Mahr is a gift that the Muslim bridegroom offers the bride upon marriage. It is also called sadaq, an Arabic term that implies "friendship." In English, mahr has commonly been translated as "dower." Mahr is an integral part of every Islamic marriage contract: there can be no marriage without it. It becomes the exclusive property of the bride after marriage, and she can dispose of it in whatever way she wishes. The exact amount of mahr is often agreed upon prior to marriage and is specified in the contract—mahr al-musamma (definite mahr). If the amount is not specified, the bride is entitled to mahr al-mithl (average mahr), which is determined on the basis of her personal qualities, her family position, and the prevailing mahr among her people. Mahr can also be divided into two portions, the "prompt" portion, which is paid at the time of marriage, and the "deferred" portion, which is payable only if the husband divorces his wife, or dies. If a man dies without paying his wife's mahr, it is considered as a debt to be paid from his estate.
There is a general and implicit agreement among the different schools of Islamic law that mahr is a corollary of the exchange element of the marriage contract. Classical jurists often speak of it as a price/compensation (˓awad, sometimes ˓iwad) that the man pays for the exclusive right to the sexual and productive faculties of a woman, analogous to the price paid in the contract of sale. Modern writers, however, regard mahr as an expression of honor for a woman's worth and as a means of providing her with economic security during and after marriage. The rules regulating mahr negate this view: It is linked merely to the act of consummation, not to any other aspect of the marriage contract. For example, a woman becomes entitled to mahr only after the consummation of the marriage; at the same time, she can refrain from sexual submission unless she receives her mahr in full.
Despite the uniformity among all schools of Islamic law on the definition of mahr and the rules governing it, Muslim societies vary greatly as to its practice. In some countries, like Morocco, the bulk of the mahr is paid to the father of the bride, who uses it to provide her with a trousseau for her wedding, and the deferred portion is nominal. In other countries, like Iran, no transfer of wealth takes place at the time of marriage and mahr becomes payable only if and when divorce occurs: It is seen as a safeguard, and a woman can effectively use her mahr as a negotiating card to obtain either a divorce or custody of her children in the event of the breakdown of the marriage. The value and practice of mahr also varies with social class, and with the wealth of the families. As marriages are usually arranged by the parents of the spouses, they often agree on the amount of mahr. In many cases, a woman has no control over her mahr, as the entire amount is received by her father who might use it to secure brides for his sons. Throughout the Muslim world, moreover, there are a number of customary payments and exchanges made on the occasion of marriage, which bear little or no relation to the formal legal requirement of mahr.
Maghniyyah, Muhammad Jawad. Marriage According to FiveSchools of Islamic Law. Tehran: Department of Translation and Publication, Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, 1997.
Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. Marriage on Trial: A Study of IslamicFamily Law; Iran and Morocco Compared. London: I. B. Tauris, 1993.