The Massachusetts Court of Appeals in Ravasizadeh v. Niakosari

By Iman Abdulkadir Mohamed

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals in Ravasizadeh v. Niakosari,[1] a case of first impression, held that a Muslim marriage contract is enforceable under neutral principles of contract law without violating the Constitution’s separation of Church and States.

In Ravasizadeh, the parties married on June 20, 2000 in New York. According to Iranian and Muslim custom, the parties negotiated the wife’s mahr or marital portion. The parties agreed that the wife’s mahr would be 700 gold coins, which was memorialized in their executed marriage contract.

On or about January 4, 2013, the wife filed for divorce. Sometime after the filing of the Massachusetts divorce, wife also filed an action in Iran to enforce the mahr contract. While the Massachusetts divorce was still pending, on April 20, 2013, the court in Iran enforced the mahr in favor of the wife. The husband appealed by the trial court was affirmed. The husband appealed again to another tribunal, which affirmed the judgment in favor of the wife. The husband appropriately appealed to the Supreme Court of Iran. The matter was still pending at the time of the Massachusetts appellate decision.

On November 17, 2015, the Massachusetts trial court entered a final judgment of divorce and divided equally the parties’ marital estate (bank accounts, retirement accounts, and real estate).  The court also awarded the husband all his inherited property, but awarded the wife 1/2 of any appreciation in value during the marriage. With respect to the 700 gold coins, the trial court held that the wife owned these coins, thus, the coins were an “asset of the wife” and part of the marital estate, which was subject to division. The trial court went even further. It required the husband to pay the value of the 700 coins with the Iranian court. And if the Supreme Court reversed the judgment in favor of the husband or affirmed the judgment in favor of the wife, the husband still would be responsible to pay the wife half of the value of the coins. The Trial Court’s mahr determination was reversed.

The appellate court opened its analysis of the mahr issue by acknowledging that “no Massachusetts courts have reported cases addressing the issue of a mahr, or Islamic marriage contract, other States have done so.”[2] Surveying other state court decisions regarding Muslim marriage contracts, the appellate court quoted extensively with approval the Washington appellate court decision In re Marriage of Obaidi:[3]

Based on Jones, the Odatalla[4] court determined that the mahr did not violate the separation of church and state doctrine if the court could apply neutral principles of law to […] enforce the mahr. Odatalla, 355 N.J. Super. at 311 [810 A.2d 93]. The Court concluded that the mahr could be enforced by applying neutral principles of contract law.

Here, we apply neutral principles of Washington law… Applying the neutral principles of contract law, we can resolve this case by using these neutral principles of law, not Islamic beliefs or policies. We apply Washington law to resolve the issues of the formation and validity of the agreement.

Finding this analysis persuasive, the Massachusetts appellate court held that:[5]

[W]e need not look beyond the agreement to determine the role of the mahr under Islamic law–whether it is intended to provide support for the wife as the only thing she recovers from the marriage or whether it is intended as an unencumbered gift.

Because both parties submitted the mahr issue to the jurisdiction of the courts in Iran[6] and actively participated in the Iranian proceedings, the court observed that the judgment of the Supreme Court in Iran “will determine the outcome of the dispute.[7]

Logically flowing from this court’s jurisdictional conclusion, once the Supreme Court of Iran renders a final decree, the Massachusetts court would apply the rule of comity to recognize and enforce it in Massachusetts.

In sum, the appellate court concluded that the trial court erred in requiring husband to pay the mahr irrespective of the Iran decree in as much as the Massachusetts probate and family court “is without jurisdiction to do so… and [ ] without jurisdiction to dispose of it differently.”[8]

Commentary on the decision

What is mahr?

