Marriage and the Family in Ancient to Modern Egypt

Ancient Egyptian Marriage

anceit_egypt_marrage.jpg A marriage in Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians were the first people to frame laws for marriage! Interesting, right?

Most of the Egyptian marriage customs follow the laws made under the influence of religion of the people. Marriage in traditional Egypt is dictated by religion. The bride and groom would get engaged after the parents of the couple have approved the marriage. All legal rights and duties of the couple are clear. In ancient Egypt, contracts (Prenuptial Agreements) were written documents signed by at least three officers. Men and women could divorce each other, but even today, it is not common.

Egyptian Religion Purpose in Marriage
The majority religion is Islam. The 1971 constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. Religion, according to Odyssey McMorris, is polytheist or believing in more then one god, which is prevalent in ancient and modern religions. In Chelsea Garthwaite’s research of Egyptian Culture she also mentions more about the Muslim faith and how it related to Egyptian Social Relations. According to official estimates via Encyclopedia of the Nations, 90% of the population is Muslim and 8% to 10% are Christian, with the Coptic Orthodox Church being the largest Christian denomination. Other denominations represented include Armenian Apostolic, Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Catholics and Jews.

Muslim Marriage and Gender Roles

In Islamic law, marriage is a legal bond and social contract between a man and a woman. Islam commends marriage, with the age of marriage being whenever the individuals feel ready, financially and emotionally. Polygyny (many wives) is permitted in Islam under some conditions but polyandry is forbidden. In other words, Men are allowed to “cheat” and women are not.
When examining ancient reliefs and statues, it is easy to assume that the ancient Egyptians marriage was similar to today's institution, but beyond these visual clues, there is little in the way of documentation to substantiate this. Little written evidence of either true marriage ceremonies or marriages as a concept has been found. Usually there was a grand party associated with the joining of two people, but we believe it was simply a social affair and had no real religious or legal bearing. - Mark Andrews

Woman roles in ancient Egypt were not as equal as men roles, but they did acquire some rights. According to JARSK, one of their rights was the right to decide if they wished to marry or not. If a man asked a woman to marry him, she could say no. A woman in ancient Egypt could not be forced into marriage. Those who did marry usually married young, around age 12-14. Laws against woman going outside the marriage seeking pleasure or community adultery was and is much more harsh then men. Once married, a woman's first duty was to be a good wife and mother. Children were very important to the ancient Egyptians.

Polygamy in a Muslim Marriage
Lets look at specifics. Polygyny in Islam is permitted, as mentioned by the Qur’an. Polyandry, on the other hand, is strictly prohibited. A man does not need approval of his first wife for a second marriage but he has to let her know and she chooses to stay with him or leave him. A man is responsible and never hurts one wife to please another. Traditionally, Muslim jurists hold that Muslim women may only enter into marriage with Muslim men. Some say that Muslim men are prohibited from marrying a woman of the People of the Book if they live in non-Muslim countries. Polygamy exist in many countries in many cultures. For example in Tran Vu's research in Anicent Chinese Gender, she mentions that polygamy existed in China for many generations before the first dynasty. Chinese society did not accept polygamy entirely because they saw marriage as a relationship between only one man and one woman, which correlates to the binary pairing of yin and yang. In the works of Mark Andrews in his work on Marraige in Ancient Egypt, among common people, polygamy may very well have existed as it obviously did in the royal class, but if so it was rare. We know from excavations such as Deir El Medina that the housing of common people conformed more to monogamy rather than polygamy. Kings might have as many as several hundred wives, and in some periods other high officials took more than one wife. (Andrews 2011)

Below is a video from part of a Wedding in Cairo.

An engagement may be arranged between families for their children, but Islamic requirements for a legal marriage include that both parties are able to give informed legal consent (ijab-o-qubul). A marriage without this consent or performed under coercion is considered is voided and annulled.

A woman or man may propose marriage directly or through an intermediary (matchmaker). According to Muslim Wedding Wiki , Muslim families seek suitable mates for their adult children through their network of family, friends and neighbors. However, these traditions have changed. Families are not as well-connected due to moving long distance because of work and other such circumstances. This has made networking among friend and family much more difficult. Thanks to the internet, Muslims who are looking for a mate are no longer confined to their families small social network.

Here are a list of Muslim Match Making
A Muslim Couple with Parents from a Muslim Match Making website.
Single Muslim
Muslim Match

any many many more.

In the Wiki, World Religions it is mentioned that some Muslim countries state that it is the law that homosexuals can face the death penalty. Homosexual acts are forbidden in almost all Muslim countries. Recognition or celebration of same sex marriage is completely unjustified in the view of Islamic law. Islam forbids homosexuality in Qur'an text and Islamic tradition.

Physical Proof of Marriage
Unlike wedding tradition Western societies, there is no visible sign worn to show a woman or a man is married. However, some Muslims have found the wedding ring to be a non-religious tradition and have used a ring.

Mahr is a mandatory gift given by the groom to the bride. Unlike a bride price, however, it is given directly to the bride and not to her father. Although the gift is often money, it can be anything agreed upon by bride and groom such as a house or viable business that is put in her name and can be run and owned entirely by her if she chooses.

Islamic marriage contract
Muslim Pre-Nup

A Muslim marriage is not a sacrament, but a simple, legal agreement in which either partner is free to include conditions. These conditions are stipulated in a written contract. Violating any of the conditions stipulated in this contract is legal grounds for a partner seeking divorce. There is a tradition, outside of the religion, in some Muslim countries to per-arrange a marriage for young children. However, the marriage still requires consent for the wedding to legally take place.

