Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming

Sexuality and Islam

  • Mark HarrisEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_9237-1

Islam is one of the world’s great religions, the religion of an estimated 23% of humanity (CIA World Factbook). Since its founding by Mohammad (570–632), this third Abrahamic religion, alongside Christianity and Judaism, has been a perennial guide for conduct and source of controversy. It is heavily influenced by the Hebrew scriptures, what some would call the Old Testament, the Arab culture in the sands from which it sprung, and the 1400 years of lived experience in the Muslim community. The prophet, as well as Islamic law as described in the Quran and the rest of the Shariah, has much to say about human sexuality.

To study a religion is, in part, to study its source of authority. Common sources of religious authority include scriptures, traditions, words, and deeds of important people past and present and the lived experience of its adherents over time. The reader must also consider his or her interpretive framework (hermeneutic). Will words be understood literally, allegorically, according to the assumed intent of the author, according to the preference of the reader, in some other way, or in some combination? This article attempts to use interpretations traditionally accepted by adherents.

To Muslims, Allah has no consort – he has no Hindu Ganga-equivalent – but is the Supreme Being and the only God. He made men and women and thus sexuality is a gift from Allah to mankind (75:36–39). Sexual intercourse is for pleasure and procreation. Paradise is described as a well-watered garden in which men enjoy leisure, abundance, and the sensual pleasures of houris – wide eyed and retiring virgins who accede to their every wish (44:54, 52:20, 55:55–56). Some Muslims interpret this passage literally, and others allegorically. The former group read this as unending pleasure and irrepressible sex after death. The latter, depending upon their hermeneutics, can read this as meaning anything they wish.

There is no single person that we can look to as an authoritative example on Hindu or Daoist sexuality, but the example of Muhammad reveals Muslim sexuality. He first had a monogamous marriage with Khadija, a wealthy widow. After her death, Muhammad had a total of nine wives and five concubines. He married the divorced former wife of an adopted son, for which he also claimed to receive special permission in the Quran (33:37). The last was Ayesha, whom he married when she was 6 years old and had relations with when she was nine (Hidayatullah 2003, p. 270). Some of his marriages were with women captured in war, and some were political, intended to form alliances with powerful families (33:50).

Islam places strict boundaries around sexual practice. Men are to perform a righteous act before approaching their wives (2:223), and men and women are to ritually purify themselves after copulation (Al-Misri, e10.1). Husbands are instructed to consider their wives sexual pleasure as well, approaching them with kisses, tender words, and caresses. Intercourse during menstruation is forbidden (2:222), as is marrying close relatives (4:22–23). Fornication and adultery are condemned (24:2), but temporary marriage is permitted (4:24), although it is currently practiced primarily in Shia Islam. Divorce is heavily regulated. Male and female circumcision are clearly defined and are mandatory (Al-Misri, e4.3), but not often practiced in modern times. Muslims eschew Christian monasticism, instead commanding adherents to marry (57:27). Even prolonged abstinence within marriage is forbidden (Al-Misri, w52.1). Muhammad permitted coitus interruptus for birth control, abortion is allowed only to save the mother’s life, and infanticide is absolutely forbidden (Hidayatullah 2003, p. 268). However, Islamic Law condemns sodomy and homosexual activity (Al-Misri, p17.0, w52.3), as well as other sexual practices such as bestiality and transvestism.

There is an erotic element in Islamic sexuality. Some have opined that intercourse is an act of worship (Parrinder 1996, p. 168). Other writers refer to the Islamic sexual ideal as “cosmic harmony (Ruthven 1984, p. 155).” Works of literature such as Thousand and One Nights (tenth century), Book of Exposition of the Science of Coitus, and The Perfumed Garden for the Soul’s Delectation (sixteenth century) include sexual fantasy and even erotica in an Islamic setting. They sometimes portray activities forbidden in the Quran and the Law. Omar Khayyam’s twelfth century Persian poetry is another example famous in the West.

