TYSONS CORNER, Va. – When Sumayyah Baig’s family and friends tried to set her up with eligible Muslim men she might marry, they focused on all sorts of attributes: the men’s professions, their family backgrounds, their ethnicity.
But Baig didn’t care about any of that. All she wanted was a person she would click with, who would share her values. “I didn’t care what nationality the person was. I just wanted them to have the same belief system,” she said.
When sparks finally flew for Baig and a man with whom she was matched, it wasn’t over a traditional coffee at her parents’ house – it was on Snapchat.
And she met the man, now her husband, thanks to one of the online services springing up to cater to American Muslims like Baig, who want to marry fellow Muslims but don’t want their parents setting them up.
“Being an American Muslim, being, I would say, an independent, I would think liberal, Muslim woman – that wasn’t really a method that worked for me,” Baig said. Instead, she signed up for Beyond Chai, a Muslim matchmaking service run by a team of Internet-savvy young Muslim adults based in the Washington area.
Beyond Chai and other Muslim dating services are seeing a surge of interest right now, as they cater to a generation hovering in between two norms – not interested in the customs their immigrant parents followed in the Muslim world, but also uninterested in finding a non-Muslim partner on a general-interest dating app.
Some young Muslims, who might have once considered marrying outside their faith, have become increasingly interested in finding a partner who shares their religion due to the political focus on Muslims in America in the past two years, the people behind these dating services say.
“I think what happens in any community that’s under attack is people pull back into that community,” said Haroon Mokhtarzada, the CEO of Minder, an app named because it strives to be a sort of Muslim Tinder. “People kind of double down on their identity when it’s under attack. . .. ‘Maybe I wasn’t actually that serious about that. But I am Muslim. This is me. I need someone else who’s also proud to be part of my group.'”
Beyond Chai, founded two years ago, saw a surge of interest after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who said “I think Islam hates us” and proposed banning Muslims from the country while on the campaign trail, then ordered a ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries just days after becoming president. In the past six months, membership in the matchmaking service has nearly doubled.
“I think what’s happened in light of what’s going on in the U.S. today . . . Muslim professionals, whether they’re practicing or not, they wanted to really reevaluate their identity and see what’s important to them,” said Sadia Khan, one of the company’s professional matchmakers, at a team meeting in Tysons recently.
Dating is a tricky subject for many Muslims. In much of the Muslim world, the concept of going on dates with different people to select the one you’ll eventually marry is unheard of. Some Muslims only approve of chaperoned dates; many believe in waiting for physical intimacy until after marriage.
But a matchmaking system based on fathers seeking daughters’ husbands that developed in the Muslim world doesn’t work as well for women who are in their 20s or 30s and usually have university degrees and successful careers before they start looking for a husband.
Mokhtarzada thinks the way to balance religious piety and modern sophistication is his app.
“A lot of these Muslim women, they haven’t actually had a lot of deep, intimate interactions with males. This kind of creates a safe space to have closer interactions: basically a chat room on the app, with people they match with,” he said. “Religiously, there’s no good reason that people shouldn’t be going and meeting different people, especially because they aren’t getting physically involved necessarily. It’s just on the app.”
That was the pattern Baig followed when Beyond Chai paired her up with her now-husband. They started out just by texting, and she immediately recognized that he shared her unusually blunt, frank demeanor. Then they moved to phone calls, then Skype. Soon they were sharing snippets of their day by Snapchat constantly. He saw her condo and her roommates. She let him see her at the end of the day when her makeup was gone; he showed himself sweaty after a soccer game. By the time he traveled from San Francisco to meet her in Chicago in person, they’d already fallen for each other. After a few months of back-and-forth visits, they married.
She credits a service focused on both compatibility and religiosity with making the perfect match for her. “When you make a decision, I need to know where you’re coming from,” she said, explaining why she knew she wanted to marry a fellow Muslim. “I think that my life is based off of this empowerment that I’ve gotten from my faith.”
Ayesha Maqsood, 28, said she, too, has been turned off by the impersonal-seeming process of the matchmaking “aunties” her parents know, but wants to find a Muslim husband.
“I’m not the most religious person,” she said. “But eventually one day I want to raise my kids how I was raised, in the Muslim faith. I want a partner who can share that with me. My parents, they’re a bit more old-school. They’d prefer someone Pakistani like I am. I don’t necessarily need that. I can marry someone black, white, Asian, Arab, just as long as they share the Muslim faith with me.”
Maqsood, who said she has completed medical school and is now getting an MBA, has tried meeting men on Minder. After her cousin got married to someone Beyond Chai matched him with, she joined the service a month and a half ago. She trusts the Beyond Chai matchmakers, who are all in their 30s, more than the “aunties” of her parents’ generation.
“Someone closer to your own age, who’s been through the process, they’d be more understanding of my situation and what I was going through,” she said.
The matchmakers say they’ve successfully paired off people of all ages and situations, from single parents to divorcés to widowed grandparents. (The one group not included in either Minder or Beyond Chai: gay Muslims.) Most of their clients are young adults, though. They seek matches for them within their database of fellow clients, and they add as many non-clients to their database as possible, by asking people to provide their information at major Muslim conventions and partnering with other matchmaking services and Muslim organizations.
Sometimes it takes personal outreach – for a client who wanted to marry a fellow Somali, matchmaker Saman Quraeshi said she recently found herself texting friends around the country looking for entrées to Somali communities.
Sitting around a table in the co-working space they sometimes rent in Tysons, the matchmakers take turns pulling profiles up on a projector screen. Abeer Ayaz asks for suggestions for someone to pair up with a 31-year-old Pakistani-American engineer living in Sterling, Virginia. “I think we need a bubbly, fun-loving type,” she said. “We have one girl. She’s in California.”
“Is she open to relocating?” Quraeshi asked.
“She wants to be near the city because cities are fun. That was something she told me,” Ayaz said. She pulled the woman’s profile up on the screen, showing a photograph of her smiling under an ancient archway.
“He said he’s a ‘museum rat,’ a history nerd,” Quraeshi read from the man’s profile, then turned back to the California woman’s photo. “I feel like he would dig this picture.”
One of the six matchmakers around the table suggested another woman, who at 34 was out of the engineer’s preferred age range. Then another matchmaker suggested a 29-year-old in Dallas.
“Ohhh, she’s actually a museum educator,” Ayaz gushed. “The ultimate museum rat.”
That was that. With a few clicks, they’d soon be introduced to each other. Another match, perhaps, had just been made.