Ask your average man on the street what he thinks of marriage and you’re unlikely to hear the word “pleasure” enter the conversation.
But ask your average Muslim what they think of a “Mutah” marriage – meaning a “pleasure” or “temporary” marriage – and you will get a quite different reaction.
Mutah marriages, specific to the Shia form of Islam, have always been a controversial subject. Dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammed, it allows a man to have a short-term contact with a woman in which he enjoys all the benefits of a marriage but few of the responsibilities, such as providing for her or sharing the same bed.
It can last for anything from one hour to 99 years.
“It’s totally hypocritical,” says Ahmed Asfahani, a Shia journalist from Al Hayat who moved to the UK from Lebanon more than 30 years ago. He argues that while Mutah is formalised and regulated by families in Shia communities in the Middle East, in the Western world it is used as an excuse for hypocrisy.
He says: “Mutah was originally created to allow older women – widowers or spinsters – to find companionship late in their life when no one will do a Nikah [permanent] marriage with them.
“But in places like Britain and America, it is used by young men as an excuse to sleep with Western girls. They don’t care because it means nothing to them, but for the boy, it is an excuse to pretend he is not breaking his beliefs.”
This bias is clear in the difference in popularity of Mutah among men and women. A quick trawl of Mutah.com, a dating website for Muslims around the world to advertise for Mutah relationships, reveals 122 entries under the male profiles but only 3 under the female.
“I need a companion with whom I can talk to, somebody who shares some depth in life, somebody with dignity and self-respect,” reads one male testimony.
“I need a partner who can fill the void in my empty life. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I don’t wish to be a hermit.”
Writing under an alias, the young British Muslim says that he cannot wait til he can afford to be married. “There is no way that I can wait till my late 20’s, early 30’s – when most people seem to be getting permanently married. This is far too long to wait for somebody who doesn’t want to slip.”
Yet Mutah is controversial even in Muslim circles. Few Shias and even fewer Sunnis agree with the practice, which stems from Qua’ranic verse 4:24. It reads:
“As to those whom you married for a fixed time (mutah), give them their agreed dowries; and there is no sin for you in what you mutually agree together after what has been settled.”
In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, this was taken as meaning that soldiers could form temporary marriages while they were away from their wives, but it was banned by Umar, the second caliph, and later abandoned by most schools of Islamic law.
Sunnis, which form the vast majority of the 2m Muslims living in the UK, often treat the practice as impulsive sex, not far from prostitution. Although the “Twelver” Shias, who predominate in Iran and Iraq, disagree, actively promoting the practice as essential to the sexual health of a society, the stigma attached remains rife in the West.
And it is particularly pronounced among women. Although Mutah is prohibited for virgins and between Muslim girls and non-Muslim men, it is often viewed as at best a form of laxity or at worst, an excuse for adultery and prostitution.
In Iran, prostitution has increased by an estimated 635 per cent since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago.
For this reason, statistics on its prevalence are hard to come by. A recent review by four Government departments – the Treasury, the Work and Pensions Department, the Inland Revenue and the Home Office – has concluded that 1,000 men in the United Kingdom are now polygamists.
But because Mutah marriages require no formal contract and are not recognised under British law, no statistics are even collected.
Yet there are those among British Shias in the West that advocate the practice as an important way for Islam to accommodate the practicalities of love and life. Sheikh Ali Al-Hakim, of the Islamic Centre of England, editor of Islam & Feminism; Theory, modelling and applications, argues that Mutah offers an alternative to the lax morality of Western morals.
“In Mutah, it is a marriage it is a contract,” he says. “Without it, people have no responsibility to each other. If a man walks up to a woman and propositions her, what is she meant to say; ‘I have a boyfriend?’ That means nothing.
“Look at this 13-year-old boy who is having a baby [referring to boy-dad Alfie Patterson]. it is easy to exploit religion but at least this way this kind of thing cannot happen.”