The Mahr represents a significant element of the marriage contract, serving as a tangible expression of financial support and protection for the bride. It's like a special gift that the groom gives to his bride. In this article, we'll delve into what the Mahr means in Islamic marriages, why it's important, and how much is considered appropriate.
What is the Mahr?
The Islamic Mahr is “a sum of money or other property which becomes payable by the husband to the wife as an effect of marriage.” It is a claimable right of the bride, that may be specified or unspecified, and that she may voluntarily relinquish if she wants, fully or partly.
However, if the Mahr is not specified or mentioned at the time of marriage, the marriage contract is still considered valid and a Mahr is still due. This is why the Mahr has been called an ‘inalienable’ right of the wife.
The Mahr is sometimes mistranslated as ‘dowry’, but a dowry is what passes from the woman’s side to the man’s side in some cultures and is not part of Islamic law. In fact the giving of such dowries is an un-islamic practice that some Muslim cultures have unfortunately adopted from non-Muslim cultures.
A more correct translation of Mahr would be the ‘dower’, which is an obligation in the form of anything of value under the shari’ah, paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage.
The Mahr is mentioned in the Qur’an and the teachings of the prophet ﷺ. The Qur’an talks about the importance of giving a dower to the bride in Surah An-Nisa (4:4), where Allah SWT says:
And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, Take it and enjoy it with right good cheer. [Qur’an 4:4]
The Prophet ﷺ said:
“Go and look for something (as Mahr) even if it is a ring of iron.” [Bukhaari 5121 and Muslim 1425].
What is the purpose of the Mahr
The Mahr is designed to honour marriage and fulfils a number of symbolic and practical purposes. Firstly, the Mahr serves as a symbol of the husband's commitment and responsibility towards his wife. By fulfilling the obligation of mahr, the husband acknowledges his duty to provide for and protect his wife financially. This recognition fosters a sense of respect and mutual care within the marital relationship and can be a source of comfort to a woman as she enters a new household.
Secondly, the Mahr can provide the wife with some independent financial security, whereby this amount becomes her exclusive property, separate from the husband's assets, giving her something to fall back on should things not go as planned.
Lastly, Mahr can act as a safeguard against the exploitation or mistreatment of women in marital relationships. This is because Mahr serves as a deterrent against the casual dissolution of marriages. When a significant mahr is agreed upon, it compels both parties to think seriously before entering into the union, discouraging hasty decisions or divorce without due consideration.
How much should the Mahr be?
The majority of scholars are of the view that the Mahr should be in the form of wealth or a benefit that one usually charges money for - something that can be valued with money.
‘Mahr Fatimi’ refers to a Mahr arrangement inspired by the dowry stipulated by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ for Ali RA, to give to Fatima RA, upon her marriage to him. The commonly mentioned amount for the Mahr Fatimi is 480 dirhams, although opinions may differ.
Its monetary value is calculated based on the weight of silver, with one silver dirham estimated to be about 3.06 grams. By considering the price of 1469.60 grams of silver on the wedding day, an approximate value for the Mahr Fatimi can be determined. Some scholars consider this to be the minimum amount for Mahr.
It's worth noting that the Mahr Fatimi is not obligatory in Islamic marriages, but rather serves as a historical precedent and a reference point for individuals and communities when establishing suitable Mahr amounts.
The Prophet ﷺ’s wife, Aisha RA, was asked about her Mahr in a Hadith narrated by Abu Salama bin 'Abd al-Rahman, who reported:
“I asked 'Aisha, the wife of Allah's Messenger ﷺ: What is the amount of dower of Allah's Messenger ﷺ? She said: It was twelve 'uqiyas and one nash. She said: Do you know what is al-nash? I said: No. She said: It is half of ‘uqiya, and it amounts to five hundred dirhams, and that was the dower given by Allah's Messenger ﷺ to his wives.” [Muslim 1426]
Ultimately, the Mahr is a matter of negotiation and agreement between the bride and groom, taking into consideration their personal circumstances and needs, cultural norms, and financial capabilities.
The Sunnah teaches us to do everything in moderation, and this also applies to the Mahr. We must be mindful not to create such a great financial barrier to getting married, that getting married becomes impossible or highly difficult for young men who may not be able to afford exorbitant Mahrs. Countries such as the UAE and Tunisia have gone so far as to set maximum limits on the Mahr to prevent this from becoming a hindrance to marriage.
