Ritual and Religion

** Have you listened to Episode 4: Conflicted, Slaughtering and Prince William’s Wedding, yet?  Download on iTunes or listen here **


Pakistani weddingsGrounded and crushed to a fine powder and then mixed with water, Mendhi, or henna, is an elaborate part of an Indian or Pakistani wedding.  The bride’s henna is often a focal point in a marriage.  There are various interpretations as to why henna is used in a wedding: luck, beauty, or good wishes.

Most of all, I think it’s just that it looks pretty.

One of the interesting assumptions on the part of a resource we mentioned in our last episode was that Mendhi is an “Islamic ritual.”  Not true.  Mendhi, or henna as it’s called in English and Arabic, is used throughout the world by various people as a form of decorative body art.  In fact, some resources suggest that its use was first documented back in the Bronze Age.  A famous henna ritual, for example, takes place among Yemenite Jews, in which the application of henna to a bride’s body takes several days.

It’s important, as I have mentioned in previous episodes, to remember that Islam, as it stands alone, is a spiritual way and a philosophy based upon strict monotheism, social justice and submission to the will of God.  Its prolific dispersion throughout the various parts of world, however, creates situations where indigenous cultures have stamped their unique marks upon the practice of the faith itself.

This is not a bad thing, in my opinion, but a testament to the simplicity of the faith.  It furthermore creates an opportunity for all Muslims to experience the richness of the global experience as they build communities in places such as the United States.  By virtue of being Muslim, I have been able to attend weddings of the Syrian, Kuwaiti, Saudi, Moroccan, Albanian and Bangladeshi variety to name a few.  Each of these weddings had a distinctiveness as well as basic similarities.

To further elaborate, I once read that Bosnian Muslims only get married on Saturdays.  Does that mean that being married on a Saturday is Islamic practice?  Not at all.  And, of course, a traditional Pakistani Muslim wedding occurs over the course of four to five days (at least), but that doesn’t mean a Muslim wedding is five days long.

These examples simply illustrate that there are all kinds of different ways that Muslims get married as well as live and even practice their religion.  At the heart of our marriage is the Nikah, or contract, most of the other practice is cultural and traditional choice.

Muslim, as I have said many times, is not a nationality or even a culture… it is a religion.  And, like all religions, Islam has proven malleable and it possesses the wonderful ability to be inserted into existing traditions and practices.  Finally, I suspect that the inability to make this distinction lies at the heart of most Islamaphobic rhetoric, therefore it’s pretty critical to make this leap in understanding.

I’m curious, how much of your wedding was religious and how much of it was cultural?  Does your faith have the same dynamic as mine or is every practice grounded in revelation?



  1. MeganApril 12, 2011

    My wedding was completely secular, the only nod to tradition being that it was held on a Saturday (I’m a former Catholic, so that would be the norm). Beyond that, it was just a formality.

    I think it’s difficult for people not familiar with Islam or Judiasm or any other -ism to accurately separate cultural traditions from religious ones. The more familiar we become with different faiths, the easier it is to do that..

    I listened to the podcast yesterday, and do feel the need to put my two cents in about the coming royal wedding. I think it’s important to look at the blending of other traditions into the ceremony in terms of the spirit of it. The intent, I believe, is to be inclusive, and that is to be applauded. You have to keep in mind that England, like a lot of European countries, is used to viewing itself as a fairly homogenous society (unlike Canada and the U.S., which are immigrant nations). I think the inclusion of other wedding rituals is meant to mark a more modern sensibility in both the monoarchy and the nation.

    1. faiqaApril 12, 2011

      I agree that the spirit of inclusion is thoughtful, however, I would be very uncomfortable if religious aspects of my faith were being incorporated. Despite my acceptance of other faiths, I would be entirely uncomfortable with any of my spiritual practice being incorporated into a hybridized wedding with the intent of making a social or political statement.

      I’m not sure how to say this in a more diplomatic way, so I’ll just say it: a spiritual act without a commitment to the philosophy from which it stems is not only parroting, but it is nearly an act of hypocrisy.

      All that said, my impression in the case of this wedding is that it was, in fact, the Jewish community that offered the religious document, so if it’s fine with them, it’s fine with me.

      1. MeganApril 12, 2011

        I can understand what you are saying… I don’t feel the same way, but then again I don’t have a strong connection to any particular faith and never really have, so I cannot relate to that feeling.

        It’s a good thing to know, however. It would upset me greatly to offend someone when my intentions where the opposite.

  2. SheilaApril 14, 2011

    Can someone please draw me a chart?

    I thought I was a smart girl. Then I became friends with you.

    My wedding was pretty much a cookie cutter Christian wedding with as much traditional stuff as my mother could convince me to go for. It was a “regular” wedding, I guess, except for my (no joke) twenty-something count wedding party.

    To my mother’s dismay, I refused to wear white. Something about my four year old son being my ring bearer made me pretty sure people knew I wasn’t a virgin. Also, I look terrible in white. She’s lucky I went with ivory because I was initially looking at green dresses 🙂

    1. FaiqaApril 21, 2011

      Ohhh, a green dress would have been cool.

  3. TaraApril 21, 2011

    We had two weddings. The first one was for us: my dad (an ordained-but-no-longer-practicing Baptist minister) officiated our spiritual-but-not-religious wedding in our back yard. There were two somewhat religious readings: Khalil Gibran’s “On Marriage” from The Prophet, and the book of Ruth’s “Entreat me not to leave you, for wherever you go, I will go…” Because my dad was the officiant, he let me write the ceremony, and I consulted Husband and a book on intercultural/interreligious wedding ceremonies. It doesn’t seem right to incorporate a religious ritual that is not part of one of the parties’ faiths, so I’m with you on that one.

    Our second wedding was for my mother-in-law, who insisted upon a huge Catholic wedding (this one I call my Big Fat Nigerian Wedding)…I fought against having communion, and won. I didn’t want communion because I don’t believe the whole Jesus-died-for-our-sins thing, and none of my guests were Catholic. I thought it unfair to have communion when not everyone could participate, even if they share that belief. The priest who officiated this ceremony is from India, one of the few Thomasian Catholics from there. When Husband and I did our compatibility test (a church requirement), religion was the one area we tested less than 85% in. The priest cornered me in our pre-wedding meeting, asking what was wrong with me. (Of course, it *had* to be me, the un-Catholic one.) We got into this whole theological discussion, and it turns out that he believes many of the same things I believe, but he uses a different vocabulary. And he did say to not repeat our discussion around the church.

  4. FaiqaApril 21, 2011

    And he did say to not repeat our discussion around the church.

    I always feel conflicted about this approach because I’ve had similar conversations with people of faith who garner a great deal of respect & authority. On the one hand, I understand that they have achieved the respect of the community because they play “by the rules”, but, at the same time, maybe there would be less intolerance if they spoke up. If that makes sense.


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