Sunday, July 6, 2014

What "nikah" actually means in Arabic

One of my next blog posts is going to be a description of the engagement party that I went to two weekends ago in Ibri, Oman, but for now, let me just tell you a funny thing that happened recently.

I've teasingly mentioned in a few blog posts that I went to an Omani engagement party and that it was a blast. So the day after the engagement party, I wanted to understand the relationship between the couple between the engagement and wedding phase, so I asked my speaking partner / host family about it. You see, my initial understanding of it was this: Boy's family sees the girl somewhere or hears of her from someone or otherwise knows her and wants her to be their son's/brother's wife. (So far, this is correct. Love marriages (i.e., dating and being in love before marriage and openly announcing that), I'm told, are not publicly recognized, but love before marriage does happen secretly all the time. It's just that when the couple's ready to get married, they have to pretend they don't know each other. I'll talk about this another time. This is also how it works with most South Asians, definitely with Pashtuns, and other Muslim communities.) The guy's family sends a proposal to the girl's family for the girl's hand. If the girl's family is interested, they tell the guy's family that they'll think about it. Then they do some investigation on the guy's family history and present and relatives and other background check, and if they're satisfied and/or impressed, they'll tell the guy's family they accept. Meanwhile, they've sought the girl's acceptance that she'll marry this dude.

So far, all of this is correct. I've verified this a thousand times with different Omanis because I wanted to make sure that when I, the qrratu, blog about it, it's as close to correct as possible.

But this is where I misunderstood. I'll tell y'all first what I understood (inaccurately) to be the case so you can see where my confusion lied.

Once the guy and the girl have approved to marry, the engagement ceremony takes place. The two do not yet have what South Asians call a nikah, the Islamic validation of a Muslim marriage during which a marriage contract is created, a couple of witnesses are in attendance, and the mahr (bridal gift or dower from the husband to the wife) is stipulated upon the mutual agreement of the couple.  Without the nikah of a Muslim marriage, a  marriage is invalid, un-Islamic, socially and religiously unacceptable, and so on, according to (traditional) Islam. According to Sunni Islam, it is only with a nikah that the couple can have access to each other; touching, hugging, kissing, even seeing each other's bodies (a woman's hair or skin, according to some Muslims) are forbidden outside of nikah.  I'll write more on mahr and nikah and the connections between sex and mahr/nikah another time, inshaAllah, if someone will remind me because it's actually not this simple in theory or in practice.

Now, since the couple did not have their nikah according to my initial understanding of the way the engagement ceremony was conducted, the groom should not have been able to see the bride's hair or skin or touch her or put a ring on her or put other jewelry on her and so on. Please note that this isn't what *I* believe; gender segregation and the pardah system is quite strict in Oman, such that when the groom is entering the wedding hall, an announcement is made for all the women to cover up (most of them wear tight dresses and show lots of skin in such parties. But that's because these parties are gender-segregated, so no men in sight to see them). Once the women are all ready to allow a man--the groom--to enter the hall, he enters.

So the whole time, I'm wondering why the Omani society thinks it's totally acceptable for the guy and the girl to have that much access to each other when they're Islamically not recognized yet and when they are to each other at this point as any other person of the opposite gender is.

So I'm sitting there asking my speaking partner WHY is it that the fiance feels like he has access to the fiancee's body, hair, etc. when other men don't without the nikah. Because he puts a ring and other jewelry on her, he puts a little veil on her when other men are entering the wedding hall. So when she's explaining to me what happens in the engagement ceremony, she doesn't mention the nikah. So I'm asking if they have a nikah by this time, and she smiles shyly and says, "No! The nikah happens after the wedding!" I described to her what my understanding of Islam is of the nikah, and she goes, "Yes, a sheikh/imam comes before the engagement ceremony, and they sign stuff." So I'm like, "Oh, okay! So they do have a nikah then!" She again laughs and says, "No, they don't have a nikah until after marriage."

Since I was desperate to get to the bottom of this, we spent a lot of time talking about it. When she turned to her married cousin sitting next to us to confirm this, I realized what the misunderstanding was:
The word "nikah" in Arabic actually means sexual intercourse. I then remembered an Islamic Studies a teacher of mine telling me a few years ago that when he was in Egypt, a Pakistani friend of his invited him and some Egyptian friends of theirs to his "nikah ceremony."  The Egyptians were all like, "Oh, hell, no - we're not coming to your nikah ceremony! Why would you invite anyone to that?" They eventually figured out what "nikah" meant to Arabs.

And I was wondering my speaking partner kept hiding her face and mouth when she'd hear the word nikah.

Okay, now let met get to writing about how the ceremony was and show some pics (none of the bride or of the women, though. Mamnoo3. Unacceptable).


  1. On our side Nikah ceremony is the same night of wedding but when the wedding is all over , just few close family members are around mostly youngsters forcing the girl not to say yes too soon ! Just for fun ..

  2. So I should be happy about the nikah that got cancelled, right?


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