The mahr in this dispute was submitted for determination in the Courts of Iran. Iran is a civil law country. The main source of Iranian law is statutory law. Iranian courts are required to apply the statutory laws. The primary source of the statutory law is the Iranian Civil Code. The Civil Code governs marriage, divorce, and the financial rights arising out of marital relationships. Of course, Islamic law is the primary source of the law.[9] If the Civil Code or other laws do not directly address a legal issue or there is no specific law, Islamic law is the gap filler.[10]

The primary source of substantive Iranian family law is classical Jaafari/Islamic family law.  The Iranian legislators rely upon classical/pre-modern Islamic family law as the primary source to codify, amend, and/or adopt the family law legislation that governs in Iran.[11] Iranian family law is found in codes: the Iran Civil Code and the Family Law Protection Act (2013).

Iranian law, like Islamic Law, considers marriage a civil contract.[12] A marriage contract is concluded if a bride accepts an offer of marriage.[13] In Ravasizadeh, all of the elements of a valid marriage contract were established as evidenced from the fully executed Marriage Contract with the mahr provision that was registered in Iran.

Mahr is a provision in the Muslim Marriage Contract. In English, it is rendered as “dowry/dower” or “marriage portion.” Mahr is not an exchange or consideration given by the groom for the marriage contract.[14] It is customary practice to discuss the amount of mahr prior to entering into the marriage contract. The parties agreed that the wife’s mahr would be 700 gold coins. The Appellate opinion did not specify the type of gold coin or the value of the coins. In my experience reviewing dozens of Iranian marriage contracts, the standard coin is a full Bahār Āzādī (“Spring of Freedom”) gold coin.[15] The current fair market value of a Bahār Āzādī coin is approximately $345—the wife’s mahr then is approximately $241,500.

The mahr is divided into an immediate portion and deferred portion. Usually the deferred amount is the large portion of the mahr. In Ravasizadeh, the mahr amount of 700 coins was the wife’s deferred mahr.  The deferred mahr is due, unless otherwise agreed upon in the contract, upon the dissolution of the marriage or the death of the husband. In most of the Iranian marriage contracts I have reviewed in my career, the contract provided that the mahr is due upon the wife’s demand. This is consistent with Islamic law and has been codified in Article 1082 of the Iran Civil Code.

Upon the consummation of the marriage, the 700 gold coins by operation of law became the wife’s separate property[16] with full vested ownership to her. Consistent with Islamic law, Article 1082 provides: “Immediately after the performance of the marriage ceremony the wife becomes the owner     of the marriage portion and can dispose of it in any way and manner that she may like.” [17]

Technically, there is no defense to the wife’s demand of her mahr as it is tantamount to strict liability in Iran.[18]

The parties in Ravasizadeh reside in Massachusetts. Why did a court in Iran take jurisdiction to determine the parties’ mahr dispute? The parties are Muslim and appear to be citizens of Iran. The subject of the dispute is registration and enforcement of the Marriage Contract in Iran between Iranian citizens.[19] Like the majority of Muslim majority countries,[20] the Iranians courts are vested with subject matter jurisdiction based on citizenship and religious affiliation. Article 6 of the Iran Civil Code provides that Iranian family law applies to all Iranians including those not residing in Iran.

Iranian law has procedures for a simple registration, and a petition to the registrar would automatically result in a judgment against the husband personally and against the husband’s assets. The registration has the same legal consequences as a final judgment from a court.

As noted above, according to Iranian law, the husband’s obligation to pay the wife her mahr is strict liability, and the registration confirms that the husband’s obligation is similar to a confession of judgment. In fact, failure to pay the judgment exposes the husband to imprisonment.

The Islamic law governing mahr is codified in Articles 1078-1101 of the Iran Civil Code. In 2013, the Iran legislature passed the Family Protection Act 2013 (hereinafter “FPA”). The FPA did not change anything substantive about the law of mahr. The FPA primarily addressed procedural rules on marriage, divorce, and custody, but it did restrict imprisonment pursuant to the Enforcement of Debts Act (Official Gazette no. 15666, December 7, 1998) for failure to pay mahrs under 110 gold coins. If the mahr amount is in excess of 110 coins, before imprisonment, the husband is entitled to a hearing to determine his financial ability and the possibility, if applicable, of paying the mahr in installments.

