The business books tell you to follow your heart. It is 17 years since Adeem Younis took that advice and set up SingleMuslim.com. He was 20 and a design student at Wakefield College in Yorkshire with a passion for IT. Besides a desire to be his own boss, there was a more urgentimperative.
“Quite literally I would go home and there would be a big photo of my first cousin in Pakistan on the mantelpiece,” he said. “Mum would tell me this cousin was great at making chapatis and all that. The idea was we would get married.”
Younis’s grandfather had settled in Yorkshire after he had fought for the British army in the second world war and his daughter had an arranged marriage to Younis’s father, her first cousin. The assumption was that Younis would do that, too.
Penny Appeal, which last year raised nearly £14m, mostly from members of the marriage website, and now operates in disaster relief efforts, from Grenfell Tower to Haiti. In partnership with the entrepreneur and former Dragons’ Den star James Caan, Younis is about to launch a £2m fund that will provide seed capital for tech ventures. In July Younis, at 37, was named Yorkshire and North East young director of the year by the Institute of Directors, for his work at Penny Appeal.
the trial of a couple accused of plotting an Islamic State-inspired attack with a homemade bomb. The Old Bailey heard on Tuesday and Wednesday how Munir Mohammed, a British citizen of Sudanese origin, living in Derby, allegedly enlisted the help of Rowaida El-Hassan, a pharmacy graduate of University College London, for her knowledge of chemicals needed to make an explosive.
The pair, it was noted in court, and in the papers, had first met on SingleMuslim.com. On the site, Munir Mohammed had described himself as looking for a wife and partner with whom to start a family. El-Hassan referred to having a master’s degree in pharmacy in her profile, and said: “I am looking for a simple, very simple, honest and straightforward man who fears Allah before anything else.” Having made their connection on the website, between 2015 and 2016 the couple were in regular contact on WhatsApp, jurors heard.
Khan and Younis have been aware that the case was coming to court for a while. When Mohammed and El-Hassan were first arrested the police asked to see what record of their relationship the company held. “Obviously,” Khan says, “we immediately printed off all of their logins and messages. Their behaviour was quite normal on the site. They exchanged a few lovey-dovey messages and then they swapped WhatsApp addresses and that was that.”
The case is, of course, Younis says, “the last thing we need or want”. They have, they believe, done all they can to prevent any such radicalised liaisons. “You can’t share videos or external links,” Khan says. If a membership request comes in from an unstable country, Nigeria or Yemen, say, it is automatically blocked for vetting.
SingleMuslim.com subscribers pay £30 a month (or £120 for a year) and much of that money is invested, Khan insists, in making the platform a safe space. “You can’t even swear on our site. We automate as much as we can, but if there is anything at all doubtful a human will always look at it upstairs.”
Any time there is a terrorist attack in Europe – after the atrocities in London and Manchester this summer for example – the site will be bombarded by what Khan calls “drunken profiles”, hate-filled messages targeted at users on the site, as well as more organised cyber-attacks. Most are automatically filtered out; but they respond by adding manpower to the moderating of the site to make sure it stays “clean”.
Do they imagine that the security services will now be paying them more attention?
“We have no problem helping the police with any requests,” Khan says. “But it is only once in a blue moon they are in touch – in the past there have been a few immigration issues we have been asked to provide information over. And then we share intelligence in terms of spammers and scammers …”
When Younis originally set up his website, the problems came from fundamentalists. “Back in the day we used to have death threats,” he says. “All from anonymous keyboard warriors. They would be like ‘it is haram [forbidden] to display photographs of women’. People would have seen their sister on there.”
Younis was unfazed. Now, he says, he doesn’t hear of anyone who is against what they are doing, mainly because, he believes, “everyone knows someone the site has helped”.
Not long after he founded the site, a “community auntie” called him round to her house for a meeting. He sat on her sofa and she “blasted him” about the website. Six months later, Younis says, the same auntie invited him back, this time he was offered tea and biscuits: “‘Younis, you’ve got that machine, there is a brother in the community perhaps you can help?’ Sure enough,” he says, “six months later we had this guy married.”
You don’t have to spend very long on SingleMuslim.com to realise it is not Tinder. The options in creating a profile on the site require users to select their level of piety (Very religious/Somewhat religious/Prefer not to say) their sect (Shia/Sunni/Just Muslim) and appearance preferences (Hijab? Beard?).
“What we are not is this kind of swipe right, one-night stand kind of service,” Younis says. “People call it ‘halal dating’ and that’s fine. Halal means being wholesome and right in your faith.”
About 10% of members join as a family. In those cases, traditionally the mums or the grannies use the site to do the matchmaking, Khan explains. What the company mostly promotes, though, is the opportunity to broaden that search as far as possible. The case studies on the site highlight couples who have crossed national and racial barriers to marry. “We are not SingleShia.com or SinglePakistanimuslim.com,” Younis suggests. There is an empowering impulse in this – and in the insistence that photographs must be full face. “Females who are fully covered don’t get in our galleries,” Khan says. “There is no point in having an image where you just see the eyes.”
In their boardroom, along with a red telephone box (“we are a very British company”) there is a wall of silk flowers on which some of the happy couples are framed. One photograph that is not on that wall is Younis’s own – though it could be. His business idea did eventually provide the answer to the mother’s question –“If not your cousin, then who are you going to marry?”– with which it began. One morning in 2005 after a bit of trial and error he arrived in the office to announce. “Guys I’ve met the one!”
His colleagues looked up from their keyboards, in mock alarm. “Right, boss. Shall we close the website now?”
Far from being the end of the business his marriage, Younis argues, has inspired what has followed. “My wife’s a GP, she grew up in the Midlands, different community. Ordinarily we would never have got together.” They now have four kids, a daily reminder of the magic of his algorithm. His plan is to have that magic spread: “Wakefield and then the world.” They have a growing membership in the US and Canada, the next push is into India and Pakistan. “Remember a Muslim wedding costs on average £40,000,” Younis says. “Multiply that by 50,000 and you see what effect we can have on an economy.”