In 2021, social media and news circulated a video in which a Muslim woman in Gujurat, India complained of constant dowry harassment at the hands of her husband and in-laws. Her husband can be heard yelling in the background, “Go die and send me a video of your death.” Just minutes later, she jumped into a river and died by suicide. Muslim leaders gathered to condemn this incident, and scholars vowed to not witness any nikah in which there was a dowry agreement. 
In a less macabre, but no less damning, 2017 case, an Indian bride in Lucknow divorced soon after the ceremony, when the groom disrespected her father by placing “a sudden demand for a stylish bike.”  Qadis arrived and a khul’ (divorce initiated by wife) was finalized a mere thirty minutes after the wedding (the villagers also shaved the groom’s head and paraded him around the village with a placard: “I am dowry greedy”).
These are just two examples of dowry-related cases, ranging from the retrospectively somewhat humorous to shambolic. Unfortunately, dowry practices remain intricately tied with the latter end of the spectrum.
Dowry (jahez or dahej) – referring to the gifting of land, wealth, or gifts from the bride and her family to the groom – has an ugly and long history. It was a custom practiced in the time of the Code of Hammurabi, and in the Roman and Greek empires.  In English common law, the doctrine of coverture viewed a woman’s legal existence to be merged with that of her husband, so all wealth and property would be held by him; during the Victorian era, upper-class families viewed dowries as a replacement for inheritance.  While the practice of dowry was historically and today less common than payments from grooms to brides, dowry in India remains a social epidemic.
I focus on Muslims in India for two reasons: first, Muslims comprise roughly 16% of the Indian population, the largest religious group second to Hindus. Second, while dowry violence is not unique to the subcontinent, India is the second most populous region in the world (in terms of raw numbers); thus, most dowry-violence cases occur in the region. (Pakistan has the highest rate of dowry-related violence per 100,000 women, followed by Bangladesh and India). Dowry death accounts for over 50% of female homicides in India.  Additionally, when discussing solutions, it is imperative to understand differing statistics between different religious groups. No woman nor family should face this kind of financial exploitation at the threat of violence or social ostracization. However, the unique interplay of social norms with normative religious understandings requires that a solution for Muslims be uniquely Islam-oriented. Despite dowry’s condemnation as an anti-Islamic practice, the nature of intermingling cultures and religions often engenders intermixing.
Alternatively, the Islamic practice is that of mahr, a Qur’anic command and is required as part of the nikah (discussed further below). It refers to some amount of wealth which the groom is obligated to pay the bride, and which belongs to her alone. It is sometimes conflated with dowry, but the accurate term for a groom-to-bride transfer in English is dower. The connection to English common law requires that mahr be distinguished as its own unique practice.
Given that a mahr monetarily benefits the wife, there is little opposition to it compared to other Islamic practices. However, in recent years mahr has been critiqued as signaling an outdated view of marriage: the feminist movement to eliminate mahr is associated with the desire of educated women to have “modern” marriages.  Although relegated to niche circles, there is a growing movement to undermine mahr – and by extension of Islamic marriage – by those who deem it patriarchal. However, a breakdown of dowry practices is necessary: its influence on Muslim communities, role in validating un-Islamic behavior, and subsequent violence towards women warrant severe critique. Such a critique will only emphasize the imperative to obey Allah’s (ﷻ) commands, whether in mahr or in rectifying our duties towards one another.
History and Indian Law
The frequency of Indian marriages involving dowry increased drastically over the twentieth century – from less than 40% of marriages in the 1920s to 88% in 1975, based on data from India Rural Economic and Demographic Surveys (REDS).  Despite India’s 1961 ban on dowry, World Bank researchers found that dowry was paid in 95% of the 40,000 marriages that took place in rural India between 1960 and 2008.  India’s National Crime Bureau estimated over 7,100 women killed or moved to suicide due to dowry-related violence in 2019.  The same Bureau also reported 13,000 dowry-related complaints across the nation the same year.  In 2005, the United Nations estimated that about 4.6% of crimes against women in India were dowry-related deaths.  These numbers are based on official reports and complaints. Many cases likely go unreported, as “the family of a bride, being harassed or abused over an inadequate dowry, often avoid complaining or filing a case against the groom’s family.” 
Some historians view dowry as a matter of class, arguing the practice was unique to upper castes. Lower caste levels, and a higher likelihood of a female labor force, suggested a more equitable economic participation in marriage and wealth transfer. Additionally, economist Siwan Anderson argues that economic development – and wealth dispersion – actually led to dowry becoming a widespread practice, as it enabled middle and lower castes to emulate upper castes.  Cora Vreede de Sturs mentions that partition – for broken families with daughters remaining in North India – further contributed to the high desirability of suitable grooms , resulting in higher dowry demands. This theory, however, does not entirely explain the rise in rates of dowry among upper castes as well, since “adoption began at around the same time among both low and high caste groups.” 
A “marriage squeeze” theory suggests that the high ratio of marriageable women to marriageable men may contribute to increasingly high dowries.  Despite high female sex-selective abortion and infanticide rates, after accounting for a growing population in which women marry men in an older age group, there is a surplus of marriageable women. However, Sonia Dalmia and Pareena G. Lawrence find this theory to be inadequate as a cause of dowry:
While a surplus of women in the marriage market shifts the distribution of marital resources in favor of men (the recipients of dowry), the differing magnitude of dowry from marriage to marriage remains independent of the marriageable age gender ratio. 
Others point to a link between dowry and inheritance: the Mitākṣarā and Dāyabhāga Hindu Law treatises grant minimal property rights and inheritance to daughters, so gifting the bride in the form of kanyadan (voluntary gifts) and streedhan (pre-mortem inheritance) appeared to compensate for this.  Additionally, the problem was perhaps exacerbated by interaction with patrilineage (lineage through male) and patrilocal residence systems (the couple settling with or nearby the husband’s family).  A patrilocal system – especially prior to modernization and today’s ease of transportation – effectively transplanted a daughter to her husband’s home, making her an economic burden that was only offset by the wealth accompanying her into the marriage. Ultimately, as Dr. Suparna Soni states, “[t]he voluntary aspect of the practice hardened into compulsion for parents of young daughters to make a large payment to the groom’s family in order to get their daughter married.” 
However, “theories of bequest have difficulty rationalizing the massive increase in dowry” and fail to explain the shift from compensating the bride to fulfilling the demands of the groom and his family.  Dalmia and Lawrence note that viewing dowry as a sort of pre-mortem compensation for the lack of inheritance does not entirely explain the lack of dowry practices in other patrilocal societies, regional variations between the North than the South, the asymmetry between inheritance shares and dowry amount, nor the replacement of the bride as a recipient to the groom and his family. To account for these factors, they propose an equalization model, wherein “variations in the ‘price’ received by grooms at marriage are equalizing differences for the different bundles of characteristics possessed by the ‘match’.”  Education, kinship, caste, region, and other household characteristics contribute both to the likelihood of engaging in dowry and to its price.
Dowry has also led to other social consequences beyond violence and financial exploitation. In parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the inability to obtain suitable grooms has led to groom kidnapping – cases of families kidnapping young men with stable jobs to forcibly marry them to their daughters. 
On a legal level, the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 banned dowry, and the Indian Penal Code requires the groom (and his family) to be arrested with a minimum 5-year sentence in the case of a dowry harassment complaint from the wife. A 2013 Supreme Court case further rebuked families for treating daughters-in-law poorly, who “are burned or otherwise their life-sparks are extinguished by torture, both physical and mental, because of demand of dowry and insatiable greed…” 
In 2014, the Court cited low-conviction statistics to claim that women were abusing the law to harass the husband and in-laws; thus, a 9-point checklist was added for police to weigh prior to arrest and detention only with a magistrate’s approval.  The controversial Nisha Sharma case acquitted the groom and his family amidst concerns over false allegations and lack of evidence. 
The Dowry Prohibition Act and subsequent amendments have largely remained ineffectual in reducing the rate of marriages with dowries. One author argues that this is because “[the Act’s] exception for ‘voluntary’ gifts also fails to take into account the societal pressures that urge women to marry, and the pressures for families to move upward in social status in today’s age of consumerism.”  Additionally, there are ambiguities in the code, as well as difficulty in proving the “cruelty” element of causation in dowry death prosecutions. The Penal Code tried to circumvent this by posing a presumption that a dowry death within seven years was caused by the victim’s husband or his relatives, but in a 1995 case, the family avoided this by waiting seven years to burn his wife to death.  Ultimately, dowry is a deeply rooted problem.
Dowry Among Muslims in India
There is little data or substantial work that demarcates between the practice and frequency of dowry between Muslims and non-Muslims in India. The previously cited World Bank study (of 40,000 marriages between 1960 and 2008) concluded that average net dowry decreased minimally among Muslims and Hindus, yet increased among Christians and Sikhs.
However, the study does not analyze what percentage of the 95% of marriages practicing dowry were between Muslims, Hindus, etc. I was unable to find the raw data to perform an analysis controlling for religion. There is no available data (in English) on the rate of dowry practice distinguishing Muslims by region, among Indian Muslims specifically, nor regarding any patterns between education and income level or other variables. According to a 1981 study focused on Muslim women in Kerala, 61% of respondents indicated giving dowry. 
The lack of reliable, up-to-date statistics requires that we build on historical records and anecdotal patterns. Researcher Abdul Waheed delineates two types of dowry among Muslims: the first comprises gifts for the bride, including goods needed for starting a life with her husband (furniture, appliances, etc.) and personal items (such as clothes or jewelry). In English, this is better termed as trousseau rather than dowry.  According to U.H. Ghori, ‘ulema (scholars of Islam) allowed this practice but “advised Muslims not to cross a limit” ; thus it is permissible to give gifts. Many places have strong customs of giving at the time of marriage. In Cairo, for example, a man is expected to purchase and provide a furnished and livable apartment prior to marriage, and in modern culture, the woman’s family provides the electronics or appliances.
The second type of dowry are not merely gifts but transferable property given to the groom and his family. This practice is usually justified by pointing to the example of the Prophet (ﷺ) giving his youngest daughter Fatima (ra) gifts when she married his cousin Ali (ra) – referred to as jahez-e-fatimi. However, a key difference between this event and dowry is that his (ﷺ) action was that of a father supporting his youngest daughter and Ali, who also lived with him from a young age and was not rich, at the start of their married life. Additionally, the practice of dowry is not a gift to the daughter, or even the couple, because the groom and/or his family control the movable property. Dowry in India, in summary, is “purely a Hindu practice also found among Indian Muslims.”  The gifts of the Prophet (ﷺ) do not serve as evidence towards any type of coercive practice that is deemed functionally obligatory. Despite this, the various forms of dowry remain a feature of what is likely a substantial number of Muslim marriages.
Waheed, however, challenges the assumption that dowry was only recently adopted by Indian Muslims. By tracing early socio-political pressures among pre-modern Indian Muslims, he showcases the long history of lavish ceremonies and costly gift-giving, which occurred even at the cost of financial ruin. Rajput Muslims seeking prestige and concerned with consolidating landholdings – even when this deprived women of their Islamic right and share of mirath (inheritance) – became an issue especially in Punjab, where Muslim women could not inherit immovable property until 1948.  Citing Bilqees Begum’s discussion of some Rajput Muslims (who heinously justified denying women their share of mirath in property) , Waheed concludes that this denial “consequently, led parents to compensate them in other ways” – i.e., through gifts.  It is difficult to definitively make a causal link between withholding a Muslim woman’s share of inheritance and the adoption of dowry in which shares of wealth are transferred to the groom. What is clear, however, is that in a highly endogamous and hypergamous context, dowry served the purposes of supporting the daughter by securing a desirable groom and enhancing her social status in society and in the home of her in-laws.
By 1920, dowry posed a growing problem in India, including among Muslims. In the 1920 All India Muslim Ladies Conference, one Syed Humayun Mirza highlighted:
Since the time of birth of a girl, her mother begins to arrange her dowry. In the middle class families most of the girls are deprived of their educational rights because parents invest their money in dowry and not in education. In this way, the great purpose of seeking knowledge is dead. It is the usual custom in India that whenever there is a proposal from [the] girl’s side, [the] groom’s family asks how much [daan-dahej] can you give?… If anybody says that jahez is the Sunnat; follow the path of the Prophet, He did not give jahez to his daughter Fatima under compulsion; nor [was it] beyond need. The dowries which we give to our daughters are under compulsion and beyond need. This is a great problem for the middle class. 
Changing social conditions, wealth dispersion, a growing middle-class, and the higher educational attainment of males, together produced a highly-desired and advantageously-positioned “marketplace of grooms.” Families of grooms could now increasingly involve themselves by setting conditions and requesting specific items, while families with daughters clamored to find suitable mates. It is unclear why Mirza focuses on the middle class.
