Legality of Temporary Marriage in Islam
By: Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn at-Tabataba'i
What is your opinion concerning temporary marriage, which the Sunnis condemn? Is it not a violation of human rights—objectifying women as means for the gratification of men?
The legality of temporary marriage is affirmed by the Surah al-Nisa’ 4:24, and thus the Shi‘ahs do not mind the opposition of the Sunnis on this issue. Temporary marriage is sanctioned by the Qur’an; it was practiced during the Prophet’s lifetime, the caliphate of the First Caliph, and part of that of the Second Caliph. The latter, however, decided to ban temporary marriage. But it should go without saying that rules established by the Qur’an can be rescinded only by the Qur’an; the rules of the shari‘ah are beyond the authority of the Islamic ruler.
There is, in addition, a different line of reasoning that vindicates temporary marriage, and it is by heeding the rationale for the legality of divorce. From a jurisprudential point of view, the legality of divorce is evidence that marriage can be temporary. (Of course, in practicing temporary marriage, the parties engaged should be cognizant of the possible problems that this contract could entail.)
Let me turn to the point about female objectification; this claim is unfounded. The female party enters into this relationship of her own accord and enjoys the same benefits and pleasures as the male party; if it is companionship, pleasure, or having children that they seek, it is a benefit for both. As such, in this relationship neither party is victimized.
Moreover, an examination of various societies will show that sexual relations are not limited to permanent marriage. The reason is that there are cases where a person’s legitimate sexual needs cannot—for various reasons—be fulfilled through permanent marriage. And for this very obvious reason, there is no government that could claim to have confined sexual relations to temporary marriage and completely eliminated fornication.
Governments must inevitably accommodate for some sort of temporary marriage so as to avoid the negative consequences of fornication while also fully satisfying their constituents’ natural sexual needs. The Master of the Faithful, Imam ‘Ali, once said, “If the Second Caliph had not banned temporary marriage, only he who is doomed to damnation would commit fornication.”
I would also like to make a point concerning the questioner’s reference to “human rights.” My assumption is that the questioner is not alluding to human rights as treated by the ancient laws of Rome and Hammurabi, which equated women with animals or, in more humane cases, slaves; rather, he is referring to the Western “human rights.”
It is unfortunate that we tend to think of the Western society as the epitome of human civilization and of Western people as perfect examples of humanity. These societies, which are assumed to be the crown of all societies, should be examined more closely. What do they practice in lieu of the “inhuman” temporary marriage? How do men and woman interact in these “most civilized” societies? How do they confront cases where permanent marriage is not the solution? For the answer, one only needs to read the disturbing statistics published in this regard.
Islam’s Restrictions on Sexual Relations
How does Islam view love and sexual relations?
Intimate relations (intercourse or actions that may lead to that end) between the two sexes are forbidden outside marriage. The reason for this prohibition is not the possibility that such extramarital relations may infringe on the rights of one of the two parties—as is the purported basis for the limitations established by laws of democratic states. Indeed, if this was the reason, it could have been argued that mutual consent of the two parties involved would render such a relationship legitimate.
This limitation is based on considerations concerning the wellbeing of the society and the importance of identifying the fathers of children born into a society. On the basis of these considerations, all types of fornication are illegitimate. It is on account of these same social concerns that Islamic law considers homosexuality a crime.
It should be noted that in this answer, ‘Allamah approaches the question from a strictly legal standpoint. Otherwise, there are also moral and spiritual grounds for the restrictions Islam imposes on sexual relations. [trans.]