MUT’A: Temporary Marriage in Islamic Culture and Religion

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

The most acceptable form of marriage connects a man and a woman together as husband and wife. Most of such marriages are intimate, sexual, and generally produces biological or adopted offspring. For the most part these marriages are monogamous in nature. Other forms of marriage include levirate and sororate; and the matriolocal and patrilocal living arrangements. The levirate decrees a dead man’s brother to be the widow’s partner. In a period long gone where such practice was in place, it served to “perpetuate the line of a man who died childless. Often, the brother who marries his sister-in-law is a proxy for the deceased and no new marriage is contracted, since all progeny are acknowledged as the seed of the dead man.”

There are four fundamental practices of marriage: monogamy; polygamy or polygyny; polyandry; and (4) group marriage i.e., several husbands having several wives lodging in a common commune. Of all the aforesaid, monogamy is the ubiquitous and readily acceptable practice in the western world. In the traditional or agrarian societies however, polygamy is the norm. “Very few societies have polyandrous marriages: one wife having numerous husbands at the same time. Such marriages occur only in a few cultures — probably no more than a dozen — and often take the form of fraternal polyandry, that is, when the husbands are brothers. The cause of such an arrangement is unclear but may be related to the need to keep scarce resources such as small parcels of land inherited by the brothers under the control of a single household.”

According to Dr. Pade Badru, a professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, “polygyny is not synonymous with polygamy. Polygamy is marriage with multiple partners which is broadly divided into two categories: polyandry- which is a situation in which the woman marries more than one husband and the most common will be fraternal polyandry (levirate excluded) and is common among Hopi Indians in North America. This is usually occasioned by sex-ratio that is in favor of women (that’s more men than women); also common in matri-focal communities in Africa; Polygyny is in essence a situation where a man marries more than one woman and of course, this is often referred to erroneously as polygamy; both are mutually exclusive.”

Over all, marriage as an institution differs in structure, function, and meaning from one culture to another. Within the Islamic culture and religion, there is the Mut’a which, according to Shahnaz Khan, is a “system of temporary marriage which is rooted in pre-Islamic Arabia. Outlawed for Muslims by the Calipha Omar in the seventh century A.D., mut’a marriage is now only practiced by Shi’a Muslims who live predominantly but not exclusively in Iran. A mut’a marriage may be based on either an oral or written contract between a man and woman. In this form of marriage, each individual contract determines how long the parties will remain married, which could range from one hour to 99 years. The religious and cultural purpose of mut’a marriage is sexual enjoyment for men and financial return for women. However, the exchange of money makes mut’a comparable to prostitution.”

According to Sachiko Murata — from whom I have generously quoted — “In Islam marriage is legalized by a contract (‘aqd), which, like all other contracts in Islam, consists of a declaration (ijab) and an acceptance (qabul). The woman declares that she is entering into a relationship of marriage with the man, and he accepts her as his wife. However, a man and woman may be forbidden from marrying for several reasons, including but not limited to blood relationship (qaraba); relationship by marriage (musahara); foster relationships because of suckling (rida’); and religious difference.

“The Mut’a has four pillars: (1) The Formula: since it is a contract, mut’a requires a declaration and an acceptance. As in permanent marriage, the declaration is the prerequisite of the woman, (2) The Persons: a man can conclude a contract of mut’a only with a Muslim. It is not permissible to engage in temporary marriage with an unbeliever; (3) The Time Period: the time period of a temporary marriage must be delineated in a manner which allows no possibility of increase or decrease; and (4) The Dower: the contract must mention a dower of known property, whether in cash or kind, whose amount is safe from increase or decrease. In order to gain knowledge of the property, it is sufficient for the woman to see it, but it is not necessary that it actually be weighed, measured, or counted-whatever the case may require.”

