London, United Kingdom – A motorway service station is hardly a romantic place for a date. But when Aisha Rosalie and Sultan Akhtar met after matching on a Muslim dating app at the beginning of March, a national lockdown ended any hopes of getting to know each other in more quaint settings.
After finding one another on the app, they spoke on video chat every day.
With coffee shops and restaurants closed, the pair met in service stations midway between London, where Rosalie, 23, is from, and Dewsbury, Akhtar’s hometown in northern England.
“I had to make sure it wasn’t a catfish situation,” 25-year-old Akhtar joked. “We were constantly fearful that we weren’t going to get a chance to meet. We didn’t know what was going to happen because of the coronavirus situation.
“That motivated me to visit Aisha and see how she was in real life, after which we stayed apart for a good few months.”
Despite the obstacles the coronavirus pandemic hurled their way, their connection grew.
“We hung out at so many service stations before we got married,” said Aisha. “We would eat there, pray there, hang out in our car, drive around, and come back to the service station.
“When I saw him again for the second time, I forgot what he looked like, what he sounded like. Seeing someone on video chat, you forget what they’re like in person.”
By the time social distancing restrictions eased in June, the couple had decided they wanted to be married.
But mosques across the country were still closed, and it was difficult to find an imam to officiate the nikah, the Muslim marriage ceremony.
“We did consider an online marriage, an online nikah,” said Akhtar, adding they found someone based in Pakistan who was willing to officiate their wedding.
But it was “not as intimate as I wanted so we held it off”.
Four weeks later, Akhtar asked his local imam in Dewsbury on a whim. The imam told the couple to come the next day and so, within four months of meeting, they were happily married on July 4.
“We’re both simple people,” said Rosalie. “It was an excuse to have the simplest wedding, without all the pressure of spending money, dresses, all this stuff we just don’t really need. It was an excuse for us to make it simple, to make it about me, Sultan, Allah [God], and getting married.”
As some lockdown measures remain in place across the United Kingdom, dating in the age of the coronavirus has increasingly moved online.
In the two weeks after the lockdown began, there was a 13 percent increase in the number of users logging in to Muzmatch, the app Rosalie and Akhtar used.
Globally, the app saw a 45 percent increase in downloads in March, when many countries enforced stricter distancing rules.
With limits on wedding guest numbers and concerns over safety, religious marriage ceremonies and celebrations have gone online.
Sultan Ahmed, director of the Nikah Company, a Muslim matrimonial service in the UK, has officiated more than 100 nikahs with three other imams over Zoom. By August, they had wed more couples than in all 2019.
“Ninety percent of our ceremonies in April, May, and June were online. That’s how much the whole mood and trend shifted from physical to digital,” said Ahmed.
“The latest lockdown has brought even more uncertainty, because you’re asking an Asian couple to reduce their guest numbers from 500 to 15,” he added, laughing.
“Then you reduce guest numbers [from] 30 to 15, [UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson was asking for trouble there.”
But the topic of online nikahs has drawn some controversy; there is a difference of opinion on whether they are valid.
Ahmed and the scholars he consulted have concluded that given the exceptional circumstances, Muslim couples can get married online as long as certain conditions are fulfilled.
“Both the bride and the groom have to be consenting, it has to be done with the permission of the bride’s guardian, there has to be a minimum of two witnesses present, and a mahr [dowry] has to be agreed between the bride and the groom,” said Ahmed.
“The other condition is that everyone has to be present at the same time, in the same place. In physical nikahs, that’s very easy because you have everyone in either the same hall, room, the same venue, but online, physically everyone is in different parts of the country or the world.”
Ahmed recently oversaw the marriage of Saad and Hibah, who were in the UK and Kuwait respectively, on Zoom.
The ceremony was streamed live as hundreds of their family members watched in from around the world.
While Ahmed has helped many couples begin the next chapter of their lives, the shift to digital has been challenging.
“Some people have seen this as a disappointment because everyone sees their wedding day as being the most special day of their life,” he said. “They want to invite friends, family members and loved ones.
“But the other side to that is that it’s a pandemic. We’ve never seen this sort of thing in our lifetime, so it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to do things differently.”