September 19, 2008

Motionless Journey I: A Dawning Reality

I was always a bit naïve when it came to the way things worked in love and life. I was born and raised in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, but somehow felt that really, the society around me didn't tread too far away from our traditions of marriage and companionship. The process was a bit different, but the goals were ultimately the same.

I always assumed that what I saw on sitcoms, where characters would have a new girlfriend or boyfriend every week or two (or sometimes several in one episode), was purely fiction. Or, if not fiction, then more a product of American society, and not at all reflective of my image of pure, pristine Canada. A completely different world, I thought! In Canada, any relationship between a boy and a girl was just the precursor to marriage and traditional, suburban life. Kids, minivans, and problems that are solved in thirty minutes minus commercials.

I am not sure how I managed all those years being so aloof. What really went on around me, among my friends and classmates at the time, was quite far off from my understanding. Eventually, friends would confide in me with their stories, and I was quietly horrified by the clearly foolish decisions they made. I didn't understand how people could be so negligent of their own realities.

As I grew up and began living on my own, I became much more appreciative of the traditional rishta system of family and marriage; when executed in conjunction with the rest of Islamic principles, it actually worked. During my early university years, there was no pressure, and I was free from the stress that complex emotional relationships bring while navigating through my engineering degree. I understood that everything had a time, and my time was not soon. I didn't need to worry.

Of course, things changed, and MSA began consuming a good chunk of my time. And of course, late night discussions with fellow MSA brothers would invariably lead to discussions about marriage. The popular opinion was that the system was "broken" in North America, or that it was, at best, an unsolved problem. I observed with great curiosity as others took their steps on that path, many unsuccessfully. I kept myself comfortably distanced, making mental notes of every mistake I caught and every good idea I witnessed.

The stories I heard were not uncommon; issues with potential in-laws, conflicting ambitions, incompatible cultures, distance, et cetera. None of these seemed all that threatening to me, having heard much worse from my high school days. I didn't find the system to be broken, per se, as rarely did any of these incidents leave lasting emotional scars. In the entire journey, they were mere blips, frustrating only for those who expected instant results.

A broken system, in my mind, involved men and women scouting singles bars, drowning their inhibitions to score for a night, without much thought about the days or weeks after. A broken system makes "commitment" a bad word. A broken system involves suppressing your good conscience via intoxication or ignorance, letting animalistic desire take over. A broken system includes "relationship experts" who can't get their own act together, let alone advise others. Just by providing me the foresight and tools to avoid all this, I qualified our pseudo-Islamic-but-largely-cultural system, even in North America, as functional and credible.

I remember watching an episode of Frasier one day. The ongoing storyline in that series involved the infatuation of Frasier's brother Niles with the housekeeper Daphne. Eventually, Niles won the object of his affection, and at some point had this conversation with his brother:
Niles: I think we may be taking our relationship to the next level.

Frasier: Oh, my God, Niles! You're going to propose?

Niles: No, not that level, the level before that.

Frasier: You're going to ask her to move in with you?

Niles: One more level before that.

Frasier: Well, you're already dating...

Niles: No, that's two levels.

Frasier: Oh, for heaven's sake, just tell me!

Niles: Well, you know. We're going to... consummate our relationship.
According to this exchange, the sequence is as follows:
  1. Dating
  2. Consummation
  3. Living together
  4. Engagement / Marriage
The model is almost a complete reversal of the Islamic model. Thinking about all the stories I heard from friends and colleagues who attempted to exercise this model, it always struck me as stupid - as evidenced by a success rate that would barely qualify as a passing grade in the substandard Ontario school system.

I would have thought that, at some point, people would have re-evaluated this process and realized it needed tweaking. No high-performing business would maintain a business model that yielded such a high failure rate. In any productive society, the family is the most fundamental structure, and should thus be built on the most solid foundations. Exposing the family to this much risk is not enlightenment, it is simply poor planning.

When I think about the quality of most of the Muslim brothers and sisters I have known over the years, particularly those born and raised in the West, I can only conclude that the traditional system works reliably. These wonderful people I have known are the products of this system, and many have already established families of their own. Yes, we complain about the actual search for a spouse being difficult and convoluted, but this is only one stage in a much larger process. In the context of the lifetime influences this system has on us, we should feel extremely grateful. Life could have been so much more complicated.

The West introduced first generation Canadian Muslims like myself to a system which appeared liberating, exciting, and emotionally gratifying. In reality, it's not any of these things. It's much more of an unsolved problem than Muslim marriage in the West, inefficient and prone to failure. While things are not always perfect in every Muslim household, the traditional Muslim family structure is still something to cherish and be proud of. Certainly, things can always be improved, but nothing in life is easy; furthermore, if things were too easy, we would have no appreciation for it. The day we recognize how fortunate we are to have our convoluted system is the day our own journey becomes smoother.

The steps to achieving that realization, of course, are not always smooth in itself. A few stories in particular helped shape my understanding, and continue to help forge my path forward. To be eventually continued...


  1. This is brilliant... care to share w/ MM? Seriously, this is awesome - as an experienced bonafide product of Canadian Muslim society, you have insights into so many things that I'm still clueless about. JazakAllahu khairan!

  2. BTW, your post is great for going hand-in-hand with Sheikh Yaser Birjas's Marriage Revolution project, esp. the episode about what goes on in men's heads! (Ironically, that's the episode I missed :( )

  3. I understand your opinion. And I do support the notion that the western mentality of finding your "soulmate" is essentially flawed. Well, perhaps "flawed" is an understatement. It's downright ridiculous and only causes people social and psychological problems.

    However, you can't say that the "rishta" system (as practiced by most) isn't equally flawed - yes, equally flawed. Perhaps its flaws are different, they go by different names and are under various guises.

    Before anything, I assume the "rishta" system is confined to the Indian subcontinent. Not all Muslim families follow this bio-data-centered approach to finding a spouse. Let's not make generalizations about a population that's very heterogeneous. There is no one "traditional system."

    Muslims have battered the Islamic system. It's no longer Islamic. It's based on the superficialities of education, wealth, status, fairness, and MORE. And this most definitely is not confined to the South Asian community. Sometimes people think they're practicing in accordance with the sunnah, but they aren't really. And in reality, getting married is a process that is very difficult for most people. It shouldn't ideally be difficult as it is, but it is.

    And even after that first step of marriage - when people think suddenly their life problems are over - there are so many issues of contention, in terms of relationship after marriage, in-laws, etc. Some people get lucky, and have a decently smooth relationships. Most don't. I've seen enough of my friends' divorces and marriage troubles to know that dichotomizing the western system as bad and the "eastern" system as good, is a perverse over-simplification. When we talk about marriage, we can't just talk about the before stages. It includes the years you spend together, and all the un-Islamicness that ensues within that time as well.

    That being said, when putting the Islamic method of spouse-hunting in practice - and I mean the real, true, unadulterated Islamic method - I do believe the outcomes can only be good.

  4. AnonyMouse: Oh good, I thought I wasn't going to get comments here!

    I didn't catch any of the Marriage Revolution seminars as I have been quite overwhelmed last few weeks / months with work and life.

    As far as MM is concerned, well, I have more to add to this topic; I expect it to be three parts in the end. Hopefully I can write a second part on Friday, and then a final part on the Friday after that. It may become so ludicrous and uninformed that it deserves no place among the fine work of the MuslimMatters staff.

    Asmaa: You're right, I have a bias with the South Asian system (which I've called a "pseudo-Islamic-but-largely-cultural" system in this post). I would offer a longer reply, but I intend to address most of your points in my next post. Stay tuned insha-Allah.

  5. Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatuLlah

    I didn't realize there was much activity on this side of the world wide web, but glad to see that there is and even more so to read this piece which reflects a writing style I haven't seen here for a while (this comment isn't meant to offend, just a mere note).

