Sex and the Shari'a

The New York Times had an in depth piece on Sunday about life in Gaza under Hamas and the manner in which religious and secular values battle for hearts and minds in the marketplace.  As always with newspaper articles, the piece was deeply flawed though interesting. (I tend not to read in depth analysis pieces in newspapers about things I know nothing about.  I prefer things I am well versed in.  Yes that means I don't learn much and find them 30% wrong, but at least I know which 30%).  The article seemed to think this phenomenon of religious sermons lying side by side with Cheryl Tiegs photos was largely unique to Gaza because of its proximity to Israel (which proximity makes Western culture more accessible) and that one of these sides was going to win the culture wars, as if such a thing could be done and as if (apropos US society) the vast majority of people even consider themselves on one side or another of this war as opposed to somewhere in between.  Not necessarily tormented with conflict, as characters in the article were, but happy where they were, and in between, finding that place as natural as any other. 

But instead what caught my attention was the worst mistake in the piece, finding it ironic that even sex manuals could be found in bookstores.   This was really an unfortunate Western bias that can be used to show well the positions concerning sex and law in the Muslim tradition. 

Generally speaking, traditionalists in Islam, as in Christianity, consider it a matter of utmost importance to regulate who you are allowed to sleep with.  Under shari'a, the limitation is to unmarried slave women (for men only), and to spouses, though within Shi'ism there are also temporary marriages, so it would include a spouse under a temporay marriage.  Beyond this, to engage in sex is to commit a crime, the crime of zina punishable by lashing or stoning (if with a nonmarried woman, then lashing, if married stoning).  Homosexuality is generally a capital crime under the discretionary crimes known as the tazir.  I guess it could be thought of as a form of zina as well.  That's not to say that all of the above is criminal law in most Muslim countries, but that clerics would certainly argue it should be.  They would point to high evidentiary standards, but the point remains--they do think it is justifiable to punish, severely, for the crime of sex beyond particular boundaries.

In addition, like Christianity, Islam tends to regard the possibility of unlawful sex with extreme apprehension and sets up a variety of rules to limit this possibility.  Tradtionally, in the classical world, it was the favoring of exclusion of women from the public sphere.  In the more modern world, that's largely disappeared and is replaced with the veil, and rather extreme limitations on interactions between the genders.  Go to a more conservative mosque in the US to break fast, and quite often you are asked to sit in the 'brothers' section, and a curtain keeps the women off in the 'sisters'' section.  (Which as I posted months ago is rather silly, because then the dinner is over I walk out and see a friend and it's "hey Zeinab, what was that thing we had to do tomorrow night at the law school again?"  You'd figure if I could prevent myself from jumping on Zeinab there and then and attempting furiously to engage in unlawful sex unless pulled off, then surely I might also be able to restrain myself in a mosque, but apparently that's wrong.)  Christian conservatives don't go nearly so far of course, but the notion that certain activities can have unwholesome sexual consequences is entirely accepted I think.  Most don't have roommates of the opposite gender, for example.

But there is an important difference that then manifests itself, which is that while traditional Christianity has viewed sex as being inherently sinful, Islam has no similar views.  Look at the number of the Prophet's wives to know that.  Sex is a good thing, it's around even in Paradise.  The nineteen virgins is a caricature, but the idea that one has lovely female companions in paradise to pleasure him is certainly traditional doctrine, based on the Qur'an though other, more modern interpretations take a different view of what the verses really mean.  (I've still never figured out under the traditional interpretations what believing women get.  They also go to heaven, after all.)  

In any event, this means that while the extreme sexual repression promoted by Muslim religious authorities is no secret, and a subject of previous posts on this blog, they are anything but prudish when it comes to lawful sex.  The sex manuals, if written on how to give your wife (that's important--wife, not girlfriend) a proper orgasm, are not that controversial.  At least not until you get to levels of extremism that rival those of Al Qaeda, when it's that nuts, I don't know about the manuals, but can't imagine they take kindly to them if they can't handle tomatoes and cucumbers. 

Don't believe me, just check out Ayatollah Sistani's website, where detailed explanations of what kinds of sex are allowed or forbidden appear everywhere.  I am certain that if anyone were to write an honest (not mocking) sincere note as an inquisitive believer to Sistani suggesting that he wants to know whether or not it is acceptable to stimulate his wife's clitoris with his tongue to help her achieve orgasm, he will get an answer.  He will be told what part of his spouse's genitalia he may or may not touch, and with what. 

It wouldn't even be considered controversial.  It is, to the most traditional of authorities, a legitimate question entirely.



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  • 9/11/2008 11:12 AM The Messenger wrote:
    What about the practice of genital mutilation? Wouldn't that make the pleasuring of women pointless? From where is that practice derived? The Qur'an? Hadith? I don't believe the practice is universal, but if it's in the religion then it conflicts directly with the sexual satisfaction of women.
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    1. 9/11/2008 12:43 PM Haider Ala Hamoudi wrote:
      I've got a much older post on that, and it is a good point, within the limited circles of those who engage in the practice.  Short answer is that scholars are all over the place on FGM, not taking a clear stand on it, often meeting it with silence, or bewildering ambiguity, and in fact at times suggesting it's okay, but establishing conditions that don't make sense, one of which is that if it diminishes the woman's sexual pleasure, it is not acceptable.  But then what would the point of FGM be otherwise?  The fact that they raise this is worthy of note, however.

      So I guess the short answer is you have a deep Islamic pedigree suggesting women should be sexually satisfied, and in fact it's a bad idea not to so satisfy them (God split sexual desire into ten parts, and gave nine to women, it is said by Ali ibn Abi Talib). As a child, polygamy was justified to me this way precisely--what about all the Iraqi war widows, not enough men to go around, you think it's a solution to leave them without the possibility of a good lay?  Yet at the same time,  clearly there are cultural practices elsewhere that appear to contradict that sensibility.  Throw in the growing number of Muslims who find the practice repellent, and you end up with scholars seeking to please everyone through obfuscations that make no sense.  The opponent can say it's forbidden, because he said if it diminishes sexual pleasure you can't do it, the proponent can say he never said forbidden, and on we go.  

      But your comment does point out that there is no monolith in Islam or the Muslim world and clearly there are those who don't think the solution to female sexual desire is a lot of (lawful, with the husband) sex, but actually the surgical removal of the possibility of sexual pleasure.  Thanks for the comment.


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  • 9/18/2008 12:03 PM Andrew March wrote:
    You mean you don't *know* the fiqhi literature on oral sex?? Qurtubi is quite good on this, I believe, although I don't have the sources on hand. Briefly: husband-on-wife oral sex is preferred to wife-on-husband. I don't know the Shi'ite doctrine off hand. (And they say Islam is bad for women...)
    Reply to this
    1. 9/18/2008 1:09 PM Haider Ala Hamoudi wrote:
      My understanding of Shi'i thought was that all except anal sex was okay, but I could check.  The idea of cunnilingus being preferred to fellatio though is new to me.  Interesting, will see if there is a Shi'i analog. 

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  • 9/23/2008 7:44 PM Asim wrote:
    QUESTION: If men get voluptuous women in Paradise, what do women get?


    Walaikum assalam wa rahmatullah,

    It is sufficient to realize the words of Allah:

    "They shall have whatever they wish with their Lord." [Qur'an: Surat Zumar, 34]

    In Paradise, if we wish for something, it will be there before us, and no one will find anything less than everything they could possibly seek. Allah will inspire each to seek what is good, in accordance with their sincerity and spiritual striving in this life.

    However, what we should worry about is getting there, by working to be of those of sincerity and spiritual striving.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/23/2008 9:50 PM Haider Ala Hamoudi wrote:
      I barely dealt with this issue in the post, more of a one sentence aside, but I can't resist the temptation here.

      At the outset, most of the descriptions of Paradise  in the Qur'an hardly befit the crudity of the virgins (the gardens beneath which the rivers flow, the pure water, the spread carpets, the goblets, the green silk) and instead provide such a warm and wonderful metaphor that, as with much of the Qur'an, inspires the believer to tears.   And so I'm happy myself not to ask what a believer gets in Paradise, you either trust in God, and his promise of eternal bliss, or you don't.  It doesn't matter what you actually get, it's a pointless question.

      The problem is that the Paradise constructed by too many clerics (not all, but too many) is really about the virgins, or at least that's a big part of the advertisement.  And so I think it is fair to ask, in these constructions (not mine, not mine), do women get men?  Surely they want a man, and their men are either in Hell or otherwise occupied keeping 19 virgins busy, so that would make sense, wouldn't it?  If not, what do they get?  It's not discussed really.

      I don't think I ever used the word "voluptuous" as your comment does, I'm not sure the material I've read refers to bodily attributes, but using an analogous term since you raised it, I do believe that one would have to search long and hard to find a Muslim scholar who would say that a sister in Paradise could have 19 men with extremely large penises, as per the chapter of the Qur'an you cite of a person able to have whatever they wish.  I think most, myself included, would find this vulgar and crude, and hardly a fitting request for a Muslim who enters Paradise.  Yet the same argument can be made as for men who want 19 virgins. 

      The point is only that the conservative branch of the faith often doesn't speak to women, or address their interests, it's geared towards lustful and undersexed men.  That is a problem, and not a small one.

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