The Western and the Islamic Sexual Morality
By: Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi
Is sex inherently evil? A Muslim would be surprised by this question. Such a thought would never cross his mind. But the relevance of this question to Christianity and the Western world will become clear from the following pages. In the last eighty years, especially after the two World Wars, the sexual morality of the West has undergone a great change which is commonly described as the "sexual revolution. " On the ruins of the dying Christian morality, the west is trying to build a liberal sexual morality known as the "New Sexual Morality". To understand the social and historical background in which the new morality is emerging, we must study the sexual morality of the Christian Church.
A. CHRISTIAN SEXUAL MORALITY
Although Christianity is commonly thought to be a religion based on Jesus Christ's teachings, I use the word "Christianity" in this book for the teachings of the Church establishment. I am justified in doing so because the Bible has recorded nothing from Jesus Christ on marriage and sex. The exception being the sermon condemning visual and physical adultery:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (Matthew, 5:27-29)
The first person in Christianity to talk on sexual morality was St. Paul. He says, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman." (Corinthians I, 7:1) In simple words this means that the Christian Church teaches that celibacy is better than marriage, and that the human body is not for sexual pleasure but for the Lord only. "The body is not meant for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body...Do you know that your bodies are members of Christ? (Corinthians I, 6:13,15)
St. Paul knew that celibacy means suppressing human nature but human nature cannot be suppressed. He knew that if marriage is totally forbidden, then people will still indulge in sexual gratification unlawfully. So he says, "Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife and every woman have her own husband."(Corinthians I, 7:2) Then as if to prevent the people from forgetting the holiness of celibacy, he continues: "I say this by way of concession, not of command. For I wish that all men were as I myself am...Therefore, I say to the unmarried and the widows that it is good for them to remain singles as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." (Corinthians I, 7:6-9) So marriage, when compared to fornication, is the lesser of two evils!
St. Paul further goes on to describe that marriage means distress: "Now concerning the unmarried...I think that in the view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is...Are you free from a wife? Then do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry shall have trouble in flesh." (Corinthians I, 7:25-28)
According to the Bible, marriage and pleasing God are antipathetic to each other. St. Paul says, "I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife and his interest is divided...The unmarried woman cares for the affairs of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and spirit; but a married woman cares for worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord." (Corinthians I, 7:32,35) He concludes the Christian position as follows: "So that he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marrying will do better." (Corinthians I, 7:38)
So the Christian view on marriage, in its original form, can be summarized as follows:
(a) celibacy is good and should be adopted;
(b) in order to refrain from fornication, marriage is allowed; but it is regrettable and one should try his or her best to avoid it;
(c) marriage retards salvation and is antipathetic to pleasing God.
Three centuries after St. Paul, came a theologian known as St. Augustine. Like his predecessor, he believed that sex was a threat to spiritual upliftment: "I know nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman's caresses and that joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife."(Basic Writings of St. Augustine, p. 455.) He went even further than St. Paul by associating guilt with sex. He acknowledged that was essential for reproduction but argued that the act of sexual intercourse itself was tainted with guilt because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Sexual intercourse was transformed from something innocent to something shameful by the original sin of Adam and Eve, which is passed on from generation to generation.
In his The City of God, St. Augustine says, "Man's transgression [i.e., Adam and Eve's sin] did not annul the blessing of fertility bestowed upon him before he sinned, but infected it with the disease of lust." (The City of God, p. 21) In short, he preached that: (a) sex was something shameful because of the original sin of Adam and Eve; (b) chastity and celibacy was of a higher morality than marriage; (c) celibacy was a prerequisite for priests and nuns.
B. THE VICTORIAN ERA
There is no doubt that the survey of the Christian sexual morality is essential for understanding the sexual revolution of this century; but to fully comprehend the historical background in which the new sexual morality has emerged, it is equally important to look at the Victorian era.
