Considering that there are over 1.5 Billion Muslims in the world (and counting), there is no SINGLE way for all Muslim weddings to be held. There are 49 Muslim majority countries and each contains many regional and cultural differences.
Additionally, many Muslims living in the West then mix family traditions with their host countries e.g. U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia, and you have many permutations. We can discuss some of the major regional differences, for example, Arab versus Indian-sub continent wedding customs in subsequent write-ups, but this is just meant to be a starting point. Feel free to adapt the information below to your wedding customs.
Usually, the groom’s parents and elders come to the bride to be’s house and ask for her hand in marriage. There may be a recitation of the Quran’s first chapter, Surah Fatiha, and refreshments served. In “religious” and/or conservative families, this act may not include the groom.
However, here in the West, after being given permission to ask by say the father or brother of the groom, it may be the groom then proposes. Depending on cultural and family tradition the groom or his family may give a gift e.g. jewelry or some small amount of money as a token gesture that they are committed.
Although not an Islamic requirement, with the flow of cultures, it is common certainly here in the West for there to be an engagement. This can be a simple informal event just between the families or more formal, where it turns into a prelude for a simpler, smaller wedding. It can take place in the bride’s home or in a restaurant with family and close friends. Again customs vary.
In more affluent or less conservative families, there may be an exchange of rings and gifts for the respective families with the ring being placed by the groom’s mother or sister on the bride-to-be. For less conservative, the actual exchange may happen with the future couple under the auspices of the respective families. There may be a short prayer to bless the upcoming marriage.
This cultural celebration, more common with the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent and those that are more affluent, has started to become more common. The greater the affluence, the more the dollies that are hosted by different family friends. The dolce refers to the drum played and sung to by ladies at all the functions. Nowadays this also includes dancing in all-female gatherings.
Mehndi or Henna
Mehndi, a skin decoration most commonly used on the Indian sub-continent and in the Middle East custom refers to a celebration usually one or two nights before the wedding. Traditionally this used to be an all-ladies night event held at the bride’s home, where the Mehndi or henna is applied to the palms and feet of the bride-to-be.
This was combined with the beat of the dholki (drum) and traditional songs. These days the old has been replaced with the new. More commonly now in the West and with affluent families, it is the groom’s side that brings the henna and sweets depending on cultural norms both sides participate. There may be fun and competition with the bride’s side teasing the groom’s family, but all with respect.
Not only the bride-to-be but also close family and friends also participate in the Mehndi application although not as elaborate as the brides. In Indian/Pakistani culture the bride wears green or yellow/orange, but this is very much cultural and personal. The event which is now more formalized can take place at the bride’s home followed by dinner (potluck or catered) or at a restaurant.
This refers to the groom’s procession which includes family and friends that go to visit the bride’s home, or home city for the nikah. In traditional affluent Indian culture, the groom may go on a white decorated horse. These days the horse has been replaced with a car.
The greater the affluence the more expensive the car. Although these days it is possible to rent limousines, classic cars and Rolls Royce’s, so many options. The Barat may be received by a band. As they enter, the bride’s side of the family and friends put a flower necklace (Lei) on the groom and some key family members. They also throw confetti or rose petals on the groom’s procession, typically done by the bride’s family and friends.
This is the actual wedding ceremony, usually officiated by a Muslim Cleric, an Imam. Although a nikah can be done anywhere including the bride’s home or reception hall, it is preferable and usually done these days in a mosque. Men and women sit in segregated areas, just as they pray. The Imam will ask for two witnesses from the bride’s side who will then accompany the Imam to the women’s side or just ask the witnesses to get the signed permission of the wedding registration documents.
Depending on state and country the laws may be a little different. Once the witnesses return, the Imam conducts the Nikah by giving a short sermon (khutbah) and then asking the bride’s father (the Wali or guardian) if he gives permission for his daughter to be married. The Imam then turns to the groom and asks him if he will fulfill his rights and obligations and to pay the Mahr. Mahr does not translate easily into English, as it is loosely related to a gift, tax or dowry.
It is usually monetary but doesn’t have to be. The Imam will finally make a dua or prayer for the new couple. There are many duas, but the most common and Prophetic one is ‘barak Allahu lakum wa barak ‘aleikum wa jama’ bainakuma fi khair’ which means “May Allah bless you, surround you with blessings, and bring you both together in virtue and prosperity.”
It is a Sunnah to share something sweets e.g. Dates, after the nikah. Depending on when/where the nikah is being held, you may choose to offer a light lunch or dinner for the guests especially those who have come from afar.
Registration requirements vary by country and state. In places like the U.K., it is a formal process, which can be attended by close family. In the U.S., and specifically in California it is a three-stage process for Muslims. First, the bride and groom need to fill out the paperwork at the registrars’ office and pay the fees.
The bride should have decided by this point if she is going to change her last name or keep her maiden name. Islamically it is not a requirement for a woman to change her name. The second step of the registration takes place at the Nikah where the Imam completes the paperwork provided by the city/county. The third and final step is that this paperwork is returned to the city/county and legally the marriage becomes valid.
Reception and Valima (Walima).
There are many variants on the reception and Walima. It is something that you and your families will need to discuss, maybe negotiate, and agree upon. In certain cultures like Pakistani, it is the bride’s parents that pay for and hold the reception. Most of the guests are from the bride’s side plus the barat that has come with the groom.
Later, next day or week to allow the groom’s side to invite their guests and some from the bride’s side, a valima is held. In other cultures like Afghan or Arab, it is the grooms’ side that pays for the reception. Sometimes if the number of guests on each side is similar or there are many shared guests in common a single event, a reception and valima may be held. Both sides can split the costs (or not). There are no hard and fast rules about who pays for what, but as long as it is fair and mutually acceptable and done in good spirit that is what counts.
Rukhsti is the farewell even when the bride leaves her home or home city for the groom’s home. The bride’s father and family escort their daughter to the waiting groom’s car. It is usually an emotional event, where the bride, bride’s father, and mother bid farewell with lots of prayers and, yes, many times tears. This will be the first night the couple gets to spend together.
The less the families and the couple know each other the greater the anxiety. Conversely these days it is not uncommon for a lot of communication to take place and that bride and groom have some level of familiarity. The couple may head to a hotel, their apartment (which the groom has secured), or the groom’s family home.
Although a recent cultural addition after the wedding, most Muslim couples in the West go for a honeymoon to the desired destination. Some who are more religiously inclined go for Umrah to Mecca and on the return journey spend time in Istanbul, Cairo, or other destinations.
Others chose exotic locations that have some Muslim significance, for example, the Maldives, Mauritius, Malaysia, Morocco… Not sure why they all start with M, but they don’t have to be. This is a time for the new couple to get privacy especially from family and get to know each other as husband and wife.