Thursday, March 30

All the Single Muslims

(Blog title shamelessly ripped off from the recent Extremely British Muslims here)

I mentioned in a previous post how I had recently discovered a vocabulary/language/framing that I found to be quite useful in thinking about some of the trials and tribulations suffered by those looking for a partner in these modern times. In that article I alluded to some of the more unique or specific scenarios that single Muslims are subject to and as promised here is the follow up post hoping to discuss that further. To recap though, those looking for a partner generally fall on a scale between two extremes:

  • The Companionates, who are looking for something a little more practical and measurable.
  • The Passionates, who are looking for something a little less describable and more subjective.

I'd recommend having a skim of the last post if you wanted more detail on the two groups. The important thing to note is that companionate and passionate concerns largely lie on the same axis and it's difficult if not impossible to reconcile the two. Feedback from the last post suggests that many don't agree, and if you're one of them the following probably won't hold much water for you either. In fact in many ways the manner in which some people claim that the two are orthogonal is the essence of my post below. Not that may smack of some kind of personal post-justified confirmation bias but hey, that's why this is a blog and not an academic paper.

I'll start with Identity. We all have one. Sometimes we choose what makes it up, sometimes that happens naturally via osmosis or upbringing. As we get older, we get more control over it. Muslims are generally taught to make Islam a large part of their primary identities. There are well defined concepts of brotherhood, community and character and with Islam being a largely scriptural religion a lot of things have been modeled for us, not many less so than marriage. In essence, marriage in Islam is naturally companionate and we are taught what to value and look for, and what to offer in return.

This isn't necessarily an issue (and perhaps even made things easier during simpler times), except for the desire for (or pressure placed on) many to embrace more identities alongside that of Islam. There seems to be a natural drive to be more than just an individual of a single dimension but the trouble here is that as with most things, identity is a finite measure and has a capacity, and each component we wish to add to it takes up some of that capacity at the expense of stuff that's already there - in fact we're often explicitly told to ignore any limits we might have or compromises we'd be making, and the result is a struggle to reconcile some quite disparate internal agendas. This struggle manifests itself in the issues some face in our workplaces, in our more social settings and (as you might have guessed by now) in our marriages and relationships. And I should be clear here: having multidimensional and multifaceted identities isn't in itself a bad thing, provided that the implications are acknowledged. Unfortunately they are more than often not.

With respect to marriage most requirements from the non Islamic part of ones identity will almost certainly be passionate in nature - for example a man might be less expected to fulfill what would have been seen as an Islamic duty to provide. Potentially, partners might not even need to be Muslim in the first place. In other words, the companionate requirements due to the Islamic identity should, in theory anyway, be replaced by the more passionate demands introduced.

And this is where the first obstacle might be seen: the Muslim identity is a powerful one and difficult to overtly compromise on, particularly when third parties become involved. Some have a tough time accepting the fact that if they want to embrace new identities in themselves, then they will have to compromise on their existing Islamic identities as well as compromise on the level of Islamic identity they expect in others. As a result they are left with two sets of requirements, one companionate and the other passionate... and we already know that that's the easiest way to have a very difficult time in the search. It seems like most caught in this trap are passionates on the surface, but can't quite let go of their ingrained companionate requirements. Worse still, the companionate demands tend to be requested and not offered, with the subject offering only passionate fulfillment in return. For the opposite party, whether companionate and passionate, this will never be seen as a fair trade.

Otherwise the observations are the same as in non-Muslim interactions: there seem to be more Passionate types than Companionate (at least overtly), with the latter knowing what they have to give to get and the former taking more of a "let's see what happens" approach. The twist is that many want and want to be both, the end result being complaints about candidates either "not wanting to fulfill their responsibilities" or "with whom a click isn't found", the irony being that in some ways these two requirements will always be diametrically opposed (at least during the search itself). The search for a passionate also demands a flexibility in dating that many believe their faith might have a positive view of: intimacy, co-habitation and the like.

Apart from the mismatch between passionate and companionate requirements, this "identity dissonance" also manifests in other ways. Progressive individualism contradicts the more traditional communalism many also seem to want, and we're left in a situation where every party is looking for someone to subsume rather than join. Differing concepts of chastity and morality also tend to add confusion, resulting in marriage sites which blur photos (demanded by a companionate, but scorned by a passionate) and mass marriage events - something I believe can only be seen in the Muslim demographic.

These internal conflicts have brought challenges and problems that still haven't quite been solved, and indeed seem to be the root of many issues seen in the Muslim demographic elsewhere. Coming back to this specific topic however, it seems the only perceived answer is to somehow conjure up a notion of Halal-yet-passionate boy/girlfriend type relationships which seems extremely difficult if not impossible to implement. It's then not that surprising there's a bit of a crisis.

Or is it really that impossible? Perhaps Islam has already dealt with this very issue by default. If so the real solution might be for those in the conflicted position to figure out exactly which companionate requirements they genuinely want and then to make those abundantly clear - and once formalised in a legal way to then focus on the less objective stuff. That in itself sounds like the companionate search, except one that forces each as individuals to decide for themselves where those requirements actually lie.

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