Nikkah is the word for marriage in Islam. It is considered a civil contract between a man and a woman for the purpose of forming a family and engaging in marital relations that are allowed and wholesome. It is not considered a religious sacrament. The Prophet encouraged people to get married as soon as they were financially able so that the “raging hormone syndrome” that drives people to date and become promiscuous can be avoided. Ideally, young men and women should get married any time between the completion of puberty and the age of 25.
There is no dating allowed in Islam, so how do prospective partners meet? This question often comes up in public presentations of Islam. It may surprise you to learn that dating was unknown in America just a hundred years ago. Prior to the modern era, people used to be paired up by relatives and through contact at social functions or in school. Islam has a similar mechanism for getting people together.
Islam allows prospective mates to meet in chaperoned circumstances. Never are two unmarried people to be alone together. Every woman who is seeking a husband is required to have what is known as a wali, or guardian, who will act on her behalf and for her benefit. Basically, the Wali has the job of telling men to give it up if the woman decides against further contact with them. The wali also sees to it that unscrupulous men are kept at bay.
Meetings in chaperoned settings or in public can go on for as long as both sides like, so they can get to know each other better. If they decide to end the explorations, there is no shame on either party. If they decide to go forward and get married, then a public announcement of engagement is made and a formal wedding date is set. There is no concept in Islam of living together first or having intimate relations as a way of testing the worth of a match.
The woman then sets a dowry for the man to give that is called a Mahr, or marriage gift. She can ask for as much or as little as she desires, whether it be money, a house, or even merely a ring. If the amount is very high, she may give her bridegroom a timetable to pay it off after marriage. This monetary gift to the woman is sort of like an insurance policy for her, giving her some financial muscle just in case the marriage doesn’t last long.
When the day of the wedding ceremony arrives, people gather either in a big hall or in a mosque. The pair of soon to be newly weds sits in the front, facing the Imam, who is seated as well. The Imam asks the wali if the woman has agreed to the wedding, and then he asks the man if he agrees. The amount of the mahr is publicly announced.
Next, the Imam asks each party to exchange and sign a wedding contract. This document spells out the rights, duties, concerns, and obligations that each side wants the other to obey. When this is done, the Imam reads the sermon of marriage, which begins by invoking God and then extols the merits of a loving relationship. Following this, the opening verses of Chapter 4 of the Quran are read. The subject matter is God’s creation of men and women and how they are supposed to join together in marriage. The Imam announces the marriage complete, and the joyous gathering erupts in a flurry of congratulations and hugging of the newlyweds. There is a reception afterward, called a Walima, in which the wedding party celebrates with food, fun, and gift giving.