What is a Nikah

By: Zaynab Ansari
Written: for Nikah.ca

rules of nikah
rules of nikah

God Most High says, “And it is He who created of water a mortal, and made him kindred of blood and marriage; thy Lord is All-powerful.”

(The Qur’an, 25:54)

Prophet Muhammad, God bless him and give him peace, said, “There is no marriage without a guardian and two upright witnesses.”


Once you have chosen your life partner, it is time to think about the requirements and logistics of an Islamic wedding, or nikah. Since the Muslim community is very culturally diverse and wedding celebrations often reflect longstanding cultural and familial traditions, I will not address the particularities of dress, food, customs, and entertainment. It is up to the intended couple and their families to decide what type of celebration best suits their needs and reflects Islamic propriety.

The focus of this article is to present the essentials of Muslim nuptials from the standpoint of the Shari’ah, or sacred law. In a nutshell, we’ll be looking at what makes a marriage valid, sound, and proper in Islam through considering obligatory and sunna (recommended) aspects of the ceremony.

Since my primary training is in the Shafi’i legal school, I will rely on that madhhab’s texts; however, I will also interject positions from the Hanafi legal school where relevant. For those of you who have questions about the necessity of following a legal school, please refer to SeekersGuidance for more information. Following a legal school in one’s religious practice and life transactions allows for more consistency in one’s deen (the way one approaches religion). For those who are interested in the fiqh (rulings) of marriage from a Maliki legal perspective, Lamppost Productions is a good source.

Last, but not least, I wish to thank Shaykh Khalil Abdur-Rashid for allowing my husband and me to sit at his feet to study the fiqh of marriage. Those lessons have been an inspiration to us.

What is a nikah?

Linguistically, the word nikah in the Arabic lexicon denotes togetherness and intercourse. Technically, i.e., per the definition of jurists, nikah refers to a contract that renders sexual intercourse permissible upon utterance of the words “marry” or “wed” (the trilateral roots in Arabic are z-w-j and n-k-h). In other words, bride and groom agree in the presence of witnesses to marry or wed according to the Qur’an and Sunna, with a clear understanding on both sides as to what the transaction entails. Although Muslims typically define marriage in Islam as contractual rather than sacramental, Dr. Azizah Y. Al-Hibri, who studies Muslim marriage in the context of the U.S. legal system, argues that Islamic marriage is more covenantal. Since a nikah is a contract, it can be nullified or terminated. However, it also bears covenantal aspects since it is a serious undertaking performed in accord with sacred law and in the presence of the community.1

Moving beyond the letter, however, it is important to look at the spirit of nikah. Its purpose, according to my teacher, is intimacy and companionship. Marriage is not a dry contract, conducted solely for personal gain. It is a partnership in which the husband and wife facilitate collective slavehood to God Most High.

1 Personal correspondence with Professor Al-Hibri, January 2006.

What are the rulings of nikah?

Once we’ve defined marriage, we need to consider its applicability to one’s personal circumstances. For some people, it might be obligatory to get married. For others, it might actually be unlawful. Here are the rulings:

Wajib = obligatory: It is obligatory to get married if one fears committing sins, has the financial ability (males), and has someone in mind.
Sunna = recommended: It is recommended for a man to get married if he has desire, can afford a wife, and can pay the mahr (marriage payment). It is recommended for a woman if she desires companionship and needs to be cared for.
Mubah = permissible: The default is that marriage is mubah for most people.
Khilaf al-Awla = best to leave: It is better for a man to remain unmarried if he has no desire for married life despite being financially stable. Similarly, a woman who has no desire for married life should leave off marrying.
Makruh = disliked: It is disliked for a man who has desire for married life to get married if he cannot provide for a wife.
Haram = unlawful: It is unlawful and sinful for a person to get married if he or she cannot (or will not) maintain marital duties or, as my teacher put it, this person “can’t soften themselves to give the spouse their Islamic rights.”

