Social Importance and application of dowry in Islam

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To every tradition, culture or religion in the world where dowry is seen as an integral part of marriage.

Historically, the term dowry implies the transfer of a large wealth of goods and services to parents of the bride during marriage. The practice of dowry is contemporarily popular in South Asia, particularly given high demand in the twentieth century. Dowry giving was historically popular in the Near East, Europe, EastAsia, SouthAsia, and some parts of the Americas.

Dowry is understood to have been in existence since the existence of marriage. Basically, dowry in Islam can be defined (mahr) as a payment in the forms of money, property paid to the bride by the groom at the time of marriage which remain the bride personal property.

Dowry is the transfer of wealth, an invaluable component of bridal wealth. It is an important responsibility on the part of parents to ensure daughters are given due inheritance rights during the time of marriage.

In some culture, it is the bride or his family that gives money or like of it to the groom and his family. Their belief is that, it has become the responsibility of the groom to take care of their daughter for the rest of her life.

However, in today’s world. Dowry has been known as one of the most difficult tasks upon men to be fulfilled before marriage. Some men have seen dowry as an unjust act upon them due to the high demand from the bride and her family which they can hardly afford. In fact, discharge of the duty of dowry has delayed some men that are ready for marriage but cannot afford the dowry while those that could afford to pay for the dowry pay, and then take advantage of her by subjecting the woman to cruelty. In some cases, men have abused their wives physically, sexually, emotionally and financially because they believe they own everything of her after having successfully paid her dowry.

In other words, the totality of the exchange whether in cash or goods and services as compensation to the family of the bride constitutes bride-price. Women and child labour are indispensable contributions in such societies.

The complexity of societies that practice bride-price is typical in the West African country of Sierra Leone where there are variations across tribal groups regarding bride-price. In Sierra Leone, there are cases where part of the bride-price payment may be used by the family of the bride to pay for the cost of marital expenses. Since the society is still male dominated, in many cases, the money for the bride-price payment is used by the male elders of the bride’s family.

Mahr or dower has been used by the Quran and not dowry or bride-price. This is very important. Islam did not adopt bride-price but dower which signifies bride-gift. In the contemporary society, the wisdom for the use of dower has gradually been appreciated given the agitation against the concept of dowry or bride-price which it is claimed depicts a woman as a commodity for sale.

In Islam, Mahr is a marriage gift from the husband to his bride and becomes her exclusive property. Mahr is given as a sign of respect for women, hence status of women is elevated in Islam. Even when a marriage ends in divorce, the Mahr remains a woman’s exclusive property![1]

The word of God in the Quran, says, “And give the women (on marriage) their dower as free gift but if they, of their own good pleasure remit any part of it to you, take it and enjoy it with good cheers” Quran Chapter 4 verse 5

Dower is a right that is given to women before a man start to enjoy her as a wife. It is also mandatory upon a man to gift this gift in appreciation of a more valuable gift he is receiving.

Allah again charged the men in the following verse, “But if ye decide to take a wife in place of another, even if ye had given the latter a whole treasure for a dower, take not the least bit if it back. Would ye take it by slander and manifest wrong?” Quran Chapter 4 verse 20

Many parents are more interested in bride-wealth than in the welfare of their daughters. They are happy to marry their children off to rich men, even if the children are under age or have not completed school. This is especially common among pastoralist communities such as the Maasai. Other communities, however, also practice forced marriage. For example, in instances where a family has boys who need to go to school, they may marry off their daughters to gain money to pay bride-wealth. This means that parents will not give the girls education, but marry them off instead. Orphans are almost always forced into marriage by their uncles or other relatives so that money can be found to educate boys. In most African communities, marriage cannot be nullified even if the woman is undergoing problems, for if a marriage has to be nullified the bride-wealth has to be paid back. Women, therefore, stay in abusive marriages because the parents cannot pay back the bride-wealth. The idea of bridewealth is based on traditional practices such as those among the Luo tribe, taking bride-wealth in advance from your friend with the promise that you will give them your daughter.

There was also the practice of bride-pawning among the Kambas, Nandi, and Kisii of Kenya. This means that when the community was experiencing starvation, they could give their daughters to the neighboring community in exchange for grain, with the view that, if the situation improved, the girls would be redeemed. However, this redemption never happened, and in some communities, such as the Kisii, the head of the family into which the girl was pawned could even have a sexual relationship with her! This is not possible with dower in Islam.

The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (saw) was also known to have encouraged of keeping dower moderate, simple and easy. The Prophet (saw) was reported to have said: “The best of dowers is the simplest.” (Al-Hakim, Al-Bayhaqi).

Thus, there are no similarities between bride-price, dowry and dower in Islam. Islam does not overburden any believer with dower and has made marriage very simple and cost effective.

Written by: Ismail Rotimi Lawal

[1] Although in situation where it is the woman that proposes divorce, a portion or whole of the Mahr can be returned

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