Sep. 11, 2007 - Issue #621: Sex in The City 07
Let’s talk about sects
uncovering the ins and outs of Mutah, islam's hottest date nightImagine getting married and knowing that your vows will eventually expire. After a year, a month, three weeks, maybe just an hour, you will part ways from your spouse, no strings attached. It has nothing to do with irreconcilable differences and everything to do with mutah nikah, or “pleasure marriages,” a rare but still prevalent 1400-year-old Shi’a tradition of marrying temporarily, sometimes just for sex.
Mutah goes back to the Hijra, Muslim’s Mohammed’s original migration from Mecca to Yathrib (Medina). “It was a temporary situation for people who were away from home,” says Syed Muhammed Rizvi from Toronto’s Jafari Islamic Centre. “Even for pilgrimage, people used to go for three, four months… [So] if a person is in a situation where he has two choices—one is adultery or fornication, and [the other is] mutah—then of course mutah would be the legal way.”
Historically and contemporarily, mutah doesn’t just benefit travelling men, it also helps women, too, many of whom are widows and single mothers. Because the man is obligated to commit a dowry, the funds helped secure the woman’s survival. Depending on what her situation is, if she has kids—and if so, how many—a generous dowry is given.
Although contracts are the norm, it doesn’t require one at all, just a verbal agreement. If things don’t work out, it’s just a matter of the man saying, “I give you the remainder of the time.” The woman is required to remain chaste for two months before marrying someone else to ensure she is not pregnant from the previous relationship.
Little has changed in the process from the seventh century to now. But
these days, the ancient tradition is being given a modern makeover.
A website called Mutah.com stopped operating in 2001. While it still survives as a step-by-step guide for mutah contracts, it used to be an online matchmaker for many, many Muslim men (and, well, three registered women).
An Orange County divorcee profiled as SnowWhite writes, “I am looking for a mutah marriage that is short term. I am not serious about … permanent marriage. However, if that is what happens I will be happy either way … I mostly want to stay away from sin.”
For Christian-to-Muslim convert Nargis, from Colorado, mutah was superior to regular dating because it involved a commitment before God. “I am not interested in mutah to ‘play around.’”
Nargis has had mutahs with five different men, and multiple mutahs with two of the five. The longest was around a year, and the shortest a few months. As for her dowries, “I've seen anything from a piece of jewelry to a car to a Koran.” Although she’s never felt exploited by mutah, she warns that it can leave women vulnerable.
“Women are more likely to be unhappy with the situation and have a desire for it to lead to something permanent,” she says. “I think bad situations are more likely to occur when the relationship is kept secret.”
In Iran, where mutah is most common, the issue has become a sensitive one. “There is definitely a need for regulation on the issue,” says Syed Rizvi. “I think the law even requires that mutah be registered now.”
Reza Aslan, a Middle Eastern analyst for CBS News and author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, says, “It’s quite a common practice for prostitution. Instead of sleeping with a prostitute you sign a mutah contract for one hour or two hours. … The dowry becomes the payment.”
In Iraq, mutah was outlawed under Saddam Hussein, but after his removal it experienced a strong re-emergence. Shiite lawmaker and women’s rights activist Salama Al-Khafaji supports mutah but told USA Today it was “an unhealthy phenomenon.” She’s afraid too many men are using it to exploit women for sex. She wants to see workshop campaigns for young couples stress the importance of permanent marriage.
Many Sunni Muslims and clerics repudiate mutah. The disagreement between
the two sects goes back to the original schism when the second caliph Umar
bin Khattab abrogated mutah practices. The group of Muslims who did not
support his caliphate to begin with eventually became the Shiites.
Syed Rizvi writes in his book Marriage and Morals in Islam, “Umar declared mutah as haram [illegal]. It goes without saying that a decision by Umar has no value in front of the Qur'an and the sunnah!”
Nargis has noticed many Sunnis are interested in mutah and inquired with her about it. “I don't know if they did it or not. Some Sunnis, particularly in the gulf, I think, engage in a practice called misyar, which is marriage with intent to divorce. Thus, in effect it becomes a temporary marriage.” She adds, “I think mutah is better because [it is] clear up front, and no divorce [process] is involved.”
Reza Aslan sees it in more pragmatic terms: “When you’re a persecuted minority, in an empire that basically sees you as an enemy, you come up with ways of making things work. Another famous Shi’a practice is taqiyyah, pretending you are not a Shi’a in order to thrive. And mutah is kind of the same thing. [It allowed Shiites] to maintain their community and flourish in an environment that can be hostile.”
Aslan says it’s most beneficial for widows because legally and socially they’re not as protected as a married woman. “Sometimes temporary marriages give them an opportunity later in life to get the same kind of benefits that a married person would have. It’s a practical thing.”
But Aslan does warn that it clearly favours men more than women. Because a woman is usually expected to maintain her chastity, any previous marriage of any kind “lowers her stock.” This is why most mutah marriages are kept a secret from friends, families, or in the case of polygamous men, other wives.
For Nargis, she is happy to share her mutahs with the people she knows, and it’s usually the man who keeps it secret. But she concedes, “I don't bring it up a lot just because it can be a pain to explain to someone who doesn't know anything about it.” V
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