Islamic mysticism is an important tradition. While the Quran says nothing about God’s love for man or man’s love for God, concepts of such love are powerful in the Sufi tradition. Ahmad al-Ghazzali (1061–1123) taught of the beauty and loveliness of Allah, while Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273) was a sober ascetic turned mystical ecstatic. He wrote in Mathnawi, “Wherever you are and in whatever circumstances you find yourself, strive always to be a lover, and a passionate lover at that (Feuerstein 1992, p. 123).” Nonetheless, Islam has never seen human sexuality as a path to transcendence, as Hinduism and Daoism have.

Sexual segregations such as the use of the veil and the exclusion of women from public places are common in majority Islamic countries. The Quran speaks of such matters (24:30–31), but the rest of the Islamic Law (Shariah) has important instructions. Women are not permitted to leave their houses with their faces unveiled, and a man cannot even be alone with a woman who is not his wife or unmarriageable kin (Al-Misri, m2.3). That same passage includes careful instructions on even looking at the bodies of men and women. The clothing required for women covers them from head to toe (Al-Misri, m11.5).

A Muslim man can have up to four permanent wives (4:3), keep concubines (Al-Misri, k32.0), and consummate temporary marriages (4:24). In consequence, men with many women in their household had to keep separate places in the home (or palace) for these women. These areas were secluded from the eyes of outsiders. Since they were especially forbidden to other men (Arabic – haram), the word “harem” entered the Western view of Islam. A harem is essentially a secluded, private space, and the women who lived there. While normally associated with bygone empires, and in sharp decline in the modern world, harems still exist today.

The certainty entailed in a “literal” interpretation of ancient Islamic texts provides emotional and psychological comfort. The authority of antiquity lives in the Quran and the rest of the Shariah, and the argument that these teachings have sustained Muslims in life and death for centuries has merit. Even more, if the greatest days of Islamic civilization lie in the past, especially the reign of Harun al-Rashid (763–809), then returning to Islam as it was understood then can logically be argued to be the path to future greatness. Such is the stance of many Islamic fundamentalist groups, who veil their women and allow polygamy. The comfort that people obtain from such thinking comes at a price – limitations of personal activities, conflict with prevailing thought in the wider world, and accusations of Islamic rigidity.

Using other hermeneutics to examine Islamic texts, such as interpreting them allegorically or rejecting part of all of some works because they are “outdated,” provides the freedom to mold Islam in a way that will fit modern secular thought. While a “fundamentalist” may have to promote a limited role for women and execution for adulterers and homosexuals, a modern interpreter may allegorize restrictions on women’s activities to functionally weaken or eliminate them. Someone else may dismiss other passages out of hand as “outdated” or too culturally constrained to be followed. Hidayatullah writes, “the aim of much contemporary scholarship on Islam involves the disentangling of Abbasid era cultural mores from the Sharia and the development of models for more fluid, temporal exegesis of legal sources (p. 260).” Such interpretations allow for flexibility in personal preferences and harmony with non-Muslims, but at the cost of personal uncertainty and a fragmented understanding of the truth. Restated, if Islam can be anything that an adherent wants it to be, then it is also nothing.

Modernity has challenged the Muslim faith, or at least traditional interpretations of it. While Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, and others have often embraced birth control, women’s rights, and variant sexual expression, Islam by and large has not. Shanghai beaches boast buxom, bikini clad women, but Jeddah beaches do not. Despite more than 50 years of safe birth control, Muslim majority countries have higher fertility rates than non-Muslim majority countries do (Pew Research).

Islam is a widely followed faith, and professionals providing care for Muslims, especially in such private matters as psychosexual health, must be well versed medically and culturally. Psychological and sexual problems can be addressed in traditional ways, including therapy and medications, so long as the behavioral health practitioner gains a clear understanding of Islam and a respect for the patient’s beliefs. In psychosexual disorders, competent and compassionate care are paramount – biomedical treatments such as drugs and procedures are secondary.

Conclusion

Muslims believe that Allah has no consort and that sex is a gift from him, intended for procreation and pleasure. The Quran and the Islamic Sacred Law have much to say about relations between men and women in general and give careful instructions on sexuality specifically. How these are enacted in the lives of individual Muslims is largely a function of their interpretive framework. Traditional Islamic beliefs are strongly challenged by modern sexual mores, and this may contribute to psychosexual problems in patients.

See Also

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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Southern Baptist Theological SeminaryLouisvilleUSA