[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]
Human sexuality. How human beings express themselves sexually; how we experience sex. The phenomena this idea encompasses are at once centrally biological, physical, psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual. And is it weird to place these two words – Islam and sex – next to one another? Many Muslims nowadays treat the entire thing as if it is something wholly shameful; something that should not be talked about. But Islam offers a complete way of life to its proponents. And sex is an intrinsic part of the human experience. So what is the Islamic take on it?
Muslims are human beings too. We believe in fulfilling our biological and emotional needs: eating, sleeping, exercising, getting married and having sex. But many of us display a knee-jerk negative reaction of sorts when it comes to discussing sexual matters. It is an implicit expectation, in many Islamic sub-communities, that we all display utmost levels of Hayaa’ (modesty, shyness) when it comes to the topic of our more carnal desires, until the time for marriage comes along… and then we are supposed to somehow just know everything.
Within Islamic circles, it has not always been this way: in fact, from the advent of Islam onwards, there has been a notable amount of positive literature (in particular, written in the Arabic language) published on the topics of sex and erotology. This is entirely Halāl – permissible – granted that the discussions take place with regard to activity within a marital framework. So why is there a stark lack of Islamic sexual literature written in the lingua franca of the modern world – English – today?
The truth is, the common widespread tendency to circumvent all talk of sex and sexual relationships and such, within Muslim families and communities, is as a direct result of the introduction of Victorian ethics into Muslim cultures – whether directly, through the forces of colonialism, or a little more indirectly, through gradual ‘soft’ colonialism. Yes, I refer to the same British Victorians who were known to have covered table legs so as to prevent ‘unnecessary arousal’ in men.
It is true that Hayaa’ is a key part of the Islamic faith. We are meant to display Hayaa’ in how we speak; walk; dress; eat. Feelings of shame are important when it comes to preventing immoral behaviour. But talking about sex is not improper or immoral at all. In fact, such discussions are an indigenous part of the Islamic tradition, and sex is a fundamental part of the human experience.
“Hayaa’ does not bring anything but good.”
– Prophet Muhammad (SAW) (Hadith, [Bukhari])
In fact, not talking about sex – refusing to talk about it – results in a number of counterproductive adverse effects. Sexual repression is a very real thing, and this practice does not simply ‘turn off’ sexual desires in hormonal teenagers until they get married… The sexual essence of the adolescent human will remain. If you choose to speak to them and educate them on the matter, they will have some clarity, and someone to talk to, and to be advised and guided by. However, if you allow it to remain an untouched and taboo issue (like other stigmatised issues) it will not simply cease to exist: the subject will merely be pushed underground. And it will grow, resulting in such things as porn addictions, unhealthy views pertaining to sex and body image and human sexuality, and, even, perhaps, to future hyper-sexuality and related perversions.
Sex is undoubtedly a gift from God. Unlike some of our fellow People of the Book (of the Holy scriptures) we do not believe that the sole purpose of sexual activities is procreation. We strongly believe in the merits of the whole pleasure element. It is a sacred, pleasurable, spiritual act. In fact, Muhammad (SAW) likened having sex with one’s spouse to “tasting the sweetness of [each other’s] honey“.
According to the Islamic tradition, marriage is a very sacred institution – “half of faith” itself, according to one Hadith. And healthy marriages are made up of love, trust, and respect. Sexual activity is to be partaken in both as an expression of conjugal love – a communicative device – and as a general augmenter of it.
Neither the Prophet (SAW) nor the early Muslims were shy to talk about the human reality of intrinsic sexuality. But they did not recklessly indulge in every worldly desire they may have had. Muslims believe that, in this world, we must live lives of conscious moderation; of curbing our base desires for the sake of being noble human beings, and good Muslims.
Sex is not disallowed in Islam. Extramarital sex is impermissible, sure. But Islam is wholly against things like monasticism and lifelong celibacy. We are also not meant to give into our desires of uncurbed sexual activity in this life – with as many sexual partners as we please. “Do not commit excess,” the Holy Qur’an commands of us. We are to eat, and to drink, and to socialise with one another, and to have sex with our spouses, and to enjoy our lives as much as possible, but we are to do all this within the given constructs of Halal and Harām, and we are not to be given to over-indulgence and excess.
