Muslim Matrimonials and More

Wedding Customs Around the Muslim World


Reprinted from's Anthropology section, by Alexander F. Christensen, Ph.D.

The Rashaayda Bedouins of Eastern Sudan belong to a world religion: They are Muslims. While other tribal communities may each have their own distinctive religious beliefs, the Rashaayda belong to a much larger faith community. Because rites of passage are an important part of most religions, one might expect a fair degree of consistency in Muslim marriage practices around the world.

Sword dance at a Sudanese Rashaayda wedding
A traditional woman's sword dance at a wedding of the Sudanese Rashaayda people.

But then again, how consistent are Christian marriage practices? English, German, Irish, Italian, and Russian weddings may all share some Christian elements, but they are distinctive ceremonies. In the US, marriage ceremonies may have some religious content, but most share many elements across religious lines. An American Catholic wedding is more similar to an American Presbyterian wedding than either is to a Mexican Catholic wedding or a Scottish Presbyterian one. It is the same in the Muslim world.

To get married, a Rashaayda youth must take a share of his family's wealth, in cash and cattle, and present it to the family of his intended in exchange for her. Her father will, in turn, give most of this wealth to her, now in the form of cattle for the new household's herd and silver and gold jewelry for herself. She has no rights to inherit anything else from her parents. If she later gets divorced, she receives one payment from her husband, and gets to keep her jewelry; the cattle remain with him.

A Rashaayda wedding is at least a two day affair, when many people congregate at the bride's family's camp to feast and socialize. The available ethnographic account, by William Young, provides little data on religious content; instead, it focuses on the festivities. Weddings are a primary venue for competition. Young men and women perform in many different ways to garner prestige and impress the opposite sex. On the first day, teams of men compete to butcher animals as rapidly as possible. On the second day, young men engage in a camel race, singing, and sword-dancing competitions, while young women dance.

The camel race is organized by the men of the bride's family. Her uncles and brothers lead a collection of young men, including the groom, off into the desert until they decide they have gone far enough. They then race back to camp, where her father waits with the other guests to award a cash prize to the winner. This prize is later returned to the groom as a wedding present. The groom himself must participate in the race to prove his worthiness, but does not need to win.

After the race, the guests eat a mid-morning meal, rest and converse. In the afternoon, there are several other contests. First the men form in two facing lines, who sing in unison. One youth at a time steps in between the lines and twirls his sword around in time with the music. The more talented he is, the longer he is allowed to perform. Then the women emerge from the tents in their finery and dance between the lines in turn. Once again, one receives a cash prize which she later passes on as a wedding gift.

Below is an first-person description of a Rashaayda wedding. It is an excerpt from the book, "Rashaayda Bedouin: Arab Pastoralists of Eastern Sudan" by William Charles Young:

This is an excerpt about men's and women's sword dancing displays and the tipping of money at a wedding celebration.

Following a camel race that celebrates the wedding... we returned to the wedding tents and had our mid-morning meal. We were served meat, as a first course, and then were given porridge. A few hours passed, while we chatted and digested our meal. When noon came most of the guests took naps, retiring to the shelter of the wedding tents or to the tents of nearby friends. It was not until afternoon that the second competition -- the men's swordplay and singing -- began.

The men left the wedding tent and formed two parallel lines in front of it, with the men in each line facing the men in the line opposite. A man in the center of one line started to recite poetry, composed in a distinctive meter called az-zariibi. He shouted out a stanza and its refrain, and the men of the opposite line, who were listening, repeated the refrain as soon as he finished it. When the men in nearby tents heard the singing they came to join in, and slowly the two lines drew farther apart until there was a wide space between them. The dancing ground--an arena for displays of swordsmanship--was ready.

The first performer, a young man in his late teens, walked into the arena and unsheathed his sword. He faced one of the lines, grasped the sword by its hilt tightly, and raised the blade in front of him. Holding it at arm's length, he swung the blade to the left and to the right in wide, flashing arcs. While he flipped the heavy sword with his right hand, he put his left hand behind his back and hopped backwards and forwards, approaching and retreating from his audience in time to their singing.

Because he was truly skillful, the two lines of singers rewarded him by allowing him a full five minutes to perform. They kept time while he danced by clapping in unison, and with every second clap they leaped, all at the same time, into the air. When they hit the ground the impact of their feet against the hard clay could be heard throughout the camp. Eventually the sword dancer grew tired, however, and his place was taken by another young man. This second dancer was not so successful; he could not swing his sword as quickly or as steadily. Passing judgment, the singers in one of the lines stopped singing after only a minute. Without accompaniment, he had to retire from the arena and give his place to a third performer.

