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Islamic Studies Mutʿa
by
Karen Ruffle

Introduction

A practice that predates Islam, mutʿa is a form of temporary marriage. Indications exist that Iranian Zoroastrian auxiliary marriage as well as the various forms of temporary marriage pre-Islamic Arab tribes practiced contributed to the institution of Islamic temporary marriage. In describing mutʿa, scholars often use the analogy of a rental contract. In the context of mutʿa, a man and a woman agree to be married for a set period of time, and the husband pays the wife a form of wage (ajr) in exchange for lawful sexual relations with her during the contract period. When the contract expires, the temporary marriage is complete, and the woman is free to enter into another mutʿa after a forty-five-day waiting period (ʿidda). Any children born from a temporary marriage are legally considered legitimate and have the right to inherit, though in practice some fathers reject the paternity of offspring born from mutʿa. The principal purpose of mutʿa is the fulfillment of sexual pleasure, and procreation is typically not the couple’s objective. Mutʿa is distinctive to Shiʿism and is permitted by the Jaʿfari school of law. The schools of Sunni law prohibit mutʿa based on the Sunna (lived tradition and example) of the Prophet Muhammad, who declared after the battle of Khaybar in 629 CE that temporary marriages were no longer valid. The second caliph ʿUmar reaffirmed Muhammad’s prohibition of mutʿa, which became law through a process of consensus (ijmaʿ) after a period of debate among the early Islamic community. Imam ʿAli (d. 661) rejected the prohibition of mutʿa, which the Imams maintained as a lawfully permissible form of marriage. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, mutʿa underwent a revival, and an official state campaign to legitimize the practice in Iranian society emerged. Estimating the frequency of mutʿa in Shiʿi communities is difficult, because many people consider it a religiously sanctioned form of prostitution, and men and women who contract such temporary marriages do so in secrecy. Although mutʿa is prohibited by Sunni schools of law, several types of nonpermanent marriage exist, including misyar (ambulant) marriage, which has gained official state sanction in Saudi Arabia, and ʿurfi (customary) marriage, which is becoming increasingly popular in Egypt.

General Overviews

Most encyclopedias on Islam include entries on mutʿa. Haeri 2005 and Heffening 1993 offer broad overviews of the origins, practice, and debates on temporary marriage. Although now dated and written in Italian, Castro 1974 gathers sources on mutʿa, offering a sense of the breadth of primary and secondary scholarly sources. Daudpota and Fyzee 1932 and Haeri 1983 present general overviews of mutʿa in the classical Islamic sources. For an understanding of the cultural and social ambiguity of mutʿa in Shiʿism, see Haeri 1986.

  • Castro, Francesco. Materiali e Ricerche sul Nikāḥ al-Mutʿa. I. Fonti imāmite. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1974.

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    Materials and research on temporary marriage. A useful bibliography of primary and secondary sources on mutʿa.

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  • Daudpota, U. M., and A. A. A. Fyzee. “Notes on Mutʿa or Temporary Marriage in Islam.” Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 8 (1932): 79–92.

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    Addresses the origins of mutʿa in the pre-Islamic period and the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Focuses in particular on how mutʿa came to be prohibited and why Twelver (Ithna ʿAshari) Shiʿa continue to practice temporary marriage.

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  • Haeri, Shahla. “The Institution of Mutʿa Marriage in Iran: A Formal and Historical Perspective.” In Women and Revolution in Iran. Edited by Guity Nashat, 231–252. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1983.

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    Offers a succinct overview of the origins, function, contractual requirements, and legality of mutʿa (popularly referred to as sigheh in Iran).

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  • Haeri, Shahla. “Power of Ambiguity: Cultural Improvisations on the Theme of Temporary Marriage.” Iranian Studies 19.2 (1986): 123–154.

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    Argues that mutʿa is an ambiguous institution that is open to manipulation and negotiation, allowing men and women to navigate Islamic legal, religious, cultural, political, and sexual systems.

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  • Haeri, Shahla. “Motʿa.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yar-Shater. 2005.

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    Offers a broad overview of the two types of mutʿa (sexual and nonsexual) and how each is treated according to Shiʿi (Jaʿfari) law. The second half of the entry focuses on how the Iranian government has promoted mutʿa as a legitimate form of marriage since the 1979 revolution.

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  • Heffening, W. “Mutʿa.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol. 7. Edited by C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs, and C. Pellat, 757. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1993.

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    This entry includes a detailed discussion of the verse sanctioning mutʿa in the Qurʾan (4.24), its prohibition by the second caliph ʿUmar, attitudes of the early legal scholars (fuqaha), and the practice of mutʿa by the Twelver Shiʿa. The bibliography is extensive, including Islamicate and European language sources.

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Origins of Temporary Marriage in Islam

The debate between Sunnis and Shiʿas over the legality of mutʿa is rooted in the origins and history of the early Muslim community. Most theological and sociological arguments for or against mutʿa derive their authority from pre-Islamic marriage practices as well as from the lived example of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions (see ʿAbd al-ʿAti 1977). Nielson 1995 argues that mutʿa emerged from pre-Islamic matrilocal customary marriage practices, expanding on the assertion in Smith 1979 that mutʿa was a temporary marriage practice in which a man was protected by his wife’s tribe for a short period of time. Stern 1939 explores the practice of mutʿa in Mecca and Medina during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad.

  • ʿAbd al-ʿAti, Hammūdah. The Family Structure in Islam. Washington, DC: American Trust, 1977.

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    Describes the kinds of marriage and cohabitation practices in pre-Islamic Arab society, all of which, except mutʿa, fell out of practice during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. Argues that the Shiʿa introduced many aspects of permanent marriage to mutʿa (for example, paternity and child support, the payment of a gift [ajr] to the temporary wife).

