September 1, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 291

Pleasure Marriages in Sunni and Shi'ite Islam

September 1, 2006 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 291


For over a decade, the phenomenon of marriage without commitment, called misyar marriage, has been spreading throughout the Sunni Muslim world, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. [1] In such marriages, the woman relinquishes some of the rights that Islam grants her, such as the right to a home and to financial support from her husband, and, if he has other wives, the right to an equal part of his time and attention. In most cases, these marriages are secret, without the knowledge of the man's other wives - even though a marriage contract is drawn up in the presence of witnesses, and although consent is commonly obtained from the woman's guardian, and the marriage is registered and documented at the courthouse. Demand is high for misyar marriages on online matchmaking sites, as well as through services using text messages and email. [2]

Due to the substantial increase in the number of misyar marriages in recent years, and in light of the arguments over this issue among clerics as well as among the public, the Institute of Islamic Religious Law, which is a part of the Muslim World League in Mecca, decided to address the matter.

In a fatwa issued on April 10, 2006, the institute permitted marriages in which "the woman relinquishes a home, financial support, and her part [in joint life] with her husband, or part of it, and consents to the man's coming to her home whenever he wants, day or night."

The fatwa also permitted marriages known as "friend" marriages, in which "the girl remains at her family's home and she and the man meet any time they want, either at her home or anywhere else, as they have no [joint] home and livelihood." [3] Such marriages are aimed primarily at meeting the needs of young Muslims in the West, who are influenced by male-female relations around them but who want their relationships to have religious legitimacy.

Advocates of misyar marriage argue that such marriages meet the needs primarily of women who have little chance of finding a husband for ordinary marriage. These include widows, divorcees, and especially single women who are beyond marriageable age [ awanis]. [4] Those opposed to misyar marriage - including the vast majority of women - claim that it exploits the difficult social situation of unmarried women in Arab society, and is designed primarily to sate men's lust, with no concern whatsoever for women's needs and the needs of children born of these marriages.

These non-binding marriages are to a great extent similar to the "pleasure marriages" (in Arabic, mut'a; in Persian, sigheh) that have been accepted in Shi'ite Islam since its beginnings. Unlike misyar marriage, mut'a marriage in Shi'ite Islam is contracted for a particular period of time, and divorce is not necessary to end it. For the most part, misyar marriages also do not last, and ending them by divorce is no problem. Over the years, mut'a marriage has been a major bone of contention between Shi'ite Islam and Sunni Islam - the latter seeing it as licentiousness in religious guise. The Sunni clerics reject the comparison between mut'a and misyar marriage, stressing misyar's formal aspects which meet religious requirements; however, at the same time, they disregard its essence as well as the fact that such a marriage is no basis for a family.

Based on their generally critical approach to mut'a marriage and to marriages contracted for a limited duration, the April 2006 fatwa by the Institute of Islamic Religious Law banned marriages in which the man declares that the marriage will be null and void if the woman becomes pregnant. The institute clarified that "such marriages are flawed, as they contain an element of pleasure [ mut'a], and since setting a particular time period such as one month, or one that is not known [in advance] like the date of the birth of children, makes the marriage mut'a, and it is unanimously agreed that mut'a marriage is forbidden."

Another kind of marriage banned by the institute in its fatwa is "marriage with intent to divorce" - that is, marriage in which "the husband conceals in his heart [an intent] to divorce the wife after a certain period, such as 10 days, or after a period unknown [ahead of time] such as the date of the end of his studies or the date on which he will fulfill the purpose for which he came [to the place where he met the woman]." Although some clerics permit this kind of marriage, the fatwa clarified that "the Institute of Islamic Religious Law has prohibited it, because it includes 'deception and fraud', since had the woman or her guardian known this ahead of time, they would not have agreed to this marriage contract." [5]

This paper addresses various aspects of misyar marriage and presents the approaches supporting it and opposing it:

The Scope and Characteristics of the Phenomenon

In recent years, modern communications technology has increased the spread of misyar marriages. Personal ads on the online Islamic matchmaking sites reveal the nature of these marriages. The following are several examples:

"Young man, 26, from the UAE, seeks misyar marriage to a divorcee, widow, or single woman. Age not an issue."