"While the Christians in the pre-Victorian era were content with restricting sex to marriage, Victorians were concerned with how best to harness sex and rechannel it to loftier ends. For Victorians a moral man abstained from sex outside of marriage and was highly selective and considerate in sexual expression within marriage. And a moral woman endured these sporadic ordeals and did nothing to encourage them. Pleasure was not an appropriate goal for either sex, but especially not so for a woman." (Fundamentals of Human Sexuality, p. 483)
The following can be stated as the sexual morality of the Christian West in the nineteenth century: (a) sex is morally degrading compared to celibacy; (b) sexual passion in human beings is a result of the original sin, therefore sex for pleasure is sinful; (c) sex without pleasure is allowed only with the intention of procreation. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the prevalent view was that sex is inherently evil and is acceptable only as a lesser of two evils of fornication and marriage.
C. THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION
What you read above was a brief historical and social background of the Christian West against which the New Morality was emerging. The Church made a serious error in suppressing the most natural urge of human beings, the very means of their perpetuity. And it is obvious that natural urges can never be suppressed. 'Allamah Rizvi writes:
If a religion shuts its eyes to the intricacies of family problems, its followers, sooner or later, will revolt against it, destroying all religious tenets in the wake of the rebellion. . .Christianity ignored the claims of human nature, extolling the idea of celibacy. Many zealous people tried to live up to that ideal. Monks and nuns shut themselves in monasteries. For a short period, this scheme worked well. Then nature took its revenge; the monks and abbots cultivated the idea that they were representatives of Christ, and the nuns were given the titles of 'brides of Christ.' So with easy conscience they turned the monasteries into centres of sexual liberties. (The Family Life of Islam, p. 8)
Commenting on the attitude of the Christian clergy, Russell writes, "It was only towards the end of the thirteenth century that the celibacy of the clergy was rigidly enforced. The clergy, of course, continued to have illicit relations with women..." (Marriage and Morals, p. 64) Pope John XII was condemned for adultery and incest; the abbot-elect of St. Augustine, at Canterbury, in 1171 was found to have seventeen illegitimate children in a single village; Henry III, Bishop of Leige, was deposed in 1274 for having sixty-five illegitimate children. The writers of the Middle Ages are full of accounts of nunneries that were like brothels, of the vast multitude of infanticides within their walls, and of incest among the clergy which forced the church to announce that priests should not be permitted to live with their mothers and sisters. (History of European Morals, vol. II p. 350-351)
This and nothing else could have been the consequence of an unnatural sexual morality. Those who could not suppress their natural urges, indulged in sinful acts secretly; others, like Martin Luther, revolted against the church and started the reformation movement which abandoned celibacy.
And when the Christian Church lost its influence in social affairs of the Western world and a separation between the Church and the state took place, even the lay man revolted. This revolt gained momentum after the two World Wars; and the Christian West started the sexual revolution in reaction to the sexual suppression. A reform movement takes the society from extremes towards moderation; whereas a revolution, in its early stages, takes the society from one extreme to the other. ' Allamah Rizvi comments, "Nature can be compared to a steel spring which, when pressed down, jumps back with equal force. When it took its revenge upon Christians, it turned Christian societies into the most permissive, libertine and undisciplined ones the world had ever seen." (The Family Life of Islam, p. 8-9)
Thus the New Morality emerged in the West and leaped to the other extreme. From the extreme of suppressing natural desires, some preachers of the new morality went to the extreme of unrestrained sexual freedom which is the realm of the animal world. They propounded the idea of "sex for fun," "sex for its own sake" and "free sex" which eventually would have completely destroyed the concept of family, the fabric of human society. In the late eighties, it can be said that the spring of nature is returning to its normal position. Katchadourian and Lunde, writing in 1980, say, "The morality of 'sex for fun' or 'sex for its own sake' never appealed to even the majority of the young. The romantic ideals of marriage, fidelity, and a stable home life for rearing children were still very much alive and influential in American life. A new synthesis of values is arising. Many of the changes in sexual attitudes of the 1960s have been retained, but the more radical beliefs have been found to be unacceptable by most people. Many individuals are willing to approve of premarital exploration, but they want to be certain that no one gets hurt. Many have found that 'sex for its own sake' was not as gratifying as it looked when it first became popular; and others have seen so many people hurt by irresponsible sex that they are asking for a new morality of responsible sex." (Fundamentals of Human Sexuality, p. 420)
To summarize, we can say that firstly, the West traveled from one extreme (that of sexual suppression exemplified by the Christian Church) to the other extreme (that of free sex and sex for fun exemplified by the liberal sexual morality). Secondly, the West has realized that free sex and sex for fun is not acceptable to human sensibilities. Finally, after jumping from one extreme to the other, the West is longing for "a new morality of responsible sex." In our view, the morality of responsible sex is the balanced sexual morality of Islam to which we shall turn soon.