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  • Nielson, Paula I. “The Origin of Mutʿah (Temporary Marriage) in Early Islam.” PhD diss., University of Utah, 1995.

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    Focuses on the origins of nikah al-mutʿa (marriage of pleasure) in early Islam and whether this marital practice was a feature of matrilocal culture or a sanctioned form of prostitution. Argues that mutʿa was a feature of pre-Islamic matrilineal social organization assimilated by the pre-Islamic Arabs and transformed into a patriarchal marriage practice.

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  • Smith, William Robertson. Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia. New York: AMS, 1979.

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    Situates mutʿa marriage in its pre-Islamic context, comparing it to temporary marriage practices in classical Roman society. The temporary marriage alliance established by mutʿa brought a man protection from his wife’s tribe, which was critically important in pre-Islamic society, in which tribal warfare was pervasive.

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  • Stern, Gertrude M. Marriage in Early Islam. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1939.

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    Argues that the Prophet Muhammad did not support the practice of mutʿa and sought to abolish it in favor of permanent marriage, which the author asserts was more in accordance with the social ideals of Islam.

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Misyar and Other Forms of Marriage

Misyar (ambulant) marriage is a form of nonpermanent marriage in which a woman remains in her home and her husband visits her for companionship and sexual pleasure. In misyar marriage, the woman does not receive any form of dowry (mahr), and she has no other legal claims to her husband. Ibrahim and Hassan 2009 notes that this form of marriage is advocated in Malaysia as a way of resolving social anxieties about the prevalence of professional, never-married women, ideally encouraging them to enter into a religiously preferred permanent marriage. Carlisle 2008 examines how nonpermanent marriages such as misyar create legal complications in Syria, where all marriages must be registered with the state. Marcotte 2010 explores how Australian Sunni Muslims use the Internet to debate matters of sexuality, including marriage practices such as misyar.

  • Carlisle, Jessica. “From Behind the Door: A Damascus Court Copes with an Alleged out of Court Marriage.” In Les metamorphoses du mariage au Moyen-Orient. Edited by Barbara Drieskens, 59–74. Beirut: Institut Français du Proche Orient, 2008.

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    Focuses on a case registered in a Damascus court in which a man who had contracted a public—yet not registered—marriage sued his wife to make the marriage official and permanent. Carlisle explores the tension between informal marriage practices and control of the state over the family.

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  • Ibrahim, Rozita, and Zaharah Hassan. “Understanding Singlehood from the Experiences of Never-Married Malay Muslim Women in Malaysia: Some Preliminary Findings.” European Journal of Social Sciences 8.3 (2009): 395–405.

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    Focuses on the phenomenon of never-married Malaysian women, 70 percent of whom are professionals. The 2005 Utusan Malaysia Online report recommends that men be allowed to practice misyar marriages as a way of alleviating the social “problem” that never-married, single women are perceived to present.

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  • Marcotte, Roxanne D. “Gender and Sexuality Online on Australian Muslim Forums.” Contemporary Islam 4.1 (2010): 117–138.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11562-009-0104-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay examines online debates in the Australian Muslim community about sexuality and marriage practices, particularly the permissibility and legitimacy of misyar among Sunnis.

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Temporary Marriage Among Non-Muslims in Islamicate Societies

Temporary marriage is not unique to Islam or to Shiʿism in particular. In an exhaustive study of sexual relations in Iranian history, Floor 2008 notes that Christian women sometimes contracted temporary marriages with Shiʿi men. Macuch 2006 and Macuch 2007 argue that mutʿa is based on the Zoroastrian practice of auxiliary (čagar) marriage, which the author argues is more closely related to the Islamic form of temporary marriage than those that were common in Arabia.

  • Floor, Willem M. A Social History of Sexual Relations in Iran. Washington, DC: Mage, 2008.

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    Examines the practice of temporary marriage in the Iranian Christian community within a broader historical analysis of the practice of mutʿa in Shiʿi Iran. Of special interest is a sample mutʿa contract and descriptions of temporary marriage by European travelers in Iran since the 16th century.

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  • Macuch, Maria. “The Function of Temporary Marriage in the Context of Sasanian Family Law.” In Proceedings of the 5th Conference of the Societas Iranologica Europaea Held in Ravenna, 6–11 October 2003. Vol. 1, Ancient and Middle Iranian Studies. Edited by Antonio Panaino and Andrea Piras, 585–597. Milan: Mimesis, 2006.

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    Argues that the Shiʿi practice of mutʿa is not a pre-Islamic Arab practice but is derived from the Iranian Zoroastrian custom of temporary marriage.

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  • Macuch, Maria. “The Pahlavi Model Marriage Contract in the Light of Sasanian Family Law.” In Iranian Languages and Texts from Iran and Turan: Ronald Emmerick Memorial Volume. Edited by Maria Macuch, Mauro Maggi, and Werner Sundermann, 183–204. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2007.

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    In Macuch’s technical analysis of the model pre-Islamic Iranian marriage contract, čagar (auxiliary) marriage is contracted between a widow and a man to whom no sons have been born, and the woman’s reproductive capacity is engaged through temporary marriage.

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Mutʿa in Islamic Law

Marriage is an important area of legislation in Islamic law, and most legal texts include significant sections detailing the conditions and rules for contracting a permanent marriage (nikah). Although considered most preferable, permanent marriage is not the only form of marriage in Islam. The Twelver (Ithna ʿAshari) Shiʿa also consider temporary marriage, mutʿa, legally permissible. In addition to the maximum number of four permanent wives, a Shiʿi man is allowed to contract an unlimited number of temporary marriages at one time. Temporary marriage is referred to in an oblique fashion in the Qurʾan (4:24): “And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess. It is a decree of Allah for you. Lawful unto you are all beyond those mentioned, so that ye seek them with your wealth in honest wedlock, not debauchery. And those of whom ye seek content (by marrying them), give unto them their portions as a duty. And there is no sin for you in what ye do by mutual agreement after the duty (hath been done). Lo! Allah is ever Knower, Wise.” The definitive study of mutʿa in Islamic law is Murata 1974. Al-Damashqi 2000 provides a detailed analysis of medieval Sunni legal opinions on mutʿa. In addition to permanent marriage, Shiʿi law also provides instruction for contracting a mutʿa (see Howard 1975). Haeri 2005 offers a useful synthesis of the etymology of the term mutʿa as well as a general overview of how Muslim scholars have interpreted the “verse of mutʿa” (Qurʾan 4:24). Drawing on extensive statistical data on the prevalence of mutʿa in Iran in the 1950s and 1960s, von Denffer 1978 provides an extensive analysis of the history of temporary marriage in Islam and in Iran in particular. Gribetz 1994 presents a highly focused study of Sunni and Shiʿi legal opinions on the two principal forms of mutʿa: marriage of pleasure (mutʿat al-nikah) and during pilgrimage (mutʿat al-hajj). With the rising popularity of ambulant (misyar) marriage in Saudi Arabia, Arabi 2001 examines the fluid nature of Sunni Islamic law and the process by which this form of nonpermanent marriage became legally permissible in 1996. Muslehuddin 1974 concludes that temporary marriage is not permissible through a study of mutʿa in the sources of authority in Islamic law. Further complicating the role of mutʿa in Islamic law is the Nasir 2002 study of Islamic personal law, which identifies two aberrations to the Sunni prohibition of temporary marriage.

  • Arabi, Oussama. “The Itinerary of a Fatwa: Ambulant Marriage (al-Zawaj al-Misyar); or Grass Roots Law-Making in Saudi Arabia of the 1990s.” In Studies in Modern Islamic Law and Jurisprudence. Edited by Oussama Arabi, 147–168. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2001.

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    Focusing on the grassroots process by which the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, ʿAbd al-ʿAziz ibn Baz, declared ambulant marriage (zawaj al-misyar) legally permissible in 1996. Ambulant marriage is a customary (ʿurfi) practice in which a married man takes another wife, who remains in her natal home and is periodically visited by her husband.

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  • al-Damashqi, Hamid ibn ʿAli ibn Ibrahim al-Hanafi al-ʿImadi. Al-Lumʿah fi Tahrim al-Mutʿa. Amman, Jordan: Dar al-Yaqut, 2000.

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    Focuses on the Sunni schools of law and provides an extensive analysis of medieval jurisprudence on mutʿa.

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  • Gribetz, Arthur. Strange Bedfellows: Mutʿat al-Nisa and Mutʿat al-Hajj; A Study Based on Sunni and Shiʿi Sources of Tafsīr, Ḥadīth, and Fiqh. Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1994.

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    Extensive, detailed study of Shiʿi and Sunni legal opinion on temporary marriage. Examines two forms of mutʿa: marriage of pleasure (allowed by the Shiʿa) and mutʿat al-hajj (temporary marriage during pilgrimage; legally permissible by Sunni law but discouraged). Both are based on pleasure, though some feel temporary marriage while on pilgrimage legitimizes a practice that occupies a morally and legally ambiguous space for Muslims.

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  • Haeri, Shahla. “Temporary Marriage.” In Encyclopedia of the Qurʾan. Vol. 5. Edited by Jane Dammen McCauliffe, 232–234. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2005.

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    Focuses on the etymological meaning of the Arabic trilateral root m-t-ʿ, and provides a general overview of the attitudes of Sunni and Shiʿi ulama toward temporary marriage.

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  • Howard, I. K. A. “Mutʿa Marriage Reconsidered in the Context of the Formal Procedures for Islamic Marriage.” Journal of Semitic Studies 20.1 (1975): 82–92.

    DOI: 10.1093/jss/XX.1.82Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the distinctive stipulations for mutʿa marriage, particularly that this is a contract between a man and a woman (who determine the marriage’s length) and does not require witnesses (shuhud), a guardian (wali) for the woman, or the woman’s father’s permission, especially if she is divorced (thayyib).

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  • Murata, Sachiko. “Temporary Marriage (Mutʿa) in Islamic Law.” M.A. thesis, University of Tehran, 1974.

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    The definitive outline of mutʿa in Islamic law. Outlines the pillars of permanent marriage and temporary marriage and concludes with an analysis of the debates in the Sunni and Shiʿi schools of law regarding the legitimacy of mutʿa. Includes extensive analysis of Arabic and Persian sources. Reprint: London: Muhammadi Trust, 1987.

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  • Muslehuddin, Muhammad. Mutʿa (Temporary Marriage). Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic, 1974.

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    Focuses on the customs of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and provides a detailed assessment of the Islamic legal and theological texts on the forms of temporary marriage and its permissibility. Concludes that mutʿa is unlawful because Muhammad prohibited it and the second caliph ʿUmar, obeying his Prophet’s command, upheld the prohibition.

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  • Nasir, Jamal J. The Islamic Law of Personal Status. 3d ed. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2002.

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    Mutʿa is prohibited in Sunni Islam, yet the author identifies two aberrations: the Hanafi jurist (faqih) Zafar ibn al-Hudhail has issued a fatwa declaring mutʿa legal, and the Jordanian law code deems mutʿa an irregular form of marriage. First published London: Graham and Trotman, 1986.