"Young man, 21, excellent monthly income, seeks misyar marriage as soon as possible to single girl up to age 21 and up to 70 kg, living in Jeddah."

"Egyptian doctor, 45, seeks pretty, white Saudi woman from Jeddah, age 28-40, for misyar marriage. I will visit her twice a week."

"Egyptian accountant, 30, seeks misyar marriage with Saudi woman. Age, appearance, whether she has children, and whether she is a widow, single, or divorced unimportant. What is important is her ability to satisfy the needs of a man who desires things permitted by religion (halal)."

"Young, highly educated man, 29, energetic and with a winning personality, seeks single woman or widow aged 18-50 living in Syria, for misyar marriage."

"Saudi clerk, 38, from a well-known family, seeks pretty, white, delicate businesswoman or clerk for misyar marriage. With Allah's help, if things work out, the marriage will be official."

"Young religious man, 29, working in the UAE, seeks misyar marriage with pretty, religious girl from a well-known tribe, age 14-19. I will pay her 1000 dirhams a month." [6]

An additional channel for those seeking misyar marriage is the traditional matchmaker. 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. [7]

Since the fatwa was issued, the number of misyar marriages has increased in Jeddah, particularly among women aged 30 to 40. According to Sheikh Abd Al-Karim Al-Ghamidi, who oversees and coordinates all marriages in Jeddah, most of the women seeking these marriages are businesswomen, teachers, doctors, nurses, and widows. [8]

Saudi author Dr. Ibtisam Halwani, who researched the phenomenon and published a number of articles on the subject, found out the following about misyar marriages: Most of the women in these marriages are non-Saudis, and are from a certain few large cities; in some misyar marriages, the woman relinquishes only some of her rights; many marriage contracts are made not in the presence of the woman's guardian, but in the presence of a public official; some women in misyar marriages demand a divorce after a while so as to remarry and obtain a new dowry; 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. [9]

A poll conducted by Dr. Halwani of 64 women working in Jeddah, found that 81% of them were against misyar marriage; 9% were absolutely in favor of it; and 8% were in favor but only under specific circumstances.

Among the reasons given by the women who were in favor of misyar marriages were: the marriages meet the woman's emotional need; the woman is freely available for her other obligations; there is minimal obligation towards the husband; and the woman remains with her family and does not lose this situation if the marriage fails, because separation is simple in the case of incompatibility.

Among the reasons given for opposing misyar marriage were: the woman does not have rights like an ordinary married woman; there is no sense of security and stability; the woman is not respected; the woman is dependent on the wishes of her husband; such a marriage can force a woman not to have children; a woman feels like a sinner because the marriage is secret, or because there are restrictions on announcing it; and there is fear of problems that might arise when the man's other wife hears about her husband's misyar marriage.

The poll's respondents said that misyar marriage had the following effects: harm to children, because there is no basis for a family; harm to the woman, because the husband has no responsibility towards her; increase in divorce, particularly after the marriage becomes known to the husband's other wife; economic problems for women who have children from these marriages; social criticism of women for having agreed to such a marriage; and women's emotional suffering due to constant fear of the results of this marriage. [10]

Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi: "The Woman is Entitled to Relinquish Some of Her Rights [If She Wants to]"

Like many Muslim clerics, the well-known Islamist Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi maintains that misyar marriages are permitted by religious law, although they are not the preferred and encouraged form of marriage. The following are his statements on the issue, on his weekly program Shari’a and Life aired on Al-Jazeera TV: [11]

"Misyar marriage meets the need of some women. A woman to whom Allah has given money but has not given an opportunity to marry at a reasonable age consents to it... These marriages fulfill all the conditions [for marriage in Islam]... Perhaps society does not accept them, [but] there is a difference between whether the marriage is socially acceptable and whether they are permitted from the point of view of religious law. There are marriages that are not socially acceptable [but are] permitted by religious law... such as cases in which a woman marries her servant or her driver... a young woman marries an older man, or an older woman marries a young man..."

