Different Forms of Marriage in Pre-Islamic Arabia

Different Forms of Marriage in Pre-Islamic Arabia
Plurality in Marriage

Although pre-Islamic Arabia was characterized by various forms of marriage and cohabitation, as we have shown, the Arabian family was of the extended type and, with a few exceptions, as in Makkah of later years, kinship considerations were the foundation of social life. When the immediate family is controlled by the extended family “the society is,” as David has put it, “familistic.” In such a society, “plural mating [in the form of either polygyny or concubinage] is very likely to occur, because in a kinship dominated society any means of enlarging the family contributes to one’s power and prestige.” 

There can be little doubt that plural mating occurred in pre-Islamic Arabia if only because there was no institutionalized taboo against it. It was practiced among the various branches of the Semites, including even those who embraced Christianity. But it is not certain how common plural mating was. Some scholars tend to exaggerate its incidence among the pre-Islamic Arabs; others seem to infer the opposite. From a broad historical and comparative perspective, it seems that the custom was permitted and occasionally practiced. Under normal circumstances its “disadvantages” may well outweigh its “advantages,” and it would be unlikely, therefore, to find it as a universal norm in any society. Moreover, in pre-Islamic Arabia, as in other societies, the wife and/or her kin resented plural mating. Cases are reported where it was stipulated or pledged that the prospective husband would take no partner other than his only wife. In fact, there are indications that this attitude continued in Islam and was endorsed by some of the major schools of law. If a husband takes a second wife, the first may justifiably refuse to be a co-wife and request a divorce. We may infer, then, that under normal conditions plural mating occurred, but was uncommon, resented, and protestable.


The question of polyandry is also a controversial issue. Some writers claim that this form of marriage was common in pre-Islamic Arabia at a particular stage and certain vestiges thereof were found at the rise of Islam. This notion is usually connected with a theory of matrilineality leading, eventually, to patrilineality. An examination of the evidence adduced to support this theory and of the findings of other investigators would seem to lead to the conclusion that this form of marriage was neither universal in any society nor representative of any historical stage. Polyandry is likely to prevail under such conditions as these: a very high sex ratio, lack of sexual jealousy, severe poverty, internalization of the conceptions of common property, benevolence with regard to sex, and insignificance of the economic output of women. It is very unlikely that these conditions will obtain, in combination, long enough in a society to give rise to perpetual, institutionalized polyandry. Even if some of these conditions, such as poverty, prevail other conditions, e.g., sexual jealousy or acquisitiveness will most probably check the tendency toward total societal polyandry. However, various kinds of laxity, sexual hospitality, and sex communism have existed in some societies for various reasons. But these are exceptions and do not take the form of institutionalized marriages and reciprocal commitments.

The extent of polyandry in pre-Islamic Arabia is therefore uncertain. Matrilineality had existed but it had no conclusively causal relation with polyandry. Female infanticide, poverty, and sexual laxity were known, but not to any degree demonstratively conducive to polyandry as an institutionalized form of marriage. Conceptions of honor, pride, and shame, which are believed to have been responsible, at least partly, for female infanticide, would not ordinarily favor patterned polyandry. Yet this does not preclude occasional recourse thereto. There are accounts that it was practiced. In certain cases a woman would cohabit with a group of men whose number was under ten. When she gave birth she summoned all of them (no one could refuse to respond to her call) and told them the news. Then she herself would decide who the father of her child would be. This implies that the woman must have been powerful enough to express her choice and have men abide by her decision. If so, it is likely that not many women could have been in this favorable position. Further, the reports on these cases give the impression that it was not any man, but some particular men, who could have had this kind of intimacy with one woman, and that the reason for this kind of relationship was, perhaps, the quest for good breeding.

In another variant of polyandry also known in pre-Islamic Arabia, the number of men involved was greater than that of the first variant and the relationship was characterized as prostitution. When the woman in question gave birth physiognomists were called to determine the child’s lineage and the man named as father had to accept their decision. Women who were involved in this kind of relationship, we are told, lived in isolation and disrespect. They were in the main slaves of non-Arab stock; it is contended that seldom would Arab women put themselves in this position. There are indications that slave owners used to force their slavegirls to enter the practice and turn over their earnings to the masters. At any rate, while this may have been a form of sexual behavior, it can hardly be designated as a pattern of marriage.