What are the requirements for the validity of the nikah?
According to the Shafi’i school, there are five integrals of marriage. Integrals are the elements that must be in place to make the marriage valid according to the Shari’ah.
They are:

The bride
The groom
The bride’s guardian or wali
The two witnesses
The spoken form or utterance including the words “marry” or “wed”

The bride must be single, that is, not married or in her waiting period. She must also be known to the groom, that is, the groom must know the identity of his wife. Her presence is not a requirement at the wedding, however. In other words, her guardian can represent her in the actual ceremony. She cannot be a member of her husband’s unmarriageable kin. Finally, she cannot be in ihram (a state of pilgrim sanctity for Hajj).
The groom must be known to the bride, that is, the bride should know the identity of her husband. If he cannot be at the wedding, he may appoint a wakeel, or agent, to represent him. He cannot be a member of her unmarriageable kin. Finally, he cannot be in ihram (a state of pilgrim sanctity for Hajj).
The bride’s guardian is typically her father. If the father is absent or deceased, then the responsibility of guardianship falls to the bride’s (paternal) grandfather, then her full brother, and so on. The guardian should be a Muslim of sound mind and good judgment who is morally upright and not in ihram (a state of pilgrim sanctity for Hajj). If the bride’s father is not a Muslim, he cannot act as her wali. However, it is from good manners that she and the groom seek his blessing.
The witnesses must be Muslim males who are of age and sound mind. The guardian cannot act as witness. The witnesses must understand the transaction and be clear about the mahr (marriage payment). Some thought should be put into selecting witnesses. Impromptu weddings at the masjid where random, unsuspecting worshipers are asked to act as witnesses should be avoided.
The spoken formula should be audible to the wedding party and be in their language. It should consist of an offer of marriage and an acceptance. The wording must be explicit and not implicit, and must contain the words “marry” or “wed.”

- Sample vows: The father of the bride says to the groom, “I marry my daughter, Aisha, to you upon the Book of Allah and the Sunna of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) and according to the stated dowry.” The groom responds, “I accept marriage to your daughter, Aisha, upon the Book of Allah and the Sunna of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) and according to the stated dowry.”

Important notes:

The wali

The Hanafi school of law does not require the bride to have the permission of her wali to marry provided the intended husband is legally suitable, or kuf 2 . This aspect of the Hanafi school is perhaps most useful for the convert bride who does not have a Muslim father to give her away. In such a case, the bride may choose to get married without a wali and her marriage is, according to the Hanafis, valid. Generally speaking, however, it is more proper for a woman to appoint a guardian to look out for her interests. The guardian can be a knowledgeable, religious man from the Muslim community.

2Kafa’ah, or suitability of the groom, is a lengthy discussion. Generally, a groom who is kuf’ is someone who is socially and religiously compatible with the bride and her family. Please see part 1 of this series for a discussion of what to look for in a spouse.

The witnesses

The Hanafi school allows two women and one man to witness the marriage in lieu of two men. Some brides who wish for more female involvement will often request that all the invited guests act as witnesses, which is permissible according to the Maliki school. In this case, it is still advisable, however, to designate two main witnesses who are privy to important details like the mahr.

The mahr

Negotiations over the mahr, or marriage payment, often overshadow the nikah itself. However, the mahr should not be a source of stress for the engaged or newlywed couple. The purpose of the mahr is quite simple: It is a goodwill gesture from the groom to the bride and demonstrates his financial readiness for marriage. In order to qualify as mahr, the payment must be something of value or utility for the bride. Examples include cash, gold, jewels, real estate, a vehicle or “anything which can be sold, bartered, or priced.” 3 The mahr is paid directly to the bride and it is a violation of Islamic law for her family members to appropriate the payment. It is sunna to specify the mahr at the wedding; leaving it ambiguous is disliked. Ideally, the mahr should be worked out ahead of time.
3 Khalil Abdur-Rashid, Marriage and Famiy Law: An Introduction According to the School of Shafi’i (self-published in Atlanta, Georgia in August 2002).

What should the mahr be?

