Definitons and Examples
When a man finds a woman of good attributes for marriage, his next step would be to propose to her or her family. We call this "courting" or "khitbah"; it is the act of asking for a woman's hand in marriage. Depending on the situation, the interested man may personally approach the woman or her representatives, or may ask some of his relatives or friends to represent him in that.
If a man's proposal is accepted, the woman is considered "engaged" to him. This "engagement" counts as a legally unbinding attachment that precedes the full and binding attachment of the marriage contract.
Even though an approved khitbah is not legally binding upon the two involved parties, it still constitutes a mutual pledge for marriage; and breaking it without a valid reason would be an immoral act of dishonesty.
A valid reason for breaking a khitbah would be for the bride's side to discover a serious problem in the bridegroom of which they were not aware when they gave their approval. Similarly, if the bridegroom discovers a problem in the bride that he did not know of when he asked for her hand, he may take that as grounds for breaking the khitbah.
Looking at the Courted Woman
Permission - When a man intends to marry a certain woman, and prior to formally proposing to her, it is permissible for him to look at her and see as much of her as is normally possible. This would help him make the right decision and be sure that he truly is comfortable with her looks and would like to have her as a wife.
Abu Hurayrah (radi'Allahu anhu) repored that he was with the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) when a man came to him and told him that he had just married a woman from the Ansar. The Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) asked him, "Have you looked at her?" He replied, "No!" He (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) said, "Look at her, because there is something (a smallness) in the Ansar's eyes."
Al-Mughirah Bin Shu'bah and Anas Bin Malik (radi'Allahu anhum) reported that al-Mughirah wanted to marry a woman, so Allah's Messenger (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) said to him: "Go look at her: it will then be more possible to have harmony between the two of you." He went to her house. She was inside her bedroom, and he met her parents and told them, "Allah's Messenger (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) instructed me to look at her." They remained speechless, but the young woman raised one side of her bedroom's curtain and said, "I strongly reproach you! If Allah's Messenger (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) instructed you to look at me, look. But if he did not, do not!" He looked at her, and then married her. He later mentioned, "No oher woman attained her status (of love) with me, even though I have married more than seventy women!"
Muhammad Bin Maslamah (radi'Allahu anhu) reported that the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) said: "When it comes into a person's heart to court a woman, it is permissible for him to look at her."
Also, Jabir Bin Abdillah (radi'Allahu anhu) reported that he heard the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) say: "When one of you courts a woman, if he could see of her as much as would convince him to marry her, he shoud do so."
Implementing this instruction, Jabir (radi'Allahu anhu) said: "Afterwards, I wanted to marry a woman, so I used to hide to observe her - until I had seen that which led me to marrying her."
It is prohibited for a man to look intently at a woman if he is not her mahram. Looking at a woman for the purpose of marrying her is an obvious exception to this rule and must, therefore, fulfill certain conditions.
Abu Humayd as-Sa'idi (radi'Allahu anhu) reported that Allah's Messenger (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) said: "When one of you courts a woman, it is permissible for him to look at her if he only looks because he seeks to marry her- even if she does not know (that he is watching her."
From this and other texts, we derive the following conditions:
1. The difference between a casual look and the look of a man seeking marriage is that the latter is allowed to stare and repeat the look.
2. Looking shoud be for the purpose of marriage, and not for the purpose of fulfilling a desire or lust.
3. A man may only look at a woman who is available for him to marry, knowing that, should he propose, her family could possibly approve of him.
4. Looking should be without touching or khulwah (privately meeting with her).
5. Looking should be limited o the body parts that a woman is permitted to expose to strangers, namely, her face and hands.
Is a Woman allowed to look?
Just as a man is allowed to look at his intended wife, a woman is allowed to look at her intended husband - with the adove conditions, and noting that a man's awrah extend from his navel to his knees. However, unlike men, a woman's looking should reflect a certain level of modesty and reservation that are characteristic of her femininity.
Talking and Correspondence
Talking and correspondence are permissible between a man and a woman whom he is seriously considering for marriage. However, this should be done under controlled conditions: in the presence and watch of the woman's wali or his representative, avoiding khulwah (seclusion), touching, or other prohibitions and limiting it to what is necessary for helping the couple make their decision.
(The Quest for Love & Mercy - Regulations for Marriage & Wedding in Islam - Muhammad Mustafa al-Jibaly)