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Marriage in Islam – Questions and Answers

Chinese Muslim wedding

A Chinese Muslim bride at her wedding. Red is a traditional wedding color in many Asian countries.

Sheikh Syed Darsh, graduate of Al-Azhar, Cairo, Chairman of UK Shari’ah Council and expert on family matters, answers some frequently asked questions about marriage.
Question: Is it a sunnah/recommendation to marry one’s cousin or is the reverse true – marry from afar to produce strong progeny?


It is not a sunnah or a recommendation to marry one’s cousin nor is the reverse true; to marry from afar to produce strong progeny. This whole question is left to the social customs or norms.

I am told by a Muslim scholar from a traditional-tribal society that in his culture, the cousin has the social right upon his female cousin and that she is not to be offered to him first. No one may propose to her until he has expressed his wish not to marry her. In a way, within the Arab, particularly tribal societies, they consider marrying within the family, more honourable, more protective; keeping lineage pure and well established.

However, there is a statement which is attributed mistakenly to the Messenger of Allah, “Marry from outside the family, otherwise your offspring will be weak.” In fact this, or something similar, is correctly attributed to Umar ibn Al-Khattab saying to the family of As-Saib, “Your offspring are becoming so thin and weak. Marry outside your close of kin.” In discouraging this marriage, Al-Ghazali in his Ihya Ulum ad-Deen says, “Familiarity and close family tie weaken the sexual desire in both of them. As a result, children become weak.” This is not a good reason. For surely, when partners marry, after a few months they become familiar, there may be nothing new to attract as they know each other inside out, but the natural desire is there.

However, research nowadays is showing that the marriage of close relatives leads to the accumulation of negative inherited qualities. For scientific reasons therefore it may be advisable to marry from afar.

Can a girl/boy choose her/his own partner?

Traditionally girls were the passive partners in such matches. The possibility of meeting, becoming acquainted with or familiarising oneself with the male partner-to-be was not widely available. It was left to families, who know one another in static immovable communities, to arrange such a proposal. Al-Islam has given each party the right to see the family setting. If they like one another, the match may go further and marriage preparation proceed.

One of the companions of the Prophet (SAW) told him one day that he proposed to a girl. The Prophet (SAW) said, “Have you seen her?” He said, “No”. He said to him, “See her. For this would bless your marriage with success”. The same is true as far as the girl is concerned. The messenger of Allah has given the girl the right to express her views on the proposed person. He said, “The permission of the virgin is to be sought. And if she does not object, her silence is her permission.” As for the divorced or one who is widowed, no one has a say with her.

That is, she has to express very clearly her desire in accepting or rejecting. This is the traditional old fashioned way. Nowadays girls go to school and proceed to universities. They meet with boys in classrooms, Islamic societies and at universities up and down the country. They get to know one another in a decent moral environment. They are mature, well educated, cultured and outspoken. These factors have to be taken into consideration.

Gaza university graduates

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP - JULY 31: Palestinian engineering students attend their graduation ceremony at The Islamic University on July 31, 2005 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip. 2095 students were graduated from The Islamic University for the 2005 studying season. Photo: Abid Katib/Getty Images Jul 31, 2005

Once a decent, good mannered Islamically committed young Muslim attracts the attention of a like minded Muslimah, their parents have to be reasonable. Of course, they are interested in the happiness and success of the marriage of their son or daughter, but they have to realise that they are not buying or selling commodities. Their care, compassion and love for their children should not make them extra protective or act as a barrier between their children and their children’s future. In the words of the hadith “If a person with satisfying religious attitude comes to seek your daughter in marriage, accept that. If you do not, there will be great mischief on earth and a great trouble.” At the same time young people who are blessed with education have to show patience, understanding and should argue their case in a rational and respectable manner.

What should we look for in a partner?

It is very difficult to give general guidelines, as people are individuals and as such have different priorities when selecting a life long partner. However, the hadith of the Prophet (SAW) has given us some clues as to what is to be desired most in both men and women. Because it is usually the male who proposes, the address in the hadith is directed to the male would-be-suitor. He said, “A woman maybe be sought in marriage either for her beauty, nobility, wealth or religious inclination. Seek the last and you will be the more successful.” The same holds for the female in the choice of a partner.

However, the hadith does not exclude beauty. It is one of the qualities satisfying and protecting the hungry gaze. If that is required in the young woman, it is required in the man too. Al-Qurtubi reported the Prophet (SAW) as saying, “Do not give your daughters to the ugly or nasty looking. For they desire of men what men desire of women.”

The wife of Thabit ibn Qays said to the messenger of Allah, “My face and his face will never look at one another” He asked her, “Why?” She said, “I looked at him coming in the company of other of his friends and he was the shortest and the ugliest.” The messenger asked her, “Will you return to him the dower he has given you?” She replied, “Even if he asks more, I shall give it to him.” The Prophet (SAW) told the husband, “Take what you have given her and release her.” He did.

The age difference between potential partners should not be too great. It is not fair to give a young girl to a man who is twenty or thirty years her senior. If she, for one reason or another, accepts, or he accepts, then it is their choice. But they should be aware of the future of their relationship and the implications of such a marriage.

A grey haired man passed by a young black haired girl and he proposed to her. She looked at him and said, “I accept, but there is a snag”. He enquired to which she answered, “I have some grey hair.” The man passed on without a word. She called out, “My uncle, look at my hair!” She had hair as black as coal. He said to her, “Why did you say what you did?” She answered, “To let you know that we do not like of men what they do not like of women.”

Marriage is not for fun or experience. It is a life long relationship. For that reason, any factor detrimental to the relationship should be avoided as much as possible. Highly educated males and females should seek partners of similar educational background. Cultural and family background is very important. Common language is an essential way of communicating. Such things help the two partners to understand, communicate and relate to one another and are factors of stability and success.

Financial independence and the ability to provide a decent acceptable level of maintenance. Again, this is a way of insuring that outside influences do not spoil an otherwise happy life.

All ways and means should be considered giving a solid bases for new human experience which is expected to provide a framework for a happy, successful and amicable life. All this is to be considered within the context of Muslims living in Britain today.

A Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim man. A Muslim man has to think very seriously indeed before marrying a woman from the people of the book and conversion just for the sake of marriage may not be a genuine reason. In a non-Muslim country a Muslim man has no right to bring up his children as Muslims, and this obligation particularly if love gradually dries up and the relationship begins to show signs of strain.

The question of common language, background, education and age etc. are meant, in an ordinary stable context, to maximise the chances of success and stability in a very important Islamic institution – that of marriage. However, considering the particular position of Muslim communities living in minority situations, young Muslims, male and female, are exposed to all sorts of challenges be they cultural, linguistic, racial or social. The most fundamental question when choosing a partner is a religious one.

British Muslim woman with the flag

Issues of language and racial background have less significance for British-born Muslims. Photo: Woman at “Muslims Against Terrorism” rally in London, 11 Sept 2007/Toby Melville)

As far as language, background, or social position are concerned, these are not significant factors that absolutely must be fulfilled before a marriage can take place, indeed such considerations may not be relevant to young Muslims living in Britain as they have common language – English, and the social positions of their families in their countries of origins may well be equalised living in Britain. If the prospective partner is of a good character, strong religious inclination and the two young people are happy and feel compatible with one another other considerations are not of such importance.

Can a parent refuse a proposal from a good Muslim for his daughter on the basis that the suitor is not of the same race/caste?

There is no concept of caste in Islam. Racial background is a fact of life. The Qur’an considers the difference of race, colour or language as signs of the creative ability of Allah: “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth and the difference of your language and colours. Lo! Here indeed are signs for men of knowledge.”(Ar-Rum:22).

In chapter 49, verse 13 is the most universal doctrine of human equality and brotherhood: “Oh humankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and then rendered you into nations and tribes so that you might know one another. Indeed the most honourable among you in the sight of Allah is he who is most pious.”

There is a wealth of ahadith quoted by Al-Qurtubi in his commentary on this Qur’anic verse where the messenger of Allah condemned outright any racial impact on the Islamic society. For the very reason we come across many examples of people who, from a racial view, were not considered equal to Arab women marrying among the high tribal class. Bilal married the sister of AbdurRahman ibn Awf. Zayd was married to one of the noble ladies of the tribe of Quraysh and so on.

But customs die hard and no sooner are they abolished, they start to reappear again. Salman al-Farsi proposed to the daughter of Umar, the khalifa. He accepted. His knowledgeable, pious son and great companion of the Prophet(SAW) was upset. He complained to Amr ibn Al-Aas. Amr said, “Leave it to me and I will get him to retract from that.” When Amr met Salman he said to him, “Congratulations. It came to my knowledge that the Commander of the Faithful humbled himself and accepted to give you his daughter in marriage.” Salman felt slighted by this and thought and retorted, “By Allah, I will never accept to marry his daughter!”

Al-Hajjaj, the brute of the Ummayyad era married the daughter of Muhammad ibn Ja’far, Abdul Malik, the Ummayyad king was furious. He said to Muhammad, “You gave one of the noble of Qurayshite women to a slave from Thaqif!” and he ordered Al-Hajjaj to divorce her.

So this social attitude is very difficult to abolish outright. It does not make a difference whether the parents are well educated or unlettered. In the new environment of living in Britain the situation may ease gradually. However, young educated people who find themselves locked in such situations have to be patient to advance their case. Failing that, I would advise them to read my article, “Guardianship in Marriage’.

Should children deliberately go about altering the views of their parents/relatives by marrying in a manner they know is allowed but frowned upon by the others?

This should be the last resort if they really are very emotionally attached to one another. Marriage is a solemn, important bond. It cannot be played about with as a means of changing die-hard customs. The marrying couple will be the first victims of such a deficient gesture. I am saying, if they really love one another, so that this love may sustain them until they are able to change the attitude of their parents, then well and good. Though, it will not change the attitude of the whole community.

However, it would be suicidal to jump into this type of relationship just to change people. It may prove that the couple do not have the common cause to sustain this gesture of rejection. They themselves may reject the attempt. The consequences of such actions can be far reaching.

What are the rituals of marriage of that are the sacred/important ones?

There are no such rituals in an Islamic marriage. It is a simple form of expressing the commitment to live as husband and wife. The procedure is as follows: There is a young man wishing to get married and a young woman who is ready for marriage. Their families know one another and so the man’s family approaches the woman’s family – (The opposite is also appropriate). If there is acceptance, the two persons have the chance of seeing, talking, exploring – in a chaperoned, not in a private manner – with one another. If they choose to settle down, some gifts may be exchanged and a date set for the announcement of the match and working out of the marriage preparations. The families may arrange the civil ceremony first, then go to the mosque or house where the formal Islamic agreement may take place.

The woman’s guardian, usually the father, will say to the would-be-husband, “I give you my daughter, (the girl in my guardianship), in marriage in accordance to the Islamic Shari’ah, in the presence of the witnesses here with the dowry agreed upon. And Allah is our best witness.”

A wooden duff

A wooden duff or drum of the type commonly used at traditional Muslim weddings

The young man, or his father, will reply by saying, “I accept marrying your daughter, guard, giving her name, to myself” – repeating the other words. Thus, the marriage is concluded.

It is good Islamic practice to announce the ceremony, to hold it in a mosque and to have some form of entertainment. In the words of the Prophet(SAW), “Declare this marriage, have it in the mosque and beat the drums.” This is used to be the best the way of establishing that great, sacred relationship.

What is dowry and who gives it to whom?

The question of dowry is one of the rights of the Muslim woman as part of the correct contract of marriage. The Qur’an states in chapter 4, verse 4: “And give the women their dowries as a free gift, but if they are pleased to offer you any of it accept it with happiness and with wholesome pleasure.”

The dowry is defined in the legal text books as: “the wealth the wife deserves upon her husband as a result of the contract of marriage on the consummation.”

So the dower is to be given by the husband to his correctly wedded wife. It is enjoined by the Qur’an, the practical examples of the Messenger of Allah and the consensus of the companions of the Prophet(SAW).

There is no specific minimum or maximum. The customs of the community play a great part in deciding the agreed amount to be given as dower. In the past, families would ask of a dower which reflects the social status of them. After the spread of education and the maturity of age of both husband and wife, families began to relax this custom, taking into consideration that young people who start work after graduation do not have much money to offer for the girls they have going to marry. Families have come to the realisation that dower is a symbolic gesture. It is good to start building their family life without incurring a debt which may ruin their happiness and future prospects. If both husband and wife are working, the families may prefer that the young couple build their life from scratch together, rather than burdening them with hefty dower which they cannot afford.

It is not Islamic to ask the woman to give dower to the husband. This is not a noble thing to ask a woman. The Islamic requirement is not because the man is going to buy the woman, it is to express his love, care and the dignity of the woman. Whatever expresses these sentiments, great or small, is considered to be an acceptable dowry, simply because it expresses these feelings.

Is it necessary to have a civil marriage?

