South Asian Muslim weddings: You’ve seen them in Bollywood movies, and you’ve finally been invited to one. These large, elaborate celebrations are infused with centuries-old traditions. Whether it is an Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, or Bangladeshi affair, it’s sure to be filled with delicious food, upbeat music, and beautiful customs.
“The top advice I can share for someone attending a Muslim wedding for the first time is one, to dress conservatively,” says wedding planner Sobi Qazi. “Whether the wedding takes place at the mosque or a venue, the Muslim wedding events consist of conservative attendees who generally dress with their arms and legs covered.”
Meet the Expert
Sobi Qazi is a certified wedding planner based in Houston and Los Angeles that specializes in South Asian and Islamic weddings. She has 10 years of experience and leads a team of event coordinators at her eponymous event planning company which has executed over 350 multicultural weddings.
Here are some frequently asked questions surrounding South Asian Muslim weddings, according to a professional planner:
- How long are South Asian Muslim weddings? It is a well-known fact that South Asian Muslim weddings take place over the course of at least a few days. They are usually three days long with a different event taking place each day.
- What should I wear to a South Asian Muslim wedding? In short, you will need at least three different outfits! But dressing up is half the fun. Male guests usually wear suits for each event while female guests wear more traditional gowns like lehengas or sarees. When in doubt, err on the side of conservativeness.
- Do men and women sit separately? At conservative weddings, men and women will sit separately at each event. At more liberal or modern weddings, men and women might only sit separately at the actual marriage ceremony (nikah). The latter is more common, especially in the United States.
- Is there alcohol at South Asian Muslim weddings? No, usually there is never alcohol at Muslim weddings. Even in less conservative Muslim weddings, alcohol is usually not served as it is forbidden in the religion.
- What should I give as a gift to the couple? South Asian wedding invitations may often state “no boxed-gifts please.” In this case, it’s best to give a card full of cash. This is a one-time gesture usually presented at the wedding celebration (Shaadi). It’s not expected for guests to give a gift for every event. An appropriate amount would range from a conservative figure to $30 to a more extravagant figure of $200, but guests should gift whatever feels comfortable to them. The couple will just be happy with the pleasure of their guests’ company.
Read on to learn more about the customs you'll see at a South Asian Muslim wedding.
South Asian wedding celebrations typically begin with an event called a Mehndi, where women adorn their hands with henna and perform choreographed dances for the bride. Elder women in the family sing old folk songs while playing the dholak, or drum. Culturally, men do not wear mehndi. In more conservative gatherings, an invitation to the Mendhi party is only extended to women. Traditionally, the bride hides her groom’s initials somewhere in her henna for him to find later.
The nikkah is the wedding ceremony, and it is relatively short and simple. The nikkah usually takes place in a mosque but can happen anywhere like at a hotel ballroom or in a home. If the nikkah is taking place in a mosque, guests will be asked to remove their shoes out of respect for the holy space. In addition to the bride and groom, the key people in the nikkah are the parents of the couple, two witnesses from both sides, and the Imam, or spiritual leader who officiates the wedding.
Maher in Urdu is the dowry the husband presents to his bride before he is able to see her. Today, the dowry is usually in the form of a wedding ring. The Maher symbolizes the bride’s freedom and financial independence during the marriage or even after should the couple divorce. It is something of financial value the bride can take with her should she want or need to leave her husband.
After the dowry is presented by the groom and accepted by the bride, the Imam asks the couple to recite vows. Both the bride and groom must say “qabool hai” three times each which means “I accept.” Accepting the terms of the marriage three times is necessary as it makes absolutely sure that both parties agree to the commitment of marriage. A religious marriage contract is then read aloud by the Imam and signed by both the bride and groom.
A short prayer from the Holy Quran called Surah Fatiha is recited by the Imam during the nikah. Guests can choose to also recite the prayer or observe quietly. At the end of the ceremony, the Imam will ask the guests to bring their hands together to pray for the couple.
Once the Maher is presented, the vows are said, and the marriage contract is signed, the couple holds up the Quran and a mirror to view their reflections for the first time as husband and wife. This is called Arsi Mushaf. Arsi means mirror and Mushaf means the Holy Quran. The family will hold a dupatta, a long decorated fabric, over the heads of the couple.
The baraat is the groom’s wedding procession. This is his grand entrance to his wedding celebration (Shaadi). Customarily, he arrives on a heavily decorated white horse and is preceded by his family and friends dancing to loud Bollywood or bhangra music. In more modern or western weddings, he may arrive by a luxury or vintage car instead.
The Shaadi usually takes place on the same day as the nikah. It is the main wedding celebration thrown by the bride’s family, so get ready to dance! At the start of the Shaadi, guests will stand and watch as the bride is escorted down an aisle by her parents to a stage where she will sit with her groom.
A fun tradition younger guests at South Asian Muslim weddings engage in is the Joota Chupai, which literally translates to “the hiding of the shoes.” Children and close family from the bride’s side of the family playfully steal the groom’s shoes for ransom. He may not hope to see his shoes again until he pays each family member off with cash.
The Valima is the reception and final event of the days-long wedding celebration. It is similar in fashion to the Shaadi but this time, the groom’s family hosts the wedding guests.
The rukhsati concludes the entire wedding celebration where guests gather to say farewell to the newly married couple. This is an especially bittersweet moment for the bride because traditionally, this is the moment she is leaving behind her childhood and her parents to live with her new husband. After the rukhsati, the couple makes their way to their honeymoon and start their new life together.