The Levirate Union: Cultures and Religions I

The practice of taking the wife of your deceased brother was a practice that has been seen throughout the ages and across different cultures. In this article, you will learn about the cultures and religions that practiced levirate marriages, such as adherents to the Islamic faith, Indonesian, and nomads in Central Asia.


Islamic law clearly sets the rules for marriage, which includes who a woman can marry. The Qur’an only allows a wife to be ‘inherited’ if she is in agreement. It is stated: “O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them in order to take [back] part of what you gave them unless they commit a clear immorality. And live with them in kindness. For if you dislike them – perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.” Levirate marriage was thought practiced in Kyrgyzstan during the Cold War , more as to follow tribal practices or customary law rather than to keep in line with Islamic law.


In Scythia, there was a history of levirate marriages that was followed for thousands of years. The nomadic people ‘inherited’ wives as part of property that once belonged to the deceased. This practice made sure that the children of the deceased would receive support and education. The custom emerged again when the economic status of a deceased family suffered a downturn. In Central Asia, the levirate practice was brought back during the Second World War. Under the circumstances, adult sons and brothers of a deceased man took the responsibility to provide for his dependents. One of the men would marry the widow and adopt the children if there were any.

Central Asia

Throughout Central Asia, Levirate marriages were a widespread practice. Central Asian nomads followed the tradition, as did the Xiongnu , ancient nomadic-based people associated with the Han Dynasty. As stated in the Records of the Grand Historian, after a man died, one of his relatives (usually a brother) would marry his widow.

The levirate custom continued on with the Huns until the 7th century CE. The Savirs were one of the Hunnish tribes in the region. They usually led a monogamous life, but sometimes, a married man would take his brother’s widow as a polygynous wife. If the woman had a high social status, the widow could make the decision whether to remarry or stay a widow. It didn’t matter how old someone was if they remarried. The widow could take a brother or a son (by another woman) of her first husband to become her new mate.


The Karo people in Indonesia show that the practice of polygyny is permitted. There was a study conducted in Indonesia that showed a Karo village named Kutagamber during the 1960s that involved one stance of the levirate marriage practice.