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  • von Denffer, Dietrich. “Mutʿa—Ehe oder Prostitution? Beitrag zur Untersuchung einer Institution des Šīʿitischen Islam.” Zeitschrift der Deutshcen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 128 (1978): 299–325.

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    (Mutʿa—marriage or prostitution? contribution to the investigation of an institution in Shiʿi Islam.) Focusing on Iran, provides detailed statistics on mutʿa in the 1950s and 1960s. The analysis of mutʿa is extensive, and the analysis of the Muslim family unit offers a different perspective on the question of the legality of temporary marriage.

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Theological Perspectives

Most Shiʿi religious scholars validate mutʿa through complicated theological reasoning based on the authority of the Qurʾan and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad (see Lari and al-Tabatabaʾi 1977). Each marjaʿ al-taqlid, the highest-ranking religious authority, whose authority is followed by the Shiʿa, has issued legal instruction on how to contract a mutʿa (see Khomeini 1984 and Sistani). Contemporary theologians argue that mutʿa is a progressive marriage institution that allows young people to explore their sexuality within the legal boundaries of Islam (see Motahhari 1981 and Subhani 2001). Rizvi 1999a and Rizvi 1999b, on the other hand, take a more cautious approach to mutʿa, encouraging men to not abuse temporary marriage and to find permanent wives for the good of society and religion.

  • Khomeini, Ruhollah Mousavi. A Clarification of Questions: Unabridged Translation of Resaleh Towzih al-Masael. Translated by J. Borujerdi. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.

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    A translation of Khomeini’s Resaleh Towzih al-Masaʾel, which instructs Shiʿa in the correct way to contract a temporary marriage. Presents the criteria and conditions for contracting a mutʿa as well as instructions for the proper recitation of the marriage formula.

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  • Lari, Ayatollah Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi. Temporary Marriage.

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    Presents a complex theological argument based on the Qurʾan and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad to validate the practice of temporary marriage in Shiʿism.

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  • Motahhari, Morteza. The Rights of Women in Islam. Translated by the Board of Writing, Translation, and Publication, World Organization for Islamic Services. Tehran, Iran: World Organization for Islamic Services, 1981.

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    At the vanguard of reviving mutʿa as an outlet for teenage sexuality and arguing that celibacy is unhealthy, Motahhari advocates mutʿa as a means of lawful sexual exploration and a way for a couple to test compatibility in a temporary marriage first. First published Tehran, Iran: Daftar-i Nashr-i Farhang-i Islami, 1974.

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  • Rizvi, Sayyid Muhammad. Marriage and Morals in Islam. Qum, Iran: Ansariyan, 1999a.

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    Argues that if one does not marry after attaining maturity, then mutʿa is legally permissible—perhaps necessary for some—but cautions that permanent marriage and temporary abstinence are preferred sexual practices.

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  • Rizvi, Sayyid Muhammad. “Sex before Marriage and the Misuse of Mutʿa.” Sermon presented at the Jaʿfari Islamic Centre, Toronto, 5 February 1999b.

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    In this Friday sermon (khutbah), Rizvi warns against the negative social and religious consequences of the abuse of temporary marriage in Shiʿi society.

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  • Sistani, Ayatollah ʿAli. Mutʿah (Temporary Marriage).

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    As marjaʿ al-taqlid, the highest-ranking religious authority, Sistani elaborates on the rules and conditions for temporary marriage, establishing the legal model for the Twelver Shiʿa.

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  • Subhani, Ayatollah Jaʿfar. Doctrines of Shiʿi Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices. Translated and edited by Reza Shah-Kazemi. London: I. B. Tauris, 2001.

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    Argues that because Islam is the last and most modern of the revealed religions, it must offer provisions for contemporary “sexual crises” (p. 192). Engages in Qurʾanic exegesis to prove the lawfulness and necessity of mutʿa in Islam.

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  • al-Tabatabaʾi, ʿAllamah Sayyid Muhammad Husain. Shiʿite Islam. Translated and edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977.

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    Seeks to disprove the second caliph ʿUmar’s prohibition of temporary marriage through exegesis of the Qurʾan and analysis of the Prophet Muhammad’s Sunna (lived tradition) to prove that mutʿa is authentically Islamic and a lawful form of marriage.

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Iran

Since the beginning of the 16th century, Iran has had a Shiʿi majority, and to varying degrees the Jaʿfari school of law has governed aspects of personal law, including marriage. In Iran mutʿa is typically referred to by its Persian synonym sigheh, which has a negative connotation in colloquial use. In its official discourse, the Iranian government employs the more neutral term ezdevaj-e movaqqat (temporary marriage). Other terms commonly used to refer to temporary marriage in the Iranian context are nikah-e monqateʿ versus nikah-e da’im. Donaldson 1936 castigates mutʿa and calls upon King Reza Shah Pahlavi to move Iran toward modernity by prohibiting temporary marriage. Haeri 1989 is the pioneering study of the institution of mutʿa and provides both an overview of temporary marriage in Shiʿism and an extensive and rich ethnography of men and women who have contracted temporary marriages. Saleh Alkhalifa 2000 provides a helpful overview of the ways the Iranian government, after the 1979 revolution, used the sources of authority to shape discourse on mutʿa. State policing of sexuality and relations between men and women has intensified the discourse on mutʿa in postrevolutionary Iran while also amplifying public disdain for the practice. Haeri 1996 explores the tension between tradition and modernity by analyzing Khomeini’s fatwa requiring all virgin women to obtain their father’s permission before contracting a mutʿa. Ghodsi 1994 explores the conundrum that mutʿa presents in Iranian society, where the government of the Islamic Republic encourages and sanctions it and the general public rejects it as religiously sanctioned prostitution. Haeri 1994 analyzes former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s public declaration that mutʿa will help solve the sexual needs of widows of the Iran-Iraq War—regarded as the first time a religious leader had discussed women’s sexuality in public since the 1979 revolution. Niechcial 2009 offers a more prosaic reason for the rise of mutʿa marriages in Tehran in the 2000s, attributing the increase to Iran’s poor economy, chronic underemployment, and strict state control of sexuality. Khatib-Chahidi 1981 examines the practical reasons for Iranian women to contract mutʿa marriages, primarily to establish fictive kin relationships and thereby reinforce the incest taboo that prevents these women from being able to marry men who are related to her temporary husband—an especially strategic move for a divorcee or widow who may not want to permanently remarry.

