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An Islamic Perspective on Sexuality

by Muslim Women's League
September 1999

In Islam, sexuality is considered part of our identity as human beings. In His creation of humankind, God distinguished us from other animals by giving us reason and will such that we can control behavior that, in other species, is governed solely by instinct. So, although sexual relations ultimately can result in the reproduction and survival of the human race, an instinctual concept, our capacity for self-control allows us to regulate this behavior. Also, the mere fact that human beings are the only creatures who engage in sexual relations once they are beyond the physical capacity for reproduction, sets us apart from all other species which engage in sex for the sole purpose of reproduction.

Marraige

For Muslims, based on an understanding of Qur'an and hadith, sexual relations are confined to marriage between a wife and husband. Within this context, the role of a healthy sexual relationship is extremely important. Having and raising children are encouraged among Muslims. Once a child is born, the parents are expected to care for, nurture and prepare the child for adulthood, with a goal of imparting Islam so that the individual is equipped with knowledge and willingness to accept and practice Islam and thus become a productive member of society.

Beyond childbearing, sexual relations assume a prominent role in the overall well-being of the marriage. In reading hadith, one is impressed with the Prophet's ability to discuss all issues including those dealing with human sexuality. The topics range from questions about menstruation to orgasm. He apparently was not embarrassed by such inquiries, but strove to adequately guide and inform the Muslims who asked. Both Qur'an and hadith allude to the nature of sexual relations as a means of attaining mutual satisfaction, closeness and compassion between a wife and husband. "Permitted to you on the night of the Fasts is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and you are their garments." (2:187) Also, Muslims are advised to avoid sexual intercourse during menses so as not to cause discomfort to the woman (2:222). The goal of marriage is to create tenderness between two individuals and satisfy the very basic human need for companionship. "And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between you; in this are signs for those who think." (30:21)

The hadith which address this issue are numerous. The Prophet himself, while not divulging all aspects of his own sexual life, was known for his nature as a loving husband who was sensitive and physically demonstrative. In several hadith, he speaks about the importance of foreplay and speaking in loving terms during sexual relations. Again, the concept of mutual satisfaction is elucidated in a hadith which advises husbands to engage in acts that enable a woman to achieve orgasm first. (see Ihya ulum-id-din (Revival of Religious Learning) by Imam Ghazzali, chapter on Marriage). Sexual dissatisfaction is considered legitimate grounds for divorce on the part of either wife or husband.

Sex Outside of Marraige

Naturally, attraction between individuals is necessary to initiate a relationship that leads to marriage. But sexual relations can obviously take place between any couple, consenting or not. Because of the far-reaching ramifications of sexual relations outside of marriage, Muslims are prohibited by God from such behavior. And because the process that leads to physical attraction and ultimately intimacy is part of human nature, Muslims are advised to behave in a way and avoid circumstances that could potentially result in extra- or premarital sex. Modesty in dress and behavior between women and men figures prominently as a means of exhibiting self-control. Similarly, unmarried couples are admonished against spending time alone in isolated places where they would be more likely to act on their feelings and thus be less inhibited.

Some of the negative results of sex outside of marriage include the potential for unwanted pregnancies, transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, disruption of the family and marriage (in cases of adultery), and emotional and psychological difficulties resulting from the lack of commitment associated with most relationships outside of marriage. As in other religions, extra- and premarital sex are considered major sins. Muslims believe that God does not simply forbid or allow behavior whimsically, but does so with our best interest at heart, guiding us away from potentially destructive behavior and towards behavior that allows us to achieve our most fulfilling potentials as human beings. For a similar reason, Muslims give up the consumption of alcohol because of faith in God's wisdom that the negative effects outweigh the positive for individuals and society at large. "Whoever submits his whole self to God, and is a doer of good, has grasped indeed the most trustworthy handhold..." (31:22)

Contraception

Although Muslims are encouraged to have children, contraception is not prohibited. The method used during the time of the Prophet was coitus interruptus (known as ëazl) about which several hadith exist. His basic response when asked if such a practice was lawful was that individuals can do as they will, but if God intends for a child to be born, she/he will be born. Some interpreted this to mean that preventing pregnancy is not recommended because childbearing is preferred; yet the act is not specifically prohibited. Also, other hadith stipulate that ëazl could not be practiced without the wife's consent as it might interfere with her sexual satisfaction or desire to bear children.

