As an aside, there may be a misnomer out there about forced arranged marriages, or worse–forced child marriages. Although, unfortunately, these practices may be found in some areas in the world, these are strictly prohibited and against all Islamic teachings and rules. Some Muslims may use these social practices in their families or cultures, but they are not derived from Islam and are actually completely opposing Islamic values. Marriage contracts conducted under these conditions are actually not deemed Islamically valid.
Getting to Know Each Other : The Courtship
Once two people are introduced or meet each other and begin “talking for marriage” or courting each other, they may embark on a relationship which mimics certain aspects of mainstream dating. They will talk to each other to get to know each other and this entails talking on the phone or going out on dates for a meal at a restaurant (sometimes with family chaperones present.) They may attend premarital counseling sessions together, may have family dinners together, and a whole range of other interactions to get to know each other.
At this stage in their courtship, it is likely that the individuals are interacting with each other more informally or casually than they usually would with other members of the opposite gender and are becoming emotionally attached to each other. The biggest differences from mainstream contemporary dating which are most likely present in a Muslim couple who are testing out the waters to see if they think they’ll be compatible for marriage and attracted to each other are: the extent of their emotional commitment, the extent and intensity of their conversations and interactions, and the lack of any physical intimacy (like holding hands, hugging, kissing, etc.) Does this sound a bit like a Jane Austen novel or movies with a prince or princess set “once upon a time, long, long ago?” Well–yeah, that’s spot on, actually.
While Muslims are courting, what exactly are they looking for in their spouses? Literally anything and everything–but the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, suggested two traits to look for. He said that being “pleased” with a prospective spouse’s “religion and character” are enough to qualify them to be a great spouse [Jami` at-Tirmidhi 1085]. With those two considerations hopefully prioritized above all else, things like age, cultural background, mutual interests/hobbies, personality traits, chemistry/attraction, and others come into play.
Moving on from Courtship : Reaching a Decision
Once the relatively short courtship phase is over, a couple of months or less often running from a couple dates to a couple years, the individuals decide whether to move forward and get married or to step back and end their relationship. Many couples have spent enough time getting to know each other to the extent that they can decide whether or not they want to get married to each other. If they have decided to get married, they’ll either get quickly engaged, or even married. For couples who end up getting engaged, you may also be surprised at how short their engagements may be, a couple months or a few years. That may sound pretty fast compared to the marriage timelines of other couples, which may entail five years of dating and a two-year engagement before they’re finally married. Having the clear purpose of marriage makes space for frank discussions about life goals, future plans, and expectations each person has in their future marriage. Early family involvement can also help make the process easier with a handful of people interacting with and vetting a prospective spouse.
If the couple has decided they don’t want to get married to each other, whether it’s one individual or both who’ve come to that conclusion, they’ll just split up and go their separate ways. This is something like a breakup, but more likely than not, the individuals haven’t spent that much time and energy on each other and although it can be difficult, it is much more simple and easy to handle than a breakup after years of serious dating/living together that many Americans who aren’t Muslims experience. Sometimes individuals may take a recovery berak before they hit the marriage hunt again, sometimes they’ll be ready to move on immediately to the next person who comes their way.
Islam has its own version of courtship which helps Muslims interested in getting married find their spouses. Within the boundaries of wanting to enter into a relationship only to soon get married and having family members involved in the process, Muslims are able to abide by the Islamic guidelines of interacting with the opposite gender while seeking out a meaningful connection with their spouse-to-be.