Although they share a religion, cultural customs differ between Muslims from various countries or demographic groups. Because of this, each Muslim community will have a unique set of wedding festivities. In South Africa, most of these festivities are inspired by Indian and Cape Malay traditions.

Over the next few weeks, we will give you the low-down of South African Muslim weddings - from the proposal, right up until the couple’s photo shoot. 

For now, we chat about pre-wedding events, the ceremony and attire.

Pre-wedding events

Although it can be overwhelming to have a romantic proposal that gives you all the feels, that often doesn’t happen in the Muslim community. This is mainly because Islamic rules place limitations on the interaction between unmarried males and females - even if they do consider themselves an item.

The bride makes the final call, and if it’s a yes, the celebrations can begin.

Because of this, proposals are typically formal and can sometimes be business-like. The groom visits the bride’s father’s home to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. This can be nerve-racking for the poor guy, which explains why he may have a few family members in tow for moral support. The bride makes the final call, and if it’s a yes, the celebrations can begin.

Indian Muslim families host a ritual called a mangla, which announces to the couple’s extended family that they will be getting married. At this event, the groom once again visits the bride and her family, although this could be at a hall rather than her home. A high tea is usually the order of the day at a mangla.

The engagement party is a separate occasion, normally hosted by the bride and her family. At this event, Indian Muslim brides sport traditional garb such as punjabis, ghararas or saris. At the engagement party venue, the bride sits on a stage in front of all her guests as she waits for her groom to arrive.

Just before he makes his entrance, his family brings in a variety of beautifully wrapped “engagement parcels” for the bride. In very conservative families, these parcels are made up of Eastern sweet meats and fabric (which she is expected to take to her local dressmaker). The parcels are exhibited on tables. It’s almost like they’re artefacts at a museum.

A typical groom’s entrance involves a suit-clad chap on his best behavior, slowly walking to the sound of a Bollywood ballad. In his hand is a bouquet of flowers, which he gifts to the bride on the stage.

What’s more important than the flowers though, is the revealing of the bride’s engagement ring. A confident “Yes!”, or a tearful nod of the head, is a Non-muslim groom’s cue to slip the ring onto the bride’s finger. However, female family members of an Indian Muslim groom put the ring on for the bride, along with other jewellery.

It doesn’t end there. Some Indian Muslim families really do love to turn weddings into an all-week extravaganza. This means that the engagement party occasionally happens in the week of the wedding. There could be a social gathering every other night during that week, perhaps a braai, a family dinner or even a karaoke evening.

An affair that the ladies look forward to is the henna evening. As the name implies, henna is applied for the bride at this event. In certain families, old (and often tone-deaf) aunties sing Indian songs for the bride as she has her henna done. It’s not always the most melodious music to listen to, but shame, they mean well.

Cape Malay families on the other hand are not as big on pre-wedding events. They don’t regularly have week-long celebrations, but they do make an event of taking the bride’s clothes over to her new home.

She and her family pack her clothes in decorative boxes, sometimes tied with a ribbon. Before leaving the bride’s home, a prayer is conducted. The groom’s family is on standby to welcome the bride’s family at the couple’s home-to-be, and offer them refreshments.

Ceremony

A Muslim wedding ceremony is most commonly known by its Arabic term, nikkah. The nikkah typically happens at a mosque, on the morning of the wedding day, before the reception. However, some Muslim couples do away with tradition, by opting to have it at their reception venue, or in the afternoon.

Read more: Real SA wedding: Kim & Mike

Before the nikkah, the bride’s home is full of life, with little cousins, grandmothers and aunties, walking in and out of the bride’s room to try and help her get ready. Sometimes it all gets a bit too much for the bride, and she is left with no choice but to lock her door.

The bride herself has no role to play in her wedding ceremony, as the nikkah is essentially a procedure whereby the groom accepts a proposal from the bride’s father, to marry her to him. Because of this, many brides choose not to go to their nikkah, and await their groom at their home, or in a hall close to the mosque.

Nevertheless, more and more brides are beginning to visit the mosque since the nikkah is what makes the marriage official, and they don’t want to miss that. Female guests keep the bride company, wherever she may be, while the male guests escort the groom.

Although this does not usually take the place of the wedding reception, light snacks and desserts are served at a small gathering after the nikkah. This is a rather emotional time for the couple because they see each other as husband and wife for the first time.

They share an intimate moment as they slide on each other’s wedding bands. The classic “you may kiss the bride” moment isn’t a rite of passage at a Muslim wedding, but he’ll probably give her a peck on the cheek or forehead.

Attire

In most cases, traditional religious or cultural garments are worn for the nikkah, and Western garments are donned for the reception. With the wide range of attire on show, weddings are like fashion parades with the bridal couple as the star act.

For the groom, traditional religious clothes would be a long, white robe, sometimes worn with a turban, or a hat known as a fez. In the Indian culture, it is customary for the groom to wear a kurta, an ensemble consisting of a long top and pants. He then changes in to a suit or tuxedo for the reception. Looking at his outfit changes, he pretty much goes from Sheik/Bollywood movie star to James Bond within a day.

The dress code for Muslim women obligates them to cover their entire bodies, although it’s fine for their face and hands to be exposed. This applies on their wedding day as well. Because the nikkah is the most sacred part of the wedding, most brides try to follow this dress code during the nikkah, but relax the rules at the reception.

Conventional religious apparel for a bride would be a headscarf and an abaya, which is also a long robe, yet more intricately embellished than that worn by the groom. Indian Muslim brides frequently wear detailed sari’s, accessorised by bold jewellery and dramatic eye makeup. Brides, who want to add a modern twist to their nikkah outfit, wear a formal dress, much like an evening gown.

The reception is the bride’s opportunity to transform herself into the fairytale princess that her 5-year-old self always dreamed of. Thus, Muslim brides normally wear a white Western wedding dress, which is majority of the time, more elaborate than their nikkah dress. 

Most brides decide to have their wedding dress made by a resident dressmaker, recommended by her sister’s friend’s mother’s half-sister- or something like that. However, for added convenience or because of short time frames for wedding planning, brides may opt to buy a wedding dress from a bridal boutique.

Even more details in Part 2 of The low-down on Muslim weddings series…

Find out about weddings in other cultures:

Zulu weddings: traditional versus modern ceremonies 

Real SA wedding: Tracy and Preshen