The Phenomenon of Temporary Marriage

Temporary marriages, often referred to as nikah mut’ah, (short-term marriage in Arabic), is an ancient practice.  It allows Muslim men and women to be considered as husband and wife for a limited and temporary fixed time (Johnson, 2013)  after specifying a Dowar, the bride price paid by the groom or his family. (Manzar, 2008). In Arabic dictionaries “Mut’ah “is defined as ‘enjoyment, pleasure, delight’.  Historically it was employed in order that a man could have a wife for a short period whilst travelling long distances. The practice of temporary marriage is said to have existed during the lifetime of Muhammad, who is believed to have recommended it to his companions and soldiers. Historically, it was used most frequently in Iran by pilgrims in Shiite shrine cities such as Meshed and Qum. The rationale underlying temporary marriage was simple. Pilgrims who travelled had sexual needs. A temporary marriage helps to prevent sexual corruption and enables men to meet their sexual need legitimately and legally when they are far from their spouse due to a mission, etc. Temporary marriage in iran was a legal way to satisfy them.

Linguistically, Mut’ah is derived from the root word of “Mat’h”, meaning something you can take advantage of for a short period of time and for pleasure (Ibn Manzoor, 1993, p. 239). Figh refers to a marriage between a man and woman for a specified duration and Mahr, allowing separation and no formal legal divorce proceedings. (Gharshi, 1992, p. 226).Moreover, Al-Allameh Al Hilli defines Mut’ah as discontinuous temporary marriage (Al-Hilli, 1991, p. 175).

The Nikah Mut’ah consists of a verbal or written contract in which both parties agree to the duration and conditions for the marriage, similar to the elements of a commercial contract. Like any other contract, Islamic marriage creates rights and obligations between the contracting parties.  The union can last for a few hours, days, months or years and when the contract terminates so does the marriage, much in the same way long-term /permanent/ conventional marriage does via till death do us part. The main difference is that the temporary marriage longs only for a specified period of time. Generally, the Nikah Mut’ah has no proscribed minimum or maximum duration.  At the end of the contract, the wife must undergo Iddah, a period of abstinence from sexual intercourse. (Esposito 2014)  Although nikah mut’ah is a Shia concept, other types of informal marriages are practised by Sunni Muslims, such as misyar and urfi.

Mut’ah is an issue that is not only delicate and fraught with rancorous debate, but also it has been distorted and misused throughout the years (Moaddel, Mansoor, and Kamran Talattof, eds., 2016). There is a sectarian divide over the issue. The majority Sunni sect in Islam banned it; the minority Shiite sect did not. In the Muslim world, the concept is more well-known in the Shia sect, as they believe it is legally permissible. However, when the concept was first introduced, all Muslim sources agreed to its practicalities. (Bang, 2016). Both Sunni and Shia critics of these informal marriages,  argue they allow a person, principally men,   to  contractually take on multiple “wives” for a number of hours and thus have multiple sexual partners. It also has been argued that Mut’ah marriages are used as an “Islamic cover” for prostitution and or the exploitation of women.

Read more: The Nexus between the Temporary Marriage and Early Child Marriages

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