Search for the Other Half
Issue 79 April 2011
As our lives progress further into the virtual realm, Ayman Khwaja sits down with Baba Ali to discuss how perceptions of marriage are evolving to embrace the digital age.
‘What was life like before the internet?’ More than any other, this question generates more blank-faced looks amongst my friends. There is now an entire generation that is growing up amidst the ‘virtual life’ phenomena; from running entire cities, to perfected avatar-selves that lead desired lives in the digital world. The ‘online generation’ cite virtual reality as a fundamental principle of their livelihoods.
Social networks document our every move and even track our location, whilst our likes and dislikes are plastered on Facebook profiles in the form of questionnaires and surveys that we innocently share with one another. The internet has evolved to document our entire lives, from birth to death and even after. It was only a matter of time, then, before the concept grew to impacting our lives in more powerful ways. The rise in matrimonial websites has done just that.
Founder of Half Our Deen, and an internet celebrity, Ali Ardekani (known lovingly as Baba Ali to his fans), cites his own personal experience as the inspiration behind launching the matrimonial website. “When I was 27, I got married to a girl I met at an Islamic camp. The marriage lasted two years; we realised we didn’t match and were divorced,” reveals Ali. “The experience taught me a great deal about relationships, and in particular the differences between men and women.”
After that experience Ali sought the web as a way of finding a compatible partner. Registering to numerous matrimonial sites, which enticed him with the words ‘free sign-up’ but revealed multiple costs later in the process, Ali found much of the set-up irrelevant and at times offensive. “Eye colour, weight, complexion...it’s ridiculous! How are any of these fundamental questions supposed to aid your search for a spouse?” he laughs. “The Qur’an states, ‘They are as a garment for you, and you are as a garment for them.’ That doesn’t mean you can trade them in for different colours at GAP—it means you are entrusted to protect one another through everything, including all those material aspects that are bound to change over time.” He identifies that many of the matrimonial websites are founded on the formula of dating, conflicting with the intention of marriage altogether. “I decided to take a more proactive approach when I was searching online and made my intentions clear on my profile. I received 17 responses. I then devised my own set of questions that had neither right nor wrong answers.” Ali’s direct approach was not welcomed by all, however. From the initial interest of 17, he received only one response. After some email exchanges, he had a cousin meet the prospective partner in London, and once he received the green flag, he took a flight from LA to London. Twenty minutes into their first meeting, Ali had made his decision. So confident was he, in fact, that he began filming the meeting on his handy-cam. “She looked at me strangely,” admits Ali. “But I wanted to capture the moment there and then.” An obvious romantic, he converted the footage into a professional film for his wife some years later, presenting it in an impressive DVD case with a blurb on the back (no doubt a sign of what was to come with Ummah Films).
Nine years into their marriage, with two young daughters, Ali is grateful for his digital fairytale but realises that the reality is far bleaker for those people that are attempting the online matchmaking route. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for Muslims these days to get married; where do you search for your prospective partner? Our parents were once the matchmakers. But now, with most of them settling into new societies, dealing with multiculturalism and having to adapt to the rules of a new generation, it’s no wonder they can’t find anyone for you aside from your cousin.”
Ali cites the friction between culture and religion as being the biggest culprit in causing problems for Muslims looking to get married. “The youth are a lot more practicing these days and parents remain more cultural. The divide is tremendous as it means attitudes towards fundamental processes like marriage become tainted, straying further from the principles of the deen. The inevitable friction it causes is no doubt strenuous on both parties.” Ali has learnt this through first-hand experience, as it was on holiday in Los Angeles as a four year old that he learnt America was to be his permanent home after the revolution broke out in Iran. Growing up in LA was challenging and after experimenting with witchcraft in his teens, he embraced Islam in his early 20s. “I learnt everything about the faith from observing it in action. I watched Muslims who practiced their faith so beautifully; it was inspirational to see something like that, and I knew that is what I wanted my life to be.” The lifestyle change wasn’t an easy one for his family to accept, however. “My parents are very secular. So, the idea of me becoming a practicing Muslim was difficult to comprehend.”
