Arabic Weddings (Arabic: زفاف, فرح, or عرس) have changed greatly in the past 100 years. Traditional Arabic weddings were very similar to modern-day Bedouin weddings and rural weddings, and they were unique from one region to another, even within the same country.
The marriage process usually starts with meetings between the couple's families, and ends with the wedding's consummation (leilat al-dokhla). For a wedding to be considered Islamic, the bride and groom must both consent, and the groom is welcomed into the bride's house—although only in the presence of her parents to maintain purity between both sides.
Arranged marriages are popular in the Arab world, since the traditions of Arab society and Islam forbid couples to have sex before marriage. Therefore, when it is time for a young man to get married, his family will look around to identify a number of potential brides.
Traditionally, the process of investigation takes into consideration the girls' physical beauty, her behaviour, her cleanliness, her education and finally her qualities as a housewife. In carrying out this traditional investigation parents also take the behaviour of the prospective bride's family into account.
The first meeting usually takes place between the bride, groom, and their respective mothers. They meet, usually in a public place or in the bride's house, and get to know each other. The bride, groom, and their chaperones will typically sit separately, but within sight of each other, in order to get to know each other. Nowadays, the man might suggest to his family who he would like them to consider, and it may be that the man and the woman already know each other. It is also nowadays common in urban families for a bride and the groom to agree to marry before the groom approaches the bride's family for their permission.
Reading of the Fatiha (Engagement celebration)
- For Chapter 1 of the Qur'an, see: Sura al-Fatiha,
The bride's family hosts a reception in their home, where the groom formally asks for the bride's hand in marriage from her father or the eldest man in the family. After the father agrees, the families read the Fatiha (the first sura in the Quran) and serve sharbat, a sweet cordial prepared from flowers or fruit (usually in Egypt) or Turkish coffee (usually in the Levant).
Engagements (خطوبة) in the Arab world are usually much like a simpler wedding party or a dinner for the families, the bride wears any dress she pleases and there is no zaffeh. Usually, the bride and groom dress in matching colors. They exchange rings, putting the rings on each other's right-hand ring finger.
Katb el-Kitab/Marriage Contract is the official marriage ceremony. It starts with a sheikh or imam giving a short speech about how the Prophet honored his wives, how to honor women, and how women should treat their husbands and honor them. Then the imam tells the groom to heed the speech that was just given, and the father (or eldest male of the bride's family) accepts the proposal. The ceremony resembles the reading of the Fatiha, but this when the legal documents are filled out and then filed. Two witnesses, usually the eldest men in each family, sign their names to the marriage contract, and the couple is now officially married. In the Levant, the Katb el-Kitab is usually held in the house of the either the bride or the groom's families, although sometimes it may be held in the wedding hall itself, or in a mosque or in court if the couple decide to do so.
Arab Christian Weddings
The large minority of Arab Christians, who mainly live in the Levant region and in Egypt, belong mainly to Catholic and Orthodox Christian Churches and they use ancient symbolic rituals in their marriages.
In Old Palestine, the henna night was a night used to prepare all the necessary wedding decorations and last minute arrangements. It was also a chance for the families to celebrate together before the wedding. The groom's family would "sahij" or dance through the streets of the village until reaching the house of the bride. Once there, the family would mix henna together, which would then be used to decorate the bride and grooms hands (with the groom's being merely the initials of his bride and himself), and then offer the bride her mahr (usually gold as it does not decline in value like other wealth). The families would then dance and sing traditional Palestinian music.
In modern times, particularly those not living in Palestine, the henna night remains traditional in customs, but is very similar to a bachelorette party; the bride's female friends and relatives join her in celebrating, which includes food, drinks, and a lot of dancing. A women's group plays Arabic music, sometimes Islamic music, while everyone dances. A woman draws henna or mehndi, a temporary form of skin decoration using henna, on the bride and guests' skin — usually the palms and feet, where the henna color will be darkest because the skin contains higher levels of keratin there, which binds temporarily to lawsone, the colorant of henna. The men will also have a party, in which the groom's family and friends will dance to traditional Palestinian music. In some village customs, the groom's face is shaven by a close family member or friend in preparation for his wedding. The tradition of giving the bride her gold is also still used. The groom will enter where the bride is, they well both get their henna done, and the groom will then offer the bride her mahr. Thus, the wedding being merely dancing and celebration.
