Nikah is the Islamic term for a binding and permanent marriage. The concept is deeply embedded in the practice of Islam, and is considered a deeply important spiritual goal for many Muslims. Understanding the basics of nikah can help shed light on the marriage practices of this ancient religion.
The idea of marriage in Islam is one greatly recommended by religious texts and leaders; it is seen as vital in preserving the ideals of family and home life. Some revered religious leaders and interpreters suggest that to refrain from marriage for a lifetime comes close to sinning, as, according to the Quran, men and women are meant to mate and bear offspring through marriage. Even those who are divorced are encouraged to remarry, something that other religious texts, such as the Judeo-Christian scriptures, specifically argue against.
There are many conditions that need to be met to fulfill the requirements of nikah. Some requirements are ceremonial and necessary to obtain a valid marriage in the eyes of Islamic authorities. Other requirements are of a more spiritual and personal nature, and though not always deemed necessary, are often highly encouraged as paths to a healthy marriage.
For nikah to be valid, the marriage must be proposed and accepted in front of two male Muslim witnesses, with the consent of the woman's guardian. If the woman agrees to the marriage, the guardian acts in her stead to negotiate dowries and condition of the contract. A man may be required to give his bride a dowry to prove his financial worth, called mahr. In addition, the wedding must be publicized or advertised to the general public in order to be considered valid.
There are several variations on marriage that involve very different circumstances, notably nikah mut'ah and misyar. Mut'ah is very controversial in different Islamic sects, as it allows couples to be considered married for a fixed time and includes no agreements for financial provision or inheritance, leading some Muslims to compare a declaration to this effect to be sanctioning prostitution or adultery. A misyar marriage is a contract that allows couples to technically marry but give up some of the normal rights and responsibilities that go along with marriage, and is often used in cases where couples do not have the financial means to marry. This form, too, may be used for short-term relationships with prostitutes or other women, and in some cases is seen as an easy way to get out of a formal marriage.
In a formal, permanent marriage, Muslims are encouraged to marry for love as well as for considerations such as religious devotion, social status, or beauty. Love between spouses is considered to be a gift from Allah that should be nurtured and increased. While social critics point out that in some Islamic regions forced marriages are common and that women are often forced to remain in abusive relationships through religious pressure or even physical threats, it is important to remember that, theologically, this behavior is not usually sanctioned.