Much of Ali’s personal experiences provide useful content for his videos. But just where did the initial inspiration for Ummah Films come from? “It’s one of those ‘calls of fate’, really. At the time, I was mass-producing my own board games in China as the demand was so high. Someone invited me to do a television show and it was there that I discovered the power of the lens.” Ummah Films was created with the intention of producing professional, high-quality films but after purchasing all the necessary and rather expensive equipment, Ali realised he didn’t actually know anyone who could operate them or teach him. “The equipment was just lying there, collecting dust. So, one day, when I returned from jummah, I decided to give it a go. I literally just flipped the red switch and started talking. If I had known that nearly 10 million people were going to watch that first video, I would have dressed nicer,” he jokes. Ali films all his videos in his daughters’ bedroom, amidst his four-year-old’s kitchen set and stuffed teddy bears. He cackles every time he is asked, “Where’s your studio?”.
Ummah Films continues to receive a massive online following, with over 50,000 subscribers to the YouTube channel. So, what compelled Ali to launch his latest project, ‘Half Our Deen’? “The Ummah is built up through communities which are constructed on the foundation of strong relationships between men and women. It is becoming more and more difficult for the Ummah to find a platform upon which to build these essential relationships that make our society run. A lot of us are scrambling around in the dark and when we think we see a prospective partner, we strive incredibly hard to read compatibility into the match, even if it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, that inevitably leads to the ‘D word’. The halal action that God dislikes the most is divorce, yet we have accepted it blindly into our society.”
It is no wonder then that Half Our Deen gives the utmost importance to compatibility testing and security. For a start, you cannot sign up to the site without paying a small monthly fee. “That encompasses a great deal of our online policing. Fraudsters, hackers and those just looking to mess around have little chance of penetrating the site when they have to pay upfront.” At $9 (£5.00), it is the cheapest online Muslim matrimonial service available. “Users should feel safe, confident and satisfied when they use Half Our Deen,” declares Ali. “It’s one of the reasons why I haven’t accepted any advertising on the website.” For business minds everywhere, Ali’s philosophy will no doubt scream commercial suicide, but he is content in providing quality over quantity.
What exactly is the Half Our Deen experience like, then? Sana Suleiman, a city professional in her late 20s signed up to the website after discovering Ali was behind the project. “He always gives such accessible, logical advice in his videos, so I signed up to Half Our Deen.” After registering, Sana was met with four compatibility tests; character, religious views, family and would you marry? Her answers are fed through the system to provide a list of the best matches available on the site. She can then choose to either show ‘interest’ or politely decline an invitation to interact with the “I’d rather fast” option. “It’s definitely a much more relaxed and comfortable environment than any other matchmaking site,” says Sana. “I love the fact that it’s completely private and I have full control over who I choose to share my information with.”
With member registrations growing on a daily basis, Ali hopes that Half Our Deen provides the right stepping-stone for those serious about marriage. “Material things are just that; material. They will wear away and change with time, but how a person practices their deen is what makes them truly beautiful. A man who treats you well and cares for you, does so because he understands the responsibility of looking after you and he knows he will have to answer for it in the next life. That’s where the true inspiration behind Half Our Deen comes from. It is said, ‘When a man marries he has fulfilled half of the religion; so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half.’ Matrimonial sites won’t last forever and I am under no illusion that mine will outlast them all. I just hope that when Half Our Deen isn’t here anymore, the marriages that were made there, still are.”
With 57% female users and 43% male users, Half Our Deen uses compatibility tests to pair up its members. Users have the option to choose from over 100 pre-listed questions or create their own. Some of these include:
Are you more social or reserved?
How do you expect your spouse to express anger?
Which three things do you want to accomplish in the next five years?
Do you want children and if so, how soon after marriage?
On a scale of 1–10, how important is it for you to stay healthy?
When you’re angry, how do you communicate?
Would jealousy make you defensing or more loving?
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS WITH BABA ALI
What’s the best dish you can cook?
Turkey (not really a dish, but it does sit on a dish when I serve it).
When was the last time you got angry and why?
When someone said I did something that I never did (happens all the time).
What’s the best piece of marriage advice you ever received?
Men and women are different.
How do you resolve disputes with your partner?
I try to be the one that apologises first (even though I don’t think I’m the one that is wrong).
Do you and your partner share the household chores?
Yes, but she never asks me (she shouldn’t have to). I try to help her out wherever I can.
How has marriage changed you?
I really don’t think I’ve changed after marriage.
What’s your greatest fear?
In the next life, Hell fire. In this life, seeing the innocent suffer and not being able to do anything about it.
Where would you most like to live in the world?
I’ve travelled quite a bit (nearly 100 journeys), but Australia is one of the most beautiful countries.