A Comparative Look on Dowry

A Comparative Look on Dowry

Among the conditions of marriage the question of dowry has been the subject of consideration from various perspectives. The conception of dowry is usually associated with a particular type of marriage, namely, marriage by purchase. This type of marriage “has been widely spread throughout the world and throughout history . . . [It] has prevailed in all branches of the Semitic race . . . [But] we should notice that marriage by purchase did not imply the purchase of a piece of property . . .” 

Two basic types of dowry have been practiced. The first type is that which is paid by the groom or his family to the bride or her family. It normally consists of money, property, or movable objects. Sometimes it is made up of gifts which are offered by the groom’s party and which may or may not be reciprocated by the bride’s. It may also consist of service rendered by the groom to the family of the bride. Further, a wife could have been acquired by means of exchange when a man agreed to exchange his daughter or ward for another’s. The second basic type of dowry is that which is rendered by the bride or her family to the groom or his family. This was common in some ancient societies and is still so in some modern ones. However, the two basic types of dowry are not mutually exclusive, nor are their subtypes.

The fact that marriage has been for so long accompanied by a “bride price” or “groom price” is interesting. The origin of the bride price, according to a contemporary anthropologist, “must be sought in a family setup in which a young girl was an economic asset for her father’s family. The departure of the girl from her own family was an economic loss, and this was compensated by the bride price. From the point of view of the bridegroom’s family, the acquisition of a wife meant the addition of a pair of working hands in exchange for the amount paid over to the bride’s family.” This may explain the origin of the custom, but it can hardly explain its continuation where there are no such extended families, or where the woman herself is the recipient of dowry.

Besides this economic factor, there is also a procreative one, which is not entirely free from economic considerations. The bride price is likely to be stipulated in a patrilineal system where a new union “holds out the promise of increasing the number and strength of the bridegroom’s family . . . No comparable advantage occurs . . . to the mother’s family …” The father not only loses a daughter but also all her future progeny. He should, therefore, receive some material compensation for his losses. Sometimes the payment of a large bride price “may be the expression of the love of the bridegroom for his bride.” Yet, here again, this theory may explain only some cases, not the whole pattern of bride price. It is limited by the fact that it applies to a patrilineal system in which the bride’s family is the recipient of dowry, or where dowry is regarded as proportionate to the intensity of love. But this does not account for the variants of the general pattern of dowry.

There are situations where the bride’s family pays a marriage portion to the groom or his family. This is common in monogamous societies, where the sex ratio is low, where a large number of males never marry, and, finally, where married women lead an indolent life. In such societies, the marriage portion frequently becomes a purchase sum by which a father buys a husband for his daughter. This is true of modern as well as ancient societies. In some cases, however, as in ancient Babylonia, the dowry (marriage portion) brought by the bride remained her property, although the husband had the usufruct of it. In other cases, as in Athens, it was “the wife’s contribution toward the expenses of the marriage, and at the same time served as an obstacle to the dissolution of the union for frivolous reasons.” The Roman tradition of the dos or dower contributed by the bride’s father was adopted by the Church to secure for the wife an inviolable provision which would remain hers after the husband’s death.

The association of dowry with marriage by purchase has been a source of confusion and inconsistency. For example, one reason for the seriousness of engagement among the Hebrews “was the mohar, or dowry, which was given by the groom to the prospective bride’s father.” Yet, on the other hand, it is believed that the normal marriage in Hebrew society was by purchase where the bride’s father provided a dowry which the husband could only manage and which was restored to its source at the dissolution of the marriage. It is not clear, however, whether the mohar (marriage price) and the dowry (marriage portion) were contemporaneous and universal. Nor is it certain whether they both went to the wife as personal possessions or were earmarked for future use. The idea of marriage by purchase or marriage price is probably misleading, as is depicting the girl’s father as a bargaining beneficiary and recipient of compensation for his economic losses.

With this comparative background, it may be possible to see dowry in Islam in full perspective. Dowry is used here to designate what a Muslim groom gives to his prospective bride. It is her personal property which she is empowered to waive, reduce, return to her husband, or dispense with as she pleases. It is enjoined by the Qur’an, the Traditions of the Prophet, and the consensus of Muslims. It may consist of money, property, movable objects, or services rendered to the bride herself. There is a Tradition that a Companion of the Prophet wanted to marry a certain woman but had nothing to offer her in dowry. The Prophet asked him to teach her whatever he knew of the Qur’an, and that sufficed as a dowry. A certain Abu Talhah proposed to a woman who, in reply to his proposal, said: “A man of your stature is not to be rejected; but you are a non-Believer and I am a Muslim. It is unlawful for me to marry you. If you embrace Islam, that will be my dowry and no more will I ask of you.” He then embraced Islam and that was her dowry. Similarly, if a master wishes to marry his slave girl and offers her freedom as a dowry, both the offer and the marriage are valid.

To make dowry the exclusive right of the bride and empower her to dispose of it as she sees fit is sometimes regarded as a radical social change which Islam could not have initiated. Some observers suggest that there must have been a pre-Islamic custom whereby dowry “was as a rule paid to her and not to her people, so that she cannot often have been left destitute and dependent on her people or clan.” This would seem to presuppose that dowries were usually large enough to enable a widow or divorcee to become economically independent of her kinsmen, that she could own and inherit property, and that women were highly stationed in society. But all this is itself problematic and involves obscurity, controversy, or both. Whatever the strength or weakness of this presupposition, it seems important that Islam has made it a divine injunction, not a custom, that the bride alone has the right to dowry and only she may dispose of it as she pleases. Apart from any moral effect that this change may have had on the status of women, the social consequences were equally important. Payment of dowry to the bride herself probably minimized the element of self-interest and power of the guardian in his choice of a husband for the ward. He became mainly concerned with what was best for the woman. This and other changes made by Islam “tended to remove control over their affairs from the women’s male relatives and protectors and to vest it in themselves.”

The position of Islam on the limits of dowry is also significant. The general principle is that dowry should be estimated according to circumstances with emphasis on moderation. The Prophet is reported to have said that the most blessed marriage is that which is least costly and most easy. Hence, the great majority of jurists set no minimum to dowry. In fact, there were cases in the Prophet’s lifetime and thereafter where dowry was as low as two dirhams, or less than one dollar. This was acceptable even to leading dignitaries and was regarded as a virtuous act. The two schools of law that set a minimum to dowry, three and ten dirhams respectively, made it merely nominal as the amount indicates. On the other hand, all schools of law agreed that there is no maximum limit to dowry. However, moderation is recommended; some jurists preferred it to be within the limit of five hundred dirhams, nearly one hundred and fifty dollars, which was the amount sometimes paid by the Prophet himself or received by his daughters.

The fact that there is no fixed minimum of dowry, and that even those who set one made it merely nominal, may suggest several implications. It was probably intended to facilitate marriage since Islam’s strong advocacy of marriage is, as already mentioned, unequivocal. It is also likely that it was designed as a measure of narrowing the gaps between the various social strata. The amount of dowry may serve as a status symbol and hence the larger the amount, the higher the status may be supposed to rank. But Islam’s interest in discouraging “class” distinctions is believed to be rather emphatic. Other inferences have been made such as likening marriage to sale and the dowry to the price of a commodity, and regarding the absence of a fixed minimum as indicative of a low evaluation of women.

Similarly, the fact that there is no fixed maximum to dowry may indicate that neither sexual gratification as such nor progeny was regarded as the crucial factor in marriage. If they were, a great many people would probably have sought more economical means, such as slave purchase, to achieve these ends instead of having to pay dowries which were often very handsome. In fact, the Qur’an (4:20) implies that a dowry may be as high as a hundredweight (one qintar) of gold or silver. There are some indications that women took advantage of this permissibility to an alarming extent. Just a few years after Muhammad’s death, there developed a tendency to demand exorbitant dowries. ‘Umar, the Caliph (d.643), was opposed to this tendency and spoke against it in the mosque. He recommended that dowries be reduced to moderate limits. A woman rose from the congregation and said to ‘Umar: “Commander of the Believers! Why do you want to deny us a God-given right?” When she recited the relevant keywords of the Qur’an (4:20), ‘Umar admitted that he was mistaken and withdrew his recommendations.

Since Islam has set neither a dowry minimum, according to the majority of jurists, nor a dowry maximum, in the opinion of all jurists, why did it prescribe it in the first place? We have previously noted several theories concerning the institutionalization of dowry. But none of these by itself seems adequate to account for dowry in Islam. The economic explanation which conceives of dowry as a compensation to the father or his substitute for the loss of the girl’s economic services is inapplicable to Islam for two basic reasons. First, dowry is the exclusive right and property of the woman in question; she can use it or dispose of it as she pleases. Second, a religio-legal system, such as Islam, that makes dowry as nominal as the offering of an iron ring or the teaching of some Qur’anic verses seems hardly concerned in this context with economic losses and compensations. Similarly, the procreative explanation, which is also partly economic, has to be ruled out for the same reasons. If progeny was enthusiastically sought by Muslims, as is generally believed, and if dowry was essential to the attainment of this end, as the procreative theory holds, it is very unlikely that Islam would have left the dowry limits so undetermined and its ranges so wide as they are. Furthermore, the fact that passionate love does not necessarily precede marriage but may grow with it or evolve from it, and that dowry can be large or small, would seem to preclude the designation of dowry as an expression of love.

It is sometimes suggested that Islam has enjoined dowry in order to safeguard the economic rights of the wife after marriage and to strengthen her financial position. This view can have great explanatory value only where the dowry is large and when such economic gains are manifest functions of marriage. But this does not appear to represent the majority of cases. Where it is small, as it may be, dowry can only be symbolic. Among the values it symbolizes may be the strengthening and safeguarding of the economic position of the wife. Nevertheless, this seems far from being the exclusive or even the main reason for dowry. 

It is also conceivable, as Westermarck and others have suggested, that dowry, especially when paid by the woman’s family, “served as an obstacle to the dissolution of the union for frivolous reasons.” Another function was that it worked as deterrent to polygyny. But, here again, the assumption seems to be that dowry is large enough to deter the husband, if he is the contributor, from divorcing his wife or taking another one, and that he is relatively poor or highly “rational” and economy-minded. The same is true of the wife if she is the payer of the dowry. Such a number of assumptions would appear, on the one hand, to weaken the power of the theory and, on the other, to leave unexplained the many cases in which dowry is small, where the husband is well-off, or where both husband and wife engage in non-rational behavior, as they may do. 

Muslim jurists of later centuries have held the technical view that dowry is enjoined in return for the man’s right, at least potentially, to have legitimate, access to cohabitation with the woman in question. She is entitled to dowry because she has consented to marriage and made herself accessible. Much discussion among the jurists has centered on this issue. But the exponents of this view appear to assume or to infer that women have no sexual desires and needs of their own, that gratification is not reciprocal, that sex is a cheap commodity in view of the permissibility of nominal dowries, and that marriage is little more than a commercial transaction. The list of assumptions and inferences may be extended. Yet, these seem contrary to the bio-psychological facts and to the very idea of marriage which is depicted in the Qur’an (e.g., 30:20) as a shelter of peace and comfort, and as a means of mutual love and mercy.

It is interesting to note that the term mahr (bride price), which usually connotes commercialization of marriage, is not used in the Qur’an at all. It occurs very infrequently in the Traditions of the Prophet; when it does, it is usually accompanied by other terms such as faridah (God-given right), or sadaq (which is connected with a root word meaning marriage-gift, charity, friendship, fidelity, truth, etc.). The jurists have used these terms interchangeably as denoting the God-given right of dowry. But it is not certain whether in these interchangeable usages the traditional connotations of the term mahr were sublimated to the moral and charitable denotations of terms like sadaq, faridah, and so on; or whether these terms themselves took on the traditional connotations of mahr. A review of the classical legal texts would seem to indicate that where it occurs, the term mahr is used in a sublime moral sense indistinguishable from the meaning of sadaq, faridah, and similar terms. But the law books and usages of subsequent centuries seem to use mahr and other alternate terms in a sense very much akin to the traditional meaning of bride-price. This reversal of meaning was apparently correlated with a decline in juristic creativity and the status of women and also with a misconception of the idea of marriage.

So far no explanation has been found adequate to account for the dowry in Islam. The usual explanations addressed to various cultures are inapplicable. Even the idea that dowry is a contribution toward marriage expenses which are normally shared by the bride and the groom or their families is inapplicable. It is true that in contemporary Muslim society the general practice is that the groom contributes a certain portion which sometimes supplements and sometimes is supplemented by what the bride or her family contributes. But that is not the same as the original idea of dowry, though it is not incompatible with it, since dowry is the exclusive right of the bride who may or may not consume it, reduce it, add to it, or dispose of it as she pleases.

In view of these factors, there is still room for further explorations of the idea of dowry in Islam. It seems fairly obvious that dowry is a symbolic, intermediate value. But what it symbolizes may not be so obvious. Some tentative suggestions may be useful, however. Dowry is probably a symbolic expression of the groom’s cognizance of the economic responsibilities of marriage and of his readiness to discharge all such responsibilities subsequent to marriage. It may be thought of as a manifest assurance on his part that the bride’s economic security and rights will be maintained. It is a symbolic acknowledgment that he does or will dissociate the purpose of marriage from the designs of economic exploitations. For “instinctive” or cultural reasons, it is usually the women who need reassurance of the man’s intentions and interest. This reassurance may require more than verbal expressions of love and seriousness on the man’s part, and dowry may be the tangible symbol of such love and seriousness. To the bride, it is a token of the groom’s desire to enter into a union with her. To her family, it is a gesture of mutual friendship and solidarity, an assurance that their daughter will be secure and in good hands. However, there may be other symbolic meanings of dowry, as has been mentioned earlier. Nor is it to be overlooked that what is being suggested here is conceptualized in terms of the religious and moral ideals which may or may not be in fact fully implemented. There is no sufficient ground to assume that the actual has always coincided with the ideal in this case.

[The Family Structure in Islam by Hammūdah ʻAbd al-ʻĀṭī, p, 62-70]

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