In recent years, many Islamic divorce cases were litigated in the United States family courts. The issue of mahr in the Islamic marriage contracts became subject of debate among lawyers and scholars. This article sheds lights on the Islamic mahr in USA .

Mahr is the amount of money, or its equivalent, paid by the husband to his future wife. Contrary to the popular notion that mahr is dowry, it is not. A dowry is what the wife contributes to her marriage while mahr is an obligation on the husband to pay his future wife. Others call the mahr a gift' given by the husband; it is not a gift' either, because it is an obligation mandated by the Qur'an. The Qur'an calls it sadaq; it reads: " Wa aatoo ann-nissaa' saduqaatihinna nihlatan" (and give the women their mahr with a good heart.) Qur'an 4: 4

The mahr is an obligation required by Islamic law from the husband to be paid to his future wife. Thus, it must be stipulated in the Islamic marriage contract . If no stipulation is recorded in the contract, the qadi (or religious judge) will assign the amount of mahr. The amount of mahr becomes a property of the wife alone.

Muslim schools of jurisprudence in the Sunni traditions, differ on the definition of the mahr. The Hanafi School defines mahr as "the added money given by the husband to his [future] wife for iza'a ihtibassiha, keep her in his house (see al-Sarkassi, the Mabssut, vol. 5, pp 62-63, Arabic Version). Another author of the Hanafi Schools defines the mahr as "the money, which is obligatory on the husband in ikd al-nikah (the marriage contract) for manafi' al-bid' (sexual pleasure). (See ibn al-Hamam, Sharih Fath al-Qadeer, vol. 3, p. 304, Arabic version).

The Hanbali School of jurisprudence defines mahr as "the money paid by the husband for the purpose of nikah (marriage). (See ibn Kadamah, Al-Mughni, vol. 6, p. 679, Arabic version).

The Malike and Shafi'i Schools defines the mahr as "the money due to the future wife in return for [the husband's] haqq al-isstimta' (sexual pleasure) in the marriage contract". (See al-Hattab Muhammad bin Abdel Rahman al-Mughrabi, Mawahib al-Jalil li-Sharh Mukhtassar Khalil, vol. 5, p. 172-Maliki Jurisprudence). For Shafi'i School see al-Nawawi, Kitab al-Majmu', vol. 18 p. 605). All these references are cited by Sheikh Mahmud Muhammad al-Sheikh, Al-Mahr fi Al-Islam bayna al-madi wal-hadir, published by al-Maktaba al-Assriyya liltibaa'a wal nashr, Beirut, Lebanon, 2003, Arabic version.

The Maliki and Shafi'i Schools of jurisprudence regard the mahr as "the money paid for the future wife in return for sexual pleasure is an integral part of the Islamic marriage contracr and its source is prescribed in the Qur'an. Sura al-Nissaa reads the following:

" Fa ma isstamta'tum bihi minhunn fa aatoohunna ujoorahunna" ( So for that pleasure which you have enjoyed from them, give them their prescribed compensation). Qur'an 4: 25

Numerous Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet of Islam) provisions refer to the obligatory nature of the mahr in Islamic marriage contracts . (See for example Ans bin Malik bin Damdam; Al-Bukhari, Sa'ad bin al-Rabi' bin Khazraj. They are all cited by Al-Sheikh Mahmud Muhammad al-Sheik, Al-mahr.)

Traditionally, Islamic marriage contracts lists two types of mahr; one is called muqaddam (upfront, or immediate at the signing of the contract), or mu'akhar (deferred to be paid in the event of divorce or death of the husband.)

The Amount of Mahr

Neither the Qur'an, nor the Hadith stipulates the maximum amount of mahr to be paid by the husband. As to the lower amount of mahr, Islamic scholars differed on this. The Hanafi School regarded the lower amount to be not less than ten Dirahms (around ten US Dollars). The Maliki School considers the lower mahr to be not less than three Dirhams (or three US Dollars.)

The Hanbali and Shafi'i Schools do not put a limit to the lower amount of mahr; both schools agree that the lower amount could be "a ring made out of iron" or "pair of shoes", or a few ounces of "wheat, or dates", or "teaching the future wife verses from the Qur'an". In all of these, the future wife has to express her acceptance to whatever the amount is.

Modern Islamic marriage contracts are pre-printed forms, filled by the imam/qadi' (religious leader or religious judge). The form has empty space to fill the name and address of the husband and the name and address of the bride. The contract must include the names and addresses of two adult male witnesses. And the place and address where the marriage contract is signed

Both parties to the marriage contract must express their consent to the marriage, verbally and in writing. This is done through a formal proposal of ijab (an offer to marry) and qubul (an acceptance to marry), in the presence of a wali, a male guardian who looks out for the best interest of the bride. It must include the amount of muqaddam/mu'ajjal mahr, and the amount of the mu'akhar (deferred).

After the contract is signed, the couple is recognized as legally married and enjoy the rights and obligations stipulated by the Islamic Shari'a (law). The marriage contract may be solemnized in a mosque and usually signed in triplicate: one copy should be given to the bride, one to the bridegroom, and the third must remain deposited with the Registrar, imam/qadi (religious leader or religious judge).

The Absence of Mahr Provision in the Marriage Contract

If the marriage does not include a provision for the mahr, the contract is considered to be legal. The three Schools of jurisprudence: Hanafi, Shafi'i and Hanbali recognize the fact that the mahr provision is not a main factor, nor a condition for the marriage. These three Schools believe that the mahr is an obligation on the husband regardless of whether it is written in the marriage contract or not (see Mahmud Muhammad al-Sheikh, al-Mahr, published by al-Maktabah al-Assriyya, Beirut , 2003, Arabic version). Accordingly, if the marriage contract is signed by the parties without a provision of the mahr, or if they assign a mahr, which is considered to be illegal under Islamic Shari'a, or if the parties agree not to include a mahr provision, in all these cases the conditions are null, the contract is legal and the husband has to pay a mahr equivalent to a mahr given to another women of the same status as that of his wife.

The Maliki School rejected this interpretation and considered the mahr provision in the contract, necessary. However, this School regards such a marriage to be legal if it was consummated. If the marriage was not consummated, then the marriage is mafsookh (a reason for separation); if he divorces his wife without any agreement on the mahr issue, then he has to pay her mut'ah (money paid to her in return for the sexual pleasure he had with her). But if he dies before any agreement reached between the couple, then the wife is entitled to inherit her share from his estate.

Finally, the mahr must be legal. Thus, alcoholic beverages and the meat of the swine or pig cannot be given to the future wife as mahr because, under Islamic law, it is unlawful to transact these items. If such illegal items were listed in the marriage contract, the imam/ qadi may substitute those by legal items.

Gabriel Sawma is a lawyer with Middle East background; Professor of Middle East Constitution Law, Islamic Shari'a, Arabic and Aramaic. Expert consultant on the recognition and enforcement of foreign divorce judgments in the United States and authority on Islamic law in divorce, child custody, inheritance, banking and finance. Member of the Lebanese Bar Association of Beirut; Associate Member of the New York State and American Bar Associations. Editor of International Law website



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