week as a computer database engineer.
But the biggest obstacle to meeting eligible women is his religion. As a Muslim, Shah is not allowed to date. Islamic law forbids any kind of physical intimacy between a man and a woman before marriage, as well as any rendezvous that could lead to such contact.
So how will he find love? Shah is pinning his hopes on Zawaj.com.
The Web site is one of dozens offering matchmaking services to Muslim men and women. For a monthly fee, the sites provide chat rooms where Muslim singles can get to know each other without violating the teachings of their faith.
"Without these Web sites, what are my chances of meeting people? None," Shah said. "It's just a way to come across people with the [same] religion and culture. . . . It makes it easier. And obviously, you are not going to do any physical stuff."
Like other online dating services, the Muslim Web sites ask their members to post photos, biographical profiles and descriptions of what they are looking for in a spouse. But instead of moving quickly to the dating stage, the user of a Muslim site typically spends weeks or months exchanging comments online with a potential mate before deciding whether to seek a meeting.
The next step is for the couple to meet in the presence of family members, friends or the leader of a mosque. If that goes well, they will set up other chaperoned meetings that could lead to an engagement. They are not allowed to be alone together until after they are engaged.
Shah has met four women in the two years he has been using Zawaj.com and other sites. The first three relationships did not work out, he said, but the fourth woman is someone he would like to see again. He started Internet contact with her in October and flew to Los Angeles last weekend for their first meeting, spending six hours with her and her parents.
"It's a very good prospect. I made a follow-up call, and I'm waiting to hear from them," Shah said last week.
Not all Muslims interpret the rule against social interaction with the opposite sex in the same way. But there is wide consensus among U.S. Muslim clergy that Western-style dating is forbidden, and many even disapprove of a social telephone conversation between a man and a woman because "the voice can be sexually arousing," said Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam at Georgetown University.
The matrimonial Web sites, however, are quickly gaining acceptance even among conservative Muslims, according to Islamic scholars and local imams.
Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, said he has received many requests to serve as an intermediary for Muslim couples who have gotten to know each other through the Web, and he has rarely heard anyone in the Muslim community object to the online courtships.
"There are few other ways to be intimate without being inappropriate, no doubt," he said. The Web sites "give opportunity for people across the spectrum from all backgrounds, from all locations to meet and engage in an open, honest discussion without violating what they believe would be the rules of Islam."
Traditionally, single Muslim men and women have learned about prospective spouses through family connections. If a man noticed an eligible woman in a public setting -- at a workplace or a mosque, for example -- he would then try to arrange a chaperoned meeting, usually by contacting her parents. The Internet system gives single adults more independence and control in the courtship process, although parents still play an important role in approving an engagement.
Zawaj.com, based in Oakland, Calif., is one of the oldest of the Web sites. Its founder, Wael Abdelgawad, said 30,000 Muslims have signed up since he launched the service in 1998, and about 6,000 use the site on any given day.
Abdelgawad said about half of the site's members live in the United States, and a significant number are in Canada and Britain. But the site also has members in predominantly Muslim countries, including Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, he said.
Zawaj means "marriage" in Arabic. Another popular site is Naseeb.com, which was launched last year (naseeb means "fulfilling one's destiny" in Arabic).
The Internet conversations, by putting the emphasis on a love interest's personality and mind rather than on his or her looks, are very much in tune with Muslim culture, Abdelgawad added.
"It's not about falling in love; it's about meeting someone who is compatible and has the same goals in life and then getting married," he said. "Love grows, if you have things in common and you have the same goals in life. The whole concept of falling in love and the romantic whirlwind, it's a Western concept and it's a concept that doesn't necessarily exist in the Muslim world."
Hana Baba, a radio talk show host for the Sterling-based Islamic Broadcasting Network, said she and her future husband spent years talking to each other online about current events and theological issues before he finally asked if they could meet.
Despite the nontraditional way they met, her mother was excited about the match, Baba said.
"We got to see the whole inside of each other before the outside," she said. "It's really an acceptable alternative -- it's Internet dating Islamic-style. And the parents are okay with it, as long as you are not touching and doing stuff."
Sara Siddiqui, 28, of Crystal City said her mother, who lives in Pakistan, signed her up on muslimmatrimonial.com.
"My mom is actually the one who is screening [the men]; I'm too busy," said Siddiqui, an admissions adviser at Devry University. "In this country, everyone is so spread out, and we can't really date . . . so the sites are a big breakthrough because, for someone in my situation, it hasn't been easy to meet someone."
Using an online service is no guarantee of success, of course. Siddiqui had three words to describe her encounters so far: "Not too good."
Adults who work with Islamic youth also note that the Web sites do not address the problems faced by Muslim American teenagers, who are growing up in a country where movies, television and pop music -- as well as their peers at school -- constantly present an ideal of romantic fulfillment through dating. Baba said that dealing with the temptations of adolescence is the most frequent topic on her talk show for Muslim teenage girls.
Several girls who belong to Muslim youth groups in Northern Virginia said their faith is tested every spring during prom season. Conservative Muslims see the prom as a forbidden form of social interaction between the two sexes.
"Everybody's just talking about prom in class," said Mouna Kamoun, 17, a junior at Herndon High School and one of several girls who said they agonized over whether to attend their school's dance. "I mean, you are in high school; it's the topic. You want to do it. . . . But when it comes to it, your religion basically has to outweigh" desire.
Kamoun said she and her parents ultimately agreed that going to the Herndon High prom, which was being held this weekend, would violate the rules against physical intimacy. Besides, she said, her religion instructs women to clothe themselves almost completely, and "it's really hard to find a dress that would cover me. Everything's sleeveless or too short."
Looking ahead to marriage, several of the girls said they planned to rely on their families rather than the Internet to find a husband.
"So many people think it's an arranged marriage because parents have so much to do with it," said Afra Khan, 16, a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. "But it's not. . . . It's much more of two families coming together."
Wafa Unus, 17, a junior at Herndon High, agreed. "I don't think dating is essential for meeting someone," she said.
But she conceded that she occasionally struggles with boy issues. Like any teenager, she said, she has developed crushes. And because of her religion, she has had to suppress those feelings.
"A lot of Islam is patience," she said.