Mut’a, or temporary marriage, is one of three forms of Muslim marriage – nikah halala and nikah misyar are the others – that the Supreme Court recently referred to a Constitution bench for adjudication. Though Sunni Muslims shun mut’a, it is considered legitimate by the Twelver Shia sect, which is predominant in Iran and constitutes 90% of India’s Shia population.
Essentially a pre-Islamic practice, mut’a is said to have Islamic sanction through verse 24, chapter 4, of the Quran. Caliph Umar (584 CE-644 CE) banned it, but Shias do not consider his ruling binding on them. Yet, the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1925, pushed mut’a to the margins. It saw a revival after the Islamic Revolution swept the Pahlavis from power in 1979, not least because Shia clerics consciously injected it into public discourse to rectify it.
The contract can also lay down other conditions. “As in any contract, the woman can spell out her conditions for the sexual union, including daily maintenance, and once accepted by the temporary husband, these have to be met,” Raza Abbas, assistant professor of Theology at Aligarh Muslim University. “Obviously, such conditions cannot be in violation of Islamic principles.”
After the contract expires, the temporary husband and wife can renew it. The husband has the unilateral right to revoke the contract, but must pay the amount agreed upon. The woman, theoretically, cannot revoke the contract – a mark of her subordinate status – but she can refuse to be intimate with him, even leave him. In that case, she must pay back a part of the amount agreed upon.
It is difficult to gather statistics on mut’a in Iran as such marriages do not require to be registered. This is as true of India. Shia scholar Kalbe Sadiq says mut’a perhaps constitute 2% of all marriages among the Twelver Shias in India. “It is just an option, not a compulsion,” Sadiq said. “It is more like a medicine, but when misused, medicine can become poison. Even misuse of permanent marriage creates havoc, doesn’t it?”