Mahr (Dower) in the Volga-Ural Muslim Community in Nineteenth Century Russia: Introduction

By Rozaliya Garipova

In my series of essays this month, I will analyze three cases involving disputes over dower (mahr) in which Muslims of the Volga-Ural region in the Russian Empire petitioned the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly (hereafter the OA) in the mid-nineteenth century. These analyses are part of my forthcoming book project titled Muslim Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia: Empire, Legality and Religious Authority and represent preliminary conclusions on this topic.

After the conquest of the Kazan Khanate in 1552, Volga-Ural Muslims gradually became part of the expanding Russian Empire. The Volga-Ural Muslim communities lived in the regions of the Volga River basin and the Ural Mountains, comprising two large ethnic groups: Tatars and Bashkirs. The incorporation of the lands of the Kazan and Astrakhan khanates in the sixteenth century, as well as Bashkir lands later on, was followed by uprisings and conversion of Muslims to Orthodox Christianity. However, with the developing interest of Russian statesmen in the Kazakh steppe and the Kazakhs, who took the oath of allegiance with Russia in 1731, and the incorporation of the Muslim population of the Crimea in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Russian state decided to adopt a more tolerant policy towards Muslims and utilize religious scholars for a better governance and a peaceful integration of Muslim populations into the empire. As part of this new policy, supervisory religious institutions, or muftiates, for the Muslims in Volga-Urals and the Crimea were established. The first one of these muftiates, the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly, was founded in 1788 by order of Catherine II. It was a collegiate institution formed by a muftī and three qāḍīs who collectively made decisions on various cases. Besides fulfilling the Russian state’s policy of supervision and integration of Muslims, it functioned as a certifying institution for imams and as a court of appeal in matters of family and inheritance law for Muslims dissatisfied with the decisions of local ‘ulamāʾ. It took time for Muslims to accept the authority of this institution, but by the 1850s, when the cases at hand took place, its authority was well established in the Volga-Urals.

As part of the Inner-Asian Islamic tradition, Volga-Ural Muslims were historically followers of the Ḥanafī school of law. Even though Tatars were a sedentary community while Bashkirs were half-sedentary (and almost sedentarized by mid-nineteenth century), nomadic norms still influenced their social and religious practices. In Inner Asia, the concept of mahr (dower) was blended with the concept of kalym (bride price), and there was no clear line between the two.[1] Mahr is “the gift of collection of gifts given to the bride by the husband, without which a marriage is not valid.”[2] In the Inner-Asian Muslim practice mahr could include the “payment for the bride,” the wedding expenses, numerous gifts both to the bride and other relatives, milk money (given to the mother of the bride), and the prompt and deferred parts of mahr.[3] Ethnographer Raufa Urazmanova, who described marital practices among Tatars, notes that “when a mulla performed marriage (nikāh), he also registered the amount of mahr which included kalym, tartu (the money presented to the mother of the bride), the money spent for food for the wedding feast, and the dower, all that money that had already been transferred to the family of the bride; and he indicated, separately, an amount of money that a groom would give to his wife in case of divorce.”[4] In the Arabic-script Turki documents (petitions of Tatars and Bashkirs as well as reports of imams and akhunds to the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly), Muslims always used the word “mahr” while in the Russian translation of these same documents the word “kalym” is used exclusively.

The Volga-Ural Muslims had a clear understanding that providing a proper mahr was an obligation upon the husband. Like in other parts of the Muslim world, mahr was a crucial component of the marriage contract. Mahr, which usually consisted of a specified amount of money and certain goods, had to be delivered to the bride herself and none of her family members had any right to it.[5] As Judith Tucker explains concerning the practice in Ottoman Damascus, Jerusalem and Nablus in the eighteenth century, people followed the Ḥanafī practice to  always divide the mahr into two portions, a muqaddam (prompt dower) which usually consisted from one-half to two-thirds of the total and to be paid at the time of the signing of the contract, and a muakhkhar (deferred dower), to be paid at the time of termination of the marriage, whether by death or divorce.[6] Jurists defined the part of mahr that was to be paid at the time of marriage as al-mahr al-mu‘ajjal (prompt) and the other as al-mahr al-mu’ajjal (deferred). As Mona Siddiqui underlines, there was a conflict over the term “deferred” “since it does not adequately define the exact time of payment,” and therefore some jurists thought that “it was necessary to pay the whole immediately.”[7]

