The Shi'ite institution of mut'a or sighe (temporary marriage) is quite well known, being the subject of an English language book, Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi'i Iran, but many fewer are aware of its rough equivalent in the Sunni world, namely the misyar, or traveler's marriage. With increasing frankness, the English-language press in Egypt ("Although not new to other Arab countries, the mesyar marriage was brought to the country by Egyptian men who had worked in the Gulf countries") and now Saudi Arabia ("they persist, with men preferring them over adultery and women prepared, for the sake of having a man at their side, to give up the right to a home, any claim to be kept in style, and sometimes even to have children") are taking up the issue. Will the Arabic-language press follow? (June 22, 2003)
Oct. 7, 2005 update: For a corruption of the nikah marriage into a form of prostitution, see my article today, "Arabian Sex Tourism."
Apr. 26, 2006 update: The Islamic Jurisprudence Assembly, a Meccan organization, on April 12 issued a fatwa approving misyar marriages, giving the custom a Wahhabi imprimatur. It deems valid "a marriage contract in which the woman relinquishes [her right to] housing and support money ... and accepts that the man visits her in her house whenever he likes, day or night."
July 19, 2006 update: The April decision has had a wide impact in Saudi society, according to Reuters' Souhail Karam, who finds that "thousands of people" have chosen misyar as a way of staying legal but avoiding the large dowries, extravagant weddings, and other financial obligations a man must undertake in nikah, or standard marriages. Advertisements for misyar marriages abound on the Internet. "I am a 33-year-old Saudi man with acceptable looks seeking to marry a Saudi virgin or a divorcee," reads one. "Saudi man seeking divorcee living in Jeddah, no objection to children," reads another. Television personality Rima al-Shamikh says the popularity of misyar results from a youthful population exposed to Western lifestyles through the media and Internet but bound by a strict religious code. One researcher, Suhaila Zein al-Abideen of the International Union of Muslim Scholars in Medina, finds that almost 80 percent of misyar marriages end in divorce.
Aug. 31, 2006 update: In a fascinating article, "'Pleasure Marriages' in Sunni and Shi'ite Islam," Aluma Dankowitz of MEMRI reviews the recent and growing phenomenon of misyar marriages, with its many implications. Two tidbits:
A veteran Saudi matchmaker told the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that since the publication of the fatwa permitting misyar marriages, she had received at least 15-20 requests per day from men of various ages for such marriages, from men under 20 who did not object to women over 40, up to men in their 70s. She said that the young men who marry women aged 40 and 50 remain with them until they finish their studies. The marriages are kept secret from the man's parents, and when he completes his university studies, he is married to another woman chosen for him by his family. She said that half of the requests for misyar marriages are from young men in their 20s. …
many men set conditions for the woman, such as "if the knowledge of the marriage gets out, you are divorced," or "if you get pregnant, you are divorced"; many of the men divorce when it is even suspected that news of the marriage has reached the families; many students from out of town seek misyar marriage; and most misyar marriages end in divorce.
Sep. 11, 2007 update: Pierre Heumann, Middle East correspondent of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, published "Sex in Ramallah" in German in the August 23 issue. John Rosenthal translated it into English and it appeared today. Heumann describes the frustrations of the young, then ends with the plight of a divorced woman.
Ever since her divorce, 34-year-old Nur from Gaza … has been ostracized by her family. She cannot hope for any support from them. After the divorce, she was confined by her father, who accused her of having brought shame upon the family.
Islamic law in Palestine offers the possibility of a special status for such cases: a temporary marriage or, in Arabic, "missiar." Missiar constitutes a marriage contract that is legally valid, but not publicly recognized.
Within the framework of a missiar marriage, Nur has married a second time with a Palestinian businessman who is twenty years her senior and who lives in Dubai. "Every three months, he comes to visit me for two or three days," Nur explains, "and we live together." Nur regards the temporary marriage certificate as a help. By virtue of it, she gains a certain respect from her family and it frees her from the clan's burdensome attempts to influence how she lives. "Missiar places me under the authority of a man and protects me from the family's nonsense," Nur says. And then she cites an Arabic saying: "The shadow of a man is better than the shadow of a wall."
Asked about this misyar arrangement, a judge on the Islamic court named Sheikh Fahmi Jaradat responds:
It is, above all, well-to-do business men who like to sign a missiar contract, he says: "For men, missiar is a cheap way to be able to have sex legally without having to take on obligations towards one's partner and without violating the precepts of Islam, which forbids sex outside of marriage." He regards the fact that the marriage is from the start supposed to be merely temporary as a disgrace. Nonetheless, even if reluctantly, he still recognizes missiar as a full-fledged marriage. It humiliates the woman, he says, turning her into the man's slave. And, in the last analysis, that is acceptable for divorced women or widows, the Sheikh says, but not, however, for virgins or women who have been well raised.
