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The Legitimacy Of Mut'a

Adopted from the Book : "Temporary Marriage in the Islamic Laws" by : "Sachiko Murata"

The ulama', both Sunni and Shi'i, agree that mut'a was permitted at the beginning of Islam. However, they disagree as to the reasons it was permitted.

The Shi'i View

In the sura entitled 'Women', after listing those women to whom marriage is forbidden, the Qur'an states as follows: 'Lawful for you is what is beyond all that, that you may seek, using your wealth, in wedlock and not in licence. So those of them whom you enjoy, give them their appointed wages; it is no fault in you in agreeing together, after the due apportionate. God is All-Knowing, All-Wise' (4:24). All Shi'i ulama' and some Sunni ulama' hold that this verse-especially the words: 'Such wives as you enjoy (istamta'tum)'-refers to the permissibility of mut'a. The Shi'is present several arguments to prove this point.1

This verse was revealed towards the beginning of the Prophet's stay in Medina, which lasted from AH 1/CE 622 to 10/632. At that time the men of Medina used to 'seek enjoyment' from women for a limited period of time in exchange for a specified sum of money. By its revelation this verse in effect confirmed an existing situation; and it emphasized that men must fulfill their promises concerning the agreed upon sum. In Medina this custom was looked upon as one kind of temporary marriage and was referred to by the term istimta', the same word employed in the Qur'anic verse-even though the literal meaning of the word is 'to seek benefit' or 'to take enjoyment'. Hence the meaning of the Qur'anic verse must be understood in terms of the conventional usage of the time, for as is well known in the science of Qur'anic commentary and Islamic jurisprudence, the Qur'an follows the conventional usage of the people in all statutes and legal prescriptions. If someone wants to understand a word in the Qur'an in other than the conventional meaning of the time, he must supply a strong reason for doing so.

The context of the verse also indicates that it is referring to temporary marriage. In the preceding verses the Qur'an forbids acts of injustice toward women. 'Oh believers, it is not lawful for you to inherit from women against their will; neither debar them, that you may go off with part of what you have given them' (4:19). The most commonly accepted interpretation of this verse is that it forbids the pre-Islamic Arab custom of inheriting stepmothers. When a man died, one of his sons would inherit his wife, as long as she was not his own mother. The stepson would place a cloth upon his dead father's wife and thereby become her owner. If he wished he could then marry her without paying her a dower. Or he could keep her a virtual prisoner. He could also marry her to someone else and take her dower for himself, or forbid her to marry anyone as long as he was alive. If the woman possessed property, he was entitled to take possession of it for himself.2

The next verse reads in part as follows: ' And if you desire to exchange a wife in place of another, and you have given to one a hundred-weight, take of it nothing' (4:20). In other words, if a man divorces a wife to marry a different wife, he must not take back any of the dower that he has given the first, even if the dower is a very large one and he desires only a small part of it.

The next subject referred to in this passage is the marriage of one's father's wife: ' And do not marry women that your fathers married ... .' (4:22). Both this verse and verse 19 were revealed after Abu Qays b. al-Aslat died and his wife was inherited and married by his son Muhsin. The son refused to pay the daily expenses of his stepmother and wife, nor would he give her, her share of the inheritance or allow her to visit her relatives. She came to the Prophet and explained what had happened. He told her to return to her husband and wait, that perhaps God would send down a statute that would clarify her situation. Then these verses were revealed.3

In the following verse (4:23) the Qur'an enumerates the women who are forbidden to men. These are divided into seven kinds stemming from blood relationship and seven more stemming from other causes: 'Forbidden to you are your mothers and daughters ...'. The next verse adds a fifteenth category of women forbidden to men: ' And wedded women, save what your right hands own.' It continues with the words quoted above: 'Lawful for you is what is beyond all that.' In other words, any woman not belonging to one of the fifteen categories is permitted, whether by marriage or ownership.

Next the verse states: 'that you may seek, using your wealth, in wedlock and not in license.' Grammatically, this clause is in apposition to 'what is beyond all that.' It explains the legitimate mode of seeking sexual relationships with women, whether as the result of marriage or the purchase of slaves.

