On the MPAC [Muslim Public Affairs Council e-mail]distribution list, a debate began with a message from a man who seemed to suggest that American Muslims needed to come up with solutions to the problem of what young Muslims should do who are not being allowed to date because of Islamic traditions, yet are not marrying at a young age. Was there any room for dating in American Islam, he was asking. I believe he was alluding to the fact that young people want companionship, intimate companionship, but aren't really sure they can have that without being condemned by fellow Muslims. It's a valid question because, if we aren't totally arranging marriages of young Muslims, how are they supposed to meet each other? I respected this man's bravery in speaking out in this forum. We all have this issue on our minds, but who wants to bring it up on an Email distribution list?

Almost immediately, a few members of the group responded resolutely along the lines of: "There is no premarital sex in Islam, and we shouldn't waste our time talking about this." One woman explained why sex outside of marriage is forbidden in Islam, for very good reasons. It is meant to bring stability to the community. She quoted Dr. Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California as saying that sex outside of marriage is forbidden in Islam because Islam stands for justice between women and men. Sex outside of marriage is an injustice against women, as any negative consequences of such actions are almost totally shouldered by them, specifically pregnancy. In addition, a few offered that the Prophet's solution to carnal desires was to fast, to learn patience and self-control, and to marry, even at a young age. That was about all they said.

Technically, there is no explicit prohibition against premarital sex in the Qur'an, but there are several implicit indicators against it: encouragement of marriage at a young age, modesty in appearance, and so on. Masturbation is also discouraged. One is instructed to fast to control urges. Basically, if you want to have sex and be a good Muslim, you should get married.

This discussion was taking place at the time of the public disclosure of President Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Most on the distribution list seemed to be saying regarding infidelity and sexual misconduct, that we shouldn't talk about sex when there were more important things going in the country and world.

But, I was upset that this issue wasn't taken more seriously. What I mean is that we American Muslims should be talking about how we can solve this issue, not about fasting and marrying at the age of sixteen. So I had what my brother calls a "spaz" and let my feelings known over the Internet.

I wrote in a huff that I thought this topic was really important for a bunch of reasons that I hadn't coherently organized as yet. First of all, it would have been silly for me to get married as soon as I realized I was attracted to men. In the Prophet's time, 1,400 years ago in Arabia, people married around the age of fifteen anyway because they only expected to live to their mid-30s. Second, I want to marry a Muslim and have Muslim kids, yet most of the Muslim boys I met socially and actually had a chance to get to know were "players." I don't think their primary interest was marriage. Third, I wasn't meeting nice Muslim boys who weren't interested in premarital sex because at every event I went to at a mosque, where there might be such boys, we were segregated by gender! So what is a young Muslim girl to do?

Especially when, fourth, I had noticed that many young Muslim women I knew who had dated and had premarital sex with Muslims and non-Muslims were now marrying nice Muslim men. They became acquainted with these boys by dating them, and now they're marrying them. Good girls like me were, as Tom Petty once sang, "sitting home with broken hearts" and had little prospect of a marriage we'd be pleased with. Furthermore, some of the players, who were the children of immigrant Muslims usually, would eventually ask their mothers to find them nice girls from their home country, not girls like me who were supposedly already corrupted by American life.

I had a few more thoughts that I didn't add, but my frustration was evident. I'm not yet ready to get married, but why shouldn't I develop relationships, maybe not more than friendship or dating without sex (if that's possible), that could develop into marriage? Why do I have to live like a nun with no companionship until I consent to an arranged marriage? Especially when many Muslim boys are dating and having sex with non-Muslim women because the community doesn't come down as hard on them. Many Muslims have a double standard in disciplining girls versus disciplining boys on such matters. Why should I marry young to fulfill desires but risk my education and career for a family? Furthermore, why is arranged marriage a viable alternative? I'm supposed to marry any boy who charms my parents enough?

Later, I came across a Minaret magazine survey of 90 Muslim students in California colleges on premarital sex. My suspicions that barring Muslim youth from each other causes Muslim youth to socialize with non-Muslim youth were somewhat confirmed. Sixty percent had engaged in some sort of physical intimacy without involving sex with non-Muslims; only 6.6 percent had with other Muslims; 28.8 percent had had premarital sex with nonMuslims; 4.4 percent with Muslims. Clearly the goal is not for Muslims to have sex or intimacy only with each other, but to create an environment where Muslims are not turning away from their religion.

Things are different in America. Men and women, boys and girls, meet all the time, in the mall, at work, in school. We can't isolate ourselves from that. Even if we cover a woman from head to toe and tell her to stay in the house all day, at some point, she'll have to call the plumber because the toilet's overflowing, and the plumber could easily be a man. American culture is challenging us as Muslims: how contemporary can we be? How will we solve this problem? The first step, for many, is admitting we have a problem. It's more than condemning pre-marital sex. As an American and a woman who wants some semblance of a career, I don't really believe in marriage at a young age. As a Muslim, I don't want to become morally lax.