Muslim weddings vary enormously according to the culture of the people involved.
Many people in the UK, for example, confuse the celebrations at a Pakistani or Bangladeshi wedding with an Islamic wedding, and assume they are the same thing. This is not so, of course, for many of the Muslims who marry are from widely different cultures - for example European, Turkish, African, Malaysian, and so on.
Secondly, it is important to realise that the 'wedding' means different things too. For many Muslims, it is the Islamic ceremony that counts as the actual wedding, and not the confirmation of that wedding in a registry office.
Oddly enough, although mosques are obviously places of worship, the majority of them in the UK have not yet been officially registered as such, and so any Islamic wedding that merely takes place at a mosque has to be registered legally with the UK law as well, in order to be seen as valid in the UK.
Having said that, of course it is a fact that many couples live together these days as 'partners', and 'common law wives' have recently been accorded various legal rights they were not entitled to previously.
A legal contract
In Islam, a person should be properly married, and this should include both the religious ceremony and the legal requirements of the law of the land - something not of prime concern to certain Muslims. However, Muslims who marry without legal registration are putting their womenfolk at some risk, and their children are not legitimate in the eyes of the UK law - and no Muslim should wish to put his wife and children in this difficult position.
In Islam, marriages are not considered to be 'made in heaven' between 'soul-mates' destined for each other; they are not sacraments. They are social contracts which bring rights and obligations to both parties, and can only be successful when these are mutually respected and cherished.
If and when such contracts are broken, either party is entitled to seek divorce. It is not assumed that a couple will remain together 'till death do us part'. Islam is realistic, and aware that many marriages go wrong and break down for all sorts of reasons. However, most marriages commence with the best of intentions, and the state of marriage is regarded as the ideal way for Muslims to live. Celibacy is disapproved, as it may lead to all sorts of psychological and physical tensions and problems. Sexual intimacy outside marriage is forbidden to Muslims, including all varieties of relationship - homosexual as well as heterosexual.
It is important, therefore, that persons getting married should do their utmost to make the partner happy and satisfied in every respect. Truly practising Muslims will keep the rules, and may only have one sexual partner in the whole of their lives. In some Muslim communities divorce is common and frequent, but in others it is strongly disapproved of and divorced women would find it difficult to find a later partner.
In Islam, it is commendable if women can be taken care of, and so efforts should be made to settle them with good husbands so far as is possible. Many Muslim marriages are very happy, sometimes even if the couple have not seen each other before the marriage, but have trusted in the judgement of their parents to arrange a good match for them. However, it is recommended that prospective spouses do see each other, and have a guardian or wali to make discreet inquiries about the intended to discern if the marriage has a good chance of success.
At the time of the revelation of the Qur'an it was normal procedure for men to have more than one wife, up to the limits of their ability to support them. Also, powerful and wealthy women also had marital arrangements with more than one partner. One difference between Islam and other faiths is that to this day a man may have more than one wife, up to the limit of four wives simultaneously - so long as it is not done to the detriment and hurt of the existing Muslim partner(s).
The refusal to hurt or abuse another Muslim is a basic requirement in Islam, and is assumed in polygamous marriage considerations. If a man feels unable to treat all parties with kindness, love and scrupulous fairness, he is ordered by God not to take more than one wife. Muslim women are required to have only one husband at a time - they may still marry more than one man in a lifetime, but consecutively.
In Islam, not every person consummates their marriage physically straight away; sometimes the girl may be very young, and it is considered more suitable to wait until she is older. Sometimes the couple may not be able to live together for some reason. A wedding contract may be arranged, signed and witnessed without the bride actually being present, or intending to live with the spouse straight away.
Muslims are encouraged to look for a spouse on the grounds of compatibility through piety, rather than for good looks, or wealth, or prestige. People from very diverse backgrounds can be very happy together if their understanding and practice of Islam is compatible.
Mahr and the ceremony
Muslim marriages are frequently arranged by the parents of the young people. This is not an Islamic necessity, but parents are encouraged to do their best to see their offspring settled with good life-partners. Although divorce is allowed, the ideal is to settle down with a life-partner, and of all the things God does permit, divorce is said to be the thing He likes least.
Most young Muslims live sheltered lives, and are not encouraged to mix freely with the opposite sex - and consequently are protected from the business of 'falling in love', which can lead to all sorts of heartaches, clouded judgement, unsuitable relationships, and tragic consequences.
It is forbidden in Islam for parents (or others) to force, coerce, or trick youngsters into marriage. Unfortunately, there have been cases in the UK where this has happened amongst Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from the Indian subcontinent - but publicity and education in Islam is improving the situation rapidly. Although many marriages are arranged, it has to be with the willing consent of the couple involved, and they should be able to reject possible suitors without embarrassment.
A Muslim girl (and boy) is expected to be a virgin at the time of the first marriage. Obviously, this would not be the case for a subsequent marriage.
A Muslim husband has to agree a financial deal with the prospective wife before marriage. This money present is known as the mahr, and is a payment made to the bride which is hers to keep and use as she wishes. The reason is that even if the girl has nothing, she becomes a bride with property of her own. If the bride later seeks a divorce which the husband does not wish for, she is allowed to return him the money and seek what is known as a khul divorce. Normally, if a divorce takes place for the usual reasons, the bride would be entitled to keep the mahr.
Sometimes a bride (or her family) demands an enormous mahr. The Prophet (pbuh) set the example of modest sums, and many Muslim women generously use their money to support their husbands and families in some way, although they are not obliged to do so.
If a woman has money of her own, she is not obliged to spend it on her husband or family, but a Muslim husband has the obligation to be able to keep and support his wife and children himself, at his own expense. If a wife goes out to work, or donates money, this is to her credit and is regarded as an act of charity (sadaqah).
The actual Muslim wedding is known as a nikah. It is a simple ceremony, at which the bride does not have to be present so long as she sends two witnesses to the drawn-up agreement. Normally, the ceremony consists of reading from the Qur'an, and the exchange of vows in front of witnesses for both partners. No special religious official is necessary, but often the Imam is present and performs the ceremony. He may give a short sermon.
There are certain things which are basic to all Muslim marriages. Marriages have to be declared publicly. They should never be undertaken in secret. The publicity is usually achieved by having a large feast, or walimah - a party specifically for the purpose of announcing publicly that the couple are married and entitled to each other.
Many wedding customs are a matter of culture and not of Islam. The bride and groom may be obliged to sit on 'thrones' on a platform, to be seen by the guests. They may receive gifts, or gifts of money.
The majority of brides favour a traditional white wedding dress, but brides from the Asian subcontinent often favour a shalwar-qameez outfit in scarlet with gold thread, and have their hands and feet patterned with henna. They might also have vast feasts with hundreds of guests, usually with the males in a separate room from the females. Other Muslims have simple celebratory parties with only close friends and relatives.
In some cultures there may be dancing, firing of guns, lots of noise and hilarity. Asian weddings often include pre-nuptial parties and gathering too - the whole process may last several days.