by Muslim Women’s League
Even though it comprises only part of our identities, the sexuality of women represents so much more; such that women’s sexuality has been viewed as something to be controlled, hidden, or mastered, most often by men. Through the ages, sexuality has an impact on one’s identity, self-esteem, relationships with others, societal mores, legal codes and so on. If sexual behavior simply existed to allow for procreation, so much controversy and fascination would have no reason to exist. Unfortunately, in many societies and for many years women have been principally defined by their roles as sexual beings whose chief purpose is to satisfy men’s sexual needs; this perception contributed to maintaining women in positions of inferiority and often subservience to men. Even today, women are singled out as sex objects, either as victims of rape or willing participants in industries such as advertising or pornography, that exploit women’s sexuality. The purpose of this chapter is to explore important issues of sexuality from an Islamic point of view in an effort to expose demeaning cultural habits which have no basis in Islam, and to offer alternative understandings of these issues based on the primary sources of Qur’an and Hadith.
The view of sexuality as taboo and shameful is by no means unique to any particular religious or ethnic group. The Victorian era in England and the US(late 19th century) was characterized by such a strong inhibition of sexuality that was subsequently blamed for psychological problems seen in women by psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud. Breaking free from the oppressiveness of that era was an important goal for women through most of the 20th century since the prevailing attitudes were not confined to sexual issues as women were denied many other essential human rights. Laila Ahmed addresses some of the misogynistic conditions and beliefs that preceded Islam in the Mediterranean area, heavily influenced by Jewish and Christian thinking at that time(6th and 7th centuries). She points out “the church’s attitude on abortion and contraception …formed part of a broader negative ethos concerning the body and sexuality — a sense of these as sinful and shameful and of sexuality as legitimate only for procreation…women were evidently perceived as innately more implicated in physicality and sexuality than men.” (Women and Gender in Islam, p.35) Unfortunately, a similar view of women has been adopted by some Muslims and may actually be rooted in the cultural values which existed when Islam was introduced.
Human sexual development goes through several well-defined stages. Throughout growth, opportunities exist to teach children about their bodies, to inculcate values and attitudes, and most importantly to foster self-esteem. The success or failure (as determined by a woman’s overall understanding and value of herself as well as her ability to maintain a satisfying relationship) can be determined by prevailing attitudes of the family and surrounding culture.
Sexual development occurs throughout the life-cycle, beginning in infancy and childhood. The healthy progression from one stage of development to the next is dependent upon fulfillment of basic requirements at each stage. For example, an infant must develop trust that the caregiver will consistently respond to her cries before she can safely venture into the world and test the budding independence of toddlerhood. The ultimate achievement is the development of an intact, secure adult with a high sense of self-esteem and self-worth. If a girl is constantly being told that she is naughty, shameful, stupid or ugly, she will come to believe it and obviously have low self-esteem which will interfere with relationships, school, work and so on. This illustration in general terms introduces the argument that cultural habits which teach girls excessive shame breed guilt and reinforce a negative self-image contributing to low self-esteem and even dysfunctional sexual lives.
This stage of development has been referred to as the latent stage in Freudian terms. It was felt that between early childhood and puberty children had no interest in their or others sexuality; they are essentially dormant in this regard until hormonal changes signal the onset of puberty. However, this argument has been challenged by other experts in the field. Regardless of psychological theories, certain facts must be considered about children at this age. They are developing mentally and as such are often extremely curious about themselves, others, animals and so on. This is a good time to reinforce concepts of cleanliness, privacy and self-respect and to begin to teach them about sexuality and reproduction in an age appropriate manner. Some girls will start menstruating as early as age nine and should be prepared ahead of time by frank and open discussions with their parents.
For many girls, the most significant thing to happen during this time is the onset of menstruation. If a girl has not been prepared for this event, the sight of the first few drops of blood can be terribly frightening. The signs that a girl is entering this stage of development include breast development, growth of hair under the arms and in the pubic area, increase in height and finally onset of menses. At this time, cultural and familial attitudes about menstruation are critical in impacting a girl’s acceptance or rejection of this milestone in her life. Because of the rapid rate of change and accompanying sense of awkwardness, adolescents are often insecure and preoccupied with appearances, with a strong desire to be accepted by their peers.
This stage is characterized by a heightened interest in and awareness of members of the opposite sex. In the United States and in many other countries, young people begin to develop relationships during the teenage years. Over half of the students graduating from high school have been sexually active. Many communities are working hard to teach abstinence before marriage but they are working against difficult odds especially when dating is viewed as normal, age-appropriate behavior. Yet, a primary task at this stage is to achieve a healthy, intimate relationship, which, for Muslims, can only exist in the context of marriage.
Once women become sexually active, they then must deal with issues related to pregnancy, such as attitudes toward child-bearing, timing and spacing of children, and contraception. Ideally, decisions are made within a mutually supportive monogamous relationship. Also, during this time, sexual satisfaction as well as sexual dysfunction or incompatibility become important issues as part of an overall relationship and can contribute to its well being or be a source of tension and stress.
Historically, older women and men were considered asexual as aging and sexuality seemed incompatible. Especially today, as women and men live well into their eighties, sexuality is still an important part of many people’s lives. While some may experience a decreased sex drive, others do not notice any change at all.
Sense of Shame (‘ayb)
Early in life, children become aware of their sexuality even to the point that infants can experience sexual pleasure (see Your Baby and Child, P. Leach, p. 212). Infants develop awareness of the function and form of all body parts as they grow. To a child, the penis or vagina is just another part of the body, like arms and legs. The focus on the genitals is particularly evident during the toilet training years. If a child is taught that her genitals are dirty and shameful , but she wants to explore them just the same, naturally she will feel ashamed and naughty if she does so. Therefore, early on she sees part of herself as negative. Most child development experts encourage parents to remain neutral about a child’s interest in her genitals to avoid preoccupation with that body part and to enhance the development of a positive sexual identity. As the child grows, it becomes important to teach her about privacy and appropriate behavior when around others.
