Q. As you may know, the nikah (wedding) ceremony can be quite elaborate, with long du'as, mil'ad, ta'zeem, etc. What is the correct procedure for a nikah ceremony from the time the bride and groom are seated together in the presence of their guests? Also, does it matter if the bride is seated to the right or left of the groom? Your input, as always, would be sincerely appreciated.

A. Your question seems to presuppose that there is one "Islamic" way of performing a marriage ceremony. This too may have been precipitated by my answer to a related question on this website. Please note, however, in that situation I gave what I considered to be the minimum functional requirements of the ceremony. Based on the difference of legal requirements and customs, we cannot give any one specific way of performing such a ceremony. In keeping with certain forms of the traditions in the medieval fiqh texts, as well as trying to be in touch with today's standards, a general minimum would be as follows:

- The officiant announces the purpose of the gathering.

- S/he may choose to follow the traditional preamble in which three particular verses of the Qur'an are recited (4:1; 49:13; 3:102), and the honor of marriage spoken about.

- S/he then tells the bride about the groom's proposal, and asks her if she accepts it. S/he will mention the dower, and if there are any conditions attached thereto, such as if it will be paid in parts, etc.

The officiant may also deal with any conditions that either party may stipulate, of course dealing with such only if they are allowable according to Islam. A woman may, for example, if she is caring for a sick parent, stipulate that her marriage in no way impedes this arrangement, or that her pre-nuptial property remains separate from the groom's, etc. The officiant may do this in the phraseology used in civil weddings: "Do you (name mentioned) agree to take this man as your spouse according to the laws of Islam and the state (or some such thing)." S/he should be careful to use words that have no ambiguous meaning, for the fiqh texts specify the use of the word "nikah" to imply marriage. The officiant cannot, for example, ask if she agrees to live with the man, since in some societies, common-law marriage is allowed, and Islam forbids this. In the scenario I have presented, the proposal comes from the groom; it may come from the other party as well.

I have also shown that the proposal is put to the bride directly, while tradition has it being put to her "guardian" or "wali." If this is a strong custom among your people, then follow it, but know that since marriage is now no longer contracted between minors in most societies, and assuming that the bride is mature, it detracts from the respect that should be shown to her ability to make decisions. Please note too that her father and other relatives are generally present. In a situation where they are not, the officiant should question the circumstances for their absence and verify such reasons. Only in a case where there is a bona fide reason should the ceremony be continued. The officiant may then ask if there is anyone present who knows of any reason why the two should not be married; this may also be asked before the ceremony, and it is indeed better to do so immediately after announcing the reason for the gathering.

In keeping with tradition too, during the ceremony, the full names of the two parties may be used, in order to avoid any stratagems and loopholes that may be sought by unscrupulous elements. After all of the above have been satisfied, and the necessary documents signed, the officiant may declare that by the power vested in him/her by the state, and in keeping with the rules and regulations of Allah's book, s/he now pronounces the two husband and wife (or if there is another expression using gender neutral terms, but still meaning partners by legal marriage, then s/he may use it.) S/he may then make a short du'a or wish them well, which concludes the ceremony. There is no ta'zim or mil'ad, these are absolutely sinful innovations in terms of their practice, and in terms of some of the ideas of shirk mentioned in some of the lyrics.

As far as seating arrangements are concerned with the bride being placed to the right or left, there is no legal basis for this. It may be dictated in concordance with the custom of the land, as long as such custom does not in any way have any negative connotations for either of the parties. Note that in the above, I have mentioned three verses of the Qur'an, this is a sunna, and stressed upon since it is the most appropriate reading for the situation. It should also be noted that anything extraneous to this is frowned upon, since the ceremony should be as short as possible. I am aware that there are speeches, etc. that have become a part of the ceremony nowadays. One should distinguish between the ceremony and the walimah -- the ceremony should be short, with the officiant doing only as prescribed above. At the walimah, which may or may not be immediately subsequent to the ceremony, there may be room for speeches.

Posted April 4, 2000