Dossier 18: Sex and the Single Shi’ite: Mut’a Marriage in an American Lebanese Shi’ite Community
Publication Author:Linda S. Walbridge
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Dearborn has the largest population of Arab Muslims in America, and of these Arab Muslims, the majority are Lebanese Shi’a. Hailing mainly from the Beka’a region, they are concentrated in the northwest quarter of the city, which is adjacent to Detroit. Over the past decade or so the Lebanese Shi’a community have developed a prosperous commercial district. Three mosques, or mosque-like facilities, serve the spiritual and social needs of the community.
According to Shahla Haeri (1989), mut’a is a temporary marriage, “a contract between a man and an unmarried woman, be she a virgin, divorced, or widowed, in which both the period of the marriage shall last and the amount of money to be exchanged must be specified.” Witnesses are not required for such a union, nor is it usually registered. A Shi’i man may contract as many temporary marriages as he wishes. The unions can be formed consecutively or simultaneously. For a woman, however, the rules are different. She may form only one union at a time after which she must abstain from sex until she knows whether or not she is pregnant.
Khomeini’s 1984 book, Resaleh Towzih al-Masael (A Clarification of Questions), gives the following instructions for a temporary marriage:
When a woman and a man themselves want to read the (impermanent) contract’s formula it is correct if the woman, after determination of the length of period and the dowry, says “I married myself to you for the specified length and the specified dowry” and the man says immediately, “I accept.” And if they deputize another person and first the woman’s deputy says to that of the man “I merchandised (made available for pleasure) my principal to your principal for the specified length and specified dowry” and then the man’s deputy says immediately “I accepted that for my principal,” it is correct. (p. 313)
Haeri (1989) states that the Ayatollah Khomeini, after the Iranian Revolution, issued a fatwa (religious edict) stating that a virgin must have her father’s permission for a first marriage, be it permanent or temporary. Issues such as parental consent for a virgin to enter into a mut’a marriage might be under dispute among the Shi’a ulama (learned men), but the legitimacy of mut’a is not. While Khomeini may have encouraged the practice more strongly than other contemporary mutahids (Shi’ite jurisconsults), they are all in favor of the use of this kind of marriage.
The topic of temporary marriage has been debated throughout the centuries, largely because the Sunnis reject it. The second caliph, Omar, who is widely hated by the Shi’a as the great usurper of the Imam ‘Ali’s position, abolished the practice, although it appears that it was permissible in the time of the Prophet. The imams, those descendants of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and her husband, ‘Ali, who became the religious leaders of the Shi’a community until the occultation of the twelfth imam in the ninth century, have elucidated on this subject. The belief that mut’a is acceptable, and actually encouraged, is part of Shi’a dogma. Haeri (1989) offers an excellent account of the practice of mut’a in the shrine cities of Iraq and Iran and explains the rationale behind the practice.
Mut’a marriage is an institution in which the relationships between the sexes, marriage, sexuality, morality, religious rules, secular laws, and cultural practices converge. At the same time it is the kind of custom that puts religion and popular culture at odds. Whereas religiously there is no restriction for virgin women to contract a temporary marriage, popular culture demands that a woman be a virgin for her first permanent marriage. (p. 3)
It is this tension between religion and popular culture that is my concern here.
I have not elected to focus on mut’a because it is a practice that is rampant in this community. Rather, it is because people’s reactions to this institution reveal so much about their attitudes towards religion.
The Practice of Mut’a in Dearborn
I had lived in the community over a year before I actually encountered Shia's who claimed to have formed mut’a marriages. The first was a middle-aged woman who had just fled her husband, leaving behind her older children. She claimed to be homeless and through neighbors I learned of her problems. When the issue of legal assistance came up, she said that she was actually divorced from the man from whom she just had fled. However, some time after the divorce, she returned to him as mut’ee and had lived with him since. Various members of this family had problems with the law and had been imprisoned, mostly for drug dealing. My impression is that this woman simply returned to her former husband and now refers to their relationship as mut’a to preserve some sense of dignity before her God-fearing neighbors. Judging from the overall dysfunction of this family, it is highly doubtful that any contract was ever involved.
The second case was of a young man, Mahmoud S., who, as he told me, simply wanted sex. He said it was futile in his circumstances to hope that a Lebanese girl would marry him because he was still a student and had no job. He approached American women and asked if they would agree to a mut’a marriage. He reported that all of them laughed at him, except one. This woman, a divorcee, married Mahmoud temporarily. She eventually converted, at least nominally, to Islam, and they have since married permanently in the presence of a shaikh. I am told by one informant that temporary unions becoming permanent marriages is not uncommon.