Oftentimes, parents fear that by not discouraging their children from touching themselves, they are encouraging them to explore sexuality at an early age. But teaching children to respect and understand their bodies will more positively impact their self image compared to emphasizing the sense of shame (‘ayb) that many children are taught. Such a sense of shame can be taken to extremes; for example, a mother refuses to apply necessary medication to her three year old daughter’s vagina because to touch her there is ‘ayb. Other girls are afraid to cleanse their genitals properly because to touch themselves is ‘ayb. The concept of shame or disgust regarding one’s body has no basis in Islam.
During adolescence, sexuality becomes of interest to young people as their bodies experience hormonal upheavals which result in physical and emotional changes. Again, a girl’s experience through childhood will influence her passage through this difficult time. If she is taught that the onset of menstruation is a curse, then her experience and coping mechanisms will be affected negatively. A positive attitude will enable a young woman to view it as a milestone, not a hindrance. Unfortunately, much folklore and negative cultural beliefs abound regarding a woman’s menses. Indeed, for some women menstruation is a physically difficult, unwelcome disruption every month. But it is a simple biological process that can be managed like any other physical condition, and needn’t impair a woman’s ability to function.
Several hadith exist regarding menstruation. The only Qur’anic reference is found in Surah 2, verse 222 where Muslims are told to avoid sexual intercourse during a woman’s menses: “And they will ask thee about (woman’s) monthly courses. Say, ‘It is a vulnerable condition. Keep, therefore, aloof from women during their monthly courses, and do not draw near unto them until they are cleansed; and when they are cleansed, go in unto them as God has bidden you to do.'”
In a hadith found in Muslim (No. 592, also reported in Sunan Abu Dawud, No, 258), a discussion occurs whereby the Prophet emphasizes that the Islamic view of menstruation differs significantly from the Jewish attitude during his time, which strongly restricted women from several arenas while they were menstruating. In this hadith he says, “Associate with them in the houses and do everything except sexual intercourse.” Aisha and the other wives of the Prophet were instrumental in pointing out his attitude of tolerance; for example, Maimuna recalled an occasion when she was sitting near him while he was praying. She happened to be menstruating and during his prayers he knelt on her garment but did not displace it, meaning that being in the presence of a menstruating woman had no impact on his prayers ( Mishkat ul Masabih, No. 550; for other hadith along similar lines see Sunan Abu Dawud, Nos. 212-213, 267-273; Muslim, Nos. 269, 577-588 and Bukhari, Vol. 1, Nos. 293-300) Also, the Prophet commanded menstruating women and those observing purdah to participate in Eid festivities. They sat behind those who prayed but joined in takbir ( Muslim, Nos. 1932-34; Bukhari, Vol.1, No. 321).
Exemptions from Rituals
Today, as in the time of the Prophet, women do not pray or fast while on their menses. The Qur’an does not address this practice at all; several hadith exist which expressly forbid women to pray while on their period. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Nos. 271-287, Bukhari, Vol.1., No.327). Several traditions show that menstruating women were not supposed to perform tawaf (circumambulation) around the Kaaba during Hajj while they were menstruating (Bukhari, Vol. 1, Nos. 302,321,325; al-Muwatta, 20.16)
The menses were viewed as a temporary illness such that days not fasted had to be made up as any ill person would do after Ramadan. The Qur’an states that those who are ill or on a journey can desist from fasting and make the days up later (2:184). There are no hadith which expressly forbid women from fasting while menstruating, but based on the text from the following, one concludes that menstruating women did not fast: Aisha is reported to have said that during menstruation in the time of the Prophet, the women were commanded to complete the fast (abandoned during menses) but were not commanded to complete the (abandoned) prayer (Sunan Abu Dawud, Nos. 262-3, Muslim, Nos. 660-662). Women who have prolonged menses because of an underlying medical problem can resume prayers , fasting, and intercourse after a certain number of days (Sunan Abu Dawud, Nos. 274-306, Bukhari, Vol. 1, Nos. 303,306,322,324).
In view of the verse mentioned above which admonishes against sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman in order to avoid causing her harm, the exemptions from the above-mentioned rituals could be viewed as an extension of God’s consideration of women. Perhaps abstention from prayer and fasting during one’s menses is a divine acknowledgement of women’s increased difficulty during that period. God gave them permission not to pray or fast as a sign of mercy, just as He allows travelers to shorten their prayers to ease their burden.
An Unclean State?
Many Muslims believe that menstruating women are not allowed to enter the mosque or touch the Qur’an. This relates to the view of the menstruating woman as unclean. Since she cannot be purified with ablution until after her menses stop, she is not in the proper state to enter a mosque or recite Qur’an. Conflicting hadith exist regarding these habits. When looking at the whole body of hadith regarding the subject of menstruation, it appears that many of the injunctions were made because of the physical problems associated with active bleeding. Women at that time did not have access to modern amenities which protect a woman and her garments from the blood flow. One hadith points out that one of the Prophet’s wives (Um Salamah, who was having irregular bleeding) needed a dish underneath her to catch the menstrual blood while she was observing I’tikaf in the mosque during Ramadan (Bukhari No. 306, Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 2470, Muslim, No. 2470). Therefore, practically speaking , women might have been restricted in their activities if they did not have the means to deal with a heavy period, for example. Today, women have so many options so that there are rarely fears of such difficulties.
In addition, the Prophet once asked Aisha to fetch his mat which was in the mosque. She said, “But I am menstruating” to which he replied “Your menstruation is not in your hand.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 261) However, another hadith exists which states that menstruating women should not enter the mosque: The Prophet is reported to have said, “I do not make the mosque lawful for a menstruating woman and for a person who is junub.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 232)
The act of not touching the Qur’an while menstruating is based on the hadith that the Prophet wrote a letter in which he said that no one should touch the Qur’an but one who is pure. (Mishkat-ul-Masabih, No. 465;). Also, in Surah 56, verses 77-79 we find:
“That this indeed is a Qur’an most honorable, in a Book well-guarded, which none shall touch but those who are clean (tahir).”
