In Islamic view, marriage (nikah) is essentially a contract, involving the groom and the bride or her legal guardian. This contract takes effect through the consent of the bride and the groom in the presence of at least two witnesses and with the provision of dower (mahr) to be paid by the groom to the bride. The Prophet emphasised that the bride’s consent must be obtained at the time of marriage, and if she does not give an expressed consent, her silence would be construed as her approval of the marriage. According to Hanafi law, a woman is entitled to enter into matrimonial relationship with a man with or without the approval of a guardian. On the other hand, jurists affiliated to the Maliki, Shafi’I and Hanbali schools of Islamic law say that the approval of a guardian is a precondition for the solemnization of marriage.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, the dower given by the husband’s family went to her father or other male guardians, and not to her. Islamic law emphasizes that the dower must be paid to the wife and that she has an exclusive right over it. The amount of dower is generally commensurate with the economic and social status of the groom’s family. However, in many Muslim countries the dower is looked upon as a token payment. Islamic law obliges the husband to look after the wife’s needs and her well-being. The Prophet urged Muslims to be kind and considerate towards their wives. Under Islamic law, marriage does not entail a change in a woman’s legal rights, including the right to acquire, own and dispose of property.
Islamic law forbids marriage within three broad categories of relatives: (i) close blood relatives, such as father, mother, brother, sister, uncle and aunt (ii) marriage with a man’s niece and nephew (iii) marriage with a foster sister who has been breast-fed by one’s mother. Though cross cousin and parallel cousin marriages are widely prevalent in Muslim countries, Islamic law neither prescribes nor forbids such types of consanguineous marriage. It may be mentioned that Caliph Umar strongly recommended marrying outside one’s tribe or lineage in order to prevent the adverse consequences of inbreeding). Islamic law forbids polyandry as well as lesbian and homosexual unions.
During the time of the Prophet and his Companions, the marriage ceremony was a simple affair. When the Prophet got his daughter Fatimah married to Ali ibn Abi Talib, guests were served fresh dates, figs and a sweet drink. Fatimah’s dowry included a laced silk garment, a mattress that was stuffed with dry grass and a small water bag.
During the Prophet’s time, the bride was taken to the groom’s house by her mother and other relatives. At this time, the bride was welcomed by young girls who sang songs of joy and celebration to the beat of small tambourines. The wedding ceremony, which comprised the affirmation of marriage in the presence of at least two witnesses and which was solemnized by a qadi, was followed by a wedding meal (walimah). The wedding meal may be held on the same day or the following day. At the walimah of Abu Usayd al-Saidi, the guests were served a kind of syrup made from dates that were soaked in water. The walimah of Rabiah al-Aslami, another Companion of the Prophet, flat bread and meat were served. The Prophet emphasized that there should be no discrimination among the invitees to the walimah in respect of economic or social status.
Sometimes differences of opinion and conflicts vitiate the harmony of marital relationship. In such a situation, the husband and wife should sit together and try to sort out matters. If this does not work, someone from the husband’s side and a person from the wife’s side should mediate and resolve the differences. However, if this effort also results in failure, the last resort is divorce. Though Islamic law permits divorce, the Prophet described it as “the most abominable thing among all permissible matters.” In pre-Islamic times, the husband had an unfettered right to abandon or divorce his wife without rhyme or reason. Islam lays down certain conditions for divorce. One may have recourse to divorce only when all means of reconciliation fail. Similarly, it is undesirable to divorce one’s wife without reasonable grounds. It is forbidden to divorce the wife when she is in her menstrual period.
Islam does not prescribe a specific institutional structure or form of family. It places a great deal of emphasis on certain normative principles, including rights and obligations, which should guide relationships among family members. One can say that the form of family endorsed by Islam is closer to the extended than the nuclear type of family.