In 1989, Shaikh Berri, the imam at the Islamic Institute in Dearborn, wrote a book entitled Temporary Marriage in Islam. Its existence indicated the level of concern regarding this issue, at least in some circles.
As time passed, I began to realize that, aside from attitudes toward religion, the issue of temporary marriage would also help illuminate this community’s attitudes towards women and marriage. While initially I feared that people would not be forthcoming on this subject, I found, to the contrary, that there were many who were willing to discuss on the subject and share their personal views.
Shaikh Berri’s Text
Shaikh Berri formulates his treatise in a conventional style used in Shi’ism. The English translation of Berri’s text does not do justice to his facility with language. He is known for his exquisite Arabic, and though he has become quite facile with English, he did not use it to write this book. This book is based on questions he has received on the subject. The answers are framed as responses to the concerns of one young man who says that “in his heart (he feels) it (temporary marriage) is an immoral act.” The young man goes on to say that he would not accept mut’a for his sisters and doesn’t believe that the other maumineen brothers (good Muslims) would do so either.
Berri prefaces his comments with a scenario about a beautiful girl (whom one presumes is American) who has seduced a believer and given him AIDS. In this way, he couches his argument in favor of mut’a, substantiated by the sayings of the early Shi’ite religious leaders (imams), in terms of its being a solution to the pressures of a highly sexualized environment.
Berri condemns Caliph Omar for having made mut’a illegal. He cites proof from the Qur’an that it was permissible in the times of the Prophet. But he still seeks logical justification for the practice in these modern times. He says:
Isn’t corruption to let the young men and women fall in the traps of adultery, weird sex, and homosexuality? Or is it maybe to seek God’s protection, words, and his laws of marriage and the organization of sexual relationship the corruption.
Therefore temporary marriage is one of chastity and love, and a form of decency and conservatism and is not an indecency. Nor is it like the “friendship” of boys and girls which was known before Islam, and is revived by the western culture. (pp. 17-18)
He goes on to address the issue of a man allowing his sister to form a temporary marriage:
Is the standard that the brother accepts or rejects? Isn’t it first the satisfaction of Almighty God’s will and then the sister herself? Or maybe the religion of God should submit to the desires of the brother and his jealousy. Anyway some brothers do accept. Also, why would a brother in many cases allow himself to do things he prevents his sister from doing? Doesn’t he do that to protect “himself” from social shame? And that “shame” is not it fake and an improper one? And did it not originate from “tradition” not the right sensing? If not, why then would he do things that he does not allow her to do? (p. 19)
While one should not forbid mut’a for virgins on general principles, Berri does not condemn the father who will not permit his virgin daughter to form a mut’a marriage, as long as permission is denied on the grounds that he is safeguarding her well-being.
Berri continues, “temporary marriage is seen as a way of avoiding sinfulness, especially during young maturity” (p. 25). It is also a means of protecting oneself from sexually transmitted disease because a man is supposed to choose a “virtuous woman” as his mut’ee. He dispels the idea that this type of union is purely for sex, but that love can exist in a temporary union, as it can in a permanent one.
He also states that “temporary marriage is not encouraged when the continuous (marriage) is available” (p. 33). Addressing the issue of “how many” temporary wives are allowed at one time, he cites some sources saying that four is the limit (as it is in so-called continuous marriage) and other sources saying there is no limit.
The young man inquiring about the practice of mut’a has strong misgivings. The idea of mut’a, especially for a virgin, runs contrary to the value Lebanese culture places on virginity. Sheikh Berri claims that the Qur’an allows the practice, but Lebanese culture does not. But Berri is himself a Lebanese and the father of daughters. A father can reject mut’a for his daughter on the grounds that it is personally not good for her. In doing this, he rejects the notion that culture is more powerful and important than religion, while at the same time, he protects the cultural norm of virginity for unmarried women. Furthermore, he reinforces the Islamic (and cultural) prerogatives given to the male head of the household.