Under Iranian law, the liens upon the husband’s property located in Iran will remain until he fully satisfies the judgment entered against him.[21] With the judgment she has obtained against the husband, the wife can obtain a warrant for the arrest of the husband until he pays the entire judgment in full. She further has the ability to freeze all of his assets (movable and immovable) located in Iran until full payment is made.

The only possible option the husband has if the Supreme Court affirms the trial court judgment in favor of the wife is for him to pay off the 700 coins in installments. Potentially, the husband may request that the Iranian Supreme Court to provide him with credit for all of the marital assets the wife received in the Massachusetts judgment on the argument that the wife was double dipping—that is, receiving 50% of the marital estate plus 700 gold coins.

The Massachusetts appellate opinion was not entirely fair. It allowed the wife to double dip. The Massachusetts trial court is a court of equity. Whether the trial court enforced the 700 coin mahr or the Iranian court enforced it, it should have been a factor considered in the division of the marital estate. It does not mean a dollar for dollar credit, but fairness would mandate that the husband would receive some credit for paying the 700 coins.

Is the Muslim Marriage Contract an American-style prenuptial agreement?

A mahr/dowry provision in a Muslim marriage contract is not an American-style prenuptial agreement. A prenuptial agreement is an agreement between prospective spouses made in contemplation of marriage. The agreement then becomes effective upon marriage.  In essence, it is an agreement between the bride and groom to resolve all or some of the financial issues arising out of the prospective marital relationship in the event of divorce or death of either party. The financial terms of a standard prenuptial agreement are set up to function in lieu of any inheritance or other community property, equitable distribution, or alimony laws otherwise applicable to the couple. Unlike a prenuptial agreement, mahr/dowry is an obligation upon the husband that serves as a supplement, not a substitute, to other legal obligations between spouses. The mahr is not a waiver of all other rights a wife is entitled to under state law.

The primary purpose of prenuptial agreements is to determine property and support rights upon the death of the spouse or the dissolution of the marriage. In other words, prenuptial agreements attempt to alter the state-imposed statutory default formula for spousal rights.[22] A Muslim marriage contract (which includes mahr) is a simple contract and does not function as an instrument to alter the state-imposed statutory spousal rights. Here, the Marriage Contract the parties executed did not alter the financial rights due to the wife under Iranian law. The wife’s default Iranian law rights for maintenance during the marriage, alimony post the dissolution, and inheritance remained intact.

A Muslim marriage contract is, for all intents and purposes, the same traditional marriage contract that Muslims entered into in the 7th Century. In other words, the Muslim marriage contract has remained the same over the past 1400 years. This is not the case for prenuptial agreements. A prenuptial agreement is a product of the 20th Century. In fact, until recently, many states held that prenuptial agreements were contrary to public policy.[23]

Because of the sensitive nature of the waivers contained within prenuptial agreements, states created numerous legal safeguards and requirements for the validity of such agreements. For example, many states have adopted the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, which requires advice of counsel and fair and reasonable financial disclosure, among other protections.[24]

A Muslim marriage contract does not operate as a modern prenuptial agreement. It is important to explain the circumstances and traditions surrounding the execution of the marriage contract. Generally, a few days before the marriage ceremony, or even the day of the ceremony, the bride’s father and the groom discuss the amount of the mahr. There is no draft marriage contract that circulates between the parties to review. The marriage contract is a standard preprinted government form that is completed by the religious clergy. The parties are not represented by counsel at the ceremony and/or negotiation of the marriage contract. They do not consult counsel inasmuch that this is a preprinted standard form. There are no negotiations with respect to waivers of any financial rights the parties have against each other. The extent of the negotiation would relate to the amount of the mahr between the families. There is no exchange of financial disclosures and there are absolutely no express or implied waivers of state-imposed default financial rights the parties accrue from the marriage.

