Usually, from a modern perspective, arranged marriages are obsolete. We consider them a symbol of tradition, backwardness and a threat to the principles of liberalism. Arranged marriages were widely practiced in many cultures and are mentioned in many Sacred Texts and narratives although most of the time they have little to do with religion.
Within Islam the practice prevails in some countries or families. And whether this is Islamic or not, it is debatable. One always has the Islamic right to say “no” to an undesirable marriage; however, we don’t necessarily have the cultural or social capacity to do so.
In arranged marriages it is usually the family that chooses the spouse-to be. This can be good or bad depending on the situation. It can be assumed that one’s parents, who have more experience and presumably know us better than anyone, will choose an ‘appropriate’ partner. This partner will not only satisfy our personal expectations, or part of them, but also he/she will fit within our community’s larger plan or goal. Nonetheless, we also run on the issue of individuality and freedom. We wish to be able to choose by our selves, to make mistakes or to succeed individually. This is when the tension occurs: Me vs. My family/community.
From a convert’s perspective, arrange marriages tend to make us uncomfortable. On one hand many mosques run (un)successful matching programs for Muslims, but on the other we are usually at odds with the whole familiar intervention. Many of us cannot rely on our families to choose mate for us or to even support our own choice. In addition, when the topic comes up many of us wonder, ‘If my family had arranged me a marriage, chances are I wouldn’t be a Muslim… or maybe I would, but I will be divorced by now’.
With the spread of liberalism around the world, arranged marriages have been delegitimize and classified as ‘not civilized’ even in some non-Western countries. However, we usually don’t analyze what do we substitute them for? Nowadays marrying the ‘halal’ way can be done through the juxtaposition of traditional notions of engagement and the modern use of the Internet.
Online dating has become increasingly popular. One reason is the fact that the individual feels somehow in control of the matches. In addition, this can be done privately, while guaranteeing the safety of the parties involved (by this I mean, physical gender segregation, which is said to be required by Islam). Another advantage is the global reach of the Internet. One can actually meet someone from the other side or the world and ask him/her to relocate in order to marry. What is more, one can easily post a public profile, wait for the messages to come and interact with many people at the same time with no lasting commitment until the ‘one’ is found. We sometimes believe that this is a ‘halal’ way to date. Whether it is or not is a matter of debate, but that doesn’t hinder participation in these sites. As regular dating or husband/wife-shopping, there are good and bad candidates and the chances of actually knowing is someone is not well-rounded for marriage are slim. Furthermore, the lack of safety when it comes to the Internet may play against the users of dating sites.
Nevertheless, there has been a shift in the notions of engagement and marriage. While we still aim for that ‘perfect match’ and we refuse arranged marriages, or they simply haven’t provided results, we go to the computer and, as in online shopping, we look for the best bargain. There is a sense that if we are going to have an arrange marriage, with someone we barely know, it may as well be a marriage we have some input in.
Nonetheless, we are basically using a modern tool for traditional purposes. While some people may or not agree with the use of these sites, it is becoming increasingly popular among older unmarried people and converts to Islam.
The need to reflect on cultural and social practices is strong, even for converts who have never met anyone who had an arrange marriage. ‘Arranged’ in many cultures means ‘halal.’
Are we creating artificial relationships? Some may agree with this by saying that the passive involvement or passive participation in the partner-shopping process creates an artificial relationship that is not based on the most important tenets of Islam. However, we know that historically many arrange marriages have been somewhat successful, the most popular of all Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha, who is said to have been between 6 and 9 years old. Very few people would call this an artificial relationship. But again, prophets are like no other people in many ways.
In modern times, artificial relationships are quite popular. We fall in love with a guy/girl who lives in another continent through the computer, and we intentionally look for these relationships. Many may flourish others no so much. The risk of meeting someone who has shady interest on us is potentially higher than meeting someone in a coffee shop or in school. We sometimes, maintain this relationship for years until eventually one of two things must happen: to get married or move on.
There are not statistics yet on how successful people are in transitioning from an online relationship to a real life marriage. However, it is interesting to note that these people may not feel that they are participating in an arranged marriage, although some people would argue that the only difference is that the computer arranges it for you.
The line between traditional arrange marriage and online dating is still shady. However, within the Islamic context the topic requires greater attention. This is a clear example of the fact that people may want to think about themselves as very ‘modern;’ however, tradition prevails.
Perhaps modernity does not need to break with tradition, it just needs to interact with it differently.