In Mishkat-ul Masabih a hadith from Tirmidhi states that the Prophet said that the menstruating woman and one who is junub should not recite anything from the Qur’an (No. 461). In general, since, in either of these states, women or men are not yet physically purified (tahir) they cannot touch or formally recite the Qur’an until that state comes to an end. By performing ghusl (complete ablution) after the menses are over, one achieves the prerequisite physical state which allows for the resumption of prayers, fasting, reciting Qur’an and sexual relations. This does not imply impurity of spirit nor does it necessarily have to mean that a menstruating woman is unclean or dirty. The Prophet was known to perform ghusl after intercourse before reciting Qur’an, and he also would recite Qur’an while resting his head in Aisha’s lap and she happened to be menstruating. (Mishkat, No. 460, Muslim, Nos. 260, 591)
The “Deficiency” of Hadith
It is possible to understand why Muslims might view menses as a negative aspect of the female identity. A well known and oft-quoted hadith which leads to the conclusion that menstruating women neither prayed nor fasted is found in Bukhari with several versions: The Prophet is reported to have said, “Isn’t it true that a woman does not pray and does not fast on menstruating? And that is the defect in her religion (Vol. 3, No. 172, see also Vol. 1, No. 301). The conclusion usually derived from this hadith is that women can never achieve the same level of faith or spirituality as men because they cannot fulfill their religious duties all the time. The weakness in this argument and therefore in the hadith is that it contradicts the undisputed image expressed in the Qur’an of women and men as equal in terms of their duties and expectations as Muslims, servants of God. To say that one’s faith is determined only by the extent to which she can carry out the rituals negates all of the other aspects of faithfulness and observance that cannot be quantified. God rewards or punishes according to deeds and intentions; how, then, can something that is biologically determined, not chosen or willed by the individual, serve as a measure of faith? Would God punish women for something that He created? Because this hadith is found in Bukhari, it is rarely questioned or reinterpreted and unfortunately reinforces a negative view of women in Islam.
Therefore, in addition to some of the physical realities that make menstruation unpleasant for some women, a general negative interpretation of Islamic literature may contribute to an overall sense of distaste regarding a normal bodily function which further promotes a negative self-image of women. Indeed, in Yusuf Ali’s translation of Surah 2 verse 222, reads as follows: “They ask you concerning women’s courses. Say: They are a hurt and a pollution (azan) ….” The same word “azan” translated by Yusuf Ali as “hurt and pollution” is translated by Muhammad Asad as “a vulnerable condition.” To the person reading in English, each translation has an entirely different effect.
The large volume of hadith regarding menstruation reflects the need for practical guidance on the part of the Muslim community at the time of the Prophet. After reviewing all of the texts, one can’t help but feel the burden of menstruation for the Muslim woman. Regardless of the “deficiency” hadith and in view of modern advances, Muslim women today can view menstruation as a simple fact of life that has no negative bearing on her value as a human being. Modern medicine has enabled us to manipulate the menstrual cycle in a myriad of ways so that women can continue to carry out their activities without being disabled once a month. Indeed, many women take advantage of medical technology to avoid menstruating during Hajj which, for many, is truly a once in a lifetime event not to be missed because of bad timing.
Virginity and the Hymen: The Double Standard
Throughout childhood and adolescence, girls are sometimes prohibited by their parents from engaging in any activities that might interfere with the integrity of the hymen which is a small circular membrane at the opening of the vagina which allows the passage of menstrual flow. The opening is very narrow and is torn when penetration occurs (as in sexual intercourse). This is occasionally accompanied by bleeding. Such blood loss has been required in some cultures to prove that the woman is a virgin at marriage so a blood stained cloth would be given to the groom’s family on the wedding night to verify the bride’s pure state. If a woman did not bleed, the repercussions could be severe. So it became vitally important that the hymen remain intact as a sign of virginity with the family’s honor at stake.
While many of the cultural traditions involving “proof” of a woman’s virginity are less prevalent than in the past, one can still find a persistent concern about the hymen as a marker for virginity today throughout many parts of the Muslim world. (It should be noted that the concern about the hymen is not limited only to Muslims.) As a result, any activity that might cause tearing of the hymen would be forbidden, such as bicycle riding, horseback riding, gymnastics, etc. Unfortunately, the prohibitions against these activities are rarely accompanied by an explanation (most likely due to shyness on the part of the parents); thus, the young girl learns that because she is a girl she cannot participate in activities enjoyed by other children. Again, such an attitude promotes a negative self-image. These attitudes are culturally entrenched and not based on Islam. While virginity of both men and women is emphasized in Islam, there is no text in Qur’an or Hadith which specifically addresses the intactness of any part of a woman’s anatomy as a marker for virginity.
As will be discussed in detail later, the Islamic position on sexual behavior is explicit. Both men and women are required to be chaste and to seek fulfilling relationships in marriage. Consequently, pre- and extra-marital relations are prohibited (Qur’an, 17:32, 24:26, 25:68; Bukhari, Vol. 8, Nos. 798-802). Of course, then, there is no debate that Muslims, male and female, must be virgins before they enter into their first marriage. Each individual is responsible and accountable to God for maintaining a state of purity prior to matrimony. Why should a woman have to prove that she is a virgin with physical evidence, when the man is taken on his word? Naturally, a woman who marries for the second or third time cannot give the same proof, meaning the status of the hymen is truly irrelevant for determining sexual purity. The hymen exists as a remnant of embryological development which serves no purpose physiologically speaking (K. L. Moore, The Developing Human). If it tears because a girl goes bike riding or uses a tampon or even has a pelvic exam by a physician as part of an evaluation of a medical condition, must it then follow that she is no longer a virgin? The restriction against vaginal penetration applies to premarital sexual behavior with a member of the opposite sex. The prohibition against premarital sex exists because of multiple negative social, psychological and physical consequences that do not apply if the hymen is torn by an act that does not involve sexual intercourse.
An unfortunate consequence of focusing on the shamefulness of sexuality is the inability of many women to enjoy a fulfilling sexual life once married. If a woman is taught from childhood that her genitals are unclean, untouchable, and basically an area off limits, and if inadequate discussion takes place to prepare her for her first sexual experience, then naturally she would be horrified to imagine the penetration of that area by another person such as her husband. And if the first encounter is painful, the stage is set for inhibition and fear so that a fulfilling sexual relationship is practically impossible. Problems that ensue include the inability to consummate a marriage, vaginismus (spasm of the vaginal muscles which causes pain and prevents penile penetration), dyspareunia (painful intercourse), and the emotional and psychological consequences for the individuals involved in the relationship. Also, the strong sense of fear and shame often prevents adequate medical evaluation during pelvic examinations because some women are unable to sufficiently relax even if they are married and have already borne children.