Be that as it may, a wife in the event of divorce, under Iranian law, in addition to the mahr/marital portion amount, is entitled to maintenance through the date of the divorce, three months ‘iddah[25] support (post-divorce) and all property titled in her name or her share of jointly titled property. These are the financial rights the wife in this matter would receive under Iranian law in the event of divorce. Of course, any other financial terms in the marriage contract would be considered as well.

With the gendered view of marriage that is so prevalent, marriage is not considered an economic partnership. Flowing from the simple civil contract and gender-based financial obligations, the assets acquired by either party during the marriage are not pooled into an economic enterprise. The title of the property determines ownership. The acquisitions of each party during the marriage are considered separate property. There is no concept of marital assets or community property.[26]

There is no post-dissolution alimony under Iranian law as understood in American jurisprudence. In 1992, the Iranian Reform of Divorce (Divorce Act) was adopted. This new law included a new marital claim called ujrat al-mithl (compensation for household services). While this new legal claim on its face may sound like a form of post-divorce alimony, it compensates for past services provided to the household, such as cleaning, cooking, and rearing the children. The requirements to satisfy the elements of the claim are oppressive. The wife is entitled to compensation for services that the husband demanded she provide if she did not provide them voluntarily and if she was not obligated to provide them religiously or legally. Further, the husband must have sought the divorce, not the wife, and the wife’s conduct must not have been the cause for the husband’s request for divorce. Of course, if the parties agree otherwise, the wife is not entitled to such compensation. What “otherwise” actually means appears to be contested in legal circles. Subsequent to the 1992 Law, the Iranian legislature adopted a new standard marriage contract that included many additional boilerplate provisions for the brides to select for protection.  The selection by the parties of this boilerplate provision to share the marital assets may mean “otherwise agreed.”

Article 336 of the Iranian Code provides for an unjust enrichment claim that would cover a wife that provided services to her husband:

If a man does an act at the order of another and if according to custom and usage a wage is payable for such an act, or if the man who has acted is accustomed and disposed to undertake such work, then he can claim pay for his work, unless it is shown that he acted gratuitously.

This provision does not require proving fault. The Iranian legislative reforms in 2013 repealed the ujrat al-mithl statute. So now courts rely upon Article 336 instead of the Divorce Act to compensate women for services rendered during the marriage without compensation.[27] Be that as it may, the whole concept of compensation for services rendered during the marriage is socially disputed in Iran. According to a survey conducted in 2004, most Iranian women stated that they would not petition for such compensation as it made them feel like cheap laborers, not spouses. Further, it is not a simple task to determine the amount of compensation, and the burden of proof is upon the wife.[28]

In summary, Ravasizadeh as the first reported decision in Massachusetts examining the mahr contract is welcome judicial guidance in this area. The Massachusetts court adopted the Odatalla simple contract approach rather than the prenuptial approach, confirming the fact that that the mahr was part of a religious marriage contract would not constitutionally preclude a court from adjudicating it because the secular terms of the contract are enforceable under neutral principles of contract law. Unless there are valid contract defense such as fraud, mistake, coercion and the like, a Muslim marriage contract is enforceable in Massachusetts. Finally, the appellate court’s failure to consider the double-dipping argument will be revisited the next time this issue is appealed.


[1] 94 Mass. App. Ct. 123 (2018).

[2] Id. at 125.

[3] 226 P.3d 787 (Wash. App. 2010):

[4] This author was the plaintiff’s attorney in Odatalla (footnote not in original text).

[5] Ravasizadeh, supra note 1, at 125.

[6] Interestingly, the husband here did not object to the Iranian court taking jurisdiction to determine the wife’s mahr claim. In fact, he submitted to its jurisdiction and actively participated in the Iranian proceedings. The husband could have contested the jurisdiction of the Iranian court to determine the mahr issue and insisted that the Massachusetts court adjudicate it. In fact, the husband could have requested that the Massachusetts court enjoin the wife from proceeding with the mahr matter in Iran. There was a divorce action pending in Massachusetts. The issues of alimony, support, custody and the marriage contract were before this Court. There is no reason for the husband to be subjected to such a duplicative action in Iran. There is no reason the husband had to expend counsel fees and defend against the Iranian action. See, e.g., Kempson v. Kempson, 58 N.J. Eq. 94 (1899) (entering injunction against proceeding with foreign divorce action where it would place hardship on wife to incur litigation costs in the foreign jurisdiction to resist the action, would pose inconvenience, and hardship for not appearing for any purpose in the foreign jurisdiction, suffering the consequences). The New Jersey Supreme Court in Ippolito v. Ippolito, 3 N.J. 561 (1950) confirmed that a court has authority to enjoin a litigant before it from proceeding with a foreign action:

The power of courts having equity jurisdiction to enjoin the prosecution of an action in a foreign jurisdiction by a resident of the forum state against another such resident has been liberally exercised to    restrain the prosecution by such a resident of a divorce action in another jurisdiction. Some of the usual circumstances in which equitable interference is so exercised include situations where the institution or prosecution of the suit in the foreign jurisdiction is in evasion of the laws of the common domicile; where the attempted establishment by the plaintiff in the foreign divorce suit of a residence or domicile in the foreign jurisdiction is not Bona fide but is simulated for the purposes of divorce and in fraud of the jurisdiction of the foreign court and of the rights of the plaintiff in the injunction suit; where the prosecution of such foreign suit is vexatious to the plaintiff in the injunction suit and will cause him or her great and unnecessary hardship and inconvenience in defending it, or where the foreign suit will prejudicially affect the property rights of the plaintiff in the injunction suit and unjustly subject him or her to the indignities of a divorce not justified by the laws of the common domicile. See Annotation and cases cited in 128 A.L.R. 1467, et seq.

The wife was a resident of Massachusetts, a citizen of the United States, and was before the Court. The Massachusetts Court had the authority to grant the husband such relief. Such a request would have been directed against the litigant, not the foreign judge or court or a foreign agent. This is within the Court’s exercise of equity jurisdiction in personam over the wife in this action. See generally Austen L. Parrish, Duplicative Foreign Litigation, 78 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 237 (2010).

[7] Ravasizadeh, supra note 1, at 125.

[8] Id. at 126.

[9] See Iran. Const. ch. 1, art. 4.

[10] See, e.g., Aini Dadrassii Madani [Civil Procedure Code] Tehran 1379 [2000], art. 3 (Iran) (explaining that when the law is not expressed or there is no law, courts are required to consider credible Islamic law sources or valid fatwas).

[11] The Iranian Constitution provides that the government of Iran is that of an Islamic Republic and that “[a]ll civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria.” Iran. Const. ch. 1, art. 4.

[12] See generally Abed Awad, Marriage, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women 625-30 (Natana J. DeLong-Bas ed., 2013).

[13] See Qanuni Madani [Civil Code] Tehran 1314 [1935], arts. 1062 et seq. (Iran).

[14] See Jamal J. Nasir, The Islamic Law of Personal Status 86-7 (2d ed. 1990). See generally Awad, supra note 12, at 625-30.

[15] The Spring of Freedom (Bahār Āzādī) coin is a gold coin minted by the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was first minted in 1979 following the Iranian Revolution. One full Bahār Āzādī coin weighs 8.13g and is composed of 90% gold or 21.6 Karats. The UK’s number one bullion dealer sells these coins for $345 a coin (as of November 1, 2018).

[16] In other words, the mahr is not a marital asset. In fact, the wife is not required to use her mahr for her support or the support of the children. The husband is not entitled to ask the wife to use her mahr to purchase household items or furnishing or food. The separate nature of the mahr is undisputed in the Islamic law literature.

[17] Qanuni Madani [Civil Code] Tehran 1314 [1935], art. 1082 (Iran).

[18] See, e.g., Nadjma Yassari, “The financial relationship between spouses under Iranian law: A never-ending story of guilt and atonement?,” in Changing God’s Law: The Dynamics of Middle Eastern Family Law 133 (Nadjma Yassari ed., 2016) (“[T]he right to the mahr is based on a system of strict liability where issues relating to marital misbehavior, the wife’s needs, and the financial capability of the husband, are irrelevant. The mahr is an absolute right of the wife and is not linked to the question of fault, and it therefore is due in cases where the wife has breached or failed to perform her marital duties. The linking of the right of maintenance to female obedience is not applicable in the case of the mahr.”).

[19] Even though the parties married in New York, as long as the marriage was a valid Islamic marriage, the parties would be able to register their Muslim marriage with the Iranian civil status authorities. This is a routine registration by people with dual citizenship or citizens residing outside of their home country.

[20] American courts have subject matter jurisdiction based on residency of the litigants or the location where the tort or contract arose and personal jurisdiction based on service and minimum contacts. The citizenship and/or religion of a litigant does not vest American courts with jurisdiction. This is generally true in common law jurisdictions. In civil law systems, while residency is becoming the primary basis for subject matter jurisdiction, citizenship was a basis for jurisdiction. For example, a French citizen residing for decades in Africa would still be able to file for divorce in France because French courts have authority to adjudicate claims for its citizens.

[21] Aini Dadrassii Madani [Civil Procedure Code] Tehran 1379 [2000], art. 108 (Iran).

[22] See generally Allison A. Marston, Planning for Love: The Politics of Prenuptial Agreements, 49 Stan. L. Rev. 887 (1997); see also Judith T. Younger, Perspectives on Antenuptial Agreements: An Update, 8 J. Am. Acad. Matrimonial Law 1, 8 (1992) (discussing the subjects of prenuptial agreements). For a general discussion on the use of prenuptial agreements as an estate planning tool, see generally Charles Cahn II, Estate Planning to Avoid Complications of Remarriage, 19 Est. Plan. 268 (1992).

[23] See generally Linda Ravdin, Premarital Agreements: Drafting and Negotiation 7 (2d ed., 2017), (last visited Aug. 28, 2018) (“Courts generally refused to enforce agreements that determined property and support rights upon divorce. These agreements were thought to destabilize the institution of marriage by making divorce too easy, and thus were contrary to public policy. Moreover, because the state is a third party in actions relating to the marital relationship, courts held that a prospective wife, who was considered to be in an unequal bargaining position, should not be bound by a premarital waiver of support that could leave her a ward of the state.”); see also Jeffrey G. Sherman, Prenuptial Agreements: A New Reason to Revise an Old Rule, 53 Clev. St. L. Rev. 359, 375 (explaining that “[b]efore the 1970s, American courts refused the enforcement [of prenuptial agreements], on the ground that enforcement would tend to undermine marital stability.”).

[24] For an explanation as to why a Muslim marriage contract is not a prenuptial agreement, see generally Abed Awad, “Islamic Family Law in American Courts: A rich, diverse and evolving jurisprudence,” in Muslim Family Law in Western Courts (Elisa Giunchi ed., 2014).

[25]  ‘Iddah, the waiting period, is the period commencing from the date a divorce is initiated. The waiting period covers three menstrual cycles. The reasons for this period is (1) to give the parties a cooling down period to determine if there is a reasonable prospect for reconciliation; and (2) to make sure that the wife is not pregnant. If she is pregnant, she is entitled to support until she delivers.

[26] See, e.g., Qanuni Madani [Civil Code] Tehran 1314 [1935], art. 1118 (Iran) (providing that a woman is free to dispose of her property as she wishes).

[27] See Family Protection Act of 2013, art. 29 (Iran).

[28] See generally, Nadjma Yassari, supra note 18, at 139-41.

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