With regard to the issue of the secrecy of misyar marriages, Al-Qaradhawi said: "In Saudi Arabia, [marriages] are registered and documented by the judge, [and the same is true] in the UAE... That is, the marriage is not necessarily secret... After all, if two witnesses witness the marriage, it is already no secret. In addition, in the Gulf states [women have] a guardian. Where is the secrecy in a matter in which there are witnesses and a guardian[?]...

"In the Maliki school of religious law, secret marriages [are invalid], but the other schools settle for there being witnesses. In my opinion, witnesses are the minimum requirement for a legal announcement [of marriage]. Some people do not want to announce their marriage for various reasons... I know several very senior clerics who married [in misyar marriages] and would go to their [new] wives, and his children and his other wife never knew this until after their death...

"The media attack has turned polygamy into a grave crime. The woman thinks that if her husband takes another wife, it is a death sentence for her. How, then, can he tell her this? He doesn't want to kill her, and does this [secretly] in order to protect her, since she will object to this and will perhaps collapse... In this situation, there is nothing preventing him from marrying and hiding it from his wife..."

In answer to the question: "Doesn't such a marriage open the door to extortion, because perhaps a poor man will marry a [wealthy] woman and extort her?" Al-Qaradhawi answered: "Extortion can occur even in ordinary marriages. I receive letters and phone calls from women with jobs whose husbands are extorting them and taking their wages. They [i.e. their husbands] even keep them from opening a [bank] account in their names, and from helping their families... [In misyar marriage], the woman relinquishes [some of her funds] to the man of her own free will. This situation is not extortion...

"The woman is entitled to relinquish some of her rights [if she wants to]... In the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, it is related that when Sawda bint Zam'a, the wife of the prophet after Khadija, grew old... she relinquished her day [for having relations with the Prophet] in favor of 'Aisha [his beloved young wife]..."

Regarding the question of children and family life in misyar marriage, Al-Qaradhawi said: "There is nothing that forbids there being children from a misyar marriage... Aren't there husbands who are always traveling and leaving the children with their wives? On the contrary, there are also husbands that are [at home]... and barely see the children. The husband comes in the middle of the night when the children are already asleep, and when they go to school in the morning he is asleep, and he gets up in the afternoon. He doesn't see his children day or night. This happens; does it invalidate the marriage?..."

With regard to the difference between misyar marriage and mut'a marriage, Al-Qaradhawi explained: "Mut'a marriage is for a limited period of time. It is a marriage in which the man pays the woman for the time... If they marry for a week the payment is for a week; if they marry for a month the payment is for a month, and if they marry for a year [the payment is for a year]... After the specified time period is up, the marriage is null and void... There is no need for divorce. Misyar marriage, in contrast, cannot be annulled except by divorce initiated by the husband or by the wife, or by a judge's ruling... Mut'a marriage is of course forbidden among the Sunnis."[12]

Misyar Marriage - Invalid Because It is Marriage With Intent to Divorce

Abd Allah bin Na'if Al-'Utaybi, an opponent of misyar marriage, explained in his column in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh that misyar marriage is actually marriage that includes the intent to divorce. As mentioned, the Institute of Islamic Religious Law banned marriage contracted with the intent to end it in divorce, because it involves "deception and fraud."

According to Al-'Utaybi, "misyar marriage discriminates against the woman. [True,] it does have conditions [according to religious law] for marriage, but unfortunately it is not marriage at all. It is marriage with the intent to divorce... and the proof of what I say is that we have never found and never heard of a misyar marriage that lasted. They last for a while, and then the man divorces his helpless wife. What does it mean when a man who contracts a misyar marriage hides his wife?... What does it mean when a man contracts a misyar marriage far from the region in which he lives? And what does it mean when the man refuses to have children with this wife?... Women are deprived of their rights in this marriage, because the husband has no home that she can settle in; she has no children from him; and she cannot express her opinion. She is destined only to sate the man's lust...

"Would you want your daughter, your sister, or a woman under your protection to marry in this fashion? Don't ask for anything that you would not wish upon yourself." [13]

Misyar Marriage is No Different From Mut'a Marriage

In the Saudi daily Al-Watan, Maram Abd Al-Rahman Makawi, a Saudi author, explained that there was no difference between misyar marriage and the mut'a marriage forbidden by Sunni Islam. She wrote: "What is strange is that we very often condemn those from other schools of religious thought [i.e. Shi'ites] because [they agree to] mut'a marriage. Even though I am completely opposed to this kind of marriage, I respect the fact that they call things by their name...

"A few years ago, I heard Sheikh 'Abd Allah bin Muni' answer a question regarding misyar marriage, and say that 'the cowardly man turns to misyar marriage... A man with self-confidence must take numerous wives according to religious law, and announce this before Allah and the public.' The sheikh was right. Islam has permitted the man to take two, three, or four wives, provided that he treats them fairly with regard to livelihood, marital relations, a home, and behavior towards them... What more do men want?...

"If you go to the marriage websites and look through the papers that publish marriage ads, you will find single men aged 21-29 (primarily in Saudi Arabia) who are looking to contract misyar marriages. Naturally, they will marry someone who has financial capability, who is for the most part older than they... And what happens to the young women in the [same] age group? They marry men who have passed marriageable age... Does a young man aged 24 intend to remain with a woman aged 40 or 50? If the answer is no, then this is a pleasure marriage [mut'a]. And when he divorces her and marries another in ordinary marriage, he has already acquired bad habits from his previous marriages - such as not taking responsibility, and relying on others..." [14]

Misyar Marriage - Worse Than Prostitution

'Aisha Al-Mari wrote in her column in the UAE daily Al-Ittihad: "There is no doubt that the chauvinist societies find justification for depriving women and children of their rights in favor of the man's free enjoyment. We don't even call this prostitution, because prostitution is [at least] for pay... There must be no exploitation of social problems such as the problem of older single women such that the woman relinquishes her rights and the rights of her children. Society must examine the roots of the problem and deal with them - and not skip over them with an additional deprivation of women's rights..." [15]

Dr. Rola Dashti, who heads the Kuwait Economic Society, and was the first Kuwaiti woman to register as a parliamentary candidate, [16] also addressed the social aspect of the phenomenon: "Misyar marriage harms the foundation of the family, and of family stability. The rights that the woman relinquishes are fundamental to building a stable family... There must be no use of the issue of 'older single women' to force the woman to relinquish more rights. It is fitting to deal with [this problem] politically and socially, and not to choose the easy way such as misyar marriage... Even a woman in an ordinary marriage suffers from many problems - for example, during divorce - not to mention a woman in a misyar marriage... The time has come for enlightened clerics to deal with the extremist views... and not abandon women in the struggle. There is no escape from launching an attack against the extremist thought that is harming society and restricting the development of the woman in Arab society." [17]

"The Children of Misyar Marriages are Children Who are Oppressed and Hurt"

In another article, Dr. Ibtisam Halwani discussed the situation of the children of misyar marriages: "Why don't misyar marriages turn into ordinary marriages and get announced - instead of being secret marriages that show the man's cowardice and selfishness? And what about the children? Is it permissible for a man to prevent his wife in a misyar marriage from having children? Of course it is forbidden. So what happens when the man brings children to the world from a number of homes? And even if they are the children from one wife to whom he is married in a misyar marriage, how will he oversee the education of his children in this home when he is there some days and other days and weeks he is not?

"If many fathers who live in one home [only] are careless regarding the weighty tasks of life, what will they do when they have a number of homes and many children?... Is it logical that they will treat the children of the misyar wife like they treat these children's mothers, that is, in accordance with circumstance, needs, and desires? Who will raise [the children of misyar marriage] and who will pay the expenses of their housing, food, school, and all the other necessities of life? How will the father monitor their studies, and how will he handle their problems?... And if he divorces their mother, what will happen to them? The children of divorced women from ordinary marriages are known, and their father is known... but who knows the fathers of the misyar children?

