Navigating Muslim online dating as a convert
Christina Rowntree’s conversion to Islam ignited a layer of love for God in her journey to finding universal truth.
“Many converts to Islam can be naïve and view the Muslim community through rose-tinted glasses, which is beautiful,” she told The New Arab. Those who convert find comfort in the wholistic nature of the religion that can fit in their lives as they fluctuate in faith and spirituality.
Islam places emphasis on community, family and marriage – which many converts say they miss out on as a result of Islamic societies in the Western world and beyond ostracising converts. Some have the extra burden of being ex-communicated from spaces they grew up in if those around them reject their conversion.
Help For Reverts (HFR), an organisation that was launched in the summer of 2020 helps new Muslims receive tend to their immediate needs in faith and survival.
"People come to us having already chosen Islam, but not knowing what to do from there"
They have a volunteer programme that provides services to new Muslims such as fitness, entrepreneurship coaching, learning Arabic, reading the Quran and even debt management.
“People come to us having already chosen Islam, but not knowing what to do from there,” Abdul Aziz, a senior volunteer at HFR told The New Arab.
Many new Muslims approach the organisation specifically for marriage, but HFR volunteers often encourage them to spend their time grounding themselves in their newfound faith before jumping into marriage.
“We have circles where volunteers advise new reverts on their rights and responsibilities in marriage, when it may be the right time to consider marriage and to discuss intentions behind getting married such as companionship and financial security,” he said.
However, there’s another hurdle to marriage for new Muslims: racism.
Anti-racist religion in a racist world
One of the biggest appeals of Islam is the fact that it preaches equality for all regardless of race, colour or creed. Prior to his death, the Prophet Muhammad’s last speech preached equality and heart-centred living.
“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness”, he said in his emotional farewell address.
In the 21st century, anti-racism has become an ideal as opposed to a reality in the mainstream Muslim community.
For Muslim marriage app, muzmatch, anti-racist values are core to their ethos, they told The New Arab.
“We’ve catered to a diverse population early on into our mission,” muzmatch CEO Shahzad Younas said.
Whilst online dating was still stigmatised for many Muslims, especially across the UK, muzmatch were creating billboard campaigns across London underground, finding their way into mainstream media to normalise their presence in the Muslim community and influence ways Muslims view marriage.
At least 50 percent of the marriages from their app are inter-cultural and while they have filters for users to narrow down their options, they have an explore page where they can see people who have liked them beyond their preferences.
“Some have said if it wasn’t for the explore feature, they wouldn’t have met their spouse. We want to be respectful of our user’s requirements, but show them that there is more to what they, or their communities, want for them,” Shahzad explained.
However, marriage trends can be dictated by sociopolitical trends – and not always in a good way.
Christina, who is known for channelling her Islamic spirit through music and art, says she noticed a decline in Muslims marrying outside of their culture and accepting reverts to Islam since post 9/11 in the United States.
“There was a surge of people from all backgrounds converting to Islam after 9/11 and because Muslims were targeted, there was a stronger community spirit. I feel like a lot of this has faded in recent years and people have gone back to closing themselves off to their community again,” she said.
The pattern she has noticed reflects on her online dating experience. “I was a paid subscriber when I first joined muzmatch, but I felt like those on the app were looking for a stereotypical Muslimah who doesn’t have many quirky interests,” she explained.
Swipe right outside
Muzmatch has made it clear that they want to integrate with the community outside of the Muslim world because while they can campaign for equality, real change happens in mosques, homes and community centres.
“The problem is the majority of mosques are so out of touch with their younger attendees. They’re also not doing as much as they should help those who have come into the religion from other backgrounds. People don’t forget who they are when they testify Islam’s truth,” Shahzad said.
"An Indian Muslim may feel the need to hide their conversion because speaking out could be scary. A Black revert may not be as respected in some parts of the Muslim community. Women have men approaching them who don’t feel the need to be as respectful to reverts as much as they do to born Muslims"
Often, new Muslims get a rush at the support once they have accepted Islam but are quickly forgotten about.
