A woman holds a very high status in Islamic faith. She is honoured and respected at all times, but many startling transgressions have crept into Islamic practice. These transgressions have been caused by cultural influence that has no basis in Islamic scripture.
Muslims living in the Indian subcontinent have slowly incorporated the act of dowry into their lives. Dowry originated in the upper caste Hindu communities as a wedding gift (cash or valuables) from the bride's family to the groom's family. There is nothing strange or unique about a culture influencing Muslim practice, as it is a common characteristic around the globe that when a new religion spreads in an area, people who live in that area retain some of the customs and traditions which they have been practicing for centuries. There is nothing wrong with this as long as those practices do not contradict Islamic law. The practice of dowry, however, does in fact transgress Islamic law.
We usually use the word gift for something, which we give voluntarily, to a person we like. A gift is something that strengthens the friendship bond between two people. Dowry, which is usually defined as a “gift” given along with the bride, by a bride’s family to the bridegroom, is used as tool of coercion and greed in societies like India. The bride’s family must give this “gift” or the marriage will not take place. Always the price of the dowry is set higher than the bride’s family can afford and sadly, this results in the bride becoming a burden on her family. The bride’s family then struggles to pay the “gift”.
In Islam it is the the man who pays Mahr(dower) to the woman . The following verses in the Qur’an proves that it is the man who is obligated to pay the Mahr (dower) to the woman unless the woman chooses not to take it.
"And give women (on marriage) their dower (Mahr) 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." (Al-Qur'an : Al-Nisa' :4)
Also (prohibited are) women already married, except those whom your right hands possess: Thus hath Allah ordained (Prohibitions) against you: Except for these, all others are lawful, provided ye seek (them in marriage) with Mahr ( dower, a bridal money given by the husband to his wife at the time of marriage) from your property,- desiring chastity, not lust, seeing that ye derive benefit from them, give them their dowers (at least) as prescribed; but if, after a dower is prescribed, agree Mutually (to vary it), there is no blame on you, and Allah is All-knowing, All-wise. (Al-Qur'an :Al-Nisa' :24)
Cultures that demands dowry from the bride’s family, are actually practicing the opposite of what Allah commanded. They have reversed Allah’s words in their practice. The bride is forced to pay a negotiated amount to the groom unless the man chooses not to take it.
When the woman brings less than the negotiated amount, she has to endure constant torture from her in-laws after marriage. When the husband or in-laws are not satisfied with the dowry brought by the bride, they even go to the extent of killing the woman after marriage. The most severe among all the dowry abuse is “bride burning”. The parties engaged in the murder usually report the case as an accident or suicide.
While dowry abuse is most common among Hindus, it is rising among Muslims too. Dowry abuse is rising in the Indian Sub continent despite a Dowry Prohibition Act being passed in 1961. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports 6,285 dowry deaths in 2003. The official records are always under reported. It is obvious that this crime is under reported, for e.g.: In Delhi 90% of cases of woman being burnt are recorded as accidents, five percent as suicides and only the remaining five percent were shown as murder. The statistics of dowry deaths in whole of India is spine chilling
Many women remain unmarried due to this dowry. Even worse is that, when Muslim men who intend on honoring the Mahr(dower) to the bride, the bride rejects them. The women prefer to remain unmarried rather marrying some one who is not from their culture.
Another practice is that people tend to exchange their sons. In other words, they give a bridegroom (mostly their son) to a girl to be married in exchange for a bridegroom from girl’s family (the bride-to-be’s brother or any unmarried male relative) so that they can have their daughters married without dowry. This places an incredible disadvantage on the parents who have daughters and no sons. The parents of daughters end up giving money to get their daughters married!
It is a sad irony that women (mostly mothers-in-law) end up being the ones who direct oppressive attitudes toward other women (daughters- in-law). Mostly, mothers-in-law-to- be are the ones who demand dowry from the bride’s family and who end up torturing the daughter-in-law after marriage if she brings less than the negotiated amount.
Syed* (35 from Chennai, India) says, “It is difficult to find a bride who would be able afford all that my mom asks…because of this I am still unmarried”
When I asked his mother why she is demanding a dowry from the bride, she said, “We have spent so much on our son, for his education, for raising him and now we will marry him off and most of the money he earns will go to his wife. So she will be benefited from all the money we spent on him. For that they can pay some amount to have our son.”
Ahmed* (29 from Delhi, India) says” I don’t want to take any dowry but can’t stop my parents from asking as I will disrespect them if I do so.”
So in an effort to respect parents and to conform to cultural norms, Muslim youth in India are bending over backwards to follow traditions that aren’t even rooted in Islam. Demanding dowry and getting married may seem valid in the eyes of many, but will the marriage be validated in the eyes of Allah ?
Dowry is purely a matter of culture. One should not feel obliged to continue these unIslamic traditions. If a culture contains unIslamic aspects, then one should not feel any shame to break the culture’s traditional practices.
The practice of dowry has caused Muslims in many parts of the world to continue their prejudices against women despite the Islamic prohibitions against it. In the Indian subcontinent, a woman is considered to be a great burden mainly because of the dowry system. Here, it is common to see people rejoicing over the birth of a son and lamenting over the birth of daughter. In India, the reason why people prefer male children over female children is mainly due to cultural practices such as dowry. Why aren’t people listening to the message of Islam instead of following the customs of others around them?
Allah has given us warning of this in the Qur’an. Allah tells us that infanticide is a grave sin and that favor of one gender over the other has no grounds in Islam.
When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on? (Al-Qur'an: An Nahl: 58-59)
As Muslims, we should consider, the birth of daughters to be a great blessing. In addition to the Qur’an, the Hadiths also carry the message to value women.
Malik reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: He, who brought up two girls properly till they grew up, he and I would come (together) (very closely) on the Day of Resurrection, and he interlaced his fingers (for explaining the point of nearness between him and that person). [Sahih Muslim: Book 032, Number 6364]
Narrated 'Aisha: (the wife of the Prophet) A lady along with her two daughters came to me asking me (for some alms), but she found nothing with me except one date which I gave to her and she divided it between her two daughters, and then she got up and went away. Then the Prophet came in and I informed him about this story. He said, "Whoever is in charge of (put to test by) these daughters and treats them generously, then they will act as a shield for him from the (Hell) Fire." [Sahih Bukhari :Volume 8, Book 73, Number 24]
It is so unfortunate to see the people submitting themselves to the dictates of culture than to the will of Allah who is our Creator, Cherisher and the Sustainer.
Islam stresses fairness and kindness. Islam ensures that boys and girls are treated equally. Discrimination between children because of their gender is not advocated in Islam.
Narrated Sa'd bin Abi Waqqas: I was stricken by an ailment that led me to the verge of death. The Prophet came to pay me a visit. I said, "O Allah's Apostle! I have much property and no heir except my single daughter. Shall I give two-thirds of my property in charity?" He said, "No." I said, "Half of it?" He said, "No." I said, "One-third of it?" He said, "You may do so) though one-third is also to a much, for it is better for you to leave your off-spring wealthy than to leave them poor, asking others for help. [Sahih Bukhari : Volume 8, Book 80, Number 725]
Let us not succumb to the fitanh caused by culture and let us stand firm in practicing Islam by enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong!
A band of people
Inviting to all that is good,
Enjoining what is right,
And forbidding what is wrong:
They are the ones
To attain felicity.'
(Al-Qur'an :Aal-e-Imran : 104)
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed
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© Amatullah Abdullah 2005.