Oct. 8, 2008 update: "Some women thrive on 'misyar' business" is the delicate headline over a story by Arjuwan Lakkdawala in the Arab News out of Saudi Arabia. It begins by noting that while most women generally accept the lesser deal of a misyar marriage when they lack options ("Some may have passed the most-sought-after marriage age and others may be widows or divorcees"),
a minority of women have turned misyar into a business. These women never intend to stay married to the same man for more than a few months; the cause of this is the lucrative dowry they get from each marriage. And during the few months of marriage they try to extract as much money as they can. If the husband refuses to divorce at any point in the marriage, they then use what they claim is a very effective way of making him obey: They threaten to inform the first wife of the secret marriage.
Lakkdawala then gives the example of one Siham (a nickname). She married once the usual way (nikah) and five times via misyar. Siham looks purposefully for, as she puts it, men who are "scared to death of their first wives. I only marry men who are afraid of their first wives and are financially well off, When I hear that there is a suitor looking for misyar, I check two things — whether he is wealthy and whether he is afraid of his wife."
When she finds such a husband, she gives him the impression that he need only pay her a dowry, which will cost him at least SR30,000 (US$8,000), and nothing more. But once the marriage is contracted, Siham start making demands, requiring of him between SR5,000 and SR7,000 per assignation. "I make him pay all my expenses, otherwise I don't allow him visits." She justifies her little deception rather grandiosely: "I believe men have been taking advantage of women in misyar marriages. They take so much from women and give so little, but I've turned the tables on them."
After the misyar ends in divorce, Siham waits the obligator four months and 10 days, as the Shari'a requires (to make sure she is not pregnant), and then is back on the market for another round.
Feb. 22, 2009 update: The Feb. 10 edition of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan (made available today by BBC Worldwide Monitoring) ran a report by Adwan al-Ahmari from Riyadh, "Terrorists have resorted to romance, misyar marriage websites after security is tightened around them," that unexpectedly connects misyar to larger political issues:
In view of the tighter electronic security measures imposed by the [Saudi] Interior Ministry on terrorist organizations, some followers of the deviant ideology have resorted to love and misyar marriage forums to spread the takfiri ideology [i.e., Islamists who say non-Islamists are infidels] and call on the Saudi young people to travel to areas of conflict and unrest around the world. Female members of these forums, however, have responded with gratitude and prayers for good rewards.
In other words, violent Islamists are using romance sites to troll for recruits.
Apr. 18, 2009 update: For the devastating role of misyar contracted by Saudi men with women in Indonesia, see "Arabian Sex Tourism Updated."
July 25, 2010 update: Misyar is coming under criticism from Saudi lawyers and Shari'a experts as its human costs become apparent. From the Arab News:
A typical tourist marriage usually lasts for fixed periods of time (sometimes ranging a few days) and is aimed at gaining sensual pleasures and not procreating. Marriage officials often carry out these marriages with two witnesses. The officials are, however, often unaware of the fixed time periods that the couples fix between them, a clause that would, according to the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, render the marriage illegal.
The newspaper gives the example of Abu Fadi, 45, who traveled often to Southeast Asia to recruit housemaids.
It was during one of these travels that he married a woman for a short term "to avoid committing adultery." "We had memorable moments together, especially since I thought my marriage was legal Shariah-wise. I, however, regretted the decision because my ex-wife sent an e-mail with photographs from the marriage to my Saudi wife," he said. "It was a terrible experience. My wife, however, forgave me after I expressed sorrow and regret on condition I would allow her to accompany me abroad, regardless of whether it is for business, education or leisure."
The article goes on to quote various Saudi authorities about the illegality and immorality of misyar marriages.
June 4, 2013 update: Misyar (and mut'a) marriages have reached the United Kingdom, as Soeren Kern explains today at "Britain: Islamic Temporary Marriages on the Rise," based in turn on a recent BBC television documentary, "Married for a Minute" aired on May 13.
Islamic scholars interviewed by the BBC say the practice is widespread, and anecdotal evidence suggests it is especially popular among the younger generation of Muslims in England and Wales.
As an example, Kern cites Omar Ali Grant, a London-based convert to Shia Islam who says he has had around 13 temporary marriages. Kern concludes that "The proliferation of temporary marriages—combined with the spike in polygamous marriages—shows how Muslims in Britain are using Islamic Sharia law with impunity to establish parallel forms of "marriage" that are otherwise illegal for non-Muslims in the country."