“The word muta is derived from mata, meaning merchandise or goods. In case of a marriage it means “that which gives benefits, but for a short while” or enjoyment or pleasure. In Iran, this practice is called sigha (lit. form or type) and it is sometimes called nikah al-muwaqqat or izdivaj-i muvaqqat, both mean temporary marriage.
Besides the temporary marriage, four kinds of union of man and woman were prevalent among the pagan Arabs in the pre-Islamic period. The first of these was the permanent marriage tie which, in a modified form, was recognized by Islam. The second was known as the istibdza (from bidz, meaning a portion or a large portion of wealth, sufficient to carry on a trade). The following explanation of this word is given in Bukhari (67:37) that, “a man would say to his wife: send for such a one and have cohabitation with him; and the husband would remain aloof from her and would not touch her until her pregnancy was clear”. The third form was that in which any number of men, less than ten, would gather together and have cohabitation with a woman, and when she became pregnant and gave birth to a child, she would call for all these men and would say that the child belonged to such a one from among them; and he would bound by her word to accept the responsibility. Fourthly, there were prostitutes who were entered upon promiscuously and when one of them bore a child, a man known as qa’if (one who recognized) was invited and his decision, based on similarity of features, was final as to who was the father of the child. The last three forms only legalized adultery in one form or another and Islam did not recognize any of them, nor was any such practice resorted to by any Muslim at any time.
The Muta or the temporary marriage stood on a different basis, and reform in this matter was brought about generally. It was into practice among the pagan Arabs in the 4th century. The reference of this form of marriage is believed to have found in the Koran (4:28), although the explanation of this passage as early as the 1st/7th century refers it to the ordinary marriage. After giving a list of the classes of women with whom marriage is forbidden, the Koranic verse reads: “And further, you are permitted to seek out wives with your wealth, in modest conduct but not in fornication; but give them their reward (ajr) for what you have enjoyed of them (istamta’tum) in keeping with your promise.”
The traditions are contradictory on the question of muta. According to Tabari (1:1775-6), it was in use in the time of the Prophet and he was even said to have practised it. On the other hand, Ali bin Abu Talib relates that it was forbidden by the Prophet on the day of Khaibar (Bukhari, maghazi, bab 38). According to other traditions as quoted by Ahmad b. Hanbal, muta was first forbidden by Umar at the end of his caliphate (Masnad, 3:304). Ibn Majah (nikah, bab 44) writes that Umar threatened the punishment of stoning as he regarded muta being an act of fornication. What then is at the bottom of these contradictory traditions? We must therefore regard muta as the survived into Islam of an old Arabian custom.
The Ismailis, Zaidis or the Sunnis reject muta. Modern controversies over the permissibility of muta, however, appears to be more or less theoretical, it is not practised by the Arab Shi’ites of Lebanon and Iraq and even in Iran its social significance appears to be very slight.
Qadi Noman quoted a statement of Imam Jafar Sadik transmitted by Abbad b. Yaqub ar-Rawajini (d. 250/864) in which the Imam condemned it as a form of prostitution, vide Madelung’s “The Sources of Ismaili Law” (p. 33).