Abdul Aziz added that the support can even differ with race.
“An Indian Muslim may feel the need to hide their conversion because speaking out could be scary. A Black revert may not be as respected in some parts of the Muslim community. Women have men approaching them who don’t feel the need to be as respectful to reverts as much as they do to born Muslims,” he explained.
Shahzad warned that fetishisation may even take place.
For Christina, Muslim marriage services need to physically increase their presence in minority spaces, especially Black ones, as coronavirus restrictions loosen.
"People are sick of staying on their phones, we want to go outside and meet people. Muslim apps with a large following have real potential to make a huge difference in this regard," she said.
“As women, we have released the fear of dating apps as a means to get married – from my experience as a user who also interacts with men outside of them, most eligible men are more anxious about online dating. However, they need to get over it. The anxieties they have are ones that we had 10 years ago,” she added.
She noted that the first thing she noticed when downloading muzmatch and looking at other Muslim marriage apps is that the tag line on the App Store included the word “Arab”.
“As a Black convert woman, I was immediately taken aback but I still gave the app a chance. Representing Black people in marketing is one thing, but entering our communities to encourage them to be part of the online Muslim dating scene is another.
“Online apps need to take a more active role inside community centres in Black areas. They can promote their app and even make having an account a requirement for entry and bring the community together in ways that online dating may fall short,” she added.
She remains on the app and is open to other avenues for finding love.
As part of normalising accepting Muslim converts and releasing racial limits when finding a spouse, muzmatch ensure they put couples from different backgrounds at the forefront.
“We’re everywhere and we make sure we put inter-cultural couples on our advertisements. Exposure is normalisation – but we have to take local demographics into consideration,” Shahzad explained.
In the UK, larger cities like London are exceptionally diverse, but there can be areas where there are higher concentrations of populations in certain areas, which makes it harder to spread a message of diversity in areas in which people are not exposed to other cultures, he added.
"Diversity shouldn’t be reduced to multiple ethnicities, but should also include different hobbies and release expectations of how a Muslim should act"
Christina explained that representing converts can transcend racial diversity: “In the US, there is a growing Latinx Muslim population and a lot of their men have tattoos up to their necks because they got them before accepting Islam. We need to embrace this more fully.
“Diversity shouldn’t be reduced to multiple ethnicities, but should also include different hobbies and release expectations of how a Muslim should act,” she added, drawing on her own experience in singing Islamic songs, known as nasheeds, in a blues style.
“Not everyone who uses these apps are in their 20s and early 30s, so including middle-aged and older people in their advertisements would also make a difference,” Christina urged.
Abuse and backlash
It is natural to expect heartbreak in matters of love, but vulnerability can also breed abuse in predatorial hands.
“This is why learning about Islam and having support from more experienced people is important. Mentorship is imperative for safety,” Abdul Aziz said.
HFR's main ethos is to prepare new Muslims and ground them into reality to allow them to identify red flags and ensure they are empowered enough to walk away from dangerous situations.
Muzmatch said they have a strong and ever-growing community safety team, including a women’s team if the female users have had bad experiences.
“Our advice is to keep all communication on the app until you are confident of the person because what happens outside of the app is unfortunately not in our control,” Shahzad explained.
He added that they have different social media campaigns and blog posts to ensure users understand red flags in relationships and when to leave.
“We even have a Dear muzmatch section where users can submit their concerns”, he added.
At times, the abuse can transcend couples if someone who has a culturally traditional background decides to marry someone outside of their race.
“Structural changes in the Muslim community takes time, but we support with advising people and sharing stories of real people whose families have eventually come around,” Shahzad said.
“We need to centre God in the marriage process,” Christina said.
“For the converts who are disheartened, they need to remember to separate the religion from the people because idealising the community can leave them broken-hearted,” she urged.
“As for born Muslims, they too need to find the magic of Islam again. Whether a person was born into the religion or converted, they had a time when they decided to practice it instead of another religion. It’s fun and exciting. Remember this feeling and it will help you realise you’re not so different to converts after all.”
Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab and a spiritual lifestyle blogger.