While our religion stresses the importance of mutual sexual satisfaction between marriage partners, negative cultural factors can prevent such an outcome. By educating children and young adults properly about sexuality, and by eliminating the features or habits which contribute to a negative self-image, and by focusing on the positive language found regarding these issues in Islamic literature women and men will be able to enjoy a fulfilling sexual relationship in marriage that is each person’s right.
Sexuality in Qur’an and Hadith
The references to sexuality found in Qur’an and hadith will now be discussed. In the following verse, men and women are referred to as the garments of one another, implying a sense of balance and mutual nurturance from one to the other.
It is lawful for you to go in unto your wives during the night preceding the (day’s) fast: they are as a garment for you, and you are as a garment for them. God is aware that you would have deprived yourselves of this right, and so He has turned unto you in His mercy and removed this hardship from you. Now, then, you may lie with them skin to skin, and avail yourselves to that which God has ordained for you.(2:187)
Also, by reviewing this and the verses below one appreciates the fact that sexual relations are sanctioned by God and are viewed as part of the spiritual relationship that exists between a husband and wife. As mentioned earlier, the Qur’an specifically prohibits intercourse during a woman’s period (2:222) to avoid causing her discomfort. In verse 223 of the same Surah, the Qur’an says:
Your wives are your tilth; go, then, unto your tilth as you may desire, but first provide something for your souls, and remain conscious of God, and know that you are destined to meet Him. And give glad tidings unto those who believe.
Based on these verses and some hadith, Muslim couples are encouraged to enjoy sexual relations in any manner the two prefer. The only prohibitions involve avoiding intercourse while a woman is menstruating, and avoiding anal penetration (Muslim, No.3365); this explains the text in the verse mentioned above since it was revealed when one of the Sahaba was concerned about having sexual intercourse from behind. He was worried that he committed a sin. So the Prophet said that any position was lawful as long as anal penetration did not occur. Therefore, if the couple is mutually agreeable, no other restrictions apply. Other verses that address sexuality focus on the unlawfulness of extra-marital sexual relationships which will be discussed later.
Sexual Rights of the Wife
Several hadith also address the issue of sexual satisfaction with reference to the wife’s rights in this matter. The Prophet advised Abdullah bin Amr bin Al-As (who spent all day fasting and all night in prayer) to fast sometimes and not at other times; to pray at night and to sleep at night. “Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” (Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 127) The wife’s rights include a right to companionship from her husband and fulfillment of her sexual needs.
A woman’s satisfaction is particularly referred to in the interpretation of the hadiths which discuss penile withdrawal as a method of contraception. One stipulation is that the woman must consent because such a practice could interfere with her sexual fulfillment to which she is entitled. Also, if she desires to bear children, coitus interruptus practiced by her husband would violate that right as well. This viewpoint is based on a hadith transmitted by Umar ibn-al-Khattab who said that the Prophet forbade the practice of coitus interruptus with a woman except with her permission This reference is found in Sex and Society in Islam, by B. F. Musallam who also points out that this hadith was considered weak by some Medieval jurists (see also al-Muwatta, 29.34, No. 100). Nevertheless, the position regarding the woman’s right to orgasm was developed over time by several Muslim jurists during the same period (Busallam, Chapter 2 and footnotes). Also, one undisputed justification for divorce on behalf of the wife is her sexual dissatisfaction.
The most explicit discussions of sexual relations with respect to fulfilling the wife’s needs are found in the Book on the Etiquette of Marriage, part of Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali’s larger work, Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya Ulum al-Din), written in the eleventh century. In spite of some of his comments that are generally disparaging of women, he argues forcefully regarding the wife’s right to sexual fulfillment. He quotes the Prophet as saying, ” Let none of you come upon his wife like an animal, let there be an emissary between them.” When asked what is the emissary, he replied, “The kiss and sweet words.” In another hadith, the Prophet points out that one of the deficiencies of a man is that “he should approach his wife and have sexual contact with her before exchanging words and caresses, consequently, he sleeps with her and fulfills his needs (i.e. orgasm) before she fulfills hers.” Al-Ghazali further elaborates on the importance of a woman achieving orgasm by stating, “Congruence in attaining a climax is more gratifying to her because the man is not preoccupied with his own pleasure, but rather with hers…”
Rights of the Husband
The sexual rights of the husband are also elucidated in the traditions, but the language is such that it appears that his rights supersede those of his wife. For example, in Bukhari, AbuHuraira reports that the Prophet said, “If a man invites his wife to sleep with him and she refuses, then the angels send their curses on her till morning.” (Vol. 7, No. 121-2; in Muslim, the text reads that God is displeased with her until the husband is pleased with her Nos. 3366-68). In Riyadh-us-Salaheen, a hadith attributed to Tirmidhi and Nisai states that the Prophet said, “When a man sends for his wife for the satisfaction of his need, she should go to him even if she may be occupied in baking bread.” (No. 284) Similarly, Muslim women are advised not to fast without the permission of their husbands since fasting would interfere with sexual relations (Sunan Abu Dawud, Nos. 2452-3; Muslim, Nos. 3366-68; Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 120).
Clearly, Islamic literature stresses the importance of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife, but the above traditions seem to show that the husband’s right to have sex is more important than the wife’s right of refusal if she is not willing for whatever reason. The only time she can refuse intercourse, then, is during menstruation. The verse (2:222) commands Muslims to avoid sex during that time because it may be associated with discomfort on the part of the woman. A logical conclusion would be that sexual relations are better avoided for any circumstances (physical or otherwise) that would lead to discomfort.
A common view of sex is that the stronger sexual urges of men (compared to women) can be controlled only to a certain extent; according to some, this justifies the practice of polygamy even though the Qur’an makes no mention of sexual desires in the verses on polygamy (4:3-5). Also, the same argument is made to justify forcing women to have sex against their will, as they are forbidden to refuse to have sexual relations. Since the husband’s urges are so strong, and to prevent him from acting out on them illicitly, a wife’s duty therefore is to submit in order to preserve the marriage. Yet, human beings are endowed with self control not seen in any other species, such that we do not act on every instinctual impulse because of some uncontrollable force. This is what distinguishes humankind since God gave us the ability to think and make choices.
