MARRIAGE in Islam is a legal contract between two parties and not a holy sacrament. Many terms and conditions in the marriage contract are obligatory, while others can be set and agreed to at the time of marriage.
The gift or dower given as a mark of respect to the wife at the time of marriage by the husband is obligatory and is referred to as mehr. It is the legal right of the wife. It can be in cash or kind. The amount is variable and should be agreed to by both parties.
One of the words used in the Quran for this purpose is sadaqah (4:4), meaning the gift that is given in good faith and as a good deed, out of generosity, without meaning to aggrandise oneself. The other word used in the Quran is ajr (33:50). This word means a reward and is also used to denote wages. It is given as a gift to the woman who is going to leave her family and the security of her home, and is risking adjustment in a new and unknown set-up.
No one is exempt from paying the mehr. Even the Prophet (PBUH) has been told, “O Prophet, We have made permissible for you the wives whose dower you have paid….” (33:50). When Hazrat Ali came to the Prophet to ask for the hand of Bibi Fatima, the first thing the Prophet asked him was, “Do you have anything to give as mehr?” He said he had a horse and a saddle. He sold his saddle for 480 dirhams and brought it to the Prophet. The immediate needs of the bride and the new household were met with this amount. The concept of jahez, or giving endless amounts of household goods and gifts by the bride’s family, does not exist in Islam.
In some countries this legal requirement has been made a mockery of, either by fixing an unrealistically large amount and then not paying it, or fixing a ridiculously small amount, which there is no need to pay. The widow is sometimes asked to forgive her husband at his deathbed. The mehr remains a debt on the husband throughout his life and after his death the heirs inherit this debt and are bound to pay it.
The mehr is the sole property of the wife and neither parents nor any other relatives have any right over it. Sometimes male relatives illegally take away the mehr without the woman setting eyes on it, making it look like a sale.
Depending on the mode of payment, there are two kinds of mehr: the mu’ajjal, or prompt, and the muwajjal, or deferred. The deferred payment is allowed in the case of those who might be expecting remittances at a later date. But delaying the payment unnecessarily is not being true to the contract. Some people, in trying to be pious, say that they are willing to fix the mehr of their daughters at the rate of the sharai mehr, which some elders have worked out to be the unbelievable amount of Rs32.25! It is difficult to say where they got this figure from.
The Sharia, or Islamic law, has not fixed or even recommended any amount which could be called the sharai mehr. If inflation over the centuries could be calculated, the purchasing power of this amount would be found to have been reduced several thousand times. There is the well-known case of an old Sahabiah who questioned Hazrat Umar in the mosque when he suggested putting a ceiling on the upper limit of mehr.
According to some scholars, even if the mehr is not mentioned in the nikahnama, the mehr would still be an obligation and the law will award it on the demand of the wife. The amount, in this case, would be determined by the mehr of the females of her class or of her father’s family, known as mehr misl, or the financial position of the groom, the social status of the bride, the prevalent custom of the time and place and the agreement that the bride and the groom can reach over the amount. There is no upper limit on the amount of the mehr, but the amount should be a realistic one. It can be from a “heap of gold” to anything that the parties agree to and is non-refundable.
In Surah al-Nisa, it is said, “Give to the women their agreed dowers [willingly]….” (4:4) and, “…as an obligation….” (4:24). According to Imam Malik, if the parties agreed that there would be no mehr then the nikah would not be valid. But according to Imams Abu Hanifa, Shafi’i and Ahmed the nikah would be valid, but the mehr would still remain an obligation.
It is an obligation even in the case of the women of the “…People of the Book….” (5:5). According to Maulana Umar Ahmed Usmani, the labour of the groom cannot be accepted as mehr, because the mehr has to be an amount paid to the bride.
These days, marriages are being conducted with great pomp and show in which a great deal of wealth is squandered. If, instead of spending so much on unnecessary items, top priority is given to the payment of mehr, it would mean fulfilling a religious obligation. It would also be more in line with the Quranic injunctions and the example of the Prophet, and could provide some security to the bride, especially if she can invest the amount profitably.
The writer is a scholar of the Quran and writes on contemporary issues.