If you were to ask an engaged couple about their most important considerations in terms of planning a Muslim wedding, what do you think would top their list? If we look at the data on wedding expenditures, we can assume that the venue, food and clothing are the most important since they are also the most expensive. Then, the venue will need to be decorated, maybe with a plethora of flowers and some nice draping, tablecloths, centerpieces, etc. Then there’s the cake. Couples spend days and actually go taste testing in search of the perfect cake, yet somehow most wedding cakes are barely edible. We can’t forget the entertainment, maybe some nasheed artists or a photo-booth. But, what about the Imam?
In the midst of the frenzy of planning and coordinating such a momentous day, the importance of selecting the right Imam for your nikah is often completely overlooked. Most couples spend the majority of their time (and money) selecting the perfect outfits, the ideal location, and the most delicious food for the guests. But what about the individual who will be doing the most speaking on the day of the nikah?
Our goal here is to explain why it is important to select the right Imam to perform your Islamic marriage ceremony and to let you know that you have options beyond the Imam at the mosque that is closest to your home.
What is the role of the Imam?
On the day of your nikah, the Imam will do a few things. First, he may speak privately to the bride and groom to ensure that both parties agree to get married and to the terms of the marriage, for example, the dowry, if one is specified.
After that, the Imam will perform the actual nikah ceremony. He may begin with a recitation from the Quran, followed by a short speech on marriage. The speech typically includes general advice from the Quran and Hadīth for the bride and groom, but ultimately the Imam can say whatever he feels is appropriate.
The Imam then asks the bride and groom to publically (that is, in front of a minimum of two witnesses) make the offer and acceptance of marriage to each other. Once the offer is made and accepted, the couple is officially married. The Imam then closes the ceremony with a prayer.
The nikah ceremony seems simple and standardized, so why does the Imam matter so much?
This is a common misconception that we hope to dispel by giving a few examples of miscommunications between the Imam and the couple, which resulted in awkward moments for everyone involved.
Since there are various minor differences in the way a nikah can be conducted, each Imam performs nikah ceremonies with a different flavor. For example, some Imams may conduct the entire nikah in Arabic, whereas others may conduct the entire nikah in English, or a combination of the two. Some Imam’s may require the couple to verbally make the offer and the acceptance in Arabic, repeating word for word after the Imam. The point is that you should be prepared; you should know exactly what will happen, or risk having an awkward moment.
Public Mentioning of the Mahr (Dowry)
Some Imams will mention the amount of the mahr out loud in front of the entire audience at the nikah. This happened to a couple that I spoke to recently. They said it was one of the most surprising and embarrassing that occurred to them because they were hoping to keep their mahr agreement private, between the couple, the witnesses, and the Imam. Just the opposite happened, and both of their faces turned bright red when the Imam asked the bride if she agreed to “X” for the mahr. Even more embarrassing, since the mahr was a very modest amount, the Imam actually asked the bride again: “Are you sure you agree to this?”
Pop Quiz in the Middle of Your Nikah!
In another scenario, a couple told me that they were surprised when the Imam suddenly started asking them hypothetical questions in the middle of their nikah ceremony! The Imam asked: So, Mr. Khan, assume you come home from work, tired and stressed out from a long day, and your wife asks you to do something that you don’t want to do; what is the first thing that you should do?
This wasn’t a planned out question. Imagine that you have no idea that this will happen in the middle of your nikah, how would you feel?
Short and Sweet, but Too Short
The nikah, technically, could take a minute or two to conduct, while meeting the basic requirements. But it is preferable to have a short khutbah or talk by the Imam as part of the marriage. Maybe you are expecting a short talk but instead the entire nikah is conducted and completed within a minute. Not a fun surprise, right?
Select the Right Imam to Perform your Nikah
Scenario 1: Convert to Islam or Marrying a Christian or Jewish Woman
Maybe you are a convert to Islam, you are marrying a convert, or you are getting married to a Christian or Jewish woman, and thus there will be many Christians, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Atheists, Agnostics or members of another faith at your nikah. In these scenarios it makes sense to select an Imam that has experience speaking to interfaith audiences, or maybe even an Imam who is a convert himself!
I once attended a nikah between two American converts. The nikah was at the mosque and it was absolutely incredible because the mosque was filled with Christians; about 80 or 90% of the attendees were Christian.
The couple carefully selected the perfect Imam for their situation. The Imam was a traditionally trained Muslim scholar who also earned a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies. He was able to speak about the beauties of both the Muslim and Christian traditions and how both faiths share the same roots. It was remarkable hearing a nikah speech that included Quran verses in Arabic and quotes from the Bible and Torah in English, Hebrew, and Greek. Sitting in the audience, it was clear that the Christians truly appreciated the talk; they were able to resonate with it while also gaining a deeper understanding of the Muslim faith.
(If you would like to book this scholar for your nikah, contact us!)
Scenario 2: Sunni-Shia Nikah
It is common to find the scenario of a Sunni getting married to a Shia or vice-versa. We understand that this can be a contentious issue within our communities but it doesn’t have to be! Currently, our Imams on Halal Weddings are all from the Sunni tradition but they are able and willing to perform nikahs between Sunnis and Shias. Some of our Imams work closely with Shia mosques in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and therefore are understanding of cultural and family issues that may arise in the scenario of a Sunni-Shia nikah.
If you are in this situation, it is especially important to work with an Imam who is willing and able to adhere to nikah practices that are acceptable to both traditions. If you have a general question regarding the permissibility of such a nikah, please see the following answer by Sheikh Faraz Rabbani: http://seekershub.org/ans-blog/2014/09/09/can-a-sunni-muslim-marry-a-shia-muslim/
A Nikah Tailored to Your Situation – Stress Free
Even if you do not fall into a unique situation, you should be selective in your decision as to who performs your nikah so you do not have any undesired surprises in the middle of your ceremony.
The nikah ceremony is an incredibly special moment. We often find ourselves stressing out over the ancillary aspects of the nikah, such as the venue, the food, and the clothing that we will wear. While each of these considerations are important and merit adequate time and thought, it behooves us to conduct our due diligence in selecting the Imam who will perform our nikah. Aside from the conditional situations mentioned above, there is great barakah in having pious individuals perform our nikahs. The scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets (may peace and blessings be upon them all!), and therefore, it is a blessing for us to be honored with their presence, prayers, and advice on one of the most momentous days of our life.