The reason why I discussed the religious and social background in which the sexual revolution has taken place is to let the Muslims In the West and the East know that this revolution was not a by-product of science and technology per se (although some scientific technologies like contraceptives have made it easier); rather it was a reaction to the suppressive sexual morality of the Christian Church. This, I hope, will also break the myth among many Asians and Africans, especially the elite class, that every behavior and norm of the West is based on sound scientific reasons!
The Islamic Sexual Morality
A. DEFINING THE ISLAMIC VIEW
The Islamic sexual morality is fundamentally different from that of the Christian Church. This is because of the all-encompassing nature of the Islamic shari'ah. Bertrand Russell says, "Great religious leaders, with the exception of Muhammad and Confucius, if he can be called religious have in general been very indifferent to social and political considerations, and have sought rather to perfect the soul by meditation, discipline and self-denial." (Marriage and Morals, p. 175-176) Yes, Islam has surely not been indifferent to social problems.
The Islamic sexual morality is also fundamentally different from the new sexual morality in a sense that it does not accept the concept of free sex. Islam aims at teaching its followers not to suppress their sexual urges, rather to fulfill them but in a responsible way.
Islam recognizes the sexual needs of human beings and believes that the natural instincts should be nurtured, not suppressed. Islam says that the biological parts of our body have a purpose, they have not been created uselessly. No text in Islam can be found to equate sex with inherent evil or sin; whatever has been taught by the Qur'an, Prophet Muhammad and his Ahlu'l-bayt points in the opposite direction. What the Qur'an and the authentic sunnah and I emphasize on authentic have said about sex and marriage will now be discussed under the following headings: Islam has very highly recommended marriage as a good deed and not as a lesser of two evils; Islam has very strongly opposed celibacy and monasticism, and Islam believes that marriage is not a hindrance in spiritual wayfaring, on the contrary it helps the wayfarer.
1. MARRIAGE IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
It is important to realize that in Islamic texts the idea of marriage is not restricted to a platonic relationship between husband and wife, nor is it confined to sex for the purpose of procreation . The legal term for marriage is "nikah" which literally means sexual intercourse.
Marriage is a highly recommended deed. Allah says, "Marry the spouseless among you...if they are poor, God will enrich them of His bounty."(Qur'an 24:32) The first word of this verse begins with "ankihu" (Marry) which is an imperative form of the word nikah. According to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, any communication in imperative form from God can have two levels of meaning: either it is an obligatory command or a very high recommendation. And therefore we see that in Islam celibacy is not considered as a virtue. Based on this verse we find the Prophet saying that, "Whoever refrains from marriage because of fear of poverty, he has indeed thought badly of God." (Wasa'ilu 'sh-Shi'ah, vol. 14, p. 24) In another verse Allah says, "... Then marry such women as seem good to you two, three or four. But if you fear that you will not do justice between your wives, then marry only one... "(4:3)
Sex has been openly recommended in the Qur'an, "When they [i.e., the wives] have cleansed themselves [after menstruation], you go into them as Allah has commanded." (2:222) The phrase 'commanded you' does not refer to any legislative command; that is, it does not mean that as soon as a person's wife becomes clean from her period, he should immediately have sex with her. It is a creative command and refers to the sexual urge which Allah has placed in our nature. And when the sexual urge is counted as a creative command of God, then who can associate it in any way with sin and evil?!
Marriage and sex are among the signs of God's power and blessings. The Qur'an says, "And among His signs is that He has created for you spouses from among yourselves so that you may live in tranquility with them; and He has created love and mercy between you. Verily, in that are signs for those who reflect."(30:21 )
From these few verses of the Qur'an, one can easily understand that according to Islam: (a) marriage is a sign of God's power and blessings; (b) marriage is a highly recommended act of virtue which should not be avoided because of poverty; (c) sexual urge is a creative command of God placed in human nature. After equating sex with Allah's creative command, there can be no room for equating it with guilt, sin or evil.