It is, indeed, striking that he ascribes to a sister the same rights held by her brother in matters of sexuality (although he also indicates that the father has authority to forbid the union). It can be argued, of course, that he is simply giving the mujtahid’s opinions on the matter. But Berri has carefully selected what he has presented about mut’a. What he has given us is not a hodgepodge of quotes from the imams and the mujtahids. Indeed, Khomeini and other ayatollahs are far more ardent in their encouragement of the practice than is Berri. Rather, Berri is responding to issues of Lebanese culture and the problems he is having to deal with in the United States. By saying that a girl can elect to form a mut’a, he is giving a way out to the headstrong girl, who, defying her parent’s authority, has a sexual relationship with a man outside of marriage. Meanwhile, he is still protecting the rights of the father.
When I interviewed Husein, a man affiliated with the Shaikh Berri’s mosque and one who has a close ear to the ground in the community, he said that, while it is not recommended that a young girl form a mut’a marriage, he could see that in the case of a rebellious girl who wanted to have a sexual relationship, mut’a could be a solution. By Shaikh Berri’s stating that the possibility exists for a girl to form a temporary union, he is discouraging families from taking drastic measures against her. By drastic measures, I am referring to the possibility of killing the girl, something that was not unusual in Lebanon, especially in the Beka’a. In fact, in 1987 in Dearborn, a Shi’i man killed his teenaged daughter on the grounds that she was having an affair with a man and destroying the honor of the family.
In this text Berri is addressing young, unmarried men who are not yet in a position to marry. He is attempting to discourage casual sex and is encouraging sex within religiously sanctioned parameters. When he addresses the issue of married men forming mut’a marriages, he cites traditions that discourage the practice for married men, though he could easily have found ones that do the opposite. He chooses to quote from the Imam Al-Rida, who is reported to have said “but do not persist on pleasure marriage where it would keep you occupied from your continuous wives. Then they would reject the faith, complain, and then accuse us and curse us” (p. 34).
Shaikh Berri has given us the legalistic view, albeit a relatively conservative one in comparison to that of other ulama of the practice of mut’a. The question now arises as to how this view fits with that of the community.
Community Attitudes Toward Mut’a
For elderly Hajja Fatma, the worst thing a person can do is to commit stupid acts—things that are haram (forbidden)—stealing, drinking, becoming mut’ees. Like Fatma, young Nadia is also from the Beka’a and also hates mut’a. “It should never be allowed”, she says. Nisrene, from the religiously strict village of Nabitiyyeh, doesn’t like it either. “If you want to get married, do it the ordinary way.” From Bint Jubeil in southern Lebanon, Leila, still in her teens but married with a baby, says that mut’a is haram. “Only Hizb Allah (the militant Shi’ite forces who favour an Islamic republic in Lebanon) have mut’a.” In her home village in Beka’a, ‘Aiya has heard that mut’a is now practised and is causing a great deal of trouble in families. “It’s all because of Hizb Allah,” she said. “We never had mut’a there before.” Elderly Um ‘Ali, who recently made her pilgrimage to Mecca, and who originates from Ba’albek and a Beirut suburb, says that mut’a is “against religion.”
Khadija dissents from this view. A “born again” young woman, who spent her school years in America wearing blue jeans and listening to rock music, heartily approves of the practice. Now wearing a gigantic scarf and flowing coat she lectured me on the virtues of mut’a, which she supports “100 percent.” She said, “it is a rule sent by God to man. We cannot forbid it because of this.” I asked her for her personal opinion on the matter, but she said she could not give me one, that she must tell me only what is written in the books:
Mut’a is to protect society. It is for married men, but not married woman because man and woman are different. Man has a much stronger sex drive. A woman isn’t always interested in sex like a man is. When a woman is pregnant or menstruating she has to refuse her husband because it is makruh (undesirable but not prohibited) to have sex during these times, at least during menstruation. After all, you can have a deformed child if you get pregnant during your period. So, a man can get a mut’a. She cannot stop her husband from doing this. She should not ask him about it even.
Having rejected everything American, and with a young convert’s single-mindedness, Khadija is ardent in her “fundamentalist” approach to Islam and considers an Islamic republic to be the ideal form of government. There are others in this community who share her religious/political views, but I have yet to hear such a forceful defence of mut’a from any other woman. Those who follow Islamic law carefully tend to pay lip service to the practice. And they all agreed that it was not for a virgin and did not see it as being for married men either. Zahra, also part of the earlier immigration and, who, like Khadija, has opted for a strict interpretation of Shi’ism, tended to justify mut’a on the grounds that it was part of religious dogma. She realises that her husband is entitled to have a mut’a, and they have discussed the subject. He, apparently, has no intention of getting one, which Zahra admitted was good because she would “probably kill him,” if he did. She also said that she saw it being abused by young, single men, and she was not hesitant to chastise them for this.
