High-Tech Shia Pet

Ali Rizvi's aunt was on a mission: She flew from London to Houston to find a husband for her daughter.

As is Shiite Muslim custom, she networked with friends and family to get the names of suitable families, then arranged preliminary interviews to test matrimonial waters. But after several lackluster interrogations, Rizvi's weary aunt suspected there was no one out there worthy of her daughter.

Rizvi, the family's 25-year-old computer whiz, suggested they check out Shia Internet matchmaking sites. Figuring it couldn't hurt, his aunt pulled up a chair and the two of them logged on to one site after another. The services boasted a lot of listings of marital hopefuls, but the sites were hard to use -- some charged subscription fees up front before profiles could be accessed; others were not Shia-specific; some required participants to disclose their personal e-mail addresses.

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Not impressed by the high-tech search for a son-in-law, his aunt returned to London empty-handed. Rizvi remained in his chair, bathed in the blue metallic glow of his monitor, thinking of ways to make these sites user-friendly. He worked during the day as a software engineer, then spent the rest of his time at home, tinkering with Web designs for the ideal Shia matrimonial site.

Using free, open-source software, Rizvi designed a simple, two-graphic site that would be palatable for computers with slow access speed. He got every eligible single person in his extended family to submit a profile.

After many months, he finally had it. The night he typed his last command and launched his baby into cyberspace, Rizvi was relieved. He just wanted to go to bed, wake up and see thousands of hits to his site.

It didn't happen overnight. But two years after Rizvi launched the Houston-based Shiamatch.com, it has attracted more than 7,000 users worldwide.

There is a Muslim saying that whoever brings two people together in marriage is rewarded with heaven. If that's true, Rizvi has no worries. He doesn't guarantee a match made in Jannah, but what he does offer is a way for Shiites to network with more potential mates than ever before. It's a technological take on an important rite, a sort of Qur'an 2.0.

In traditional Shiite spouse-searching, the prospective groom's family meets the prospective bride's family at her house. The man and woman are allowed to confer together privately about their ambitions and to see if there's any chemistry. There are no dates -- at least not in the Western notion of dating; they are prohibited from seeing each other outside of their families' watch.

The man shouldn't even be thinking about sex when he spends time with his future bride, according to Moulana Nasser Biria, the resident alim (religious leader) at the Islamic Educational Center in Houston.

Marriages are arranged, but not imposed -- the consent of both the man and woman is necessary. But in extreme cases, as with Rizvi's parents, the bride and groom never set eyes on each other until their wedding.

With so many Shiites spread throughout the world (they make up about 10 or 15 percent of the Muslim population), it's harder for parents to network with friends in the same mosques and towns to find suitable mates for their kids, Rizvi says.

Shiamatch.com users submit personal information and can tailor their searches to preferred cities, age, height, education and other categories. They span a wide age group; some come from noble syed families, meaning they can trace their origins back to the prophet Muhammad.

Some are looking for themselves, some post profiles of other family members.

One Houston man put in an appeal for his 55-year-old widowed mother.

"Her routine is waking up and making breakfast for the family (she lives with me and my wife), then housework, then visiting a friend or being visited, and finally at home to spend the evening together," the man writes. "Her ideal man is one of morals, truthful, and truly a Man in the Islamic sense."

A 24-year-old Texas man writes, "I don't like talking about myself 'cause I am not perfect. But I do think I am a nice guy, and friendly to anyone. Listen: I am positive that Shiamatch will work, but how will you ever know if you don't try? I just know this: the person that I marry will be loved…"

Included are profiles from among the 5,000 Shiites in Houston, as well as those from places as varied as New Delhi, Kuwait City, London, Toronto and Chicago. There's even a Swedish Shiite ready to get hitched.

The Irani-born Biria has helped at least one congregant fill out a Shiamatch profile and says the site is a good alternative to the traditional courting process. He especially likes the fact that it doesn't preach, making it appealing to both the once-a-year mosque crowd and those who pray five times a day.

"Facilitating the marriage of even nonreligious people is good," Biria says. "This site is not a site to promote Islamic values, it just promotes marriage."

There is no charge for posting a profile on Shiamatch or for requesting up to five e-mail addresses to contact potential mates. Residents of the United States, United Kingdom and Canada can subscribe for $19 a year to get additional addresses; other users have free access.

Rizvi says he's only breaking even on the service. The site displays advertising from an online Indian/Pakistani grocery store and what is touted as a "worldwide wedding services directory."

Almost a year after posting his own profile on Shiamatch, Rizvi met his future bride in the traditional way. He pulled his profile shortly after meeting Salma, 23.

Both Rizvi and his wife hail from Hyderabad, India. Rizvi moved to Denton in 1993, where he earned a degree in computer science at the University of North Texas. He works for a Houston software company and maintains the Islamic Educational Center's Web site. Salma is a biotechnology major at the University of Houston.

There are no follow-up surveys to determine how many marriages have resulted from his site. Rizvi says his cousin in London met his wife through Shiamatch. They were going to the same mosque but never knew each other until they met through the site.

"Somehow, the trends are changing," the soft-spoken Rizvi says of Shiite matrimonial customs. "It used to be that without the parents initiating the talk…things wouldn't even go forward."

Another trend is holding true in both the Muslim and Christian crowds. News reports have attributed an upswing in American marriages as the United States continues its buildup toward war with Iraq. Rizvi says the membership in his service also has grown steadily since the 9/11 attacks.

"I guess everyone needs to get married, regardless," he says.

Rizvi now devotes the bulk of his free time to building an online marriage service geared toward Hispanics. He says he doesn't talk about his service when he's at the mosque because he's afraid people might come to him as a matchmaker rather than use his site.

"I'm not really in the business of hooking people up on a personal level," he says. "I'm into building either services for the community…or something that challenges me intellectually -- and this was like an ideal combination of both."

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