There is a yardstick called the mahr al-mithl, or the marriage payment typically received by similar brides. A “similar bride” would be someone in the same social class as the bride, e.g., her sister, cousin, or some other female relative. It is worth noting that people’s ideas about what constitutes a suitable mahr diverge widely. What might be reasonable to some is prohibitive to others. As my teacher emphasized, the mahr, though obligatory upon consummation of the marriage, is not an integral of the nikah. The wisdom in this is so the mahr does not become a distraction from the true purpose of marriage.

My advice to women and their families is to be reasonable and consider a suitor’s circumstances before demanding a high mahr. A young man, just starting out in life, is unlikely to have $25,000 in the bank (the amount I was told to ask for when I got married!). It’s safe to say that many older, well-established men probably don’t have such healthy bank accounts. Even if the bride and groom agree to defer the bulk of the payment, is it really prudent to start off married life with the husband in debt to the wife? If he really has that much discretionary income, the couple would be better off putting it in a halal savings account and buying a home (or some other investment) than the wife’s amassing it away for a rainy day.

The contract

The spoken word is what makes the nikah official. However, it is sunna to write a marriage contract that the bride and groom sign. The contract should identify the parties, state the date and location of the nuptials, name the witnesses and officiator, and specify the mahr. If the bride and groom wish to stipulate conditions, the place to put them is in the contract. Verbal conditions are not binding. A condition can be any matter of taste or preference that is permissible in the Shari’ah and is personally meaningful to the bride or groom. For example, a bride can stipulate that she live separately from her in-laws while a groom can stipulate that his wife not work. Obviously, the conditions should be chosen after careful thought and should reflect the values of the couple. For sample marriage contracts and a good introduction to the fiqh of marriage in the Hanafi school, please consult Ustadha Hedaya Hartford’s Your Islamic Marriage Contract.

The officiator

Although the fiqh of marriage does not stipulate that an Imam (prayer leader) preside over the ceremony, customarily Muslim couples will ask an Imam or some other respected religious or community leader to preside over their wedding. Often, if couples wish to get married at a particular masjid, they will consult with the Imam or masjid director ahead of time to learn the protocols of the institution. Some masajid require couples to sit for premarital counseling before moving forward with their plans.

Legal considerations

In many instances, Islamic marriage contracts, while valid according to the Shari’ah, are not recognized by the law of the land. For example, in many states in the U.S., clergy must obtain a license or certification in order to legally perform weddings 4. Since many Imams do not go through the steps to obtain licensure, it is imperative for the newlywed couple to obtain a marriage license at their local courthouse. This precaution ensures the marriage is valid according to local, state, or federal law, and all the rights and privileges of marriage accrue to the legal spouses. Much heartache could be avoided if Muslim couples would take this simple step.

4 U.S. Marriage Laws, http://usmarriagelaws.com/search/united_states/officiants_requirements/index.shtml

Exchanging vows

Some Muslims erroneously believe that exchanging vows is not an Islamic tradition. On the contrary, the Haba’ib (scholars) of Hadramawt, Yemen have a longstanding tradition of penning beautiful marriage intentions to be recited by both husband and wife. It is permissible to state one’s intention prior to the ceremony or to make it part of the ceremony itself. SeekersGuidance has reproduced Shaykh Ali bin Abu Bakr al-Sakran’s marriage intention here.

The walima

Another established tradition of the Islamic marriage is the walima, or wedding feast. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, encouraged his companions to celebrate their marriages with a walima as a means of publicizing the blessed occasion and giving thanks to Allah. Marriages should not be kept under wraps and should be announced and celebrated. Cultural interpretations of the walima vary; however, it is generally recognized that the walima marks the consummation of the marriage or the bride’s having joined the groom’s family. As with the mahr, the walima should be kept within reason. While it is technically the responsibility of the groom, many families today will split the cost of the walima so the young man does not start out married life burdened by debt. According to the tradition of the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, the most pleasing walima in the sight of God is the simplest.

I pray this article is helpful to readers who want to know the basics of the nikah.

May Allah Ta’ala bless your marriage,

Zaynab Ansari

Muharram 1434




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