Tatar and Bashkir Muslims had a very specific understanding of mahr, one that was most probably influenced by the nomadic culture. We can identify two particularities in their understanding of mahr.

First, they expected the full amount to be paid out by the groom as soon as possible after the marriage (ʿaqd nikāḥ) took place. Thus, in the Volga-Ural region, when two families began to negotiate the prospective marriage of their children, the first thing they had to establish was the amount of mahr, i.e., they needed to specify the mahr (mahr al-musammā). In these negotiations families usually did not specify the prompt and deferred amounts (only rarely did they do so). In the cases that I have studied, the specified amount was stated but it was usually not followed by details about the amounts of prompt and deferred mahr. Instead, the petitioners stated only one sum of money which was paid at marriage and this amount was usually less than or exactly half of the full amount of the specified mahr. The expectation was that the full mahr would be paid as soon as possible after the contract. So, it was a sort of debt upon the husband owed to the wife. That is why, in their petitions, women (or, sometimes, fathers on their behalf) often wrote that their husbands “still did not pay the remaining part of my mahr.” Most petitions have a standard formula: “I was married to [name] for the amount of mahr at [amount] rubles which was given in the following banknotes [amount] and goods [list of items]. At marriage he paid such-and-such amount of money but did not pay yet the remaining part at [the exact amount]” or he “still owes me [amount].”

Second, when the groom’s side paid some amount of money (which could vary but usually was less than half of the specified mahr), ʿaqd nikāḥ took place where the father of the daughter invited a licensed imam and he performed nikāḥ and registered marriage in the civil registry. After receiving part of the mahr and the performance of nikāh, the bride’s parents allowed their daughter to consummate the marriage. However, the bride’s parents allowed the husband to visit his wife only in their house. In other words, they did not allow their daughter to move to her husband’s house, until he paid a sufficient amount of mahr. In most of the cases I have studied, a married couple had their first child or two when the bride was still living with her parents, since the full or a considerable amount of the mahr was not paid. When the full mahr or a substantial amount of it was paid, the bride was allowed to move to her husband’s house, sometimes already with one or two young children. According to ethnographers Bikbulatov and Fatykhova, among the Bashkirs, only the payment of the full amount of kalym [mahr] served as a basis for a bride to move to her husband’s house, often not alone but with children.[8] Such practice became the cause of several problems.


[1] Sergei Abashin, “Kalym i mahr v Srednei Azii: pravo ili ritual,” Otechestvennye zapiski 5, no. 13 (2003).

[2] Judith Tucker, In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 207.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Raufa Urazmanova, Etnografiia tatarskogo Naroda (Kazan: Magarif, 2004), 12829.

[5] Tucker, In the House of the Law, 52.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mona Siddiqui, “Mahr: Legal Obligation or Rightful Demand?,” Journal of Islamic Studies 6, no. 1 (1995): 20.

[8] N.V. Bikbulatov and F.F. Fatykhova, Semeinyi byt bashkir: 19-20 vv. (Moskva “Nauka”, 1991), 26.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Rozaliya Garipova, Mahr (Dower) in the Volga-Ural Muslim Community in Nineteenth Century Russia: Introduction, Islamic Law Blog (Apr. 4, 2024),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Rozaliya Garipova, “Mahr (Dower) in the Volga-Ural Muslim Community in Nineteenth Century Russia: Introduction,” Islamic Law Blog, April 4, 2024,

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