By analogy, the methods that exist today as contraceptives are lawful for Muslims to use at their discretion. Basically, it is our position that any method that does not involve pregnancy termination is permissible. Imam al-Ghazzali (see previous reference) lists a number of legitimate reasons for practicing contraception, including financial difficulty, emotional or psychological hardship of having many children, and even the preservation of beauty and health.

It should be clear from this discussion, that since sexual relations should be confined to marriage, contraception is so limited. It is not considered a means of easing the difficulties associated with sexual relations outside of marriage.

Abortion

Abortion is viewed in the same context as having relevance only regarding pregnancies occurring in marriage, again, not as a response to conception as a result of extra- or premarital relationships. Early Muslim jurists considered abortion lawful for a variety of reasons until 40 -120 days after conception (first trimester). This was based on interpretation of Qur'an (22:4 and 23:12-14) and hadith that implied that ensoulment or "life" did not exist until after that time (see Sex and Society in Islam, B.F. Musallam, Cambridge University Press, 1983). Contemporary thinkers, considering available technology that allows visualization of the embryonic heartbeat at four weeks of gestation, are of the position that life begins much earlier than previously thought, and therefore to terminate would be to take a life illegally.

The majority of Muslims today believe that abortion is allowed only if the mother's life is significantly endangered by the pregnancy. Some also feel that the presence of certain congenital anomalies (particularly those that are lethal) make abortion lawful. Also, some scholars consider abortion appropriate in pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

Homosexuality

Human beings are capable of many forms of sexual expression, orientation and identification. The potential for behavior, such as homosexuality, does not mean that its practice is lawful in the eyes of God. Therefore, individuals are expected to control themselves and not act on their desires if such action is contrary to the guidelines of Islam. Homosexuality, like other forms of sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage, is thus prohibited.

In any discussion of prohibited acts follows the question of what happens if they nevertheless occur. The Qur'an and hadith are explicit regarding severe punishment by the State if a person is convicted of such a crime. However, in order for conviction to take place, the individuals must confess or be accused by at least four eyewitnesses of the act of actual intercourse. Obviously, the likelihood of these criteria being met is small which means that most couples who engage in unlawful acts will not be punished by the State. They will then deal with the consequences of their behavior in this life and will be accountable to God on the Day of Judgment. How He ultimately judges is known only by Him.

Sex Education

Clearly, from the above discussion, Islam is explicit about many aspects of human sexuality. Also, based on the numerous hadith showing the Prophet's willingness to discuss these matters openly, it should be obvious that education about matters related to sex is acceptable. Muslims may disagree about the age at which sex education begins; some don't discuss the subject at all. Explaining anatomy and the changes one's body experiences during puberty are essential for enabling young people to grow up with a healthy self-image. Also, in an age where sexual activity in many countries begins at an early age, Muslim adolescents must be informed to better enable them to deal with peer pressure. Sex education can be taught in a way that informs young people about sexuality in scientific and moral terms.

In countries with very diverse populations, such as the United States, the main limitation in developing sex education curricula, particularly in public schools, is the inability to select a universally acceptable moral position. Therefore, young people are given facts and information, and advised that if they choose to engage in sexual relationships, they should take measures to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The moral and religious aspects of sexuality can be incorporated either in schools of a particular religious denomination or in adjunctive coursework offered by religious institutions.

Regardless of the challenges of each society, young people must be adequately informed. Also, in some Muslim communities, individuals are encouraged to marry at young ages. They need to be educated regarding sexuality prior to the marriage such that they know what to expect and can consider their options for birth control prior to consummating the marriage.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

The practice of clitoridectomy preceded the introduction of Islam in Arabia and in different parts of Africa. This results in severe sexual debilitation of women who cannot possibly achieve sexual fulfillment which is their right as Muslims. Therefore, this practice is totally un-Islamic because it is in direct violation of both Qur'an and hadith which clearly stress the importance of sexual satisfaction for both the husband and wife.

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