"If this marriage is based on concealment, or on a limited announcement [of the marriage, only to the woman's closest relatives], what is the status of women in misyar marriages among her other relatives, such as her aunts, and even among her friends and acquaintances? Will they hide their pregnancy and then hide their children? And even if the woman in misyar marriage is not a Saudi or has no family, don't her sons from this marriage need supervision and care? On the contrary; perhaps her situation is worse, particularly because there is no deterrence preventing the husband from abandoning his son's rights...

"Why not allow sons of misyar marriages and sons of ordinary marriages to have the same opportunities in life?... Doesn't this difference engender hatred and a sense of injustice among the children from misyar marriages because of how they are treated by the children from ordinary homes who have care, livelihood, supervision, and love, that they themselves do not receive? Don't they feel anger because they see their fathers rarely, and enjoy no rights, not even basic ones?...

"The children of misyar marriages are children who are oppressed and hurt. Society will engender hundreds of them in the future, because of the sweeping permission for these marriages. Are we ready to deal with this phenomenon in light of the many and various social problems that [already] exist?..." [18]

*Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] The term misyar in colloquial Arabic in the Gulf states means "visit." The term shows that these marriages are based on visits by the husband to the wife, and not on life together in one home. In other Arab states the phenomenon also exists, but is called by other names. See Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 30, 2006; Al-Arabiyya TV, April 28, 2006.

[2] The Saudi daily Al-Watan, for example, reported on emails offering services providing religiously valid misyar marriages to a virgin for 4,500 riyals, and to a non-virgin for 3,000 riyals. See Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 29, 2006.

[3], April 10, 2006.

[4] The phenomenon of the "older single woman" is extremely widespread in Arab society. Saudi author Maram ‘Abd Al-Rahman Makawi has pointed out a number of the main causes of the problem in Saudi society: objections on the part of the woman's guardian to her marriage due to tribal, regional, racial, color, or familial considerations; objections to her marrying a non-professional or a manual laborer; exaggerated dowry demands; objections to her marrying someone she loves in order to punish her; and objections to her marrying a non-Saudi. See Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 5, 2006.

Divorce is also very common in Arab society. The novel Girls of Riyadh, by Saudi author Rajaa Al-Sanie, focuses on the difficulties faced by divorced women. The book tells of the love lives of four young Saudi women attending the University of Riyadh. Two of them are divorced, one of whom was in a marriage arranged by her family after meeting her future husband only once. She moved with her husband to Chicago, so that he could complete his studies, but her husband showed no interest in her and had an affair with a Japanese-American woman. She became pregnant in order to try to win his affection, but after hearing the news her husband divorced her and sent her back to her parents in Riyadh, with her child, where her family prevented her from leaving the house so as to avoid gossip. Another girl had been engaged to a man who divorced her because she gave herself to him before their official wedding ceremony; she then fell in love with an upper-class Saudi bachelor who would not marry her because she was divorced. After he married a cousin of his, he offered to continue their relationship, but she refused, and ended up marrying her cousin. The other two girls also had many troubles in their personal lives, and only one had a happy end to her story. For a complete synopsis of the book, see .

[5], April 10, 2006.

[6] The examples here are taken from the matchmaking website The site provides participants' email addresses and sometimes their telephone numbers.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 25, 2006.

[8] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), July 13, 2006.

[9] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 6, 2006.

[10] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 6, 2006, May 30, 2006.


[12] Other differences between misyar marriage and mut'a marriage were discussed by Saudi university lecturer and cleric Dr. Muhammad Al-Nujeimi. In addition to the fact that misyar marriage is not - in contrast to mut'a marriage - limited in time, and divorce is required in the event of separation, in misyar marriage the man is forbidden from taking more than four wives, and if one of the spouses dies, the other has the right of inheritance. However, in mut'a marriage, Dr. Al-Nujeimi explains, the man can take more than four wives, because the marriage is not a complete marriage, as it lacks proper foundation and proper religious legal conditions and thus there is no right of inheritance between the spouses. See .

[13] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 5, 2006.

[14] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 26, 2006.

[15] Al-Ittihad (UAE), May 15, 2006.

[16] The Washington Post (U.S.), June 29, 2006,

[17] Elaph, April 18, 2006.

[18] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 20, 2006.

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