Mut’a is a religiously contested issue: According to the Women’s International Network News, “temporary or mut’a marriage is one of the most intensely contested moral issues in Islam. The debate is between the ‘Shiite’ and the ‘Sunni’ Muslims. While the Shiite considers mut’a marriage to be legitimate, the Sunni forbids it. Both parties agree that mut’a existed during the days of the Prophet and that he encouraged his followers and soldiers to practice it. The Sunnis attribute its permissibility at one point in history to unusual circumstances. The Shiite Ulama (religious authorities) disagree and call for its abolition.” And even in non-religious or non-Islamic societies, the idea generates a lot of controversy and condemnation.

The central argument of the Pro-Mut’a argument goes like this: “Forbidden to you are married woman, except what your right hand possesses. This Allah has written for you, and all other women besides these are permitted to you, so that you may seek them out with your wealth, seeking chastity and not fornication. So when you have contracted temporary marriage [istimt’atum] with them, then give them their words. There is no sin on you for whatever you agree to after this. Indeed, Allah is Knowing, Wise (Al-Qur’an, Surah An-Nisa, Ayah 24).”

And then the central argument of the anti-Mut’a argument, championed by the Wahabi author, Dr. Salamah, goes this way: “Mut’ah…is an open license for sexual pleasure with as many women as one can financially afford. The women who engage in mut’ah are hired women; thus, it can be performed with all women irrespective of their age, character, conduct or religion. It requires no witnesses, nor is there any obligation on the man’s part to provide food and shelter to the woman. The only precondition is that the woman agrees to the price and the length of the mut’ah and that the man pays her the compensation when he has relations with her. One can discern for himself whether such a practice leads to sheer promiscuity or promotes chastity…”

Whether one is for or against Mut’a is a personal and religious preference. I however doubt that in an increasingly liberal and westernized world, such a practice will be widely accepted. Looking at the big picture, temporary or short-contract marriage is not an idea whose time has come. Looking at the small picture however, Mut’a may blunt western society’s penchant for legal separations and divorces. Either way, such arrangement will not suit everyone’s sensibility. In fact, such an idea may provoke virulent outcry and protestations, and a call for drastic changes in domestic and marital laws is likely to follow.

However, considering what is available and what is allowed in today’s society — more so in the western societies where some marriage types can be considered perverse and highly decadent — asking for a rethink of the marriage institution is unavoidable. Some marriages in the West, especially in the United States, barely survive the seven year anniversary. And in fact, the vast majority does not survive twenty-five years when, ideally, they are supposed to last a life time. What could be more transitory, more impermanent than 7-25 year unions?

Considering the nature of Islam, and considering also what a few people have been doing in the name of the religion, there are those who will automatically reject its code of belief. That’s understandable, but not acceptable. In the learned estimation of Huston Smith, “of all the non-Western religions, Islam stands closest to the West — closest geographically, and also closest ideologically; for religiously it stands in the Abrahamic family of religions, while philosophically it builds on the Greeks. Yet despite this mental and spatial proximity, Islam is the most difficult religion for the West to understand. Mistakes begin with its very name. Until recently the West called it Muhammadanism, which is not only inaccurate but also offensive.” Considering this and other factors therefore, I ask that readers digest Mut’a with a liberal mind.

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5 comments April 9, 2008 - 6:10 pm

Interesting…I was just reading on Sigeh, the Iranian version of Mut’a. It can be a win-win situation, if the women also have bargaining rights. There are some situations where widows have resorted to this kind of temporary marriage as a way to feed and keep their family together and it worked for them. Others may argue that it is pre-marital sex wrapped up in Islam. I find it interestiing and will keep reading up on the issue.

Nuhu A.A. December 21, 2007 - 8:18 am

‎“And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them ‎as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God ‎and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender(Muslimun). In like manner We have revealed unto thee ‎the Scripture, and those unto whom We gave the Scripture aforetime will believe therein; and of these ‎‎(also) there are some who believe therein. And none deny our revelations save the disbelievers. And thou (0 ‎Muhammad) wast not a reader of any scripture before it, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand, for then ‎might those have doubted, who follow falsehood.” Q29:46-48‎

‎“And The Book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, read this I pray thee: And he saith, I am not ‎learned.” Isaiah 29:12‎