Therefore, there is no justification for forcing women to have sex against their will, even in marriage. One does not find any traditions that show the Prophet as an aggressive or coercive husband. Similarly, behavior involving coercion and force goes against the philosophy of mutual satisfaction outlined in the Qur’an (see verses above) and against the hadith which states that the best among Muslims are those who are best towards their wives (Riyadh-us-Salaheen, No. 278). Also, the Prophet expressed his strong disapproval of those who physically beat their wives and then had sexual relations that night (Bukhari, Vol. 7, No. 132, Vol.9, 81-82; see also Riyadh us-Salaheen, No. 274).
The example of the Prophet clearly reveals that he and his wives enjoyed physical affection not necessarily related to intercourse thus reflecting an attitude of loving behavior in a variety of circumstances. Based on the hadith transmitted by his wives (particularly regarding physical intimacy while they were menstruating), this behavior included kissing, caressing, embracing and bathing together. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Nos. 267-273, 2376-2379; Muslim, Nos. 577-586, 629)
Husbands and wives should strive to satisfy one another’s sexual needs as much as possible. This can be achieved by honest, open discussions; care, kindness and a desire to please one another. Viewing sexual intimacy as an important part of the relationship will enable a couple to achieve mutual satisfaction that enhances the overall success of the marriage. Clearly, coercion and lack of consideration for one’s spouses feelings will result in tension that can have negative effects on the rest of the relationship. Unfortunately, if a Muslim woman is raised to abhor and fear any matters related to sex, then in most instances of sexual contact she would be a passive and perhaps unwilling participant, and definitely not one who derives pleasure from sex. Also, the general view of sex as a shameful and dirty act contributes to inhibitions of both men and women, preventing them from enjoying an act sanctioned by God.
The following hadith highlights the importance of privacy in sexual relationships: the Prophet is reported to have said, “The most wicked among the people in the sight of God on the Day of Judgement is the man who goes to his wife and she comes to him, and then he divulges her secret.” (Muslim, Nos. 3369-70). Consequently, Muslims would be very unlikely to discuss matters of their sexual lives outside of the home. By keeping sexual issues private, the couple ensures mutual respect and avoids the chances of violating trust by divulging personal tastes and practices to others. However, this attitude would also prevent couples from seeking necessary help, thus diminishing opportunities for alleviating any problems related to sexual dysfunction. Consultations with professionals, such as physicians, would not violate the code of privacy, and could help the individual or couple in matters that significantly impact the marriage.
Sex Outside of Marraige
As mentioned earlier, the Qur’an specifically prohibits sexual acts outside of marriage (zina). Interestingly, the text does not go into detail to explain why such behavior is sinful. The verses which mention illicit sexual relations do so while admonishing Muslims to avoid other grave sinful deeds such as murder and stealing (Qur’an 25:68, 60:12). Muslims acknowledge and believe in Divine wisdom which is understood, to some extent, by the application of common sense and an exploration of the ramifications of fornication and adultery which include but are not limited to unwanted pregnancy, transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, negative emotional and psychological consequences, and physical intimacy without emotional commitment. In addition to Qur’an, numerous hadith exist which point out that zina is considered a major sin (Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 148; Vol. 8, Nos. 798-802).
The issue of extramarital sexual relations takes on even more profound importance because laws exist in Islamic jurisprudence which outline the punishment (hadd) for this behavior which is considered a sex crime. Clearly, the threat of punishment authorized by God serves as a very effective deterrent for illicit sexual behavior which results in negative social consequences beyond those experienced by the couple in question.
Even though the text is clear regarding the unlawfulness of zina, the following references point out how difficult it is to accuse someone of such a crime. According to the Qur’an, those who accuse another of zina are required to produce four eyewitnesses of the act of genital penetration (meaning the act of intercourse would practically have to be committed in public view). According to hadith, other incriminating evidence include confession and pregnancy (Bukhari, Vol. 8, No. 816; Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 4518; Muslim, No. 4194).
While the seriousness of the crime is not in question, the Prophet himself demonstrated reluctance in reacting to accusations and even confessions without giving individuals the opportunity to avoid punishment and repent to God, with the hopes of avoiding punishment in the hereafter as well. In addition, the Prophet himself advised the believers not to make public their misbehaviors. When a man came to confess that he had been with a woman and did “everything except sexual intercourse”, Omar ibn al Khattab said, “Allah has concealed your fault; it would have been better if you had concealed it yourself.” The Prophet then quoted the verse, “And be constant in praying at the beginning and the end of the day…for, verily, good deeds drive away evil deeds: this is a reminder to all who bear (God) in mind.” (11:114). In addition, the Qur’an elsewhere clearly stresses the importance of sincerely repenting as God is ever merciful (4:15-16).
Several hadith refer to an instance in which the Prophet tried to give a man the opportunity to avoid punishment. Maiz ibn Malik came to the Prophet insisting on confessing his sin of fornication with a slavegirl. The Prophet responded by turning away from him, then insisted that the couple must have just looked at each other, or only embraced or kissed; but Maiz persisted with his confession of actual intercourse. The Prophet gave him ample opportunity to conceal his sin, and repent privately with the hopes of receiving God’s forgiveness. Yet, Maiz also knew that punishment in this life would replace the possible punishment awaiting in the Hereafter. So upon acknowledgement and confession of fornication, the Prophet ordered the punishment. (Bukhari, Vol. 8, Nos. 806, 810, 812-14; Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 4413). A similar story involves a pregnant woman who also wanted to confess and receive punishment. Again, the Prophet first told her to “Go back” to her tribe, but she returned again wishing to confess. The Prophet told her to go back until the child was born. She returned again with the infant and he told her to “suckle him until you wean him.” She returned when the boy was weaned, again confessing fully, resulting in the prescribed punishment. (Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 4428).
