During the pre-Islamic era, women were marginalized and considered mere commodities of their male counterparts. As a matter of fact, they were bet on and in gambling and there was no limit to the number of women one could marry; which also means there were no laid-down rules regarding divorce.
However, when the Islamic era began, it changed everything. The status of women became as important as that of men and Islam forbids any harsh treatment of women. Part of the mechanisms that Islam introduced to protect the dignity of women was the dowry; a token/material required to be given before two people are legally married. This has been an integral prerequisite of marriage since the advent of Islam some one thousand four hundred years ago. But, as it appears today, the rightful possessor of dowry is confusing. In a sense, who actually should the dowry be given to?
In other cultures around the world, it is common for the wife’s family, i.e. father, uncles and brothers of the bride take full ownership of the dowry. In fact, they put a huge price-tag on their daughters and nieces for any man who intends to marry them. This has, one way or the other, scared away young people from getting married because they can barely afford it. These elders now name the price, receive it and then spend it the way they wish, depriving the rightful owner. Allah says in Sura Nisa (Qur’an 4: 4) “Give to women their dowry willingly, but if they forego part of it themselves, then use it to your advantage.” This clearly means dowry has to be given to the bride not to the father or uncle. But the woman may also decide to give her dowry to her father or uncle, or even return it to her husband if she wishes. That’s her choice to make.
How much is required?
Qur’an doesn’t state the amount required for dowry nor did the Prophet. Going through his life, Sahal bun Sa’id narrated that the Prophet (PBUH) married Safia and the dowry was only freeing her from slavery. There were various narrations about dowry but none of them indicated a specific amount.
It was narrated that a woman came to the prophet (PBUH) and offered herself to the prophet to marry her. After standing for a while, one of the men requested to marry her if the prophet didn’t want her. The prophet asked the man if he had anything to give for dowry and the man said he had nothing except izari (his shirt). Then the prophet said if that’s all you have then you cannot give it out as dowry. The man couldn’t have anything and the prophet asked him to recite a part of the Quran he memorized and that would be his dowry.
Also, Anas bun Malick narrated that Abdurahman bun Awf once told the prophet that he got married and when the prophet asked what the dowry was, he said a pebble of gold. That alone, the prophet prayed for the union. The prophet enjoined young people to get married if they have the dowry but if they don’t, they should help themselves by fasting.
The type of divorce that the couples are going ahead with affects the dowry given when getting married. For example, if the woman wants to quit the marriage against the will of her husband, then Shari’ah requires her to return the dowry her husband paid. That means dowry also can be returned.