‎“Say: 0 People of the Scripture. Come to an agreement between us and you: that we shall worship none but ‎Allah, and that we shall ascribe no partners unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside ‎Allah. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we(Muslimun) are they who have surrendered (unto Him).” ‎Q3:64‎

Narrated by ‘Aisha: …….He (the Prophet, S.A.W.) said, “Be sure as to who is your foster brother, for ‎foster suckling relationship is established only when milk is the only food of the child (before weaning).” ‎Sahih al-Bukhari. ‎

kennedy December 18, 2007 - 5:09 pm

The guy who commented on Sabella's write up said of special circumstances. If I may ask what are these special circumstances. You muslims will always see contradictions in the holy books of other religions but you can never see contradictions in your quaran. Not too long ago a muslim cleric from the top most islamic university in the world issued a fatwa that it was written in their hadith that women should breastfeed their male office companions if the males looks at them lustfully.According to their hadith, once upon a time a woman came to Mohammed and complained to him that a man was looking at her lustfully and Mohammed advised her to go and breastfeed him. The woman was shellshocked and didn't believe what she heard and she repeated the question again and Mohammed replied with a smile and told the woman to carry out his instruction and the woman had no choice than to obey Mohammed. So when this cleric issued a fatwa that women should breastfeed their male office colleagues who look lustfully at them it sparked off worldwide protest. You can trust them when it comes to protest, destruction and violence. There was a call for the clerics head, others sought punitive measures against him while almost all of them denied that the hadith had been taken out of context or misinterpreted.But it is there in their hadith in black and white.If you doubt it go to google and type in Islam and breastfeeding what you will read will shock you.

Pa Jimoh M. December 17, 2007 - 12:17 pm

This article shows in many ways that the Prophet Mohammed was indeed ahead of his time ine women liberation. While the women in Europe were still in chains, women got the right of divorce, inheritance etc even prostitution as in this Mut'a thing in the Koran! But alas, some of the modern clerics, seeking to be holier than thou will seek to twist the Koran to make new rules that run counter to its letter like the Sunni Moslems when they reject the Mut'a. The Mut'a was allowed by your prophet, so why do you fear it? Apparently, Islam need a Martin Luther that will take the Koran away from clerics and put the power back at the laity- religion for man , not man for religion! May Allah be Glorified.

A.A.Nuhu December 16, 2007 - 10:00 am

While I agree with you that the issue of Mut'ah is highly contentious, I want to point out that one of the main channels by which error creeps into Islamic understanding is through erroneous interpretations. For instance ,translating "Istamta'tum" in Quran 4:24 to mean temporary marriage is a good example. Please refer to Marmaduke Pikthall's translation on the same verse.There is nothing in that verse to support temporary marriage.All this heated debate among Muslims about Mut'ah would not have been necessary if it were explicitly stated in that verse and the practice would not have been the pre-occupation of the Shiites alone.The same word was used by the Prophet(S.A.W) regarding women(Fa in istamta'tum biha istamta'tum biha wa biha 'iwaj) without any connotation to temporary marriage but to the fact that men should not expect women to be perfect(actually, no human is perfect): So if you derive pleasure in them(ofcourse through marriage) , do so while knowing that that imperfection is still there.The root word is Mata'a which can mean provision, deriving pleasure or even useful things or tools(compare Q2:236, Q;241 and Q13:17 where the same word "Mata'a'' is used). The nearest in meaning to Q4:24 is deriving pleasure, which we do in our wives irrespective of the form or type of marriage contract. Muslims are ordered in that passage to give full dowry(Faridah) to the women after consumating their marriage by deriving pleasure with them as against the case when this has not happened in which case(if there is divorce before consumation) the brides are entitled to half of the Faridah- Qur'an 2:237. So, nothing to specify temporariness. I think I quite agree with Dr Salamah who pointed out that Mut'a , if allowed as a normal practice, will definitely lead to promiscuity , especially in this present time ,and will serve as a cover for prostitution. In the early days of Islam, because of the special circumstances of those days certain practices and norms were allowed for some time and then phased out; consumption of alcohol, eating the meat of donkey, etc. Mut'ah was permitted under a special circumstance and has since been abrogated.


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