Marriage in pre-Islamic Arabia

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In pre-Islamic Arabia, a variety of different marriage practices existed. The most common and recognized types of marriage at this time consisted of: marriage by agreement, marriage by capture, marriage by mahr, marriage by inheritance and Mutah or temporary marriage.[1][better source needed]

Prior to Islam, in the Arab world, women could not make decisions based on their own beliefs and had little control over their marriages. They were never bound by contract for marriage or custody of children and their consent was never sought. Women were seldom allowed to divorce their husbands and their view was not regarded for either a marriage or divorce.[2][additional citation(s) needed] If they divorced, women were not legally allowed to go by their maiden name again.[2] They could not own or inherit property or objects, even if they were facing poverty or harsh living conditions.[3]

Marriage by agreement[edit]

The first of the four common marriages[citation needed] that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia was marriage by agreement. This consisted of an agreement between a man and his future wife's family. This marriage could be within the tribe or between two families of different tribes.

Some women were forbidden from marrying outside of their tribe and had to either marry another member of the tribe or a stranger who would agree to live with the tribe.

In the case that involved a man and woman of two different tribes, the woman would leave her family and permanently reside with her husband. The children of these marriages were considered part of their father's tribe, unless a different arrangement had previously been made which returned the children to their mother's tribe.

The reason for intertribal marriages was to ensure the protection and possession of the children the couple would produce.[4] Women in intertribal marriages had more freedom and retained the right to dismiss or divorce their husbands at any time. The women had precise rituals they used to inform their husbands of their dismissal, such as this: "if they lived in a tent they turned it around, so that if the door faced east, it now faced west, and when the man saw this, he knew that he was dismissed and did not enter".[5]

Marriage by Mahr[edit]

Marriage by Mahr was a more traditional marriage practice. These marriages consisted of the groom or groom's father paying the bride "Mahr", to marry them. (Mahr is very important in Islamic marriage. Allah has used the word "faridah" for it.[better source needed] It means something fixed, decided and obligatory.[better source needed] It is obligatory on the husband to pay mahr to his wife unless she expressly by her own will without any pressure forgives him or returns the amount of mahr to him. Mahr belongs to the wife and it is to be given to her only. It is not the property of her parents or her guardian. No one can forgive the husband to pay the Mahr except the wife herself or, in case she did not go to her husband and the marriage ended without consummation, then in that situation her guardian can also forgive the mahr on her behalf. If a husband dies without paying mahr to his wife, it will be an outstanding debt on him and it must be paid before the distribution of his inheritance among his heirs. It helps the women during the time of divorce).[4]

Marriage by capture[edit]

Marriage by capture, or "Ba'al", was a common pre-Islamic marriage practice. Most often taking place during times of war, marriage by capture occurred when women were taken captive by men from other tribes and placed on the slave market of Mecca. From the slave market these women were sold into marriage or slavery. In captive marriages men bought their wives and therefore had complete control over them. Women in these marriages had no freedom and were subjected to following their husband's orders and bearing his children. These women became their husbands' property and had no right to divorce.[4]

Marriage by inheritance[edit]

Marriage by inheritance was "a widespread custom throughout Arabia, including Medina and Mecca". This practice involved the possession of a deceased man's wives (When a man died, his son inherited all his wives except his own mother) being passed down to his son. In such a case, the son has several different options. He could keep them as his wives, arrange a marriage by purchase for them to enter into from which he would receive a dowry for them, or he could simply dismiss them. In these cases, as in the majority of marriage practices at this time, the woman had little or no rights and was subjected to follow the orders or her inheritor.[4]


Beena is a form of marriage used in pre-Islamic Arabia, in which a wife would own a tent of her own, within which she retained complete independence from her husband, according to William Robertson Smith.[6] The term was suggested by John Ferguson McLennan, who noted that in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) the marriage when a husband goes to live in the wife's village is called "beena marriage", and suggested "beena" as a general term for this kind of marriage.[7] The social system by which a couple lives with or near the wife's family is known by anthropologists as matrilocality.


  1. ^ Shah, N. (2006). Women, The Koran and International Human Rights Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. pp. 32. ISBN 90-04-15237-7.
  2. ^ a b Esposito, John (2002). What Everyone Needs To Know About Islam. Oxford Press. pp. 80.
  3. ^ "Women in the Pre-Islamic Societies and Civilization". Women in Islam. Retrieved 1 December 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d Muslim Women's League. (1995). Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia. Muslim Women's League.
  5. ^ Mernissi, F. (1987). Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Indiana University Press. pp. 75. ISBN 0-253-31162-4.
  6. ^ Smith, p. 167
  7. ^ Smith, pp. 70, 71