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Shahla Haeri
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century


A pre‐Islamic tradition, mut῾ah (“temporary marriage”) still has legal sanction among the Twelver Shī῾īs, residing predominantly in Iran. It is often a private and verbal contract between a man and an unmarried 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. The objective of mut῾ah is sexual enjoyment (istimtā῾), 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).

Presently, mut῾ah is a marginal urban phenomenon, popular primarily around pilgrimage centers in Iran. This pattern, however, is changing owing to the Islamic regime's support of and advocacy for the institution. 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 Shī῾ī 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 Murtaẓā Muṭahharī (1974, p. 50). A Shī῾ī Muslim woman is permitted only one temporary marriage at a time. 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 (῾iddah); in case of pregnancy, ῾iddah serves to identify a child's legitimate father. Herein lies the legal uniqueness of temporary marriage, distinguishing it, in Shī῾ī law, from prostitution, despite their striking resemblance.

The reciprocal obligations of temporary spouses are minimal. The man is not obliged to provide the daily maintenance (nafāqih) for his temporary wife, as he must in a permanent marriage. Correspondingly, the wife is under minimal legal obligation to obey her husband, except in sexual matters (Haeri, 1989, p. 60).

Mut῾ah of women was banned in the seventh century by the second caliph, ῾Umar, who equated it with fornication (zinā). For the Sunnī Muslims, therefore, temporary marriage is legally forbidden, although in practice some have resorted to it occasionally (Benson, 1992, pp. 5–8).

The Shī῾īs have maintained all along the legitimacy of temporary marriage based on the Qur'ān (4.24) and on the absence of specific prohibition by the Prophet Muḥammad, not withstanding some Sunnī ḥadīths to the contrary. The legitimacy of temporary marriage has continued to be a point of chronic disagreement, passionate dispute, and, at times, animosity between Sunnīs and Shī῾īs (for a contemporary exposition of this ongoing dispute, see Kāshif al‐Ghiṭā῾, 1964; Shāfa'ī, 1973: Murata, trans., 1987, pp. 51–73).

During the Pahlavi regime (1925–1979) the custom of temporary marriage, though not illegal, was perceived negatively. The Islamic regime (since 1979), on the contrary, has made a concerted effort to resuscitate the custom publicly. Following the ideological legacy of Ayatollah Muṭahharī (d. 1979), many of the Islamic regime's thinkers and theologian/bureaucrats, most notably President Hashemi Rafsanjani (Hāshimī Rafsanjānī), have lauded the institution of temporary marriage as a desirable approach to relationships between men and women in a modern Islamic society (Ṭabāṭabā'ī, 1977, 1985; Bahunar, 1981). They specifically see temporary marriage as an ethically and morally superior alternative to the “free” relations between the sexes prevalant in the West.

Despite the religious and legal rehabilitation of mut῾ah, most urban, educated middle‐class Iranians view it with some moral and emotional ambivalence. Mut῾ah marriage has never won the unequivocal approval of permanent marriage among the Iranians (Haeri, Law of Desire, 1989).

See also Inheritance; Iran; Marriage and Divorce, article on Modern Practice; Women and Social Reform, article on Social Reform in the Middle East.


  • Bahunar, Muḥammad Ja'far, et al. Ta῾līmāt‐i dīnī (Religious Education). Tehran, 1981. A high school textbook, published after the revolution, in which the benefits of temporary marriage for youth was first discussed.
  • 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.
  • Gourji, Abu'l‐Qasim. Temporary Marriage (Mut῾a) in Islamic Law. Translated by Sachiko Murata, N.p., 1987. Very competent summary of the major Shī῾ī sources of jurisprudence on mut῾ah.
  • Haeri, Shahla. Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi῾i Iran. Syracuse, N.Y., 1989. First major ethnography on the institution of temporary marriage.
  • Ḥillī, Najm al‐Dīn Abū al‐Qāsim Ja'far. Sahray῾ al‐islām (Islamic Law), vol. 2. Translated from Arabic to Persian by A. Aḥmad Yazdī and M. T. Dānishpazhūh. Tehran, 1968. Excellent compendium on Shī῾ī marriage and divorce by the thirteenth‐century Shī῾ī scholar.
  • Kāshif al‐Ghiṭā῾, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. Ā'īn‐i mā (Our Custom). Translated by Nasir Makarim Shirazi. Qom, 1968. Contains a major chapter on temporary marriage, refuting some of the Sunnī allegations.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Non‐Permanent Marriage. Mahjuba 2.5 (1982): 38–40. English translation of his position on temporary marriage.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. The Practical Laws of Islam. 2d ed. N.p., 1985. Abridged version of his Tawẓīḥ al‐masā'il (Clarification of Questions).
  • Muṭahharī. Murtaẓā. Niẓām‐i ḥuqūq‐i zan dar islām (Legal Rights of Women in Islam). 8th ed. Qom, 1974. One of the more comprehensive writings on the rights of women in (Shī῾ī) Islam.
  • Shāfa'ī, Muḥsin. Mut῾ah va aṣar‐i ḥuqūqī va ijtimā῾ī‐i an (Mut῾ah and its Legal and Social Effects). 6th ed. Tehran, 1973. Extensive, if apologetic, treatment of mut῾ah.
  • Ṭabāṭabā'ī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. Shi῾ite Islam. Translated by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Albany, N.Y., 1977. Major contribution to understanding Shī῾ī theology and philosophy.
  • Ṭabāṭabā'ī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn, et al. Izdivāj‐i muvaqqat dar islām (Temporary Marriage in Islam). Qom, 1985. Edited volume on temporary marriage; includes an article by Rafsanjani.
  • Ṭūsī, Abū Ja'far Muḥammad. Al‐nihāyah. Translated from Arabic to Persian by M. T. Dānishpazhūh. Tehran, 1964. One of the four major sources of Shī῾ī jurisprudence, compiled in the tenth century.
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