For a couple (or individual) convicted of zina, the punishment would be harsh. According to the Qur’an , 100 lashes for each (24:2). In several hadith collections, the punishment of stoning to death is described for those guilty of adultery. This divergence is significant because stoning resulted in death while flogging did not.. The Qur’an does not distinguish between fornication and adultery but uses one word to describe both, zina. Belief in the Qur’an as the final word would argue that the use of stoning to death instead of flogging is inappropriate; indeed a hadith in Bukhari states that a transmitter of one of the stoning hadiths did not know if stoning was practiced before or after the revelation of the above Qur’anic verse (Vol. .8, No. 804). Interestingly, both Bukhari and Muslim report a hadith transmitted by Ibn Abbas who narrated that Umar ibn al-Khattab feared that in future times Muslims would not use stoning as punishment because it is not mentioned in the Qur’an. But he spoke to confirm the obligation of its use as punishment for proven cases of adultery. (Bukhari, Vol.8, No. 816; Muslim, No. 4194).
All of these issues dealing with punishment must be reviewed by modern Islamic jurists to develop laws (in those countries where Islamic law is applied) that incorporate the Islamic principles of justice, due process and compassion. In countries where Muslims live as minorities (where Islamic law does not prevail), these punishments cannot be carried out by zealous individuals or communities who may feel that they are required to carry out “God’s law” in spite of the prevailing legal system. Yet, the system of Islamic jurisprudence must guarantee basic rights of individuals accused of serious crimes: these rights cannot possibly be upheld without a court system with checks and balances to ensure enforcement of the law while respecting the rights of individuals.
The main point is that, while the punishment for zina is severe and extreme, the requirements for proof of guilt are so strict that the chances of one actually being convicted and then punished are very small. Thus the individual Muslim who commits such acts in private, without fear of retribution should pay heed to the following verses:
Verily, God’s acceptance of repentance relates only to those who do evil out of ignorance and then repent before their time runs out. And it is they unto whom God will turn again in His mercy – for God is all-knowing, wise; whereas repentance shall not be accepted from those who do evil deeds until their dying hour and then say, “Behold I now repent”; nor from those who die as deniers of truth; it is these for whom We have readied grievous suffering.(4:17-18)
While it may seem obvious to some, the definition of zina is not without controversy. Again, using the hadith mentioned above(Bukhari, Vol. 8, No. 806, etc.), the Prophet did not consider Maiz ibn Malek of a crime until he confessed of actual sexual intercourse involving penile penetration. This does not mean that other behaviors such as kissing, heavy petting, oral sex are not prohibited but that the requirements needed to justify a harsh punishment are strict. Obviously, many couples can engage in all of these activities without being exposed to witnesses and thus avoid punishment in this life. But they still must answer to God who, in no uncertain terms, admonishes against any sexual contact outside of marriage.
False Accusations and Honor
If a husband accuses his wife of adultery by swearing four times and she denies any wrongdoing under oath, then she is vindicated (Qur’an 24:6-9). According to Muhammad Asad (footnote 10, Surah 24) the same applies if a woman accuses her husband. If the accusation is found to be false the punishment of the accuser is severe:
And as for those who accuse chaste women (of adultery), and then are unable to produce four witnesses (in support of thier accusation), flog them with eighty s stripes; an ever after refuse to accept from them any testimony- since it is they, they that are truly depraved!- excepting only those who afterwards repent and made amends for, behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace. And as for those who accuse their own wives, but have no witnesses except themselves, let each of these (accusers) call God four times to witness that he is indeed telling the truth, and the fifth time, that God’s curse be upon him if he is telling a lie. (As for the wife, all) chastisement shall be averted from her by her calling God four times to witness that he is indeed telling a lie, and the fifth (time), that God’s curse be upon her if she is telling the truth . (24:4-8)
These verses were revealed in response to accusations against Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, who was left behind the caravan when she went looking for a lost necklace. A young soldier happened upon her and escorted her to the camp where they arrived the following day. Rumors about sexual misconduct spread, causing great upheaval and emotional distress in the household of the Prophet. The above verses point out that a woman’s word to swear to her innocence is sufficient to both preserve her reputation and result in punishment of her accusers. The following verse admonishes the community for not questioning the rumors and giving Aisha, the accused, the benefit of the doubt:
“Why do not the believing men and women, whenever such (a rumor) is heard, think the best of one another and say, ‘This is an obvious falsehood’?…and were it not for God’s favor upon you, and His grace in this world and in the life to come, awesome suffering would indeed have afflicted you in result of all (the calumny) in which you indulge when you take it up with your tongues, uttering with your mouths something of which you have no knowledge, and deeming it a light matter whereas in the sight of God it is an awful thing!…Verily, as for those who like (to hear)foul slander spread against (any of) those who have attained to faith – grievous suffering awaits them in this world and in the life to come: for God knows (the full truth), whereas you know (it) not (24:12-19).
Slander is considered a grave offense since it taints the reputation of individuals and disrupts relationships The verses, while referring to Aisha’s particular case, universally applied, serve to protect women from any unfair accusations about their chastity. Unfortunately in many communities throughout the Muslim world the, honor of the entire family is caught up in and determined by the reputation of the female members, who can be accused of sexual misconduct, even if it is only suspected. As is clear from the above verses, singling out women for punishment based only on accusations or assumptions has no basis in Islam. Even if a woman is accused of fornication, and she denies the accusation, no punishment is carried out (Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 4451). Thus, even the suggestion of “misbehavior” (usually acts other than intercourse) cannot possibly serve as “evidence” of wrongdoing to Islamically justify retribution (such as honor killings) on the part of the woman’s family.
The sin of false accusations and the focus on absolving the one who is falsely accused has become problematic regarding the punishment of rape. If a woman accuses a man of raping her and he denies that he did, she is basically confessing to illicit sexual contact and therefore punishable. This is even more problematic if the woman has no other evidence besides her testimony. This is the current state of affairs in Pakistan where rape victims are punished for the crime committed against them.
