Allah (swt) created sexuality not just for procreation but as a means to attain physical and emotional fulfillment. Sexuality must be expressed and sexual well-being must be an integral part of healthy human development. Islam, being a comprehensive way of life, guides us with the Quran and the Sunnah in this important area of our lives. Let us look at:
- Expression of sexuality;
- Perceptions about our bodies;
- Sexual health education.
In Islam, sexuality is a part of our identity as human beings. Allah (swt) has distinguished us from animals by giving us reason and will – we can control behaviour that in other species is governed solely by instinct.
Although sexual relations can result in reproduction, which ensures the survival of the human race, our capacity for self-control allows us to regulate this behaviour. Also, the fact that human beings are the only creatures engaging in sexual relations beyond the physical capacity for reproduction is what sets us apart from all other species.
Concept of Marriage
The Prophet (sa) said: “Marriage is my tradition. He, who rejects my tradition, is not of me.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
Islam encourages marriage as a socially responsible way for sexual expression and as a shield from casual relationships. The disastrous effects of non-committal intimacy on the health and emotional well-being of individuals, families, and society as a whole can be seen not just in the West but across the spectrum of the Muslim Ummah. Marriage provides space for safe intimacy “that will keep one free from diseases, infections, and dysfunctions.”
The marriage of a man and a woman is not just a financial and legal living arrangement. The goal is to create tenderness between two individuals and satisfy the basic human need for companionship, intimacy, physical and emotional fulfillment.
Allah (swt) says: “And among His Signs is this, that He created for you wives from among yourselves, that you may find repose in them, and He has put between you affection and mercy. Verily, in that are indeed signs for a people who reflect.” (Ar-Rum 30:21)
“They are your garments, and you are their garments.” (Al-Baqara 2:187)
The Prophet (sa) himself, while not divulging all aspects of his own intimate life, was known for his nature of a loving husband, who was sensitive and physically demonstrative. In several Hadeeths, he speaks about the importance of foreplay and speaking in loving terms during intimacy moments. One Hadeeth advises husbands to let their wife achieve fulfillment of her desires first. Sexual dissatisfaction is considered legitimate grounds for divorce on the part of either wife or husband.
Intimacy Outside of Marriage
Allah (swt) says: “And let those, who find not the financial means for marriage, to keep themselves chaste, until Allah (swt) enriches them of His Bounty.” (An-Nur 24:33)
Extra- and pre-marital intimacy is not allowed in Islam. Allah (swt) does not simply forbid or allow behaviour whimsically – He does so considering our best interests: guiding us away from potentially destructive behaviour towards a path that allows us to achieve our utmost potential.
Allah (swt) says: “Should not He Who has created know? And He is the Most Kind and courteous (to His slaves), All-Aware (of everything).” (Al-Mulk 67:14)
Modesty and Perceptions about our Bodies
The Prophet (sa) said: “Haya and Iman are two companions that go together. If one of them is lifted, the other is also lifted.” (Hakim)
Islamic perspective on sexuality, body image, and self-awareness is based on the concept of Haya, which loosely translates to modesty. Haya is usually misunderstood and regarded as a one-dimensional concept meaning shyness or bashfulness. Media rhetoric has further narrowed the vision of Muslims and non-Muslims alike into believing that Haya is a sign of backwardness or lack of confidence. When the popular slogan is, “if you have it – flaunt it,” it is inconceivable that a person would choose to be modest.
Haya is actually an inner spiritual protective device that makes a person avoid transgression and behaviour that may lead to it.
The Prophet (sa) said: “Every religion has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty (Haya).” (Abu Dawood)
And: “From the words of the previous prophets that people still find are: ‘If you feel no Haya, then do as you wish.'” (Bukhari)
Pertaining to sexuality, the manifestation of Haya is an attitude that reflects a Muslim identity – men and women, who are confident about their bodies but choose to exercise control over their sexuality in accordance with the Quran and the Sunnah.
Islam encourages men and women to dress and behave modestly, in order to minimize unwarranted display of sexuality. This is not just for curbing extra-marital relations or suppressing women’s sexuality. The Chaddar and Chahardiwaree concept of women’s repression is totally alien to Islam.
Display of sexuality has a deep impact on the way we perceive our bodies and our sense of self. An excerpt from an article by a 17-year-old high school student from Toronto, Canada, eloquently illustrates a contemporary Islamic interpretation of modesty in dress and self image.
