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Culture Shock: What Muslim Weddings Typically Entail
Muslim weddings vary enormously depending on the culture of the couple that are getting married, but there are certain core traditions that remain constant throughout the Muslim world. For a marriage to be considered valid, these legal and religious steps need to be taken.
The mahr is often translated as a dowry, but this gift from a groom to his bride, is a mandatory requirement in all Muslim marriages. The mahr can be money, property, jewellery or any other valuable asset, which is given to the bride as financial security. She can use this as she likes during the marriage, or keep it and use it if she ever gets divorced, or if her husband dies.
This is the actual wedding ceremony and it’s usually simple and short. It’s conducted by a qazi – a religious official – and while many Muslims prefer to get married in a mosque, it’s not unusual to have the ceremony at either the bride or groom’s home. Two adult witnesses need to be present to verify the marriage contract, and the bride is represented by her wali – guardian. This is typically her father, although it can be another male representative.
In traditional Muslim communities the bride and groom are separated by a curtain, or they sit in different rooms, and so the ceremony is concluded between the groom and the wali. Both the bride and groom need to consent to the marriage and this is done through the ijab – formal proposal, and the qabul – the acceptance – which they both have to say three times. After the consent, a marriage contract is signed, which includes the mahr. In modern weddings the bride also signs this document, which legally binds them in marriage.
The qazi may give a quick sermon, where he reminds the new couple about their rights and responsibilities, and then he recites from the Qur’an and asks God to bless the marriage. Couples don’t ordinarily recite vows, but they can follow tradition and share pieces of dried fruit and sweet. When they leave, the bride is showered with coins – a ritual known as savaqah.
A Muslim wedding needs to be declared publicly, and this is done through the walimah – feast. It may be held hours, days, weeks or even a month after the nikah, and it’s organised by the groom and his family. The event can be simple and intimate, with tea and cake, or it can be a lavish multi-course meal for the whole community. It’s traditional for the men and women to be separated, and some families even choose to have two feasts – one for the men and one for the women.
These are the essential social and legal obligations that validate a Muslim wedding, but there are many other traditions that are specific to the culture of the bridal couple.
Turkish Muslims make their engagement official by sharing sherbet – a drink made from ice and fruit juice. An Imam will ask the fathers of the bride and groom to repeat three times, their support for the marriage. After this is done, the Imam legitimises the engagement and everyone drinks sherbet.
The fatha is a ceremony conducted in numerous Muslim countries, by male friends and family, where they thank God for the engagement and bless the fathers of the bride and groom. This takes place at a mosque, during noon prayers, on the Friday after the groom has proposed.
There is no formal engagement ceremony in Islam, but there is a tradition for Muslims in India, where the groom’s mother takes sweets and gifts to the bride’s house. Here she wraps a gold or silver coin in a silken cloth, and ties it to the bride’s hand for luck and prosperity.
In this pre-wedding ceremony in Bangladesh and India, the bride is dressed in yellow and is seated on a raised platform. Her female friends and family apply turmeric paste to her skin, which is supposed to soften her skin and give her a bridal “glow”. The bride now shouldn’t leave the house until her wedding day. In the UAE, the Emirati bride is kept in her home for 40 days before the wedding. During this time she’s fed special food and is rubbed with oils and special creams.
Mehndi is one of the most anticipated pre-wedding events for many Muslims, and it’s conducted a day or two before the wedding. It’s normally held at the bride’s house, and is mainly celebrated by her friends and family, however, the groom may also attend. Mehndi is henna paste, and during this ceremony one of the bride’s relatives, or a mehndi artist, will cover the bride’s hands and feet with beautiful, intricate henna designs. Mehndi can be applied to the groom, but the design is very simple. It’s one of the oldest and most important traditions, but also one of the most fun, and it’s filled with singing and dancing.
(Courtesy Josph Pascua Photography)
In Pakistan and other South Asian countries, the groom’s procession is known as the baraat, and it’s usually accompanied by a band of musicians. It’s customary for the bride’s sisters and friends to play pranks on the groom, like preventing him from entering the venue until he pays them a certain amount of money. They also playfully slap the groom’s guests with bouquets of flowers.
Muslims in South Asia will perform arsi mushaf after the wedding feast. Arsi means “mirror” and mushaf is the Qur’an, and during the ceremony a dupatta - long cloth - is placed over the newlyweds, and they use mirrors to see each other for the first time. The Qur’an is there to provide divine blessings. In Bangladesh, the couple will share borhani – a spicy yoghurt drink – and then exchange garlands of flowers.
One of the most emotional ceremonies for the bride is rukhsat, as it’s now that she says goodbye to her parents. The bride’s father offers her hand to the groom, asking him to protect his new wife. The married couple return to the groom’s home, where the mother of the groom holds a Qur’an over her daughter-in-law’s head to bless and protect her. This is the start of her married life.
No matter what wedding you’re attending, it’s important to respect the cultural and religious traditions of the bride, groom and their families. Understanding, or at least being aware of, the different ceremonies and their significance, shows your interest, acceptance, empathy and friendship, which are probably the reasons why you were invited to share this special day with the newlyweds.