03 June 2015

Weddings in History: The bride price in medieval Muslim weddings

By Lisa J. Yarde

When medieval Muslim brides married, by custom they were supposed to receive a bride price or in the Arabic term, their sadaq. When I was first studying marital customs in order to write the Sultana series, the terms bride price and dowry occurred interchangeably, with the Koran saying, "Give to women their dowers willingly." In Sultana and Sultana's Legacy, the heroine Fatima and later, her eldest daughter Leila, received generous dowries from their fathers, respectively the second Sultan of Granada and the governor of Malaga. At the time of their weddings, both characters also gained their bride prices, although Fatima was quite young.

Was there a difference between a dowry and bride price? In the Islamic world, a difference existed; by contrast, consider ancient Rome, medieval and Christian Europe, and India, a dowry was property the bride brought to the marriage, which the groom took into his possession or could use. For the medieval brides of Muslim Spain and northern Africa, their parents typically provided a dowry, which remained with the bride. Newly married women also had the benefit of the bride price; a sum of money, specified by marital contract, received from the groom, and held by the bride as her personal property throughout the marriage. A wife received it in installments, the first at the date of the marriage and the second, later in the union, often triggered by the husband's death. The bride price also took different forms, material goods or lands, but also cash.    

How did the bride price ensure a woman's future and why was it so important? The bride price practice existed before Islam dominated Arabia. Later when the religion's adherents conquered North Africa and Spain, they brought their customs into new lands. The bride price was such an integral part of society in the period that legal scholars provided instructions for its inclusion in marital contracts and its acquisition. Ultimately, the gift of the bride price ensured that if the wife lost her spouse in widowhood or through divorce, the marital gift offered some means of support. Islamic law stated that the groom could not forgo the bride price; it was a "necessary condition for marriage and forgiving it voluntarily" was against the law. Moorish parents and guardians did not have to provide a dowry for a daughter or female ward. When future brides received dowries, the notaries who recorded the marital contracts did not always indicate the contribution. However, the officials always specified the value of the required bride price received from the groom according to the marital contract when they registered the marriage. In Sultana: The Bride Price, the heroine Jazirah didn't have a dowry, based on the unique circumstances of her father who had spent time in the family prison for treason. After the wedding, she took control of the first portion of her bride price, given by her husband the Sultan in the form of a bridal trousseau, textiles and jewelry, which were family heirlooms.

Who collected and could rightfully use the husband's present? The groom's future wife was the only person who could legally benefit from the gift of the bride price, although there were cases adjudicated in Islamic courts of brides filing suit against their fathers because the new wife never received her bride price at her home with her husband. The possibility of abuse of assets by parents and guardians always existed since brides were often young. They could marry at the age of ten, even if a girl had not reached puberty, as in the case of my heroine Fatima. Also, courts in patriarchal Moorish society gave fathers the benefit of the doubt if they believed their daughters lacked the maturity to successfully manage the bride price. Assuming she took possession, the bride price offered a wife a measure of economic stability. Lastly, the prospective wife's religion affected the offer. A Muslim man who married a non-Muslim woman, as in the case of some of the wives of Granada's Sultans, had no compulsion to provide a bride price for his new wife. However, the romantic in me did include a scene in Sultana: Two Sisters, where the heroine Butayna received a marital gift from her future husband the Sultan, although she remained a Christian after their union.    

How much wealth might a Moorish bride price encompass? In 1352, when Anuk, son of the Egyptian Sultan Al-Nasir married, he promised his bride 12,000 gold coins of which his new wife received 10,000 at the time of the marriage. A century later in 1452, the grand-daughter of the Granadan Sultan's vizier, Fatima, married her much older spouse Abu Yazid Khalid, whose families were jurists. She received 110 gold coins, a prized silk and linen garment, and a slave from her husband; the latter sum may seem paltry by modern standards, but in her day, Fatima was a wealthy woman. Clearly, the bride price varied according to the groom's socioeconomic status, but even the poorest groom had to provide it for the benefit of his future bride. 

Images are mine or authorized from Fotalia.com.

Sources include Maya Shatzmiller's Her Day in Court: Women's Property Rights in Fifteenth-Century Granada, Yossef Rapoport's Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society and Shirley Guthrie's Arab Women in The Middle Ages

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two Sisters, Sultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.