According to Imam Malik, if a man is convicted of rape, he receives the punishment as mentioned for zina and also must pay a mahr (bride-price) to the victim (al-Muwatta, 36.16). Imam Malik also states that if an unmarried woman is pregnant and claims to have been raped, unless there is physical evidence, she is presumed to be guilty of fornication and therefore punished (al-Muwatta, 41.4). Again, based on earlier interpretations, the woman is made to suffer for a crime committed by another because the focus is erroneously on the sexual act and not on rape as an act of violence. Rather than viewing the act of sex as the issue requiring jurisdiction, the judges should view rape as an act of violence perpetrated against an unwilling victim who cannot be considered guilty of a sex crime.
Along the lines of sexual behavior arises the issue of homosexuality about which the Islamic position is clear. Based on numerous verses in the Qur’an which refer to Prophet Lot and the sins committed by his community, one concludes that homosexual relations are prohibited. (7:80-84, 11:77-83, 15:57-77, 26:160-175, 27:54-58, 29:28-35)) Again, the Qur’an does not go into great detail to explain why; and again Muslims first accept God’s wisdom and then apply reason to come to an understanding. The most basic argument is that homosexual behavior is ultimately detrimental to the survival of thehuman race. Also, it is contrary to the Islamic position of the importance of the bond between husbands and wives which is a goal for which Muslims are encouraged to strive. (based on a well known hadith that marriage is half of one’s religion.)
Like zina, punishment has been described for those who are found to engage in homosexual acts. The Qur’an is somewhat vague on the issue of punishment. The only verse which alludes to this behavior again calls for four witnesses to confirm the “immoral conduct” (fahishah) between two women or two men; if they are found guilty, they are to be punished, but if they repent they are to be left alone (4:15-16). The type of punishment is not defined. The hadith are more specific. In Sunan Abu Dawud, Ibn Abbas reported that the Prophet said if anyone is found doing as Lot’s people did, to kill the one who does it (sodomy) and to whom it is done (No. 4447). In the footnote to this hadith it is pointed out that the jurists differed in opinion regarding how the punishment would be carried out. Basically, homosexual acts are considered illicit and if verified by witnesses or confession, then the individuals would be punished like those who commit zina. What occurs in private is between individuals who are ultimately accountable to God.
Naturally, sexual feelings can arise for people who are not yet married. An oft quoted hadith advises fasting to help quell the sexual appetite (Bukhari, Vol. 3, No. 129). For some this may not really help. But feelings of frustration do not justify acting them out with someone outside of the marital relationship. Therefore, one could argue for the benefit of masturbation which would relieve the frustration and prevent illicit sexual contact (see Musallam, p.33 and Qaradawi, pp. 170-1). According to Al-Qaradawi in The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, the majority of scholars consider masturbation haram (forbidden). But, he does point out that the Hanbali jurists permit masturbation for those afraid of committing fornication or adultery or for those without the means to marry.
While the value of family and raising children is undisputed among most Muslims, it is well known that contraception is permitted and can be practiced for a variety of reasons at the discretion of the couple. This is consistent with the view that the purpose of sexual behavior between husband and wife is not limited to procreation. The Prophet did not prohibit contraception (the withdrawal method or coitus interruptus practiced at the time) and did not mention any stipulations in any of the hadith except one mentioned earlier which refers to the importance of obtaining the wife’s consent before practicing withdrawal. Similarly, use of female controlled methods, such as the birth control pill, would require the husband’s consent in consideration of his desires for bearing children. (Bukhari, Vol. 7, Nos. 135-6; Muslim, Nos. 3371-88; al-Muwatta, 29.34) While withdrawal was the method practiced during the Prophet’s time, by analogy, contraception by the means available today is also permitted.
In almost every hadith that discusses withdrawal (‘azl) the Prophet is reported to have said that even if it is practiced, if God intends a child to be born she/he will be born. Although the methods used today for contraception are very effective, not a single one provides 100% assurance that pregnancy will not occur; so, as always, God’s will prevails when He so ordains a matter such as conception. Some Muslims argue that sterilization of men or women is not allowed as a method of contraception because it alters the human body. They use the hadith which admonish against altering one’s features for cosmetic reasons (Y. Al-Qaradawi, The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, pp. 88-9). Surgery done for beautification is clearly not the same as that done for contraception so the connection is flawed at best, and does not offer a convincing argument against sterilization
Like the other monotheistic religions, Islam prohibits the taking of the life of another human being without just cause (i.e. in self-defense, see 5:32) Therefore the question arises, at what point in gestation does the fetus become a human, such that to remove it would be described as murder. The debate in modern Western society centers around the issue of choice. Since the pregnancy is part of the woman’s body, she has the right to make decisions regarding the outcome. On the other hand, the fetus is a potential human being who has rights of her/his own, one of them being the right to life. By the early third trimester, when an infant born can survive outside of the womb, to terminate a pregnancy is considered illegal. Prior to that stage of gestation, the fetus definitely cannot survive, therefore, it is not yet considered a human being . Others believe that the fetus’s status as a human begins at conception.
The Qur’an describes the stages of embryonic development (22:4, 23:12-14) and states that at a certain point during development, the fetus is given a soul. According to the jurists and their interpretation of a related hadith, the ensoulment occurs somewhere between 40 and 120 days of gestation (Musallam, p.53-4). Based on these references all of the major jurists agreed that the fetus did not become endowed with a human spirit until at least 40 days of gestation had occurred. Some felt that this did not occur until 120 days of gestation. In reviewing historical documents of Medieval Islamic jurists, Musallam argues that abortion was considered a form of birth control which was essentially allowed by all of the major juristic positions (p.69).
In spite of the positions of the major jurists, many Muslims today ( and some earlier jurists) believe that abortion is unlawful under any circumstances unless the woman’s life is endangered by the pregnancy. Modern technology (not available to early jurists) enables the physician to see the beating heart of a 21 day old embryo; whether the embryo qualifies as a person is really only known by God. Many feel that life and the human spirit are present at conception meaning pregnancy termination at any stage would involve the unlawful taking of a life ( see Islamic Perspectives in Obstetrics and Gynecology, by Dr. Hassan Hathout, pp. 61-78 ). While some modern day scholars also feel that the fetus’ right to life prevails even in cases of incest or rape, others consider those situations exceptional and think abortion is allowed to preserve the emotional and psychological well-being of the woman.