There has of course been some outside controversy.

Afghanistan Muslim marriage are very similar to the Egyptian Muslim marriage. An article from the Seattle Weekly Appeals Court Sides with Afghan Divorcee Who Regrets Signing Traditional Marriage Contract, states that the "Washington state Court of Appeal ruled that Qayoum, the groom, did not have to abide by an Islamic marriage contract he signed that required him to pay Obaidi, the wife, $20,000 if they divorced. The contract was in Farsi, a language Qayoum neither speaks, reads, or writes. He was also told about the contract, called Mahr, just 15 minutes before he signed it.

"In less than a year, Qayoum was sending Obaidi away to war-torn Afghanistan for three-and-a-half months and then, upon her return, anywhere but his mother's house. She filed for divorce and, apparently, sought the $20,000 she had been promised. The judge hearing the case, in Whitman County Superior Court, ruled essentially that Qayoum had "made his own bed". "He had to pay his wife what he had agreed to give here, even if he originally did not understand it, thus being his own fault for signing it without understanding.

Walima is a feast with many types of food that usualy have ancient symbols, like fertility.

The Walima mean events in a Muslim marriage. It can mean a dinner given by the groom's side of the family to celebrate the welcoming of the bride to the family. It is a strong sunnah (the repetition of an action of Muhammad) and it is recommended to be held the earliest possible day after the Nikah.(only in the short term "pleasure" marriages)


The wife has the right to live in separate accommodation with her husband and children, if she does not like to share it with anyone like her in-law or relatives. She also has the right to refuse to live with her husband's father, mother and siblings. A wife is responsible for the house of her husband. Also that a man should be the guardian of his family. i.e. after his marriage he moves out of his father's house, and runs his own family affairs and is guardian of his family. In joint family, typically the head is either the father of the husband, or mother of the husband. This also indicates that a husband should look after his parent's house, as " A man is a guardian of his father's property".


" A woman swathed in black to her ankles, wearing a headscarf or a full chador, walks down a European or North American street, surrounded by other women in halter tops, miniskirts and short shorts. She passes under immense billboards on which other women swoon in sexual ecstasy, cavort in lingerie or simply stretch out languorously, almost fully naked. Could this image be any more iconic of the discomfort the West has with the social mores of Islam, and vice versa?" - Naomi Wolfl


Sexuality in Islam is described by the Qur'an, Islamic tradition, and religious leaders both past and present as being confined to marital relationships between men and women.

While most traditions discourage celibacy, (with some exceptions, i.e. Catholicism) intimacy as perceived within Islam is to be reserved for marriage. While adulterous relationships are strictly forbidden, permissible sexual relationships within marriage are described in Islamic sources as great wells of love and closeness for the couple involved. Anal sex with one's wife is also strictly prohibited.

According to Naomi Wolfs article "Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality, "Ideological battles are often waged with women's bodies as their emblems, and Western Islamophobia is no exception. When France banned headscarves in schools, it used the hi jab as a proxy for Western values in general, including the appropriate status of women. When Americans were being prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were demonized for denying cosmetics and hair color to women; when the Taliban were overthrown, Western writers often noted that women had taken off their scarves.The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I traveled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women's appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one's husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channeling - toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home."

Under the Qur'an, "Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient..."

Divorce is not forbidden as a last resort, however the dissolution of the contract, Talaq, (divorce initiation) is often described as the most disliked of permissible things in Islam and should be used as a last resort.

Modern Marriage Life

A wedding in Egypt

The married life in Egypt are different than those in the west, like the United States. In the Islamic culture, they discourage dating. Men and woman who are single are not supposed to be alone together, if they are not related. The man and woman often know each other from school (similar in western cultures), mainly in the middle and upper classes. The lower classes however, the opportunity to mingle with the opposite sex is rare this sometimes family members negotiate a arranged marriage for their unmarried daughter or son. Either way if the couple knew each other before or not, the steps toward a marriage are the same. The two families meet to discuss terms of the marriage. The topics discussed are usually dowry, who will pay for the wedding, how much will the wedding be etc. The two family then arrange a supervised meeting between potential bride and groom and either CAN say no to the marriage (this is usually in an arranged situation). The wedding is taken place rather quickly in this culture however; the groom may go abroad in work or study, in which case the marriage is postponed. In the West, both men and woman have that option while in this culture, it is mostly male dominated. When it comes to the wedding, they are similar in its contexts of those to the west. Weddings are a time of celebration. Couples can arrange for photos in specific and scenic locations, like overlooking the lights of Cairo. Marriage is somewhat simple, containing only the imam from mosque presiding over the contract between the brides father (who speaks on behalf of his daughter) and the groom. In a wealthy family, large amounts of money is spent on the wedding. For example, renting out ballrooms, hotels and extended weddings are just a few. Divorce, although it happens, is not common in Egypt. According to the Egyptian secular law, both men and woman have a right to ask for a divorce. Traditionally, the father is granted custody of any children after divorce, which is a complete opposite tradition in the west. A woman's right to ask for a divorce under any circumstance was put into law in Egypt in 1999. Interpretations of Islamic law give women the right to ask for a divorce only in certain circumstances, like husbands inability to be fertile. The new law was written both by secular lawmakers as well as representatives of the Muslim clergy in Egypt in order to ensure that it would address concerns of a marriage.