An important element of the henna night in both traditional and non-traditional henna parties, is the dress adorned by the Palestinian women and the groom. The women dress in traditional (usually hand embroidered) gowns, known as Palestinian ithyab. The brides thobe would be extravagant and exquistely embroidered. The groom will wear the usual traditional Arab men's thobe and hata (head covering).
In some areas (e. g. Palestine) also the male friends and relatives celebrate an evening party (sahra in Arabic سهرة) in the garden or on the street in front of the groom's house. Music and dance groups perform and the men dance with the groom. Women are not allowed and may view the program via video projection inside the house or the closed off garden. In strict Islamic families this is the only way to allow males from outside the family to attend the wedding.
Weddings usually include a zaffa, a procession that loudly announces the couple's wedding. The zaffa differs from region to region. In Egypt, for example, the Dumiyati zaffa is popular in the north. In the Levant, the traditional dabkeh is popular. Other versions of the zaffa can be found in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula as well as the khaliji; the zaffa even reached Malaysia with the first Arab traders, called the Zapin.
After the zaffa, the bride and the groom sit on a dais, or kosha (كوشة), which usually consists of two comfortable seats in front of the guests, from which the bride and groom reign as though king and queen. As soon as the bride and groom are seated in the kosha, a sharbat drink is passed to the guests, and all drink to their health.
The bride and groom then switch rings from their right hand to the left index. This is probably an old Christian tradition, but it is done whether the couple is Muslim or Christian. With this ritual, the festivities begin. The bride and groom have the first dance, after which the other wedding guests join in. Usually a belly dancer or a singer entertains the guests, but more luxurious weddings will have more than one entertainer. Guests will dance and sing with the newlywed couple, and the groom will sometimes be tossed in the air by friends. In modern weddings, after the formal entertainment, a disc jockey will extend the festivities.
Next comes the cutting of the cake. As is done elsewhere in the world, the bride and groom cut the cake, which is several layers high. The bride then tosses her bouquet behind her back to other hopeful women. By tradition, whomever catches the bouquet is seen as lucky, because she is foretold to be the next to marry. Next, the couple opens the buffet for the guests, which is usually a wide variety of salads, meats, stews, sweets, fruits, and other Arab cuisine dishes. Food is considered one of the factors that reflect the wealth of the families of the bride and groom. After the guests have eaten, many of the guests, particularly those who are not close family or friends of the couple will leave after congratulating the couple. In some weddings, there may be more entertainment including a DJ, dancing and sometimes a singer or a band which continue until very late in the night. The bride and groom then usually receive a complimentary stay of a night or two at the hotel where the wedding was held.
In a strict Muslim families, men may not dance with women or even watch women in unmodest dresses. So only the female guests and children enter the hall together with the wedding couple. Also photographers and other personnel must be women, the DJ, if male, has to operate behind a closed door. Men wait outside in a separate room or garden. In Palestine only a piece of cake and non-alcoholic beverages are offered to both groups, but no meal. At the end of the party women cover their shoulders and male family members may enter the hall. Family by family visit the couple to offer congratulations and money presents. At the end they may dance together.
Modern urban weddings are influenced by Western traditions—for example, the cutting of the cake and tossing of the bouquet. This is not the case with rural areas. In rural areas of countries like Egypt, after the zaffa, the wedding ceremony will usually take place in a big clearing, where a huge Arabic tent called a sewan (صوان) has been set up. The entertainment includes a belly dancer or singer, sometimes both. Drinks are passed to guests, and food is served on huge plates. The customary food is fattah, pieces of lamb meat embedded in rice and bread dipped in stew. The bride and groom will leave the wedding early, but the guests continue the festivities.
- Marriage Customs of the World. Hutchinson, pg 120
- Arab wedding Customs, Muhammad Dhul Salaim, pg 74