June 16, 2021
3 Min. Read

In love with tradition

A three-day event, a nikah ceremony at the mosque and ever-changing glamorous outfits - this is, in essence, a traditional Zanzibar wedding. 

Muslim weddings often come with a lot of impressive things, including staggering traditions and rituals. These rituals are spread out, and grouped into three: pre-wedding, during the wedding, and post-wedding. Although it sounds quite formal, the Muslim ceremony is actually one of the most exciting and colourful weddings in the world. No expense is spared in making it memorable for the bride and groom, as well as their families and guests. One can see the most beautiful wedding dresses with intricate hand embroidery and beautiful designs patterns. Food is rich with flavours and aroma - but you’ll most likely have to miss out on champagne (with alcohol) in Zanzibar!

Why do men and women celebrate separately?

Muslim wedding receptions will likely have some form of separation, but to different degrees. There might be separate rooms for men and women to celebrate, a partition within the reception venue, or men and women might simply be grouped at different tables. “Mingling between genders is generally frowned upon”, says Faridi Hemed, journalist and cultural expert from Zanzibar. “But since men and women socialise quite casually among themselves, both genders feel a sense of freedom in doing so”, Faridi maintains. With a bit of irony he advises Western visitors invited to a traditional wedding: “You might need to re-train your reflex to make new friends on the reception dance floor.” 

What about the costs?

A Muslim husband has to agree a financial deal with the prospective wife before marriage. Often it is a lumpsum of money that the bride decides. Or she may ask for a trip, gold, or anything she wishes. The mahr is symbolic of the man’s responsibility to take care of his wife. If the bride later seeks a divorce without the husband’s approval, she returns the money to him and seeks what is known as a khul (divorce). If both want a divorce or only the man, she keeps her money. An average Zanzibari wedding may cost one to three million shillings ($500-$1500)”, Faridi estimates, but in more affluent circles expenses can easily go up to $3000 and more. The dowry will probably present 60 per cent of the wedding budget. 

Are traditional marriages still arranged?

For Faridi Hemed, a difficult question. Marriages in Zanzibar are still frequently arranged by the parents, he says, who may have the best in mind for their children. On the other hand, the expert says, “arranged marriage is against religion, you have to be in love.” At least, Faridi insists, a wedding should have the willing consent of the couple involved, and they should be able to reject possible suitors without embarrassment. In any case: Times are changing in Zanzibar, too. One only has to take one look at the all-nightly dating scene of youngsters in Forodhani park, to realise that they have already taken the liberty to get to know each other in their own hands.

What is nikah?

Nikah – the main ritual in a Muslim wedding – is a simple ceremony taking place in front of the Imam. Two witnesses are present, just like during a civil and Christian wedding. Normally, the ceremony consists of reading from the Qur'an, and the exchange of vows. The following reception in Zanzibar is often a beautiful, voluptuous ceremony where tradition meets style; or a more simple but formal get-together in a family backyard where half the village gets invited and the guests may receive take-away food boxes. The couple often presents itself to friends and family in a stage-like setting. More affluent families throw themed celebrations with seated lunch or dinner in different locations for three days. Pre-nikah rituals are celebrated one or two days before the big event among women in the bride’s family home, and for men at the groom’s house – and can be, just as bachelors’ and bachelorettes’ parties, quite full of mischief.

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