Between a married man and woman, mutual pleasure is seen as an obligatory facet of the blessed relationship. In fact, and this may come as a shock to anti-Islamic Western feminists, Islam places a great amount of emphasis on the sexual (and emotional) gratification of the wife in a conjugal setting: she even has the right to initiate a divorce with him if he fails to satisfy her sexually!
Human beings have all sorts of intrinsic needs, desires, wants, and motivations. According to the Islamic tradition, some of these should be actively nurtured, while others should be actively restrained. And the nature of the human male is such that he finds himself extremely attracted to femininity and the beauty of the female form. Our Creator knows this – and instructs men to “lower [their] gaze”; to avoid “unrestrained glances”. This is an example of ‘inner Jihad’ – of self-overcoming, for the sake of God.
Likewise, human females – we like to beautify ourselves. We like to experiment with makeup, and with clothes that show off our figures. Many women are given to undergoing cosmetic surgeries and such to further indulge in these desires. And we, too, are attracted to masculinity. Thus, our test, the point of our self-overcoming, here, is to be modest in our attire outside, and also to “lower [our] gaze”.
The Islamic view is that spouses have a right to each other – to each other’s comfort, and to each other’s time, and to each other’s sexual richnesses. An unmarried Muslim man is not allowed to have premarital sexual partners now because his future wife has a right to him. This is the same for married individuals: adultery – and even ‘soft adultery’, like kissing a person of the opposite gender on the cheek, or indulging in watching pornographic content – is not allowed, irrespective of how much modern Western society normalises this sort of thing.
There is beauty in balance. And there is value in fewness. Thus, one of the purposes of restraint until – and, with regard to other people, during – marriage is to beautify and enrich the marital experience. If you actively lower your gaze, trying not to look at the beautiful physical forms of men/women you are not married to (and restraining yourself from even being emotionally vulnerable with them) you are more likely to see your future (or current) husband or wife as the most physically attractive person, and the best confidant you have ever had; your eventual sexual and romantic experiences will hopefully be more meaningful, and more rich, as a direct result.
Sadly, in the modern world – this world that appears to thrive on hyper-sexuality [almost everything is sexualised, here!] sex is something that is seen as easy and cheap. This is because sex sells. In line with the norms of consumerist culture (which also promotes other spiritual malpractices and ills, including arrogance, gluttony, and deceit), the sacred practice is commodified. Individuals’ sexualities are presented as products that can be purchased. People consume sexual content without restraint. But, and as we as Muslims know, although such things may bring an immediate sense of pleasure – a momentary explosion of pleasure-giving neuro-chemicals – there tend to arise, from these activities, a number of personal and societal ills, in the long run. And we are not meant to be slaves to our base instincts and desires: the guidelines presented to us in the forms of Qur’an and Hadith are for the physical and spiritual good of ourselves, and for the good of the people around us – for those we have moral responsibilities towards.
I would highly recommend the following podcast episode (both Part One, and Part Two) for a better grasp on the issues of the highly sexual, ‘porn-ified’, culture around us: Deenspiration [on Spotify] -> Episode 11
And, for a better understanding on Islamic takes on sexuality and erotology, check out the following podcast episode: Coffee with Karim [on Spotify] -> Episode 16
These are conversations that we need to start normalising, within Muslim circles. We need to be able to communicate, in a healthy manner, about marital rights and responsibilities; porn and the prevalent detrimental culture of unrestrained glances and sexuality; sexual dysfunction; sexual health; sexual abuse. If we brush all these pressing issues under a rug, they will not simply and effortlessly disappear. Rather, they will remain there, and they will grow in severity, until we are forced to address them.
Sexual repression is not a healthy practice. Neither is the general phenomenon of hyper-sexuality, which often manifests as a result of extreme stress. Balance, balance, balance. Islam encourages such things as early marriage; voluntary fasting for those who struggle with hyper-sexual tendencies; the beautification of the marital experience. But nowhere in the native Islamic tradition does it tell us to refuse to talk about sex altogether. We are simply told that sex is a beautiful and sacred and highly pleasurable gift, designed to be participated in within the blessed companionship that Nikkah – marriage – ought to offer to the individual.
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Sadia Ahmed, 2020