  • Donaldson, Dwight M. “Temporary Marriage in Iran.” Muslim World 26.4 (1936): 358–364.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-1913.1936.tb00893.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on the development of mutʿa as a Shiʿi marriage practice and its validation by Imam Muhammad al-Baqir and Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq. Exhorts readers of the Muslim World to petition King Reza Shah Pahlavi to prohibit mutʿa, which the author considers a symbol of “oppression that came with Arab domination” (p. 364).

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  • Ghodsi, Tamilla F. “Tying a Slipknot: Temporary Marriages in Iran.” Michigan Journal of International Law 15.2 (1994): 645–686.

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    Much has been written about the pro-mutʿa policy advocated by President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (served 1989–1997), which most Iranians reject as legalized prostitution or religiously improper. Ghodsi explores the conundrum mutʿa presents in Iran: its seemingly progressive acknowledgement of human sexuality, which in practice favors men over women.

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  • Haeri, Shahla. Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shiʿi Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1989.

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    Seminal anthropological study of mutʿa. Outlines the historical origins and legal discourse on mutʿa and the ways couples contract temporary marriages at the religious shrines in Qom and Mashhad. Includes a notable ethnographic analysis of the motivations and experiences of women and men who have contracted temporary marriages.

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  • Haeri, Shahla. “Temporary Marriage: An Islamic Discourse on Female Sexuality in Iran.” In In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran. Edited by Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, 98–114. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

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    Explores the November 1990 speech in which former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani openly discussed and acknowledged women’s sexuality—the first time an Iranian politician had done so. Rafsanjani encouraged Iran-Iraq War widows to use mutʿa to legally fulfill their sexual desires and echoed Motahhari’s advocacy of mutʿa as a legal sexual outlet for young people.

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  • Haeri, Shahla. “Mutʿa: Regulating Sexuality and Gender Relations in Postrevolutionary Iran.” In Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas. Edited by Muhammad Khalid Masud, David Stephan Powers, and Brinkley Morris Messick, 251–261. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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    Analyzes Khomeini’s “ineffective” fatwa requiring a never-married young woman to obtain her father’s permission to contract a mutʿa. Explores the tension between tradition, as seen in Khomeini’s fatwa, and modernity, exemplified by the Islamic Republic’s campaign to rehabilitate temporary marriage as a way for young people to legally explore their sexuality.

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  • Khatib-Chahidi, Jane. “Sexual Prohibitions, Shared Space, and Fictive Marriages in Shiʿite Iran.” In Women and Space: Ground Rules and Social Maps. Edited by Shirley Ardener, 112–135. New York: St. Martin’s, 1981.

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    Examines Iranian women’s use of mutʿa to establish fictive kin relationships that allow the women to navigate space or, if widowed and unwilling to remarry, to render themselves forbidden (mahram). These fictive kin relationships establish a constellation of prohibited potential marriage alliances based on the incest taboo.

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  • Niechcial, Paulina. “Shiʿi Institution of Temporary Marriage in Tehran: State Ideology and Practice.” Anthropos 104.1 (2009): 172–179.

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    Using anthropological fieldwork conducted in Tehran in 2005, concludes that temporary marriages (the Iranian government uses the more neutral term ezdevaj-e movaqqat) are increasing because a poor economy has made permanent marriage impossible for many and a rising divorce rate is leaving more women single. Places mutʿa in a contemporary, nonreligious context.

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  • Saleh Alkhalifa, Waleed. “Al-Mutʿa, matrimonio de placer: Aceptación o prohibición (su dimensión política en Irán a partir de la Revolución Islámica).” MEAH, Sección Árabe-Islam 49 (2000): 225–236.

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    Mutʿa, marriage of pleasure: Acceptance or prohibition from the political perspective and policies of Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Analyzes whether the “verse of temporary marriage” (Qurʾan 4.24) became unlawful through the process of abrogation (naskh) or through the Sunna (lived tradition and example) of the Prophet Muhammad.

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South Asia

Although the South Asian countries of India and Pakistan have significant Shiʿi minorities, scholarship on the prevalence or practice of mutʿa in this region has been minimal. The sociological data in Husain 1976 indicates that Shiʿa in North India do practice mutʿa. Published as an educational text by the Shiʿi Imamiyya Mission in Lucknow, Naqi 1933 justifies for an Urdu-reading audience the permissibility of mutʿa in Jaʿfari Islamic law. ʿAbbas 2007 also seeks to educate an Urdu-reading audience on the practice of mutʿa, though the author’s analysis of temporary marriage is more philosophical and historical, drawing upon the Qurʾan, Sunna, and traditions of the Fatimid Imams.