Regardless, many ‘ulema, organizations, and campaigns have actively opposed the practice by boycotting weddings that involve dowry, pushing for better legislation and stronger penalties, with varying success. In 1989, Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi (then-president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board) was asked by parents unable to provide dowries: “should we give poison to our daughter or strangle them or force them to lead a life of unchaste?” He condemned dowry as an un-Islamic social epidemic.  After the 2021 suicide case, ‘ulema in Uttarakhand announced a boycott of marriages with dowry ; the Darul Ifta of Darul Uloom Deoband issued a fatwa similarly stating that dowry is a condemnable practice, unlawful, and that any voluntary gifts that parents give to a daughter or groom do not negate her right to inheritance etc.  Today, the prevalence of dowry among all Indians has decreased, but as previous statistics note, it is still prevalent.
Mahr, Dowry, and Islamic Law
Subcontinent weddings are lengthy, lavish affairs – weeks- or months-long with multiple events – and strong social norms dictate hospitality and care towards guests. Within the halal, this is not necessarily bad, nor does one have to do away with everything “cultural” – Muslim hospitality is, after all, renowned globally. Additionally, in the minutiae of marriage celebrations, there is no clear demarcation between the “Islamic” and the “cultural”: the shari’a, for example, defines ‘awrah (the parts of a body that should be covered in public, private, etc.) and mandates modesty, but does not prescribe a style of wedding outfits.
The goal is to return to the Prophetic principles of marriage and avoid veering near the limits set by the shari’a. It is unacceptable to spend lavishly, take out loans, or sink one’s family into ruin in the name of “hospitality” or (more likely) for the purpose of social status, at the cost of Allah’s (ﷻ) pleasure. Dowry creates compulsion masquerading as a detrimental norm at best and an Islamic practice at worst. It is fine, and expected, for parents to provide their daughter – or even her husband and his family – with gifts to show goodwill and love, but this only at their own behest. A family sacrificing their daughter’s education to save up for dowry; harassing their son’s wife or in-laws for not providing enough; or harassing a woman about being a financial burden to her family – such absurdities are jahiliyah (ignorance) reminiscent of pre-Islamic Arabia, of the same kind as burying infant daughters alive.
Additionally, the dowry problem harms the Islamic practice of mahr, which is required for nikah. Mahr is a Qur’anic command (note: in the Qur’an the word is Sadaq) and refers to some amount of wealth the groom is obligated to pay the bride, and which belongs to her alone with no interference from family or otherwise. While a command does not need to be in the Qur’an for it to be obligatory, its importance is highlighted in multiple ayat.  Ibn Juzay’s tafsīr (exegesis) of Surah Nisa in Al-Tasheel li-Ulum al-Tanzil states that this addresses men (and the women’s walis) “because some of them consume [unfairly take] their mahr”.  Mahr is not only an entitlement of women, but a right of Allah (ﷻ).
There is a difference of opinion among the madhahib as to the minimum mahr amount; however, these bare minimums usually does not suffice the wife in the event of her husband’s death, husband-initiated divorce, or financial difficulty. Thus, some scholars recommend a suitable amount as a safeguard in such an event.  There is no upper limit to mahr, but scholars emphasize the spirit of marriage in not placing unnecessary burdens on one another.  While the wife may defer payment, the man has no right to waive the mahr or leave it unpaid as it is a debt, and may only be entitled to financial compensation in khul’ (wife-initiated divorce).
The practice of dowry emphasizes the groom and his family as recipients, such that they risk ignoring the magnanimity of mahr. Commensurately, the bride and her family – as a giving party desperate to meet demands – are driven to be wholly unconcerned with mahr, such that mahr may be set to be a nominal amount, if at all. Dowries are used to secure the transaction of a desirable groom, and as the disadvantaged party, setting an appropriate mahr amount will send the groom elsewhere. Many women remain unaware of mahr and the avenues of justice afforded under the shari’a.
A Note on Marriage
Some have suggested polygyny to be an important aspect of the anti-dowry movement. Their argument is as follows: if men can marry more women, then, from an (albeit simplistic) economic analysis of supply and demand, dowry costs should go down. An ethnographic survey by Anderson found that the “use of brideprice has tended to correlate with polygyny (men have more than one wife) and also with the possibility of divorce”. In contrast, “monogamy is the norm and divorce is rare in dowry-paying societies.”  (Brideprice here refers to a groom-to-bride wealth transfer, but the term has distasteful connotations, hence my continued usage of the word mahr.)
However, these correlations (between polygyny and mahr, and between monogamy and dowry) do not necessarily reflect causation. There exist conservative Muslim communities – such as in Mauritania – that practice normative monogamy, yet do not suffer from the dowry problem. Furthermore, a choice between polygyny and dowry is neither sufficient nor just for women, nor does it remove the potentiality of violence. It may in fact increase resentment and create friction in the family if the husband gives preferential treatment to one wife over another on the basis of dowry received. Furthermore, a family willing to engage in dowry practices is likely not concerned with meeting the Islamic criteria of fair treatment in a polygynous marriage. This leads me to a reflection about marriage in India.
