Islamic Studies Mutʿa
Karen Ruffle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0055


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and example) of the Prophet Muhammad, who declared after the battle of Khaybar in 629 CE that temporary marriages were no longer valid.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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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