  • ʿAbbas, Yusuf. Mutʿa? Lahore, Pakistan: Rational, 2007.

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    Addresses the legality of mutʿa through a detailed and systematic analysis of the forms of the Arabic root word m-t-ʿ in the Qurʾan and Sunna. Considers the traditions of the Fatimid Imams in assessing temporary marriage.

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  • Husain, Sheikh Abrar. Marriage Customs among Muslims in India: A Sociological Study of the Shia Marriage Customs. New Delhi: Sterling, 1976.

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    Although the sociological data are more than three decades old, Husain situates the practice of mutʿa in North India (Uttar Pradesh). Includes a number of statistical tables detailing caste, occupation, age, status of children born of mutʿa marriage, and justifications. The appendix includes useful profiles of men who have contracted temporary marriages.

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  • Naqi, Sayyid ʿAli. Mutʿa aur Islam. Lucknow, India: Sarfaraz Qaumi, 1933.

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    Engages the Islamic sources of authority (Qurʾan Hadith, the traditions of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad) in a study of mutʿa. This Urdu text was part of the Shiʿi Imamiyya Mission’s religious education series.

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Arab Countries

Perhaps more than in any other region in the Islamic world, the variety of marriage practices are best observed in Arab countries, such as Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Hurgronje 1970 shows that even in 19th-century Mecca Sunni men and women commonly contracted temporary marriages, despite the practice’s prohibition. Drieskens 2008 and Mervin 2008 show the diversity of temporary marriage practices in Lebanon, with the republic’s cosmopolitan mix of Sunni, Shiʿa, and Christian communities. Customary (ʿurfi) marriage is gaining popularity in parts of the Arab world, where Islamic law prohibits young men and women from cohabitating and poor economies and underemployment have contributed to a higher average age for first marriage (see Singerman 2007). Abaza 2001 examines how ʿurfi marriages are portrayed in the popular Egyptian press. Focusing on the United Arab Emirates, Welchman 2007 examines the contractual loopholes in ambulant (misyar) marriage and how they affect women who engage in this kind of arrangement.

  • Abaza, Mona. “Perceptions of ʿUrfi Marriage in the Egyptian Press.” ISIM Newsletter 7.1 (March 2001): 20–21.

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    Focusing on ʿurfi (common-law) marriage, which involves no contract (ʿaqd) and requires two witnesses, examines the ways the media and contemporary Egyptian religious scholars have condemned the practice as prostitution. ʿUrfi marriage is primarily a youth phenomenon, reflecting the increasing age of marriage due to unemployment and Cairo’s housing shortage.

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  • Drieskens, Barbara. “Changing Perceptions of Marriage in Contemporary Beirut.” In Les metamorphoses du mariage au Moyen-Orient. Edited by Barbara Drieskens, 97–118. Beirut: Institut Français du Proche Orient, 2008.

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    Identifies the various demographic, social, cultural, and religious factors affecting marriage practices among young people in Lebanon. The increasing frequency of mutʿa between young Lebanese Shiʿa offers men and women the chance to spend time together, though not always in a sexual relationship because of the emphasis on female virginity.

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  • Hurgronje, Christiaan Snouck. Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century: Daily Life, Customs, and Learning of the Moslims of the East-Indian Archipelago. Translated by James Henry Monahan. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1970.

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    Reveals that temporary marriages were conducted in Mecca in the late 19th century, even though Sunni schools of law prohibit mutʿa. Such marriages were typically between Meccan widows or divorcees and men briefly visiting or performing pilgrimage in the city, revealing the dichotomy between the ideal of the law and everyday practice.

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  • Mervin, Sabrina. “Normes religieuses et le loi du silence: Le mariage temporaire dans la societe chiite Libanaise.” In Les metamorphoses du mariage au Moyen-Orient. Edited by Barbara Drieskens, 47–58. Beirut: Institut Français du Proche Orient, 2008.

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    Argues that mutʿa prevents Sunnis and Shiʿa from understanding one another, revealing several fundamental points of divergence in the two traditions: interpretation of the Qurʾan, Hadith, and origins of Islam. Describes contemporary temporary marriage practices in Lebanon.

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  • Singerman, Diane. “The Economic Imperatives of Marriage: Emerging Practices and Identities among Youth in the Middle East.” Middle East Youth Initiative Working Paper 6. Washington, DC: Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution, 2007.

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    Identifies alternatives to permanent marriage, including ʿurfi (common-law), misyar (ambulant), and misyaf (summer or holiday), which all reside on the margins of Islamic society but are becoming increasingly prevalent, especially among young people and wealthy, professional women. Argues that these marriage practices reflect economic conditions in the Middle East that make permanent marriage impossible for many.

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  • Welchman, Lynn. Women and Muslim Family Laws in Arab States: A Comparative Overview of Textual Development and Advocacy. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

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    Focuses on the legal ramifications of misyar in the United Arab Emirates, where this form of marriage is legal but a woman’s waiving of her maintenance is considered invalid. Legists of the Saudi Arabian Fiqh Assembly have emphasized the consensual nature of misyar and note that it allows spinsters, divorcees, and widows to have legal sexual relations.

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North America

North America is an emergent area of ethnographic research for scholars of Shiʿism. Although little has been written about the phenomenon of mutʿa in North America, the practice provides an important lens through which to understand the ways Muslims are negotiating religion and gendered practices in a non-Islamic cultural and legal context (see Ghori 2008). The Lebanese Shiʿi community in Dearborn, Michigan, is the site of Linda S. Walbridge’s ethnographic fieldwork, which presents a wealth of information on how mutʿa is being performed outside a Sharia-based legal system (see Walbridge 1996 and Walbridge 1997).

