Temporary Marriages in Islam: Fringe Practice or Accepted Custom?

This past week, Iranian authorities executed the wife/mistress of a former soccer star who was convicted of murdering his first wife in 2002.

Wife and/or mistress?

Although referred to as the latter by the press, Shahla Jahed, the accused, was living in "temporary marriage" with Nasser Mohammadkhani, an '80s soccer legend in Iran, when the murder occurred eight years ago.

The practice, permissible under Shiite law, is known in Persian as sigheh and in Arabic as Nikah al-Mut'ah. Under this law, Shahla was a legitimate wife, thus Nasser was immune to charges of adultery. He did, however, receive 74 lashes for "drug-taking" as the two smoked opium together. Originally, Nasser was jailed as an accomplice to his wife's murder, until Shahla confessed.

The case caused an international outcry due to criticism that Shahla did not receive a fair trial and that her confession was coerced. Shahla retracted her confession in court, although it was retained in the evidence against her.

In addition, standard protocol for death sentences was not followed in the case. Prior to execution, the family of the accused can appeal to the victim's family directly to have the sentence waived. In this case, Shahla's lawyer alleged that he wasn't allotted adequate time to make this appeal. Nevertheless, the victim's family was unmoved by calls for mercy and insisted the sentence be carried out.

Iran is known for its "eye for an eye" judicial proceedings—especially with regard to women—which have provoked the ire of human rights and women's rights organizations.

But what about the practice of temporary marriage? NPR ran a story on the abuses of mut'ah marriages in Iraq, where the practice is not as rampant as Iran. Women who had been "married" for a few months or even hours contended these marriages were coerced and spoke anonymously due to their shame. In Iraq, it is understood that women who are economically disadvantaged are especially vulnerable to being approached. Attractive young women are also targeted, offered money for their services, and sent home after a few hours of mut'ah, the word for "pleasure" in Arabic.

In this context, mut'ah and sigheh sound like little more than a guise for sanctioned rape.

And yet, this practice is deeply embedded in the social and religious history of Islam and is referred to specifically in the Quran. By some accounts, the Prophet Muhammad told followers that when men travel away from home, in the absence of their own wives, women may be purchased for a handful of dates to fulfill their needs.

But is this an archaic, fringe practice that isn't representative of Islam today? Misogynistic views of women exist in most religious histories. Does highlighting a practice that may be unfamiliar and abhorrent to many Muslims further vilify the religion? And yet, although temporary marriage isn't a mainstream practice, the women in NPR's investigation spoke only of shame, and denounced mut'ah in no uncertain terms. Ultimately, though the number of women affected is unknown, this practice is a cutting reality for some.