The Prophet and the Imams of Ahlu'l Bayt also encouraged their followers to marry and to fulfill their sexual urges in lawful ways as can be seen from the following: The Prophet said, "No house has been built in Islam more beloved in the sight of Allah than through marriage." (Wasa'il, vol. 14, p. 3) The Prophet said, "O you young men! I recommend marriage to you." (Wasa'il, vol. 14, p. 25) Imam 'Ali said, "Marry, because marriage is the tradition of the Prophet. The Prophet said, 'Whosoever likes to follow my tradition, then he should know that marriage is from my tradition.'" (Wasa'il, vol. 14, p. 3-4, 6) Imam Riza said, "Three things are from the traditions of the messengers of God: using perfume, removing the [excessive] hair and frequently visiting one's wife." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 4) Ishaq bin 'Ammar quotes Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq as follows: "Loving women is among the traditions of the prophets." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 9)
The Prophet said, "Prayer has been made the apple of my eyes, and my pleasure is in women." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 10) See with what ease the Prophet moves from prayers to the pleasure of women! The Prophet said, "No Muslim man has gained a benefit after [the religion of] Islam better than a Muslim wife who is a cause of his pleasure whenever he looks towards her..." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 23) Imam Muhammad al-Baqir quotes the Prophet as follows: "Allah says that, 'Whenever I intend to gather the good of this world and the hereafter for a Muslim, I give him a heart which is humble [to Me], a tongue which praises [Me], a body which can bear [worldly] affliction and a believing wife who is a cause of his pleasure whenever he looks towards her and who protects herself and his property when he is absent." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 23) See with what ease Allah has combined His praise with the pleasure a man derives from a faithful wife!
Jamil bin Darraj quotes Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq saying, "Mankind has not enjoyed [anything] in this world and the hereafter more than the desire for women. Allah says, 'The love of desire of women has been made to seem fair to people.'[3 :14] The people of the Paradise do not enjoy anything from it more desirable than sex, neither food nor drink." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 10)
2. CELIBACY & MONASTICISM IS FORBIDDEN
The Islamic point of view about the worldly good things is not negative, rather it says that we should appreciate them as the blessings of God. And Islam is, therefore, totally opposed to monasticism and celibacy. 'Uthman bin Maz'un was a close companion of the Prophet. One day his wife came to the Prophet and complained, "O the Messenger of God! 'Uthman fasts during the day and stands for prayers during the night." In other words, she meant to say that her husband was abstaining from sexual relations during the night as well as the day. The Prophet was so much angered with this that he did not even wait to put on his slippers. He came out with the slippers in his hands and went to 'Uthman's house. The Prophet found him praying. When 'Uthman finished his prayers and turned towards the Prophet, the latter said, "O 'Uthman! Allah did not send me for monasticism, rather He sent me with a simple and straight[shari'ah]. I fast, pray and also have intimate relations with my wife. So whosoever likes my tradition, then he should follow it; and marriage is one of my traditions. (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 10) Since 'Uthman was already married, the word "marriage" in this hadith can only be applied to sexual relations.
In another incident, three women came to the Prophet and complained that their husbands were abstaining from meat, perfume and intimate relations with their wives. The Prophet quickly came to the mosque, went on the pulpit and said, "What has happened to some of my companions that they do not eat meat, they do not use perfume and they do not go to their women?! Whereas I eat meat, use perfume and go to my wives. Therefore whosoever dislikes my tradition, then he is not from me. (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p.4)
Ibn Abu 'Umayr quotes that Sikkin an-Nakha'i had devoted himself to prayers and abstinence from women and delicious food. Then he wrote a letter to Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq seeking clarification about his actions. The Imam wrote, "As for what you have said about abstaining from women, you surely know how many women the Prophet had! As for food, the Prophet used to eat meat and honey." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 4) The Imam is obviously condemning the holier-than-thou attitude of his companion.