  • Ghori, Safiya. “The Application of Religious Law in North American Courts: A Case Study of Mutʿa Marriages.” Journal of Islamic Law and Culture 10.1 (April 2008): 29–40.

    DOI: 10.1080/15288170701878219Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Situates mutʿa in the context of Islam and Shiʿi law and examines how legal cases regarding mutʿa have been handled in US and Canadian courts.

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  • Walbridge, Linda S. “Sex and the Single Shiʿite: Mutʿa Marriage in an American Lebanese Shiʿite Community.” In Family and Gender among American Muslims: Issues Facing Middle Eastern Immigrants and Their Descendents. Edited by Barbara C. Aswad and Barbara Bilgé, 143–154. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

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    Presents differing perspectives on mutʿa held by the Shiʿa of Dearborn, Michigan. Provides a helpful overview of the teachings on mutʿa of Shaykh Berri, a religious scholar and the leader of the city’s Islamic Institute. Highlights the ways practices are retained and transformed in a US immigrant context.

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  • Walbridge, Linda S. Without Forgetting the Imam: Lebanese Shiʿism in an American Community. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

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    Examines the institution of mutʿa among the Lebanese Shi‘ites of Dearborn, Michigan, as a means of revealing local attitudes toward Shiʿism, the family, and women.

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Temporary Marriage in Feminist Thought

As a gendered Islamic practice, mutʿa has been the subject of sustained feminist analysis. In some cases, this analysis has provoked intense scholarly debate (see Mir-Hosseini 1998 and Haeri 1998). Through an ethnography of the discourse and tactical strategies employed by men and women in Tehran’s divorce court, Mir-Hosseini 1993 shows how mutʿa is a socially problematic form of marriage. Sadeghi 2010 argues that mutʿa is detrimental to women, because it is based on a patriarchal “economy of pleasure,” in which women are denied their full human rights. Focusing on former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s 1990 declaration that women have a sex drive that should and can be satisfied through mutʿa, Haeri 1992 problematizes state intervention in discourses on sexuality, morality, and the family. Tremayne 2006 offers a different perspective on marriage practices, arguing that, unlike in most urban areas, the age of marriage in rural Iran continues to be low and young girls are frequently contracted by their parents to older men in mutʿa as a way of alleviating poverty. Drawing on anthropological research conducted in the Khoja Shiʿi community in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nagar 2004 argues that mutʿa is a patriarchal practice that racializes and sexualizes women. Tohidi 2000 similarly notes the confluence of ethnicity and nationalism in Azeri women’s strategies for engaging in temporary marriages (sigheh) with Iranian men to give birth to legitimate children. Analyzing temporary marriage from a theoretical perspective, Williams 2009 advocates a feminist practice of double critique to interpret mutʿa.

  • Haeri, Shahla. “Temporary Marriage and the State in Iran: An Islamic Discourse on Female Sexuality.” Social Research 59.1 (Spring 1992): 201–223.

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    Focuses on the pro-mutʿa policy advocated by President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (served 1989–1997) and the discourse that emerged in Iranian society about the control of women’s sexuality, the family, and the role of the state.

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  • Haeri, Shahla. “A Reply to Ziba Mir-Hosseini.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 30.3 (August 1998): 471–472.

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    The final salvo of this contentious discussion between Haeri and Ziba Mir-Hosseini highlights the critical importance of marriage and divorce in Iranian Islamic discourse. Haeri concludes her response by asking whether anthropologists must discount practices that, though received with ambivalence in a particular society, nonetheless persist.

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  • Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law in Iran and Morocco Compared. London: I. B. Tauris, 1993.

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    Based on field research conducted in Iran, Mir-Hosseini describes a case brought forth in the Tehran court between a woman suing her temporary husband for permanent marriage and child support. Highlights the ambiguous nature of temporary marriage in practice and Islamic law.

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  • Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. “A Response to Shahla Haeri’s Review of Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law in Iran and Morocco.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 30.3 (August 1998): 469–471.

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    In her response to Shahla Haeri’s review of Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law in Iran and Morocco Compared, Mir-Hosseini clarifies her argument that mutʿa is a “socially defective” form of marriage, because it is performed in secret and is often criticized in public discourse.

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  • Nagar, Richa. “Mapping Feminisms and Difference: The Debate over Mutʿa in Tanzania.” In Mapping Women, Making Politics: Feminist Perspectives on Political Geography. Edited by Lynn Staeheli, Eleanor Kofman, and Linda Peake, 31–48. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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    Analyzes mutʿa in Dar es Salaam through a framework of feminist geography and postcolonial theory and argues that the temporary marriage practices of economically privileged Khoja Ithna ʿAshari men marginalize women through sexual and racial exploitation.

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  • Sadeghi, Fatemeh. “‘Temporary Marriage’ and the Economy of Pleasure.” Translated by Frieda Afary. Frontline, 15 March 2010.

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    Sadeghi identifies three groups (religious and legal scholars, “religious revisionists,” and the political elite) in Iran that support sigheh (temporary marriage), which she argues is simply for sexual pleasure, asserting that the political elite is governed by an economy of pleasure, which is detrimental to women’s rights. First published in Persian on the website Alborz. Due to restrictions on accessing Iranian websites, this link is no longer active.

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  • Tohidi, Nayereh. “Gender and National Identity in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan: A Regional Perspective.” In Gender and Identity Construction: Women of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkey. Edited by Feride Acar and Ayse Gunes-Ayata, 249–292. Boston: E. J. Brill, 2000.

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    Tohidi’s ethnographic study of Shiʿi women in Azerbaijan analyzes the intersection of gendered practices with ethnicity and nationalism. Notes the high number of unmarried Azeri women, some of whom have engaged in sighehs (temporary marriages) with Iranian men to have legitimate children.

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  • Tremayne, Soraya. “Modernity and Early Marriage in Iran: A View from Within.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 2.1 (Winter 2006): 65–94.

    DOI: 10.2979/MEW.2006.2.1.65Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on marriage practices in rural Iran, where early and temporary marriages are relatively common and are motivated by poverty and patriarchal customary values.

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  • Williams, Juliet A. “Unholy Matrimony? Feminism, Orientalism, and the Possibility of Double Critique.” Signs: Journal of Women and Culture 34.3 (2009): 611–632.

    DOI: 10.1086/593354Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Advocates a feminist practice of double critique to interpret mutʿa by which the Orientalist discourses of the West and the non-West are exposed, allowing for a range of perspectives to emerge that produce a cultural self-awareness.

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Mutʿa in the Popular Press and on the Internet

In the global press, mutʿa is a popular topic that is often portrayed as an “exotic” Islamic practice. Virtually all the newspaper and popular magazine pieces listed in this section—Steavenson 2002, Allam 2003, Jervis 2005, Labi 2010, Najafizada 2006, and Sciolino 2000—present mutʿa in formulaic fashion, introducing men and women who contract mutʿa marriages. These pieces discuss the origins of mutʿa and note that the practice is sanctioned by the state in Iran. Focusing on the practice of mutʿa in Brooklyn, New York, Sharma 2009 describes converts to Shiʿi Islam engaging in temporary marriage as a way of learning the fundamentals of the religion and its gendered practices. The Internet has a wealth of sources on mutʿa, most notably the website Mutah, which is a clearinghouse for sources on this form of temporary marriage. Most striking on this site are the personal ads posted by Shiʿi men and women looking to contract a mutʿa. For more scholarly and religious sources on mutʿa, the Mut’ah (Temporary Marriage) page on the Shiʿi website Al-Islam is a valuable resource.

Mutʿa in Literature and Film

For Shiʿi writers, mutʿa is a popular literary theme. Elwell-Sutton 1976 notes that mutʿa is an important trope in Persian fairy tales. In Amirrezvani 2008 the unnamed heroine stoically endures a mutʿa to a much older man. Portraying Iranian social anxieties about mutʿa in film, Afkhami 2000 portrays a temporary marriage that transforms into a story of violence and obsession. A documentary on prostitution in Iran, Persson 2004 captures on film a mutʿa being contracted and registered in a mullah’s office. In Morier 2005, Hajji Baba helps his friend contract a mutʿa while on pilgrimage in Mashhad, Iran. Haeri 2009 describes how, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, one religious scholar proposed that all film actors should contract a mutʿa for the duration of the making a film to avoid violating Islamic laws on adultery and fornication (zina). The debate on the BBC Persian-language program “Pargar” 2010 reflects the contested realm in which temporary marriage resided in Iranian popular culture in the early 21st century.

  • Afkhami, Behrooz, dir. Shokaran. VHS. Iran: Naghsh-e-Jihan International Pictures, 2000.

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    An Iranian adaptation of the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, in which factory owner Mahmood meets and has an affair with a nurse named Sima. They contract a sigheh (temporary marriage), and Sima develops an obsession with Mahmood that comes to a tragic conclusion.

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  • Amirrezvani, Anita. The Blood of Flowers. New York: Back Bay, 2008.

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    Set in 17th-century Isfahan and narrated by a fourteen-year-old girl whose father dies. She and her mother go to live with her uncle, a wealthy carpet merchant, and her life story becomes part of the rugs she weaves. Unable to raise sufficient dowry, she is forced to contract a temporary marriage.

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  • Elwell-Sutton, L. P. “Family Relationships in Persian Folk-Literature.” Folklore 87.2 (1976): 160–166.

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    Argues that sigheh (temporary marriage) is a popular motif in Persian folktales.

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  • Haeri, Shahla. “Sacred Canopy: Love and Sex under the Veil.” Iranian Studies 42.1 (February 2009): 113–126.

    DOI: 10.1080/00210860802593965Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, portraying intimate relationships in movies violated the laws on extramarital relations in the Islamic Republic. Yahya Yaftabadi proposed that this problem could be solved through sighehs (temporary marriages) contracted during filmmaking, which Haeri argues exemplifies the ways both modernity and traditional morality can be accommodated under the Islamic canopy.

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  • Morier, James Justinian. The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. New York: Knopf, 2005.

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    This 19th-century tale chronicles the escapades of Hajji Baba of Isfahan. One chapter relates the assistance Hajji Baba gave a friend in contracting a mutʿa in Mashhad. Morier disparagingly refers to women who perform mutʿa as “the refuse of womenkind—old-widows, and deserted wives” (p. 293). Originally published New York: Random House, 1937.

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  • Pargar.” BBC Persian News Service, 10 August 2010.

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    A televised debate among the writer Shahrnoush Parsipour, the feminist activist Fariba Davoodi-Mohajer, and two university students on the permissibility of sigheh (temporary marriage) from a feminist perspective. Provides provocative insight into debates on temporary marriage among female Iranian intellectuals and activists.

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  • Persson, Nahid, dir. Prostitution behind the Veil. DVD. New York: Filmakers Library, 2004.

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    Follows two prostitutes in Tehran who sell their bodies to support their children and their heroin addictions. An elderly man contracts a temporary marriage with one of the women, which a mullah officiates. Filmed against the mullah’s wishes, this scene raises ethical questions yet is a valuable ethnographic source on sigheh (temporary marriage).

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/25/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0055

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