by Hasan Azad
Sexual fulfillment between a husband and wife is considered sacred in Islam. This is in marked contrast to Christianity, where acts of "the flesh" have historically been understood as fundamentally antithetical to "the spirit." According to the Quran ''Your Lord created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women" (4:1). Notably, "the single soul" (nefs wahidaf) is undifferentiated, and is in fact grammatically feminine. It is after the creation of "its mate" that the masculine and the feminine become differentiated. The relationship between the masculine and the feminine is summarized by the somewhat mysterious Quranic notion of "garment": "They are a garment (libas) for you, and you are a garment (libas) for them" (2:187). Commentators on the Quran have historically read "garment" in a number of ways, but all of them point to the idea of the most intimate aspects of oneself.
One of "the most beautiful Names" (al-asma al-husna) by which God is said to manifest Himself in the cosmos is al-wadud (the Loving). According to the famous hadith of the Hidden Treasure: "I [God] was a treasure that was not known, so I loved to be known. Hence I created the creatures and I made Myself known to them, and thus they came to know Me." Since, according to another well-known hadith, "marriage is half of one's religion," and celibacy is rejected, love becomes one of the central concerns in Islam.
According to another hadith, the Prophet says three things of this world were made beloved to him: women, perfume, and prayer. This is a significant departure from the historic Christian understanding of women being the source of evil, where Eve was seen as the instigator/ cause of the Fall. According to the great Andalusian Shaykh Ibn 'Arabi (560/1165-638/1240), whose influence in the Muslim world has been extensive, "woman" is the greatest manifestation of God in the world, and to meditate upon her (and through her) is to come to know God, for all of creation is a sign unto Him, as the Quran continually reminds its readers. In other words, sexuality is a major way of coming to know God.
As the sanctity of the haram (literally: "inviolable ground") must be maintained, and given that women are the most manifest symbol of the Divine, it follows that they must be shielded from the eyes of unfamiliar men, who are considered rapacious by nature. Islam therefore employs a complex technology of sight, as it is understood as the precursor to both licit and illicit sexual acts, summarized by the following Quranic verse: "Say to the believers, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts; that is purer for them. God is aware of the things they work" (24:30). Sartorial regulations in Islam, which apply, with differences, to men and women alike, thus serve the function of the haram, the sacred boundaries of what is or is not available for public consumption and commodification.
Sex and the Sharia
Just as there is an immense premium placed upon licit sexual relations, illicit sexual relations are looked upon with great severity in Islam. In this context, the stipulation of "stoning the adulterer" is perhaps most noteworthy. (In the case of fornication the Quran
prescribes one hundred lashes [24:2].) While the hadith literature does prescribe stoning for adultery, it is important to note that it was rarely, if ever, carried out during the longue durie of Islamic civilization. In the Prophet's own lifetime, the stoning of an adulterer-in this case a woman-occurred once. However, it was upon the adulteress's own insistence on being punished, as an expiation for her sin despite the Prophet and his companions giving her repeated opportunities, over the course of a few years, to free herself of any punishment. It is narrated that after the punishment was carried out, certain companions cursed the woman, but the Prophet forbade them, saying, "if her blood were to be spread across Medina, then all of our sins would be forgiven," thereby indicating the high spiritual stature of the woman in the eyes of God and the Prophet.
The majority of Islamic scholars, past and present, have understood that, while such punishments may be considered "Islamic," the conditions under which they could be correctly implemented are well nigh impossible to reestablish. Furthermore, the stipulation of four honest male witnesses who witnessed the actual act of penetration in order for a charge to even be considered by a qadi was always seen as virtually impossible to meet in practice. It is stipulated that if a person fails to bring four upright male witnesses, thens/he himself will be lashed, since in Islam a person's honor [hunna] is considered sacrosanct. It is widely accepted, therefore, that the severity of the punishments was meant to serve as a deterrent, in order to awaken the believer's conscience to the immensity of the act.
In contrast to our contemporary understanding of the sharia as a system of punishment, the role of the sharia through history was the achievement of social cohesion through local jurists whose obeisance was first and last to the divine order. The law was never "written in stone"; rather, jurists sought to arrive at the most balanced-and typically the most clement-interpretation of the Divine Will. It is for this reason that Islamic scholars always wrote and/or uttered ''Wa Allahu 'Alam" ("and God knows best'') after giving their opinion or providing a fatwa. Put differently, the idea of the sharia as a system of punishment is a modern phenomenon, deriving significantly from the manner in which, under the conditions of the modern state, "the law" becomes a single body of codes applied en masse, without differentiation between various contexts and circumstances.
Sexual openness in historic Islamic societies was such that it led early European travellers, significantly steeped in Christian sexual norms, to describe Islam as a licentious religion. It is noteworthy that that characterization has been reversed, as Westerners now see Islam and Muslims as sexually repressive. Some of the great religious authorities in Islam wrote erotic manuals (most of which have now been lost), and references to sexual acts abound in all manner of works, from legal texts, to poetry, to philosophy. Shaykh Nefzawi's
fifteenth-century text, The Peifumed Garden efSensual Delight (al- rawd al-atir fi nuzhat al-khatir) is a detailed manual of sex, offering advice on sexual technique, recipes for sexual maladies, as well as providing colorful lists of names for the penis and the vagina.
In the Islamic medical tradition sex was considered a form of preventive medicine and a cure for certain illnesses, such as madness. The herbals contain many recipes for aphrodisiacs, reducing sexual desire and contraception. The timing of sexual activity was frequently noted in medieval almanacs. Sex during the hottest part of summer was said to be injurious to health. Some Islamic scholars recommended sexual activity on Thursdays and Fridays, both regarded as propitious days for successful procreation. Sex was recommended after food had been properly digested. There was widespread interest among Muslims in astrology and love magic.
Because sexual gratification is seen as an end in itself in Islam, contraception is permitted, whether by practicing coitus interruptus--although this method is discouraged, since it diminishes pleasure for women-or by other means. Based on a hadith that describes how "the human spirit is blown into the fetus after 120 days," historically Islamic scholars permitted abortion until that stage in the pregnancy. However, if the mother's health is at risk, abortion is permitted at any stage in the pregnancy, since it is imperative to preserve the mother's life.
Despite the Quranic condemnation of the people of Lot for engaging in homosexual acts, and notwithstanding the severity with which the sharia views male-male sexual acts (female-female sexual acts are given more leeway), homosexuality (liwaf) as a practice has existed throughout Islamic history. Also, unlike in historic Christianity where people who engage in homosexual acts are considered denizens of hell, in historic Islam it was always tacitly accepted. Where the Islamic tradition parts with contemporary discussions on the topic of homosexuality is with the idea of its being a definite "identitarian category." Sexuality as an identity derives from a modern, Western discourse that, according to French philosopher Michel Foucault, goes back to the way in which a "correct" sexual identity was distinguished from an "incorrect" one in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In a revealing hadith the Prophet says, "Liwat will exist in my ummah, and it will consist of the look, the touch, and the act itself." In other words, homosexuality does not remove one from the fold of Islam. What one does in the privacy of one's own home is between oneself and God. The idea being, people in a God-conscious society make themselves responsible before God, and are se!f-regulating eftheir actions. Thus, spying on someone's sexual habits is forbidden according to the Islamic tradition. These ideals, however, begin to break down in the context of a modern state apparatus that replaces an omniscient God with an all-seeing State, which seeks to be judge, jury, and executioner.
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