This is a story I co-wrote a few years ago with Patrick Galey for the Daily Star with some additional help by Carol Rizk. The subject is an incredibly fascinating one and having recently been contacted by a film maker working on the topic I was hoping to delve further into the subject in the coming months. Here is the article, makes for an interesting read!
Is the temporary marriage law – mut’a – merely a harmless Shiite practice?
Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham
Mohammad Haydar reclines on his cream leather sofa, sips coffee from a tiny, china cup and calmly recounts his sexual conquests.
“I used to do it with my girlfriend, when she was a virgin, just to prevent adultery. I convinced her about the idea and she accepted. But the second time I did it perfectly. It was with a divorced woman, about 35 years old,” he says.
Mohammad, 28, talks openly about his past experiences with temporary marriage (zawaj al-mut’a).
The practice is legal under Sharia law and legitimate in Shiite Jaafari courts, provided certain conditions are met. These include that the woman in a temporary marriage must be above 18 years of age and cannot be known as a prostitute. A virgin may only be involved in a mut’a with paternal consent.
A verbal contract is agreed between a man and a woman for a predetermined period of time. A dowry is offered and time period stated, which the woman must agree with. No witnesses need be present and the communion can last for any length time, from a few hours to several weeks.
Whereas extramarital sex is considered irreligious by all Islamic sects, intercourse during a temporary marriage is, according to the majority of Shiite Muslims, legitimate in the eyes of God.
There is, however, ongoing debate on the origins and legitimacy of mut’a; the arguments for and against were being discussed during the time of the Prophet Mohammad.
According to Sheikh Ashraf al-Jaafari, a Shiite cleric based in Beirut’s southern suburbs, temporary marriage is permissible, provided the practice is conducted with strict adherence to guidelines set by Sharia law.
“Illegal relations are punished by everyone. But we need something to facilitate relations, thus permanent and terminated marriages,” he says.
In a tea-shop in Dahiyeh, Jaafari speaks lucidly on a range of Sharia issues, his bright, round eyes glinting behind his wire-rimmed glasses as he broaches the argument against mut’a.
“The mut’a marriage has been legal since the beginning of Islam and it has been permitted by the Prophet,” he says, sugaring his saccharine sweet tea. “However, differences in opinion have made Muslims disagree on the subject.”
In Lebanon, personal status laws referring to marriage, divorce and inheritance are dealt with in the country’ various confessional courts, granting the practice of temporary marriage full legal legitimacy in Shiite Jaafari legislature.
“The Jaafari sect permits this marriage but other sects do not because they say there is not enough proof available. But proof is available in the Koran,” says Jaafari.
Many Shiites in Lebanon, as across the Arab world, perform temporary marriage vows on a regular basis, according to Ali Zbeeb, a civil lawyer based in the capital Beirut.
“The problem with mut’a is that many people misinterpret its conditions by trying to make it open-ended,” he says.
Zbeeb is engaged to be married and proudly displays the simple gold band clasped on his ring finger. He says that he would never consider temporary marriage, although several of his Shiite friends are frequent practitioners.
While the mut’a marriage at its origins was seen as a way widows of martyrs could repopulate villages whose male inhabitants had been decimated by battle, Zbeeb explains that designs on conception could not be further from most young Shiites’ minds today.
“The idea is common as a brilliant new idea to young people,” he says. “But it is more systemic than that, within very specific communities, on all levels.”
Mohammad, a pharmacist with a Bachelor’s degree from the Lebanese American University (LAU), Beirut, speaks of friends who routinely flout religious guidelines in favor of sexual gratification.
“In Lebanon, people do [temporary marriages] with virgin girls and prostitutes,” he says. “A girl can have a mut’a with three different men in one month. This is wrong.”
He continues, speaking rapidly about how a typical mut’a might occur.
“I go clubbing and I meet a girl. I go out with her for the first time and second time. For the third time I have a private room, or hotel, and before I start having complete sex, I tell her I want to [perform a mut’a] otherwise I can’t do anything. She says she doesn’t care. We don’t need any paper, nothing.”
But temporary marriages are not only performed among the young. As Zbeeb explains, the ritual is often carried out by men who are usually already permanently married, using the temporary contract as a kind of insurance slip, or get-out clause should adulterous sexual contact be uncovered.
“Extra marital sex without a mut’a would cause imprisonment,” he says.
“But in Sharia law, it’s divorce and compensation.”
Although the Shiite claim mut’a is religiously legitimate, society’s view of temporary marriage is far from universally positive.
“In Lebanon the general perception toward mut’a is a negative one, because some people would call it legitimate prostitution,” says Zbeeb.
“Others resent this. They might say: ‘If you want to go have random sex, go ahead, but we are giving you the option to do it with a clear conscience – take it or leave it.’”
The stigma which still taints many Shiites’ perspective on temporary marriage often forces practitioners of mut’a to keep contracts a secret.
This is in conflict with the Shiite clerical stance on mut’a. It is unequivocal on the need for temporary marriages not to be concealed from the world.
“If the mut’a marriage is kept secret, the contract is no longer valid and the marriage is considered an adulterous relation,” says Jaafari. “Islam does not permit adultery.”
Mohammad admits, however, that since some practitioners of mut’a see the communion as a route to sexual fulfillment, religious considerations can pale in comparison.