In addition to these, pre-Islamic Arabia had at one time or another experienced the following forms of marriage and cohabitation.

Marriage by contract

In this type of marriage men proposed to women through their fathers or guardians. When the proposal was accepted a dowry was set and the marriage consummated. It was a full-fledged marriage with all the contractual responsibilities and normal marital consequences.

Istibdā’ cohabitation (wifelending)

Husbands sometimes permitted their wives to cohabit with men of distinction in quest for select offspring. The offspring would be identified not with the natural, but with the social father, the husband, who abstained while his wife cohabited with the other man, the natural father. 

Mut’ah marriage

This type was contracted for a limited period of time and in return for a price payable by the man to the woman. Apparently, it was practiced by strangers and travellers.

Lovers’ secret cohabitation (akhdān)

It was acceptable for men and women to cohabit in secret without any contract as long as they wished. But once the relationship was disclosed, it was regarded as disgraceful and then terminated.

Marriage by exchange

A man could exchange his wife or daughter for another man’s wife or daughter. No further reciprocity or dowry was required. 

Marriage by purchase
It was customary to acquire a wife for a price (mahr) payable to her father or guardian. This practice had some exogamous effects. The Arabs often hesitated to marry their daughters out of their own tribes, and nothing could induce them to overlook that feeling except a high price (mahr) offered by the suitor. They were also sensitive to their daughters’ future and would usually prefer to marry them off to men who could afford a high price, perhaps under the assumption that the women would be more secure and cherished by their husbands.
Marriage by capture

This form is believed by some scholars, e.g., Smith, to have preceded marriage by purchase and is one of the heatedly debated points in the history of marriage. 

Marriage by inheritance

Widows were inherited like property by the heirs of their deceased husbands. If an heir wished to marry the widow, he could do so for the very same dowry paid by the deceased husband. He could also contract her marriage to another man and receive the dowry himself. He was also empowered to debar her from remarriage altogether and force her to remain in the state of permanent widowhood.

Maqt marriage 

It was acceptable for a man to marry his father’s widow or divorcee.

Service marriage

Some tribes adopted the practice that when a man was unable to pay a bride price he agreed to serve the girl’s father or kin for a period of time sufficient to earn the bride price. 

Errébu marriage

The basic feature of this type was that when a Semite father had no sons of his own he would adopt a young man, treat him as his natural son and marry him to one of his daughters on the basis that the groom would bear the lineal identity of the adopting father and continue to preserve the family name.

Experimental (sifāh) cohabitation

Some tribes used to allow men to cohabit with young women before marriage. If the partners liked one another during this premarital experiment, they would conclude a marriage contract; otherwise, there was no commitment on either side.


A man could have as many concubines as he was able to afford. Concubinage co-existed with polygyny among the Semites, especially the Hebrews, for two basic reasons. Childless wives preferred their husbands’ cohabitation with slavegirls to becoming co-wives. They were confident that the slaves, unlike free women, would not, and could not, compete with them for the husband’s love and favors. When a slave gave birth, the child was not identified with the natural mother, the slave concubine, but with the wife of her master; the wife assumed the role of the social as well as the natural mother of the child. Besides this social reason, there was an economic one. Polygyny was costly; only the rich could afford it. It was much more economical to keep concubines and at the same time reap the fruits of their services.

Islam’s Position 

In this diversified environment. Islam rose, and to the people who had experienced or witnessed those various forms of sexual, behavior it addressed its precepts. Whether all these forms were actually practiced at the rise of Islam or some of them had long died out, Islam approved only of marriage by contract, marriage-like cohabitation with slaves, and, according to the Imami Shī‘īs, the mut’ah temporary marriage. Any other form or means of sexual behavior was unequivocally forbidden.

[The Family Structure in Islam by Hammūdah ʻAbd al-ʻĀṭī, p, 98-103]

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