Debate On the Legitimacy of Mut'a

The following piece is adopted from the book "Temporary Marriage in Islamic Law," by Abul Qasim Gourji, and is presented with some modifications.


The word Mut'a was more commonly used than other terms for temporary marriage both during the lifetime of the Prophet and afterwards. Both its proponents and opponents preferred this word and its derivatives. In books on jurisprudence the terms Mut'a, al-Nikah al-Munqati' (discontinued marriage), and al-Nikah al-Muwaqqat (temporary marriage), Istimta' (having pleasure), and the related word of tamattu' (pleasure) are all employed.

The scholars both Sunni and Shia, agree that Mut'a was permitted at the beginning of Islam. However, they disagree as to the reasons it was permitted.

The Shia View

In the chapter titled "Women", after listing those women to whom marriage is forbidden, the Quran states as follows: "Lawful for you is what is beyond all that, that you may seek, using your wealth, in wedlock and not in license. So those of them whom you enjoy, give them their appointed wages; it is no fault in you in mutually agreeing after fulfillment (of the wage).

God is All-Knowing, All-Wise" (4:24). All Shia scholars and many Sunni scholars hold that this verse - especially the words: "Such woman as you enjoy (Istamta'tum)" - refers to the permissibility of Mut'a. The Shia present several arguments to prove this point. (See Sharh al-Lum'a, v5, p248-253; Jawahir, v5, p163).

This verse was revealed towards the beginning of the Prophet's stay in Medina. By the revelation of this verse, the temporary marriage became a legal custom in Medina and was looked upon as one kind of marriage and was referred to by the term Istimta'a, the same word employed in the Quranic verse - even though the literal meaning of the word is "to seek benefit" or "to take enjoyment".

Hence the meaning of the Quranic verse must be understood in terms of the conventional usage of the time, for as is well- known in the science of Quranic commentary and Islamic jurisprudence, the Quran follows the conventional usage of the people in all edicts and legal prescriptions.

If someone wants to understand a word in the Quran in other than the conventional meaning of the time, he must supply a strong reason for doing so. Moreover if one looks up the traditions of the chapter of temporary marriage in the authentic Sunni collections such as Sahih al- Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, one can see that the messenger of Allah and his companions exactly used the word Istimta'a when referring to this contract, which is exactly the same word as what Quran employed.

The context of the verse also indicates that it is referring to the temporary marriage. In the previous verse, i.e. 4:23, the Quran 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 married 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 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 also requires that the man pay the wages of his wife.

Many sayings have been related from the Companions of the Prophet and those who followed them (al-Tabi'een) confirming the Shia view that verse 24 of this chapter concerns Mut'a. Several of the companions, including Ibn- Abbas,

one of the highly respected companions of the Prophet, Ibn Masud, one of the first to accept Islam, and Ubayy Ibn Ka'ab, one of the scribes of the revelation, and many others used to read the verse with three more words resulting in the sentence of the form: "So those of them whom you enjoy TO AN APPOINTED TIME (Ila Ajal Musamma)." This clearly indicates that the verse refers to Mut'a.

In Majma' al-Bayan, Abu Ali al-Fadl Ibn al-Hasan al-Tabarsi (d. 548/1153), one of the Shia commentator of the Quran summarizes the Shia 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 Ibn Abdurrahman al-Suddy (d. 127/744- 45) and Sa'id Ibn Jubair al-Asadi (95/713-14).

In fact, this clearly must be the case, for although the words Istimta'a and Mut'a have the literal meaning of 'enjoyment', in Shari'ah (divine law) 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 wages.'

Reference: Majma' al-Bayan, by Abu Ali al-Tabarsi, v3, p32

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 Commentary on the Quran that Mut'a was at first permitted.

The Prophet made a lesser pilgrimage (Umrah) to Mecca, and the women of Mecca made themselves up especially for the occasion. Some of the Companions complained about the long separation from their wives, and the Prophet replied: "Then go and enjoy (Istamta'a) these women." (Tafsir al-Kabir, by Fakhr al-Razi, v3, p286)

Those Sunnis who hold that the Quranic 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 Quranic verses. They offer three arguments to prove their point: other Quranic verses, the sermon of Umar banning Mut'a, and the Hadith transmitted by some Companions. The Shia, in turn, reject each of the arguments: