The Customs of the Pre-Islamic Period that were Abolished by Islam
By: Martyred Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari
The holy Qur’an abolished the customs of the “Time of Ignorance” (the pre-Islamic period) concerning the dower and restored it to its original and natural position.
In the pre-Islamic period, fathers and mothers of girls considered the dower as their right in lieu of their services in having brought them up and nursed them.
In al Kashshaf and other commentaries, it is written that when, a daughter was born to someone and somebody wanted to congratulate him, he used to say (hani’an laka’n-nafijah), that is, congratulations, may she be a source of wealth (lit. a pouch of musk) for you”. This was an allusion to the fact that father of the girl would marry her in future and would receive the dower.
In pre-Islamic days, fathers, or, in case they had died, the brothers believed they had the right if guardianship and power over daughters. In the first place, they married their daughters according to their own choice and not according to the will of the girls, and, in the second place, they considered the dower of their daughters to belong to themselves and not to their daughters They also used to exchange daughters. The custom was that one man used to say to the other, “I will marry my daughter (or sister) to you in exchange for your daughter (or sister) becoming my wife”. The other man, then, would agree to it. In this way each one of the two girls became the dower for the other girl, and was married to the father or brother of the other girl. Such a kind of marriage was called a shighar marriage. Islam annulled this custom. The Holy Prophet commanded: (la shigara fi’l-Islam), that is, the exchange of daughters or sisters, is forbidden in Islam.
It is mentioned in Islamic traditions that not only does the father have no right to the dower of his daughter, but that he also cannot put down any other condition in his own interest, although the dower may have been paid to the girl on marriage. This means that the father has no right to any personal benefit from the marriage of his daughter, even though it may be with regard to something different from the dower.
Islam annulled the system whereby the sons-in-law worked for the fathers of the bride, which, according to sociologists, was the custom when there was no system for the exchange of wealth.
The work of the sons-in-law for the fathers of the brides was not only because the fathers wanted to profit from their daughters. There were other causes and motives also, and, quite possibly, it was necessary at one stage of civilization, and, to its own extent, was not oppressive. However, such traditions were certainly practiced in the ancient world.
The story of Moses and Shu‘ayb, which is told in the Holy Qur’an, is evidence of existence of such custom. When Moses escaped from Egypt and reached the well of Madyan and the daughters of Shu‘ayb were standing with the sheep with nobody paying attention to them, Moses felt sympathy for them and drew water for their sheep. The daughters described the occurrence of that day to their father, who sent one of them to invite Moses to his house. After getting to know one another, Shu‘ayb one day told Moses that he wished to give one of those two girls in marriage to him provided he worked for him for eight years, and in case he himself wanted to work for another two years that would be an act of grace. Thus, he would work for him for ten years; Moses accepted this and he accordingly became Shu‘ayb’s son-in-law. That was the custom, those days. The reason for it lies in two things. One was the non-existence of wealth. The only helpful thing that a son-in-law could offer to his bride or to the bride’s father was probably to work for them. The other thing was the custom of the father giving something to the daughter. Sociologists believe that the custom of the father giving something to the daughter was an old one. In order to be able to do this, the father took the future son-in-law in his service or received money from him. In practice, all that the father of the girl received from the son-in-law was for the daughter.
Anyhow, this custom was abolished in Islam, and the father of the girl has no right to consider the dower as his property, even in the event that his aim and motive was to spend it for his daughter. It is the daughter herself who has the right to exercise her will regarding that amount. She has the authority to use it in any way she likes. It has been expressly mentioned in Islamic traditions that the kind of dower just mentioned above is not permissible in Islam.
In the “Time of Ignorance” there were also other customs which practically used to deprive women of their dower. One of those customs was inheriting the wife. In the case of the death of a man, his inheritors, like his sons or brothers, inherited his wives in exactly the same way as they inherited the property of the deceased. After the death of a man, the son or the brother of the deceased assumed that the marriage right was still valid and considered himself empowered to marry the wife to anybody he liked and take the dower for himself, or, otherwise, to take her as his own wife without a new dower on the strength of the dower that the deceased had paid for her in the past.
The Holy Qur’an annulled the custom of the inheritance of the wife. It ordained: O believers, it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will. (4:19)
In another verse, the Qur’an prohibits absolutely marriage with the wife of the father, even if it is not by way of succession, and even if she wishes to marry of her own free. It is ordained: And marry not women whom your fathers married. (4:22)
The Holy Qur’an abolished all those customs and practices which were detrimental to the woman’s dower. One of them was that when a man was bored with, and had developed an aversion to his wife, he could maltreat her and subject her to torture. His motive for torturing her was she would agree to a divorce, and he would be able to take back all or part of what he had paid to her as her dower. The holy Qur’an ordered Neither debar them that you may go off with part of what you have given them. (4:19)
Another one of those practices was that a man would marry a woman and negotiate a large amount as the dower, but as soon as he was fed up with her and wished to marry a new wife, he would accuse the poor woman of obscenity and tarnish her reputation and then would claim that the woman did not deserve to be his wife from the very beginning and that the marriage should be dissolved, and would claim that the dower he had paid to her be returned to him. The Holy Qur’an took notice of this practice and forbade it.
Islam has its own system of dower:
One of the undisputed laws in Islam is that a man has no right over the property or labour of a woman. He can neither order her to do a particular job of work for him, nor take without her permission the money which she may have earned by doing some work. In this respect a woman and a man have equal status, in contrast to what was the usual practice in Christian Europe up to the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Islam, a married woman is not under the control of her husband as far as her business dealings and her rights are concerned. She is perfectly free and independent in the execution of her business affairs. In spite of the fact that Islam gave woman this much financial independence from her husband and in spite of the fact that it did not assign any right to him over her wealth, over her work or over her dealings, it did not annul the dower system. This in itself makes it evident that according to Islam it is not the meaning of the dower that the man should derive financial benefit from the woman, and should exploit her physical power. So we arrive at the conclusion that Islam has its own system of dower. This system of dower and its rationale should not be mistaken for the other systems of dower, and the objections that are reasonable when made against the other systems should not be considered applicable to this system too.
Rule of nature:
As we said in the former sect the Holy Qur’an explicitly mentions that the dower is a gift. The Qur’an considers this present or gift to be obligatory. It has scrupulously observed the obscurities of human nature, in order that both man and woman, each of whom has been assigned his or her special role as regards their mutual affections, should not forget that the need for the dower is insisted upon. The role of woman is that she should respond to the love of man. A woman’s love is good when it is a reaction to the love of a man, but not as the instigator of that love. An instigating love from a woman that is, a love that begins from the woman without the man has desired her, is bound to fail, and is a cause of the diminishing dignity of the woman. On the other hand the love which develops in a woman in response to the love of a man will neither fail itself nor will it discredit the personality of the woman. Is this because a woman is not faithful and because the love of a woman is unstable and so one should not trust the love of woman?
This is both true and false. It is true when the love originates from the woman. If woman takes the lead in loving a man and makes him the object of her love, the fire of her love is soon extinguished. One should not trust this sort of love. And it is untrue when the fire of the love of a woman is kindled as a reaction to the true love of a man and in response to his sincere love. This kind of love is practically impossible to do away with. It fails only when man’s love becomes cold, and then, of course, the woman’s love comes to an end. The love which is natural to a woman is this form of love.
The reputation of a woman for faithlessness comes from the first kind of love, and the tributes that are paid to her faithfulness relate to cases of love of the second kind. If society wishes to place the relations of a husband and wife on a sore footing, there is no alternative but to observe the path that the Holy Quran has ordained. One should keep the laws of nature in view, and should especially remember the respective roles of men and women in the matter of love. The law of the dower is in harmony with nature for the reason that it is the sign and indication of the fact that love started from the man, and that the woman is responsive to his love; and so man, as a token of his respect, presents her with a gift. This is the reason that the law of the dower which is an article of an absolute and fundamental constitution which was drawn up by the Designer of the human disposition, should not be annulled under the pretext of equality of rights for men and women.
As you have seen, the Qur’àn made changes only in the customs, practices and laws of the pre-Islamic period in respect of dower, much against the will of the people of those days, while it could have annulled the dower and entirely relieved the people of that burden. So it cannot be said that the Qur’an does not attach any importance either way to the continuance or discontinuance of the dower.