Lebanon's temporary marriages to satisfy needs of the flesh

Shanghai Star. 2002-05-30

The message of muta'a is simple,Khishin says: It is better to marry--even briefly--than to burn

SHE was young and divorced, and caught Hussein's eye, so he married her - again and again,sometimes for just a few hours, over the space of several years.

The majority of Islam's Sunni sect regards it as illicit sex, but Hussein calls the temporary marriages that he and other Lebanese Shi'ite Muslims enter into a gift from God that kept him sane until he had a chance to marry for good.

And, as deepening economic woes make traditional marriage a distant, expensive prospect for many Lebanese, he says the temporary unions - called muta'a, or pleasure, marriages - are a divinely sanctioned safety valve.

"This is solving a huge crisis for young people; it saves them from adultery," Hussein says, referring to sex outside marriage. "Everyone has instincts, and if you can't deal with them they rule you."

Shi'ite Muslim legal experts echo that view, saying temporary marriage is grounded in the authority of the Prophet Mohammad and strikes a balance between the needs of the flesh and the legal demands of marriage.

"Temporary marriage is for solving a problem that human beings suffer from, a problem that is basically sexual," explained Sheikh Hussein al-Khishin, who teaches religious law under the auspices of the country's most prominent Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

Muslim tradition agrees that muta'a marriage dates back to time of the Prophet Mohammad, and holds that he recommended it to his followers as a means of meeting their needs during circumstances that made ordinary marriage difficult, such as pilgrimage or military campaigns.

Valid then, valid now

Sunni Muslims abandoned the practice, with their legal scholars arguing it was permissible only under the extraordinary circumstances of the early Muslim community. Continuing it now, they sniff, is just cloaking vice in pious garb.

Their Shi'ite counterparts in Lebanon, who are the country's largest religious group, counter that the temporary marriages are legally valid Muslim unions, right down to the contract and payment of a dowry that ordinary marriages have.

"All of the controls of a permanent marriage are there, and so when someone says 'This is legalized adultery', they're wrong," says Khishin.

While the conditions of the early Muslim community may be over and done with, he argues, sex is a basic human need that demands satisfaction regardless of whether one is in a position to marry or not.

The message of muta'a is simple, Khishin says: It is better to marry - even briefly - than to burn.

"What is one to do? Either one slips into adultery, or marries," he says.

"We say, 'There is a way that Islam has made legitimate with which you can build a relationship with a woman and conduct a (marriage) contract for a certain period,"' Khishin says.

The contracts can run into the years, or conclude in hours.

Widows, divorcees and those who lack the cash to marry in the customary fashion and set up a household have needs and always will, the cleric says.

Verbal contracts

Whatever the theory of temporary marriage - also practised in Shi'ite Iran, under the name of sigheh - among Lebanon's Shi'ites it is in practice a humble affair.

"You know who lives in your neighbourhood," says Hussein of the sprawling Shi'ite southern suburbs where he lives. "You know who's a widow, who's divorced. Someone notices you noticing them and you get acquainted."

The contracts are often verbal, the dowries equally simple - sometimes they are cash, but Hussein says he was more inclined to offer a bolt of quality fabric, a dress, or even a basket of fruit.

"There has to be some kind of exchange, even if it's just a symbol," says another Lebanese who has married temporarily.

The point, he explains, is to make it clear that the marriages are above ground and nothing to be ashamed of, but they are still something not everyone is eager to flout.

Few women who have taken part in a temporary marriage are willing to be identified or discuss their temporary union.

Hussein, who asked not to be identified by his real name, has no regrets about his temporary marriages but says they are part of a past when his chances of a permanent marriage were slim, for want of cash.

(Agencies via Xinhua)

Copyright by Shanghai Star.