Islam's Sex Licenses

Temporary "pleasure marriages" offer unwed Muslims a way around the Islamic rule against premarital sex. Betwa Sharma talks to one young American Shiite who's on his 25th "I do."

"Marriage is halal, dating is haram," says Ali Selman. In other words, marriage is permissible, but dating is forbidden. These are the rules for the strapping, green-eyed Lebanese Shiite from Brooklyn.

Luckily for young Muslims like Selman, who are deeply religious yet subject to the same hormonal forces as any other twentysomething, the Quran provides what you might call a caveat clause. Its rule against sex outside of marriage is clear, but many Shiite Muslims believe that a section called "Al Nissa" contains a single word ( istimta) that seems to allow Muslims to engage in Mut'ah marriages, or "pleasure marriages"—essentially, temporary marriages for the purpose of having sex.

“As a Catholic you go to hell for having premarital sex. Mut’ah understands the human disposition and accommodates me.”

These "pleasure marriages" can last for years, months, several days, one night, or a few hours. Popular in places like Iran but also quietly practiced in America, Mut'ah is a handy option for unmarried Shiite Muslims who want to have sex without settling down for life. "There can be no sex outside of marriage," says the 29-year-old Selman, a champion weightlifter who, over the past 10 years, has been temporarily married 25 times.

Selman loathes nightclubs—"Loud music with people getting drunk and stupid is not my scene”—and so has met many of his wives in the hookah cafes of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. The narrow confine of Luxor, an Egyptian cafe in Greenwich Village, is one of his favorites, despite the cramped space. "I go there to smoke and not to pick up women," he insists. More often than not, though, he admits he somehow ends up meeting a beautiful girl.

Like permanent marriages in Islam, Mut'ah marriages are only allowed with other Muslims, Christians, and Jews. His partners have been Catholic and Muslim-American, Spanish, Lebanese, Turkish, Palestinian, and Pakistani. Selman says many of the women he meets express "shock" when he explains he must marry them before he can proceed.

"It is to avoid committing sin, and it is like a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship," he tells them. "Some of them don't like it," he says, but, "they agree because they want to be with me... If she doesn't like it, I understand, but I can't sleep with her."

According to Selman, the woman has to say, "I marry you, myself." The man replies, "I accept." A token bridal gift must be given—in Selman's case, usually tea, juice, or chocolates. Most of his marriages lasted for about three months—the shortest was three days long, with his bank teller, a Sunni from Pakistan. He says the girl actually wanted to get married for only one day; they finally settled on three days subject to renewal.

For Selman, Mut'ah is simply "a permission from God to have sexual relations." He's open about the fact that it's different than true love. "You can't fall in love 25 times," he says, laughing. "I had feelings for these women and I was attracted to them."

But some Shiite scholars, like Muhsin Alidina, say that Selman is "fooling himself." Alidina runs the education department at the Al Khoei Islamic Center, a prominent Shiite institution in Queens. Like most Shiites, he supports the concept of Mut'ah marriages, but says young Muslims like Selman don't take them seriously enough. "The obligation is not over by saying a few words," says Alidina. "Even if it is temporary, it is still a marriage with serious commitments."

Alidina says the crucial components of the Mut'ah marriage are the mutual acceptance of the marriage, a bridal gift to the wife paid in cash, and her obligation to stay single for two menstrual cycles after the marriage ends to ensure she is not pregnant before entering into another. The husband is responsible for a child conceived during the marriage, even if the marriage lasts only a few hours, and religious leaders recommend that the contract be put in writing so women can claim their rights in Islamic courts that recognize Mut'ah marriages.

As long as these tenets are followed, Alidina thinks Mut'ah marriages provide an important physical outlet for young Muslims. "They are young and unemployed and these marriages are cheaper options," says Alidina. "Mut'ah creates some obligation on men rather than dating or going to a prostitute."

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But Shamsi Ali, a Sunni imam from the Islamic Center in Manhattan, dismisses Mut'ah marriage as prostitution with a religious stamp. "Marriages cannot be used to fulfill desires," he scolds. "Marriage is not a social solution." He says Mut'ah leads to abandonment of pregnant women, unwanted babies, and destroys the purpose and sanctity of marriage.

The leader of the Bay Ridge mosque in Brooklyn, Imam Tarek Yousef, is also a Sunni, but a longtime supporter of Mut’ah marriage. "Don't blame the principle because it is abused," he says. "The model is perfect."

Selman's 26-year-old friend Richard Giganti provides a different perspective. A practicing Catholic when he arrived in New York from Sicily, he converted to Islam after one year here. "I really enjoy the discipline of Islam," he says. Six months after becoming a Shiite Muslim, Giganti entered into his first temporary marriage with a Spanish Catholic woman. "The idea seemed really wishy-washy at first, but as I got more religious it began to make sense," he says. "As a Catholic you go to hell for having premarital sex. Mut'ah understands the human disposition and accommodates me."

Selman, for his part, knows he's adhering merely to the letter of the law, if not the spirit. There were certain marriages where he felt committed to his bride, but others that he says were just "date-like."

"I misused Mut'ah when I did it repeatedly and with several women," he says. "A lot of us use it as an excuse to have sex, and we really should control ourselves." He says many of his friends are in Mut’ah marriages: "It is very common for religious Shiite." Does this casual use of Mut'ah make them sinners? "I don't know. That's in God's hands," he says. "God ordered us to say these words and we say these words."

Many years ago, when he was teaching at the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, Imam Alidina himself got a Mut'ah marriage for six months. His first marriage had been a traditional one, but, ironically, turned out to be temporary itself. After it failed, Alidina could not brave another permanent marriage. "I was looking for comfort and solace without the encumbrances of a long-term commitment," he says. The woman he Mut’ah-married was also coming out of a divorce. "We were both lonely and had desires of a young man and woman," he adds.

During their short marriage the couple never lived together, and toward the end of the six months Alidina left for the United Kingdom for two years. He lost touch with his wife during his time abroad and when he came back to Tanzania she had disappeared. They never met again.

After 40 years, Alidina looks back at his short marriage with affection. "It gave me the companionship I needed then," he says.