A couple is pictured during the last sunset of the year at Lhoknga beach in Aceh province on December 31, 2020. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

Finding Soulmates through Halal Means: Ta‘aruf Online for Indonesian Muslim Youth

Published

The popularity of so-called halal matchmaking apps is a positive development provided developers and users alike remain clear-eyed about their claims to serve Islam.

Online halal matchmaking applications (“apps”) and social media platforms are gaining popularity among Muslim youths worldwide. These include websites and apps like Singlemuslim, LoveHabibi (popular among European Arabs), Ishrqr and Salams (formerly Minder), Salaam Swipe, Hawaya and Veil. (See Table 1 below for more details and examples.) Technologically savvy Indonesian Muslim companies have responded by creating local equivalents on diverse platforms such as Ta‘aruf ID, Hijrah Taaruf, and Taaruf Online Indonesia (TOI). But how different are these from the more familiar secular online dating apps such as Tinder?

The answer is that these ‘halal’ matchmaking apps mirror the practice of ta‘aruf as opposed to dating, the former being sharia-compliant and the latter perceived as more ‘Western’. The term ta‘aruf comes from an Arabic word which means “knowing each other”. In the Quran, Surah Al-Hujarat verse 13 captures this symbol of tolerance and pluralism in the context of Muslim society.

Under the activism of the Tarbiyah movement, however, the term has taken on a different meaning, specifically to find soulmates in the Islamic way among members. “Ta‘aruf” has replaced the vernacular word for dating, pacaran in Bahasa Indonesia, which these activists see as un-Islamic. In this sense, so-called sharia-compliant dating is not free from ideological gatekeeping. Not only are inter-religious relationships forbidden but even some intra-Muslim ones are frowned upon. Specifically, these apps are intended to provide matchmaking services for those who share the same school of Islamic thought (madzhab) and Islamic ideology.

In Indonesia, online halal matchmaking apps available through the Android ecosystem contain the term ta‘aruf as part of their branding strategy. They include Taaruf IDHijrah Taaruf, Taaruf Online Indonesia (TOI), Taaruf Lalu Nikah, Tasyari, and Media Taaruf-Jodoh Islami. Meanwhile, Instagram (IG) hosts two of Indonesia’s biggest Islamic matchmaking accounts, taaruf.indo.id and taarufan_id. On Facebook, online matchmaking group pages include Taaruf Islami OnlineTaaruf Siap Nikah Islam International (“siap nikah” means ready to marry), and Menuju Taaruf dan Poligami (Towards Taaruf and Polygamy).

There is a strategic marketing reason for enabling the use of ta‘aruf as a search term, so that Indonesian Muslims can easily identify them as halal matchmaking platforms. Since the 1990s, Tarbiyah movement activists have adapted the specific meaning of ta‘aruf, mainly used previously to facilitate arranged marriages, to preserve the Islamist ideology that calls for sharia-compliant lifestyles and to expand their influence. Establishing and strengthening families is a significant part of the movement’s mission. The movement is not alone in this Islamising project, which plans to challenge Westernisation. In that limited sense, their ideology is similar to that of the Salafi movement.

In the past, the Islamists introduced the concept of ta‘aruf through popular culture, including television (in drama series), film and traditional print media such as books, magazines, and newsletters. Today, ta‘aruf is popularised in the digital space.

There are parallels between those promoting ta‘aruf with those who redefined hijrah to show greater symbolic or outward expressions of Islamic piety. Hijrah originally referred to the migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622CE to avoid persecution: He established an Islamic polity in Medina before returning to Mecca. This concept has now however been popularised in Indonesia to mean the spiritual transformation of individuals. However, such a personal change is often measured by the outward changes in the behaviour of Indonesian celebrities, especially with female ones donning the tudung (headscarf), and others observing the five daily prayer calls and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca.

On the other hand, however, the use of Islamic terms such as sharia-compliant, halal dating, or ta‘aruf may lead to the unnecessary and potentially negative stereotyping of other dating sites as being less or un-Islamic.

So popular is the ta‘aruf concept in Indonesia that many developers of apps are trying to build their own niche. They seek to simplify the apps’ features and design, such as strengthening the payment safety, privacy, and data security features.

More importantly for users, these apps must somehow prove they are ‘more compatible’ with Islam than the rest. For example, TOI claims to be closer to sharia principles than its competitors because it blurs the applicants’ (app users’) photos during the initial phases when ‘matchmade’ couples begin using the app. This is ostensibly to avoid any form of sexual desire, by maintaining the applicants’ privacy through disallowing screenshots from being taken by either side and preventing personal chatting features that can lead to virtual seclusion and further conversations between couples beyond the developer’s supervision. Applicants are required to pay a fee of 200,000 rupiah (about S$20) to prove their commitment and seriousness in finding a soulmate.

TOI is a successful app. Since 2019, it has attracted numerous patrons and even prominent Islamic preachers who have huge social media followings support this app. The Islamic or ‘halal’ component of TOI is emphasised with the presence of a so-called intermediary who organises the physical meeting between potential couples. These couples will meet each other face to face in nadzor before proceeding to the khitbah (engagement). “Nadzor” refers to a process where the potential couple meets each other, accompanied by their families, specifically to know their potential spouse’s physical appearance, attitudes, and family background.

Nevertheless, some Tarbiyah activists have voiced their displeasure with these ta‘aruf apps. For example, Ustadz Amar Ar Risalah, one of the leaders of the Indonesian Muslim Students Islamic Union (KAMMI), has claimed that ta‘aruf’s primary objective is to promote marriages and strengthen families but this has been side-tracked. Islamic organisations, in his view, are using these platforms to expand their base. These organisations rode on these platforms to preserve their ideologies and enlarge public influence and some of them are upset when any of their activists marries someone from outside their ideological fold.

Ideological and political differences aside, these ta‘aruf and halal matchmaking apps have helped many Indonesian Muslim singles to find their soulmates. On the one hand, these platforms present the best opportunity for those who find it difficult to meet and date someone in real life. On the other hand, the use of Islamic terms such as sharia-compliant, halal dating, or ta‘aruf by these app developers may lead to the unnecessary and potentially negative stereotyping of other dating sites as being less or un-Islamic. This is the Islamist exclusivist orientation that has to be managed.

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Wahyudi Akmaliah is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore and Researcher at the Research Centre for Society and Culture at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency.