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Shahla Haeri, Willem Floor
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


A pre-Islamic tradition in both Iran and Arabia (Floor, 2008), mutʿah (temporary marriage) still has legal sanction among the Twelver Shīʿī, residing predominantly in Iran. It is often a private and verbal contract between a man and an unmarried Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian woman (virgin, divorced, or widowed). The length of the marriage contract (ajal) and the amount of consideration (ajr) given to the temporary wife must be specified; temporary marriage may be contracted for one hour or ninety-nine years. A temporary marriage need not be registered or witnessed, although taking witnesses is recommended (Ṭūsī, 1964, p. 498). In addition to the four wives legally allowed all Muslim men, a Shīʿī Muslim man is permitted to contract simultaneously as many temporary marriages as he desires, a practice disputed by Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini (1982, p. 39) and Murtaz¨ā Muṭahharī (1974, p. 50). A Shīʿī Muslim woman is permitted only one temporary marriage at a time. The reciprocal obligations of temporary spouses are minimal. The man is not obliged to provide the daily maintenance (nafaqah) for his temporary wife, as he must in a permanent marriage. Correspondingly, the wife (sīghah) is under minimal legal obligation to obey her husband, except in sexual matters (Haeri, 1989, p. 60).

The man, but not the woman, has the right to end the contract at any time. If the sīghah would do so, she forfeits right to payment and owes the husband compensation. No divorce procedure exists in a temporary marriage, for the lapse of time specified in the contract automatically dissolves the temporary union. After the dissolution of each temporary union, no matter how short, the wife must undergo a period of sexual abstinence (ʿiddah); in case of pregnancy, ʿiddah serves to identify a child 's legitimate father. Herein lies the legal uniqueness of temporary marriage, distinguishing it, in Shīʿī law, from prostitution, despite their striking resemblance. The objective of mutʿah is sexual enjoyment (istimtāʿ), that of permanent marriage (nikāḥ) is procreation (tawlīd-i nasl; Ṭūsī, 1964, pp. 497–502; Ḥillī, 1968, pp. 515–528; Khomeini, 1985, p. 116; Muṭahharī, 1974, p. 38).

Mutʿah of women was banned in the seventh century by the second caliph, ʿUmar, who equated it with fornication (zinā). For Sunnī Muslims, therefore, temporary marriage is legally forbidden, although in practice some have resorted to it occasionally or have developed similar practical arrangements (Benson, 1992, pp. 5–8; Ende 1980, 1990; Floor 2008). The legitimacy of temporary marriage has continued to be a point of disagreement, passionate dispute, and, at times, animosity between Sunnī and Shīʿī (for a contemporary exposition of this ongoing dispute, see Kāshif al-Ghiṭāʿ, 1964; Shāfaʿī, 1973: Murata, trans., 1987, pp. 51–73; Ende 1980, 1990).

Mostly women of the lower class, often prostitutes, were available for a temporary marriage; they were mostly found at pilgrimage sites and trade centers to serve the needs of lonely male pilgrims and travelers. Respectable families would not give their daughter in temporary marriage, which, at least as of the sixteenth century also occurred among Christians and Jews in Iran, often wiThexpatriate Europeans. During the Pahlavi regime (1925–1979) the custom of temporary marriage, though not illegal, was perceived negatively and was something that was mainly associated with sites of pilgrimage (Mashhad, Qom, Karbala). Not only lonely men, but also unmarried women (widows, divorcees: yaʿisah) sought/seek temporary marriage as a means to obtain sexual satisfaction (Floor, 2008).

There is also the option of a nonsexual relationship with a woman, known as sīghah mahramīyat, an arrangement made to allow women to be in an environment where they would come in regular and daily contact with one or more nonrelated men (e.g., a maid working in a house, women regularly receiving elegy recitation at home from a clergyman, women accompanied on pilgrimage; Haeri, 1989; Floor, 2008).mutʿah is at present a marginal urban phenomenon, popular primarily around pilgrimage centers in Iran. The Islamic regime (since 1979) has made a concerted effort to improve the social status of temporary marriage, but without much success. Its positive aspects were stressed (divine roots; moral and public health benefits; and at the time of war, social responsibility), in particular during the 1980s with the growing number of war widows owing to the high number of men killed. It was and is touted as being the Islamic and morally superior answer to satisfying men 's sexual needs in a socially responsible and healthy manner and thus preventing fornication. (Ṭabāṭabāʿī, 1977, 1985; Bahunar, 1981; Floor, 2008). Despite the religious and legal rehabilitation of mutʿah, most urban, educated middle-class Iranians view it with some moral and emotional ambivalence. Mutʿah has never won the unequivocal approval accorded permanent marriage by the Iranians (Haeri, Law of Desire, 1989).



  • Bāhunar, Muḥammad Jaʿfar, et al.Taʿlīmāt-i dīnī (Religious Education). Tehran, Iran 1981. A high school textbook, published after the revolution, in which the benefits of temporary marriage for youth was first discussed. Find it in your Library
  • Benson, Linda. “Islamic Marriage and Divorce in Xinjiang: The Case of Kashgar and Khotan.” Association for the Advancement of Central Asian Research 5, 2 (Fall 1992): 5–8. On the legitimacy of temporary marriage among Chinese Sunnīs.
  • Ende, Werner. “Ehe auf Zeit (mutʿah) in der innerislamischen Diskussion der Gegenwart.” Die Welt des Islams20 (1980), 1–43. On the Sunnī-Shīʿī debate the lawfulness of mutʿah and how Sunnīs have developed similar institutions.
  • Ende, Werner.“Sunnī Polemical Writings on the Shīʿī and the Iranian Revolution.” In The Iranian Revolution and the Muslim World, edited by David Menashri, pp. 219–232. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. Analysis of the Sunnī views on Shīʿīsm and the Iranian Revolution. Find it in your Library
  • Gurjī, Abū al-Qāsim. Temporary Marriage (Mutʿah) in Islamic Law. Translated by Sachiko Murata. Qom, Iran: Ansariyan Publications, 1986. Summary of the major Shīʿī sources of jurisprudence on mutʿah. Find it in your Library
  • Floor, Willem. A Social History of Sexual Relations in Iran. Washington, D.C.: Mage, 2008.
  • Haeri, Shahla. Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shīʿī Iran. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989. First major ethnography on the institution of temporary marriage. Find it in your Library
  • Ḥillī, Najm al-Dīn Abū al-Qāsim Jaʿfar. Sahray ʿal-islām (Islamic Law). Vol. 2. Translated from the Arabic into Persian by A. Aḥmad Yazdī and M. T. Dānishpazhūh. Tehran, Iran, 1968. Excellent compendium on Shīʿī marriage and divorce by the thirteenth-century Shīʿī scholar. Find it in your Library
  • Kāshif al-Ghiṭāʿ, Muḥammad Ḥuṣayn. Āʿīn-i mā (Our Custom). Translated from the Arabic into Persian by Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī. Qom, Iran, 1968. Contains a major chapter on temporary marriage, refuting some of the Sunnī allegations. Find it in your Library
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. “Non-Permanent Marriage.”Mahjuba2, 5 (1982): 38–40. English translation of his position on temporary marriage. Find it in your Library
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. The Practical Laws of Islam. 2d ed.N.p., 1985. Abridged version of his Tawz..īḥ al-masāʿil (Clarifica-tion of Questions). Find it in your Library
  • Muṭahharī. Murtaz¨ā. Niẓām-i ḥuqūq-i zan dar Islām (Legal Rights of Women in Islam). 8th ed. Qom, Iran, 1974. Comprehensive treatment of the rights of women in (Shīʿī) Islam.
  • Shāfaʿī, Muḥsin. Mutʿah va aṣar-i ḥuqūqī va ijtimāʿī-i an (Mutʿah and its Legal and Social Effects). 6th ed.Tehran, Iran, 1973. Extensive, if apologetic, treatment of mutʿah. Find it in your Library
  • Ṭabāṭabāʿī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. Shiʿite Islam. Translated by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1977. Major contribution to understanding Shīʿī theology and philosophy. Find it in your Library
  • Ṭabāṭabāʿī, Muḥammad Ḥuṣayn, et al., eds.Izdivāj-i muvaqqat dar islām (Temporary Marriage in Islam). Qom, Iran, 1985. Find it in your Library
  • Ṭūsī, Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad. Al-nihāyah. Translated from the Arabic into Persian by M. T. Dānishpazhūh. Tehran, 1964. One of the four major sources of Shīʿī jurisprudence, compiled in the tenth century. Find it in your Library
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