At the same time, it may be unwise to make the Mahr so low, that unscrupulous men, get married too casually, not understanding the value of marriage. This can also lead them into thinking that they can get an easy divorce with little consequence if things don’t work out. If a man is required to agree to a significant (but not excessive) Mahr, this may compel him to move forward with the marriage, only if he has the strength of conviction for it. In other words, a moderate but significant Mahr, which makes a man think seriously - think twice even - before committing to marriage, could be a sensible idea.
When it comes to deciding the amount of Mahr, there's room for flexibility. It can be decided by the couple and they can take into account things like the groom's finances, local customs, and what's happening in society.
There are a few things to think about when deciding the Mahr amount:
a) Financial Capacity: The Mahr should be fair and affordable for the groom, taking into account his financial situation. It should not impose an excessive burden that may lead to financial strain or conflict in the marriage
b) Cultural Influence: Different cultures and regions have different customs, which can play a role in deciding the Mahr amount. The local traditions and expectations can guide the decision-making process
c) Family Norms and Social Status: Another factor that helps to determine the amount for Mahr is what the usual Mahr for women in the same family or social class is
d) Fairness and Justice: Islam teaches us to be fair and just. The Mahr should be determined in a way that respects both the bride and the groom's rights. It's about finding a balance between the bride's security and the groom's ability to fulfil his responsibilities.
Scholars maintain that there should be flexibility in the matter and men and women should negotiate an amount affordable and acceptable to them based on the groom's income.
At the time of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab RA, Mahr amounts became so high, that he decided to speak against it publicly. Abdur Rahman al-Salami reported that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab RA, said,
“Do not be excessive in the Mahr of women.” A woman said, “O ‘Umar, you don’t have a right to do that, for Allah said: ‘Even if you gave one of them a stack of gold (huge amount in Mahr),’ [Qur’an 4:20]. Umar RA said, “Indeed, a woman has disputed Umar and she has defeated him.” In another narration, ‘Umar RA said, “The woman is right and the man is wrong.”
Regardless of which policy one adopts, there is no revealed maximum or minimum Mahr. Some scholars did try to set a minimum for the Mahr, to prevent it from becoming too insignificant. Suffice it to say, as long as it is a mutually agreed amount, in the form of something of monetary value, it is acceptable and is due.
What if no Mahr was agreed?
The absence of a Mahr agreement in a marriage does not invalidate the marriage itself. If the marriage contract was concluded without any mention of the Mahr, the marriage contract is valid and the wife is entitled to a Mahr like that of her peers, known as a “dower of equivalents” (Mahr al-mithl), which is seen as an appropriate Mahr for a woman. The way to determine this is for a woman to look at the amount of Mahr women similar to her in her family received, such as sisters, aunts, cousins, etc. (from her father’s side).
When is the Mahr Due?
Depending on what is agreed in the contract, the Mahr can be fully paid immediately upon marriage or deferred to a future date or to a time in future when the wife demands it. Some people opt for part payment upon concluding the contract, with the remainder due at a later date.
If one of the spouses dies after the marriage contract is enacted but before the marriage is consummated, the wife is entitled to the Mahr and the spouses inherit from one another. If the husband divorces the wife, then he must pay the Mahr. If the husband dies, without paying the Mahr, then the Mahr becomes a debt, owed to the wife and should be taken from the estate before it is divided amongst the deceased husband’s heirs.
If the marriage is not consummated and the couple decide to divorce, then if the dissolution of marriage is by the husband and is due to some cause on his part, then the wife is entitled to half the specified Mahr. If the cause of divorce is something attributable to the wife, and the marriage was not consummated, then the wife will not be entitled to the Mahr.
The Mahr holds significant importance in Islamic marriages. It serves as a symbol of commitment, financial security, and protection for the bride. While it is an essential component of the marriage contract, the absence of a specific Mahr agreement does not invalidate the marriage. In such cases, the wife is entitled to a "dower of equivalents" based on the prevailing amounts among women in her family or community. Deciding the Mahr amount should consider things like the groom's finances, local customs, family norms and being fair to both parties. It's important to negotiate and find a balance that respects the rights of the bride and groom. Whether paid upfront or later, the Mahr is a rightful entitlement that should be fulfilled as agreed upon.