**The author has chosen to be anonymous due to the fact that they have in the recent past been involved in an MSA, and did not want people to perceive comments made in the article to be directed at anyone personally. The focus is more on the message, not who it applies to on an individual basis.**
I was originally going to begin this article with the stereotypical MSA love story: “Fatima and Abdul met each other at an MSA social….” I then realized how cliche and corny that has become and, by extension, how cliche and corny talking about how MSA as a marriage incubator has become. Although, relatively speaking, the MSA is relatively young, it has witnessed a spectrum of reactions to the “Marriage Students’ Association” phenomena.
Initially, there was discomfort with the idea that the MSA should be a platform for meeting a potential spouse. The jokes about the MSA and marriage were pointed and harsh; rather than deprecating a reasonable reality, they criticized a taboo. Speakers and scholars warned MSA members (especially the leaders) about the pitfalls of informality between the genders, and recommended some protective measures. The parents threatened their kids with myriad punishments, ranging from cell phone restrictions to being sent back to Karachi/Cairo/Dhaka. MSA members themselves generally weathered the storm and continued doing good work for the college communities while, yes, occasionally getting hitched in the process.
Yet, as time passed, someone somewhere realized that young folk getting married through the MSA wasn’t such a bad idea. Maybe there were some grey areas in practice, but the reality was clear: there weren’t many other opportunities for Muslim youth to pursue spouses in a permissible way. Speakers and scholars found nothing wrong with this pursuit as long as the proper boundaries were maintained, and parents (reluctantly) realized that their social connections were simply not vast enough here in the West to get everyone married in the “traditional way.”
Of course, this isn’t to say seeking marriage through the MSA is something highly recommended or well-regarded in our community. There is a distinct feeling that most of our MSA students are not ready to take that step. However, some concede, students wouldn’t necessarily make such a momentous decision during their MSA tenures, seeing as age, maturity, and financial stability are all issues in college. Even for those who are against MSA students getting married in college, creating the networks and links that lead to, at the very least, potential for marriage is a reasonable idea, given that these decisions are made when students have moved on from or are at the end of university.
However, this greater acceptance has not necessarily been met with greater guidance. If anything, the guidelines of dealing with marriage, relationships, and gender relations through the MSA have become more confusing for MSA students. Students are told to maintain the proper boundaries – but, they wonder, what are the ‘proper boundaries?’ Textbook answers, although helpful, are difficult to understand in a real-world context. Similarly, although parents relinquished the idea that they had to be in sole control of their child’s spouse, they only increased the number of necessary conditions a potential spouse needed to fill.
And so MSA members of today find themselves in a liminal stage; the MSA is rightfully not a place specifically for marriage pursuit, but it is an accepted reality that comes with brothers and sisters working together. Questions remain unanswered, such as: is it ok for me to speak casually (in a non flirtatious way/not in seclusion/etc) with someone who I see as a potential? What does khalwa (seclusion) mean in the context of college campuses? What is the acceptable way to approach someone formally about the prospect of marriage? How do you turn someone down who approaches you for marriage too early?
This author does not claim to have the answers to all of these questions. It will take the collective effort of our leaders, scholars, teachers, and advisors to be able to maturely and adequately address these needs. This confusion is not necessarily anyone’s fault; it’s simply natural that with new territory, there will be some uncertainty. However, until these issues are further clarified, there are some principles we can generally apply that will help us stay safe and sane in the mean time:
1.) Prioritize the MSA
DO NOT join the MSA with the primary intention of finding a spouse. The MSA is not a marriage service or a halal dating event; it is a historic organization which pioneers struggled to build and maintain. Do not disrespect their sacrifice by misusing their platform. Make sure that your intention in being the MSA is first and foremost to build yourself as a Muslim, and to build a sense of camaraderie amongst the brothers and sisters on campus. Also high on your priorities should be developing the MSA as a representative of Muslims on campus, such that it can work to advocate on behalf of Muslim students at the University.
2.) Build brotherhood and sisterhood first
One thing that will help keep you on the straight and narrow throughout college is building strong brotherhood and sisterhood in your MSA. If you are overly concerned with seeking a spouse, you will miss out on the protection, support, and fun that comes along with MSA brotherhood and sisterhood. Also, by building brotherhood/sisterhood first, you will help solidify your relationships against future issues that might arise when people do start seeking marriage.
3.) Be Involved Outside the MSA/in a Local Muslim Community
First and foremost, it is highly recommended that you as a college student do not limit your activities to the MSA. Join other organizations and make friends elsewhere, too. Maybe the MSA crew will be your main interest, but by spreading yourself out, you avoid the risk of getting stuck in the “MSA craze” mentality where your life begins to revolved around the MSA and whatever drama is happening in it that week. By keeping a little distance, you gain a lot of sanity. In addition, it is similarly desirable to maintain ties with a local Muslim community where you will have Islamic support and advice outside of the MSA social structure. Particularly beneficial would be having links with scholars or Imams in the area to help guide you.
4.) Take the Textbook Gender Relations Guidelines Seriously
The level of gender relations literacy in our community is disproportionately high compared to our literacy in other areas of our deen. We might not know the pillars of prayer, but almost every Muslim youth can rattle off the basic rules of gender relations: don’t be secluded/alone with the opposite gender, keep interaction purposeful and to what is necessary, avoid situations where your reputation could be in question, etc. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we fall quite short with our adherence to these guidelines. Nobody is advocating hermitude and awkwardness; however, to eliminate all barriers of formality and propriety between brothers and sisters (and only observing the “no touching” rule) is another extreme. Despite our clear knowledge of these rules, we continually flaunt them. Even worse, we try to rationalize our indiscretion. No, spending time alone/secluded with the opposite gender shouldn’t sit well in your heart, even if you are meeting for organizational purposes. No, spending time late into the night talking to the opposite gender about your feelings or the latest MSA drama or – gasp – religious/deeni subjects is neither necessary nor purposeful. No, everyone going out together late at night (perhaps after, ironically, a strictly segregated MSA lecture event) is not in line with the spirit of our teachings.
These are trying times, and the pursuit of marriage through halal means should not be taboo; it should be encouraged and supported. There are differing views on whether the MSA is appropriate for this, or if students are even mature enough to worry about marriage during college. It behooves us to therefore tread cautiously as we, as a community, work through this issues. MSA students should not use these uncertain times as a means of disobeying Allah and his Messenger, but honor what is in their hearts and hold tight to the principles of the deen. Similarly our parents and leaders should be wary of issuing blanket condemnations of issues in the name of culture, religion, and reputation, and should instead exercise the commandment of compassion with MSA students.