In my unpublished manuscript, Muslim Mechanics, I discuss marriage contracts as it relates to sharia. In the West, most people are unaccustomed and uncomfortable with the concept that marriage is a contract. For those readers, I will try to share the essential parts of such an arrangement.
Sharia or Islamic law approaches legitimate sexual contact as being a quid pro quo arrangement. Understanding sharia is vital to understanding the outcome of the law in Islamic societies. Sharia is concerned primarily with actions as opposed to emotions, desires, and lust. For example, marriage in sharia is not a sacrament; it is a contract. Of course, some ceremonies and rituals express love and companionship, but after the crowds have gone home, all that remains is a binding, lawful contract between a man and a woman. The man supplies the woman with financial support in return for exclusive sexual access. It is a contract that has sex and procreation legal in the eyes of God and legitimate in the eyes of society. The basis for marriage in sharia is vaginal intercourse and financial obligations between a man and a woman.
The necessary parts of any contract would be an offer, an acceptance, and the performance of such conditions. In this case, the man would make an offer. The woman or her custodian would negotiate any stipulations and then affirm their acceptance. The last part of the contract would be the performance of those stipulations, such as any payment or services performed. Once it meets those conditions, it must be agreed upon between two freely consenting people of the opposite sex. It is also a formal binding contract and can be either written or verbal, with witnesses that can be taken to a religious court that gives specific rights and privileges to each party. Since marriage is a contract and contracts can be broken, either party can seek to break the contract through divorce proceedings.
Forced marriages are not permitted under sharia. If a parent or a custodian force either the bride or groom to marry, the marriage under sharia is unacceptable. In many undeveloped countries, young girls are forced to marry. Most of the families concerned apply social or emotional pressure or encourage marriage mainly for economic reasons. Either they receive money for the child who is being married off, a dowry, or are not in a position to afford her upkeep. For example, in food-insecure Kenya, these girls are called “famine brides.” In Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India, young girls were married to “tsunami widowers” to obtain state subsidies to marry and start families. During the conflicts in Liberia, Uganda, and Sudan, girls were abducted and given as “bush wives” to warlords or even in exchange for their families’ protection. In any event, it would be questionable if the marriage was sanctioned under sharia.
One expense incurred by the groom, or his family, is called a “mahr.” It is a monetary obligation paid to the bride at the time of the marriage. It can be paid in installments, but it is an obligation that is written into the contract. While it is usually money, it can be an asset of any kind, such as jewelry, land, or a dwelling. Sometimes the payment is split; some of the mahr before the marriage and the remainder after the wedding is completed. The purpose of the mahr is to support the wife in the case of the groom’s death. The mahr is paid directly to the bride and establishes the bride’s financial independence from her parents. Some people may confuse this payment with the dowry. In Islamic marriages, a dowry, money paid by the bride’s family to the groom, is not allowed.
Islamic marriages cannot be performed if both parties are not Muslim. Usually, before the marriage, if one party is not Muslim, they will convert. After the wedding, should either or both participants renounce their conversion or convert to another religion, they will be considered apostates and treated accordingly.
The wedding banquet is considered a big deal. The valimah (sometimes spelled walima) originates as sunna from the Prophet’s earliest traditions and the tribes of Saudi Arabia. The word itself designates a feast to show domestic happiness as might be found in a marriage ceremony, a newborn’s birth, a birthday party, or a child’s graduation from college.
Since the Qur’an allows men to have four wives, there is a possibility of several wives in the household. A husband cannot marry any other female without the permission of his first wife. Since the husband’s financial obligations may be strained with a new wife’s addition, the first wife may demand proof that financial obligations will not be seriously affected. In other words, the husband will need to prove he can afford the new wife.
If the bride is a working woman, as many are in these modern times, they earn money in the workplace. The money they earn is theirs, and the husband cannot demand access to it. The same applies to inheritances. Any inheritance a wife receives is hers, and the husband does not have legitimate access to it.
From reading the above descriptions of an Islamic marriage contract, many of the events and actions can be found in a typical Western marriage. During the wedding ceremony, the pastor gives vows, to which the bride and groom affirm “I do.” The vows are between each person and their God. In a sense, the vows have more depth than a contract, but a contract can be taken to court for redress. The mahr, money paid to the bride, is similar to the engagement ring given to the bride in Western marriages. The rule of thumb for buying an engagement ring is two months salary. If you are earning $60,000 a year, the engagement ring would be a $10,000 purchase. If the groom breaks off the wedding or later files for divorce, the bride-to-be keeps the ring. The ring acts as a financial cushion to the bride.
Whether it be an Islamic or Christian marriage, the valimah or the wedding feast is part of the ceremony. Usually, the Islamic banquet is much grander and sometimes much longer, whereas, in the West, there is a short reception to congratulate the married couple. In Islam, the groom or his family pays for the banquet, and in the West, the female or the bride’s family pays for it. However, in the West, the rehearsal dinner is paid for by the groom.
There is one significant difference between an Islamic marriage contract and a marriage consummated in the West. The Islamic contract stipulates the union of two people of the opposite sex. In the West, marriage can be between members of the same sex. Since the imam ordains an Islamic marriage, there can be no homosexual or lesbian marriages within the religion. In the West, the marriage can be conducted by public officials or ministers of denominations that condone same-sex unions.
For the most part, marriages can be conducted for people who want legitimacy and companionship in their lives. The Islamic marriage contract is not that much different from a Christian wedding or any wedding performed in the West. There are nuances, but for “better or for worse,” they work in similarity.