Recently I suggested Muslims rethink how they do marriage, or else. Specifically: “All that is solid” - how Marx captured our age - “melts into air.” We are not immune by virtue of our desire to be. Some readers were appreciative. More sat on the edge of their chairs, fingers dancing over the freshly buttered popcorn.
“You opened a door,” one commentator sighed, “but dare you describe the room you’d like us to see?” Since few things irk me more than people who tear down but do not build up, this particular complaint stung. And stuck. After all, it’s one thing to like someone. Another thing to tell her.
What follows are five points for how Muslims might adjust their approach.
I. You can’t buy her, but you can buy her flowers
For our values to survive, they must be practicable. Make people marriageable.
Societies in which economic opportunity gets monopolized are societies in which people aren’t. Islamic finance can be summed up so: Everyone gets a shot. Or, Islam’s a Persian rug: Tug too hard at one end and the whole thing unravels.
I can also personally assure you that publicly tugging at any part of a rug will make you less marriageable.
II. Everyone is special, except you
Once you talk about something, you make it less terrifying. Are you a young Muslim struggling with desire? Are your parents opposed to what you want, or shall I say who you want? What happens when you think you’ve found the right person? We need safe spaces to air out our anxieties and answer our questions. We need to have conversations. We need to get people talking.
Entirely relatedly, the world’s most stilted discussions about the birds and the bees happen among South Asians, a people who incidentally reproduce with alarming frequency.
Food for thought.
Or, as graduate students live it, thought instead of food.
III. Engendering socialization
Is there anything less conducive to romance than the word “socialization?” No wonder we’re so often a disaster—in severely gender-segregated spaces, the opposite sex is experienced like an alien landing.
My concern: Where do Muslim men and women meet? What do they do when they meet up? When you are a minority especially, this is a big deal.
And, for God’s sake, brother, do not at any point in the evening call her “sister.”
I’ll see your friend zone, Max Lindenman, and raise you an eternal awkward.
IV. Shariah compliancy on the street. Fitnah in the bedroom
Maybe you’ve met a potential match. Think on it.
What turns us on will not make us fall in love or stay the course - let alone define the course. Before I’m misinterpreted: You should be attracted to the person you’re going to marry. But lust does not pass merely because you’ve collected a nikah certificate; get married, it turns out, and you could die fasting anyway.
The reasons someone takes someone to bed - not what I am suggesting you do - are not the foundations on which a durable relationship is built. Race, class, ethnicity, aspiration, personality, health insurance plans, hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties, baseline sanity, body odor - these can hurt or harm a marriage. Of course different people can get married, though in our initial enthusiasms we may overestimate our ability to handle difference.
What will never work, however, is staying mum about the various camels, elephants, and radicalized uncles in the room, while expecting things to work out all the same.
Come to think of it, you should probably also work out.
V. Cuddling with no one
The upside to cultures that teach us to express our love and sexuality in committed partnerships is clear—we enter these pairings less dented by bitterness. I’m still stunned by how jaded young Americans are, and equally by how blithely they continue throwing themselves into experiences that only burn; see Pamela Paul’s Pornified or Freitas and Winters’ Sex and the Soul.
Too, as Nathan Harden tells us in Sex and God at Yale, casual sexuality creates neurological bonds, felt intensely emotionally, not easily erased and critically not meant to be. There’s not just niceness but healthiness to naïveté qua virginity. Though we must recognize that such optimism may mean we may seek in marriage what it cannot or should not give us, such as a perduring answer to loneliness.
A few weeks ago, someone asked me what he should look for in a spouse. “Someone you can be honest with. About who you were, who you are, and most importantly, who you want to be.” A healthy relationship realizes vulnerability—I can be myself with her—and ambitious reliance—she makes me (want to be) better—and principled empowerment—I am stronger with her, not despite her.
Resilient people make for resilient relationships. Fragile people create fragile relationships.
But how would you know that if, as a friend put it, you are - speaking generally, I hope - “man virgins,” grown physically while inexperienced romantically? Because the first relationship may be the relationship, you should realize that you bring luggage overstuffed with your insecurities to every attraction. The least you can do is be ready. We learn through experience. But also by interrogating ourselves: Who are we, what do we want, what would we compromise on and what would we never compromise on? Forthrightness - especially with ourselves - enables this, and best so if the courage to so do is instilled in us when we are children.
Fret not, if not it appears too late.
God willing, you can pass the lesson on one day.
Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul