Is dating and having relationships totally forbidden in Islam?
I will start with a description of an example scenario of the way dating and relationships work in Islam, then will clarify the Islamic stance. If a woman works somewhere, and there is a man there that she likes and who likes her, and both of them want to enjoy a relationship with each other, Islam asks them to get their families involved and work toward getting married.
The time between knowing someone and marrying them could be years. When two people are interested in each other, Islam does not strictly prescribe how they should behave with one another. The two people are expected to get their families involved, and to have a polite and formal relationship with one another, until the marriage takes place.
Depending on the culture, the couple may be allowed to see each other often; for example the man may visit the woman’s family and see her there once or twice a week. This is how dating works among conservative Iranian families. Once the nikah takes place (the official engagement ceremony), but before the wedding, they are allowed to spend time alone outside, going to cafes and restaurants for example, and it is accepted of them to be in constant contact with each other, such as through their phones. But they are not expected to be sexually intimate until after the wedding.
Therefore the Islamic way of dating is as follows. This is the Iranian solution (which is perfectly acceptable in Sunni Islam as well) which allows for dating before the wedding. Note that this is not a loophole, this is perfectly in accordance with Islamic manners:
- The man and woman know each other, either as family friends, coworkers or classmates, and both show interest in marrying the other (or the man is interested in marrying her).
- The man approaches the woman’s family in an official proposal ceremony. If the man doesn’t know the woman’s family at all, he may get her family’s contact information and set up an official meeting with them. The woman will tell her family about it, and in this way it is set up. The man visits the woman’s family accompanied by some of his own family, and in this way the two families get to know one another.
- If everything goes well, the man and woman maintain a formal and polite relationship, although it is not expected to be as formal as that between strangers. The man may visit the woman’s family occasionally. The two families work toward setting up a nikah ceremony.
- The nikah takes place. The relationship between the man and the woman becomes religiously officiated by a cleric. They are not married yet culturally. They are allowed to date and to be in contact, similar to a Western-style relationship (without sexual intimacy).
- The wedding takes place, after which they are a married couple.
There are all kinds of subtleties involved with this process, and Islam does not strictly prescribe the exact way it is carried out, as long as there is no intimacy before the nikah.
Within the Islamic system, people are discouraged to become intimate emotionally before the nikah, although there is no punishment for this within Islam, so it is not considered a crime, it is considered a breach of good manners and etiquette that could have harmful consequences, so that a person who truly fears God would avoid it.
For someone living in a different society, what they do could be different. Islam strictly prohibits physical intimacy between people before marriage, leaving emotional intimacy in a gray zone. If a young man and woman fall in love and become emotionally intimate before getting their families involved, their behavior may be considered sinful, or approaching sinfulness, but they have not committed a punishable crime. They are instead strongly encouraged to get their families involved and to maintain a formal relationship until after the nikah.
For two Muslim converts in the West who get to know each other and who want to start dating, performing the nikah is as simple as getting the permission of the woman’s guardian (a male family member, such as a father, brother or other blood relative if they are Muslim, if not, some respect Muslim man from the community), performing a 10-minute nikah ceremony in front of witnesses, then publicly announcing their nikah / engagement (for example on Facebook). This can be done months before the wedding. Once this ceremony has been performed, they can start dating like any couple (if they want to date but not marry). In this ceremony the woman’s dowry is set. If they decide to separate before physical intimacy, the women receives half of her dowry, rather than the full dowry, she can also forgo the dowry if she wants.
And, if after the nikah they want to start living together as a husband and wife (without a wedding ceremony), they can do that too, making the nikah the wedding too. In Iran too, sometimes the nikah and the wedding are on the same day, other times they are separated by long periods of time.
So, in Islam it is considered bad manners and a weakness in one’s faith if one tries to have an intimate emotional relationship (for example over the internet) with a member of the opposite sex before the nikah, because this can lead to various sinful behaviors, as there can at times be an immense desire for the couple to take the relationship further, “sexting” and exchanging inappropriate photos. A couple who want to follow Islam’s guidance fully would avoid such a relationship. If they want to know each other better before the nikah, they would get their families involved, or at least the woman’s family (meaning her guardian) should be involved.
Different Muslim cultures have differing practices. Islam does not expect people to act like robots, it acknowledges their humanity, which is why it leaves the pre-nikah relationship in a gray zone, acknowledging that different circumstances require different policies. It is ultimately a matter of conscience between you and God. It is very easy for us to find excuses for our sinful desires and to say that our case is different. So we must be aware of our ego’s desire to always take a relationship with a person of the opposite sex further until it becomes sinful.
By having a relationship with someone before nikah, you constantly create opportunities for you and the other person to act in ways that would be considered sinful by others and by God. Therefore you must do your best to keep your ego’s desires in check, and you must do your best to get your families involved at the first possible opportunity.
If you want to date before marriage, then have your nikah ceremony, then start dating. In this way you can have a relationship, and if you end up not wanting to get married, you have the option of ending the relationship. If it is the woman who wants to end it, then she will get no dowry. If it is the man who wishes to end it, he must give her half the dowry, unless she says she does not want it.
If it is a long-distance relationship, it is sufficient to have a Skype session that involves the two of them, the woman’s guardian and two male witnesses. In this session, the woman’s guardian gives his agreement to the nikah and the dowry amount, and this would be it. They would be considered engaged in Islam, and they can publicly announce their engagement, and from then on they can have an intimate relationship like any non-Muslim Western couple. Depending on their culture, however, physical intimacy may be considered highly inappropriate until after the wedding, although technically it is allowed.
Why should your relationship life be anyone else’s business?
Why can’t young Muslims simply get into relationships without having to involve other people? They mean harm to no one, and they are old enough to think for themselves.
The reason is that in Islam, marriage is an extremely serious business, because the survival of humanity depends on it. Islam creates a system that ensures above-replacement fertility rates, meaning that sufficient children are born and taken care of so that the the population does not start shrinking and slowly going extinct.
Why should anyone care about that when one’s fulfillment is involved?
For the same reason that a factory owner has to worry about not releasing contaminated water into the environment. It may bring him or her great fulfillment to do this, since it reduces costs and increases profits, but for humanity’s greater good, their desire is curbed. What they do isn’t just their business, it is also society’s business.
In Islam, relationships and marriage are equally society’s business. It may seem really fun to spend one’s youth “hooking up” with a dozen different people, having a different sexual partner every few months. This can be highly enjoyable, there is no need to deny this. The problem is that this leads to a society that does not value its future, and that considers having and bringing up children a nuisance that gets in the way of personal fulfillment.
The result is that the number of people dying ends up being greater than the number of people being born, so that the population starts to shrink, like it is happening in Japan. A person may say, “So what? They have 120 million people, let it become 10 million instead.” But if a population it can go from 120 million to 10 million, it can go from 10 million to zero if the same trend continues.
You are free to think this is OK, that it is fine if humanity goes extinct by preferring personal fulfillment over the good of society and humanity’s survival. Islam says it is not OK. Islam wants humanity to survive, and it doesn’t make a difference in God’s eye whether it is a plague that may kill off humanity in a year, or an ideology of sexual freedom that does it in 2000 years. The result is the same; humanity dies out.
You could say that you personally shouldn’t have to sacrifice your fulfillment for the sake of some disaster that may happen thousands of years in the future. Islam says you must. It says you must not kill, you must not use legalized robbery (usury) to extract profit from society, you must not do injury to others, you must not abandon your children so that they starve. And you must not have casual sex, you must instead build families intended to survive for the long-term.
All of these commandments are there to ensure humanity’s long-term survival while also ensuring its short-term moral integrity, since one of Islam’s central teachings is that the end does not justify the means; you must never do evil for the sake of some good you wish to obtain. Even if you are made to testify, and your testimony harms those you love or harms the Muslim community, you must do it. You must give preference to truth and justice over worldly concerns. To a materialist this sounds like insanity, to prefer principles over one’s material good. But this is what we believe in, because we believe by following principles, God will ensure our material good.
When it comes to relationships, Islam asks you to not be selfish, but to engage in them in a way that benefits society and humanity’s survival, rather than harming it. You are part of humanity and you have a responsibility to leave in as good a state as you found it, and that, needless to say, means that you do not do what leads to its extinction, whether it is by releasing toxic waste into the water supply or by giving preference to your sexual desires over doing the hard work of building families and raising children.