It is important to have a marriage registered with the civil authority so that it may be recognised. There are many legal implications as a result of such a registration. Firstly, it is the recognised marriage in this country. The civil marriage if it is attended by at least two male Muslim witnesses amounts to a correct Islamic marriage. It is only the social aspect which leads to another ceremony in a mosque with an imam officiating, although these things are not required Islamicly.

Secondly, without the civil marriage, the entitlement to inheritance, pension and legal documentation are not accepted by the authority. For the sake of legality it must be registered.

In Muslim countries nowadays they have made it an administrative obligation to register the marriage. This is to officiate and recognise all aspects that come from the marital relationship. So, if for nothing else, it is a must for the sake of the children.

Weddings these days seem such costly ventures. Is one required to spend huge sums on a wedding?

Weddings are a social expression of the occasion of marriages. Moderation is the Islamic concept in all aspects of a Muslim’s life. Weddings should not be ostentatious nor are they supposed to be expressions of pride and competition. It is not fair for the parents or the young couple to start their life debt ridden as a result of an occasion which lasted a couple of hours or a little longer. Expenses in all steps leading to marriage should not be a burden. Big cars, fancy wedding costumes, big parties, expensive hotels or halls, all such expenses should be avoided. But at the same time, it should not be a dull and gloomy occasion. It is an occasion of great joy and happiness and should be celebrated as such.

The most important is the walima – the dinner party. It is the sunnah so that relatives, friends and acquaintances may come to share the joy of the occasion, to give thanks to Allah and to entertain needy people within the community.

This was a pre-Islamic custom which Islam accepted. It was the responsibility of the husband or his family. The Prophet(SAW) saw some coloured perfume on AbdurRahman. He asked him about it and AbdurRahman replied, “I got married”. The Prophet(SAW) told him, “Make a walima with at least one lamb.” The Prophet(SAW) himself made a number of walimas each time he got married. The walimas differed according to the financial position of the time. The best walima recorded was that of Zaynab. Nearly three hundred people were entertained and fed meat and bread. On other occasions the Prophet(SAW) asked his companions to bring whatever food was available.

The important part is the coming together, sharing the happiness and advertising the new relationship in a moderate and inexpensive manner.

Are secret marriages allowed? Like at universities where girls or boys marry without parental consent, knowledge or approval?

The word used in the question, `secret’, is anathema to the concept of marriage which is a relationship built to secure peace, happiness and tranquillity. There are many rights and obligations resulting from agreement of marriage. These include the honour and integrity of the woman concerned, her family and relations and most importantly, offspring. In so many instances, even with use of precautions, women get pregnant. How can they face this situation? Where lies the blame? And what if the young couple tire of one another after taking what they want from one another? Who loses in such situations? That is why Muslim scholars frown upon secretive arrangements even though other basic formalities were satisfied. They argue that the Shari’ah has made it mandatory to publicise marriage in every available way. They quote a number of statements of the Prophet(SAW) to that effect. For example the statement, “There is no valid marriage without a guardian and two witnesses. Any arrangement short of that is invalid, invalid, invalid.” Another statement quoted by the Hanafi texts, “Any marriage not attended by four people is not a marriage, it is a fornication. They are: the suitors, the guardian and two witnesses.”

Scholars differentiate between two types of what is known as common marriage. Common, here, stands in contrast to well documented marriage. The first is when marriage takes place without being officially recorded. But it takes place within the family, is known among the friends and neighbours but for other reasons it is not registered. Maybe the couple are drawing unmarried benefits or whatever. This is an acceptable religious marriage even though there are unethical motives behind it.

The other type is exactly the one referred to in the question. When the two parties agree to keep it secret. They ask two friends to witness the marriage with the understanding that they do not talk about it. And they did not, I repeat, they did not register it. This does not amount to a secure, tranquil marriage. It is simply satisfying their physical need. The comment of a scholar, who was a judge before taking the chair of the Islamic Shari’ah in the Faculty of Law, Cairo University, is that “We do not condone, nor accept such an arrangement. It is far from the real concept of marriage. Families and girls’ honour should not be treated so flippantly. In my life as a judge I came across so many miserable, depressing cases resulting in acrimonious disputes. Allah’s Shari’ah has to be respectfully followed. Any so called legal fictions in this particular matter must be shunned.”

And Allah says the Truth and guides to the right way.


“Guardianship in Marriage” by Sheikh Darsh Available from Amanah Publications FAO Ashfaq Ali, 841 Barkerend Road, Bradford, BD3 8QJ

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