“The Tone-Up” amplifies the voices of Muslim women who have something exclusive about Muslim women to talk or rant about. In this instalment, Wardah Abbas makes a case for why we all need to talk about sex, dismantling the culture of purity and shame.
Whenever sex comes up in Muslim communities, it’s often in the context of sermonising on modesty and gender segregation, or hushed conversations or marriage counselling on the fiqh of sexual mechanics. Several attempts to write about sex and intimacy from the Islamic point of view have failed in the face of censorship and criticism.
Some ten years back, when the Pakistani physician, Mobin Akhtar tried to release his book on Sex Education for Muslims, the local government authority hauled him in for questioning. His colleagues labelled him “a quack” and barraged him with threats for supposedly fostering an un-Islamic discourse.
In an interview with BBC, Mobin Akhtar said he had witnessed cases where teenagers, not comprehending what was happening to their bodies, had become depressed and committed suicide. According to him, “I myself passed through that stage with all these concerns, and there’s no-one to tell you otherwise, and that these are wrong perceptions. It was only when I entered medical college that I found out that these were all misconceptions.“
The Islamic Attitude to Sex
Is Islam is a prudish religion? Does Islam attach shame to something as natural as sex? Our religion is of the middle course – an example of moderation in all things. Over 1400 years ago, when Islam first came into the world, Islam was so open about sex that the neighbouring prudish Christian cultures often attempted to label it as the religion of choice for “sex-crazy deviants.”
The Quran conveys the kind of wide inclusive values one might expect from an Abrahamic faith, such as reproach against sex outside of marriage and approval of public modesty. However, dozens of hadith offer definitive, often honest and comprehensive, prophetic traditions on sex and sexuality. Numerous hadith suggests that new Muslims often asked the prophet what their conversions would mean for their sex lives. And he would respond with lengthy explanations, among which are, consent, foreplay, and the value of maintaining tenderness and playfulness in bed.
In a particular tradition, the Prophet (PBUH) stressed that a man should make sure his partner achieve orgasm before himself. He also gave glad tidings of reward for partners who had sex and satisfied each other, stating that pleasurable sex was an act of sadaqah. According to him, sex is an integral part of spirituality.
In the ninth and tenth centuries, the founders of every madhhab – the Islamic jurisprudential schools of thought, explored the fine details of sex and sexuality in-depth. The distinguished 15th-century Egyptian religious scholar Al-Suyuti wrote at least 23 volumes on sex and sexuality with raw, explicit descriptions of, and recommendations on, sexual techniques, included in his manuals on Islamic law and Ethics.
The History of Prudishness Amongst Muslims
The fact that sex amongst Muslims is considered to be a thing of shame which should never be talked about is a sign of a colonial hangover. In the Western Christian world, sexuality was tied to shame and sin, degraded as beastly and condemned as unsophisticated. Purity was usually attributed to being asexual or celibate.
The current sexual revolution in the west is a form of rebellion against the “purity culture” in Christendom where sexual desires are expected to be suppressed. This is a stance which Islam totally preaches against because Allah knows that sexual desires are a part of human nature and human nature cannot be suppressed.
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… and that is what is happening in the west right now. As a result of colonialism through which Muslims inherited the concept of sexual purity and shame, the Muslim woman is deemed as fitnah; as the epitome of the uncontrollable, and a living representative of the dangers of sexuality and its rampant disruptive potential.
In post-colonial Muslim communities, Women are perceived as a dangerous distraction who should not be used for any other specific purpose than providing the Muslim nation with offspring and quenching the tensions of the sexual instinct. According to some scholars, in no way should women be an object of emotional investment or the focus of attention. Men’s attention need only be devoted to Allah alone in the form of knowledge-seeking, meditation, and prayer. These opinions further led to the restriction of women from public spaces such as the masjids and from public service where they could seek and take up political positions.
Most of these scholars based their opinions on a few hadiths to justify these positions. One of such hadiths is:
“The Prophet saw a woman so he entered upon Zainab bint Jahsh and had intercourse with her. He then came out to his companions and said to them – A woman advances in the form of a devil, so when one of you gets excited by her, he should go to his wife and have intercourse with her for that will repel what he is feeling.”
This hadith has several variations, making me wonder why this particular narration has become mainstream while others have been pushed to the back. Other variations of this hadith include:
“Do not go to the women whose husbands are absent. Because Satan will get in your bodies as blood rushes through your flesh”. The source of this hadith is Imam Al Tirmidhi who himself comments that “This is a strange hadith!” From the wordings of this hadith, one is quick to notice that the woman is definitely not the threat here. The hadith equates the men, and not the women, with Satan. Actually, the women in this hadith emerge as the victim of men who have been overwhelmed by Satan!
Another variation of this hadith includes:
“When one of you sees a beautiful woman, he should go to his wife. Because what is with her [i.e., wife] is the same as what is with the other one.” The same hadith is also recorded with a slight difference: The Prophet said, “O Men! Verily the act of seeing [a beautiful woman] is from Satan, therefore whoever finds this inclination in him should go to his wife.“
These hadiths do not assert that women have more sexual desires than men, which is very far from the truth. I have not come across any statement which says that women are more sexually active than men. I can say with confidence that as far as Islam is concerned, there is no difference between the sexuality of men and women. These hadiths, when interpreted contextually only show the importance of not fulfilling sexual desires in an impermissible way; to always choose the right way rather than the wrong way. It neither equates the man or the woman to the devil nor does it make sex look like a sign from the devil.
Sexual Freedom or Sexual Equality?
This brings me to ask the question: “Can sexuality be regulated by morality?” In the context of Islamic discourse, sexual equality rather than sexual freedom is the more appropriate term of relevance to Muslims. While the western world aims at transforming women from being sexual objects to being sexual subjects, Islam has since 14 centuries ago sought to assert equality between men and women with regards to sexual pleasure.
The Western world, after revolting against the Christian suppression of sex, mistook unfettered sex for nurtured sex. Islam does not accept the idea of suppressing sexual instincts; instead, it promotes the grooming of those feelings and responsibly fulfilling them. The restrictions Islam places upon sex are based on the idea of nurturing it, which when critically analysed, is not different from the way we fulfil the desire for food: you must eat, but not overfeed yourself. Similarly, you must fulfil your sexual desires, but not at the expense of the rights of others and your own body.
“The believers are…those who protect their sexual organs except their spouse’s. . . Therefore, whosoever seeks more beyond that in sexual gratification], then they are the transgressors.” Noble Qur’an 23: 5-6
The Islamic concept of personal freedom may seem restrictive when compared to that of the secular system, but its rationale and justification is accepted, in an indirect way, even by the secular society.
Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.