Iddat is an Arabic word and its literal meaning is ‘counting’. ‘Counting’ here means counting the days of possible conception to ascertain whether a woman is pregnant or not. Under Muslim law, it is that period during which a woman is prohibited from re-marrying after the dissolution of her marriage.
During this period the widow or a divorced wife is required to live a pure and simple life and she cannot marry again. The object of Iddat is to ascertain the paternity of a possible conception by her former husband.
After divorce or death of the husband, if the woman re-marries immediately and a child is born within normal course, then there is every likelihood that the conception could be by the former husband and not by the present.
It would be difficult, therefore, to establish as to who may be regarded as the father of such a child. To overcome this difficulty, Muslim law provides that where a marriage is dissolved (by divorce or death of the husband), the woman cannot re-marry before the expiry of a specified period called Iddat. After this period, the possible conception by the former husband would naturally become apparent and visible.
Marriage with a woman who is observing Iddat is irregular under Sunni law. Under Shia law the marriage contracted with woman observing Iddat is void. Different periods of Iddat, which a woman is legally required to undergo, are given below:
(a) Dissolution of Marriage by Divorce:
(i) When a valid marriage is dissolved by divorce and consummation has taken place, the duration of Iddat is three monthly courses. Divorce may take place by Talaq, Ila, Zihar, Khula, Mubarat or under Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939. If the woman is not subject to menstruation, this period is three lunar months.
(ii) If the marriage has not been consummated, the woman is not required to observe the Iddat.
(iii) If the woman is pregnant at the time of divorce then the duration of Iddat extends till delivery of the child or abortion.
(b) Dissolution of marriage by Death of Husband:
(i) Where a valid marriage dissolves by the death of the husband, the duration of Iddat is four months and ten days. If she is pregnant at the time of husband s death, it continues till the delivery of the child, or four months ten days whichever is longer.
(ii) After the death of the husband, an Iddat of four months ten days must be observed by the widow even if the marriage was not consummated.
(c) Death of Husband During ‘divorce -Iddat’:
The period of Iddat after divorce is three months. If the divorced woman is observing divorce-Iddat of three months and her former husband dies before completion of three months, she has to start a fresh Iddat of four months and ten days from the date of husband’s death.
For example, where after completion of two months of divorce-iddat the former husband dies the divorced woman has to observe a fresh iddat of four months ten days. Thus, the total period of Iddat in such case shall be five months ten days.
Where a husband has divorced his wife and has died before the completion of the Iddat, the divorced-wife who is already observing divorce-iddat (of three months) is required to undergo a fresh Iddat of four months ten days, from the date of the husband’s death.
(d) Commencement of Iddat:
The period of Iddat begins from the date of the divorce or death of the husband and not from the date on which the woman gets the information of her divorce or of the death of her husband. If she gets the information after the expiry of the specified term, she need not observe the required Iddat.
(i) A generally accepted tradition among the Shias is that Iddat is not necessary if the woman is past the age of child bearing or has not attained puberty or if her menstruation is irregular or absent.
(ii) Under Shia law, the marriage with a woman observing Iddat is void.
Under Sunni law if the husband and the wife are together for sometime in privacy and there is no social, moral or legal restriction in their intercourse, they are said to be in valid retirement (Khilwatus-Sahiha). If there is a valid retirement, it is presumed that actual consummation has taken place.
Valid retirement is treated as equal to the actual consummation for purposes of dower, paternity of the child, certain prohibitions in marriage etc. and also for purposes of the observance of Iddat.
Under Sunni law, therefore, divorce-iddat is necessary even if actual consummation could not be proved but a valid retirement has been established.
Under Shia law, valid retirement is not recognised; it is not regarded as equivalent to the actual consummation. Accordingly, if the marriage dissolves by divorce, the divorced wife is required to observe Iddat only where actual consummation has taken place.
Husband Prohibited from Remarrying during Iddat:
As discussed in the preceding lines, the object of Iddat is to ascertain any possible conception from the former husband. The woman who has been divorced, is therefore, not free to remarry immediately. On the other hand, the husband need not wait and he is free to remarry immediately after the divorce.
But in an exceptional situation, the husband is also prohibited from remarrying during the Iddat of his divorced wife. If a husband has four wives at a time and he divorces any one of them, then he is prohibited to marry again before the expiry of the term of Iddat, which his divorced wife is undergoing. For example, H, the husband has four wives W1, W2, W3 and W4.
If H divorces W2, she would be required to observe the Iddat and she cannot remarry. But at the same time H is also prohibited to take another wife till W2 is observing her Iddat. However, if H remarries before the expiry of Iddat of W2, the marriage is merely irregular, not void.
Durations of Iddat, in the Irregular (fasid) and Muta form of marriages are discussed onwards.