Imam 'Ali narrates that some companions of the Prophet had vowed to abstain from sexual relations with their wives, from eating during the day and from sleeping during the night. Umm Salamah, the Prophet' s wife, informed him about this group. The Prophet went out to his companions and said, "Do you abstain from women whereas I go to the women?! I eat during the day and sleep during the night! Whosoever dislikes my tradition, then he is not from me." After this speech, Allah revealed the following verse:
O you who believe! Do not forbid [for yourselves] the good things which Allah has permitted you; and do not exceed [the law] Allah does not like those who exceed [the law]. Therefore eat of the lawful and good things that Allah has provided you, and fear Allah in whom you believe. (5:87-8)
Read this verse carefully and see that firstly, it counts sex, food and sleep among "the lawful and good things which Allah has permitted you;" and secondly celibacy and abstinence is considered as "exceeding the law of God." After this verse was revealed, those companions came to the Prophet and said, "O Messenger of God! We have taken oath to abstain from those things." That is, how can we now break our oath of abstinence? Then Allah revealed the following verse "Allah will not call you [to account] for vain oaths... "(5:84) Again, note that an oath of celibacy or abstinence from the good and lawful things is considered by Islam as 'vain oaths!' (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 8-9)
The discouraging of celibacy is not confined to men, even women have been discouraged from remaining single. Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq said, "The Prophet has forbidden the women to become ascetic and to prevent themselves from husbands." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 117)
'Abdus Samad bin Bashir quotes that a woman came to Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq and said, "May God bless you; I am an ascetic woman."
The Imam: "What does asceticism mean to you?"
The woman: "It means that I will never marry."
The Imam: "Why?"
The woman: "By practicing asceticism, I want to acquire favor (of God)."
The Imam: "Go away! If asceticism was a means of acquiring favor (of God), then Fatimah would have been more entitled to it than you because none can gain more favor [in the eyes of Allah] than her." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 117-118)
A similar incident is also narrated in relation to Imam Riza.
The Prophet said, "The most low [in status] among your dead are the singles." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 7)
Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq says that a person came to my father. My father asked him, "Do you have a wife? " He said, "No. " My father said, "I would not prefer to have the world with all its riches while I sleep at night without a wife." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p.7)
3. MARRIAGE HELPS IN SPIRITUALITY
In Islam, contrary to Christianity, marriage and sex are not antipathetic to the love for and worship of God. Instead of an obstacle, marriage is regarded as an asset in acquiring spiritual perfection.
The Prophet said, "One who marries has already guarded half of his religion, therefore he should fear Allah for the other half." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p.5) A person who can fulfill his sexual urges lawfully is less distracted in the spiritual journey. Love for women and faith are inter-related. In one hadith, 'Umar bin Zayd quotes Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq that, "I do not think that a person's faith can increase positively unless his love for women has increased." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p.9) The same Imam said, "Whenever a person's love for women increases, his faith increases in quality." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p.11) He also said, "Whosoever's love for us increases, his love for women must also increase." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p.11)
Marriage even elevates the value of prayers. The Prophet said, "Two rak 'ats (cycles) prayed by a married person is better than the night-vigil and the fast of a single person." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p.7) Ibn Fuzzal quotes Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq saying that, "Two rak'ats prayed by a married person is better than seventy rak'ats prayed by a single person." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p.6)
The Prophet said, "If anyone likes to meet Allah in purity, then he should meet Him with a wife." (Wasa'il, Vol. 14, p. 25)
A woman came to the Prophet's house and her strong perfume soon filled the house. When the Prophet inquired about the visitor, the woman said that she had tried everything to attract her husband but in vain; he does not leave his meditation to pay any attention to her.
The Prophet told her to inform her husband about the reward of sexual intercourse which he described as follows: "When a man approaches his wife, he is guarded by two angels and [at that moment in Allah's views] he is like a warrior fighting for the cause of Allah. When he has intercourse with her, his sins fell like the leaves of the tree [in fall season]. When he performs the major ablution, he is cleansed from sins. (Wasa'il 'sh-Shi'ah, Vol. 14, p. 74)
These quotations from the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet and the Imams of Ahlu'l-bayt show that the Islamic view on sex and marriage is in complete harmony with human nature. It can easily be concluded that in the Islamic sexual morality: (a) marriage and sex is highly recommended and it is in no way associated with evil, guilt or sin; (b) monasticism and celibacy is unacceptable; (c) marriage is considered a helping factor in attaining spiritual perfection it prevents the Muslims from getting into sins and also enhances the value of their acts of worship. These teachings neutralize the need for a sexual revolution in a Muslim society. Since there is no sexual suppression, the question of a sexual revolution does not arise