When giant purple billboards advertising Muhammad Malik’s search to find a wife appeared in London and Birmingham in early January, the 29-year-old financial consultant became an overnight celebrity.
Then last week the Muslim dating app Muzmatch revealed it was behind the stunt, with Malik’s website rebranded, directing hopeful suitors to their site.
The revelation prompted mixed reactions on social media, with one user praising the viral marketing campaign, another criticising it as unethical and a third saying it was leaning into Islamophobic tropes as a result of its slogan “save me from an arranged marriage”.
Malik, a startup consultant at Nationwide building society, said Muzmatch’s marketing team pitched the campaign to him last autumn. He has previously appeared in adverts and promotional videos for the app, including one called “Farts Break Hearts” where he discusses his dating red flags, which include “that there’s a double life going on”.
He denied that the campaign was disingenuous. “This was an idea that was presented to me and I thought: it’s genuine, I’m 100% looking. But these guys just absolutely took it on steroids. I’ve always been a bit tongue in cheek. A bit quirky. I’ve done a bit of standup comedy. So I think it was quite in line with that.”
Shahzad Younas, the chief executive of Muzmatch, said: “Malik was very keen to stress that there’s nothing wrong with an arranged marriage. For a lot of people it works. The whole premise touches more upon how young Muslims are increasingly becoming empowered through Muzmatch to find their own partner, but still do it in a way that’s respectful of their faith, their traditions, their culture.”
The viral campaign comes as Muzmatch, which has 5 million users worldwide, is defending itself from a claim of alleged trademark infringement brought by Match.com in the high court. Muzmatch was accused of “piggybacking on established dating brands” to improve its success. The court heard that Match brought the legal action after four failed attempts to buy Muzmatch.
Hussein Kesvani, the author of Follow Me, Akhi, which explores how British Muslims interact with the online world, compared Malik to the TikTok trainspotter Francis Bourgeois, who was revealed to be a student called Luke Holland, represented by a modelling agency. He was subsequently signed up to feature in an ad campaign for Gucci and the North Face.
“The aim is to get people really invested in a character that you’re not quite sure is ‘real’,” said Kesvani. “Muzmatch might argue that ‘Malik’ is more a representation of the kind of clientele of the platform. Which, in this case, seems to be middle-class, fashionable, metropolitan young Muslims for whom faith is a part of their identity and aesthetic.
“To me, this represents what MuzMatch is trying to assert itself as, now that it finds itself being the most successful ‘halal dating’ app … It was always going to lead to some identity crisis as it expanded.”
Malik, who lives in London with his parents, said he considered himself “more on the orthodox, conservative side” of Islam. “When going on dates, it’s always a chaperone date. From a spiritual angle, the purity is intact in terms of there’s no ulterior motives. What you’re focused on is marriage.”
A member of Muzmatch’s marketing team is helping Malik sift through the thousands of responses. Malik said he had personally responded to more than 100 so far.
But he said that even if he did not find a wife among them, he was “super content as a singleton”. “I’d be really happy even in a decade if I were to be single, but I would be, maybe, even happier with somebody.”