Am I the only person who notices a recurring theme emerge in any number of people’s lives? This week’s one is definitely the place of love in the scheme of marriage: when it should be present, how much, what form it should take.

I find it really interesting to observe how this debate is played out amongst young Muslims in the Western diaspora, many of whose parents may not necessarily have had ‘love marriages’. There is little precedent as to how to negotiate the complex mix of romantic sensibilities, obligation and religious propriety, the online banter, the text messages and Facebook comments. The gap between love and marriage is often the size of a chasm, and the paths to reconcile the two steep and difficult to manoeuvre.

But what precisely is a ‘love marriage’ in any case? It’s difficult to say. Often, love before marriage, if it’s ever acknowledged to exist in popular religious discourse, is characterised as frivolous, the unwelcome by-product of too many Hollywood rom coms. Very few people actually talk about the extent to which romantic love should guide our choice in partner. Very few people talk about what it means to be in love with someone before we’re actually married to them, perhaps because the simplest paradigm is that love just doesn’t exist outside of marriage, and if it does, it’s illicit or sinful. But there are so many shades of grey in this discussion. (Way more than 50, that’s for sure.) Sure, love is undeniably richer and deeper within the confines of a marriage, but how many people can claim that their decision to marry someone was entirely clinical and detached from any form of romantic feeling?

The extent to which love guides people’s decision to marry someone varies considerably amongst Muslims. There are extremes on either side of the spectrum, but a large portion of people are simply undecided and hover somewhere in the middle. For ease of reading, I’ll try to condense them into the following categories:

  1. Love comes after marriage

The people who espouse this mentality like to keep things simple. They aim to treat the search for a spouse as a ‘scientific’ process, one with set criteria and a concrete means by which to attain the person in possession of them. They try to only look when they feel they’re ready to get married, which saves them from cumbersome and distracting romantic entanglements. If they do fall in love with someone outside of marriage, in their mind it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should get married to that person, unless that person also happens to match their criteria.

When they do find someone who matches their criteria, they can often commit fairly quickly and easily. There is no giant chasm to cross, no real barriers except purely practical ones to sealing the deal: if they’re ready, they’ll just go for it. They are confident that where rationality and propriety leads, love will follow.

  1. There must be the potential for love, but not necessarily love itself

This is probably the most common mentality I’ve encountered. For many young Muslims, some sense of cultural or religious propriety prevents them from falling in love unreservedly with someone before they’re married to them. Perhaps they just don’t allow themselves to get close or intimate enough for that. But they must feel that behind the tentative explorations lies at least the potential for deep and satisfying romantic love, the kind they’re certain exists even if they haven’t personally experienced it.

If they don’t have at least some sort of romantic inclination towards the person, it will often be difficult to go plunging ahead into marriage. Whether they do or don’t make it to the Shaykh will often depend on how much they want to get married. If someone really wants to get married, they can often proceed on the smallest of inclinations, but if they’re not in a rush, it’ll often take much more to get them across the line.

  1. Love is a must or it’s a no-go

For some, love is a prerequisite. They simply wouldn’t be able to make such a huge step as marriage without it. Their love may have begun in an entirely ‘rational’ place, such as shared values and interests, but it will quickly spiral into a huge, beautiful, complex, metastasising web of feelings. Of course, loving someone is no guarantee that it will eventuate in marriage. Love doesn’t conquer all, it conquers some. We’ve all seen those couples who were deeply in love and thus triumphed over all the odds, but just as many crumble on the hard, jagged rocks of cultural/financial/timing/other obstacles.

Sometimes love aligns entirely with what’s easy, and these cases are most likely to eventuate in marriage. For example, if someone falls in love with a family friend of the same cultural background, similar levels of religious observance, similar education levels, financial goals etc., then they’re highly likely to just get married. But people often fall in love with less neat possibilities, and for these people the trek to the Shaykh can be long and arduous and filled with prickly thorns. This is why some feel love should be relegated to the back of the line of considerations: it can be a messy, messy means by which to choose a partner. To say ‘I want to marry you because I love you’ may be both the stupidest and bravest thing of all.

People may inhabit different categories at different points in life. Sometimes people try their hand at romantic love, get their heart broken and consequently migrate over to the ‘love comes after marriage’ camp. Sometimes people try to force themselves to get married to the ‘sensible’ choice and find that they just can’t do it. Sometimes people marry the sensible choice and find that they fall passionately in love with them, and sometimes they just never experience passionate love at all and are content with that. There are no rulebooks in this game, no manuals by which we can operate. Each of us makes, and re-makes, and re-makes, our own path, losing love and finding it again as we stumble our way towards a life of folding laundry and making the bed with that special someone.

Where do you fit into this equation? Do you allow yourself to be guided by love when it comes to choosing a spouse?