It was almost unanimously held that mut’a was not for virgins. The dissenting view came from an interesting source. The one woman I interviewed who rejects religion for leftist ideology, said that she saw mut’a as a good way to legitimize sex for unmarried women, though, she added, such a thing wouldn’t be socially acceptable.
Amal, a woman who follows Islamic law carefully, but avoids the political aspects of religion, claimed that she does not agree with mut’a. This raised the hackles of an Iraqi woman who asked, “how can you not agree with something your religion preaches? You might not like to practice it, but to say you don’t agree with it is wrong.” This is the “religiously correct” response for the Lebanese women, but, apparently, they do not all hold it yet. Most of them reject the practice quite emphatically.
How do these responses fit with those of the men? The following selections give the range of comments.
‘Ali S., a young, married, college-educated man from the south of Lebanon said, “Perhaps mut’a was a reasonable practice in the early days of Islam, but it has lost its purpose as far as I am concerned. It is no different than dating. Just because the name of God is said, doesn’t make it good.”
Khalid, also from south Lebanon and with a college education but more religiously learned than ‘Ali, replied initially, “it is legal prostitution.” He then retracted this statement and admitted he was confused about the issue. “It is supposed to be a religious thing, and I guess I am leaning towards accepting it, but I don’t quite see how a man can have more than one wife.” He found it more acceptable for a single than a married man. But he thought only a divorced or widowed woman should be a mut’a.
‘Ali H., a college student from the Beka’a, said that he dislike mut’a and that it was something of which only Hizb Allah approved. Ashraf, a college graduate who grew up in the Beirut suburbs, could not find a justification for mut’a but was being pressured by a relative sympathetic to Hizb Allah to form a mut’a marriage.
Muhammad T., who grew up in the United States and worked in a factory all his adult life, sees mut’a as a good idea especially in view of the current conditions in America. “Every man can have a mut’a,” he said, but quickly added that he has never had one. (His wife was in the other room at the time watching TV and seemed not to be listening. However, when he made this last comment, she looked at me with a smile that said, “he knows what’s good for him.”)
But there are men who both approve of the practice and follow it. Muhammad F., a college student, is one of them. “It is a good solution for us because we are young students and it is our only choice.” This way, he said, they could have sex and not go against Islam. I asked Muhammad if it was possible to form mut’a marriages with Lebanese girls. He said that “a man could form a temporary marriage with a free woman—one who is divorced, widowed, or a virgin over eighteen if, that is, she is living in the United States. If she is in Lebanon she is under her father’s or brother’s guardianship, but not so here.” He added that he rejected the Lebanese cultural attitudes against virgins being mut’ees.
Muhammad, young, serious minded and pro-Iranian, serves as a model for the sort of person who will form a mut’a marriage in this community. But he's not the only type.
Selim, unmarried, and a nightclub swinger on Saturday nights, but in the mosque on Sunday mornings, was, in some respects, more liberal in his interpretation of mut’a than anyone else with whom I spoke. Any man, whether married or not, according to him, can have a temporary marriage, though he should “know the woman first” and not just walk up to her and propose mut’a. The woman, he believes, should be divorced or widowed.
Selim parts company with almost everyone else I interviewed. According to my findings, those who believe a married man can form a mut’a relationship, nonetheless do not usually form them themselves. Mut’a remains, for them, a theoretical proposition, so to speak. A few older men, and I noted that they were ones who had spent long periods of time away from their wives at certain points in their marriages, said that mut’a was a way for them to meet their sexual needs while remaining within the law of Islam. Generally, though, those who do form mut’a relationships are the unmarried young men who do not see themselves as able to take on the responsibilities of marriage, but are eager not “to sin.” However, as college student Issa added, mut’a must not be taken lightly. If the woman becomes pregnant, it is up to the man to support the child.
Nuri’s case was quite exceptional and indeed most surprising. Around forty years of age and the image of the Lebanese nightclub entertainer, he was married to and had children with a Muslim woman. Having spent most of his life in America before the new wave of immigrants arrived, he had adjusted to American society more than many. Therefore, I was startled to learn that he himself had a mut’a wife. He told me that she was also Muslim and Arab, but not Lebanese. Furthermore, the union was formed in the presence of the shaikh and people were invited to the occasion. However, the marriage was not a legal one in American law. He told me that a man is entitled to up to four wives if he can treat them all equally. He assured me that he could treat his two wives, one of whom he referred to as a mut’a wife, equally. Actually, I believe he has confused the two types of marriage, permanent and temporary. However, by calling his second marriage, mut’a, he has found a way around the American law of polygamy.
While the views expressed here are admittedly diverse, there are some definite themes.
It is apparent that mut’a was not a burning issue in Lebanon before the Iranian Revolution. A number of the people with whom I spoke had only become aware of it recently and since they had come to the United States. It is certainly not viewed as being a Lebanese tradition. The fact that Fatma knew of the practice, as did the older woman who returned to her divorced husband as “a mut’ee,” suggests, though, that the idea is not completely foreign to the Lebanese. In fact, it was probably only practised by shaikhs and women who somehow found themselves on the periphery of society, much like Haeri discovered in Iran. In Lebanon, though, far away from the shrine cities, it was presumably practised on a much smaller scale.
The overall consensus of the community is that, at best, mut’a is a hard pill to swallow. The women I spoke with, both formally and informally, overwhelmingly tended to express their dislike for the practice, and I often heard it said that it is against religion. Some women, who themselves are strict in their adherence to religious law, have brothers who have formed mut’a unions, and they were quick to justify their brother’s behaviour. However, they also mentioned the limitations imposed on the union. They want mut’a to be seen as a serious matter and something very different from the “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationships found in the United States.
While more men tended to accept the practice as being justifiable, there was still no overwhelming praise of the practice. Mr. S., a mechanic from Beka’a said that it was acceptable for a man to form a mut’a marriage if he were going to be away from his wife for a long period of time. However, he added that it was far preferable for him to be loyal to her.
Only those who had completely accepted the “new” Shi’ism from Iran would contemplate the notion of a virgin as a temporary wife. And not even all of them would. Husein is a case in point. While he knew such a thing was religiously permissible, his Lebanese values kept him from truly accepting the idea.
Shaikh Berri’s book on the subject of temporary marriage has not become a best seller in the community. Except for women like Khadija and her close acquaintances, the few women whom I have known who are curious to know what is contained in the book are too embarrassed to go to the bookstore to purchase it. They fear that the shop owner will think they want to apply the practice to themselves.
Whether or not people read the book, or even know of its existence, there is obviously a growing awareness of the practice as well as a growing concern that young men will “misinterpret” the use of mut’a, that is, seduce Lebanese girls into forming temporary unions. Um Hamood, well-educated in the teachings of Islam and very strict in her interpretation of the Islamic law, scolded a young man who formed a mut’a marriage with a girl. She asked him if he would allow his sister to form such a union. She said that “this shut him up.” She conceded that it was acceptable to form a mut’a if one cannot marry but added that, “we really hate this practice.” Though I have been led to believe that most of these mut’a marriages are with Americans, it is obvious from the comments of Um Hamood and of others that some Lebanese girls are involving themselves in these unions. Should the girls in this community see mut’a as a way to legitimately fulfil their sexual needs, this community could face extraordinary turmoil in the near future; turmoil that, I believe, would ultimately force the extinction of the practice in Dearborn.
Berry, Abdullatif. 1989. Temporary Marriage in Islam. Dearborn, Mich.: Az-Zahra International Co.
Haeri, Shahla. 1989. Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Sh’i Iran. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.
Khomeini, Ruhollah, Mousani. 1984. A Clarification of Questions, trans. J. Borujerdi. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Walbridge, Linda S. 1991. Shi’i Islam in American Community. Ph.D. diss., Department of Anthropology, Wayne state University, Detroit.
Acknowledgement: The above paper appeared as a chapter in: Barbara C. Aswad and Barbara Bilge (editors): Family and Gender among American Muslims: Issues facing Middle Eastern Immigrants and Their Descendants. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
We are thankful to the publishers for granting us the required reprint permission.
Temple University Press
Philadelphia, PA 19122
 Pseudonyms have been used for the names of those interviewed.
 In Salim’s case, the mosque refers to the Islamic Center of America, the first of the Shi’ite mosques in the Detroit area and the one most heavily attended by the earlier, more assimilated Muslims and their descendants. However, those who favor mut’a are more likely to attend the other mosques which were founded by recent immigrants concerned with stricter interpretation of religious law. For further discussion regarding the distinctions among these mosques, see my doctoral dissertation, “Shi’i Islam in an American Community,” 1991.