The next part of this same verse states as follows: 'So those of them whom you enjoy, give them their appointed wages.' The word 'so' (fa) shows that this part of the verse is the conclusion reached by the previous words. This section is either part of the previous subject matter, or an example of it; in other words, its relation to the previous section is either that of the part which is completing the whole, or the particular example to the universal principle. And since the previous section deals with the different kinds of legitimate sexual relationships, either by marriage or the purchase of slaves, we can conclude that this section of the verse is the exposition of a further kind of marriage, not mentioned previously; a kind which requires that the man pay the wages of his wife.

The next verse states that if a man is too poor to marry a free Muslim woman, he should marry a Muslim slave girl; and the following verse concerns certain statutes related to such marriages.

Finally this section of the chapter concludes with these words: 'God desires to make clear to you, and to guide you to the customs of those who went before you, and to turn towards you; God is All-knowing, All-wise' (4:26).

Many sayings have been related from the Companions of the Prophet and those who followed them (al-taibi'un) confirming the Shi'i view that verse 24 of this chapter concerns mut 'a. Several of the companions, including Ibn 'Abbas, the ancestor of the 'Abbasid caliphs, Ibn Mas'ud, one of the first to accept Islam, and Ubayy b. Ka'b, one of the scribes of the revelation, hold that three words have been dropped form this passage in the Qur'an and that the original version read: 'So those of them whom you enjoy to a specified term (ila ajal musamma).' This clearly indicates that the verse refers to mut'a. For example, it has been related that Ibn 'Abbas was asked about mut'a. He answered: 'Have you not read the sura "Women" (4).' His questioner replied: 'Of course I have.' He said: 'Did you not read: "So those of them whom you enjoy to a specified term. .." , He answered: 'I did not read the verse like that.' Ibn 'Abbas then said: 'I swear by God, this is how God revealed it', and he repeated this statement twice.4

In Majma' al-bayan, al Tabarsi, the famous Shi'i commentator of the Qur'an summarizes the Shi'i arguments: the word 'enjoy' in this verse refers to the marriage of mut'a, i.e., a marriage for a specified dower and a determined time period. This opinion has been related from Ibn 'Abbas and many of the 'followers' of the Companions such as Isma'il b. 'Abd al-Rahman al-Suddi (d. 127/744-45) and Sa'id b. Jubayr al-Asadi (95/713-14). In fact, this clearly must be the case, for although the words istimta' and mut'a have the literal meaning of 'enjoyment', in the language of the shari'a they refer to the contract of temporary marriage, especially when they are followed by the word 'women'. Hence the meaning of the verse is: 'Whenever you draw up a contract of mut'a with a woman, you must pay her, her wages.'5

The Sunni View

As was indicated above, the Sunnis agree that at the beginning of Islam mut'a was permitted. For example, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209), the famous Sunni theologian, writes in his Great Commentary on the Qur'an that mut'a was at first permitted. The Prophet made a 'lesser pilgrimage' ('umra) to Mecca, and the women of Mecca made themselves up especially for the occasion. Some of the Companions complained about their long separation from their wives, and the Prophet replied: 'Then go and enjoy (istimta') these women.'6

Those Sunnis who hold that the Qur'anic verse mentioned above (4:23) does indeed refer to the permissibility of mut'a also maintain that the verse was subsequently abrogated (naskh) by other Qur'anic verses. They offer three arguments to prove their point: other Qur'anic verses, the sermon of 'Umar banning mut'a, and hadith of the Prophet transmitted by the Companions. The Shi'i in turn reject each of the arguments.

1. Sharh al-lum'a, v, 248-53, Note; Jawahir, v, 163.

2. Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i (d. 1982), Tafsir al-mizan, Beirut, 1974; Persian translation by Muhammad Khatima, VIII, Qum, 1344/1965, 76.

3. Ibid., 84.

4. Abu 'Ali al-Fadl b. al-Hasan al Tabarsi (d. 548/1153), Majma' al-bayan, Tehran, 1339/1960, III, 32.

5. Ibid.

6. AI Tafsir al-kabir, Istanbul, 1307 / 1889-90, III, 286.

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