LSA sophomore Sarah Jukaku smiled across the table at her husband as she sat with him at New York Pizza Depot on East William Street last week.
“When he proposed to me, I was a freshman,” she said. “I was young, and one of the things he said was, ‘We’re still growing, now we can grow together.'”
Grinning, LSA senior Abdul El-Sayed leaned toward her.
“I’m romantic,” he joked.
This sort of devotion is unusual in the morass of campus hook-ups and break-ups, to say the least. Facebook.com photo albums dedicated to wedding cakes, rather than beer bongs and keg stands, stick out like thin squirrels on the Diag.
But the student body is diverse. Every so often, an undergraduate couple walks the aisle.
This is true for students of all faiths, but Muslims – particularly devout ones like El-Sayed and Jukaku – are often more likely to marry young because of their values.
“Islam teaches us not to let our desires play too much of a role in our lives,” El-Sayed said. “The fact that we’re so willing to commit to marriage is a byproduct of this general self-control.”
Because it is associated with premarital promiscuity, dating is discouraged in many Muslim cultures. Marriage is a practical decision for some young Muslims who have found partners.
“What does anyone do when they get married? You find the person you want to marry and you marry them,” El-Sayed said.
“Islamically, there are no premarital relations of any sort. No touching, no nothing. Given that, the logical solution is to get married.”
LSA senior Aliyah Rab, who shares an apartment with Jukaku and is also married, echoed those thoughts.
“It’s harder to not date and to just be normal,” she said, “Once you get this religious marriage, you’re allowed to be normal by American standards.”
Rab and her husband, Zeeshaun Ahmad – who graduated from the Ross School of Business last spring – met in Statistics 350 more than two years ago.
The two found they shared interests, goals and values. After spending a year and a half visiting each other’s families, they were engaged in March and married in May.
These couples are part of a generation of college-age Muslims who are increasingly likely to marry, Rab said.
“If you look at a couple of generations ago, like my older brother’s generation – he’s 33 now – they were very, very goal-oriented,” she said.
For them, finding a mate often took a backseat to their studies and careers, she said.
As today’s students relax about their futures, they are able to socialize more and find partners earlier.
“People now are more like, it’s OK to get married,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing (as a career), but it’s OK to get married.”
A MODEL STUDENT
There is much that sets Rab apart from other University students.
First, there is her hijab – the traditional headscarf worn by many Muslim women. Less prominent but more distinct is the small silver band on her right ring finger.
She is not a typical student, but she is happy that way – being both Muslim and married means thinking about her actions in a new way.
“I always have to think,” she said. “(When you wear a hijab), you’re always a model of a greater thing.”
Being married, she said, is similar in that she must now think about how her actions reflect on her husband and his family.
Lubna Khan, Rab’s former roommate who graduated from the University this spring, agreed. Khan was married in June to Michael Dann, an Amherst, Mass., native with a Christian upbringing who converted to Islam at age 15.
“You start thinking about having a good influence on people around you,” Khan said. “It made me really think about where I wanted to be in my religion and perfect the flaws.”
While many students see long-term commitments as burdens, to Khan and Rab they mean another pair of shoulders to help bear the load.
Rab said the financial security of marriage allowed her to abandon her pre-med track in favor of anthropology, which she prefers. She hopes to attend graduate school in Chicago, where her husband works as a consultant.
“A spouse is like a backbone, a frame,” she said. “It provides that for you for everything, which is so nice.”
Back at NYPD, El-Sayed’s expression turned contemplative.
“Being able to grow with your significant other is an experience that a lot of people miss out on,” he said. “(Sarah and I) are happy and lucky to have the opportunity, thank God.”
Since their marriage, Jukaku and El-Sayed have grown together in the same way many serious young couples do. They visit the library, get dinner and indulge their frequent dairy cravings.
“Getting ice cream is the number-one thing we do together,” El-Sayed said.
Like many young Muslim couples, El-Sayed and Jukaku do not live together.
They are in the first yearlong stage of a two-step marriage process that is traditional in most Arab and some Indo-Pakistani Muslim cultures. Increasingly, American Muslims are adopting this practice. During the interim, the two live separately and do not consummate their union.
“It’s a time to get to know each other more personally,” El-Sayed said. “It gives you time to finish up whatever you need to figure out.”
Most surveys show that divorce rates among Muslims are lower than the U.S. average. The two-step process is one reason for this trend, El-Sayed said.
“The interesting thing about the Muslim perspective on (committed relationships) is that it’s a lot more serious,” he said. “If you think about the difference between a really serious boyfriend or girlfriend and marriage, it’s the ring on your finger and the contract – the stakes are higher.”
For Jukaku and El-Sayed, higher stakes meant adjusting, both academically and socially.
Next year, El-Sayed will be in medical school. Though he has been accepted into the University’s program, his formidable MCAT score means he could be traveling as far as Cambridge, Mass., to Harvard University.
If he does move, Jukaku, who plans to teach high school, will accompany him.
Other changes were necessary. Jukaku said most of her friends, including Rab, were supportive, but that a few were less sensitive.
“They just fell off the face of the Earth when I got married,” she said.
Time with their own families has diminished as well. They now split their weekends between each other’s family homes in Shelby Township and West Bloomfield.
El-Sayed even gave up playing Michigan lacrosse, a seven-year passion to which he devoted more than 25 hours per week.
“I wanted to make sure this went the right way,” he said. “I figured you can only play lacrosse for so long, but you’ll be married for the rest of your life.”
Since settling into the routine of married life, he has returned to the sport, much to his wife’s pleasure.
“Good choice. I tried to tell you earlier,” she said to him, ignoring his objections.
The couple’s attitude toward married life is as optimistic as it is unusual.
“Whatever we have to rethink or change is for the better,” Jukaku said. “It wasn’t anything we lost.”
El-Sayed said he always knew he would marry young.
“I was going to meet one girl and I was going to marry her,” he mused. “In some senses, I feel like that’s the purest form of a relationship with someone. It cuts out all the B.S.”