Monday, June 24, 2013

The Ordeal of Marriage Ceremony

Wedding ceremony in Malaysia used to be crammed during the school holidays.  Nowadays, it is held on weekends. 

In the Malay society, wedding reception is generally held separately from the marriage vows ceremony (akad nikah).  The Americans tend to do it concurrently.  I used to attend wedding ceremonies of some Christian friends when I was in the United States.  The marriage vows and the reception were held concurrently.

In Malaysia, I have attended many marriage vows ceremonies since the last decade or so.  Most of these went without any drama.  This was not always the case, though.

When I was a boy, the marriage vows ceremony was something dreaded by the groom.  The vow itself is simple enough, but many grooms somehow could not recite it properly.  For the vow to be valid, the two appointed witnesses must declare that it is valid.  This is not something that the Malays, being Muslims, take it lightly.  Invalid vow would invalidate the marriage.  If marriage is not valid, then the couple cannot live as husband and wife lawfully.

Technically, it would take nothing more than a fraction of a minute to take the vow, for it entails only a simple declaration of accepting the bride in marriage with the stipulated dowry.  But the problem in those days was that some qadis (the officials who perform the ceremony) and the witnesses insisted on the vow being recited exactly the way they wanted it, and all within one breadth.  If the groom stuttered, then the vow was not considered valid.  Even if they did not stutter, but could not complete it within one breath, it was still considered invalid.  Then there were some semantic issues which complicate the matter further.

Worse, before taking the vow, the already very nervous groom would be tested about his knowledge on a few basic Islamic rituals.  Furthermore, they would generally be asked to recite a few basic recitations, especially those recited during the prayers.  By the time the grooms went through this little ordeal, their mind went blank.  Thus, what should have taken a fraction of a minute often went into hours.  I heard of cases whereby the ceremony had to be temporarily postponed, to allow the groom to regain his lost mind after taking a short break.  One ceremony in my village had to be postponed to the next day, because the groom never recovered his senses.

Partly to address this issue that marriage course before the matrimony was introduced in the 80’s, and is continued till these days.   The purpose of the course is not only to prepare the couple about what to expect after marriage, but also to educate the groom about the marriage vows.  Since then I never heard of a groom “shitting in his pant” during the marriage vows ceremony.  In most marriage vow ceremonies I attended these days, the groom managed to get his vow validated with only one recitation.

The Americans, and I suppose other Western countries, do not seem to have this problem.  During the marriage vows ceremony, all the groom and the bride need to say is: “I do.”  Their ceremony appears to be real marriage vows ceremony, for the bride and the groom must take their vows to love and support each other through thick or thin.  In the Muslim marriage vows, or more properly the aqad nikah, it is more like an offer and an acceptance.  The groom will be offered the bride in marriage for a stipulated dowry, and the groom must declare his acceptance.  The bride, meanwhile, does not need to do anything. 

Technically, it should have been quite simple and straightforward.  And as far as I can ascertain, it is simple and straightforward during the time of the Prophet.  In those days, the aqad nikah would consist of the father (or the guardian) of the bride offering the groom his daughter in marriage with a stipulated dowry, and the groom should declare his acceptance.  The ceremony was not generally performed by the appointed official (qadi), but by the father or the bride’s guardian.

Among the Malays, the matter is institutionalized to make it more complicated and poses quite an ordeal to the groom.   It seems that to perform the marriage vows ceremony, one has to be of a certain virtue.  In most cases, being a father and a guardian is not good enough. 

During the time of the Prophet, however, the issue about the guardian (wali in Arabic, the one with the right to give bride in marriage) appears to be rather simple.  According to Muhammad Qutb in his book, Women Around The Messenger, when Umm Sulaym, the mother of Anas, wanted to get married to Abu Talhah, she asked her son, Anas, who was not yet reaching puberty at that time, to marry her.  And the young boy Anas married her mother to Abu Talhah.  No doubt Anas was a man of virtue, and was considered among the leading companions, but when he married her mother off, he was only a boy.

This is probably an extreme example of simplicity, and probably an isolated event rather than the rule, but generally speaking, the acceptance of marriage offer was rather simple then.  The groom only needed to declare that he accepted the marriage of so and so with the stipulated dowry.

In any case, the strict requirement on taking the marriage vows appears to be largely a Malaysian phenomenon.  Years back, when I was in the U.S., I also attended marriage vows ceremonies among Malay students who got married there.  The taking of vows over there somehow appeared to be very simple. 

When one of my housemates got married, his ceremony was conducted by a Sudanese clergy, who conducted the ceremony in Arabic.  My housemate who was taking the vow did not know Arabic, and the Sudanese clergy did not know Malay.  When the clergy pronounced one word, he stopped so that my housemate can utter that word.  Next he moved to the next word, and my housemate uttered that word, so on and so forth until the whole sentence was completed.  It took a minute or two to get the whole thing completed, but somehow the marriage was deemed valid, although the whole recitation within one breadth thing was not adhered to.

My housemate who did not know what he was uttering when taking the marriage vows in Arabic, requested that the vow be done again in English, and it was done.  No one raised eyebrow.  It was simple in the U.S., even for the Malays.

Still, the marriage vows ceremony for the Malays in Malaysia are relatively easy.  They do not have to go through the difficult rites of passage like some tribes in Africa and other less developed societies, if what we watch on the television is true.

And more importantly, they do not have to go through what Prophet Jacob went through, suppose the Biblical story is accurate.   As we are told in the Bible (Genesis 29), Jacob served his uncle Laban for seven years in order to marry her cousin Rachel, the younger sister of Leah.  When he completed his time, he asked his uncle to give Rachel to him in marriage, as had been agreed.  To his dismay, he discovered that it was Leah who was in bed with him during the wedding night.

Furious, he confronted his uncle for cheating on their agreement.  The stipulated condition to marry Rachel was already rather onerous.  Jacob had to spend seven years shepherding his uncle’s sheep in order to marry his beautiful cousin, only to discover after the wedding night that it was his homely cousin who was in bed with him. 

His uncle Laban merely replied that it was not the custom of the people in that country to give the younger daughter when the older one was still unmarried, and if Jacob wanted Rachel, he had to serve another seven years.   Since it was Rachel whom Jacob desired, not Leah, the wily uncle managed to get another seven years of free service from his nephew.

At least the Malay men do not have to go through such an ordeal.

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