“We see mut’a in a wrong way. We know that it is there and it is religiously good. Every religious party has its own views on the mut’a. Personally, I am not convinced that it is right, but our religion says it is allowed, so I go with it,” he says, shuffling awkwardly.
“In my life I have done adultery a lot, but there are girls who will not have sex with you without convincing them to have a mut’a. They think that if they have a mut’a it is better for them than not doing it.
“If you are going to commit adultery, why don’t you just do this marriage?”
Many women do not see things this way. They stand to lose a lot if they are found to have had a mut’a: reputation, potential suitors, familial respect, even if a temporary marriage is performed to the letter of Sharia law.
Alia, a 30 year-old divorcee from the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, has had many temporary marriages. Alia, whose name has been changed, speaks hesitantly about her experiences.
Alia insists that although the practice makes it far easier for young Shiites to satisfy physical desire, moral and religious concerns should not be discounted during a mut’a.
“I hate that a woman can do this with lots of men,” she says. “Although [temporary marriage] is just to express our feelings and not to follow a religion, there must still be limits.
“Even if I’m following this [temporary marriage] I think that the relationship must be like [that of] a wife and a husband,” Alia said, “even if I know that it’s halal, I don’t want to do it a lot.”
But others are deeply cynical about the motivation behind temporary marriage, particularly the conviction of men during mut’a.
Mut’a, according to Dima Debbous-Sensenig, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies at LAU, has become a way for men to adapt religion to fit physical desire.
“What many do is try to manipulate the will of God to do what they want, they find legitimate way in that they choose to see what they want,” she says.
“It’s circumventing God’s will which is meant to preserve women’s rights. There are different means at [men’s] disposal to continue doing what they want to do which is get together with women and deny them their rights.”
One of Lebanon’s highest Shiite authorities, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, has made his views on mut’a clear in the past:
“When custom rejects and considers something wrong which Islam perceives as natural, we cannot yield to custom,” he wrote in a book on “Sharia Principles: World of Our Youth.” “However, the negative view of custom may lead, in cases such as these, to dislike the act. A hostile view toward the practice may cause it to be seen as dishonoring the man and the woman, and a person may not wish to put himself in this dubious position.”
But in practice, the need for sexual contact often outweighs the potential loss of reputation, with many Lebanese simply forgoing the obligation to inform other people of their temporary marriages, Mohammad says.
“If you are with your friend and tell them that you married someone with a mut’a, it is not good. She should not talk about it and you should not talk about it,” he says. “If a girl accepts mut’a, all the guys will go to her apartment and ask her for one.”
In fact, the public announcement of a mut’a having occurred could breach the Sharia, as a woman known for being a willing temporary bride would inadvertently advertise herself to potential suitors, Zbeeb explains:
“Regrettably, the actual Sharia has been breached because there are channels which hook individuals to other individuals. I am sure this occurs,” he says, twisting his still gleaming engagement ring.
“Recommending a woman you know is good for sex does not make her a prostitute but if she goes with four or five men, that would make her a prostitute [in the Sharia].”
There are, according to Debbous-Sensenig, more sinister by-products of mut’a, now that it is performed with such apparent regularity.
“If it’s not a full-blown marriage there are hundreds of problems coming out of this union. Not enough protection is used and we hear of situations all around us with men denying responsibility [of conception],” she says, adding that people who practice mut’a have no legitimate reason for doing so in secrecy.
“People are not honest when they are dealing with this. If it is OK why are they keeping it secret? It is obviously not OK,” she says. “When people are doing something that they have confirmed is not against the will of God then it should not be a secret.”
Jafaari considers criticism of mut’a the product of misunderstanding, and agrees that temporary marriage ought to be condemned, but only when committed improperly.
“Many people are ignorant of this subject and some consider it as an abuse. In our Eastern society a man can accept the idea of mut’a in general but he will not accept it for his sister. In the Sharia a woman cannot marry, whether permanently or mut’a, unless she has the consent of her father or grandfather,” he says.
“The mut’a is a holy marriage legalized by God but the people’s ignorance has led to many problems.”
These problems persist.
“People who practice mut’a marriage are practicing religious Shiites. A non-practicing Shiite couldn’t care less,” says Zbeeb. The fact that individuals in a mut’a are following religious practice ought to make the communion socially acceptable, he adds.
“If you take the soul of marriage, it is a commitment between two people. If there is no Sheikh present, this does not change the fact that these two people are bonded by their souls in front of God on a religious level.”
Such noble sentiments are not always embodied by practitioners of mut’a, Mohammad himself admits.
“There are girls who won’t marry you unless you perform a mut’a, but so far I have not met such a girl,” he says. “Even if I get married I have no problem [continuing] doing mut’a. I will keep it secret of course, just because of the jealously of the girls.”
Mohammad exhales deeply when asked how long, on average, each of his mut’a last.
“Until I get bored,” he says. “I tell her I will marry her for a month and finish it after two weeks if I want.”
But Alia insists that a mut’a performed legitimately is something that should not be a cause of shame among women, provided it is conducted properly.
“In my opinion, we have to follow the rules,” she says.
“I can only speak for myself, but the temporary marriage can be empowering if used to express feelings, while putting on limits and following these limits.”
Read the story over at The Daily Star.