As mentioned above, some Muslim scholars have interpreted the Qur’an and Hadith as explaining when the fetus becomes a human being (between 40 and 120 days of gestation) therefore, termination would be lawful during that time. The appropriate circumstances for termination would then be considered. Today, women often terminate pregnancy because they are sexually active and not yet married; pregnancy in those circumstances is undesirable for many reasons. If individuals avoid extramarital sex, they would not be faced with making such a difficult decision. For married couples, unwanted pregnancy most often occurs as a result of contraception failure. According to the jurists cited in Musallam, (namely Hanafi, Shafi’i) abortion is permissible if the parents fear hardship, physical, psychological or other. Economic justification is generally not considered sufficient since the Qur’an says “Do not kill your children for fear of want.”(6:151) even though this verse is referring to living children. Also, if a woman is nursing a young infant (who relies solely on breast milk for sustenance) and she becomes pregnant, she can terminate the pregnancy in the interest of her first child as pregnancy decreases milk production and would thus be harmful to her baby (Qardawi, p201-202).
Female Genital Mutilation
Since female genital mutilation (FGM , known also as female circumcision). is a custom among some Muslims, the Islamic position must be made clear. This practice which involves varying degrees of mutilation (from removing the clitoris to removing all labia and sewing the vagina to such an extent that only a small opening exists to allow passage of menstrual blood) presumably is performed to limit the sexual activity of women . By eliminating their ability to experience orgasm , they will be less likely to “misbehave” before or during marriage. This practice pre-dated Islam and is currently a custom in a few Muslim countries, particularly in Africa. Only one hadith exists which specifically addresses FGM. In Sunan Abu Dawud, Um Atiya said that the Prophet told a woman who performed circumcision in Medina to “not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband” (No. 5251). According to Abu Dawud, this is a weak hadith (mursal). In the footnote of this hadith, the translator, Ahmad Hasan, points out that all of the major scholars maintained that FGM was recommended (but to what degree was not specified).
A review of the previous discussion of sexuality, exposes the unIslamic nature of this practice. Sexual responsibility in terms of chastity and fidelity is required of both men and women. As mentioned earlier, there is no reason women need physical evidence of virginity and men do not. Each individual is responsible for her/his actions and is accountable to God. A woman is expected to follow the guidelines of Islam because she is capable and does not need to be physically impaired to do so. Also, the importance of sexual satisfaction and pleasure is applicable to both men and women; there is no way a woman who has been mutilated can feel pleasure during sexual relations. Also, the same hadiths mentioned above which advise against cosmetic surgery would further argue against FGM. Because this act is so contrary to Islamic principles, it must be outlawed and resisted by all Muslims, particularly those in positions of influence who can impact the behavior of large communities where this custom is practiced. Muslim leadership must take a strong, unapologetic stand to convince the community of Muslims that FGM is totally unIslamic, with the hopes of eliminating it altogether, at least among Muslim groups that continue to practice FGM. (see MWL position paper on Female Circumcision/Female Genital Mutilation).
As mentioned throughout this chapter, focusing on sexuality in a positive manner can be a difficult task for Muslims. Cultural views of women in general, fear of committing and being punished for sin, and the use of sex as a means of domination have all contributed to the silence and repression that prevent people from being comfortable with their sexuality as individuals and in relationships. Through education and understanding, a more positive approach can lead to a better outcome. Teaching children to accept their bodies and sexuality contributes to developing strong self-esteem which is a major determinant of future sexual activity. Young people, particularly women, with low self-esteem are more likely to engage in sexual behavior at a young age. Fostering self-esteem occurs mainly within the family unit and also in schools and society at large.
Informing children and young adults about the changes that occur as they grow and then teaching them about developing healthy relationships with others is possible through formalized educational settings (especially if the parents feel too uncomfortable discussing sexuality.) Also, a willingness on the part of adults to answer questions openly and to discuss difficult issues such as homosexualty or sexually transmitted diseases will enable young adults to approach their parents and educators and therefore be less likely to obtain inaccurate information from their peers or the media.
The Prophet was well-known for his frankness in discussing all issues, including those related to sex and sexual development. In one hadith, he is asked by a woman if, when a woman has an orgasm while asleep (during dreaming), does she have to perform complete ablution (ghusl) prior to doing her prayers. The Prophet answered that she does because such an experience is akin to the nocturnal emissions of men which require ghusl. (Muslim, Nos. 607-613; Bukhari, Vol.1, No. 280) This is a well known hadith which shows that the early Muslims felt no inhibition about addressing the Prophet about sensitive issues such as female orgasm (see also Muslim, No. 649). Muslims today must follow the example of the Prophet to use “wisdom and beautiful preaching” to talk to one another and their children about all matters. Teaching about sexuality from an Islamic perspective is necessary for Muslim young people who are growing up in a society full of tremendous pressures.
Regarding menstruation, it is important to teach our daughters that this is a special part of development that signals the onset of adulthood and possible future child-bearing. A supportive attitude by parents is essential as girls struggle to deal with a change that may leave them feeling uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassed. Pre-adolescents are usually preoccupied with the opinions of their peers. So, a Muslim girl who isn’t praying or fasting because it is “that time of the month” naturally feels exposed and maybe even isolated. Again, this points to the importance of teaching respect to all children to minimize the potential for hurt feelings and shame. Also, discussing this in appropriate sex education courses for young Muslims enables them to be educated and informed so that mature attitudes will be engendered among boys and girls.
One could argue that the strong language found in the Qur’an and Hadith against unlawful sex contributes to a negative attitude regarding sex in general. Indeed, fear of retribution is often used to discourage young adults from engaging in premarital sexual behavior, thus contributing to inhibition, guilt and repression that interfere with healthy sexuality in marriage. Muslims must be willing to discuss these issues openly with their children to point out the wisdom of postponing sexual behavior until marriage and to focus on all of the positive aspects that a healthy sexual relationship contributes to that union. Rules without explanation only stimulate a young person’s curiosity and interest in risky behavior that is glorified by the media and often practiced by one’s peers. Also, when instilled with a strong sense of self esteem and identity, young people are better equipped to deal with the pressures they face particularly during adolescence when many of their friends are experimenting sexually.