Will you marry me - temporarily?

This year, the Iranian interior ministry has launched a huge campaign to encourage the country's fru

If the US Greeting Card Association is to be believed, more than a billion valentines will be flying across the globe this year. Mine - yes, I do get them - usually end up in our recycling bin. I take them seriously only if they come from Iran. A valentine card from the "Islamic Republic" is much more than a shot from Cupid's bow. It's the real thing: an invitation to a temporary marriage.

A temporary marriage, known generally as muta, is a specifically Shia tradition. It involves a contract between a man, who may or may not be married, and an unmarried woman - a contract in which the duration of marriage and the dowry are specified in advance. Both sides agree by mutual consent to the length of the marriage, which can range from an hour to 99 years.

There is no divorce; the muta contract simply expires with the lapse of its duration. Although witnesses are not required, the marriage has to be registered in court. Unlike in an ordinary, permanent marriage (how many really are permanent?), a temporary wife cannot claim maintenance. But a temporary husband cannot disown the children born from a muta marriage. Children of temporary marriages are considered legitimate, and are entitled to equal status in inheritance and other rights with their half- siblings born of permanent marriages.

This type of marriage existed in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, but it was banned by Umar, the second caliph, and later abandoned by most schools of Islamic law. However, "Twel ver" Shias, who predominate in Iran and Iraq, disagree with the rest of the Muslim world. They argue that it is not only a legitimate institution sanctioned by Islamic law, but essential for a society's sexual health. Since the "Islamic Revolution" of 1979, the Iranian regime has promoted muta vigorously, extolling its virtues in mosques and schools, at religious gatherings, in news papers and on radio and television.

On the whole, critics look down on the idea of temporary marriage. Sunni Muslims of my ilk see it as "impulsive sex", not too far removed from adultery and "fornication". And western critics, particularly feminists, equate muta with prostitution. I disagree. Indeed, I think these attitudes reflect our hypocrisy about sexual issues.

Muta, which means pleasure, is Iran's way of catching up with western sexual mores. The average person in the west goes through scores of temporary boyfriends and girlfriends before settling down with a single, permanent partner. That, I would argue, is little more than temporary marriage. Indeed, if it was a proper muta marriage it would save oceans of tears and heartache.

Our celebs could make everyone's lives that much easier if they took muta marriage seriously. If they marched their newest acquisition to the nearest mullah court, we would know exactly how long the latest affair would last. Moreover, we would be assured that any fruit of this tem porary union would be looked after by the man responsible and would not be a burden on the woman when she was ditched in favour of another, usually even younger, model - thus sparing us any acrimonious future lawsuits and embarrassing DNA tests.

There is, of course, always a chance that a temporary marriage turns into a permanent one. As Shahla Haeri revealed in her 1989 book, Law of Desire (published in the UK by I B Tauris), many muta contracts in Iran are transformed into permanent, loving relationships. Contrary to popular myth, it is usually not men but women, particularly divorcees and widows, who seek muta marriage. Haeri's extensive survey showed that many older women approached "young men, particularly handsome ones, directly and frequently". I think that where Iranian women lead, western women should follow.

As far as Iranian men are concerned, temporary marriage has been largely the preserve of the mullahs. This is why those seeking muta marriages have tended to go straight to Qom and Mashad, two popular and important religious centres in Iran, where eager religious scholars can be seen wandering the streets, muta contracts in hand, enticing visiting women to sign them. However, this mullah monopoly, I am glad to report, is about to be shattered.

This year, the Iranian interior ministry has launched a huge campaign to encourage the country's frustrated youth to seek sexual fulfilment in muta marriages. Roughly half of Iran's 70 million folk are under the age of 30. An increasing number are delaying marriage because of financial pressures and house prices, thereby missing out on sex. Soon, these young people will become serially monogamous, hopping from temporary partner to temporary partner. Iran will have caught up with the west; and we will all be happy.

Meanwhile, if you get a valentine card from Iran this year, don't bin it. Take it seriously. And if you are not fortunate enough to get one, get a muta partner anyway.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty