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Len of the Chilterns

34. Musim Culture

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Most young Muslims live sheltered lives, and are not encouraged to mix freely with the opposite sex - and consequently are protected from the business of 'falling in love', which can lead to all sorts of heartaches, clouded judgement, unsuitable relationships, and tragic consequences.

It is forbidden in Islam for parents (or others) to force, coerce, or trick youngsters into marriage. Unfortunately, there have been cases in the UK where this has happened amongst Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from the Indian subcontinent - but publicity and education in Islam is improving the situation rapidly. Although many marriages are arranged, it has to be with the willing consent of the couple involved, and they should be able to reject possible suitors without embarrassment.

A Muslim girl (and boy) is expected to be a virgin at the time of the first marriage. Obviously, this would not be the case for a subsequent marriage.

A Muslim husband has to agree a financial deal with the prospective wife before marriage. This money present is known as the mahr, and is a payment made to the bride which is hers to keep and use as she wishes. The reason is that even if the girl has nothing, she becomes a bride with property of her own. If the bride later seeks a divorce which the husband does not wish for, she is allowed to return him the money and seek what is known as a khul divorce. Normally, if a divorce takes place for the usual reasons, the bride would be entitled to keep the mahr.

Sometimes a bride (or her family) demands an enormous mahr. The Prophet (pbuh) set the example of modest sums, and many Muslim women generously use their money to support their husbands and families in some way, although they are not obliged to do so.

If a woman has money of her own, she is not obliged to spend it on her husband or family, but a Muslim husband has the obligation to be able to keep and support his wife and children himself, at his own expense. If a wife goes out to work, or donates money, this is to her credit and is regarded as an act of charity (sadaqah).

The actual Muslim wedding is known as a nikah. It is a simple ceremony, at which the bride does not have to be present so long as she sends two witnesses to the drawn-up agreement. Normally, the ceremony consists of reading from the Qur'an, and the exchange of vows in front of witnesses for both partners. No special religious official is necessary, but often the Imam is present and performs the ceremony. He may give a short sermon.

There are certain things which are basic to all Muslim marriages. Marriages have to be declared publicly. They should never be undertaken in secret. The publicity is usually achieved by having a large feast, or walimah - a party specifically for the purpose of announcing publicly that the couple are married and entitled to each other.

Many wedding customs are a matter of culture and not of Islam. The bride and groom may be obliged to sit on 'thrones' on a platform, to be seen by the guests. They may receive gifts, or gifts of money.

The majority of brides favour a traditional white wedding dress, but brides from the Asian subcontinent often favour a shalwar-qameez outfit in scarlet with gold thread, and have their hands and feet patterned with henna. They might also have vast feasts with hundreds of guests, usually with the males in a separate room from the females. Other Muslims have simple celebratory parties with only close friends and relatives.

In some cultures there may be dancing, firing of guns, lots of noise and hilarity. Asian weddings often include pre-nuptial parties and gathering too - the whole process may last several days.

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