    I don't have much knowledge nor an opinion on the matter, but I do agree with some of Asmaa's sentiments and look forward to reading your follow up post to this, insha'Allah!

    Now I think there was another post that I did have an opinion about so I'll go and make some noise there. :)

  6. The problem with that sequence of events Niles refers to is the chosen step 2. I mean, "consummation" means completion. It should be somewhere at the end. Apparently having sex with someone isn't such a big deal in western culture. The idea of dating before engagement isn't preposterous though. It makes sense to go from smallest amount of commitment to largest. The idea that sleeping with someone is a small matter is really a very skewed and ugly thing. Even that romantic notion that sex is something people save for their one true love has been thrown out the window for something even more stupid, this almost robotic idea that since sex is just a method to release endorphins, if two people want it, then have at it.

    My view is that there is no right way or better way to find someone. They're all terrible. Some are just more deeply corrupt and that makes it harder to see its flaws. Some people have great marriages and dated and lived together for years prior to engagement. Then you have some 'arranged' marriages that work out wonderfully. Then you have all of the obvious failed, dysfunctional marriages. But how many people might be having unhappy marriages but are so proud of themselves for doing it the 'right' way, almost like they made some great self-sacrifice in letting someone else decide for them. I'm sure there are many unhappy marriages where the spouses refuse to admit to themselves that they even made a poor choice or that the system failed them. Couples stay together because it just seems wrong to divorce.

    The only successful way is to deeply open your heart to Allah and pray that Allah takes cares of it for you. Allah's selected partner for you will be the best choice. This technique in itself is vague, so I'm not sure exactly how one does it, but that has to be the only way that could work. How do you know Allah won't affect you by inspiration and lead you to the right person, while your parents are giving you other options? Naturally, you figure what Allah would want is for you to listen to your parents, right? There's no way to know. Ultimately, you'll have to do what you do.

    In conclusion, the process of finding someone isn't even important. The process of finding yourself is important and that will be between you and Allah.

  7. Asmaa / Farzeen: Sorry I haven't followed up yet, I've been busy with the last few days of Ramadhan and a major inside-out cleanup of my apartment.

    But I just want to mention one thing; don't you feel grateful that the worst issues that we generally deal with are mostly minor inconviences, and not issues of adultery or abortions or drug use? I think that's something to be proud of.

    Shan: Yeah, I see #2 as the problem here. From the stories I've heard, it often even leapfrogs dating - a drunken party puts two people together who debate afterward whether they're actually interested in dating each other, or just share the occasional "quickie". This appears to be more common than I'm willing to believe.

    There is no universally acknowledged Islamic procedure as far as I know, but there are established Islamic principles that we should adhere to. And if our procedures operate within the framework of these principles, then it might work. But I'm not married, so I probably have no idea what I'm actually talking about.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. I am grateful. You're right, the issues are fairly minute, comparatively. Nonetheless, I look forward to your next post :D

  10. Shan: ...this almost robotic idea that since sex is just a method to release endorphins, if two people want it, then have at it.

    Contraception has been a big factor in this reasoning. There was once an article on Digg in which a woman explained the details of her longtime incestuous relationship with her brother. One of the first Digg commenters wrote, "any consensual relationship is completely harmless" (a comment "dugg" nearly 600 more times than it was "buried"), with others adding the caveat that as long as they use protection to avoid conceiving children with congenital defects, then what's the harm?

    Basically, people feel that, if they're not harming anyone else, people can do whatever they like. Which is, arguably, an understandable position to take if you answer to no divine authority or subscribe to any established moral frameworks. But it's frightening how far along this line of reasoning can go. If you don't have any shame, do as you like.

  11. Eid Mubarak!

    May Allah bless you with happiness, love and peace.

    i've just discovered ur blog, n i'm just lovin' it!

    regards from Poland

  12. Amina: Welcome to my blog! Glad you enjoyed your stay. :)

  13. As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

    Just out of interest, are you married yourself?

  14. Yusuf: Nope. Not yet, anyway.