Historically, marriage in India was viewed as dissoluble.  Widows were treated poorly and disallowed from remarrying, and to this day are often abandoned by families who no longer want to care for them.  Though seldom practiced today, widowed wives in the medieval era were expected to burn themselves to death on their husbands’ funeral pyres in an act known as sati (which Muslim rulers are known to have banned). 
India today has new divorce laws and family law courts governing citizens of different religions, yet divorcees remain socially ostracized with few alternative prospects, contrary to the shari’a’s general dislike but clear allowance of divorce.  There is a simultaneous problem of inculcating Western, liberal marriage norms, and while this framework dominates media about women’s rights, in terms of actual practice, marriage is usually approached as a finality; this is also, of course, the approach of the sincere Muslim, yet the shari’a provides mechanisms to remove a wife from an abusive marriage, or to support her financially afterwards. Without such mechanisms, every effort is exerted to guarantee women a husband and in-laws of good social standing; after all, she is to forever remain in their household.
In a vicious cycle, grooms and their families exploit this sense of finality before the marriage, only to do and demand as they wish afterwards, knowing there is seldom recourse for the wife and her family. This means, in tandem with direct anti-dowry efforts, there must be a firm show to such families that their demands will not hold socially nor legally. The wife must also have access to remedies, whether in returning to her family that will maintain her or in communities that will not deem her a dishonor. Furthermore, we must assert no toleration of the social taboo that vilifies broken women, but the one that vilifies her violators, as seen in the 2017 case in Lucknow. Absolute monogamy for the entirety of one’s life at the cost of great harm is not Islamic, as Islam allows not only polygyny but also divorce and remarriage. The many examples in the seerah suffice this point. Again, this does not entail normalizing the extreme of making marriage fluid, but rather honoring the sanctity of it.
Islamic law acknowledges the sanctity of marriage ties, to the extent that it may demand a marriage’s breaking precisely to maintain its sacred nature. Of course, a reorganization of societal norms regarding marriage and pseudo-caste systems will not happen overnight. Additionally, the dowry problem does not exist as an isolated issue – rather, it is part of an ecosystem of values that denigrates women, the same philosophy that engenders a violently materialist view of women and their contribution to society. Dowry cannot be untangled from sex-selective abortion, female homicide, forced marriages, caste system, etc.
Chiplunker and Weaver suggest female education as a potential solution to the dowry problem. They find a correlation between higher groom education and higher dowry costs, but also a decrease in dowry costs when the number of females at that education level increased. Thus, higher rates of education attainment for women would lessen incentives for a highly-educated groom, resulting in lower dowry prices and, ultimately, eliminating the need for it altogether.  There are also calls to change legislation in removing the seven-year limit for presumption of causality in dowry death claims (if evidence of cruelty is shown); and to cover or place a cap on “expected” gifts.  Experts continue to debate potential solutions, and social services institutions work to establish social support through funding shelters for abused women. 
A secular, feminist human rights framework has seen limited success in alleviating the epidemic of dowry violence. Many papers and research on dowry in India assumes that a Western-derived human rights framework is the only solution – Muslims are neither desirous of overturning Islamic patriarchal norms to echo liberal norms, nor the suffocation of livelihood wrought by un-Islamic practices that claim thousands of lives per year in just dowry-related violence. While female education is important, Islamic literacy and better implementation of Islamic practices should be the starting point in eliminating this practice. Islamic law is frequently criticized for its financial treatment of women (regarding inheritance, for example), yet it is in fact a better understanding of Islamic law and commensurately strong penal code that is necessary to eliminate dowry.
In order to fully actualize the merciful and joyous nature of marriage and to fulfill the rights of both parties justly, we must first understand and enforce Islamic practices in marriage-related matters. Even before learning the fiqh of marriage, a people who do not understand proper aqīdah (creed) nor fear Allah (ﷻ) will not give women their due. The social ills and violence wrought by dowry demand that society urgently work towards eliminating dhulm (oppression). That dowry violates the spirit and legal caution with which Islamic law approaches marriage should make us unequivocal in punishing continued practice, whether that be through social ostracization or through legal means, and in enforcing mahr provisions – and other rights of the wife – in its place.
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About the Author: Heraa Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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