Please understand the following principles as many people take them lightly and make many mistakes. Please read this brief explanation of each section but if more information is needed please research the topic further.
Proposing or Approaching
First step is to propose to the family or the sister directly. In Arabic the word for this is “khitbah”, known to us as courting. There are several steps to accomplishing this task according to Islamic teachings.
a. Propose yourself directly to the Sister
b. Propose yourself directly to the Sisters family or representative (wali/guardian etc)
c. Propose through a friend or family to the Sister or her representatives
An acceptance verbally of “khitbah” is considered to be an engagement and a mutual pledge for marriage. It is not legally binding but breaking it without valid grounds is considered immoral and dishonest.
Types of Courting that are impermissible
a. Courting a Married Woman is completely prohibited. This is also the case for women who are divorced but are still in their iddah (waiting period). This applies to women who have not been divorced for the third time yet as the husband has to the right to take his wife back during the period of iddah or for the couple to reconcile in this time period if possible. There is a hadith reported by Abu Hurairah that Prophet SAW said; “He is not one of us who turns a woman against her husband or a slave against his master.” (Recorded by Abu Dawud, Ahmad and Others)
b. Courting a woman who is already being courted is not permissible. A person should wait until there is a clear sign of acceptance or rejection from the family of the sister.
Abu Hurairah reported the Messenger of Allah SAW said; “Let not any of you propose to a woman to whom his brother is proposing. (He should wait) until he marries or quits.” (Recorded by An Nisai)
One issue that can come up is that at this time it is very difficult to know if a woman is being courted or not, but if you have any knowledge of it then avoid it as this practice is clearly impermissible. The rest is with Allah and if you do so without knowledge or by mistake then Allah is indeed most merciful and forgiving.
c. A man with four wives may not court another woman unless he has divorced a wife or some of his wives.
d. A man cannot court a sister of a currently married wife or an aunt of a current wife. It is also not permissible to court a woman and her sister or aunt at the same time.
e. A man who divorces his wife three times cannot court his wife unless she has been married to someone else and he has willfully divorced her after they have consummated the marriage. Then he is allowed to court his wife after the iddah of her new marriage and she may accept or reject as she chooses.
f. A woman whose husband dies and she is in her iddah cannot be approached directly but subtle hints can be given regarding interest through a third party (indirectly). Direct proposals can be given upon the end of the iddah of the woman.
Looking or Observing
It is permissible for a man to look at a woman who he intends to marry before proposing to her as much as normally possible. There are some conditions for this permissibility so please understand them.
a. A man seeking marriage is allowed to stare and repeat a look while under normal circumstances this is not permissible.
b. This type of looking should only be for the purpose of marriage and not to fulfill desire or lust.
c. A man can only look at a woman who is available for him to marry. Another important condition is that he should know that if he were to propose that her family could accept his proposal.
d. There should be no touching or private meetings involved for the purpose of looking.
e. Looking is limited to what is generally permitted to be shown to strangers, like hands and face. (there is a difference of opinion on this and scholars also say that showing of hair is also permissible. Please read about this matter further by doing your own research)
f. Photograph’s are permissible but with the condition that the photograph is not to be left in the possession of the courter himself or herself. The person releasing the picture should be able to control the content and distribution of the picture. (There is also differences on this matter so please research this matter further yourself. Some scholars consider this to be completely impermissible as they say Photographs are not allowed. So do your own research and take the path that is most suitable for you InshAllah)
g. A woman is allowed to look just as a man is allowed to look. The man should have his awrah covered (which is from the navel to his knees at the least).
Interaction between an engaged couple
Talking is allowed between a man and a woman who are considering each other for marriage but there are specific conditions that must be met for it. The presence of the wali or his representative, avoiding private meetings, no touching of any kind and other prohibitions that exist between man and woman before marriage and finally limiting the conversation to what is needed for a couple to make a decision. It is also important to mention in the communication phase that between the two parties when information is shared that it be truthful. It is also not permissible to hide any physical or other problems that one knows about (actually it is sinful in Islam). The obligation on the party that learns of the problem is that it is not permitted for them to expose the issues/problems but rather use the information for the purpose of making their own decision. Many couples also think that since they are engaged it is okay for them to be in private meetings or even be intimate with each other. This has no basis in Islam and you are both still not permissible for each other until your Nikah is finalized.