“The concept of the Hijab, contrary to popular opinion, is actually one of the most fundamental aspects of female empowerment. When I cover myself, I make it virtually impossible for people to judge me according to the way I look. Compare this to life in today’s society — we are constantly sizing one another up on the basis of our clothing, jewellery, hair, and makeup. What kind of depth can there be in a world like this?
Yes, I have a body, a physical manifestation upon this Earth. But it is the vessel of an intelligent mind and a strong spirit. It is not for the beholder to leer at or to use in advertisements. It is a myth that women in today’s society are liberated. What kind of freedom can there be, when a woman cannot walk down the street without every aspect of her physical self being checked out?
When I wear Hijab, I feel safe from all of this. I am first and foremost a human being, equal to any man, and not vulnerable because of my sexuality.”
Sexual Identity and Homosexuality
Dostoevsky said: “Without God, everything is possible.”
Human beings are capable of many forms of sexual expression, orientation, and identification. However, to date, no researcher has claimed that genes can determine sexual orientation. At best, researchers believe that there may be a genetic component. Sexuality, like every other behaviour, is undoubtedly influenced by both biological and societal factors.
The potential for behaviour, such as homosexuality, does not mean that its practice is acceptable in the eyes of Allah (swt). We also have the potential for deviant and violent sexual behaviours, such as pedophilia and rape. However, responsible human beings do not act upon all their dormant impulses.
The argument that consenting adults can do what they please is contrary to the very essence of Islam. Submission to the will of Allah (swt) is what it means to be a Muslim. Even consenting adults need Allah’s (swt) consent in all matters. Homosexuality and other forms of sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage are prohibited in Islam.
The story of Prophet Lot (as) in the Quran categorically condemns homosexuality.
“So when Our Commandment came, We turned (the towns of Sodom in Palestine) upside down, and rained on them stones of baked clay, in a well-arranged manner one after another; marked from your Lord; and they are not ever far from the Zalimun (polytheists, evil-doers).” (Hud 11:82-83)
This method of self-gratification does not correspond with the ethos of Islamic teachings.
Allah (swt) says in the Quran: “And those, who guard their chastity except from their wives or (the slaves) their right hand possesses – for then, they are free from blame; but whoever seeks beyond that, then those are the transgressors.” (Al-Mu’minun 23:5-7)
A Hadeeth indicates that those, who seek sexual gratification from other than their legal partners, are transgressing set limits. Scholars interpret that this refers not only to adultery but also to masturbation. Another Hadeeth reads: “We were with the Prophet (sa), while we were young, and had no wealth whatsoever. The Prophet (sa) said: ‘O assembly of youths; whoever among you possesses the physical and financial resources to marry should do so, because it helps him guard his modesty, and whoever is unable to marry should fast, as fasting diminishes his sexual power.'” (Muslim)
If masturbation was permissible, the Prophet (sa) would have named this as a remedy.
Sexual Health Education
In Islam, education about sexual health is not just recommended but mandatory.
Allah (swt) says in the Quran: “Say: are those who know equal to those who know not?” (Az-Zumar 39:9)
In reading Hadeeths, one is impressed about the Prophet (sa)’s ability to discuss all issues, including those dealing with intimate matters. He was not embarrassed by such inquiries but strove to guide the Muslims who asked.
Umme Sulaim asked the Prophet (sa): “Oh Messenger of Allah (swt), Allah (swt) does not shy away from the truth. Does a woman have to make Ghusl (bath), if she has a wet dream?” The Prophet (sa) stated: “Yes, if she sees liquid.” (Bukhari)
The concept of Taharat is so comprehensive in Islam that its equivalent is not found in any other religion or culture. It loosely translates to physical and spiritual cleanliness. We cannot achieve the state of Taharat without understanding our body, its physical functions, and changes that occur at different stages of maturity. Issues relating to our psychological and emotional development alongside the physical changes are equally important to understand.
It is the responsibility of parents to prepare and educate their children about all aspects of their lives, including the intimate matters. Other responsible adults in a child’s, pre-teen’s or teenager’s life can also be involved in this learning process. Educators must keep in mind the Islamic position on issues relating to sexuality and provide age appropriate information to children at their discretion.