Next came the women's competition. When the women in the women's tent heard the men start to sing and dance, they dressed themselves up (tazachchinoo) for dancing. They applied mascara (kuhil, powdered antimony) to their eyelids and put special rings on their fingers that had long silver bangles. Those who had any extra silver necklaces or jewelry put those on, too, so that the metal would make a pleasant jingling sound as they danced. They also took out their married women's ritual veils (baraagi'), which they had brought with them for the wedding, and slipped them on over their masks.

Their change of costume complete, the women left their tents and approached the dancing ground. As soon as they arrived the swordsmen left the arena to make room for them. The two parallel lines of singing men moved closer together and everyone else crowded around them to watch the dance. Some of the young men even mounted their camels and peered down from their high perches at the dancing ground; they had the best view of the dancers.

The man in the middle of one line gave the signal for the dance to begin. He raised his right hand to silence the crowd and sang out a poem which, I was told, he had composed on the spot. He described the dance and addressed the women dancers, flirting with them in oblique, poetic language:

min il-'asri waagif wa adukk as-saliila
wa laa-ntuu ba 'iidiin ya 'aal muu damaani

"I've been pounding the sand since the late afternoon;
you descendants of Adam were not far away."

What he meant was: "I've been dancing at this wedding since the late afternoon, and you daughters of Adam have stayed close enough to watch me." He shouted out this stanza and its refrain and the men of the line opposite listened. They clearly liked the opening stanza and showed their approval by repeating the refrain: wa laa-ntuu ba'iidiin ya 'aal muu damaani. Then the first line repeated the opening stanza, and the opposite line sang out the refrain once again. One of the women responded by entering the dancing ground and starting to dance.

She did not sing or speak, but just raised her silver-laden hands and clapped them together lightly, in time with the singing. She turned around slowly, her long, colored sleeves and skirt flaring out around her body as she whirled. One of the men singers, inspired, unslung his sword from his shoulder and unsheathed it. He handed the sword to the dancer, and she took it in both hands, holding it delicately by the hilt and the blade, and rested it against her forehead. Its steel blade and the shining mother-of-pearl buttons on her burga' gleamed. Turning to face one row of men, she saluted them by hopping toward them as she danced. They replied by jumping still higher as they clapped and sang.

Then three other women entered the dance ground and started to turn around slowly next to her. A fourth woman took out a bottle of perfume and walked past the lines of men, splashing their white turbans and hands with it liberally. They held out their hands to receive it and wiped the excess perfume on their short beards and faces. In this way the community of men and the community of married women exchanged gestures of esteem.

After some minutes of strenuous exertion the first women to enter the dancing ground were exhausted. They paused to breathe and adjust their heavy, silver-encrusted veils. This pause gave one of the men an opportunity to enter the arena. He approached one dancer and, using a safety pin, fastened a thick wad of ten-pound notes to the right side of her burga'. This was not a gift; it was a prize that the woman had earned by dint of her excellence as a dancer and a seamstress.

This award was purely symbolic and had no monetary value for the woman who received it. She did not keep the money but passed it on later to the groom as a wedding gift. Gratified that she was selected as an example of an ideal woman and wife, she left the arena and made room for other women to take their turns.

Prestige, change, and history. The wedding performances and prizes represent the achievements of men and women as if they were equally rewarded and perfectly complementary. Each sex is given a chance to perform, and the best performers of each sex are given recognition. Yet we should not be misled by this image of equality and complementarily. Taken as a whole--that is, as a system of rewards for material production and artistic performance, as well--the Rashaayda's current prestige system favors men. True, performers of both sexes are rewarded during the wedding. But many of the things produced by men--racing camels, wooden saddles, and livestock--can be sold for high prices, which means that men also gain material rewards for skillful work. Most women's products (cooked food, leather containers, tent cloth), on the other hand, are used only in the home and are seldom sold. There is no market for most women's products, so women who are good cooks, weavers, and seamstresses receive only symbolic recognition for the excellence of their work.

This imbalance is not caused by the Rashaayda's own division of labor. Rather, it originates in the market economy that surrounds Rashiidi society. If the Rashaayda were still primarily subsistence pastoralists, as they were at the beginning of this century, neither men nor women would be able to market the things they made. The goods made by all household members would be consumed by the household, and the only benefits derived from superior work would take the form of improved comfort (better housing, a better diet) and security (safety from thieves, larger stores of food). In a subsistence economy, both men and women would receive only symbolic rewards for their accomplishments.


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